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“One of the goals in making this film was to open up opportunities” – Bill Oliver Talks Our Son

7 min read

Director Bill Oliver's second feature film, Our Son, chronicles the complicated divorce of a same-sex couple and their fight over custody of their young son.

Starring Billy Porter and Luke Evans, the film had a premiere screening at the Festival ahead of its UK digital release on March 25 (and you can read our thoughts on the film here.)

FILMHOUNDS sat down with Oliver to discuss telling universal stories from perspectives, as well as writing and directing processes for Our Son.

 

Your short films are very queer-centric or feature queer characters. Does this, being your second feature, feel like a culmination of your work?

Yes, it does. It feels nice to return to that, because my writing partner and I are both gay and our first film didn't have openly gay characters. It was a science fiction drama, it had maybe some similar themes, I think, but it's a very different film. And this time we just wanted to do something that was closer to home and reflected our community, because we had an opportunity, having made one film which did fairly well, to be able to potentially make a queer film that we hadn't seen before. While there are many more options now, I think there's still gaps in representation and there's more stories to be told. Particularly something like this, which is more of a slice of life of a contemporary family going through something that is universal. Every day someone's going through a divorce and [it's] a bit new for gay couples because we haven't had the right to marry for very long. So it was a combination of something new but also just something very relatable.

I'm a child of divorce myself so I know of the complications with conflict happening between the people involved. Was it difficult trying to have audiences empathise with both Nicky (Luke Evans) and Gabriel (Billy Porter) throughout the film?

That's something that people have commented on after watching the film. You're aligned with one character and then maybe it shifts, and different people have different [opinions]. It's interesting to talk to people who sympathise with one character over the other and it depends on where they come from, how they were raised, and the relationships they've been in. And it was deliberate. We didn't want to make anyone the villain, they're all just trying to do what they feel is best or what they need for themselves in the moment. Sometimes that's ugly and sometimes that's beautiful. We just wanted them to both be as fully human as possible.

The thing that really surprised me was the direction the film takes. We actually follow Nicky for most of the runtime and the film is very much about his arc, in my eyes. Was that always intentional when it came to the story and the script?

We felt like Billy's character is more of the catalyst who is many steps ahead of Nicky's character in terms of where he is in the relationship. He's already moved on, in some sense, internally, but externally not, so the movie is about what happens when everything becomes external – which sort of blindsides Nicky's character and he has a lot of catching up to do. We always wanted a layer of it being a coming-of-age story for Nicky's character, but they all go through unexpected realisations, even Gabriel. We wanted to show a solo journey for Nicky, and explore what's really going on internally. The baton is passed to him at a certain point in the movie, and that was always the plan.

Luke Evans, Billy Porter and Christopher Woodley in Our Son
Universal Pictures

What was it like working with Luke and Billy on set, and what was their chemistry like?

Just because they're going through a divorce, there's love there and there always will be love. When you're casting two actors that need to be romantic partners, it's always a bit scary because you hope that the chemistry will be there, or that they can somehow generate it. But it was very naturally there, even though they had never met before working together. They knew of each other but there was a lot they didn't know about each other. I think they had ideas of each other based on the media, but they discovered unexpected things about each other right away when they met, which helps to generate the beautiful chemistry. It started on Zoom, I got them together once they were both cast, and I tried to get them together as much as possible, to get that chemistry going. They're so busy, rehearsal time is just impossible on an independent film like this, but Luke did come in early and spend some time with Billy, socially, just them without me there. I wanted them to spend time together, not necessarily rehearsing the scenes of the script, but just hanging out. And then we built it up as much as we could before we started shooting. In the course of shooting, you're together very intimately for a month and it's close quarters on location, and it's hot. So everyone's defenses are down, which makes it hard but also great in a way because it's a very intimate film. It's about vulnerability, so everyone was naturally vulnerable. That physical breakdown of shooting breaks everyone down in a good way.

Is there any comments from Luke, Billy, or any of the cast that clicked with you or made you think “Oh, that's an interesting note or thing to think about.”

For sure. You have ideas about how a scene is going to play out in your head as the director, but I try not to impose that at all. In fact, I take very good care of casting the best people possible and then try to figure out a way to stay out of their way and support them. It's about creating an environment where they feel comfortable to experiment and to be themselves. We developed a style of shooting that was almost like shooting a documentary. The cinematographer had a camera on his body, and it was really just him, sound, and me in the room. It's just working with really good actors, including the child (newcomer Christopher Woodley). I just wanted a very natural boy, so it was helping him with his lines if he forgot them, things like that, or getting him loosened up if he's got a little stiff with his line delivery, which sometimes happens with child actors.

He is so good, this is his debut as well?

He's done a few shorts but yes, this is his feature film debut. He's wonderful. The performance from a child can go either way, and I knew that, despite having Billy and Luke, if that choice was off, then everything would go off. So we took a lot of care with the casting director and saw many, many, many kids. Working out of New York, there's a lot of talent even at that age, but he was perfect because he had some training but not too much. He was just very natural as an eight year old, and that's what you want from an eight year old, that innocence. I wanted him to feel like a real kid.

As a bisexual man myself, I'm a big fan of seeing universally relatable films that come from a queer perspective. In 2024 it still feels like such a rare thing to see something like this. What needs to happen so we have more of these projects?

It's still very hard. One of the goals in making this film was to open up opportunities for either me to do more stories like this, or other people. I don't want to corner the market on this kind of film, but I want more like this. We're really seeing the decline of this kind of film all across the board, this adult drama, a film we would see a lot in the 70s. 70s American films have been [a] major influence for this film, because there was more progress in that time period, in terms of stories that explored the nooks and crannies of human life. Now it's either something really huge or Marvel. There's no space for this kind of film, whether it's gay or not. It's a double battle because it's a weird story that's seen as niche and no one's gonna come see it. And then of course, you have the cast. I think things are loosening up a little bit about straight actors playing gay roles, but for this film it was very important to have out gay actors in those roles, because I wanted it to feel very real, very lived in. It does show something about the progress that we've made, that they were able to help get the movie off the ground. They are big stars, and they're out, but there's still more progress to be made there. If we have more actors who feel comfortable coming out and move up to a level of stardom, then that will also help get these kinds of stories told. It's difficult, but partially it's the climate of movies, any kind of story about any marginalised character is always going to be difficult to get off the ground, unless it has some sort of crazy hook. I just wanted this to be about ordinary people and that's hard. I'm very lucky it even got made.

Our Son is available now on digital platforms