Exclusive: Filmmaker Tommy Avallone on Documentary Project THE HOUSE FROM

Exclusive: Filmmaker Tommy Avallone on Documentary Project THE HOUSE FROM

Tommy Avallone is having a thrilling October! His new two-part documentary, I Love You, You Hate Me is now available on Peacock. The project chronicles the development of Barney the dinosaur in the 1980s and ’90s, from home video startup Barney & the Backyard Gang to PBS’s Barney & Friends and beyond. As his title indicates, Avallone approaches this chapter of children’s television history with the understanding that Barney has been deeply loved and strongly hated.

Simultaneously, Avallone has been working on a documentary called The House From, in which he examines the real day-to-day experiences of people who live in famous film and TV houses. As noted in the press release, “Home is where the heart is. But for others, home is where there are a whole lot of people standing outside, taking pictures and reenacting their favorite scenes while you sip your morning coffee.” From October until early November, Avallone and producers Raymond Esposito, Lee Leshen, and Brett Gursky are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for post-production and release expenses. [Update: The House From is now fully funded!] I spoke with Tommy Avallone about nostalgia, pilgrimages, and the insightful messages he’s sharing as a documentary filmmaker. Be sure to follow him @TommyAvallone3 on Instagram and Twitter, and follow @thehousefrom to stay updated on this film! This interview has been lightly edited.

Given the things that you’ve been working on lately, you strike me as someone who is sensitive to nostalgia and its power and the effect that it has on people. I’d love to hear more about your Kickstarter campaign that will be running for a few weeks.

It’s really the only “Hollywood story” that I have. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I was at a party with John Stamos. He introduced me to Jeff Franklin because he knew that I liked famous houses, and Jeff Franklin had the Full House house. So Stamos introduced me to him, and then me and Jeff traded emails. And then I went to his house for lunch. I was just telling him about this project that I’ve always wanted to do about famous houses. And he owned the Full House house at the time. He’s just like, “Well, I’ll be in San Francisco in a couple weeks. Meet me there.” So that was the first thing we shot. We went to San Francisco. I got to see what the real Full House house looked like. It was just crazy. Looks nothing like [the TV house], ’cause they never shot there, you know?

Film poster for THE HOUSE FROM

While Tommy was living in Los Angeles, he and his team pitched this project as a TV series, but with no deaths or scandals lurking in the houses, networks weren’t biting. He was passionate about creating the documentary and decided to make it as an independent film. Numerous homes were included once filming began in California and expanded to other parts of the country:

When I lived out there, we filmed like 17 different houses — Pee-wee’s Big Adventure house, Old School, Friday, Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, Halloween, just so many. And then I eventually moved back to New Jersey and then we kept going. I filmed some houses in Chicago — Home Alone, Uncle Buck, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. We did Roseanne, we just did the Twilight house in Oregon, Short Circuit house, Goonies. When it comes down to selling it, I just noticed the way distribution has been in the past couple years, that it really didn’t make sense for us to try to go for any sort of distribution because we could just release it ourselves. Like, all we need is a little bit of money to put it up, hire PR, and finish the movie. It felt very freeing to go, “We can handle this. We’ve done enough of these. We know what we’re doing.” And that’s what the Kickstarter is for.

Well, I loved the footage that you displayed on the Kickstarter, and I’m seeing both in the Barney project and in this, it’s like one person’s nostalgia can almost be another person’s nightmare, ’cause you have these people that were so excited to come to this iconic property that they’ve loved so much. And then you also have people who are living there, and this is their home. I’m so curious to see more of that dynamic play out in the documentary.

We’re gonna interview some people who study the worship of images. I talked to this one guy outside of the Mrs. Doubtfire house. He’s like, “I’m a product of divorce. This house means so much to me.” I loved the idea to explore that relationship because to millions of people, that’s the house from Mrs. Doubtfire. But to one family, it’s home. You know? I can look up the house that I grew up in and go, “I remember doing this,” you had all these warm memories. But then to share those memories with strangers that think Uncle Jesse lives in your house, or Kevin McCallister, it is weird.

The Strode house from Halloween has a great relationship with the fans. They write her letters, they send her Halloween things, especially during Halloween… Same thing with the Twilight house, Very, very great. Friday, even though the woman who lives there loves the fans, some of them just go too much. Chris Tucker puts his head in Ice Cube’s window and says, “Break yourself!” Someone did that to her daughter, who was home alone. And she’s like, “What’s going on?” So it can be a little scary.

Fandom has the potential now to be very public and massive online. How do you see the internet and social media accelerating physical pilgrimages to these sites for fans to engage with these iconic homes?

When we talk to some of [the homeowners], they’re like, “It was fine until the internet put our addresses up.” Except for the Mrs. Doubtfire house. In the movie, they actually say the address, like “whatever Steiner Street.” At least the Full House house has a different address, and it took fans a little bit to find it. Yeah, it is a pilgrimage. We’re running some of the narrative around [the fact that] there’s always been that sense of going to a thing and trying to, like, almost bring something back. There’s this one fan who loved Halloween so much that he built a replica of the Michael Myers house in North Carolina. One of his favorite movies is I Know What You Did Last Summer, so he’s gone to the beach and saved rocks. It’s this crazy stuff that we’ve always done.

But in some sense, pop culture has become our new religion. So instead of going to Jerusalem and seeing all these things about their religion, they go to Home Alone and go like this: [slaps his cheeks, making the famous Kevin McCallister face], you know? But it’s the same. It brings that same sort of security, comfort, joy… I don’t wanna say anything bad about religion, but the way some of these movies make someone feel — especially sitcoms, because for every week, they were in our house and we’re seeing this family, so it feels like we had this connection. But in reality it’s a normal person who lives there.

Tommy filming homeowner interviews at the Home Alone house
Tommy Avallone conducting an interview in front of the Home Alone house

There’s some interesting work being done right now on “Disney adults” and visiting Disneyland and Disney World as sort of religious experiences. I can kind of see a similarity with the people who do visit these homes. I want to explore even more how these things can be so meaningful that they take on a sacred significance.

Sure, I used to work in Philadelphia and I’d walk by Ben Franklin’s grave all the time. I’d walk by the Liberty Bell, and I didn’t really care. But when I lived in Los Angeles for a minute, I’m like, “I can walk to the Wonder Years house? Sure!” This is what makes me happy, you know?

What were some of the initial reactions from the homeowners when you first reached out to them?

Some people definitely didn’t even get back to me. I’m still trying to get to the Boy Meets World house. That, to me, would be ideal. Or The Wonder Years, you know, any of the Savages, I guess. I’ve written letters to people, like the Pee-wee Herman house. I left a card ’cause they were doing construction, and the contractor gave it to the owner. We’re lucky that Jeff Franklin let us do the Full House house first, because it was like, someone came to the party first: “Oh yeah, we’re doing this documentary. Oh, and we’ve also filmed in the most iconic house in the world!” Hearing Jeff Franklin talk about Full House, and the house he wanted and all that sort of stuff is just great.

Tommy and I discussed the fact that homeowners occasionally offer Airbnb experiences, either by themselves or as a promotional vehicle for a studio. The Twilight house in St. Helens, Oregon, books a year in advance and currently costs $450 per night. It is booked solid.

I’m not a Twilight person, but people love that. They love Bella’s room, and their housekeeper said there’s sometimes been butt cheeks on the glass because so many people have sex in that room. It’s a romance novel, Twilight, right? And so these kids that grew up on Twilight like to have sex in Bella’s room. I didn’t stay at the Twilight house, but our camera guy Derrick did, and he slept in Bella’s bed. He was reading Twilight and watching the movie. He didn’t know much about it, but he was like, “This is fun!”

Were there any homes specifically where you felt transported back to early viewing experiences of those movies or certain memories that you had? Or homes that just made you really excited to be there?

Full House I was really excited… There’s a video on our Kickstarter, thehousefrom.com. I’m just filming on my cell phone, and I’m walking out, and I literally have to ask people to move. I don’t own the house, but they don’t know that. I’m walking out of the door and no one’s saying, “Excuse me, sorry.” They’re just coming right up and like, barging through. So you can only imagine what it’s like to live there. That to me was one of the craziest. One of the houses that I love was the Can’t Hardly Wait house. There’s so much that goes on there: It’s the outside for Can’t Hardly Wait; it’s the inside for American Pie. This is Us shot there, NCIS, Cheaper by the Dozen, Ghost Whisperer, just so many things. It’s Always Sunny, a Lindsay Lohan movie, a Tim Allen movie… Liz, the owner, was like, “This is where Stifler got peed on,” and it’s just this nice old lady showing us around some of these scenes. We brought Ethan Embry and Joel Michaely (from Can’t Hardly Wait) to the house.

Ethan Embry is the coolest, most amazing person in the world. We had him in our This is GWAR documentary, and we talked to him about Empire Records because he was in Empire Records with GWAR. He was in so many movies back then… To see him come down those steps and be like, “Amanda!” And Joel, he pretended to be Amanda Beckett. They were just doing the lines together. It was amazing.

Ethan and Joel in front of the Can't Hardly Wait house
Ethan Embry and Joel Michaely in front of the Can’t Hardly Wait house

While filming the different properties, was there a certain theme or message woven throughout that you might be hopeful viewers notice, or that really hit home for you?

Well, I mean, some people don’t expect that real people live there. I think, hopefully when people watch this, they’re a little bit more respectful. I mean, I’ve seen video of fans going right into the backyard of the Wonder Years house to pretend like they’re Kevin Arnold playing basketball. The Sex and the City house, it’s crazy. I’ve literally seen someone on a video zoom in on “No Trespassing” and then step over it… So it is quite crazy what people will do for a picture. Look, I love Instagram. I love getting my pictures sometimes, like I might have gone too far for a picture or two. I’ve never actually gone on someone’s property like that, you know?

Sure. And I think that it’s really tough just because of Instagram and thinking that you can see so much of someone’s life. And they’re not in that house still filming that movie or anything, but because of maybe that parasocial relationship, there’s something that takes over when you go to look at [these homes].

I love the idea of looking at an image, and it meaning two completely different things to two different people. The Sex and the City apartment is home to whatever family lives there, and in New York, it’s just filled with people like taking pictures all day. So it’s just really interesting and I can’t imagine having to deal with that all the time. I talked to one of the owners of Full House and they would say you just had to try to wait a little bit until someone left and then run out to your car. That’s your home, you know?

But the thing is, a lot of my documentaries have this sort of Trojan horse, like Bill Murray Stories is about living in the moment, being present. I Am Santa Claus is about identity and community, and Barney’s obviously about why we hate. [In The House From], we play around with the idea of worshiping images and stuff like that, but it is just kind of a fun watch. And it’s okay to have that documentary out every once in a while that’s just like, I’m just gonna enjoy myself for like 80 minutes. There’s maybe a couple things you’ll learn, pop culture wise; there’ll be some strong points, I think. To see what these houses are and to see them all together — there’s a street in South Pasadena where there’s like six famous houses right next to each other. There’s Biff’s house from Back to the Future. And if you remember in Back to the Future II, when he kicks the ball on the house, that’s Luke Wilson’s house from Old School. And then right next to that is Lorraine’s house from Back to the Future, which is also the same house from Teen Wolf. And then over here is George McFly’s house. And then down here is Ghost Dad, and over here is the show Thirtysomething. So it’s just crazy. And then half those houses were in like, NCIS or those sort of crime shows.

Both the Barney story and The House From are projects that come with such deep connections for viewers. There are so many ways to meditate on and interact with the pop culture objects that we love, and perhaps we can get to know others by considering the things that matter most to them.

Barney plush toy from a '90s episode

What would you say to someone like me who was born in the thick of Barney’s popularity and has a lot of love for this purple dinosaur, to let them know that there’s something really special about this film for them, too?

So, I was not a Barney fan. I was 10 years old when Barney came out, so I never got Barney. But for the people who did get Barney, I’m sure they got their own sort of backlash or got teased, [or] you got old enough where you felt like you had to act like you didn’t like Barney just to fit in. I think this film will validate any of those sort of emotions. Like, I think it’s gonna turn people around to really respect Barney, maybe some for the first time. Barney came out on PBS in ’92, it was on tapes in 1988. So if you were older for that time period, you just never got it, never respected it… And I think watching this, you go, “Alright, Barney wasn’t that bad. What was I thinking? I mean, maybe the song’s annoying, but I could respect it.”

I think that Steve Burns is just a beacon of wisdom at the end. I won’t spoil it for anybody, but to hear so many different perspectives explaining the importance of Barney, and also trying to see the lives of people who did hate it so much. It’s quite an interesting collage. I’m curious also, what was it like to talk to the people who made this dinosaur, this show? You had a great group of people involved.

Yeah, it’s like being like in a punk band and being in a garage, and then a couple years later you’re signed to Universal or Warner Bros. These people, for four years, made these tapes that were doing well. But it’s so low-budget. I mean, those first three tapes of Barney, they’ll be the first ones to tell you. They were figuring it out as they went along. You make this tape and then four years later it’s the biggest thing in the world. That’s this journey that they all got to go on together, and it all kind of came together and rose to this popularity. So the amount of time they put in… it’s definitely a thing that they’ll cherish forever. Because to be a part of that, especially early on, it was very magical. You could see that when they talk about it and how much they still love this purple dinosaur.

The film has a very powerful message — there’s so much hate. Hating a purple dinosaur, to the extent that some of these folks in the documentary did, is not necessarily that far of a jump from other kinds of hate.

There’s a lot of similar traits. Not knowing something, not getting something, not fully understanding it, being afraid of it. We try to show hate at its simplest form, and so you can kind of understand that behavioral trait and go, “Well why do I do that? You know, why is that?” It’s not Barney. It’s about what it makes you feel inside. Bob West said, “It wasn’t Barney that they hated. It was like a mirror. And Barney was like a mirror that just reflected the things you don’t like about yourself.”

________________________________________________________________________

I Love You, You Hate Me is out now on Peacock. Visit thehousefrom.com to learn more about The House From. The film is now fully funded! You can keep up with Tommy on social media by following @TommyAvallone3.

Stay up to date on our latest nostalgia-inspired features and Disney Channel history projects by following @AMcClainMerrill on Twitter and @pastfootforward on Instagram.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s