After COVID filming hurdles, Columbus-centric 'They/Them/Us' makes its local premiere

Director and screenwriter Jon Sherman discusses his new film, a comedy/drama set in Columbus and debuting locally at the Lincoln Theatre on Friday, Oct. 29

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
A film still from "They/Them/Us," a movie shot in Columbus, Ohio, starring Joey Slotnick and Amy Hargreaves.

When Jon Sherman worked as an independent filmmaker in New York City, he naturally set his romantic comedies there, too. But when he moved to Columbus 10 years ago, Sherman wondered if he could film his next movie here in Central Ohio. 

“I spent a lot of time walking around the city and thought a lot about how beautiful it was and how it's just never seen in movies,” said Sherman, a film professor at nearby Kenyon College. “There's so much production value here.” 

Sherman joined the board of the Drexel Theater and became president of Film Columbus’ advisory board, which led him to Bill Conner, former CEO of the Columbus Association of the Performing Arts (CAPA). “Bill and I talked at length about how to build a film industry in Columbus and what we could do to make it sustainable,” Sherman said. "We have so many film programs at [nearby] colleges: Ohio State, Kenyon, Denison, Otterbein, CCAD. We talked about creating a home for those filmmakers, so they didn't have to move to the coasts.”

While Columbus regularly plays host to commercials and music videos, most fiction filmmakers opt for Cincinnati or Cleveland when shooting in Ohio. But Sherman knew it could be done well, so while he was on sabbatical from his teaching gig at Kenyon, he began working on the screenplay for a new film, “They/Them/Us,” set entirely in Columbus.

The script had an autobiographical genesis, with the two main characters — Charlie, a film professor played by Joey Slotnick ("The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," "The Good Wife"), and Lisa, a Columbus artist played by Amy Hargreaves ("Homeland," "13 Reasons Why") — coming together to create a blended family of parents and teenagers, which mirrors the journey of Sherman and his wife, local artist Melissa Vogley Woods.

“Melissa and I would talk a lot about our families and the challenges we had, especially getting divorced and dating,” he said. “I did the first draft by myself, and I would show it to her every few days and say, ‘What do you think?’ It's funny — I'm the comedy writer, but she actually wrote most of the jokes because she's got a good ear for what's real.” 

Sherman, who also directed “They/Them/Us,” and Vogley Woods, who became a co-screenwriter, worked to create a movie that has plenty of laughs but no lack of poignant moments. “I thought a lot about [filmmakers] Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges in terms of creating the screenplay, because the movie's tone is a little strange,” Sherman said. “It's funny, and then it's also serious. I wanted that tone because I think parenting is like that, especially parenting teenagers. The line between comedy and tragedy is really thin.” 

After going through at least 25 drafts of the screenplay, Sherman had to shift gears again once he realized the cast and crew would be filming in August of 2020 during the pandemic. The Screen Actors Guild eventually gave them the green light to shoot, but the COVID protocols created endless challenges. Actors and crew members had to stay six feet apart, and as they filmed inside the Victorian Village house that Sherman and Vogley Woods once called home, they weren’t allowed to turn on the air conditioning, which created sweltering indoor conditions. 

Sherman also had to change some of the shooting locations, swapping the Ohio State Fair for a go-cart facility in one scene. But of all the pandemic-related challenges, COVID testing proved to be the biggest hurdle. "The Screen Actors Guild said, ‘We need you to test everybody on set every other day, and we want those test results back in 48 hours.’ And in August of 2020, we were averaging five to seven days to get PCR tests back,” said Sherman, who worked with local consultant Victoria Harris to find a lab that could process the tests in two days. “We were all being tested in the alleyway behind the house on Neil Avenue. We’d do the PCR tests every other day, and then we would do finger pricks every day just to make sure that there wasn't any COVID. Just one case would have shut us down.”  

Sherman budgeted the film at $550,000, but the COVID testing added another $75,000, which he had to put on credit cards. “Luckily, Ohio does have a tax credit. We knew we were getting back 30 percent,” Sherman said. “That was also a big driver behind doing this film in Ohio. I knew that I could get back almost a third of the budget.” 

Plus, $550,000 for a feature film is a steal compared to other cities. In Columbus, Sherman said, it’s still possible to do a non-union shoot, whereas unionized productions in other cities would have likely put the cost around $2 million. “They/Them/Us” is also the first film produced through Columbus Pictures, a nonprofit arm of CAPA.

Sherman and Vogley Woods premiered the movie in Los Angeles last month, and at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 29, the Lincoln Theatre will host the film’s Columbus premiere (vaccination proof and masks required). The $5 admission, which benefits filmmaking grants at Film Columbus, also serves as a ticket for the afterparty at Wild Goose Creative, featuring Ohio bands Palette Knife, Steven King and Leggy, all of whom appear on the “They/Them/Us” soundtrack.  

"Built in to this movie was this idea of an all-Ohio soundtrack, and we almost got there. Thirteen out of the 15 bands at least have a connection to Ohio,” said Sherman, who listed snarls, a Columbus band, and Pinegrove, a group with ties to Kenyon College. “I'm almost as proud of the soundtrack as I am of the movie.”

More:Columbus filmmakers bring ‘Poser’ to New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

“They/Them/Us” makes good on Sherman’s commitment to showcasing Columbus visually, too. Central Ohio plays a prominent role, with Downtown skyline beauty shots, the Drexel Theatre, street scenes in German Village and Victorian Village and a cameo from the concrete Field of Corn.  

There’s also an S&M subplot as Lisa attempts to introduce Charlie to her sexually adventurous world. "I did a ton of research about it,” said Sherman, who also brought on local kink consultants. “There's actually a [S&M] scene here, and that's another thing about Columbus that people would not expect. … It’s an aspect of the Midwest that I wanted to show: There's weirdos here, too.” 

Sherman said Hargreaves previously knew nothing of the kink subculture but didn’t hesitate to dive into it. “She pays the bills by doing big shows like ‘13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Homeland,’ but what she loves to do is these smaller, independent movies, and she's fearless about the roles. … Amy was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do this, and I want to learn how to use the whip and everything,’” said Sherman, who was similarly complimentary of Slotnick, Hargreaves’ onscreen partner. “He saw through the odder stuff and saw that it was really a sweet family comedy at heart. They both ground the movie and make it so real.”