Tracie Thoms and Sean Maguire in "Are We Good Parents"

SXSW ’18 Interview: Bola Ogun on Flipping the Script in “Are We Good Parents?”

“I guess it’s too late to ask you guys not to be weird,” says Maya (Gabrielle Skye Goodman), before her mom Lauren (Tracie Thoms) and her dad Bill (Sean Maguire) have likely even had their first cup of coffee before going their separate ways for the day in “Are We Good Parents?” Nonetheless, they get a wakeup call before sending their 14-year-old daughter to school when Maya informs them she’s going to Homecoming, which may come as a slight shock, but nothing like when she informs them who she’s going with, presumably a young man named Ryan from her AP Bio class. Having assumed Maya was gay — what with all the Evan Rachel Wood pictures in her room, among other details — Lauren and Bill are then thrust into a dance of their own, sparring just after she leaves for school as to whether they’re actually as attuned to their daughter as they had aspired to be, hoping she hasn’t felt compelled to conform to what she thinks their values might be or that assigning her “classical female chores like laundry” has steered her towards a role she naturally wouldn’t gravitate towards herself.

While Lauren and Bill ponder how progressive they actually are, one never questions whether “Are We Good Parents?” is, a refreshing blast of subversive satire that may feature a flustered family, but is armed with a cast whose sharp comic turns are right on point. The film is the brainchild of Bola Ogun, inspired by her own younger sister’s coming out when she was 19, well after it had become obvious to her, leaving the filmmaker to wonder whether she had projected her acceptance enough before she was ready to tell her family, and while “Are We Good Parents?” is a smaller-scale endeavor than her previous short “The Water Phoenix,” a mermaid tale which she wrote, directed and starred in (underwater, naturally), it is no less ambitious in its intent, with Hailey Chavez’s witty script and Ogun’s dynamic direction adding new dimension to a cultural conversation around fostering an environment that is inviting to all and the danger of assuming that we know people more than themselves.

Just before the short premieres this weekend at the SXSW Film Festival, the very busy Ogun, who is also finishing up the Robert Rodriguez filmmaking challenge “Rebel Without a Crew,” as one of five finalists to make a feature under $7,000 as the “El Mariachi” director once did, spoke about securing such a strong cast and a perfect location for “Are We Good Parents?”, the importance of collaboration and the magic that happened on the set.

How did this come about?

I had just finished my first short “The Water Phoenix” and it was such a huge film, I was really looking to do something that I could get done quick, just [like] something that’s a couple of people in a room. And it was so strange because I never thought of myself as that kind of filmmaker. I like epic storytellling and I was hoping to find a subject that I was passionate about, but I met with [screenwriter] Hailey Chavez and I remembered this exchange I had when I was talking to my sister when she came out to me. I thought of myself as like a parent and how sad I would be if my kid didn’t feel like they could come out, because I feel like I exude an open and safe environment when I talk to people, so the idea for the film] came out of how ‎I wanted to talk about the state of where we are nowadays with whether or not being gay is a big deal. To me, it isn’t and I think that more and more it isn’t, but I wanted to do a story that projected that aspect of where I think we are now.

After knowing you went all in on “Water Phoenix,” in terms of writing, directing and starring in it and the fact this emerged from such a personal place, how did the decision come about to bring in Hailey to write this?

I really like collaboration, because I feel the bounceback you have with another person who is creative is really important. You’ll [get] the best of both worlds and [there’s] so much more relatability when you have multiple people working on something, and I did try to find a writer to help me with “The Water Phoenix,” but it was such a specific story with such a specific genre that it was hard to find someone in the timeframe that I was trying to do it. With this, it just was perfect. Hailey had taken over the job that I just left as an assistant and I really liked her and I was like, “You’re smart and funny. You want to write this with me?” [laughs]

How did you find your wonderful leads for this?

I sat down with my wonderful producer Tatiana [Olsak] and my casting director Rachel [Imbriglio], who I met earlier in the year – my New Year’s resolution [was to go to] a garden every month, so I went to Huntington Gardens in Pasadena and she was a member there, so that was the first time we met, it was a random thing and I knew she was a casting director – and we went, “Who do we want for this?” We all came up with our list of people and it was a moment where I thought I’m not well-versed in all the comedy actors and I didn’t have as quite an extensive of a list as those two did and this is where the collaboration really comes in handy. It was [Tatiana] who said, “Tracie Thoms.” And I was like, “Oh God, why didn’t I think about that? She’s perfect.”

I happened to have a mutual friend who I approached and said, “If you like the short, if you don’t mind passing it onto her…” – one of those things that never works, right? And we just got lucky enough where he liked [the script] and he passed it onto her and it took her a minute to read because she was so busy, but once she read it, it was like “No problem.” And I was like, “Whoa! Okay! You have no idea how happy you just made me.” So we had her attached first and then we started looking at male leads. Sean was looking to do a comedy. He just spent years on “Once Upon a Time” and I don’t think a lot of people know, but he’s really funny, [because] a lot of his work is very drama-based. I think that’s part of the reason he wanted to do it is he wanted to get back into comedy and do something fun.

When you’re getting people to come in to do this, it’s not for the money because there’s hardly any, so‎ you really want to make it easy for them to say yes, and we made it easy for both of them as we possibly could – that means a one-day shoot, really short, and making it about something. They both connected to it in their own way and that’s how we got them. And Gabrielle [Skye Goodman], imagine you’re just a teenager and you’re working with these people who have worked for decades and she held her own. She was great – totally the parent in the room and that was always the joke is like they’re the kids, she’s the parent and I think that set the tone for everybody.

Did anything happen between the actors that you might not have anticipated, but it made the film and you’re happy about it?

When you cast actors, you imagine how they’re going to act in your head and Tracie and Sean] both pretty much did what I thought, except there was an extra magical step of them feeling so much like a real couple. The bit at the end where they do this back and forth [where] Tracie turns to Sean and she [says in a reassuring tone], “She likes girls. She likes girls.” She says it twice and Sean turns to her and is like, “Yeah, I heard you – the first time,” that’s ad-libbed. On set, we did a couple of takes from the script and did like a fun run and [with] the fun run, I have just so much footage of them being hilarious. They have really great chemistry and that’s not anything you can ever predict. You just hope that they can get along and then you hope whatever you imagine pops up on the day and on screen and for me, luckily it did across the board.

The production design does some of the heavy lifting in terms of showing the makeup of this family and gives the film some of its dynamic feeling. How did you create this space?

That house is my producer’s house, and my producer was awesome. She found me two options for free and in L.A., this never happens and I decided to just go with her place. That orange wall – it just spoke to me. [laughs] I was like, “That’s their wall. I know it is!” We cleaned it up a little bit and I used to work on ”Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” for two seasons and they were very generous with us. They lent us some things that we could play with, so my production designer Anelisa [Torruella], who is great – I actually had her on “The Water Phoenix” as well – and I got to go into their warehouse and pick up a couple things and put it in the house. I was so grateful to them to do that as a favor to me and that’s how we made that place look amazing.

I noticed the department heads were all female. Was that by design or by happenstance?

That was by happenstance. I very much am about people leading with their work and it’s just hilarious to me that sometimes people really don’t think you can just happen to have an all-female heads of department without it being on purpose. It wasn’t until we were doing the credits that I stepped back and said, “Oh shit, most of my crew is female” because they all really good at what they do. That’s the thing is that women are out there and if people just looked, you could throw a stone and see so many hardworking, talented people who just happen to be women. For instance, my DP Ludo [Isidori] did an amazing job and I met her through another DP at AFI. So‎ it becomes this cool little thing we can say now, but I had no intention, which I hope gives it more validity.

Speaking of happenstance, you also are a part of Robert Rodriguez’s filmmaking challenge “Rebel Without a Crew,” where you’re making a feature as he once did for $7000, that’s also a part of SXSW this year. What’s it like to have all these projects converge in Austin at the same time?

I can’t wait for South By Southwest because it’ll mean I’m no longer in this weird [situation in] post-production on one movie, but also prepping another movie for the festival that I’m in right now. [laughs] It’s all good busy. But I had no idea that I would be doing this – I spent all of last year working creatively and I was really grateful for it, so hopefully this year things will start to pop up as a result of it. That all remains to be seen, but I’m really happy that “Are We Good Parents?” got into a really good festival and to have that on top of working with Robert Rodriguez, I’m in a good place right now.

Since “Are We Good Parents?” was inspired by your sister, have you had the chance to show it to her?

Oh yeah. After we locked it, she was the first person I sent it to. I was like, “Here you go, little sis. This was inspired by you.” And she loves it. And I think it makes her feel great that something like that could be inspired from her. I’m the oldest of three and [with] any child younger than you, you’re probably going to worry that their self-esteem is going to be this, that or the other‎ and I automatically feel like I have motherly vibes towards my little sister, so I do everything I can to try and make [my siblings] feel worthy because they are and to make sure that they know that they’re really important to my life. This [film] is one of the things that can help her feel that way, and she’s actually going to head down [to SXSW] and check it out in the big theater with other people watching, so I can’t wait for that.

“Are We Good Parents?” will play at SXSW as part of Shorts Program 3 on March 10 at 5:15 pm at the Alamo Lamar E, March 12 at 11:30 am at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center and March 15 at 4 pm at the Stateside Theatre.

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