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Jon Sherman’s 'They/Them/Us' among first features to complete production during COVID-19 pandemic

Amy Hargreaves and Joey Slotnick play parents to a blended family of teenagers in They/Them/Us
For filmmakers large and small, summer 2020 was a season fraught with worry. How would creators and crew get back behind - and in front - of the camera? And when would they be able to? 

The answer came in mid-June, as the film industry adopted strict COVID guidelines built to protect both above- and below-the-line creatives. Closed sets with no visitors, limited shoot hours, specific production office setup, tiered zones or bubbles for cast and crew, regular testing, and more. They even included a new position - health supervisor - whose decisions could not be overruled.
They/Them/Us was one of the first feature films to embrace the guidelines and go into production. The film, directed by Jon Sherman, associate professor of film, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, and co-written with Melissa Vogley Woods,
was shot in and around Columbus in August 2020. 

Adhering to those guidelines added about 20 percent to the film’s budget, but that challenge didn’t compare to others.

“Getting SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) to sign off on the movie was a whole other mountain to climb,” Sherman says. “We had to agree to test everybody on the crew every 72 hours, and that was so expensive. Making a movie during a pandemic is not something anyone can really prepare for. But we were so lucky no one tested positive during the 20 day shoot.”

The comedy stars Joey Slotnick (Boston Public, Nip/Tuck, Twister) and Amy Hargreaves (Law & Order: SVU, Homeland, 13 Reasons Why) as two divorcees who meet online, move in together a little too fast and must now deal with the trials and tribulations of blending their four teenagers into a new family. 

The diverse cast includes many Midwesterners, including all four teenagers: Jack Steiner, a recent graduate of The University of Cincinnati, where he received his BFA in acting; Shanna Strong, a Cleveland native who got her start on The Disney Channel’s Jessie; Louisville-based actress Sarah Eddy; and Lexie Bean, a queer and trans multimedia artist and author. 

We chatted with Sherman in the Fall about They/Them/Us and his journey from New York to central Ohio.

MMM: Tell us all about you.

Jon Sherman (JS)
Director, producer and co-writer Jon Sherman
: I'm from New York City. I became interested in making movies by studying them first. When I grew up in New York, there were still repertory theaters all over town, and you could always see great art films. But you had to plan in advance. Not like today, when every film is at your fingertips. 

I would get the flyer for the season from the Thalia Theater on the Upper West Side and circle the films I wanted to see. I always had something to look forward to, and my anticipation to see Fellini, Godard, Antonioni films would just grow and grow. 

It's more romantic than just renting something on Amazon. Plus, I got to see all those movies on the big screen. I feel sad for film students today that they don't have that experience.

My favorite story to tell about those days was when I went to see a Pasolini triple feature at a rep house near Times Square. When I grew up there, it wasn’t Disney-fied like it is today. You needed to keep your wits about you. 

Everyone talks about how dangerous New York was in those days, and I didn't feel that way except when I went to that neighborhood. That was the only time I ever got mugged. But the Pasolini films…
It was a cold winter day, and the only other people in that theater were me and many homeless people trying to keep warm. That was a great day.

MMM: Where did you study filmmaking and how did you get your start?

JS: I studied with Jeanine Basinger at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She's a famous film teacher who saw, like, every American film from 1920 to 1980. She is something else. 

So many successful people came out of that program: Joss Whedon, Michael Bay, the guys who made Beasts of the Southern Wild. But it wasn't until graduate school at Columbia in New York that I really started writing and making films on a regular basis. 

My thesis script was called "Til Christmas," co-written with my friend, Tom Hughes. My eventual partner, Tim Pererll, raised the money for that film, and we shot it on Super 16mm for $250 thousand. But it got a national release.

Afterward, Tim met a producer from Gaumont in France, and we began developing a film called I'm With Lucy. That turned out to be a $10 million film starring (Cleveland’s) Monica Potter, Gael Garcia Bernal, Anthony LaPaglia, Harold Ramis, Julie Christie and others. That's a big leap, from a $250 thousand to a $10 million film. I'm not sure I would recommend it, but you make whatever film you can. 

You just have to keep making movies. That's my brilliant advice to filmmakers! 

A scene from They/Them/Us

MMM: What brought you to Ohio, and what has been your Midwest experience so far?

JS: After Lucy, I tried to get a studio film to direct, and I finally got a job making a movie for Working Title and Universal. But the movie fell apart at the last minute, and it was a really tough time. 

I taught in between films, and I saw Kenyon was hiring a professor to help build a film program. I applied. 

When I visited, I saw their program could really be like Wesleyan's, but with more production, and I fell in love with the campus. I moved to Columbus because New York City to Gambier was just a little too much culture shock than I could handle. 
I've been in Columbus for 10 years.

I started getting involved with the film community here, joining the board of the Drexel Theater. I'm also now the president of the board of Film Columbus and a board member of Greater Columbus Arts Council, too. I worked with John Daugherty, Executive Director of the Film Columubs, to help save the tax credit a couple years ago, and I always knew I wanted to make a movie here. 

I met the folks at Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, and we've been talking about starting a film fund for years, called Columbus Pictures, that will fund movies that shoot here. They/Them/Us ended up being the fund’s first movie.

MMM: Tell me about They/Them/Us. What's the film about, and how did the idea come to you? 

JS: The film is VERY loosely based on some personal events. It's about two divorced people in their 40s who meet on a dating site, move in together very fast, and have to blend their family of four teenagers. But it's also based on my experiences as a film professor, and the film is an homage to many movies I love. There's a lot of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen in there, but especially Kore-eda's Shoplifters, my favorite movie about family.

MMM: Tell me a little about how you got the film off the page and on to the screen?

JS: Not easy. There's a lot of money in Columbus, but people are not used to investing in movies. A lot of people have stories about their cousin trying to make a movie back in the '80s, and a bunch of dentists losing their money on it. It still haunts them. 

I got a lot of "no"s, but once I started pitching it as a way to help build the film scene here - and also that I was hiring many local film students - people started coming around. Raising money for a movie is a very different skill than making a movie! 

But the COVID costs have added 20 percent to our budget, and getting SAG to sign off on the movie was a whole other mountain to climb. We had to agree to test everybody on the crew every 72 hours, and that was so expensive. Making a movie during a pandemic is not something anyone can really prepare for. But we were so lucky no one tested positive during the 20 day shoot. That's more than I can say for the new Batman!

The cast of They/Them/Us included several Midwesterners, including all four actors playing blended siblings 

MMM: Tell me about your cast? (Big Joey Slotnick fan, here)

JS: Casting an independent film is always hard, but add shooting in Ohio during a pandemic, and it's nearly impossible. 

We had an amazing casting director in New York, Joey Montanarello, who helped us with the lead parts. Amy Hargreaves actually came in first because her agent read it and sent it to her. She and Joey have the same agent, and when Joey was suggested, I knew he was perfect for it. It's not the easiest role to cast because the Charlie character has intimate scenes and has to be vulnerable. And he gets lifted in the air by a winch in one of the kink scenes. Let's just say that can be a deterrent for some actors! But Joey was brave and gave everything to that part. Hopefully he will be rewarded for taking a chance on us.

The Ohio casting was done by Lynn Meyers in Cincinnati. She runs the Ensemble Theater and is a legend down there. Todd Haynes uses her when he casts his movies there. She hit it out of the park with all the other roles. 

MMM: Tell me about your crew?

JS: Amazing crew. I hired Fletcher Wolfe, the Director of Photography, more than a year ago. She's based in New York. I saw her reel and was desperate to hire her. 

Both producers, Garrett Bates and Chadd Harbold, come from New York, although Chadd was raised in Columbus, and I think that's why he wanted to do the movie. He is also an Assistant Director, and I can tell you he basically made this movie once we started shooting. He's phenomenal and experienced. 

But philosophically, given the subject matter, I made the decision to hire a woman to lead every department. We achieved that, except for sound. I'm really proud of that, and I think it contributed a lot to the warm vibe we had on set. We were all wearing masks and it was hot and difficult, but the crew felt like a family. That's a cliche, but they came from New York, Cleveland and Cincinnati. 

We were lucky to get such an experienced crew for this budget level. We had to blend them like we did the main family, but they gave everything. I'm eternally grateful for them potentially putting themselves in danger by working in a pandemic. It could have been a disaster, but we were prepared on the testing front, and that made all the difference.  

MMM: You're teaching film in Gambier with an office in Mount Vernon - about as Midwest hometown as you can get (I say from experience, having been born in Mount Vernon and living there for a short time in my 20s). Tell me why filming in Ohio was important to you - and why others should consider shooting outside the coasts and Atlanta.

JS: This was always going to be a Columbus movie. It's a great city. Also, philosophically important to me, I'm sick of seeing romantic comedies that are only set in New York and L.A. There are so many great neighborhoods here, and I wanted to highlight them.

This would be a great time for Ohio to steal productions away from Atlanta, but we need to increase the pool in the tax credit fund from $40 million to at least $100 million. Movies can shoot in Cleveland, Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Youngstown, and so forth.

I have no doubt it could be a new "manufacturing" industry, but we need more vision from our state leaders. And they are dubious of tax credits. But this creates jobs! We hired 56 people, plus cast, on this tiny movie! 


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