Meet Oliver Thompson. Relatively new to the business, he is the writer, director and producer of the independent film, “Welcome to Happiness.” Having been nominated and winning several Best Feature awards at various film festivals, the fantasy dramedy starring Kyle Gallner, Olivia Thirlby, Nick Offerman, and Keegan-Michael Key is a complex fable of sorts that has a man, through his encounters (and a magical portal in his closet), questioning his role and place in the world. Vincent Gaine recently interviewed the writer-director-producer to find out his inspiration for the film (which releases in cinemas and on VOD the weekend of 5/20/2016) and what his next steps are.
VG:: How were the initial screenings at the film festivals at Newport Beach, deadCENTER and Phoenix Film Festival?
OT:: All three of those festivals were fantastic! We premiered at Newport, so I was nervous and self-conscious, but we had a wildly successful Q&A that went on for almost an hour with incredibly insightful questions and comments. It was a relief beyond words, the success of that night made any future concerns or complications much easier to deal with. DeadCenter was an amazing festival; amazing movies, people, and hospitality. Winning Best Narrative Feature was a sizable cherry on top of an already awesome weekend! Phoenix was special because it was almost a year from Newport and brought the whole festival experience to a memorable finish. It’s a fantastic festival, so much so that I was able to enjoy it despite getting horribly sick! You happened to pick my three favorite festivals of our run, so sorry for my lack of brevity on that one!
VG:: Does it have any other festival screenings coming up?
OT:: No. Phoenix was this movie’s festival swan song.
VG:: What do the awards that the film has received mean to you?
OT:: It’s nice to be recognized, but it can also feel weird to “compete,” especially when you become friends with the other filmmakers and end up loving their movies. But when so many people have worked so hard, it definitely feels good to bring home an award.
VG:: Connectivity and consequence seem to be the major themes of the film. Were those your major concerns or were other areas also significant to you?
OT:: I definitely didn’t think about a central “theme” while writing the script, but in hindsight the line “Everything happens for a reason” seems to be the thesis statement of the movie. “Connectivity and consequence” is an awesome way to say that!
VG:: I loved the production design, especially of Woody’s apartment. What can you tell us about the design process of that part of the film?
OT:: Thank you! Woody’s apartment was a very important set because an overwhelmingly large chunk of the movie takes place in there. I knew setting so much of a movie in a one bedroom apartment had the potential to be very boring, so I think I created the idea of the murals just so the room would be cool and cinematic. They were painted primarily by our producer and very talented artist, Bay Dariz. “Twin Peaks” was on my mind a lot, and I think the big red curtains might be a byproduct of that. My brother was the Production Designer and he helped me flesh it all out and make my wild ideas cohesive. And our Art Director, Heidi Koleto, did a beautiful job bringing it to life.
VG:: Are there any inspirational images or films or filmmakers that you drew upon?
OT:: Many. In terms of images, the mural itself is a collage from tons of different pieces of art. Hieronymus Bosch, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt to name a few, are literally reproduced in various parts of the mural. “Twin Peaks,” “8 1/2,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” were big influences on the look, and Kubrick was probably mentioned daily. Lillian’s “shack” is a nod to Wes Anderson, and the scene in Trudy’s apartment is reminiscent of Cameron Crowe. The list goes on, but those are some of the big ones that come to mind.
VG:: The sequence in which Niles visits Proctor was a highlight for me, especially the production design as well as the costumes of both Proctor and Lillian. Plus I loved the moment when Proctor laughed uproariously at Niles’ sketch. What was it like making that scene?
OT:: It was stressful because we had a large page count to cover in two days, but every second spent with Keegan Michael Key is such a blast that it was hard to let the pressure spoil the mood. We were having fun, and the “big laugh” (which is actually edited down!) just kept growing with every take. Finally I just told Keegan to give me a huge one, so over the top that we’ll never use it, but of course I had to. And a huge shoutout to Jessyca Bluwal for designing such great costumes. Lillian’s dresses were custom made for the film, that’s pretty unusual for a film with such a small budget, but Jessyca knows how to make it happen!
VG:: Were there other scenes that were particularly memorable for you, either from production or in the finished film?
OT:: Aside from the few inevitable moments that I wish we’d done differently, I kinda like each scene as much as the next for its own specific reasons. One thing that comes to mind while shooting is actually a scene that was cut from the film at the 11th hour. There was this shot that required a lot of choreography between the camera and actors, hitting marks and such. I’ll never forget watching playback on set. My DP and I were at the camera and the rest of the cast and crew were under a tent at the monitor. When the first big moment happened they all started “hooting” and applauding. It was a happy moment made possible by a great team of people giving it their all.
VG:: What’s your view of the central characters? Were character mannerisms in the script or actors’ suggestions, your ideas or a combination?
OT:: It’s a combination. There wasn’t much improvisation, but the actor’s bring a life to the dialogue that you can never foresee. In terms of mannerisms or behavior I think the big characters tend to jump off the page a bit, so with the right casting the job is pretty much done. I might suggest an idea, or tweak a performance, but they’ve usually got it pretty well figured out ahead of time.
VG:: As writer-producer-director you’ve guided this project throughout its production. What’s the journey been like from initial idea to completion? How has it been for you?
OT:: I think I’ve experienced some of the highest and lowest points of my life over the past two years. But overall, the experience has been incredible. It hasn’t been without its challenges, but ultimately it’s been very rewarding and most importantly, a lot of fun.
VG:: Considering your experience, what sort of advice might you give to filmmakers wanting to make something similar to this?
OT:: The best advice I can give is to work your butt off. If you’re a writer, write constantly. If you’re a director, make movies as much as humanly possible, even if you’re just using your phone. And if you’re a filmmaker in any avenue, watch movies, all the time, at least one a day if possible.
VG:: Your next project is “Somewhere Below My Skin,” which looks to be very different. Can you tell us anything about it?
OT:: It’s a thriller. Much darker in tone than Welcome to Happiness, but hopefully equally as thought provoking. That’s the goal anyway!
VG:: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I enjoyed the film very much and look forward to your future work!
OT:: Thank you! Great questions.