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John Burgess: Director, ONE SMALL HITCH

February 27, 2013

John_Burgess_Color_#11Q: Tell us a little about the origins of ONE SMALL HITCH, from concept to financing.

As a Chicago native (and die-hard Cubbie fan), having moved out to Los Angeles for film school, I knew I wanted to go back to my hometown to make my first feature film. Upon first reading one of the early drafts of One Small Hitch, I immediately felt this is the story. I was really drawn to the characters and the strong sense of family at the heart of the narrative. I felt as if I knew all of these people and could really bring them to life on the big screen. I was also drawn to the theme of Josh dealing with losing a parent that serves as the catalyst to the story. A few years earlier, I had to deal with my own father passing away just a few months after I left Illinois and drove out to LA for my first semester of film school at USC. Having lost a number of family members to cancer, and having received the dreaded phone call that my father had died, I knew first hand what Josh was going through and felt I had to tell this story. In addition to that strong emotional pull, I also just thought this story was flat out fun! It reminded me of the films I had grown up loving by John Hughes, Cameron Crowe, and Frank Capra. In fact, there were elements that made OSH feel like a modern day, It Happened One Night, to me. The introduction of the thinly veiled separation of Josh & Molly’s sleeping areas inside the loft reminded me of Clark Gable’s sheet hung over a strung out piece of rope to erect the “Walls of Jericho.” In both stories, the wall is no more secure than a house of cards and only serves to increase the sexual tension. I couldn’t wait to direct those scenes!

I met with the writer, Dode B. Levenson, to discuss optioning the screenplay and how he would feel about working on rewrites together to further develop the story. Dode was open to my ideas and we jumped right in and started the rewrite process. We became fast friends and developed this script with the knowledge that making a romantic comedy centered around something as sad as cancer was a very fine line to walk… most everyone has a family member, or knows someone who has dealt with “the big C” – there’s a universal theme that almost everyone can relate to in a very personal way. The details of our own relative’s lives, their real struggles, and all the real memories we have gives the film an authenticity that I think allows audiences to believe in this ridiculous set up that in turn allows us to quickly get to the comedic moments. For my part, the first change I made was opening the film in Hollywood and then having the bulk of the story take place in Chi-town! It made the film more personal for me, and I would be able to draw on the resources of the two cities that I had filmmaking connections. My dream of making a film in my “Sweet Home Chicago” had taken its first step towards becoming a reality.

MV5BMTQ0MjgzOTYxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTE2MTQ1Nw@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_Next up? Finding the money to go out and make the film! Unfortunately, the economy had tanked, no one was really taking chances on first time directors, and absolutely no one wanted to fund a comedy that centered around cancer. However, I still strongly believed in the project, and in myself, so I decided to put my money where my mouth was and sell my condo in Hollywood to self finance the film. Regrettably, while I may have sold my digs and packed my bags for the Land of Lincoln, the sale of my bachelor pad still wasn’t enough to fully finance the production. Happily, my mom is just as crazy as I am (same DNA), so she took a mortgage on her home too, and then we both took a mortgage out on our co-owned family business together to come up with the additional financing. Again though we still didn’t have enough without putting ourselves at considerable risk, so we formed an LLC and sold shares of stock in the film to family members, friends, other local business owners in the Chicagoland area and raised another hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. The fundraising effort became something of a community event making this production a true indie through and through, and by taking full advantage of Illinois 30% Film Tax Credit, the LLC finally had enough financing to begin filming One Small Hitch. It was time to start casting.

2Q: It appears that the film has been screened at other festivals. Do audiences respond differently at some festivals than they do at others? And do you ever stop being nervous?

I’m always a little nervous until people start to laugh… when you make a comedy the last thing you want is a silent theater, but in a packed theater laughter can become contagious if the film is really funny and so far audiences have really been responding to the story in One Small Hitch – we took “Best Picture Comedy” at the California Independent Film Festival and “Best Production Design” at The Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. OSH also just screened at the Sedona International Film Festival where they added a third screening at their 750 seat Sedona Performing Arts Center because the first two screenings sold out so fast and had rave reviews from the audience members. Hopefully the audiences here at Cinequest will respond favorably to film the as well… for those reading this who are considering attending a screening, Aubrey Dollar will be with me at the screenings on March 1st and 3rd to do a Q&A – and Robert Belushi will be with me at our third screening on March 7th.

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making ONE SMALL HITCH?

CASTING. 75% of directing a film is done during pre-production when you are assembling the cast and it’s my favorite part of the process. To put together the cast I called upon two veteran casting directors to help me: Monika Mikkelsen in Los Angeles, and Claire Simon in Chicago. To keep production costs down we would cast locally except for the lead roles and the part of the dying father. Monika and I did an exhaustive search for the right people to play Josh & Molly knowing that the film hinged on the chemistry of the lead actors. Monika had cast Shane McRae in previous projects and pitched him to play the role of Josh Shiffman. Upon viewing his body of work I was convinced he had both the comedic elements as well as the emotional gravitas to pull off the sentimental moments in the script. After speaking with him at length about the role I was sure we had found our Josh, now all we needed was the right actress to play Molly Mahoney. A number of reels had been sent to us from various talent agencies and I came across the talented Aubrey Dollar. After a number of conversations with Monika we decided to make the offer, and upon speaking with Aubrey, I was equally certain I had found the perfect Molly to complement Shane’s Josh. The only question was would my instincts be right once we had them on set together… thankfully, we got more than we bargained for – they exuded the kind chemistry that made us all feel they had known one another all their lives just as the story demanded. With Josh & Molly cast the only big hurdle remaining was finding the right actor to anchor the story and play the dying father that everyone would go along with perpetuating a phony engagement to fulfill his dying wish. Enter… Mr. Daniel J. Travanti.

I won’t lie, as a first time feature film director, certain actors’ bodies of work can be a little intimidating, Mr. Travanti’s resume certainly fits the bill. With a plethora of Emmy & Golden Globes under his belt, I wondered what it would be like the first time I had to give him direction. Truth be told, he was so prepared, and so professional I didn’t really have to do much at all – I secretly gave him the nickname: “Two Take Travanti!” The second take being nothing more than a safety in case the camera screwed up! When Monika, Claire, and I finished rounding out the rest of the cast I truly looked at all of these people together and believed they were a family. Janet Ulrich Brooks embodied Frieda and had magical chemistry with Daniel J. Travanti. Mary Jo Faraci could easily be mistaken for the real life mother of Aubrey, and her chemistry with Ron Dean was nothing short astounding… Ron incidentally was my favorite actor on the shoot. He was such a seasoned pro that every time he uttered a line I was cracking up on set. We started adjusting his call times because he would show up three hours early and refused the entire time to let someone stand in for him during the lighting set ups. He embodies a true Chicagoan and I was thrilled when he accepted the role of Art having admired him as an actor in so many of my favorite films. Next up was casting Robert Belushi to play the role of Sean Mahoney. Rob’s chemistry with Shane as his best friend, Aubrey as her protective older brother, and Rebecca Spence as the Midwestern hubby reminded me of every married best friend I’ve ever known that would tear your head off just for looking wrong at his little sister. Which brings me to the incomparable Rebecca Spence, a true staple in the Chicago acting community, Rebecca you make other actors better and I would cast you in anything and everything. Lastly, to round out the main cast we needed the perfect femme fatale to throw a monkey wrench into Josh & Molly getting together too quickly. Enter the beautiful and talented Heidi Johanningmeier. Heidi actually first came in to read for the role of Molly Mahoney, fortunately for all involved she accepted the role of the seductively powerful, Giselle Brousard. Thank you Heidi for perfectly embodying the woman that everyone loves to hate!

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

I would say for the same reason that I wanted to direct it… this story is just flat out fun! At its heart One Small Hitch is film about family. There’s a fun love triangle and some screwball comedic moments that are implied right in the double entendre aspects of the title, but ultimately this story is about relationships. Josh’s reluctance to settle down and change his life is part of his journey. It’s a character arc that takes him through the painful reality that his dad will soon die, followed by the confusing feelings he’s having for Molly, all told through a funny self-realization that shows us change can happen when it seems least likely. While this film is ultimately Josh’s story, its Molly’s story too. She goes through a similar journey realizing that she dates guys who really don’t possess the qualities she is looking for in a relationship, and through this experience with Josh and the rest of the family refuses to settle for anything less than something real, with Josh or any man from here on out. So the experience I am most trying to communicate with One Small Hitch is that of a life and relationships coming full circle. While this film has illness and the loss of a parent at its center, it’s really about beginnings, change, and how deeply funny life can sometimes be in its most serious moments. At the absolute conclusion of the film we see Josh & Molly in a hospital delivery room. They are clearly now married, the implication is that Max has passed away, and they are in the midst of having their first child. Max is gone, but the moment is a happy one. The change in everyone’s status and the introduction of new life helps to take the focus off of the life that has been lost. We will always miss loved ones who have passed on, but we keep them alive in our hearts with cherished memories, and sometimes we even honor them by naming new family members after old ones. When Josh & Molly look at one another after the nurse asks if they have picked a name yet, their look says it all. It’s almost as if the cosmos has picked the name of their son, and at that moment, Josh has come full circle. Now he is the father, and it’s his turn to be a dad to his newborn son… Max.

5Q: There are now so many different ways in which to distribute a film; each has pros and cons. What are your hopes or plans for future distribution?

OSH will be seen worldwide on television and then be available on VOD and DVD. The film recently premiered on BSkyB on Valentine’s Day in the United Kingdom and will soon be seen on M6 in France, Peacock in Australia, HBO in Central Europe, NBC/Universal in CIS, Playarte in Brazil, Funwood in Spain and Italy, a limited theatrical release with Cinemajestic in Turkey, and on Encore for international flights. My sales agents are still working on domestic distribution. You can keep track of distribution updates by visiting and following the links to OSH’s Facebook, Twitter, and IMDB pages.

Watch the Trailer!

Buy tickets to see ONE SMALL HITCH at Cinequest!

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