Releasing your first movie is a hectic experience, even in normal days. Releasing your first movie during a pandemic is, said Seattle artist Ahamefule J. Oluo, “kind of chaotic.”
For his made-in-Seattle debut, “Thin Skin,” Oluo wrote the screenplay (with director Charles Mudede and Lindy West, based on Oluo’s one-man show “Now I’m Fine” and his “This American Life” story “The Wedding Crasher”), composed the dreamy jazz score, and stars as a version of himself: a Seattle musician facing a dead-end job, a broken marriage, and a complicated family life including the ghost of his long-absent Nigerian father, who as the movie begins has unexpectedly renewed contact. The film was set to have its theatrical world premiere at the Bentonville Film Festival in May — but events intervened.
As film festivals pivot to online screenings, “Thin Skin” has pivoted too. The Bentonville premiere happened, but online and in August. It’s screening virtually this month as the centerpiece selection of the Harlem International Film Festival. And though Oluo dreamed of an in-person local premiere, with cast, crew and family on hand, he’s settling for the next best thing: a Pacific Northwest-only screening, hosted by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival, at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 12 on its pica.org website. Oluo, Mudede and Oluo’s sister Ijeoma Oluo (author of “So You Want to Talk About Race,” who plays herself in the film) will be online for a live Q&A after the screening’s conclusion.
“Everyone will be watching at the same time,” said Oluo, of the PICA screening. The Bentonville screening provided a 24-hour window for viewing, and while that was advantageous for many reasons, he said, “what we really didn’t get to have was that communal feeling of people enjoying something all at once.”
It’ll be a homecoming of sorts, for a movie that’s been many years in the making. “It was very important to make it a Seattle movie,” Oluo said of the film’s journey. “There are just so few Black independent Seattle films. It was really important for us to show a Seattle that doesn’t really get seen that much. It’s not a ‘Frasier’ Seattle.”
The film was born eight years ago, when Mudede (“Zoo,” “Police Beat”) saw a work-in-progress performance of “Now I’m Fine” — a musical memoir whose life began at Town Hall in Seattle in 2012, and eventually made its way to the New York Public Theater. “He texted me on the way home from there that it should be a movie,” Oluo said, and their work began in earnest in 2013.
For several years, the movie script veered away from the story told in the show, adding romantic relationships and other complications. Eventually West (author of “Shrill” and “The Witches Are Coming,” and Oluo’s wife) joined the project, and “we were all kind of feeling that something wasn’t connecting right.” The problem, they eventually determined, was the romance: “Putting that in there made it feel like a romantic comedy, no matter what else we did.” Out went the love interests, and back to the original show they went, quite literally.
“Charles and I had a moment where we just sat and watched a tape of the live performance, and were like, you know what, let’s just bring it back,” Oluo said. “There’s something about the way the show works that’s really magical.”
Likewise, Oluo kept close to the show when creating the film’s music, performed by local musicians and recorded live. “I’ve never scored an entire feature film, so there was something kind of daunting about that, but also extremely exciting,” he said. He used themes created for the show as a palette — “I wrote them in my 20s and I’m still really proud of them” — but rearranged and reenvisioned them. The result is a film that isn’t a musical, but it feels like one: Oluo immerses the drama in jazz, and often lets the movie pause so we can revel in the music.
Next up for “Thin Skin” are a few more online screenings with regional film festivals — and the hope, held by every new filmmaker, for a distribution deal. While Oluo notes that “it would have been wonderful” to have the film open theatrically — cinematographer Sean Kirby’s moody, glittering work would look glorious on a big screen — the film’s creative team instead hopes to sign a deal with a streaming platform such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.
While some conversations toward that end have begun, Oluo acknowledged that getting someone in the business to watch the movie is challenging. “If it doesn’t have a star in it, it’s just really tough.” He hopes the screenings might bring some momentum.
“I just want people to see it,” he said. “That’s all; that’s the only thing. I spent almost a decade on this thing, I want people to see it.”
“Thin Skin,” screening at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, at pica.org. Tickets are $5-$15 (sliding scale) for Washington, Oregon and Idaho residents only. A live Q&A with Ahamefule J. Oluo, Charles Mudede and Ijeoma Oluo will follow the screening.