We had the good fortune of connecting with Sean Oliver and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sean, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
Two humans stand on a mountaintop watching a life changing sunset. They each take out a canvas to capture the scene with paint and geometry. One human paints the vista as it is, capturing every detail with careful strokes. While the other ignores their basic sensory data, and instead imprints how the sunset makes them feel. Both renderings are valid snapshots of a moment in time. One a photographic-esque recreation and the other an explosion of interpretation. But few would guess they were paintings of the same setting sun. We’re quite certain of what we see, and even more certain of what we experience. But the more you recreate and share the past with others the more you realize that life isn’t as concrete as a movie. A few years ago myself and two good friends were returning from a film screening in Tuscon. We had just won the monthly gong film challenge at The Loft. As we drove North a storm began and rain and lightning fell from the sky. While driving through the storm we witnessed a bizarre event. Some ways ahead of us and behind a cluster of mountains a bright green light began to flash. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was otherworldly and beautiful as the luminescence cast the mountains in stark shadows against the green. I thought it lasted ten seconds. One friend believed it to be closer to thirty, and the other friend swore it was about a minute. If we’re not walking flesh camera’s recording a concrete reality in front of us at fixed frames per second, then what are we? When I was a younger lad I was quite taken with Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces”. Reading it was like opening a window and realizing that all along I’d been breathing stale air. It is of course a wonderful guide to myth making and by extension often used as a tool in screenwriting. But it really is so much more than that. It baffles me that fellow filmmakers can read an amalgamation of the World’s religions and reduce it to a save the cat formula. Like Music theory before it, Campbell was uncovering a unified theory of story. Something that lay beneath the myths and the pronouns that define them. This of course radically influenced why I write and how I write, but more importantly it defined how I lived. “Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed…”Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal – carries the cross of the redeemer – not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.” – Joseph Campbell, “Hero With a Thousand Faces” pg 337 There was a time that I felt it didn’t matter what kind of impact my films left. I made them because I had to make them, and that was enough. But as I defended my apathy towards any sense of responsibility I did a funny thing. I cited Charlie Kaufman movies, and brought up scenes from Richard Linklater’s films. I invoked David Lynch, Spike Jonze, and the incomparable Michel Gondry. In defending that it didn’t matter what impact my stories made I certainly was citing a lot of art that had changed me. It turns out that when lightening strikes a transformer it’s not unusual for there to be an epic display of green light. With a little bit of research the answers can be found, but that still doesn’t account for the elasticity of our experience on our drive home. I thought life worked like a clock, tick by tick, but relativity and many people much smarter than me have figured out that’s not true. Time doesn’t tick along, it’s something we swim through, and at different rates nonetheless. Time isn’t concrete in a movie. It can change, slowdown, speed up, or skip entire sections. Film helps me explore the answers. and more importantly helps me find the questions to ask. By recreating reality, in all its non-reality, film can become a tool used for more than entertainment. It becomes a mirror that we can hold up to each other and ask, “Is this the same sunset you saw?”
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I’ve had my fair share of success in my career and I’m thankful for everything I’ve accomplished, but if I’m most proud of one thing, it’s that I’m still here and I’m still doing it. We can get so caught up in the pursuit of “success” that it’s easy to get lost in the woods. I’m quite thrilled to be approaching 32 and to still be making movies. My audience may never grow beyond what it is now, but that won’t stop me from pursuing and creating. And I think that’s what should be celebrated most. Perseverance.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I’m a terrible human being to ask this question. I can be a good leader when it comes to being on set, but the rest of life I’m a better follower. You don’t want me making your social plans for an entire week. For instance, I was in Japan last year to screen our short film “Imaginary Bullets”. I was there for five days and spent one of them traveling to and from the airport, two at the festival, and during my remaining two days myself and fellow filmmaker Christopher Villiers filmed an impromptu short film about an estranged father and son accidentally meeting in Tokyo. I didn’t do a good job sampling the food, I didn’t make it to any real tourist locations, but I did get to travel the city with a like minded creator and film some beautiful scenes. If you spent a week with me, there’s a chance I’d just put you to work on a project. But more than likely, we’d have a great time doing it.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
If you thought I was long winded before, you do not want me to get into the list of people who deserves all the credit for my success. For the sake of (some )brevity, I’ll keep my answer to a specific group of people who absolutely shaped who I would grow up to be. Teachers. 6th Grade – Mrs. Studer In 5th grade I tried out for the school musical “Cyber Kids Computer Club” and earned a coveted “6th grader role”. All the music, choreography, and acting were split up between different teachers. Mrs. Studer was in charge of acting. In 6th grade I tried out for the school play again, this time a “danc-icle” with less acting, but no singing! I played a small part and all I can really remember is that I wore a cowboy hat. As the year came to a close Mrs.Studer gave me a handwritten note encouraging me to be actor. I don’t think she knew that ever since I was a kid I wanted to be in movies. I don’t think she knew that I would hold onto that for years and return to it for inspiration often throughout middle school. I don’t think she knew that twenty years later a former student would talk about that note as a pivotal moment in their lives. 8th Grade – Mr. Barcelona Mr. B was a fantastic drama teacher. His only problem was that he thought we were professionals, not hormonal and confused middle schoolers. But that attitude also meant he spoke to us like adults and didn’t mince words. As fate would have it, tryouts for the JV soccer team were the same day as the auditions for the school play. I was too shy to audition for the play because I didn’t know the drama kids, and I was quite comfortable being a terrible soccer player, yet surrounded by friends. So I chose soccer. The next day Mr. B pulled me into his office and asked me why I didn’t audition. He asked if I was any good at soccer, and if I would play after high school. It was nice of him to ask, cause we both already knew there was no way I was very good. Then, he told me that if I had auditioned I would have gotten the lead, and that I could do this for the rest of my life. He told me to give up soccer and pursue the arts. And that was the last season I seriously played soccer. He then cast me in the school musical, which was a terrible idea because I can’t sing. But his unwavering belief still emboldens me. 10th Grade – Mrs. Trayer Mrs. Trayer was the Speech & Debate coach at my highschool. A team I really had no choice but to join because my sister was the President and she was my ride home after school. Most people don’t realize that there is a huge acting side to Speech & Debate and that’s where I worked with Mrs. Trayer. Truthfully, it would take a full book to accurately account for how awesome of a teacher and coach Mrs. Trayer was. The very first day I met her she told me I was a champion. I didn’t know what that meant, and it felt like a lot to live up to when your just fifteen. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I think it was less of a declaration, and more of a dare. She always dared us to dream, to believe, or to simply even try when we couldn’t muster anything else. She taught me what it meant to be a champion, and how it wasn’t about winning, but how you won, and more importantly how you lost. I’m genuinely misty-eyed reminiscing all the ways she changed my life. 11th Grade – Mr. Navarro I technically met Mr. Navarro in 10th grade, but eleventh grade was the year I took a period as Mr. Navarro’s student aide. He taught me lots of practical things, like demanding that I learn the names of streets that go beyond three miles of my house. And we took care of administration work for the drama department. But we mostly talked about movies. He would give hour long speeches about the greatness of Orson Welles and how movies are like magic tricks. He introduced me to David Lynch after watching one of my short films and assuming I’d be influenced by the director. He was always the first to say good job, but was also quick to follow that up with a list of what I could have done better. He may be one of the only humans alive who’s seen every film I’ve ever created. Four teachers profoundly changed my life. There were others that were great in other ways, but these teachers reached beyond the textbook and taught me so much about myself and the world. And they did all this while being in Arizona, which has historically underfunded and underappreciated education. It scares me to think what will happen if we destroy the system even more and it becomes harder for a student to find at least four great teachers. But it also gives me hope, because if we valued education and we supported our teachers just imagine what would happen to our students when four teachers turn into hundreds.