Tommy Oliver does not sit idle. That was a key message communicated during the wide-ranging conversation Samsung hosted on August 28th with the inexhaustible writer-director-producer at Samsung 837 in New York, during the fourth and final session of Samsung’s 2nd annual Summer Discovery Series.
Sitting down with Jeff Pohlman, VP of Corporate Communications and Social Responsibility, the Los Angeles-based Oliver – whose docuseries about marriage, ‘Black Love’, premiered this week on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network – reflected on his burgeoning career and offered invaluable advice to aspiring creatives. “The single biggest difference in success is not talent, who you know, or ability… It’s about hard work,” Oliver commented.
Recounting how his own self-reliance and work ethic developed while growing up in Philadelphia, Oliver was candid about his struggles as the child of a crack-addicted mother and an absent father. He referred to books as his mentors and found inspiration learning about luminaries like Bill Gates during the hour-long bus rides to school. Movies like American History X and Boyz n the Hood also resonated with him because the stories they portrayed “actually had the ability to change the way you think about something,” Oliver explained.
Between the riveting details he shared about his journey as a creative professional, from running a production company as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, to earning his first break early in his career with the film ‘Kinyarwanda’ – a drama set during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide — that garnered numerous accolades, the audience got an intimate glimpse at the makings of Oliver’s hard-earned success story.
Yet it was his brushes with failure that struck a chord. Oliver’s first major directing project, 1982 – story about a family fighting to stay together against the backdrop of the nation’s war on drugs – nearly flopped before getting off the ground, as he’d failed to secure a single investor a mere four weeks before filming was set to begin. Oliver went on to explain that experience taught him a lesson on ambition and dedication.
“If what you’re reaching for doesn’t exceed your grasp, that’s a problem,” Oliver explained. While he eventually completed the film, its subsequent rejection from Sundance inspired him to work even harder. “I recut every single frame of that movie – for months,” he recalled. “If something doesn’t work, I’m looking at me: What could I have done better?”
With various projects in the pipeline, including two movies, a mini-series, and a multi-part true-crime documentary series, the 32-year-old is busier than ever. How does he juggle it all? “There’s always going to be a reason not to do the things we want to do, so it’s about figuring out how to do it,” he told the audience. “If you’re waiting for permission, you’re never going to get there.”
“It’s easier than it’s ever been to make a movie, short, or to write something,” Oliver went on. “You can do it for free, or for cheap, you can do it on your phone. So there’s no excuse not to.”