“Au Pair, Kansas”: KU grad’s debut film, which stars Traci Lords, premieres at Kansas City FilmFest

In Au

J.T. O’Neal has a graduate master’s degree of public health from Harvard University and is currently director of an occupational medicine residency program in St. Paul, Minn., but what this graduate of Kansas University and KU Medical Center really wants to do is make movies.

This weekend, the film he wrote and directed, “Au Pair, Kansas,” is having its world premiere at the Kansas City FilmFest. The downtown AMC Mainstreet 6 Theatre will show the comedy-drama, shot mostly on location in Lindsborg, at 7:45 p.m. Saturday, April 9. The screening is open to the general public.

O’Neal, who also has an MFA from UCLA’s highly respected screenwriting program, wrote “Au Pair, Kansas” specifically for Norwegian TV star Håvard Lilleheie after seeing him in the opening night feature at a film festival in San Jose, Calif. In O’Neal’s fish-out-of-water tale, Lilleheie plays a male au pair who comes to the small Swedish Kansas community to help a grieving widow (Traci Lords) and her two sons.

For O’Neal, it has been a long road leading up to this big weekend. Although filming on this movie wrapped Christmas Eve 2008, he spent the years before that writing award-winning screenplays and directing short films.

“You really can’t advance in the film world unless you do a feature. So I stopped doing shorts about five years ago to focus on getting ‘Au Pair, Kansas’ done,” O’Neal says. “I directed this film because I didn’t want someone else to screw it up.”

The origins of the feature are also firmly rooted in Kansas. After finishing his pre-med requirements at KU in his first two years, O’Neal decided to major in art history. His honor’s research paper on Lindsborg artist Birger Sandzen took him often to Lindsborg, where he says he was “semi-adopted” by Sandzen’s daughter Margaret Greenough.

“The Sandzen oil painting that Margaret gave to me when I finished KU med school appears in the background of the first dinner sequence in the movie,” he says. “There’s another close-up of a Sandzen painting of Jesus later in the film at the church.”

O’Neal likes to keep busy. His own photographs are in museum collections, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, and KU’s own Spencer Museum of Art.

“My love of visual images in photography grew into a love of visual images in film,” he said.

Lawrence resident Tom Carmody, who was a producer on Kevin Willmott’s “Bunker Hill” and “The Only Good Indian,” is an executive producer on “Au Pair, Kansas” as well. He was impressed with what O’Neal was able to do with a relatively miniscule budget. (According to O’Neal, the movie was made for around $200,000.)

“‘Au Pair’ was shot on the Red One digital camera, which seems to be the trend of a lot of smaller independent films,” Carmody says. “But you’d never know it was a low-budget film – it looks astounding.”

Getting the movie made was one struggle that took years to complete, but in a way, the buzz for “Au Pair, Kansas” doesn’t start until people see it. After Saturday night, the film will travel to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, the Bare Bones Film Festival in Muskogee, Okla., and the renegade indie festival (that takes place during Cannes proper) called the Cannes Independent Film Festival.

Eventually, “Au Pair, Kansas” will get a release through DVD, Internet and Video-on-Demand outlets, but right now O’Neal is excited for audiences to see the film in theaters. “Its journey out into the world is just starting,” he says.