HOMEBOY: Tommy Oliver shot part of his debut feature in the house where he was raised (pictured here). His grandmother still lives there.
First movies tend to hit close to home for their directors, but few do so as literally as Tommy Oliver’s 1982. The West Oak Lane native, who now splits his time between Los Angeles and Seattle, where he works as a producer, shot the movie in the house where he was raised by his grandmother, and based the story on his experience growing up with a crack-addicted mother. (She later cleaned up and became a substance-abuse counselor.) The 29-year-old Oliver, whose signing by the Hollywood talent agency CAA was announced the day after 1982 premiered in Toronto, talked with City Paper in advance of the film’s screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
City Paper: You shot 1982 in the house you grew up in, where the events that inspired the movie took place. Did that mess with your head at all?
Tommy Oliver: The experience was actually quite good. My actors really liked it. My cinematographer liked it. And it brought a sense of authenticity that would have been pretty much impossible to replicate. It probably played into my directing the film, because before this, I had absolutely no interest in directing. None whatsoever. I had written the film and I was planning on producing it. As a producer, I’m not a micromanager; I believe in giving people the space to try and make it their own. But because the script was something that was mine, based on the emotions of growing up with a crack-addicted mother, and we were shooting not just in the house that I grew up in, but also the neighborhood, the streets, with characters that were based on people I knew, I would have absolutely smothered the director.
CP: 1982 differs from your own story in many ways, but its biggest deviation is its focus on a father trying to care for his daughter when her drug-addict mother disappears. Your father wasn’t around when you were a child.
TO: There were four big creative liberties taken. One, Maya was changed to a girl, which happened in maybe the second draft. Two, it was pushed back temporally from when it really happened: For me it was the late ’80s, and it was pushed back to the early ’80s. Three, [spoiler redacted]. Four, there was no dad. So Tim [the dad] is part who I would’ve liked to have been there, and part storytelling.
CP: Your mother was at the film’s premiere in Toronto. Were you nervous about how she might react?
TO: It’s funny, I just had breakfast with her this morning. I spend absolutely no time worrying about things I can’t control. I was happy to have my family there, but they were going to react how they were going to react. Until that question had been asked, I never really thought about it, to be honest. One of the things that came out of this is that my mother didn’t really understand that her drug addiction impacted so many other people in such a significant way. She thought it was just herself.
CP: The movie takes a strong stand against enabling addicts; there’s a scene where the mother is desperately knocking at the door of her house, and her daughter refuses to let her in. Is that based on your experience?
TO: As a kid I wanted nothing more than for my mother to be there, and I didn’t understand why she wasn’t. I didn’t understand why she would make a promise and not follow through. So at some point, I just became numb to it. After crying myself to sleep literally every night, you don’t have any more tears. So it almost changes to self-preservation. If you’re going to put yourself in a position to potentially be OK, you have to do what you have to do. Cutting somebody off is one of the hardest things you can do, when you have the ability to do whatever someone is asking, yet you choose not to. She could open the door. But in the end it wouldn’t have done anything, and it would’ve just continued the cycle.
CP: You studied economics and digital media at Carnegie Mellon, and took part in the San Francisco Film Society’s A2E: Artist to Entrepreneur conference. How does that affect your approach?
TO: For me, it’s about figuring out how to reconcile art with the business. You try to do one or the other, and you’ve got a movie that only your grandmother will watch or you’ve got a movie that’s vapid and soulless. There’s a spot in the middle that works well. I don’t want to stop producing, or even stop thinking as a producer. I just came up with a very cool concept that a lot of people liked that’s never been done before in terms of film distribution, and we’re very seriously considering it for ’82. Had it not been for A2E, I would never have thought of that.
1982 screens Sat., Oct. 26, 5 p.m., Prince Music Theater (with director Oliver in attendance) and Sun., Oct. 27, 9:30 p.m., Ritz East. For more details, visit filmadelphia.org/festival.
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