Interview with Brian O’Donnell, writer and director of “AKRON” (the film, not the city)
by Christine Mayer
Did you ever have a friend who was your own real life version of “the most interesting man in the world”? The friend who would text you (Or, years ago, call you. Write you, even.), with a line like, “Hey love, I’m in India for a while,” or “Guess what? I got an artist fellowship in Wyoming! I’ll be living in a cabin in the mountains for a few months,” or “Another fellowship – Costa Rica. I need to learn more Spanish, like today!” or “I did the weirdest thing this weekend. I wrote a screenplay, start to finish. And I have a really strong feeling that I’m going to make this movie.”
That’s my friend Brian O’Donnell. And those are all things he has told me at various times. It’s just a sampling of how Brian is infinitely more interesting than I am.
His latest life adventure brings him back to Akron, his hometown for the first 18 years of his life. It’s the film he wrote and co-directed and co-produced, entitled, appropriately, “AKRON.” “AKRON” is Brian’s first film. He rides back into Akron to screen it as part of the Cleveland International Film Festival, on the heels of showing it in 22 festivals the world over. He and his co-producer Sasha King have picked up seven awards for “AKRON” so far from places as near as Columbus, OH and Rochester, NY to places as far as Phoenix, AZ and Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In short, this is a big moment.
You can imagine how fun – and strange — it was to interview him, this person who has been one of my closest friends since we were 13 years old.
Christine Mayer: So have you always had this uncanny knack for finding adventure and intrigue?
Brian O’Donnell: (laughs) I don’t know. I guess so. I had a normal childhood. But I was always interested in art, music, and theater. My parents encouraged me to take private painting lessons, which felt special because it was one activity I wasn’t copying from any of my five older siblings. And I recall from a very young age looking for examples of things and people that were different, possibilities of living differently in life. Maybe this was because I was gay, and I had no means to understand what that meant. But it was a common thread in my experience that led me to untold interesting experiences.
CM: So, “AKRON.”
BO: Yeah, “AKRON!”
CM: By now many people know a bit about the film. It’s a story about young love and loyalty to family. It just so happens that the two young lovers of “AKRON” are both men. And yet, the film is not about that fact per se. It’s not about how everyone else will react to their love or to the fact that they are gay. It has moved beyond those themes to a world – a world that looks a whole lot like modern day Akron – in which both young men are open and free and surrounded by the support of family and friends. What were you trying to say? Is the world of “AKRON” reality? Utopia?
BO: Yes! All of the above. We are in a time of change right now and I wanted to express that. What was special about what came into my head is that Benny and Christopher were openly gay and young. I couldn’t project my own experience onto them because I was not openly gay at their age. Through work with younger gay men, I have heard about how their experience is so different from mine. And while there is still lots of inequality and discrimination out there, there are also many gay people who are open and free and living their lives with the support of family and friends like these characters. This is a story that has not been told in film, and that’s why I wanted to tell it. Somehow I think the existence of this option – an open, free, supported, embraced life – is made more real by showing it on the big screen. When fathers see a portrayal of a father who loves his gay son without reservation, then loving one’s gay son without reservation can be more of a real choice. I believe this is why people are attracted to “AKRON”–because it allows them to see this relationship in a way they haven’t before, with no shame, no homophobia, no secrecy or fighting the system.
CM: Can you give me a vignette from when we were 18 and one from now that shows how the community of Akron has changed for you?
BO: When I was 18, Akron was much more conservative than it is now. I wasn’t out. I literally did not know a single openly gay person. I moved to New York City to go to college and to figure out who I was and who I could be.
Fast forward to 2014. I return to Akron with a script about two openly gay, happy, healthy college students who fall in love with the support of their family. Everyone who I asked for help – every single person – pitched in enthusiastically, offering up locations, cars, dorm rooms, homes. We assembled a local crew of young professionals in the film-making field, most of whom were straight. To a person they were thrilled to be working on this project, totally comfortable, and happy the story was being told. I can’t tell you how moved I was by this. The old differences that seemed to define us just don’t loom so large anymore. In this instance, all of that distance was replaced by love and support.
CM: Dare I ask what’s next for you?
BO: For now, we are having a blast on the festival circuit. We are working on getting a distribution deal for “AKRON.” And I’ve told people that working with my partners Sasha and Ellen (my sister) at our production company Towpath Productions felt like we became a band, making an album together. So let’s make another album! I’m working on a script that takes place in India. But I have many more Ohio stories to tell and I hope to be back to tell them.
CM: Any words of wisdom for your hometown?
BO: Sure. Create in Akron! Tell new stories. Tell them together. Akron seems to be in an exciting period of redefinition, so roll up your sleeves and be a part of that! And for sure come out to see AKRON at the main library in downtown Akron on April 8 at 7:00 p.m. I’ll be talking to the audience and we’re having an open party at The Mustard Seed in Highland Square after the screening. More info on the film is at akronthefilm.com and tickets to the screening are at clevelandfilm.org.
CM: You sure have created in Akron, my friend. It’s hard to believe the world has changed as much as it has in the space of our friendship. And that YOU are the guy chronicling that change to all the world!
BO: (laughs) Tell me about it. Someone had to do it. Why not me, I guess!
Cleveland: Tower City Cinemas. Wednesday, April 6, 1:50 – 4 pm.
Akron: Akron Summit County Public Library. Friday, April 8, 7 – 9 pm.
To watch the trailer and learn more about “AKRON,” visit the website.
Christine Amer Mayer is a recovering lawyer, present day all-around community nerd, and secret wannabe writer whose only real talent is her knack for collecting interesting friends. You know who you are.