TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL | 2019
Justin O’Neal Miller: "I remember the fear of doing my first short film, and there’s a similar emotion as I ramp into my first feature, but you can’t be too scared of making mistakes."
PEGGY | 12' | USA
Peggy's social graces are put to the test when she throws a birthday party for her eight-year-old son.
Hi Justin thanks for talking to TNC, how's everything going?
Thank you for having me. Everything is going quite well! Thanks for asking.
How does it feel to have Peggy part of this years Tribeca Film Festival?
I’m currently on my way to the festival and am already convinced that being invited to participate in Tribeca this year will be something that I remember for the rest of my life. This is my fourth short film, and I think my dreams of getting into a top-tier festival might have been crushed already, but I think the programmers found me in the haystack, and I’ll be forever grateful to them, and the festival, for that.
Will there be any nerves ahead of the festival?
I’m not sure that I’ve had much time to consider being nervous yet, but I do feel like there is an anxiety that always sets in before a screening. What is if doesn’t connect with this particular audience? What if the sound is too low? What if the projector breaks!? Haha. Usually, though, everyone’s hard work pays off, and things go pretty smoothly. I actually can’t wait to see what NYC thinks of “Peggy”.
What has it meant for you to have gained such a great response for Peggy?
“Peggy” has a wider audience than I expected. It really does do well with middle-aged women, in particular, but I think that it taps into something a bit more universal than the social coveting that lays on the surface. The short film explores a lot of insecurities that have become embedded in our culture through social media, and the lens that it gives us into other people’s lives. But it delivers these ideas in a really fun way, and it is really exhilarating to view with an audience!
Can you tell me a little bit about Peggy, how did this film come about?
The production of the film itself was self-motivated, and realized through the energy and generosity of friends and family, over two summer weekends while everyone was working on other projects. I did give myself one week of “hard prep”, which might be a term I came up with, but means that I wasn’t working on anything else during that time. Ultimately, we just decided that this short script was the most complete and achievable in the timeframe and budgetary restraints that we were under.
"Owls are particularly stubborn to deal with, if only because once they are well-fed, they don’t mind sitting in one place for hours."
What was the inspiration behind the screenplay?
The story came primarily from being a parent, and both hosting and attending kid’s birthday parties. In particular, I remember my oldest son opening a bunch of presents that I would never let him have otherwise: rot-your-teeth-out candy, violent video games, and the like. It felt like everyone was trying to sabotage our parenting style, and as I looked around at parents drinking beer, and coworkers without kids there for the networking, I realized that kid’s birthday parties these days are more about the adults than the kids.
When making a film is it hard not to draw from your own life and experiences?
I would say that it is not necessarily hard to avoid, but necessary to include. I think that finding natural ways to connect with a narrative is really important to humanizing the story and making it connectable for other people. I constantly run my writing and directing through a filter of what feels “right” or “true”, and make sure that, if nothing else, the words and performances will connect with an audience on a human level.
What was the most challenging part of bringing Peggy to life?
We stacked a lot of difficult things into this project. Kids, animals, VFX (with animals), all exteriors in July with no rain cover (it rained)… but we did everything we could to be smart about our approach. Thematically it made sense to maintain focus on the adults at the party, so we only photographed children from the back and tops of their heads. This has an obvious ease-of-use benefit but really helped drive home the “Reverse Charlie Brown” mechanism in the film. We also limited the overlap of children and animals and tried to not wear them out. Owls are particularly stubborn to deal with, if only because once they are well-fed, they don’t mind sitting in one place for hours. There definitely was a time when we were unsure if the owl would do anything at all.
What was the most valuable lesson you've taken from making this film?
Whew. Great question. Probably to trust the intelligence of your audience? I tend to make fairly enjoyable films, but not necessarily easy ones. And people often wonder if I should make them a little more accessible or obvious, but I like to build layers into the experience. Things you might not notice the first time through. Things that you might need to talk to other people about to put together, even if they aren’t completely integral to the primary narrative. I know that sometimes hurts my chances in the festival selection process, which usually is done alone on a computer monitor, but this film has really been able to maintain some challenging components and still be recognized by programmers, juries, and audiences, and that’s a refreshing realization.
Have you always been interested in filmmaking?
I’ve certainly always been interested in films, from as early as I can remember, but that probably isn’t unique. Early in high school, I would make little “sketch comedy” videos with friends on my parent's camcorder, but we didn’t maybe even know what “sketch comedy” was, let alone what a director was, or how people made films. In college, I took some film courses while pursuing architecture and really enjoyed them, and during that time I not only saw The Lord of the Rings, but also the Behind-the-Scenes featurettes for those movies, which made me fall in love with the actual filmmaking process. By the time that I was finishing my architecture degree, I was making films in lieu of proper architecture for my thesis project and knew that I wanted to pursue filmmaking, even if it took me a while longer to get there.
How much has your approach to your films changed since your debut film?
Everything and nothing? Haha. Looking back at my first short film, we obviously had a completely different set of resources and experience to draw from, but the basic problem-solving approach remains remarkably similar. You basically start with nothing and creatively put together a plan that won’t fall apart. Then you hold on for dear life as it threatens to constantly pull apart.
Has there been any advice you’ve been given that’s really stuck with you?
It’s hard to maintain perspective when you are working on a movie. Long hours, a fast pace, and relatively high stakes make for some volatile environments, even without “big” personalities involved. I appreciate when someone can maintain a professional, respectful demeanour despite all of that, and when things are getting out of control it’s helpful to remind people that “we aren’t saving lives”. In some way, I hope we are, but it’s not worth wrecking lives in near-term for.
Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
Dream big, but be practical. Focus on story and structure, but make sure that there is a human connection to everything you do. Most of all: just go for it. I remember the fear of doing my first short film, and there’s a similar emotion as I ramp into my first feature, but you can’t be too scared of making mistakes. If you don’t make any mistakes, you aren’t learning, and then. You aren’t doing anyone favours.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
There is some biting commentary under the wrapping paper in this film, and while my primary objective was to create a really entertaining piece of comedy, I also wanted to create something that helps us deal with the pressures that social media and our image-driven culture places on us. Being human has never been easy, but now we have all these online personas to compare ourselves to, and I think that the character of "Peggy" allows us to let off some steam that has built up around those expectations. I hope that people are able to enjoy the film and laugh at "Peggy", but also laugh at themselves, and let off a bit of steam in the process.