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At Home in Akron: An Interview with Sasha King and Brian O’Donnell

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By Tom Ue.

Akron is the first film directed by Sasha King and Brian O’Donnell, an independent film written by the latter. Shot on location in Akron, Ohio, the film stars Benny (Matthew Frias) and Christopher (Edmund Donovan), who are linked by a tragic past. In what follows, we discuss the film’s production.

Akron is the first film that you have directed. What led you to tell this story? 

Brian O’Donnell (BO): The story of Akron came to me pretty much all at once as a fully formed script in my head and I knew I had to write down. When inspiration strikes, you have to honor it. And Sasha and I agreed that we were compelled to shoot the film because the story was unique and hadn’t been told before. We felt it had the potential not only to entertain an audience but also to move them on a deep emotional level.

Sasha King (SK): I had produced many films and documentaries but as a directorial debut Akron was a dream project with so much depth to the characters and many journeys overlapping, but paramount for me was feeling compelled to tell this progressive love story of two young men.

How important was the setting to the film? 

BO: The setting was part of the concept of the script from the very beginning and it is essential to the film not only for visual purposes but also for its thematic power and character. Having grown up there, I know the particular beauty of the area but also the area’s specific culture – Midwestern to be sure, but also specific to Northeastern Ohio. Themes like the importance of family cohesion, the dynamics of middle-class life in the suburbs, loyalty and individualism are leant an extra air of authenticity because we shot the film there. As the “hometown writer,” I was able to imagine setting scenes at the very locations where we eventually shot the movie, which was very cool.

SK: For optimum authenticity in depicting a story as best one can, it’s preferred to film in the actual real environment where the story is set or which inspired it; also the time of year played an important symbolic role in the story’s journey, leading from Winter into Spring break. So Brian and I both immediately knew we would schedule the shoot in that period of time to really capture that visual structure for the film.

What were some of the advantages and challenges of shooting on location? 

Akron 02BO: Shooting in my hometown meant that I either knew the people with access to the locations personally or knew the people who knew the people with access. And it made it easier in practical ways like knowing the shortest driving routes and where the best and cheapest hardware stores were. But shooting in Ohio in March also means that there will be an unexpected snowstorm that will, of course, occur on the day you have an outdoor shoot planned.

SK: I had lived a lot of my adult life in the US but not experienced Ohio in Winter and it was freezing cold! That was a challenge. The advantages were endless: Brian’s family and friends opened doors for us constantly and made filming on location really easy for the crew and cast: they embraced us all like their extended family

Without spoiling it, Akron opens with a tragedy at a grocery store followed by a jump to another time frame. What led you to begin with this event?

BO: Beginning with that scene made the most emotional sense when I was writing the script. In fact that was the first scene that came to me. We didn’t want Akron to have to rely on a gotcha moment. We needed the movie to work on an emotional level with the audience whether they understand the relationship of the characters in the opening scene or not. What’s more important than earning a gasp from the audience as they discover the truth (which certainly happened at some festival screenings) was building a tension in the audience as they watch the characters discover the truth (think Hitchcock’s Sabotage [1936] where the audience knows a bomb is going to go off but the characters in the movie don’t). That way the audience becomes much more empathetic to the characters.

The tragedy affects the two mothers much more than it does the other characters. Was this decided from the start or did the focus evolve during the film’s development?

BO: The tragedy affects all of the characters in different ways, directly and indirectly. It was interesting to investigate how the aftermath of grief affects a family, a community. The mothers were certainly devastated by the tragedy, but so too was the father, as we come to find out. And we learn that the grief carried by the mothers and how they chose to cope with it also had a big effect on their relationships with their sons. Benny and Christopher both grew up in houses where grief was palpable yet unaddressed.

Christopher and Benny are both college freshmen. What led you to focus on this precarious period in their lives?

BO: It’s an inherently dramatic time in a person’s life, a time when they begin to separate from their families and the structure they grew up in to forge a more individual path for themselves. They discover who they want to become. They have a bunch of new questions that they don’t have the answers to yet. Add to that falling in love for the first time and the drama only increases.

In keeping with its subject matter, Akron relies heavily on the performances of a very small, tightly knit cast. How did you cast the film?

Akron 03BO: We worked with two crazily talented casting agents, Stephanie Yankwitt and Cody Smith, who completely understood the script and what we were looking for. We auditioned over 50 talented young actors for the roles of Benny and Christopher in person in New York City and via tape. Stephanie and Cody made sure we were able to see actors with not only the acting chops that we needed but with the professionalism and skill necessary to work on a film with such a tight shooting schedule. Our budget and time constraints didn’t allow us to have table readings so we had Matthew Frias and Edmund Donovan Skype with each other prior to the shoot so they could begin to create their characters’ relationships. The quality of that tightly knit cast that you feel is a testament to the brilliant skills of the casting agents and the actors.

SK: The casting was not just important: it was paramount in the prep for the film. I knew that if we had an experienced committed casting director on our side they would do the film’s characters justice and ultimately the film. Stephanie Yankwitt was just that and, along with Cody Smith, her casting agent, they really zoned in on who would bring each character to life. Stephanie was also casting Birdman (2014) around this time.

As I was based in Ireland, after our initial casting session in NYC, Cody sent me audition tapes in real time which meant Brian and I were discussing actors on the same day. It was uber efficient and exciting.

What kinds of direction did you give the young actors? 

BO: Matthew Frias and Edmund Donovan were real pros. They came prepared with deep understandings of and insights into their characters of Benny and Christopher, as well as thoughtful questions. Sasha and I, from the start, let them know that what was most important to us was the authenticity of the characters’ emotions—we needed to believe that Benny and Christopher fall in love but also that they both do so in ways very specific to their characters. It was essential to give them time and space while we shot. Even on a very tight shooting schedule we found a way to create a space, as much as possible, that was unrushed for the actors. There was a great sense of trust and collaboration between the directors and actors.

SK: As Brian says, Matthew and Edmond came to set fully committed to their roles, really prepared and open to guidance and direction. It was a very organic experience directing them, to see what they brought to the table and then mold the characters with that. It worked beautifully. I was most interested in them both remaining sensitive to Benny’s and Christopher’s own journeys and relationship with each other; and the guys really took that on board.

Both Benny’s and Christopher’s families are quite liberal in their acceptance of their relationship: what led you to decide not to make it an issue? 

BO: We wanted to explore gay characters who are out, happy, and healthy and to explore their family and friends who are accepting and supportive of them. You don’t see films from this perspective: What happens post-coming out? How do you tell a story about gay characters that doesn’t focus on their sexuality, their struggle to be accepted? We all know there is still terrible homophobia and discrimination out there, but we also know that more and more LGBT people are living openly and proudly with the love and support of the straight folks in their lives. I believe that there’s a need to make more films about universal themes from the perspective of gay characters from all walks of life.

Are you optimistic for the two families by the film’s end? 

BO: I am. There is a certain recognition that no issues can ever be fully resolved but there is optimism in that realization when families and friends work to accept that in each other.

SK: Absolutely, ultimately the arcs of the main characters are them confronting really hard issues for themselves and working through them – a very positive path.

What is next for you?

BO: I’m working on a new screenplay so I’m happy to say that I’m deep in the discovery mode right now. But the goal is certainly to bring more untold stories to life.

SK: I am directing a TV series in Ireland called Universe of Song with a very talented 17-year-old singer called Tadgh Snodgrass. Brian and I plan to work together again on another film.

Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.

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