Our industry is about storytelling. If we are only telling stories from a limited set of perspectives, everyone loses. Storytelling helps us present an accurate representation of humanity as a whole. Without different perspectives, we end up with a false sense of what humanity really is.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became a Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Eamon O’Rourke.
Eamon O’Rourke is an up-and-coming director and activist best known for his debut film, Asking for It. Based in Brooklyn, New York, O’Rourke has previously worked as a ghostwriter, scriptwriter, actor, and production assistant for some of the biggest movies on the silver screen, including The Wolf of Wall Street.
In March 2022, Eamon O’Rourke’s feature film debut, Asking for It, was released by Paramount Movies. Starring Vanessa Hudgens and Luke Hemsworth, Asking for It flips the script on the dominant male narrative that’s so pervasive in action movies. In the film, Joey (Kiersey Clemons) joins a gang of female vigilantes in a quest to seek justice against rapist frat boys and corrupt police.
In an effort to fight against the lack of diversity in Hollywood, Eamon O’Rourke went to great lengths to show female, Native American, and LGBTQ+ characters in his film. O’Rourke leaned on his diverse cast for direction, ensuring he told a story on screen that was a faithful representation of the community’s lived experiences. “I did my best to figure out how to make this movie responsibly, to make it in a way where I’m not telling people this is what the experience is,” he says. Eamon O’Rourke’s unusual approach reaped dividends too: Asking for It earned a ReFrame Stamp for its diverse hiring practices.
Outside of his work in TV and film, Eamon O’Rourke is an active volunteer passionate about immigrant rights, reproductive justice, economic equality, and New York City’s drug crisis. He’s coached recovering addicts on acting and improv, passed out free Narcan kits to NYC venues, and volunteered to help vulnerable populations access legal aid. Eamon O’Rourke is a fixture at protests in support of NoDAPL, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the abortion-rights movement.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us some of the backstory of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and have lived there my whole life. I loved growing up there; from a very young age I was exposed to all different kinds of people, which is something I am appreciative of. My family were/are all educators. I think my parents’ commitment to education helped me appreciate and love learning from a young age. They both were extremely supportive of, and active in, developing my creativity from a young age. Even though we didn’t have money when I was growing up, I was very lucky to go to a good private school because my parents were teachers there. I was really, really lucky to have gotten an education where from a young age my creativity was not only supported but prioritized. I never felt pressure to be pragmatic or consider what job I would be able to attain focusing on more traditionally applicable skills, and I think feeling that way from a young age allowed me to never question what I wanted to do with my life. I get to live some form of my childhood dream because I was always told that was an OK thing to strive for. I hope that more kids can feel that way because I think that kind of support makes a big difference.
Can you share a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My initial connection to the industry was as an actor. I studied and loved acting from a young age. Even though I was studying writing and directing (mainly in theater), acting was definitely the thing I loved the most and felt I was best at. The first time I was on a film set was as an actor, it was a movie called Another Happy Day. It was Sam Levinson’s directorial debut. I had gotten the part because Ellen Barkin, who was in the film, had seen me act in a high school play. I remember the first day I was on set, there were so many people working together, it was very electric and energizing. From that moment on I was like, this is where I want to be. Not long after that, I knew I didn’t really want to undergo the actor’s grind of going on a million auditions, etc., so I shifted my mindset to directing. I knew that even though I loved acting, the thing I was most drawn to film by was large-scale collaboration. I love working together with lots of different people, all of whom are coming at the same objective with different skills; that’s what really gets me charged up. Also, I was like, “If I can find some success directing, I can always throw myself into the things I make.”
Who are some of the most interesting people you’ve interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
You meet so many interesting people on film sets. It’s arguably my favorite part of working in film. So many different people are drawn to the work so you end up meeting people who are so different from you. The [assistant director] who I worked most consistently for was an Iranian woman named Shahrzad Davani (who now is an amazing director); she is someone who I learned a lot from about how to run a set. And even though we have a lot of overlapping tastes, we come from extremely different backgrounds and upbringings. Learning from her was one of the most interesting experiences I ever had. But if you’re asking about celebrities and that kind of “interesting,” I did have a lot of unique experiences, as managing cast on set was one of the jobs I most frequently held during the first half of my career. I was working on a Luc Besson movie and there was a lot of high-profile cast — De Niro, etc. But Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior from The Sopranos) was in the movie and he was such an interesting guy. He was only in one scene so he had a lot of downtime, and he loved to talk, so most of my workflow on that job was talking with Dominic. I spent the whole day hearing about what it was like growing up in the ’40s in the Bronx, which just blew my mind. He was also a big theater guy and that was what initially got him down to talk with me. He brought up a playwright who I happened to know very well and we began a long day of discussing history and theater. When we finished the day of shooting he asked me to come to an Irish pub [where] he loved to eat fish and drink beers where we continued discussing theater and he told me lots about shooting The Sopranos. It was a special day, not just because I loved that show and him as an actor but it was very cool to hear from someone who was so much older and wiser who was treating me as a peer.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you’re grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a number of people I am eternally grateful for, too many to count. However, recently I have been remembering someone who was essential to me at a very difficult moment for me. Jonathan Demme, an incredible director and filmmaker, was a huge inspiration for, and mentor to, me. I have always loved Jonathan’s movies and more than any individual movie he made, I love how diverse the movies he made were. Different genres, different styles, Jonathan made a bunch of very good but very different movies, and you don’t always see that. So many great directors have a very distinct style and oftentimes genre type that they make. Jonathan was unique in that way and that is something I would ultimately like to be able to do. I ended up meeting Jonathan a number of years ago; I had become friends with his son without realizing it. I went and had dinner with them and Jonathan was very kind and asked me to come work on set for a project he was working on. Over the next few years he let me audition for him, and when I shared with him that I was working on a script, he asked to read it. Once I shared it with him he was immediately responsive and so supportive. He helped me draft the script and then offered to produce the film. I was having a particularly difficult time feeling like the project was ever going to happen, and to have someone who I looked up to and had made things that are at the top tier of this industry was a huge boost of confidence. Jonathan and I worked on the script and development for almost a year before he passed away. It was devastating when that happened. I have never felt like I had a mentor before and losing him was very sad. Also, because he was just such a nice, wonderful person who cared so deeply for others. Even though he didn’t end up being the producer on the film, I do believe that I never would have made it through without his encouragement and support. I miss him very much.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how it was relevant to you?
“The harder you work, the luckier you get.” — Samuel Goldwyn
I just find this to be accurate, and I know it’s sort of a play on words but I have definitely noticed that when I am working the hardest, putting as much of myself into my work that I possibly can, that’s when things seem to work out or you get that stroke of luck. And it’s mainly just about being out on the field is the only way you’re gonna end up getting a shot, and I do acknowledge that you definitely need some luck to succeed in this business. Some very talented people have never gotten an opportunity because they didn’t get the lucky moment, but I also don’t think luck will get you all the way. You need both: luck and hard work.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share with our readers three reasons about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
- Our industry is about storytelling. If we are only telling stories from a limited set of perspectives, everyone loses. Storytelling helps us present an accurate representation of humanity as a whole. Without different perspectives, we end up with a false sense of what humanity really is.
- Film and television are so popular and ubiquitous, they are inherently a part of how everyone learns about the world, about culture, about humanity. To have limited representation in those mediums yields a situation where a vast majority of our population feels unseen. This is never a good thing.
- Film is so inherently collaborative, you require so many people to pull it off. When we make sure that there is diversity both on- and off-screen, we are maximizing the positive effect that collaboration can have on people. It requires all of the artists and laborers involved to ask more questions and see each other more accurately, maybe learn things we didn’t know before. I have seen some truly incredible learning moments take place on film sets and seen people (myself included) grow from those moments. I think those things seep into the work and are felt by the audiences even if it’s not apparent.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you’re working on now?
I am almost done with a script that I am extremely excited about. I can’t say too much about it, but it’s structured like a heist movie and takes place in the future. Those are two things I have never tried before and things that I love in film and TV, so it’s an opportunity to try some new things that I care about. It feels like a big step up from my last project, Asking For It.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or tell a story?
I would say I’m most proud of the effort I have put into prioritizing process over product. What I mean by that is that I think that if we can feel proud of how we made something (responsible labor practices, attention to diversity, respect for all rather than following traditional hierarchies) that is more important than what ultimately gets made. The act of making something in a way in which all of those involved feel heard and respected is ultimately more important than whether or not the thing that gets made is “good.” I feel that way about the film I made. The film ended up all right, there are plenty of things I think were great but also lots that I think could have been done better. But I feel infinitely proud of the way we made it. Everyone’s perspective was included, everyone was heard, and we didn’t let the pressures or money allow anybody to be disrespected or mistreated. That’s what I’m most proud of.
OK, super. Here’s the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
“Filmmaking takes f — king forever. You have to be prepared for a marathon.”
This is so brutally true and is one that everyone ultimately is forced to learn if you work in this industry long enough. On all fronts everything takes a long time. I used to always think I was going to be able to finish a script in a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, but for the most part, I’d say it takes at least a year to get a script to a place that is really ready to be shot. I was getting really down on myself for it taking so long, but that’s just how long it takes. There are always exceptions, but you only really get one shot to have somebody read something, so better to take the time to get it right. Every time I rushed something to fit an imaginary deadline I was putting on myself I was making things not as good as they should have been. Then there’s the whole business side of putting a movie together. There were two-plus years in between getting my script green-lit and starting to shoot. You don’t think about it, but like an actor says yes to being in your movie and then there’s four months of legal contracts and negotiation before they’re actually in your movie and many things can go wrong, none of which have to do with you or the project. It’s just logistics. It all takes forever, and the whole time you wish it was going faster, you’re anxious that someone else will make your movie while you’re waiting and it feels like it’s never going to happen. I think I have a way better understanding of the time lines now and it has helped me be less stressed as I go through this process. If you think you’re gonna shoot in a month, it’ll probably be a year — but that’s OK, use the time to make it even better.
“You have to learn how to navigate s — mbags/rich pricks — but don’t let them run the show.”
Film costs a lot of money. Even on the independent level it’s money that people aren’t willing to let just slip through the cracks. FIlm also draws a lot of strange people who aren’t artists who want to be close to the spectacle of the business. These things have always and will always be true; they’re especially true now that way more films are being funded by people who have gotten wealthy in other industries. I say this to highlight that it is very difficult, regardless of your intentions, to avoid having some rich folks or people who are going to have different priorities than you do be a part of your work. It’s not about avoiding these people because you can’t, I’d say it’s more about how to help those people feel heard the same way you would an actor or a member of a crew without letting their priorities affect your work negatively. Learning how to talk to money people is something that takes time, but I think it’s important. I began with an idealistic idea that I’d be able to just avoid these people and that was quickly shown to be impossible, but you can make sure your work doesn’t get sullied by them (some of the time) and that is a better goal to take on within the context of financiers and executive producers.
“Don’t indulge your doubt, but know what you don’t know.”
Making movies is really f — king hard. There are going to be countless moments where you’re going to be confronted with things you’re not sure about. Whether it’s a choice that relates to a skill you don’t feel proficient in, or a question you hadn’t considered, or a new perspective comes into play that makes you reconsider the whole reason you thought you were making something, it’s going to happen. There’s a really important balance to find in terms of how to handle this. You can’t allow every single thing that someone says or brings to the table let you doubt yourself, or you will be stretched into oblivion. Sometimes people feel differently about things and it’s important to trust that you have reasons for wanting things a certain way. No matter what, you’ll never get everyone to agree so you can’t let momentary doubt direct your vision. On the other side of this though, is the reminder that you don’t know everything and that’s OK, and it’s important to realize that and listen to that. I have seen (and I’ve done this myself) situations where a director is asked a question they don’t know the answer to and out of fear of appearing ignorant or visionless they will respond with any answer just so as to not say “I don’t know.” I don’t know if it’s actually a very helpful thing to realize. It gives us the opportunity to figure out the right answer as opposed to just a quick answer. Sometimes we have to admit we’re not sure, and ask other people what they think. It’s not a weakness as a director, it’s a strength. When you know something, trust yourself; when you don’t, ask someone for help. It’ll be better every time than just trying to appear wise.
“You can’t compare your success or lack thereof to those around you.”
I have spent far too much time comparing myself to my peers. I don’t think this is something you can completely avoid; it’s hard not to do this in some way. I remember so many times I felt like, “I’m not doing the things people around me are doing” or “If only I could get to this level of success I’d feel confident in myself and feel like I had arrived.” These are dangerous mirages and illusions on the route to personal and professional success. I have learned that most people are feeling that way, even the people you are comparing yourself to are comparing themselves to someone else or maybe even you. I remember hearing from people that, from my perspective, had reached the highest level of success, and they would say, “That feeling never goes away — you keep comparing yourself to others and you keep feeling like you need to get further to feel truly satisfied.” I have felt very liberated in trying to release those expectations and comparative thoughts. They don’t really do anything valuable, and it’s not always easy, but you just have to understand your work and professional journey as a personal one, and try to enjoy each step of it because things change fast.
“You will never escape the process of experimentation and learning and that’s a good thing.”
I began my career imagining that everything I made would be incredible and that I would be able to reach my full potential from the beginning. I quickly embraced the fallacy of this. I have been able to feel better about the work I do when I think of it as an educational experience or a chance to experiment for the sake of learning for the future. Expectations are rarely helpful and all work, especially artistic work, has to leave room for constant and continuous improvement. If you ever think, “I’m here, I’m as good as I can get,” you’re in big trouble. Even the people we consider masters in our fields are always learning and getting better. It’s important to take on this mindset. A better expectation or standard to hold for yourself is ”I’m gonna try new things and just try not to make mistakes that I have already made.” You can always get better and every project should be a portal to making the next thing better than the one you’re working on now.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example of what you mean?
I’d say for me it’s the viewers. I have a lot of respect for the audience and I think that it’s important to remember that the film audience is made up not only of academics or pretentious film geeks. I think that making something that is accessible to everyone is important. At least with the kinds of stories I would like to tell (which I want to be about important things, not just base nonsense) — I always want them to be things that everyone can enjoy, especially younger folks. I think that young people are often discarded as a secondary audience, but kids are smarter than we give credit for. I think back to all of the movies that shaped me and my tastes. If I could make one movie that was a part of a young person’s taste-shaping, I would be happy.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d say that if there were some way to truly convey to everyone how hard a time we are all having for all sorts of different reasons we’d be a lot nicer to one another and create a lot more space for each other to live.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
Russell Westbrook. Not only is he my favorite basketball player (I’m obsessed with basketball), but he is very active outside of sports as a philanthropist and artist. He made a really interesting film about the Tulsa massacre, and I’d like to make a movie with him (I have a specific idea so Russell, if you or anyone who knows you is reading this, please hit me up — I think you’d be down).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you continued success.
Eamon O’Rourke: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became a Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.