Sean Olson, a former long-time Phoenix resident and editor for entertainment news magazine Extra, was anxiously awaiting the Arizona premiere of his newest movie and its opening in Harkins Theatres in April.
But then came the pandemic, closing film festivals and theaters.
“Ah, the challenge of releasing an independent film in the middle of a pandemic,” Olson lightheartedly mused.
He finally got good news as the Roadhouse Cinemas in Scottsdale and Tucson last week reopened their doors and are showing “Max Winslow and the House of Secrets.”
Olson – a four-time Emmy winner for editing, including the TV show “Crime Watch with Chris Hansen” – was able to show a preview in Los Angeles and Boston before lockdown.
“Max Winslow” fell victim to the cancellation of the April 3 International Horror/Sci-Fi Film Festival, Olson remains in good spirits.
But an even bigger disappointment was the cancellation of a family trip to London, where “Max Winslow” was up for Best Feature Film at the Crystal Palace Film Festival.
“My family and I were ready to fly over during spring break,” said Olson, a member of the Producers Guild of America. “Even my dad and stepmom were going with us.”
His film is a thriller about five teenagers who are selected to compete to win a mansion owned by eccentric billionaire, entrepreneur and scientist Atticus Virtue.
The teens face off against a supercomputer named Haven who controls the mansion and then discover themselves trapped in the mansion overnight. They are forced to face off against each other and the AI that controls everything in the house.
Haven is voiced by Marina Sirtis, famed for her role as Counselor Deanna Troi in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV series and subsequent movies.
“What I really like about ‘Max Winslow’ is we have multiple characters from different walks of life and their stories and arcs are all fully-developed; you can see a change in every one of them. It has a little bit for everyone; it’s a thrill ride from start to finish,” he said.
In addition to his Extra editing gig, Olson is co-owner – with his wife and friends Christian Beckman and Andrea Nelson – of Trash Panda Entertainment, where he serves as creative director.
Among other films produced and directed by Olson and his company include thrillers “The Contractor” and “The Other Mother” and lighter films, including “Christmas Wonderland,” “Christmas Reunion” and “F.R.E.D.I”.
“F.R.E.D.I,” directed by Olson and co-written by his wife, is currently streaming on Netflix and garnered good reviews from critics and families.
“My producer Johnny Remo gave me a call and said to me, ‘I want to make a robot movie and I’ll make you an offer. If you can figure out how to do the robot you can direct the film,’” Olson recalled.
“I took him up on his offer and talked with a friend of mine, Christian Beckman who owns Quantum Creation FX - a special FX and costume company – and pitched him the idea and he was sold on my pitch,” Olson related.
“There was talk about doing “F.R.E.D.I.” as a computer-generated robot but in the end we did it as a puppet, and it was the right choice. Our cast really appreciated it as well, because in CGI you would interact with tennis balls. This wasn’t the case with “F.R.E.D.I.”, everything was done on set.”
“I was very excited to direct that film because of my love for the films of my youth; every day on set felt like a dream,” said Olson, who was an Eagle Scout. “It’s very family-friendly, clean language with no violence.”
Like films directed by John Hughes, to whom Olson has been compared, “F.R.E.D.I.” and “Max Winslow” center around and feature teenagers.
“John Hughes is one of my favorites and I’m honored when anyone compares us. The writer of ‘Max Winslow and the House of Secrets,’ Jeff Wild, and I did model some of our characters after ‘The Breakfast Club.’”
He also has other role models – including directors Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.
“Spielberg has impacted me in more ways than one; when he was a teenager, he lived in the Phoenix area and that made me believe a kid from Ahwatukee could one day make it in the industry. He also made some of my favorite films” ‘Jaws,’ ’Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘E.T.’”
For “Max Winslow” Olson and crew traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas, where more than 200 high school students showed up to be extras on a 12-degree, snowy day.
“Working with young people is something I really enjoy,” said Olson.
“When I directed ‘F.R.E.D.I.’ – a movie about a teenager who finds a robot – I wanted to pay homage to ‘E.T.’ but also make it my own thing. I had the best time working with our young actors.”
“My experience on ‘F.R.E.D.I.’ really informed me on how I wanted to work on ‘Max Winslow’ and we had a great time on that one.
“I will say it’s a lot easier working with one or two teens at a time because once you get three or more, it becomes a lot more challenging to focus them.”
Olson’s father, Marty Olson, owned Desert Sun Contracting and Tile in Tempe and he and his brother Nick Olson would often accompany his father on jobs. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor of fine arts degree in media arts.
Olson took editing classes at Scottsdale Community College and was hired at KPHO-CBS.
“I ended up getting a job there as an editor. My shift started at 3 a.m. I worked there for a year, then my supervisor brought me to Denver to work at KMGH for two years. From there I moved to Southern California.”
Olson said he feels fortunate to be able to continue his work from home and lately finds himself “fixing things up around the house since I now have the time.”