Mid-Century is a social commentary horror thriller, and starring Bruce Dern, Stephen Lang and Shane West, the film’s recent production wrap is a long way from the humble origins of its director. “I’m from Nova Scotia, Canada - a small fishing village called Sambro,” said Sonja O’Hara. Of course, the journey that led the Canadian here took her between New York and LA on multiple occasions, and the value of each layover has been easy for O’Hara to pinpoint.
“New York City taught me how to become an artist, and I went to Los Angeles to become a professional,” she revealed.
The learning curve came long before the big city, though. “I started acting when I was ten years old,” said the Los Angeles resident.
The times also provided a high-profile push into the future. “My mother taught French with Elliot Page’s mother, and I’d see Elliot at auditions,” O’Hara remembered. “That was incredibly inspiring.”
By 17, she left the catch of the day behind, and the first thing she learned at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts had nothing to do with the method or clever approaches to remembering lines. “I had this idea that I was going to be entering an atmosphere like the movie Fame, where everyone is cutthroat and vying for the same roles,” O’Hara recalled. “But I found that people are always eager to collaborate.”
The work ethic already contained within and those of the same team-working ilk all around, O’Hara found a home for her unyielding passion. “They called me Very Scary Sonja-Kari. I was so obsessed with the work,” she asserted.
In 2007, the curriculum eventually gave way to getting close up to some serious old school acting. “I move to LA at 20,” she said. “That was when I was Faye Dunaway’s Personal Assistant.”
The transplanted Californian had the same sort of misperceptions about LA being a free for all of mad ambition. But those were also proven untrue. Still, she did find differences in the filmmaking community. “There’s this grounded realism that this is a job, and it pays your bills,” O’Hara revealed. “People also want to have a life outside of the work. Where my peers in New York had a motto like mine - act or die.”
Either way, O’Hara learned there are no guarantees, and the best way to get a break is to make your own. Advice she took from someone who knew - her boss. “Faye said, ‘if you to have a career as an actor, you need to be able to produce your own projects and not wait for permission for other people to cast you,’” O’Hara conveyed.
So, in 2010, she left the sunshine and palm trees for the full court press of New York City filmmaking scene. A grind that began with her living arrangements. “I lived in the deep bowels of Brooklyn,” she said. “I had seven roommates at the bottom of this house. I remember paying $420 a month for the tiniest room available. That was how I survived in the early days.”
Still, the soul does need to be replenished with a little rest and recreation. No problem, she remembered, “Fun was making great art,” and the cornerstone was a collective of artists she met through the Ensemble Workshop at Labyrinth Theater Company.
Owned by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, O’Hara wrote, produced and acted in a series of projects with her peers. Of course, she had a number of survival jobs, and one brief endeavor actually provided a crossover into her creative life. “I donated my eggs and made a movie about it called Ovum,” she asserted.
Released by The Orchard and sold to Tribeca Shortlist, the feature represented her first paycheck in the field. However, the currency that mattered most had nothing to do with money. “The story of what happened in that period is what creates character,” she boasted.
Her creation of a show called Doomsday doesn’t foretell and the success concurs. “That was the first thing people really saw, and the series brought me to South by Southwest on a panel for Indy TV,” O’Hara said.
Afterward, the dam broke and cascading away was the NYC business model where everyone wants you to work for free. “LA came calling, and I started to get real opportunities,” she said of her 2017 arrival.
Astral, Anatomy of an Orchid and Vial were among her projects, and in getting immersed, she’s certainly seen both sides of the stereotype that says California is superficial. “There are those that are just looking for attention and a platform, and others who want to make great art,” O’Hara clarified. “You find your tribe.”
Her clan is obvious, and Doomsday proved to be the calling card that led to Mid-Century. “At Series Fest in Denver, a producer named Mike Stern saw my pilot, and said he’d love to work with me one day,” said O’Hara.
Three years later, he followed through and offered the director’s job to O’Hara. Not a movie about real estate either, one component studies the dark facade found behind the American dream, and an Orange County Mid-Century location shoot symbolizes the sentiment.
In tandem, the film is to the MeToo movement what Get Out is to racism, according to O’Hara. So in keeping, cheap scares aren’t the vehicle to get the message across. “Dark, brooding and uncomfortable, my goal was to make something sophisticated that also is eerie with a paranormal element,” she said.
Thus, the drama haunts with problematic men from yesteryear, and the toxic masculinity they reigned with. No such problem with the biggest name on the project, though. “He’s a joy on the set,” O’Hara said of Bruce Dern.
Still, a filmmaker who has successfully moved up in the ranks didn’t so easily leave behind the little girl from the fishing village. “I definitely found it initially daunting,” she revealed.
The old pro may have sensed the trepidation, and his remedy took it slow. “He called me into his dressing room, and we talked about old movies for an hour,” O’Hara said.
Then they got down to business, discussed their visions for the film, and on set, his professionalism helped ensure there would be no tolerance for rudeness or caustic behavior. The same goes for Steven Lang, who was ready to do scenes as many times as necessary. “It was really amazing. You have to work hard to keep up with him. He was super sharp,” said O’Hara.
Even so, the job of comic relief belonged to Dern. “He has a thing called Dernys, where he would do long improv takes after you get through a scene,” she said. “The whole crew would try not to die laughing.”
As a result, the director is certain the seriousness and sense of fun will come across in the theater. “I think people are going to get a deeper message from it but are also going to have a great time watching it,” she concluded.
Mid-Century is scheduled for release this year.