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Once a Hero is a film about veterans, made by veterans. The contemporary drama stars as being 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 such as 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 formed connections 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 screenplay for “Once a Hero”. The film was shot over 15 days in Huntsville in mid-2018 with a cast of about 30 and a crew of about 15, almost all of whom are from North Alabama. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime. I recently interviewed some of the people behind Once a Hero via email. Below are edited excerpts.
Where did the plot of Once a Hero originally come from? “An American war veteran struggles with PTSD, addiction and eventually homelessness as he uncovers a looming tragedy.” And what drew you all to write and tell this story?
Brett Jones (Author, Actor): Isaiah (Mitchell, Once a Hero writer) and I were working on a documentary called Homeless in Huntsville. This experience was the motivation to try to tell a story to a larger audience. The idea was to highlight issues that we felt needed attention. All of these issues are complex in their own right, but a good story has a way of breaking down complexities and making them personal for the viewer.
What do you think film/TV often gets right when it comes to the plight of contemporary veterans? What are they usually doing wrong?
Kasey Brown (Producer): Movies and television have gotten into a formula over a number of years when it comes to telling the story of postal service veterans. We are usually introduced to a regular guy going through a horrific event and he brings this home where his family and friends all gather around him. Things are all 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 some collateral damage. Film as a narrative medium has changed since the 1980s. Gone are the telling of remarkable tales of honor and sacrifice when veterans came home from an unpopular war with very little support.
The modern era of storytelling does a better job of showing the viewer many different aspects of post-military life. These can include adjustment issues, self-esteem, health and well-being. Some veterans suffer combat-related injuries, including mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and traumatic brain injuries. In general, these themes are just now beginning to come to light and be truthfully portrayed in film.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations for filmmakers?
Tim Reischauer (director, producer): This is a very difficult question as my preferences and experiences are omnipresent. 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 producing Once a Hero? How did you overcome these challenges?
Jones: The biggest challenge was the money. It takes a lot of money to make a film, even a low-budget independent film. It takes a lot of people and their talent to pull it all together. Most low-budget films cost between one and five million. We were able to make ours for a small fraction of that because we had amazing support from the Huntsville community. People believed in this project and wanted this story to be told.
What locations around Huntsville have you filmed?
Jones: We had so many great locations. The Von Braun Center, Church Street Wine Shop, Purveyor Restaurant… Far too many to list. Locals will observe and recognize most places.
In recent years, City of Huntsville leaders have made promoting and promoting music here a top priority. Is the local film industry also experiencing a boost? If not, what are some things you think would help the film grow here as well as the music is growing now?
Jeremy Price (Composer/Producer): There are really two ways to look at it. The first is that I feel like we need to find a mechanism to bring out all the local production talent from the cast, crew and post talent here. Offer incentives and show producers and location scouts that Huntsville talent can support big-budget productions. The positive impact film productions can have on local economies is why other cities invest the time and resources to keep them there.
The second is to get the community more involved and excited about filmmaking. We already have great people running custom events like Alex Gibson and his team over at CinePros running the Rocket City Short Film Festival or like the Southern Fried Film Festival. I think Huntsville has a great opportunity to host events on the scale of Birmingham’s Sidewalk. I think there is already an impetus within the local community of people who love this type of work.
How does it work to get a movie on Amazon Prime? How important is it for independent filmmakers to get picked up by a major streaming provider?
Robert Wolfe (Producer): Most indie and small budget movies like Once a Hero make money per view, so gaining traction on one or more of the major streaming services with millions of viewers is very important. Next to working capital, distribution is one of the biggest challenges for filmmakers. Streaming devices have radically changed the way we consume entertainment. We have access to vast libraries of music, television, and movies almost at will. There are dozens of streaming services looking for content to host on their platforms, but an incredible amount of content is also created to compete for available space. To get noticed, you have to have a movie that appeals to Amazon, Netflix, or Paramount subscribers in a sea of other movies also keen to get noticed. A compelling story, a quality crew to deliver the production value and solid acting talent to pull it off. A good sales relationship 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 will capture the interest of the streaming platforms.
Streaming is the new art house theatre, as many people have noted. With the future of mainstream conventional cinema in real jeopardy due to economic and technological changes, is the future of cinema for independent filmmakers just as important now? Why or why not you think?
J. Spencer (Executive Producer): The effect of a film on a cinema screen is incomparable. The cost of running them will further reduce availability. The convenience of watching what you want, when you want by streaming from virtually anywhere will seriously impact how many cinemas survive. For the emotional impact of the big screen, I hope they remain viable. But for independent films, a theatrical release is pretty rare. It’s expensive to create the marketing to bring a return to the theater. Unless your subject can get a lot of publicity that creates demand, independent films may only end up in a few theaters for a few screenings.
How do you hope Once a Hero will affect those who see the film? What do you hope goes through your mind after the film ends?
Reischauer: This is an every man or woman story as we can see a lot of ourselves in these characters. Their dreams, struggles, their quest to understand the daily challenges. In Once a Hero we see a seemingly normal family and how things can change so quickly to take their lives in a completely different direction. I hope it moves us all to realize how fragile life is, how quickly things can change and that there is always hope. I would also hope that we look at the homeless more compassionately, knowing that they are someone’s brother, sister, daughter, son, etc. who have “gone out of touch. Especially the homeless veterans who count a heartbreaking 50,000 in one day across the US. My greatest hope is that people will engage in discussions. This is how problems are solved.