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Sonja O'Hara talks filmmaking, breaking stereotypes and not waiting for permission

Sonja O'Hara talks filmmaking, breaking stereotypes and not waiting for permission

Writer, director and actress Sonja O’Hara is a filmmaker already labeled as Independent Magazine's "Top 10 Filmmakers to Watch Out For." Born in Nova Scotia, Canada and pursuing an acting career by age 17, she has created work that is bold, original, provocative and meant to change the way Hollywood and audiences see films. “I didn't know if people would even get my work," Sonja told FF2 Media. "Everything really changed for me when I made my independent TV pilot, Doomsday. When it won awards on the festival circuit, I suddenly started getting meetings with TV networks and major agencies. I’m excited to have just signed with William Morris Endeavor this week."

Starting a new phase in her career, Sonja skirted the pay-your-dues system of rising through the ranks of a traditional Hollywood career. "I think people are still puzzled that I don't have a traditional film school background. I learned on sets by being directed as an actress and by watching incredible independent films. I do things in an untraditional way. I know the sky's the limit and it is time to break all the Hollywood rules that exist.”

As a filmmaker, Sonja's work has been nominated for the Streamy Awards, the Indie Series Awards and the prestigious New York Television Festival where she was awarded the coveted Best Director prize for creating and co-directing Doomsday. She also wrote, produced and starred in the feature film, Ovum, and has a brand new series, Astral, which was just greenlit for six episodes by Adaptive Studios. “My goal is to be a showrunner and have an HBO show, where I write direct and act on various episodes. I definitely gravitate toward dark and provocative stuff in the drama/sci-fi/genre realm; smart projects that have social commentary and use visual darkness,” she said.

Even though Sonja began her career as an actress, she fell in love with directing and writing, now saying she doesn’t want to ever have to choose just one field. “When I make a film, I am part of the whole process and that satisfies so many creative parts of my brain.”

Tired of being cast in stereotypical Hollywood roles and wanting to play roles that had strong female protagonists, Sonja wanted to see more complicated depictions of women on screen. “My first movie, Ovum, was about feminism and reproductive rights and Doomsday has a political slant and explores exterminism within a matriarchal cult,” she said. “I think audiences are thirsty for authenticity. As a writer I have to let myself be raw and vulnerable. I am interested in exploring female friendships and LGBT relationships.”

Inspiration, for her, comes from events not only in her own life but also by the people around her with the stories she hears or reads. “Truth is always stranger than fiction,” she said. “I think my job as a storyteller is to tell the kind of stories that will shed light on important topics and increase empathy. Those are the stories that I am interested in telling.”

Making movies is never as easy or as fun as people perceive it to be - part of the business Sonja still struggles with. “In the beginning, I was self-producing my own work and putting in my own funds. Now that I’m getting outside funding, I can tell you that there are real pros and cons to working within the system. When you take that money you also forfeit complete creative control like who should work on your show and who you can cast. Now, I spend my time fighting for the people I believe in and I’ve had to get an amazing entertainment attorney. This has been a crazy year and I’m suddenly part of the club that I’ve been trying to enter for years. It didn’t all happen overnight. People don't see the work you put in before and they see it as an overnight success. It's still a battle.”

Being a female filmmaker in this current climate has both its benefits and hardships with pitch meetings consisting of mostly male executives. “A lot of men are afraid to be alone in the room with me, in a post 'Me Too' world. I’ve learned to be direct and to ask for the things that I want, the projects I want to make and to not beat around the bush. The more confident I am, the more I hear yes. I still get push-back. Sometimes I’m told that I’m getting these incredible opportunities only because I’m a girl. But if my work didn’t stand on its own, my shows wouldn’t be moving forward. More women need to know we have the power and our stories need to be told.”

One way that Sonja stays on track is by breaking things into doable daily tasks, making outlines, and imposing external deadlines on herself. “If I tell the world (via social media) that I will do it, then I owe it to myself and to the people who worked on the movie to actually finish it on time,” she said. “The lock screen on my phone is my career To-Do list. It may sound cheesy, but I have a vision board at the end of my bed, a resolution list on my fridge. I physically surround myself with my goals. I see what I have to do and I don’t get distracted.”

Her advice for filmmakers? "Don’t wait for permission. If you wait to make your project until you have the ideal circumstances, well, you will wait forever and it will probably never happen. Try to take risks. Go and shoot that movie yourself and finish it. Do it on a micro-budget if you have to. Talk less and do more.”

You can find Doomsday on Amazon. Ovum is On Demand, Amazon, and on TriBeca Shortlist.

For more on Sonja O’Hara, visit: https://www.sonjaohara.com.

© Nikoleta Morales (6/22/18) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Sonja O'Hara (​Photo credit: Emily Lambert).

Photos: ​Sonja O'Hara in a still from her series DOOMSDAY (Amazon Prime.) Photo credit: Dan McBride