Tom O’Brien: Welcome to the Director’s Club


Fairhaven begins with the premise of perpetual, inevitable dissatisfaction. The protagonist, Jon (Tom O’Brien), has just seen Tom Brady on 60 Minutes and when asked how it feels to have all of his dreams comes true—success, Super Bowl titles, a supermodel wife—Brady responded, “There’s got to be something more that this.” Jon is obsessed—even Tom Brady isn’t fulfilled—but his friends don’t want to hear it. 

More pensive than depressing, Fairhaven is set in an off-season, snow-covered, summer town and focuses on three estranged friends: the bewildered but affable Jon, the black sheep Dave (Chris Messina), and the sensible, stifled, divorced father, Sam (Rich Sommer). After a 10-year absence, Dave returns to Fairhaven for his father’s funeral and reunites with his high school buddies and former crush (Sarah Paulson). It’s a quiet, character-driven indie by a first-time writer and director (O’Brien co-wrote the script with Messina); the sort of movie that can be hard to sell, but that slowly gathers momentum through the strength of its cast.

Fairhaven‘s filmmaker is a difficult person to Google. First, you have to sift through Tom O’Brien, the popular college football coach, Thomas O’Brien the interior designer, Tom O’Brien the yoga instructor, and Tom O’Brien the actor who had a recurring role on Smallville. When you do find the correct IMDb page, it confusingly jumps from O’Brien’s role as “Gabe” in The Next Karate Kid (1994) to Fairhaven (2012)—as if he disappeared into a hermit’s cave for the 18 years in between. You’ll miss a lot of information with a cursory search—the many years O’Brien spent acting, directing, and writing plays in New York with Messina, his college hockey career as a goalie for Elmira—and O’Brien likes it that way.

We recently sat down with O’Brien, who just finished filming his next movie, Manhattan Romance, to talk about Woody Allen, Jonathan Marc Sherman, hockey, playwriting, and learning how to be a director.

EMMA BROWN: I heard that your cinematographer for Fairhaven, Peter Simonite, also worked with Terrence Malick.

TOM O’BRIEN: Yes, on two different films. He was his second unit cinematographer—if you’ve seen the poster for the Tree of Life with the baby’s foot, that’s his shot.

BROWN: Did you know a lot about cinematography when you started filmming Fairhaven? It’s not something you generally think about in theater.

O’BRIEN: No, nothing. I was totally an actor; I just sort of started directing by default. Chris Messina and I had developed this project for so long and we had originally thought, “We’ll just get an experienced director and just work with him.” We had a couple people who were going to do it and they dropped out and then [Chris] was the one who said to me, “No one knows the story like you. You wrote it, you should just direct it and I’ll just help you.” I went into it knowing, “Okay, I know actors, I am just going to focus on getting great performances and hire a really good cinematographer and let them do their thing.” Technically, I didn’t know anything.

Chris Messina was vital to it because he was basically my co-director on the set; when I was acting and he wasn’t, he would put the headphones on and jump behind the monitor and give me notes. We’ve just worked together for so long in the theater and stuff that it just came naturally. I think it was funny for the crew at first because Chris came in a week after we started shooting and all of a sudden he was jumping behind the monitor. But then they got used to it and they started talking to him like he was the director too.

BROWN: Did you ever have disagreements about the way a scene should go?

O’BRIEN: I think we really complement each other really well because I start from dialogue perspective, I’m really into dialogue, and he is very visual.

BROWN: You never had to pull the, “I’m the director!”

O’BRIEN: “—I insist!” No I think I was so like a deer-in-the-headlights for the first couple weeks that I was just glad for his ideas—”Yeah, that’s great idea. Please help me,” so I think it really helped to have him there.

BROWN: Did directing feel more comfortable with Manhattan Romance?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, I was amazed at how much I learned. I feel like a director on set, and I didn’t really feel like a director until the post-production of Fairhaven because I didn’t realize how much of directing was post-production. We shoot these movies in 18 days, and we have been working on this movie for two years in post-production. That is when I realized editing is so powerful. You can change performances, and you can change pacing. Going into this next one, I would just hear myself saying technical things—a whole new vocabulary.

BROWN: You’ve talked about how you like to “blur the line between documentary and feature.” Do you get tired of people asking you if Fairhaven is autobiographical?

O’BRIEN: [laughs] No, I think that is sort of a natural question that you would ask any writer. I always loved that line: “Truth is best served through fiction.” Sometimes if you create characters and create a situation, then you feel more comfortable being autobiographical within that sort of made-up situation, so that is what I did for this. I don’t just have two friends just like those guys and I didn’t grow up in Fairhaven, I grew up just outside Boston in Medford. I created this world based on this feeling I got from this town, and put myself in the shoes of the characters and then I was free to be more autobiographical.

BROWN: Fairhaven is your first film, but I know you’ve written plays. Did you write a lot as a child?

O’BRIEN: I used to draw a lot as a kid; I was very into art. I started writing more in college, and then filmmaking seems like it’s putting the two things together, finally.

BROWN: How did you get into playwriting?

O’BRIEN: I got into playwriting after the hockey career ended at Elmira [College in upstate New York], I started doing plays there. My dad’s an actor and he has been an actor my whole life, so I’ve sort of been in the world of it—he played the boat captain in Fairhaven. I started writing plays when I first came to New York as an actor and I got involved in this theater company that Chris was in. Rosemarie DeWitt was [also] involved in that company. We would just do stuff: “Let’s do an evening of one-act plays,” and so we would just all write them and then put them up and direct them and act together. We were all just constantly creating new work.

BROWN: Were you thinking about being a professional hockey player before that?

O’BRIEN: I wanted to play, some of the guys that I grew up with and played with ended up playing in the NHL. But no one went to the NHL out of Elmira. I would have loved to play in Europe and do that whole thing, but I ended up quitting the team my senior year and it was very dramatic—the big blow-out with the coach. That’s another movie to be written: the Elmira hockey script. [chuckles]

BROWN: Did you just want to have a life your senior year?

O’BRIEN: I sort of did. I had had a great sophomore season and had won the league MVP and this whole thing, and then my junior year they brought in this hotshot—I was a goalie, so there is only one goalie. The brought in this young guy and pitted us against each other and would pull one of us [out of a game] and put the other one in. They were playing these mind games. At that point I was just like, I don’t think I’m going to play professionally, I’m not going to put up with this bullshit, I’m just going to go have a good time.

BROWN: Was your dad a theater actor?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, he does both now. He does film and TV too, but when I was growing up I would go to the theater stuff and they have videotapes of me sleeping in the theater as a kid. I was sort of always around it, so I think it sort of just got into my blood.

BROWN: So it was always a viable career path for you?

O’BRIEN: No. [chuckles] I saw how much he struggled and he said, “Don’t do it! It’s this horrible life!” and that whole thing.

BROWN: When you’re writing and you get excited about a new idea, who is the first person you show it to?

O’BRIEN: Probably my parents. My dad is a great dramaturge—Chris is also really good—but my dad and I, we went through the whole Fairhaven script and he gives me great notes and he did the same thing in Manhattan Romance.

BROWN: When is Manhattan Romance coming out?

O’BRIEN: I don’t know. We are picture-locking it on—that’s my new vocabulary, I can say picture-locking [laughs]—but we are going to lock on the 28th of January and then we’ll start doing the sound and the color hoping to be ready to submit to Toronto.

BROWN: Are you continuing with theater or are you moving more to film?

O’BRIEN: I was just talking to an actress who was a theater actress and is now into film, and we were talking about old theater stories, and [it] made me miss it. There is something so thrilling about not being able to call “cut,” you are on this ride—we gotta get through this. Even if someone drops a line, you have to keep moving and it’s always alive and morphing. I sort of love when you forget your lines, that’s when it gets really exciting on stage. Boom! Something happens and all of a sudden you are alive again. I’ve had times where it was really scary, you’re like, “I don’t know if we’re going to get out of this,” but then you always do somehow. But the longer you are away from it, the scarier it gets to go back. I better do a play soon…

BROWN: When’s the last time you were on stage?

O’BRIEN: I think three years ago, before we started Fairhaven.

BROWN: Do you have a favorite playwright?

O’BRIEN: I love Tennessee Williams. There is a playwright that really inspired me—I always get really inspired by the people that are closer to being my peer, maybe just a little bit ahead of me, people like Ed BurnsJonathan Marc Sherman is his name.

BROWN: I’m interviewing him!

O’BRIEN: No way! You, you have to tell him this, because I tell him this every time I see him and he is probably so sick of hearing it. I saw one of his plays when I first came to New York and it is what inspired me to start writing, it was called Veins and Thumbtacks, you should read that play before you interview him, it is really hilarious. It’s about a stand-up comedian, and I remember being so inspired because it was this theater company that he had with Ethan Hawke, and those guys were just doing it. That’s what ended up inspiring Chris and me to start our company. I’ll be drunk at a bar or something and bump into [Jonathan Marc Sherman] and I’ll be like, “You inspired me!” And he’ll be like, “I know, you’ve told me this a million times.”

BROWN: He did the 24-hour plays on Broadway in December and he wrote the funniest one with Sam Rockwell in it, where all of the other characters were doing their best impression of Sam Rockwell—Billy Crudup, Justin Long.

O’BRIEN: Justin Long does a good one. I’ve seen Justin Long’s. That’s so funny, I know a guy who does a great Sam Rockwell, one of his friends, this guy Mike, and he does dead-on Rockwell.

BROWN: I didn’t know that was a thing—who can do the best Sam Rockwell.

O’BRIEN: I think it’s just his friends though. Justin’s friends with Sam, so they just hang out all the time.

BROWN: Your IMDB page goes from the Next Karate Kid to Fairhaven

O’BRIEN: Oh God, I wish I could take that off. It makes me sounds ancient. I did that when I was in high school. This movie came to Boston and my dad was auditioning for it—I had never even been on an audition before and he was like, [drops voice] “I’ll drop your picture in for it—they are looking for high-school kids.” I ended up getting cast in the first audition I ever went on. I got the job and I was like, “Oh, acting is easy! I’m one for one,” and he was like, “It’s not that easy.” So yeah, I was one of the bad guys in this high school that Hilary Swank was at and we would be mean to her, and chase her around. It was my first time on a set, so that was kind of cool.

BROWN: Did you become famous in your high school as “that kid that was in The Next Karate Kid”?

O’BRIEN: Yeah. Mainly people were just jealous, “How did you get that part?”

BROWN: That’s funny. You didn’t try to be in other movies after that?

O’BRIEN: I think I did. That was right before graduation and I was like, “I’ll just be an actor, I don’t have to go to college or anything.” They had to fly us out to LA to re-shoot the end of The Karate Kid, and they put me up in a four-star hotel and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just stay here and do the pilot season.” I think I wrote to all these agents: “I’m in a film blah-blah-blah,” and no one responded. And it was like, Did it get lost in the mail or something? How come no one responded? I was a kid, I was clueless. So I stayed out there for a couple months and then I was like, “This is crazy, I’ve got to go to school and have a real life.”

BROWN: Did your dad laugh at you?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, totally. I was so naïve and so cocky about it, “No that’s the way you do it, I’m just going to have my own show.” You never know ‘til you go through it.

BROWN: If you could interview anyone, whom would you want to interview?

O’BRIEN: Oh, I should have planned this answer. Interview anyone, alive or dead?

BROWN: Preferably alive.

O’BRIEN: Okay. That makes it easier. I would love Woody Allen, because he’s sort of my filmmaking hero, but I bet he’d be a terrible interview. [laughs]

BROWN: I talked to him for five minutes, and it was sort of disappointing.

O’BRIEN: You did? It’s so funny, ’cause Chris did Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and he said his whole interview Woody Allen had his head [on the table] and didn’t even look at him. And he was like, “Okay. Guess I didn’t get that…” and then he got the part, they were like, “No, he likes to just hear your voice” or something. So, no. That probably wouldn’t be a fun interview.