Sean Donnelly

Sean Donnelly e Kelly McCormick

Interview with Sean Donnelly, director of
I Think We’re Alone Now

by Roberto Rippa

Sean Donnelly grew up in Santa Cruz, California. but has lived in Brooklyn since graduating from NYU’s Film and Television program.
Since then, Sean has directed many music videos and commercials for clients such as Scion, VH1, MSN, AOL, Tally Hall, Galactic, Angela McClusky, Ben Jelen, We The Kings and many more. His video for The Spinto band earned him and co-director Jon Watts a nomination for best International video at the 2008 MVPA Awards. Creativity magazine recently named him one of their director’s to watch.

Roberto Rippa: How did you come across Jeff and Kelly in the first place? I read that Jeff is the first person you met, living in Santa Cruz, your hometown…

Sean Donnelly: Yeah I met Jeff just on the streets of downtown Santa Cruz. We found him to be a really good character and interesting guy before we even learned about the whole Tiffany thing. When I realized that he had a history with her and that she had a restraining order against him in the 80’s I decided to make a documentary on him. We all hear about obsessed fans and stalkers, but this seemed like a great opportunity to show his side of the story and try and understand it a little bit better. We didn’t meet Kelly until we had shot a lot of the film. Another Tiffany fan that we met along the way, who appears briefly in the film, directed us to her as an example of somebody else who loved Tiffany on the same level as Jeff. I wasn’t sure if she would have a place in the film, but I started to notice all these strange things that the two of them had in common and I realized that by intercutting their two stories we could talk about a larger story of obsession and not just one guy.

RR: What was their reaction when you decided to film them for a documentary? Jeff appears to be a very open person, Kelly a little more difficult…

SD: I think one of the hardest aspects of making any documentary is the access that your subject will allow you. We were very fortunate that both Jeff and Kelly were great sports and opened up to us more and more every time we met up with them. Jeff was immediately into it, because we already knew him. Kelly was into the idea of it from the first phone call, but opened up a lot more when we got to know her better. Kelly definitely has a sadness in her, but she also has a very light and jovial side too. She used to end all of our phone calls with a joke.

RR: The film is self-produced: what happened from the beginning of filming to its release on DVD? It must have been a long journey.

SD: It was a long journey, but I approached this movie differently than I think people usually do. I started filming very casually whenever I was in California and just started building up footage. I was still in film school at NYU so most of the time I was working on my short films. Then when I got out of school I started making more music videos and some commercials, but continued to shoot more footage and edit pieces when I could. My friend Phil got involved which was really helpful and things started moving much faster then, but we both had a lot of our own projects and just worked on this whenever we could. It ended up taking like 6 years, but in that time I made a lot of other stuff, and just worked on this whenever I could so it didn’t feel like that long. It was an interesting way to make a film, and I think had its benefits as well as it’s challenges. Benefits are that it didn’t feel too overwhelming, and the costs were small and spread out over time. Also the story went on longer, so each time we met up with them there were new developments. The hard parts were that we would forget what footage we had and things weren’t always that organized in the beginning.

RR: I’m also curious about Tiffany’s (who is in “I Think We’re Alone Now”, filmed during public appearances) reaction to your film.

SD: I hear that she has not seen it. But I sent her agent a copy and he said he liked it and thought it was well done.

RR: On YouTube there a few videos witnessing Jeff’s life after the film. Do you plan to keep on following him in the future?

SD: Sure, if I’m around and there is something new to shoot why not? I called him a few weeks ago when I was around there and he said it was too short of notice and that he was too busy. Next time maybe. He is going to be in a new TV show on Adult Swim in America called Hot Package, and he was recently in a music video for the Teddy Bears for a song featuring Cee-lo and the B-52’s.

RR: I read a couple reviews accusing you of exploiting, of taking advantage of Jeff and Kelly because of their «weakness». I couldn’t agree less: I found your film very respectful, simpathetic and sincere. Then again that’s what happened to the Maysles when they filmed “Grey Gardens” (which I mentioned in my review) and it wasn’t true either, according to me.
Was it difficult to go through the editing process balancing very funny moments and intimate and sometimes sad ones?

SD: It was really important to us to portray Jeff and Kelly in an accurate light. I wanted the film to give the viewer the experience of hanging out with them and getting to know them, so you could walk away with your own assessments and thoughts. We had some stuff that was really intense that we left out because it didn’t seem fair, and it didn’t seem accurate to how they were overall. But definitely we were very cautious with every edit to think if Jeff and Kelly would feel it accurately respresented them, and showed them in a fair light. Most documentaries and stories are about winners, or people overcoming the odds to do something amazing. Anytime you point a camera and tell the story of somebody with some mental problems who are doing some questionable things, people immediately say you are exploiting them. But I think that is unfair, and just closing yourself off from lots of stories. I think Jeff and Kelly are fascinating and have a lot to their stories to discuss and learn from. It’s much more difficult to tell their story since there is no heroic ending, but I still think they are important stories and ones that people should be open to.

 RR: For how long did you film Jeff and Kelly? And I’m also curious to know about the crew composition.

SD: We filmed them off and on for like 5 years, and it was mostly me and Jordy in the beginning (the producer) and later Phil and his friend Charley came to Las Vegas so we had 4 of us there. Charley did sound, and Phil shot a lot of it. But a lot of times it was just me and a camera using the onboard sound, so it was always different.

RR: At the very end of “I Think We’re Alone Now“ trailer, Jeff says that the film is going to make things better for everybody. What were his and Kelly’s reactions to it when it began to be shown around in public?

SD: Jeff really likes the film, but is mad that it’s so short. He says “if I ever see a movie under 2 hours, I feel cheated.” And he talks at great length about everything, which was another thing that made editing very difficult. But he feels like we cut too much, especially about the secret society stuff.
And Kelly loved it and called me all the time to tell me how thankful she was to be a part of it. Then later she got really upset and said the movie was ruining her image and made her look like a stalker. I asked her what part in there she wasn’t happy with, and she couldn’t single out anything even though she had seen it over 30 times. I realized she read a few reviews where people wrote mean things about her, and that really upset her. I told her that some people walk out of the film and are very touched by her story, and other people think she’s a freak, which is true, and she can’t control that. Just like people who meet her in real life. Then later she called me again to say how proud she was to be a part of the film and that she wants to work on another movie with me in the future.

RR: The film wass self-produced with Jordy Cohen and your DoP Phil Buccellato. How did the production start?

SD: We just started filming Jeff at his house, having him talk about his life and showing us his things. I had so many questions I wanted to ask him, and the more I learned, the more new questions I had. And then I wanted to meet his parents, and his friends, and eventually I had tons of hours of footage lying around and realized I should try and turn it into a proper documentary.

RR: What kind of distribution did the film have, besides festivals I mean?

SD: We have a distributor in the UK called Kaleidoscope and MVD in America and other territories. The film has played on TV in a few countries, and can be watched instantly on Netflix so a fair amount of people have seen it at this point. Also the DVD’s are available in some stores and in most online stores.

RR: Is it difficult for an independent film like yours to find a distribution in the US?

SD: Yeah it took a while to get it, and when we did it wasn’t for much money. I debated releasing the film online for donations, but didn’t end up doing it. I think that for small films that could actually work much better, and in the future I might do that.

RR: About you: what happened between NYU, where you graduated in films and television, and “I Think We’re Alone Now”? And what happened after the film?

SD: I started the film while I was at NYU and finished it shortly after I graduated. But at the same time I was making music videos and commercials and started a small animation company called Awesome and Modest. We did the animation for a new U2 Doc, “Waiting for Superman”, “Resolved” and bunch of other stuff. Then my friend and I made an episode of an animated show, and pitched it to FOX. We got a little bit of money to make 3 more shorts. Now I live in LA and am working on a few different shows, one with FOX and one with Comedy Central and we have some new ideas we are trying to sell. I’d love to make another doc, as I learned a lot in the process, but it’s really hard to find a compelling subject and get the access needed.

January 12, 2012

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