Tom Of Your Life — The Interview

At the Movies Blog

Jer Sklar and Baize Buzan in Tom Of Your Life.

After months and months of movie theatres being closed, I got to seek solace in the air conditioning of one while watching the blockbuster “Tenet”. While it was enjoyable, my wife and I much preferred a small movie that came out the same weekend — “Tom Of Your Life”. You’ve probably never heard of it, but you should probably see it. It’s Tom Terrific (sorry, but I had to throw that line in as a tribute to Mets pitcher Tom Seaver).

I was surprised to see in the closing credits that the guy who played Tom (at one point in his life), is the same guy who wrote, directed, and even did the songs in the film with his band Blackstrap Mollasses. I’m guessing Jeremy Sklar also prepared the food for craft services. Or at least set out the tubs of cheeseballs for the cast to snack on.

I tracked down the guy who gave us this brilliant picture and asked if I could have a few minutes of his time to talk about his film and this is the conversation we had.

JOSH BOARD: Making movies seems like such a tough thing to do. How did you come to make this?

JER SKLAR: By bus. Actually it was to keep up with my siblings who are four and seven years older than me respectively. They would be making little horror movies on Super 8 with my Dad, using dry ice from the local ice cream parlor for mad scientist fog. We loved the classic Universal horror movies of the 30s and 40s. They’d be filming some scene and then I’d run in like a bat out of hell and spoil the shot –  literally dressed AS a bat out of hell, running in there like an even more annoying version of Scrappy Doo, who is pretty hard to outdo in the annoying department. I then graduated to directing by using my Adventure People toy sets to remake films like “Jaws” and “Alien.” I still think the concept behind my Adventure People meets Alien sequel that I came up with in 4th grade rocks almost as hard as Cameron’s. Sadly, I’m not kidding.

JOSH BOARD: I’ve had so many people ask me to read scripts they’ve written, and they’re almost always disappointing. I know you’ve done a few films before this, but…do you have others read it, to make sure you really have something? Oftentimes it’s hard to judge your own writing. 

JER SKLAR: In the beginning, you give it to ANYONE who’ll read it. After cranking out low-rent sci-fi and action scripts for the D-list world of film for a few years, and working in development for a bit, I definitely have confidence that I can crank out scripts that will work storywise, and be able to be produced budget-wise. But is it good? Yeah, for that I now have a select few people read what I call a polished first draft. Two heavy hitter writers, the producer and then a close friend who knows me since childhood and knows, sometimes better than me, what’s coming from an honest place, who could say something like ‘it’s so you,’ mean it and actually be pretty accurate. I let them read a polished first draft which to ME is really like the tenth draft, or a first draft I’ve polished 10 times. If I’m not sold and not in love with the first draft…it usually doesn’t go out, and goes in the proverbial “development” desk drawer and not on the “let’s get this made in the next 2-5 years” display case. As far as judging one’s own writing, I think I’m a pretty fair judge, until I hear the dialogue read aloud and usually just say to the actors – just get the gist down in your own words, that sounds like a script. Unless it’s a very particular joke, gag or physical action scene, and then I can get downright mathematical about the precision of sticking to the script.

JOSH BOARD: There was one thing I hated about your movie. The title made me think of that annoying Green Day song “Time Of Your Life.” Your title is great. Did you have that from day one, or was there a working title you kind of liked? 

JER SKLAR:  I once worked as a writer for a ‘Titling Company’ — yes, they have those. I love coming up with titles for stories, songs, businesses. Anyway, a friend of mine I actually wanted to help produce TOM was busy finishing another movie and asked me if I could help him come up with the title for his movie. It was about a guy named Tom, and how he, as a cancer survivor, was actually using his ‘status’ to be catered to by family and friends and prospective dates. I suggested TOM OF YOUR LIFE, and my friend said, hey…maybe. The director thought it was a stupid title. So I took it back. So yeah, pretty much from day one, I had a title. Some love it. One excellent critic who loved the movie said it’s the only thing he hated about it — so — who knows?

JOSH BOARD: Interesting. The cancer story sounds like the Seth Rogen movie” 50/50” which was great, and also a good title.

The boy in the movie is terrific. My wife said the reason she didn’t care for the movie “Moonlight” is she didn’t like the character in his youngest version, and that it’s important in a story with characters like this — to make us fall in love with the first version of Tom, which we do. What is that kid’s story? How did ya find him?

JER SKLAR: The producer James Sharpe and I concur with your wife, not necessarily about ‘Moonlight’ but yes, if we didn’t cast the very first Tom perfectly, we’d be in trouble. You had to fall in love with him in the short amount of time you spend with him. How did we find him? Casting on online sites like Actor’s Access, we must have met over 30 kids, and then on the last hour of the last day… and I’m not exaggerating… Judah Abner Paul read. We had already pretty much cast Tom at eight, unless someone could come in and drastically be better… and that’s what happened. It was absolute love at first sight with Judah Abner’s acting, with Judah Abner!  We got along great, he was funny, also professional, had some pro experience, but wasn’t at all “acty” and he also knew instinctively how to stay in character when going off script; how to goof off and when it was good to goof off and when it wasn’t. Yeah, it was an immediate no brainer. Then his lovely parents said that they also had sons spaced by four years, Eli aged 4, Judah 8, Joshua 12… and then to top off the good karma meter, they lived six houses away from where I grew up as a kid and went to my elementary school. Crazy.

JOSH BOARD: That’s an interesting coincidence. It was also interesting to hear that James Sharpe was one of the producers, as he also played Carl in the film and was intriguing. I could see some critics not liking the diversion his character brought, but I thought it added another quirky character with an interesting story to tell.

When I see a comedy that’s great, I find that the filmmakers nail it even on the small things. A perfect example of this is you having Tom eating cheeseballs. If it were Oreo’s, Cheez-It’s, beef jerky, none of that is as funny. Cheeseballs…sounds funny. The visual of a big tub of them…is funny. So I have to ask these two things. Was that the original snack of choice from day one, and…how sick are you of them, from doing various takes where you had to stuff them in your mouth?

JER SKLAR:  I’ll never get sick of cheeseballs. The young Toms had to be physically restrained, like on some of those old timey frankenstein’s monster’s medical/restrainment tables we had laying around – from eating too many between shots to keep the continuity of the tubs consistent. I may have annihilated an entire tub of them myself while scouting locations. It was the original snack choice because of how much we shot in Wisconsin, home of delicious cheese, and I knew the opening 1/3 of the movie was bordering on a kind of cheese that’s artificial, not good for you. I’m actually kind of serious, I did put that much thought into these choices. I’m a joy to work with. And the third reason was I do love a good cheeseball. I tried to lose weight for this movie. I did, then within the first two weeks of production, when I wasn’t yet acting, I was just attacking whatever crunchy, salty, chocolatey-bubbly, nicotine infused thing I could find. So I then started strategically adding more Cheeseball references and a joke about “I got chunky” to account for this svelte 24 year-old’s sudden turn into, as one critic hilariously put it, ‘Tom Sizemore gone to seed.’ I’m framing that quote and putting it on the wall over my desk, or better, tape it in front of my eyes for when I go jogging.

JOSH BOARD: That’s hysterical. It reminds me of when Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi got divorced. She said in an interview how much of a jerk he was, and he told her at one point she needed to lose weight. He then put a picture on the refrigerator of Steffi Graf, saying that should be her target weight. I’m guessing she downed a lot of Cheeseballs after he ended up marrying her. But I digest. I just ate a few Cheeseballs myself. Ya know, I actually have a follow-up cheeseball question. I’m guessing that’s a phrase no movie critic has uttered before in an interview. Did you gain weight or lose it, for any versions of the Tom on screen? It certainly wouldn’t be as impressive to find you devoured Cheeseballs and gained a few pounds, the way De Niro is praised for Raging Bull, or Christian Bale gaining or losing weight just because…well, I’m not sure why he always does it.

JER SKLAR: I did lose about 20 pounds to be at a good state where I could feasibly match as an older, paunchier version of Dominic’s Tom at 24. And, because when adding old prosthetic stuff it helps by not making a fat face even fatter with a new layer of artificial skin going on it, practically. Then we rolled, and I purposefully didn’t schedule my first day of acting for about a week and a half, two weeks in. So during that time I was anxiety-eating…a lot. Smoking a lot of cigarettes, caffeine, sugar, salt, and crunch. Yeah, I’m working on it. Not healthy. And then my first day was up acting, which was on the architecture tour boat and I’m like… yeah, I got that 20 back. The last two weeks of shooting when I played super old man stuff, I did the juice cleanse type thing, to sell the old age make-up better. So a series of downs and ups, and sort of downs…not quite the ‘the Mechanic’ or ‘Raging Bull’ level, uh, no. More like how to help tell this story through make-up and acting and camera work and still get away with eating cheeseballs and drinking Diet Coke on occasion.

JOSH BOARD: When I reviewed this movie, there was something I was reluctant to do. It was mentioning movies this reminded me of. We live in a day and age where so many movies are remade. In music, there’s long been a history of songs being covered and no one has had a problem with it. Yet if someone remakes Ghostbusters, everyone loses their minds. And I get that. We all want some originality in our filmgoing experience, or to not sully a classic film they treasure. But so many stories have been done, it’s hard to be original. Even the big blockbuster Tenet “borrowed” from other films [side note: I gave your movie a better rating than Tenet]. So when you’re writing and actually filming this, do you take into consideration that some scene might be a bit too much like another movie?

JER SKLAR: Yeah, you do have to be aware of the market a bit. Someone, maybe you Josh, mentioned something about “sure, I’ve seen close to the same scene in last summer’s “Shazam!” 

JOSH BOARD: Yes, that was me that said that.

JER SKLAR: I actually consider it a part of my job to see as much or at least read up on as many of the new releases coming out all the time, but missed “Shazam!” and still haven’t seen it. So yeah, that’s kind of shortcoming on my part not being aware of such a recent movie with a similar scene. I mean some of this kind of thing is unavoidable like “hey you came out with a road movie just as I was coming out with a road movie” it’s like – yeah – it’s called a sub-genre. But exact similar content, yeah, it better have an original spin on a well tread concept then. That was a challenge of writing Tom, we knew we wanted to hit “milestone” moments as much as possible, which meant, boy is this asking to be cliche we’re saying: “let’s go have movie moments that everyone has done and has seen before” which, yeah, sounds problematic to me. So we in fact sort of designed the story to progress to, around, through these moments – SCHOOL, PLAY, FIRST CRUSH, BICYCLE, etc – so in fact, we wrote it into the story that it’s their out of synch feelings about these “cliche milestones” they’re hitting would be the focus and not as much the “things they do.” “We grow from our impact on others” – Confucious. No, Confucious didn’t say that, somebody said that, once, I’m sure. So I made sure that the growth didn’t so much come from the milestones per se, as from relationships to others. Personally, I think the structure and so-called “milestones” of life are good for some, and a grinding, fake parade for others. Short answer to your question is yeah, I want to do something different, that is firmly aware of where its roots lay.

JOSH BOARD: A follow-up to my last question is…there were times I thought of another Chicago movie — Ferris Bueller. There was a time in the bar that I thought of Mamet’s House of Games, and Steve Buscemi’s criminally underseen Trees Lounge, yet — you make these scenes completely original. The funniest thing was when I had jotted down in my notes “Reminds me of The Last Detail.” And 10 minutes later, the car is driving by a neon sign that says “The Last Detail.” Were some of these movies ones you also thought about, or am I just someone that has seen way too many movies over the years?

JER SKLAR: I was happy you caught ‘The Last Detail’ moment, there are more nods to that movie, not many, but a couple I think. Great, great movie, “The Last Detail.” Never thought of “Tree’s Lounge”, but that’s one of the best, corner bar of a city movies I’ve ever seen. “House of Games”, embedded in my mind. Seen it so many times that odd duck of a great movie! It took me years to stop trying to deliver Mamet monologues like Joe Mantegna from “House of Games”. So consciously, no. Unconsciously, for sure. But yes, “The Last Detail” antique car store was one of those happy accidents we ran into during the second unit shoot. But absolutely, it served the moment if you don’t catch it as a reference, and you get it at the exact moment you might be thinking ‘the storyline here kind of’ and then bonk you on the nose with a giant inflatable hammer type thing as they pass a sign that says, “yup, you caught me but at least I’m stealing from great scripts!” I have lots of personal easter eggs for movie nuts, family, friends, that don’t detract if you don’t know them, but kind of add a little something if you do. It’s fun, it’s also a way of saying that I stand on the shoulders of giants and just to be included in a discussion with the world culture of cinema, in a good way and not so good ways is quite the honor.

JOSH BOARD: I read a pull quote from a critic about your movie, that got something completely wrong about the character. What’s your opinion, albeit a slightly biased one, on seeing a critic say something like that about your film and getting it completely wrong.

JER SKLAR: Well, they say you believe the good ones too much you gotta believe the bad. I’m pretty harsh on myself as a critic, reasonably able to step back and say – “okay, what’s this movie some guy sent me that I heard is interesting…” put it on, and ask: DOES… IT… FORCE… ME… TO… KEEP… WATCHING… in this psychotic age of media overload. And I think it’s safe to say this is a solid movie in an old fashioned, yet also modern way (certainly made in a modern way) and what some will love – the magic realism of it all, the reexamination of how we’re living life vibe – others will be turned off by. I’m being truthful when I say that right now, I’m just appreciative people are watching and discussing my movie, because we filmmakers really have only one business plan: does the movie I just made help or hurt my chances of getting another feature film made. So my expectations were pretty realistic. I knew it would be accepted as a real movie – that was step one, and I knew the film before it’s release seemed to play better with GenZ, skip MIllennials, and then pick up again at GenX. So I was expecting a lot of internet meh for this film. And hoped the more discerning young woman or man, or elder woman or man would see it and give it a stamp of approval, which seems to have happened! Which I’m of course thrilled about. I think strong reactions to a movie is what you want, and I have it with TOM, strong love, and some pretty strong hate. Hey, no offense meant to your profession here, Sir, but critics not only hated John Carpenter’s “The Thing” in 1982 when it was released, they hated him personally for making it. Now it’s widely regarded as a classic of not only horror but cinema in general. So… go figure. But in truth, I love movie criticism, I like reading it, writing it, and when it’s excellent, you can learn a lot about what you’re doing well, what you are not, and then put it down, and cry.

JOSH BOARD: There was a brief, two-year period, where I called “House of Games” my all time favorite movie. So I loved seeing Mike Nussbaum in your film. He’s a big deal in Chicago. How did you get this 96-year-old acting legend in this?

JER SKLAR: Mike’s the best. What an honor. Oh man. I went through the whole $20 envelope scam with him from “House of Games”. He is the oldest working member of Actor’s Equity. I got a hold of Mr. Nussbaum via my manager who had some close relation to a family member of Mr. Nussbaum. He read the script, and said ‘when do I show up?’ My favorite day of shooting, no doubt! What an honor!

JOSH BOARD: I interviewed Robert Townsend once and he told me how difficult it was to make his first movie (Hollywood Shuffle), and using his own money to finance things. What were some of the harder things you had to do to get this film made? That could be money, or getting a permit to film somewhere specific, or whatever stories you wish to share on that tough experience.

JER SKLAR: Spielberg was once asked what he thought the hardest part of filmmaking was, and he said aptly: “Getting out of the car in the morning.” But once that happens, making the film was a joy for me. I’ll probably never have such good karma backing a movie. Something about the story really resonated with people all over the place, who would then give us free use of locations, discounted use of promoting the movie on such-and-such ad space. So there were some run and gun type shooting but they’re fun to me, less so for others. The El trains scene, run and gun. Couple takes, got what we need, why risk being arrested. We’re done. Finding the right make-up person who was excellent, and because of the amount of time and mastery that needed to go into it, we kind of had to get along. So working with vfx make up artist David Ian Grant could have been called the toughest, I was fasting, I was directing, acting, getting up five hours earlier than call time of others to do make up, being in make-up basically the rest of the day with touch ups here and there. It was extreme, but I like extreme, actors tend to like doing extreme things like that. For the most part the Cities of Chicago, of Highland Park, Door County, WI and Lake Geneva, WI, as well as Gibson City, IL where exterior and interior of the Hospital scenes were filmed, people were extremely friendly and cooperative. Funding is always tough, and it was half from family, friends, co-workers and film producers who I’d worked with in the past, and half out of my pocket and via private donations via an indie-gogo page (we raised 45K there!).

So yeah, while one critic said this is that ONE BIG idea an indie filmmaker has, I’ve actually got quite a few more, but this will be the last one that gets financed by people in my family, friends and fans circle… that’s a sure way to lose family, friends and fans….

JOSH BOARD: Is there any scene you had to cut, that it killed you to edit? And, what was the scene and why did you cut it out of the film?

JER SKLAR: Every scene I cut deserved it’s death. Seriously, once cut they were so obviously ‘outtakes.’ There was a piece of music with lyrics, a song called HIPPSTR MCDOODAD that plays beneath the drunk philosopher SOCRATES’ monologue during the bar scene. I wanted the lyrics of the song, to coincide with Socrates monologue, and I got close – and the scene was longer, and we leave the bar, metaphysically, and float over the el tracks, then the city, then the world, then back to the bar… and it… yeah, it sounds better here than how it was playing. It was just too much, not executed with enough panache. I had to cut the monologue down, take the lyrics out of the song, and now it works better. I never really got it right to my satisfaction but that’s making movies. Also, there’s a piece of music we recorded for the opening scene of the film, a funk version  basically of what’s in there now… and it’s the best thing The Blackstrap Molasses has ever recorded. And it just didn’t work. It’ll be on the soundtrack, but it ain’t in the movie. My bandmates wanted to kill me.

JOSH BOARD: That Socrates monologue was great. I think that was the scene that made me think of “Tree’s Lounge”, but now that I think of it…the drunkard in the Tree’s Lounge, never said anything profound. Something about the way he sat there, sad, holding his drink…made me think they were similar characters.

I hate having any spoilers when I interview someone, because there will be people that haven’t seen the movie yet. So I’m going to tread lightly here, and when you answer this, don’t give anything away to those that haven’t seen it. But…one of my all time favorite movies is The World According to Garp. From the time Garp’s a kid, he wants to fly. The movie ends with him being shot, and he’s on a helicopter dying, but happy that he’s finally flying. With this boy spending his entire “life” wanting to go on a sailboat, we don’t start really rooting for that to happen until he starts hitting old age and the realization dawns on us that it might not. And then we think we know what will happen and how, and…what does happen and how it ends…just thinking about it now is making me tear up. It was brilliant. It was low-key and lovely. But surely you had a few different possibilities for endings.

JER SKLAR: Yeah, we at first wanted him to just go on a ferris wheel, slowly, one time around type thing. But Navy Pier in Chicago was having none of it, so then, since my father sailed, and owned a decent sized boat, and I never learned how to sail, then as a sort of nod to Dad, I said let’s make his father a Navy Guy, he sees a picture of a sailboat, and now he’s hooked on the “idea” of sailing, and we’ll see where that takes us. Over the course of making the movie, my Dad decided, ‘I’m getting older, almost slipped and hurt myself the other day, time to sell” and from that you can kind of extrapolate the rest without spoilers.

JOSH BOARD: And lastly, what are your Top 5 movies of all time and also the one movie you like, that most people hate or didn’t care for.

JER SKLAR: Well, my Top 5 changes daily, with “Jaws” pretty much always at number one. 

5. Harold and Maude

4. John Carpenter’s The Thing

3. Chinatown

2. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

1. Jaws

I really have a thing for films that take the storyline of an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” type film, where one man or woman pulls on a random thread one day, unraveling the most insane set of circumstances north of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

With this in mind, and with the sinister holiday heading our way, I have always loved the film and score to HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH – if you can get past the loopier than loops know how to loop script, and that’s a big ask, the film is filled with excellent cinematography, eerie pre-futuristic Halloween type music that really rocks, solid acting and meta humor (a television station airing the movie ‘John Carpenter’s Halloween’ is the station where the evil Conel Cochran (Dan ‘O Herlily, excellent) of Silver Shamrock Toys is going to launch a signal that… well you just have to see it. Fun, fun, fun movie, with excellent work by those in front and behind the camera. It was supposed to start a new tradition… a Halloween annual anthology of movies, each only tangentially related to Michael Myers. It didn’t work, but the movie itself is stand alone excellent. A sick joke of a story, but a fun sick joke at that.

JOSH BOARD: Great. Now I’m going to have the piano theme from Halloween stuck in my head. It’s funny you’re showing Carpenter a lot of love in this interview and…you both have something in common. You are the rare directors that have written, directed, and composed music for your films. Clint Eastwood is the only other one I can think of who’s done that. And if you keep doing films as good as “Tom Of Your Life”…you’ll often be talked about along with directors like these. Thanks for your time, and thanks for your film.

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