This is our interview with Brian Donovan, director of the award winning film, Kelly’s Hollywood now available on Amazon Video here in the UK.
Tell us what the film is about?
At its core, Kelly’s Hollywood is a love story between my sister and me and illustrates all the challenges and triumphs of maintaining a relationship of unconditional love. It also follows the trajectory of our shared dream of making Kelly a Hollywood star and my own complex dream of getting married. But it’s not the Disney version of love and triumph, more like Rocky, sans the raw eggs and meat (that’s for your film buffs!)
Why did you want to make the film?
Throughout my life I’ve been completely enamoured with my sister. She has taught me so much about life, love and the pursuit of dreams. I was compelled to tell my sister’s story because I still feel like there’s lingering prejudice and misconceptions about the disabled. Most people who saw my sister from afar or across the room would just label her disabled, or “Oh, she has Down’s syndrome.” We’re all more than what we might be labelled or branded and I wanted people to see my sister for all that she was: passionate, loving, jealous, complex, emotional, talented and even the diva she portrays in the documentary.
While she was alive I made it my mission to have her by my side as much as possible to share her with as many people as I could because I knew she could single-handedly shatter stereotypes, labels and the limitations imposed on her by others. And she did! It was magical to watch each and every time. Then I started filming her with a consumer camera, and as I accumulated footage of our relationship, I realised I had never seen a movie about a relationship like I had with my sister. That’s when I wondered if a film could capture the spirit of my sister and her ability to break down the preconceived notion‘s others have about who those with special needs. And I’m happy to report, I think the film is hugely successful that way.
How was it filming with Kelly, did she love it?
Kelly loved filming the doc. She loved when I was “rolling” as she would say, and sometimes get mad if I turned the camera off—this of course played right into her desire to be a star! Ha ha ha. She was very funny and knew it. A true performer and loved showing off and making people laugh. She also loved the attention, and I think the doc made her feel like she mattered. Something we all crave to some degree, and something I wanted her to feel, frankly.
How long did it all take to film?
Seven years, which includes most of the principle photography and all of post. And if you came to my office during post and saw the giant mural I created of characters, stories, conflict, etc…you probably would have sent me to therapy. My friend said it looked like a giant Rorschach Inkblot Test! It was dense with black Sharpie. I liken the whole process to what I imagine sculptors go through. You start with a mass and then shape and shape, and for awhile it still looks like a big lump of clay. But gradually (and for me ‘gradually’ meant years!) it starts to look like something.
What sort of acclaim has the film had?
I’ll admit it was a slow burn in the beginning and I had to find peace with the fact that I may have spent seven years of my life and a lot of money making a really expensive home movie. But then the Down’s syndrome community embraced it and they have been at the forefront of all the support and momentum. When I finally got distribution on Showtime Networks in the states that catapulted the film to the mainstream and I started hearing from strangers across the country who had no connection to Down’s syndrome, or disabilities, that they were truly touched by the film and more specifically the spirit of my sister and the love we had for each other—most said the film touched their hearts like no other film they’ve ever seen, and just as many said it made them want to be a better more loving person.
In 2016, the film won the TASH award for Positive Images in Media which was a wonderful surprise. It also won the Juror prize at the Atlanta Docufest, as well as countless rave reviews. As you can imagine, this has been wonderfully gratifying.
Why are you bringing it over to the UK?
The short answer is: I want to share my sister with as many people as possible. But when I showed Kelly‘s Hollywood at the National Down Syndrome Conference last year I met a few wonderful Brits and they all raved about the film and asked me, “When is it coming to the UK?” I think what’s so special about the film (if I can be so bold) are all the universal themes that seem to resonate with people, certainly in the Down’s syndrome community, but way beyond. One of the main themes in the film is unconditional love and having someone in your life that believes in you and your dreams no matter what. I think we all yearn for that in our lives—someone who believes and loves us no matter what. My sister and I provided that for each other and I think seeing that illustrated in the film really gives people hope.
Kelly never got to see the final film – what do you think she would have thought of it?
Yes, unfortunately my sister passed away when I was in post. I never meant for it to be a postmortem piece so I had to shelve it for a couple years to gather up the emotional courage to finish the project. Fortunately, she did see about 80% of the raw footage and loved watching herself. And when she didn’t I knew that particular content wouldn’t make the final cut because I thought, “If she’s bored of herself, the audience probably will be too.” Ha ha ha. She was a wonderful editor in her own right that way. But in the end, I think if Kelly had seen the final film she would react similar to me: the sad parts would make her sad, and the happy triumphant parts would make her feel exactly that—happy and triumphant. And she would have loved rock’n the red carpets and seeing herself on the silver screen, which has been a dream come true beyond measure. But honestly, right now I’d like to think Kelly’s too busy Dirty Dancing with Patrick Swayze on a cloud somewhere.
What’s been the reaction from those in the Down’s syndrome community to the film?
Incredible! I addressed some of this in the question above but once the community embraced it they have been incredibly supportive and at the forefront of promoting the film to the community and beyond. I think that’s been the ultimate goal for all of us in the community… To share those we love (who just happen to be born with Down’s syndrome) with the world so everyone knows they are more than the limitations society has imposed on them—much more! As the wonderful saying goes, “We are more alike than different!”
The greatest review we got was from an eight year old boy, who was born with Down’s syndrome, who exclaimed to his parents five minutes into the film, “MOM, DAD, SHE LOOKS JUST LIKE ME!!!” He had never seen a film with someone with Down’s syndrome in it. This made us all feel triumphant, to say the least.
But I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention a small percentage of the Down’s syndrome community who have struggled a little bit with the film’s theme of boundaries, or lack of. You have to see the film I think to grasp what it is they struggle with, but I think because the dreams my sister had really made her happy I encouraged each and every one of those dreams. Mind you, I live in Hollywood which may have something to do with it—the land of dream chasers. But I think some people have issue with the fact that I encouraged all of Kelly’s dreams, including her love affairs with stars i.e. Colin Firth, Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees, etc.
I certainly understand their concerns, I struggled with them too and readily admit I’m not sure I made all the right decisions, which is also addressed in the film. But I truly believe all people should be allowed to dream and even fantasize (as long as they’re not hurting anyone). We all have them—they keep us alive and help us get out of bed. And now that I’m on the speaking circuit with a platform to further that message I have more conviction than ever about this, especially for those with special needs. This is a much longer conversation, and I’m happy to have a Skype interview with your community or better, come over and speak—I would love to meet you all.
If there was a message to be taken away, what message would that be?
As I mentioned, I think the big takeaway from the film is that everyone’s dreams are important and should be pursued to the best of their ability and supported by those around them. Find your cheerleaders, because they’re out there. So is that person who will love you no matter what and together you will lift each other higher than you could ever go alone. Lastly, we are not who we are when we’re born, but who we are when we live, and when we live to our fullest potential, with good intentions and love, this creates a magical vibration and ultimately makes the world a better place.
Kelly’s Hollywood is available to watch on Amazon Video.
You can watch the official trailer below: