I lived in LaGrange GA from 1987 – 1992 and it was a strange time for me. I was 25 years old recovering from a divorce, transitioning from the military to civilian life, starting a new job and a new life in a sleepy southern town at the Western edge of the state on Interstate 85.There were as many people from Alabama there as Georgia. I knew no one there.
There’s a casual formality to the rural South. Being an outsider (in LaGrange being from anywhere north of Bristol, Tennessee makes you a “yankee”) sets you apart, but you can go along to get along and you learn quickly that custom and tradition rank high. It was an education for me culturally until the time I moved to the big city up the road in 1992.
I recently came to be aware of the movie Holden On directed by LaGrange native Tamlin Hall.
This film premiered at the 2017 Atlanta Film Festival. Hall lived in LaGrange when I was there. He was a kid then. When he was attending LaGrange High School one of the students, Holden Layfield, committed suicide. Holden went from being a model student and athlete through a troubling Junior year when he began to struggle with a secret he could no longer keep hidden: he’d been dealing with schizophrenia and addiction. He took his life in November of 1995.
Hall was inspired to tell Holden’s story, worked on the script even before he went to UCLA, and got the film rights in 2008. In tandem with the movie is an art initiative called I am Holden On http://www.iamholdenon.org/ where students see the film, work on art about the themes, and are encouraged to speak up about any issues they may have similar to Holden’s problems.
I had the opportunity to speak with Hall the day before the premiere of Holden On.
This is your first movie?
I am a first-time filmmaker.
How and when did you decide to do a film about Holden?
I got my MFA screenwriting at UCLA. As soon as we got done with the draft of this film, as soon as I graduated I made the decision I was going to move forward with this. I had made a promise to Holden’s parents, there will be a film about your son.
Did you know Holden?
I grew up with Holden, went to the same public schools, went to LaGrange high. We shot at the same high school he went to. Same practice field. Shot in the same hallways that Holden walked. We wanted all that stuff to feel as real as possible. .. it brings a certain energy you can feel on the screen.
Was the film shot in LaGrange?
We shot the whole movie in LaGrange, 22 days. We shot through Thanksgiving, we wrapped right around beginning of 2015. All of our locations, so many locations, everyone was so gracious in LaGrange. They gave us the keys to the high school.
I had worked at the marina on West Point lake … it’s called Highland Marina. When I came back from college I came back for the summer and I worked there as a dock hand. I went back to them, no one was still working there but when we started looking for housing for cast and crew we went to the marina. Thats where all the cast and crew stayed. It was like summer camp for the cast and crew. They allowed us to have probably 20 cabins. A local presbyterian church loaned us a small church bus, like a 20 seater, our line producer drove us to location in every morning.
“I grew up with Holden, went to the same public schools, went to LaGrange high. We shot at the same high school he went to. Same practice field. Shot in the same hallways that Holden walked.”
Have Holden’s parents and Zinte (Zinte Lovelace, Holden’s best friend in school) seen the film?
Holden’s parents have numerous times. The premiere will be Zinte’s first time.
It must have been tough for his parents to revisit all this?
They said yes to this. They said as long as you can maintain Holden’s dignity throughout telling the story we’re saying yes, we’re all in, and we did it. That is one thing I would not compromise ever. When he was here.. The humanity that he had. He treated me with respect. I was overweight, I was bullied, and he never did that. He always treated me like a human being. He treated me with kindness and respect and compassion. I would always send them drafts. I kept them informed. His siblings are in the film. In the library scene there’s a couple of kids, his niece and nephew are in that shot.
I wasn’t going to do this and at the end of the day dramatize things in a way that I felt was taking away from the family and the respect they’d given me to tell the story. They are 110% in. We even had Holden’s dad with us five shooting days. Some of the tough stuff. He’d bring his brother. He has a cameo at the end of the film.
How did the Kickstarter funding happen?
We raised almost $40K, and then immediately got a $10K grant. We started reaching out to other foundations for grants. When I started the Kickstarter I had the research done. Crowdfunding is all about getting people to your page. I used small audio and video clips to get people motivated to come to the site. Every time someone would donate I would get on FB and write a paragraph about this person and do it in a personal way… promoting them and their talent and love and gifts. It became this thing where people always wanted to see who donated next to see their paragraph.
What about the “I Am Holden On” initiative?
Talks are in development about moving forward with using the film to create an art initiative and this experience to get a discussion out about mental health and suicide. In a way where we can make a difference. The kids who’ve done the I am Holden On artwork, these kids open up and begin to trust each other and the teacher.
I love the way the film opens… there’s a perfect beat as Holden narrates and then R.E.M.’s It’s The End of The World As We Know It starts.
That was a transition that I had in my head, that was on the page. Luckily R.E.M. said yes. We wanted to make it 90’s.We wanted to make it GA. This is a GA film. He’s a GA boy. I have so much love for my state, so much pride. I went to UGA. My parents met on a blind date at University of GA. My dad always told me to never forget who you are and where you came from.
What’s next for you?
I am so excited to do the next one, which is not a true story. It will be in GA. It’s a script I started before Holden On. It’s called Hometown: female driven modern day Of Mice and Men meets To Kill a Mockingbird.
You can more details about Holden On in our review here.