Neal Kelley and Jono Sherman: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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Take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. No one is forcing you to be an artist. Try to remember that. Have fun and enjoy the work while you’re doing it without spending too much energy on thinking about what you want to accomplish or what your grand plans are. Taking this stuff too seriously is going to make you a bummer at parties. And lord knows, it’s all about the parties.

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 Neal Kelley and Jono Sherman.

Neal Kelley and Jono Sherman are filmmakers and graduates of the University of Michigan. Most recently, they wrote and directed their first feature film, DADDY, which has been selected for the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival and the Oxford Film Festival. Guided by humor and a passion for writing, they craft stories about characters who exist on the thin edge of experience and observation, those who are dancing in the middle of the party and yet also standing at a cocked eyebrow’s distance, trying to figure out what is really going on.

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 a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

We first met when Jono moved to Ann Arbor in 2003 and quickly forged a friendship based primarily on a passion for movies and comedy. We were in a band together in high school and made short films for fun. It wasn’t until well after graduating from college that we tried to work together professionally and became writing partners and collaborators. But our close friendship made the transition seamless and really enjoyable. We’ve been writing together since 2018.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Jono: I’ve been really drawn to film, writing and acting since childhood. I was the kid who always tried to turn a school project into some kind of movie. The first “movie” I made was in the 3rd grade about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. I recorded it with my parents’ video camera on a beach near my house. I was then introduced to musical theater and acting at a sleepaway camp I attended and was really drawn to the collaborative and creative spirit involved. I wrote my first script in high school and by the time I got to U of M, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in cinema. I moved to L.A. right after graduating, and I’m still here.

Neal: I was not a very athletic kid and wasn’t terribly competitive so my parents worked to find other outlets for me to express myself and get me out of the house. They had me audition for a local production of A Christmas Carol where I was cast as Tiny Tim’s brother. I got to eat grapes on stage every night. And I felt the joy of working with a lot of people to put on a show. I caught the bug and kept going from there.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

In February 2020, we had actually signed a deal with a production company for a different script. The world stopped one month later due to the pandemic, and the momentum that we had fell apart really quickly. Because of that, we wanted to try to find a way to shoot something no matter what the future held. Daddy was born out of the necessity to write something super contained that we could film in a bubble if need be. Looking back at it, we both now recognize that it was during those months of quarantine when we were writing the first draft of Daddy that we really learned to refine our creative voice and figure out how to work best with one another.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Really just the cast and crew, everybody who was showing up everyday to set — no matter the call time — and putting in their best work every single day. Daddy is a really small production, and it was really humbling to see the commitment that everyone felt towards the project when we were shooting and editing the film. We went in knowing most of the cast personally, as well as some key crew members, but we also met a lot of the team on the first day of shooting. It was really special to see those people go from strangers to really cherished relationships in the few short weeks that we were shooting. The support and love for the film that we continue to feel from those folks is really one of the most rewarding aspects of this entire experience.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Jono: Really the first person that comes to mind is my high school English teacher, Judith. Before I was in her class, I had never really identified what I was good at. Her creative writing class gave me the freedom I needed to start learning about who I was — and am — as a writer. She just gave me the confidence I needed at the time to start putting some of my work out into the world.

Neal: Sue Roe, who ran the Ann Arbor Young Actor’s Guild (YAG). She directed me in many shows and always was a steady, creative and thoughtful leader. She cast me as Hamlet when I was 17, which was a very silly thing to do. I nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to memorize all of my lines. She convinced my parents to let me skip school for a few days so I could really work on the script. She said that whatever I was learning in class wouldn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things, but that I would probably never get to play Hamlet again. She was right.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Jono: I don’t really see this as a “life lesson quote” necessarily, but I do love the Joan Didion quote “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I just love it because it’s true. Our whole lives are just a collection of good stories and bad stories. And it can seem a bit depressing, but there’s also something really beautiful about recognizing that anything can have meaning or no meaning at all depending on the story that you connect it to.

Neal: There’s a line in The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard: “Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” Trying to find a useful balance in life sometimes feels impossible, but it’s something I seek out wherever I can.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

It’s been really great to see the conversation regarding diversity gain so much traction in the film industry in recent years, and we think it will continue to form the kinds of stories that are told. When it came to Daddy we knew that it would suffer greatly if the movie, which is focused heavily on four male characters, was only led by men behind the scenes as well. We were so grateful to find so many women and people from different backgrounds and parts of the world to work on our film. It really brought different voices and identities to the project, and the film is undoubtedly better because of everyone that was involved. Going forward, we want to just try to help everyone on the team to tell their own stories from their own points of view. But we as filmmakers can only do so much. We really need to address the systems of power in our industry and work to bring the necessary change to them in order to level the playing field.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

We’ve finished a script that we’re hoping will be our second feature. It’s a different kind of movie than Daddy, more of a thriller, and we’re trying to get it off the ground. Finding financiers, producers, assembling a cast. It’s kind of back to square one again, trying to take what we’ve learned on our first film and apply it to the next one.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

One of the best things about film is that it offers the opportunity to combine so many different artists and art forms. Photography, performance, music, etc. When we look at the movie as a finished work and enjoy how every aspect interacts with one another to create the whole, we both just feel very proud and grateful for the choices we made when picking our collaborators. Trusting other people to help you accomplish something that you could never do alone is an incredibly humbling experience.

Ok super. Here is 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.

1). The things you can’t buy are time, space and perspective. Be patient and try to enjoy the ride.

2). Don’t be too precious about advice. Don’t always listen to the experts and their received wisdom. You have to go with your gut a lot of the time. For example, people in this industry are always telling you to turn a script into a short film. But oftentimes that’s because they just want to kick the can down the road. There isn’t one roadmap to follow. Everyone is unique and finds their way on different paths.

3). If there’s anything else that you think you could do and be happy, you might want to think about doing that. Pursuing filmmaking is definitely a hard path, and if you’re really not in it for the long haul, it’s going to be that much harder.

4). Opposites attract but your differences can catch up with you. Try to find people who share your creative sensibility and keep them close. You want to all be making the same movie together.

5). Take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. No one is forcing you to be an artist. Try to remember that. Have fun and enjoy the work while you’re doing it without spending too much energy on thinking about what you want to accomplish or what your grand plans are. Taking this stuff too seriously is going to make you a bummer at parties. And lord knows, it’s all about the parties.

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 about what you mean?

You are the first audience and your work needs to feel like it’s coming from you and tailored to your own eccentricities and points of view, your ideas. It has to please you. If we ever sat down and thought too hard about what an audience or critic might think of a story, we’d probably never write anything. You have to keep your vision front of mind.

We have a close group of readers who we trust when sharing a script. Their feedback, especially early in the process, is invaluable. They know our voice and what we’re trying to achieve. Sometimes when you send out a script, you get a lot of solid, classical screenwriting notes. About act breaks and character beats. But we never write with those things in mind. It’s always point A to point B, one moment at a time. With Daddy, we knew we were going for a specific tone and atmosphere that we didn’t want to lose. We’re lucky we had confidants and collaborators who wanted to help us preserve that.

You are both people 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. 🙂

It’d be nice to provide housing and free healthcare to everyone, we hope that’s not too much to ask.

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 US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

We just watched Inherent Vice and would love to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with everyone who helped make that fantastic movie.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can visit Daddy’s site here, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter. DM us if you ever have a question or a good movie that you think we should check out!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Neal Kelley and Jono Sherman: 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.