"Wonderland" or Bust: A Conversation with Director John O'Hagan
by Aaron Krach
John O’Hagan, the director of “Wonderland“, lives in Manhattan’s Lower East
Side. No, not the East Village. The Lower East Side is below trendy, but
above Wall St. It’s a severely urban neighborhood that is home to thousands
of Puerto Rican families, a Matzo factory and a pioneering community of
creative personalities. Needless to say, it’s a long way from Levittown and
a great place for indieWIRE to sit down and talk with O’Hagan about
Sundance and suburbia without fear of retribution.
“Wonderland” is and is not a film about Levittown. Yes, it was shot in
Levittown. There’s a small historical prologue and the cast are all
Levittown residents, but above all, “Wonderland” is about people: a bowling
enthusiast with a plate collection; a lonely woman convinced her house is
haunted; a couple who pass their time watching their neighbor walk his
dogs; a Karaoke singer; a couple who collect anything wooden; Miss New York
1996 and many more.
“Wonderland” opens Friday at The Screening Room in New York City. A wider
release will follow.
indieWIRE: Did you always want to make a documentary like “Wonderland”?
John O’Hagan: In fact I never wanted to make a documentary. Not a lot of
documentaries come out of NYU.
iW: How did you like going to NYU?
O’Hagan: I liked it. I went to USC for one semester but then I got into
NYU, so I switched. It was interesting to get both perspectives. I liked
USC, but I wanted to make a thesis film and everyone at USC doesn’t get to
make a thesis film. They only select five projects. You can make one if you
wait until everyone else is finished. NYU is how I got this film made. It
was a great learning experience.
iW: So how did “Wonderland” happen?
O’Hagan: I was going to make a fictional film. I had a script, but I didn’t
know a lot about Levittown, so I went out there to meet people. I went to
the bowling alley and told the owner that I wanted to meet some original
owners of Levittown houses. She made an announcement over the loudspeaker
and fifty people lined up. The first guy in line was the bowling guy with
the bird and plate collection. After hanging out with him and meeting
people I realized there was something really fascinating about them as
characters. So I just decided to make a documentary.
iW: Is that when you decided the film was going to be about the residents
of Levittown and not about the place itself?
O’Hagan: There was no way I was going to make a historical film about
Levittown. I didn’t know how and it did not interest me. I am inspired by
fictional film and that is my training. The documentaries I like are not
didactic but personal and quirky, about people in their environment. The
film evolved. I had no idea how to cut this film. I tried everything. It
turned into a kaleidoscopic vision of Levittown, instead of microscopic. A
film I saw while making this one was “Vernon, Florida” by Errol Morris. Which
is about a town, about some eccentric character in the town. But you learn
nothing about the town. You learn about their humanity. It’s funny, but
very warm towards the people.
iW: How complete was “Wonderland” when you finished school?
O’Hagan: I was kind of finished with it. No one was sure if I was a student
or not, so I just stayed around and used the equipment. You can get a
student ID for two years afterwards. It was a real luxury to edit for such
a long time. I could edit for a week at time, here and there. I just moved
around anywhere I could get on an avid, either at NYU or I had a friend up
at MSNBC. I could go in there at night.
iW: After NYU, you went to the infamous IFFM. How was your IFFM experience?
O’Hagan: It was great. It was that screening when I knew something good was
going to happen with the film. It was a packed screening. The reaction was
just incredible. It was the first time I had shown it publicly and it got a
lot of people interested. It was from that screening that someone got the
tape to Good Machine. The IFFM really got the ball rolling.
iW: Then you went to Sundance?
O’Hagan: It did extremely well. It’s a film that plays well for a large
audience. It’s entertaining. There were three screenings and a lot came of
that. It eventually got picked up in April.
iW: It’s obvious that the people you interviewed were very comfortable with
you. How many people were with you on the shoot?
O’Hagan: It was always me and two other people; someone with sound and
another camera assistant. I knew it was going to be a lot of static shots
and I think what is unappealing about so many documentaries is that they
cut people up, medium close-up. They blur the background and isolate
someone in blackness. It’s just about what there saying. I wanted
“Wonderland” to be about the environment. What these people have done in
iW: How did you keep the shoot to only 12 days?
O’Hagan: I knew I wanted to shoot on film. So I had to do a lot of
interviewing off camera before I shot for 12 days. So I interviewed about
70 people on a small tape recorder. Then I narrowed it down to the ones I
thought were most comfortable and had the most interesting things to say.
By the time I got out the camera, it went pretty quickly.
iW: Will “Wonderland” show in Levittown?
O’Hagan: We’re going to have a private screening for everyone in the film.
That should be a lot of fun.