Hero Film Festival & Awards, which works to shine a spotlight on depictions of heroism in film, is currently in its first quarterly cycle. Selected films for this first edition of the festival will be announced in September.
Meanwhile, we would like to spotlight one of the submitted films and its filmmakers. Our own Nicholas Crawford (NC) interviewed writer-director John Swanson (JS) of “Ōnda.”
Almost a decade ago in a Midwest city, a desperate, unemployed man goes to a bridge high over a river to “fix” all of his problems. Once there, he meets someone who changes everything, almost. Against the backdrop of the struggles of The Great Recession, Ōnda tells a cautionary tale of hope while attempting to bring awareness to a silent epidemic that takes over six-hundred lives a month and has plagued our country for decades.
Swanson is a married father of two who has lived most of his life in Southwestern Ohio. He has worked at Ford for over twenty years, but his real passion is writing. John has been writing for nearly three decades and has written many songs, screenplays, short stories and even published a children’s book.
He recently wrote, directed, composed and co-produced the short film Ōnda in and around the city of Hamilton, Ohio.
NC: Having worn many hats during this production as most independent filmmakers do, what role do you feel that you gravitated toward the most?
JS: Directing during principal photography is exhilarating, a constant dance of problem solving and creating. And like any dance, no matter how much you practice it, there will always be a need for a little improvisation. While I certainly enjoyed the rush, I actually preferred the editing room. I would imagine that my background in factory work prepared me for the process. While it could often become monotonous, I quickly learned to love it. The sense of triumph and vision that you get as you build a castle one grain of sand at a time is deliciously intoxicating.
NC: This film deals with a very sensitive subject, what made you decide to tackle it on film?
JS: This story had been in my head since the nineties when I worked at the paper mill featured in the film. It was inspired by the loss of a friend and coworker to suicide.
When I finally started scripting it in June of 2017, I was planning a much smaller film. It was at that time that I read an article about the astounding veteran suicide rate in the United States. We lose over twenty veterans a day this way and as someone with many veteran friends and family members, I knew that I needed add this layer to my story. So, my tribute to the trials of the working class evolved into a call for awareness.
My five minute short film with two actors and one camera quickly grew to twenty-seven minutes in length with six actors and three cameras.
NC: You were able to gather an impressive crew for an independent short, how did you manage that?
JS: The main contributing factors were the script, an incredible group of friends and a supportive city.
My script was enough to get most of my primary cast and crew on board, most of whom I’d never met. My terrific circle of friends and family filled out the rest of the cast and crew needs. I expected to be laughed out of Hamilton’s City Hall when I, a first-time filmmaker, asked permission to shut down a major bridge for an entire day. However, I received the exact opposite reaction; they willingly provided me with everything I needed.
The moral here for first-time filmmakers: Never be afraid to ask.
NC: Independent projects are never easy to see through to completion. What was the biggest hurdle for you throughout production?
JS: Ambient sound wound up being a real issue during both our interior and exterior shoots. We dealt with 15-20 mph winds all day on that bridge, and as bad as we knew it was while shooting, it truly bared its teeth in post production. Aaron Harwood, Dave Cornett and Jesse Waits from our sound and editorial departments all put in a tremendous amount of work toward making the film’s sound as good as it is. If you could hear the raw file, you would be shocked.
The ambient sound from the kitchen scene was more subtle, but maybe even harder to correct. Dealing with the minor whir of a fridge motor and achieving a level mix from different mic positions in a small kitchen both proved difficult. We were working with experienced technicians and quality equipment but regardless, sound is a pain.
NC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
JS: There is an epidemic in our country that claims twenty people every day. Too few are talking about it, and not nearly enough is happening to stop it. The potential victims of this epidemic are everywhere. Seek these people out, for it is not in their fabric to generally ask for help; they are built to serve and silently endure that choice. Find one, thank them for their service and ask how you can serve them. It’s our turn.
Ōnda is fictional, but the events within it are very real. Eleven months to the day after we shot our story on that bridge, a homeless veteran was contemplating jumping. Thankfully, a female passerby stopped to help him.
NC: What makes you think Hero Film Festival & Awards would be a good fit for Ōnda?
JS: A man spends years willing to give his life for his country. While this benefits many that will never know his name, it costs him everything concerning those he holds dear. He has lost all hope, but in his final act, his one desire is to keep a total stranger from the same fatal path. It is natural to serve and sacrifice for those we are emotionally invested in. What greater hero is there than one who willingly spends a lifetime serving strangers?
National Suicide Prevention Hotline : 1-800-273-8255
Find Veteran Resources including recovery videos and local help at Make the Connection