Thursday, May 16, 2013

J.T. O'Neal "Au Pair, Kansas" (aka "The Soccer Nanny")

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Au Pair, Kansas?

J.T.: I graduated with a degree in history of art from Kansas University, though did my junior year "abroad" at USC film school, but returned to Kansas to complete pre-med. Then I got an MD from Kansas, an MPH (masters of public health) from Harvard, then eventually an MFA (masters of fine arts) in screenwriting from UCLA in 2004.

Au Pair, Kansas was the last script I wrote while in grad school at UCLA (which, by the way, is an absolutely amazing place to learn about screenwriting. NYU's okay for directing, USC's okay for producing, but UCLA ROCKS for screenwriting.) I made 5 short films while living in LA (one cost less than $10, and played at about 25 festivals around the world.) Luckily I made the major mistakes on the shorts, so I didn't really screw anything up on the feature.

Where did the idea come from and what was your writing process?

J.T.: One of my scripts was a finalist in the screenplay competition at Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, CA, and I attended the festival in 2004. The opening night feature, United, was about this funny Norwegian soccer player dreaming of turning pro. The star, Havard Lilleheie, was in attendance, and I met him at the opening night party, and invited him to lunch the next day.

He was such a great screen presence, I knew I had to do a project for him. So before the luncheon meeting, I tried to figure out how I could come up with an idea for Havard to star in a movie. How could I get a Norwegian soccer player to the US? Why not make him a male au pair, that teaches the kids soccer? Why a male au pair? Maybe the father died and the family needed a father figure. And that's what I pitched to him. He said something like "yah, sure you will write me a movie" and just smiled.

I returned to UCLA the next week, pitched this idea about a Norwegian soccer playing coming to a small town in Kansas to be a male au pair and help a recently widowed woman raise her two sons. The class (and teacher) just looked at me like what planet were you from. Ten weeks later I had the first draft. Then I moved back home to Kansas to make regionally-based movies, spent a week in Oslo rewriting with Havard, then rewrote again, then the script placed as a semi-finalist at the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition, and that got buzz enough to get some investors interested, and I shot the movie.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

J.T.: I raised $200K from private investors. You never know who will invest in your movie. I was in this antique shop (knick knacks, not really antiques) in Lindsborg, Kansas, a great little Swedish town in central Kansas, and this elderly man overhead me talking about location scouting for a potential movie. I sent him a copy of the script. He loved it. Said he'd invest a small amount. Two years later he contacts me and says he really wants to see this movie made, and writes a check for $100K.

Within two weeks I found the rest of the money, and two months later we were shooting the movie in Lindsborg (and my Angel investor, Ron, had a supporting part in the movie.)

I have no idea if I'll get money back on the movie. At this point, I have an international distribution deal (TV and dvd), but the distributor has to sell about $125K before the company sees anything back. Probably won't see anything from international sales. I'm currently working on some domestic deals.

Theatrical was way too expensive. I had great interest for theatrical distribution in Germany (the acquisitions person for the top art cinema chain there loved Au Pair, Kansas, but deliverables, including dubbing and 35mm and high def prints, etc, would have been $100K. Not going to happen, and it didn't.) Who knew making the movie was the easiest part of the whole process. It took me three times as long to get the deliverables together for distribution than to actually shoot the movie (which we did in 18 days.)

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

J.T.: I used a Red One (it was hot shit back in Dec 2008.) I loved it. Amazing camera (even with the older chip.) I can't imagine how good the new smaller Reds are.

Why did the movie's title change and what was the thinking behind that?

J.T.: For international distribution I decided to change the title of the movie from Au Pair, Kansas to The Soccer Nanny. It's just too hard to translate a French term into other languages, and very few people understood what it meant. Even in the US, lots of people (well, from the Midwest at least) didn't know what an au pair was.

The Soccer Nanny just sounds fun (and it's actually a family movie). If the main character had been playing football or basketball (American football that is), the movie would not have been picked up for international distribution. It's much better marketing internationally, to have soccer in the title, than either Kansas or au pair.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

J.T.: The smartest thing I learned was to get the best actors you can. I was initially going to use all local talent in Kansas. Then a friend from London (great indie screenwriter and director Sean McConville), said it's too good of script, get it to a casting director in Hollywood, there are all sorts of great actresses over 40 who would love the part.

So I did, and got the script to a casting director he used on his move The Deadline, and the casting director (Cathy Henderson Martin, who is fantastic, by the way) liked the script and got it to Traci Lords' manager, who loved the script, and got it to Traci, who loved the script, and she signed on.

Then with Traci attached, all sorts of other actors (including the amazing Spencer Daniels, who played the young Benjamin Button) signed on. I can not believe what experienced actors bring to their parts. I can still watch the movie and be surprised. Traci is one of the most professional actresses I've ever seen (I didn't realize how truly amazing she was until editing, when my editor and I discovered that she matched perfectly on all continuity issues, sipping tea, turning head, standing up, looking, etc. This is a true professional. I've spent a lot of time on regular Hollywood movies--my best friend, Peter James, is an A league Hollywood cinematographer, and I take my vacations and sit in his DP's chair on movies. The only actress I've seen that hit marks better than Traci was Kathy Bates. I can not express how professional and wonderful Traci was on set and in the movie.)

The dumbest thing I did was hire an immigration lawyer from NYC who said she knew how to get work visas through for actors. Nine months after I started, and one day before shooting was to start, I finally got the US to issue a work permit so Havard could come from Norway to star in the movie. We had to delay his first scene by a day, since he arrived later than planned. A few days before we were to start filming, I didn't know if I'd get my lead actor. It was a nightmare. I should have just used someone experienced in LA (but I was living in NY at the time.) It cost me more than twice as much for the work permit and fees than Havard got paid to act in the movie!

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

 J.T.: I learned that I loved making a movie (writing and directing) and hated producing. They are totally different things. I'll never make another movie without an experienced producer to help. The best thing you can do as a director is find a great producer. It's over four year since shooting, and I'm still (today, in fact) working with the accountant to do taxes for 2012 so I can get statements to the investors. NIGHTMARE.

On the other hand, I probably shouldn't complain, as at least I got the movie made, and it has some type of distribution deal, and people have actually liked the movie. Oh, I forgot about that, I LOVE the movie (of course, I'm biased), and I had the pleasure of making the movie I wanted to make, how I wanted to make it.

Lastly, I paid for all cost overages (I call it UBO, United Bank of O'Neal), and I'll probably never see any of that money back (I could have bought two new Lexus cars, or five houses in Detroit). But I got it done.

I may never make another movie, but the proudest I've ever been was hearing that's a wrap called out and the cast and crew cheering. The main lesson I want to take to other projects: Don't use your own money to make your movie!
Au Pair Kansas Trailer from Splice Here on Vimeo.

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