One of the nicest surprises when the 45th NAACP Image Awards Nominations were announced recently, was the nomination for Outstanding Direction for A Motion Picture, which went to Jono Oliver for his independent film Home. He joins Steve McQueen, Malcolm D. Lee and Lee Daniels, who were also nominated for best director.
And no doubt both Tambay and I have both raved about Home, because, simply, it’s really worth it (HERE, HERE and HERE); but what about Oliver himself? Though Home is his first feature film as a director, he has had years of experience in filmmaking as a DGA assistant director on films and TV shows as such The Great Debaters, Notorious, Guess Who, Barbershop 2, Snake Eyes, Last Action Hero, Soul Food, Live on Mars, Law & Order: SVU among many other film and TV credits, and currently he’s the 1st A.D. on the CBS police drama series Blue Bloods.
But how did the film, Home, come to be, what inspired him to make it, and what does he hope to accomplish with the film? All that and more, I asked Jono last week in an engaging interview.
SERGIO: Congratulations to you! I’m very happy for you, but I must admit that I am shocked that Home got an NAACP Image Award nomination. Not because it doesn’t deserve it, because it does, but that they actually acknowledged an independent black film, made outside the studio system. Is that a first?
OLIVER: I can only speak as far as my own experience and I have nothing but respect and gratitude for them because they are the only award giving body, or whatever you want to call it, that, as part of their process, actually asked for box loads of DVDs of films for their nominating committee. So I shipped out a whole load of DVDs that I assume got disseminated to the people who voted. So it gave us a fair shot because people actually saw the movie.
So whether we got nominated or not it didn’t quite matter. From the beginning I thought it was cool that they looked at it, because, with all those other award voting groups, like the Directors Guild of America or the Screen Actors Guild, if you don’t have studio support to blanket the country with, like, thousands of screeners, or you haven’t come out big, they don’t know you exist. They don’t know you’re even there. So with the Image Awards it was kind of cool that they have this process for me and other smaller filmmakers to get a fair shake and at least being looked at by voters.
And it was actually a surprise for me to get this nomination because they actually have two different feature film categories. There’s one for feature films for stuff like The Butler, 12 Years and Best Man Holiday. But now they also have an independent feature film category. which, between you and me, I was hoping we would get. But when I saw that we didn’t get it, I was all bummed out and said we just keep on moving forward like what we’ve been doing; and then someone called me and told me: “No you got the feature film directing nomination!” I was really happy and surprised. In the independent motion picture category, films like The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete and Fruitvale Station got nominations, so, with those films, and me, it seems like they really tried to include the smaller films made outside the system or that play the film festival circuit.
SERGIO: Well that is a change because until recently they wouldn’t even look at independent movies. I recall years ago, I talked to someone involved with the Image Awards and asked why they didn’t consider independent black film. And she told me bluntly that voters weren’t interested. They wanted to only deal with big studio films so they could hang out with celebrities and have their pictures taken with them and so on. So that attitude seems to have changed.
OLIVER: Yeah and it’s great company to be in. It really is an honor to be up there with them. They have a nice cross section of everything and it’s great to, hopefully, get some awareness for the film. Because I think it’s really important for people to see it.
SERGIO: The film played the festival circuit last year, everywhere, and it got a theatrical release in N.Y. and L.A. But every person I know of, or have heard of that has seen the film, just loves it, and are completely moved by it. When you were making it, did you instinctively know what you had something special, or were you just hoping that you had a good film?
OLIVER: Well aside from directing the film, I wrote it as well, and I’ve written a few other scripts, not a lot, maybe two or three, that I’ve tried to go with to get financing, and it was a very tough sell. Home was a tough sell as well (laughs). But what was different was that it was a really fun and interesting process. You know, you write a script and you tend to like it no matter if it’s good or bad. But I really was like that. Every day, whatever I wrote, I really liked it. So then I started handing it out to potential cast members for readings, and the response I got from actors was really overwhelming. It really kind of blew me away. The actors really, really responded to the material on the page. So then I began to feel that maybe I had something really special, and that it would be a little easier to get money.
SERGIO: Still you have to admit that your film isn’t easily, how they would say, “marketable”?
OLIVER: Because of the story, which is about an African-American man, recovering from a mental illness, and the story is all about him trying to find an apartment. I don’t think people were able to look at that and say, we have something here that is marketable, that this is something that is going to make money.
But to answer your question, from the beginning since people responded so much to the script, and because I love the script and I love the story, I just so wanted to make the film, thinking that, at some point, people would realize, “O.K. this is a worthwhile story and this is something that people can respond to”. That is if I didn’t screw it up in directing. and fortunately I don’t think I did. I think it’s a solid film. And at festivals, where it’s been screened, the response has been really terrific from people who, half the time, were dragged into the film by someone they knew who didn’t have an idea what the film was about.
And the media and press coverage has been great, telling people, “Yeah it’s great with great performances and it’ll touch you,” and that helps our awareness and helps with getting people into the theater to see it, and once they do, they’re like WOW! So it’s been a constant uphill climb, but we keep doing it because people like it, so it’s all been worth it. It’s not about making money. Fortunately the film didn’t cost very much, so that’s not a real pressure now. Well I know my investors wouldn’t want me to say that (laughs). So I’m just trying to get it out there and get people to see it and enjoy it, thinking about something and hopefully, experience a world.
SERGIO: And what world is that?
OLIVER: From the beginning I wanted to create a world that people haven’t really seen in film, in respect to the whole mental illness aspect, and the urban city, and struggling with that condition in that environment. As well as giving a character problems that people could relate to, and that despite his specific situation, to feel something that they didn’t expect to feel.
SERGIO: Also something which is remarkable about the film is that, even if you have no experience with someone with a mental illness, or with that whole world, you can sense that it somehow rings true. Unlike some phony Hollywood concoction, like Silver Linings Playbook, which basically says if you’re crazy, find yourself a hot chick and learn to dance and you’re cured. It’s like something out of some early 1960’s comedy movie. How did you achieve the sense of realism in your film?
OLIVER: Well first of all, I appreciate the compliment. But in addition to just keeping the train of filmmaking on track, the production on track, aside from making a film that I wanted to be entertaining, probably more importantly is that I wanted to make a film that would be truthful to the subject, because my parents were both social workers, so I’ve always been aware of this aspect of society. It’s a huge aspect, but a lot of people don’t talk about it, because there’s such a stigma attached to mental illness. There are some 40 million people in the U.S. [dealing with mental illness]. One of four people will deal with some aspect of mental illness in their lifetime. So I made this movie and I love the story and I love the characters, but wanted to make this movie about these people in a way that you haven’t seen before.
Usually when you see people with a mental illness in the movies or on television, either they’re a joke, involved in a joke or a psycho killer. There are very few depictions of people who are just normal people, like they are us, but who have an illness that could be equated to any other illness that someone could have. So I tried really hard to achieve balance in the script, making it entertaining, but also giving the characters dignity and just making them human, so people could relate to them.
SERGIO: And how did you go about achieving that?
OLIVER: So early on, I had the involvement of a person, Doreen Gallagher who’s a psychiatric nurse, and she was very crucial for me in getting the technical stuff right. We made up bios of all the characters and what sort of illnesses, what’s their backstory, what had they previously done and so on. And then once we cast it, and had this incredible group of actors, we took a lot of time coming up with what everyone had, and Doreen would talk to them how that would manifest itself. It’s that work that you do when you make a film. And it may not particularly come out in the dialogue or come out in scenes, but every one of the actors and the workers and psychiatrists, they all knew their history, what they had done, where they came from and what they were trying to get to, and I think it helped to create a level of realism, which the is thing that I am, perhaps, most proud of.
And when people who actually do work in the field or have people in their lives who are going through a mental illness see the film, the most gratifying thing to me is when they say to me: “You got it right". The film really captures this reality and it gives them the dignity that they have. And that’s the important thing - that I didn’t screw that up - because then the whole thing would have fallen apart.
SERGIO: And of course the final obvious question is, what’s next for you?
OLIVER: Well I have offers up on a couple of books that I’m trying to get options that I hope to develop and hopefully start shooting within a year. I want to get into it right away. But tell everyone that Home isn’t done yet. It’s coming out on DVD and On Demand on March 25th through Entertainment One.