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“Once a Hero” is a movie about veterans, made by veterans. The contemporary drama stars and was written by a Navy SEAL, Brett Jones, and producers Kasey Brown and Robert Wolfe are also veterans. Other veterans were also involved.
The film was directed by Tim Reischauer, who has worked on films like “13 Going On 30,” a 2004 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo, and the iconic TV series “Desperate Housewives.” After moving from Los Angeles to Huntsville a few years ago, Reischauer connected with Jones and “Once a Hero” writer Isaiah Mitchell and composer Jeremy Price.
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It took about eight months to write the “Once a Hero” screenplay. The film was shot in Huntsville over 15 days in mid-2018 with a cast of around 30 and a crew of around 15, almost all based in northern Alabama. The film is now streaming on Amazon Premier. Recently, I interviewed some of the people behind “Once a Hero” via email. Below are edited excerpts.
Where does the plot of “Once a Hero” come from? “An American war veteran struggles with PTSD, drug addiction, and ultimately homelessness when he discovers an impending tragedy.” And what made you all want to write and tell this story?
Brett Jones (writer, actor): Isaiah (Mitchell, “Once a Hero” writer) and I worked on a documentary called “Homeless in Huntsville.” This experience was a motivation to try to tell a story to a wider audience. The idea was to highlight issues that we felt needed attention. All of these issues are complex on their own, but a good story has a way of cutting through the complexities and making them personal to the viewer.
What do you think film/television often understands about the plight of contemporary veterans? What are they usually wrong?
Kasey Brown (producer): Movies and television have for a number of years fallen into a formula when it comes to telling the story of post-service veterans. We’re usually introduced to an ordinary guy who’s going through a horrible event, and he brings that home back where his family and friends all gather around him. Everything is going better. Play the power-ballad. Fade to black.
The truth is things get messy and in real life families are affected and there is usually collateral damage. Film as a medium of storytelling has changed since the 1980s. The days of veterans returning from an unpopular war with very little support have given way to remarkable tales of honor and sacrifice.
The modern age of storytelling does a better job of showing the viewer many different aspects of post-military life. These may include issues of adjustment, self-esteem, health and well-being. Some veterans suffer from combat-related injuries, including mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and traumatic brain injury. In general, these problems are only just beginning to appear in the movies and to be portrayed with sincerity.
What are some of your biggest inspirations as filmmakers?
Tim Reischauer (director, producer): This is a very difficult question because my tastes and my experiences are everywhere. I love all cinema, but if I had to choose: Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, PT Anderson and Rob Reiner.
What were the biggest challenges in creating “Once a Hero”? How did you overcome these challenges?
Jones: The biggest challenge was money. It takes a lot of money to make a film, even a low-budget independent film. It takes a ton of people and their talent to make it all come together. Most low-budget films cost between one and five million. We were able to do ours for a small fraction of that because we had incredible support from the Huntsville community. People believed in this project and wanted this story to be told.
What are some of the places you’ve filmed in the Huntsville area?
Jones: We had so many good places. The Von Braun Center, Church Street Wine Shop, Purveyor Restaurant… Far too many to list. Locals will observe and recognize most locations.
In recent years, the leaders of the town of Huntsville have made the upliftment and growth of music here a high priority. Is the local film industry also experiencing some boost? If not, what do you think are some things that would help to develop cinema here too, like music is developing now?
Jeremy Price (composer/producer): There are really two ways to look at it. The first being, I think we need to find a mechanism to showcase all the local production talent from the cast, crew, and post-talents here. Offer incentives and show producers and scouts that Huntsville talent can support big-budget productions. The positive impact film productions can make to the local economy is why other cities are investing the time and resources they do to keep them there.
The second is to involve the community more and to enthuse it for the cinema. We already have great people doing local events like Alex Gibson and his team at CinePros doing the Rocket City Short Film Festival, or like the Southern Fried Film Festival. I think Huntsville has a great opportunity to host Birmingham sidewalk-scale events. I think there is already a surge within the local community of people who enjoy doing this type of work.
What is the process like to get a movie on Amazon Prime? How critical is it for independent filmmakers to be picked up by a major streaming medium?
Robert Wolfe (producer): Most independent and low-budget films like “Once a Hero” make money per viewing, so finding traction on one or more of the big streaming services with an audience of millions is very important. Along with working capital, distribution is one of the toughest challenges filmmakers face. Streaming devices have dramatically changed the way we consume entertainment. We have access to vast libraries of music, TV and movies almost at will. There are dozens of streaming services out there looking for content to host on their platforms, but there is also an incredible amount of content created to compete for the available space. To get noticed, you need to have a movie that would appeal to Amazon, Netflix, or Paramount subscribers in a sea of other movies that are also looking to get noticed. An engaging story, a quality crew to deliver production value, and solid acting talent to pull it off. A good relationship with the distributor is the final key. Once the product is complete, the distributor helps the filmmakers put together the trailer and marketing materials in a way that attracts interest from streaming platforms.
Streaming is the new arthouse theater, as many have noted. With the future of traditional brick-and-mortar cinemas in real jeopardy, due to economic and technological change, is it as much of a concern for independent filmmakers today, the future of theaters? Why or why not, do you think?
J. Spencer (executive producer): There is no equal to the impact of watching a movie on a cinema screen. The cost of operating them will continue to reduce availability. The convenience of watching what you want, when you want, from virtually anywhere through streaming is going to have a serious impact on how many theaters survive. For the emotional impact of the big screen, I hope they remain viable. But for independent cinema, theatrical release is quite rare. It’s expensive to create the marketing to bring the theater back. Unless your topic gets a lot of publicity that creates demand, independent films might only land in a few theaters, for a few screenings.
How do you hope “Once a Hero” impacts those who watch the film? What do you hope will go through their minds after the film is over?
Reischauer: This is an “every man or woman” story, in that we can see ourselves in these characters a lot. Their dreams, their struggles, their efforts to make sense of everyday challenges. In “Once a Hero,” we see a seemingly normal family and how things can change so quickly to send their lives in a totally different direction. I hope this inspires us all to recognize how fragile life is, how quickly things can change and that there is always hope. I also hope that we look at homeless people with more compassion, knowing that they are someone’s brother, sister, daughter, son, who have “lost touch.” Especially the homeless veterans, who every day number 50,000 in the United States. My biggest hope is that people get involved in the discussions. Problems are solved this way.