Our centerpiece film for this year’s Tacoma Film Festival is the quirky comedy, “Youngstown,” which is directed by Pete Ohs. His previous feature, “Everything Beautiful is Far Away,” won for Best Cinematography and Best Direction at TFF 2017.
The new flick stars Stephanie Hunt and Andy Faulkner as the hilariously clueless Sarah Jayne Reynolds and the mysterious drifter who teaches her how to lie; it’s an important skill when you’re in witness protection.
Recently, we caught up with the Ohio-born Ohs who talked about his novel approach to making this movie and the sense of civic pride that shaped it. Tacomans are sure to relate to their underdog cousins from the Midwest.
Tacoma Film Festival: What was the catalyst for the story you’re telling?
Pete Ohs: Really, the catalyst was the town itself. I have a friend who is from there who has been telling me, “You gotta make a movie in Youngstown." That friend is Jesse Reed, who is also one of the film's producers. The way we made the movie was we went to Youngstown without a script. We had this inkling about the witness protection program and the idea that Stephanie's character would be from Youngstown. That's basically all we knew.
TFF: So that was it in the beginning.
Ohs: Yeah, that was it. Then, once we got there, Jesse introduced us to all these wonderful local characters. We put an ad in the local newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator: Actors needed for a feature film, acting experience desired but not required. Everyone that responded got a part. We also used them as inspiration for where the story could go.
I think a lot of towns in the Midwest have as part of their story an economic downturn, industry leaving, and often that's the story that's told about Youngstown. But my friend, Jesse, doesn't see it that way. He sees all the good in Youngstown. All we really wanted to do was just love on Youngstown.
TFF: Your process sounds very improvisational. Have you ever made a movie this way before?
Ohs: When I was in middle school and high school with my best friends, what we would like to do was get together and make videos. We'd sit around and make jokes until we thought of something that was good or dumb enough to do, and we'd start filming it. We'd have a great time. So, making this movie was returning to the spirit of making things like I did when I was a kid.
TFF: Is there anything that surprised you about how the story evolved? Did you learn any big lessons?
Ohs: The funny truth about this shoot was that the movie Gods were on our side. Almost everything just came naturally. When everything goes right, you're like, “What did I learn from that?” (He laughs.) I think it did reinforce this idea (that) it's okay to not necessarily have a clear plan, and to be very open and ready to engage with whatever is presented. The way we actually did it was we wrote as we went. We kind of lived the story as it was happening.
TFF: That sounds fun.
Ohs: It was very fun. I mean, I studied storytelling. I edit movies, and you eventually feel like you have internalized narrative structure such that you aren't having to actively think about it. You just can kind of use your intuition. So, we did a lot of that. Also, I was the entire crew.
TFF: The main character is an impossibly bad liar, and lying is a big part of the story. What attracted you to this as a theme?
Ohs: I have no clue where that came from. I think I had some loose idea that it would be fun if she was in witness protection, and then we just started talking back and forth. “What's a funny person to be in witness protection?” There was the idea of having somebody who’s such a pure soul that she doesn't even know about the concept of lying. She's just so innocent, and that made us laugh.
TFF: How did you find your leads, and what made them right for their roles?
Ohs: So, Andy is one of my best friends, and the idea of going to a place for two weeks with him and making something is a dream come true. Stephanie is a newer friend who I met at a party in Austin, Texas, where she lives. She told me the story of a dream she had, and the way she told it was so lovely and captivating that I felt like this is a special person who I would like to work with.
I don't think any of us over thought anything in the making of this movie, which just speaks to how much fun it was to make, and hopefully it's fun to watch.
TFF: Earlier, you mentioned that you have already made another film, using a similar approach. Can you talk about it? Does it have a title?
Ohs: Yeah, that film is about a woman with a stalker. We filmed it in New Mexico, and it's called "Jethica." It's a bit of a supernatural thriller but also kind of a dark comedy, and hopefully that will be out next year.
TFF: Maybe I'll finish by asking about your experience with the Tacoma Film Festival.
Ohs: My previous feature, "Everything Beautiful is Far Away," played at the Tacoma Film Festival in 2017. I love The Grand Cinema! it's a great theater, and I think the Tacoma audiences are really lovely. They're really receptive, really open. To get to experience your movie with other people is rare, but to also get to do it with people who are really engaging with the movie is a gift. I'm very grateful to get to have that experience.