Sonja O’Hara’s Filmmaking Journey

Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir chatted to Sonja O’Hara on this week’s podcast. They discussed her inspirations, how she made her first film and how she works as an actor, writer and director.

As a teenager, Sonja watched Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and fell in love with it. “That was what made me realise I could make films. There was something about the female gaze of that movie that I really identified with.”

Over the years, she has also taken inspiration from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite

“I really love subversive filmmakers and I think (Lanthimos’) stuff is weird, dark and interesting.”

From Acting to Directing

After acting her whole life, she went to theatre school in New York at the age of 17. And her first job out of acting school?

“Faye Dunaway’s personal assistant for her production company. Being thrown into the lion’s den. She’s a fascinating human. She was working on playing Maria Callas and said ‘if you want to have any autonomy within your career, you have to produce your own content.’ And that inspired me.”

At the age of 25, she had seen an advert in an actor’s newspaper, looking for college graduated women to donate their eggs for large amounts of money. Sonja managed to raise $100 000 from selling her eggs and was able to write, produce and star in her first feature Ovum.

She’d wanted to direct the film too, but because she was in every scene, Sonja hired a director. 

“In the process, before I’d even brought on my director, I’d cast the project and blocked it, I’d rehearsed it. I did everything. And then this wonderful director came in. He was very visual and he worked with my DP, but on set, I was working with the actors.”

After that, she realised that she was actually directing. So on her next projects, she hired the same DP “who was tremendously talented, it was film school working with him” and she directed and acted in her projects.

“As long as I trusted and hired really talented people and let them do their thing and didn’t get in their way, we were able to make things that were well-received, even on a micro-budget.”

Using People’s Strengths

After Sonja released her professionally edited trailer for her film on social media and had a lot of support from her connections, an investor reached out.

But instead of wearing too many hats and getting involved in all of the details, Sonja directed the investor to her producer (who had a couple of features under his belt).

“The investor was asking me about stuff that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to eloquently speak about and I handed it off. Many of my friends, who made their first projects, wore many hats and were trying to shoot the thing themselves and edit it poorly.

I was able to convince really great collaborators who already had careers in those areas to work with me on this, even though I knew it was below their day rate. I was like I can only pay you a stipend for this, but I believe it’s going to get attention and I will hire you on my next project.

And I’ve been able to give them real jobs on things which felt great because no one should have to work for no money on an indie film. It just all came together, but I knew I was going to make this movie, no matter what. And I think people can sniff out that energy.”

How She Stays Focussed 

“I always pick dates and make them concrete, so I’m forced to do it. I’m a very goal-oriented human, the lock screen on my phone is my new year’s resolutions that are all career goals.”

She set the dates that she was planning on shooting her Doomsday pilot, after being offered a cabin in the forest in the Catskills (by one of her classmates in a writing class).

“I’d picked the dates that I was going to shoot it. I got the house and then I reverse-engineered it. There was a to-do list of every single thing we need to accomplish in order to get all of our actors into the Catskills to start shooting. I broke it down logically, figuring out schedules and convincing people to do things for favours.

You’re just making a labour of love and everyone’s on board and we did it so affordably – I’ve never made anything that cheap – and people were taking a risk.”

Directing Herself

She would sit down with her DP, Dan McBride, every day and shot list “every moment. We knew exactly how we wanted things to look. We’d location scouts and things were pre-blocked. And sometimes you have to let it go because something would be visual, but maybe not a good storytelling device. So we’d have to try something else.”

She wrote herself a supporting role in Doomsday so that she could focus on getting the best performances from the other actors.

“I’m in a lot of it, but there were still chunks of time that I wasn’t in front of the camera. And because these people were in a theatre company with me, we did a lot of rehearsals beforehand and we’d feel connected.

But I try to not direct myself when I’m acting and trusted one of the other actors to be my makeshift coach. I will watch a playback of one of the takes to see that I’m hitting my mark and that the general vibe of the scene is great. But I try not to focus too much because there’s a vanity and a self-consciousness that takes over.”

Getting Representation

She said that the biggest issue with film festivals – especially the big ones is that “you’re against studio films, masquerading as indies. But a lot of the film festivals have indie television segments and there aren’t many people making independent television pilots” and if there were making them, they were all very similar. 

She made something outside of the box – an hour-long pilot – and focus on finding out what happened to other shows with successful pilots and where they were now or what they’d done. And that’s when she discovered the streaming awards. 

They submitted Doomsday and “broke through and got nominations against bigger shows.

And then we got into this festival called the New York Television Festival. A  game-changer for me, because they brought in execs from HBO and Netflix. And I ended up getting meetings with all of these streamers.”

She met a woman from HBO who loved it but said that Sonja needed reps. “I can’t do anything with it unless you have literary representation. And if you don’t, it’s an unsolicited submission.” She left the festival feeling more motivated than ever and went on her way to get repped. 

To find out how Sonja got her self represented, in an untraditional way, listen here.

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