“That night was something crazy,” Tommy Oliver tells me about the premiere of his directorial debut “1982” at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall of 2013. The emotion was palpable in the cozy Isabel Bader Theatre where many of the Philadelphia-born writer/producer/director’s family and friends were among those in the crowd, all of whom were waiting to see what his mother, who loosely inspired the film, thought of it. A devastating portrait of a family that crumbles when its matriarch (Sharon Leal) picks up an old crack habit, seen through the eyes of her daughter Maya (Troi Zee) who can only watch helplessly as her father (Hill Harper) tries to salvage what he can, the film is a look at drug addiction that feels unmistakably fresh and clear, and as Oliver would learn after the screening, none more so for anyone than his mother.
“It truly fed off your emotions and made it so real from your eyes,” wrote Oliver’s mother, who’s since become a substance-abuse counselor, in a text to the filmmaker that he still keeps on his phone three years later. “You opened a part of me I thought I was numb to.”
For as much of his past that Oliver poured into “1982,” that weekend at TIFF would change his future dramatically. He beams almost incredulously when mentioning that he met his wife the day after the premiere, with whom he’s now working on two films — the drama “Destined,” which the pair are producing, and the documentary “Black Love,” which they’re currently filming interviews for. He also produced last fall’s sleeper hit “The Perfect Guy,” which may not resemble “1982” in its wild, sensational plot twists, yet was a direct result of his and Screen Gems President Clint Culpepper’s desire to make films featuring African-American leads in which race wasn’t important to the story. Yet strangely, given all that it inspired, “1982” is only being released in theaters this weekend, a testament to how difficult it is to get films starring African-Americans proper distribution even after they’re made.
If anyone was going to make it happen, however, it would be Oliver, who transcended his upbringing largely spent in the care of his grandmother (their real-life home is actually the one used in “1982” for the Brown family) to graduate from Carnegie Mellon, majoring in economics and digital media with a minor in business. Before dedicating himself to filmmaking full-time, he worked at Microsoft and founded an interactive media company called VILIV Studios, giving him a fully-rounded skillset that would come in handy when he became a producer on the 2011 Sundance Audience Award winner “Kinyarwanda” and assembled “1982” on a shoestring budget, pulling in an impressive and largely unexpected cast for a film dripping with detail only someone who lived it could convey.
On the eve of “1982”’s release, Oliver spoke about how much he drew upon his personal story for the film, making the transition from producer to director, casting the late, great Ruby Dee in her final film as Maya’s grandmother, and why he’s still bullish on filmmaking.
You’ve had some time between when the film first premiered and now. With a little bit of perspective, does the film mean something different to you?
One of the really interesting things was that prior to [my mom] seeing this movie, she never really understood what I went through. In the ensuing time between that screening [in Toronto] and now is that you don’t often see these stories from the perspective of the families. You see it from the person that is addicted or from the outside, but to be inside the home and realize what they go through? It’s something that people didn’t really see on screen. To have the ability to communicate this in a way that’s like, “That’s what I wanted to know” has become really interesting and it’s opened up a lot of conversation and a lot of emotion.
Was it the story that drove you to direct it yourself, like this was something you were willing to push all the chips to the middle of the table for?
Yes and no. I produced “Kinyarwanda,” which Roger Ebert gave four stars [to] and ranked it number six of his top ten of 2011 — so it was crazy, and I was very happy working as a producer and sometimes cinematographer. I started writing “1982” after “Kinyarwanda” — [I have] no idea why because I didn’t really want to write, but I got serious about the script and then I had a bit of an internal debate as to whether or not I would direct it or just produce. Prior to that, I had directed two one-day shorts and a music video, so I had no idea how to direct at all, nor really any interest. But because of the nature of “1982,” a film that was shot on the street in a neighborhood on the house that I grew up in and with characters based on people I knew, I would have smothered whoever I brought on as a director, so I made that decision as a matter of necessity. As to [whether] I put everything on the table, I left myself no options. There was no way for this to not work and the even crazier story [about this film] hasn’t really been told. I was the only producer on the film. Raising money was hard as hell. We were four weeks out set to start production and not a single dollar was in the bank, not a single investor had been signed. It was crazy.
You’ve also said there were some major changes made pretty close to shooting, like switching the gender of Shenae and Tim’s child Maya, played by Troi Zee, from a boy to a girl.
Yeah, the character Troi [plays is] based entirely off of me and up until maybe two months before, it was a little boy named Damien. Eventually, I realized that there was a lot more to mine between the relationship between a dad and a little girl, understanding the vulnerabilities there and the wanting [of Tim] to do right by her but not necessarily knowing how to. Inherently, you feel a lot more for a little girl going through these things versus a boy who tries to be tough. That was one of the four creative liberties we took. Two, what happened to me happened mostly late ’80s, early ’90s, so it was pushed back temporarily. Three is a spoiler [regarding Troi’s character]. And fourth, the Tim character wasn’t around. He’s a combination of parts of me, parts of who I would have liked to have been there and storytelling.
Why change the time the story is set in?
In essence, I thought of Shenae as a patient zero, [or at least as] one of the very early cases [of the crack epidemic]. It puts Tim in the position where he did not know what was going on and in reality, before it was called crack, when it was ABC — “already been cooked” — or hard rock, people didn’t know what was happening. It was incredibly addictive incredibly quickly and it was something that we didn’t understand where it came from, what it did or how it worked, so it put him at that disadvantage of not knowing, which was an interesting story idea, and part of the discovery of what’s happening.
Was it actually helpful to you to create some distance between your personal story and the story that’s in the film?
It was the idea of making sure that I was telling the story in the best way possible — in an entertaining way [too] because it’s not a documentary. Also, I love the idea of creating this strong black male character who you don’t often see. He’s a good guy trying to protect his family and we don’t really see that character enough. When Hill came on, he was really drawn to that as well, and it was something that we worked very hard at trying to shape. A lot of it was putting myself in [the character’s] shoes and thinking about how I would hope I would react — that I would have the resolve to stay the course and do what’s right and have the strength to bear these incredibly difficult things.
When you mention the things you directed beforehand, they don’t seem to involve anywhere near as much work with actors as you likely had to do here and these are such deep performances. Was that interesting to figure out?
It was, and there are two things that really served me well. One was having a cinematographer, which completely changed the way I approached directing. Two, there was a book called “Directing Actors” by Judith Weston, which was incredible. My approach was really [to put] acting first. Often times, you’ll have the camera first where there’s strict lighting, strict camera movement and the actors are working within those confines, but for [“1982”], it was the exact opposite. We gave the actors the freedom to really be in the moment to react in a very natural way. We were running two cameras 95% of the time, so we had the ability to crosscut.
There was another piece of advice that was great that [“The Adjustment Bureau” director] George Nolfi told me, which was that, “You never ask an actor be something, you ask them to do something.” It’s very different. It’s not like, “Be angry.” It’s like “Pick at the person and see the things that you can do.” Those are the things that really informed my approach and trying to craft these natural performances. On top of that, I had incredible collaborators, from Hill and Sharon and Troi and everybody else. They were just phenomenal.
You were also a camera operator on this, which means you’re right in the thick of a scene. Was that by necessity or choice?
By choice. My [director of photography] Danny Vecchione is uber-talented, but I love having the camera on my shoulder and being in there and there are times where I just know exactly what I want. There were times where he and I were operating and occasionally there were times where there was one camera where I do it because the intimacy of being right in there and knowing exactly what I want from the camera was a big part of it. When I wasn’t [operating], I didn’t really sit at the monitor. I was like right there in between, watching what [the actors] were doing.
There’s also this emptiness in the house that you can feel once Shenae disappears. How did that come about as a visual idea?
Growing up as a kid with a mother who was addicted to crack, I didn’t know what happened when she left, when she was outside of what I could see, so we stayed within that feeling of we don’t know what’s going on. That’s one of the reasons we never see Sharon by herself or her doing drugs. [For] creating the space, there’s a lot of long, slow takes — one in particular where after there’s an argument between Tim and Maya [after Shenae leaves], then she goes into her bedroom, he stays [in his room] and he’s really somber and he lays down in the bed, looking at the other side because the bed is empty. That’s the sort of thing you see again and again [where] of how [her absence] hits you.
You do allow enough time in scenes to let that feeling settle in. Was that something you were conscious of on set or did it come in the editing room?
It was a bit of both. Some folks have a tendency to call “cut” early, and you miss that beautiful thing you hadn’t even thought about. But again, going back to letting the actors be and working with actors with fantastic instincts, I realized very early on that there were these moments that were magical and I should just let them hang where it’s Hill or Troi, like when they’re at the door when she’s trying to get in and he finally gets her out, [we’d] hang on his face for 20 seconds, [watching] him just reeling from what just happened there, and once we got to post, we realized there was absolute gold there.
How did you cast Ruby Dee in the film as Maya’s grandmother?
My casting directors were phenomenal. I was talking to Sig De Miguel, our casting director, about who the prototype for this role was — it was based off my grandmother who is an incredible, incredible woman — and I was saying, “Somebody like Ruby Dee,” never thinking that would actually even try to get her. He was like, “Sure, let’s go after her.” We did and she was the very first person we offered to and she said “Yes. That was a game changer to have somebody of her status to essentially bless the film. She responded to the authenticity of the story and what I was trying to say with the movie and it was just an incredible, incredible honor to have a living legend like that. To have her on set was wild. She has gone through everything and had managed to not just survive but thrive, telling first-hand stories about Malcolm X and all the things she went through. One day, we shot at a diner – the scene wound up being cut, but we only had money to close half the diner, so the other half was full of patrons. After we were done shooting her scenes and people realized who she was, literally every single person in the diner got up and clapped as she was walking out. She’s just royalty.
In general, the casting was really strong and often unexpected. Was that important to you?
I really like the idea of casting against the grain — people who have real talent, but they’ve been pigeonholed that you know you have the ability to take those expectations and make them work for you. With somebody like Sharon, who’s obviously a fantastic actor, but she’s really pretty, so you can take that incredibly pretty façade and make it that work against [the audience] in a way that’s heartbreaking. Wayne [Brady], for example, has such a wealth of talent, and he responded to the script and to me, and he just really was passionate about doing something different, so I knew he could do it. He delivered and it was the same thing with La La [Anthony]. I was just very fortunate to have this incredible group of folks.
Since you had produced a feature, then directed one, did the process of making the movie feel any different?
The past experience formed a lot of what I did [as a director]. I was surrounded by incredibly talented people. You get 5000 questions a day and you have to have the answers to every single one of them, but people responded to the heart of what we were doing and we were all making the same film. This movie would never have got made if it wasn’t for my line producer, Billy Mulligan. My DP [Danny Vecchione] was a rock star, and my production designer [Maggie Ruder] was incredible. We didn’t have much money and to do a period movie like that, she just worked her ass off. So the biggest lesson that I took from being a producer, was I want to work with the smartest and most talented people I can find or afford or be blessed to be able to work with and it’s something I carried forward when I produced “The Perfect Guy,” which was my first studio movie, which was completely different but good experience, and another film I have in post.
After making the movie, was it a learning experience in finding a way to bring it out to the public?
It has been a very cumbersome and difficult process. We actually just did a screening in New York with Imagenation, part of the Revolution Awards, and honestly, I had forgotten just how much people seem to be affected by the film. There were so many real emotional conversations afterwards, probably because it was an older audience and a lot of them had lived through the crack epidemic and family members going through this. The emotion that it stirs up is palpable. It’s a difficult thing to do right by because of the story, the people that are involved, and for what it represents because unfortunately, movies that have all-black casts or aren’t sensationalized one way or another are difficult to position.
The funny thing is that in all the screenings [we’ve had] from one-offs to festivals, about two-thirds of the audience has been white and they’ve been incredibly positive and accepting of it. Yet when it comes time to distributing this film, [people say] “It’s a black film, it’s an urban film.” Giant missed opportunity because this movie isn’t a black film. Yes, it has black actors and it deals with situations that were real to the black community, but it’s so much bigger. Ultimately, it’s a story about family and a father doing what he can to save this family and that resonates beyond color. So fighting to make sure that it’s seen as more than an urban film has been difficult and it’s a fight I’ve tried my best to win.
With a foot already in the online world and a degree in media studies at a time when you could’ve pursued a variety of mediums, why was film the one you chose?
The honest answer is I still believe in the transformative power of film. Growing up in Philly, look at the things that actually influence people — it’s not a hardback book or other things that you would like to hope that would be influential. It’s TV, movies, and music, and I realized that I have the ability to make movies that have a real social impact. That’s something that’s important to me. You think about movies going way back like “12 Angry Men” that really have the ability to really resonate and get people thinking, or even movies like “American History X” or “Straight Outta Compton” that can reach a mass audience. They get people talking and thinking and maybe even change their behavior. Even if it’s just a moment’s pause before they do something, because they think about what it might do to their family, [the movie is] all worth it. That’s the best part.
“1982” opens on February 26th in Los Angeles at the Ahrya Fine Arts, where Oliver and the film’s cast will appear for Q & As after the 7:30 pm screening on February 26th and 27th. It will be available on DVD on March 1.