Brian Donovan was like thousands of other hopeful actors, moving to LA to try to crack into the biz. Bit parts and even leading roles followed, along with a breakthrough as a regular voice actor in the popular anime series Naruto. Moving to LA, though, meant that he left his big sister Kelly behind. Kelly was born with Down syndrome, limiting her chances of ever performing herself, even though that is what she truly loved. Brian proceeds to bring Kelly over to Hollywood, living with him for 2 months at a time, which disrupts many of his personal relationships. Very close as children, having Kelly around makes Brian happy, but when he meets Australian Tempany Deckert and she looks to be the one, how will Kelly deal with it?
As Kelly’s health deteriorates due to a heart condition related to Down syndrome, Brian continues to record his interactions with her, ultimately dreaming of making Kelly’s dream of performing in Hollywood come true. Plus meeting her idols Colin Firth, The Bee Gees and David Hasselhoff among others, who all feature in the film.
Last year, Brian Donovan toured Australia to promote the film and to host a handful of screenings to adoring audiences. Kelly’s Hollywood may deal with the impact of disability on a family, and specifically on a brother/sister bond and how that effects those around them, but really, this is a film for everyone. By recording his experiences with Kelly, Brian has turned the mirror onto the viewer, allowing us to empathise and to understand ourselves as deeply as what’s on the screen.
When did this project become a reality? Was it when Kelly was still alive?
Brian: I filmed my sister, just this big brother with a consumer camera thing…. I guess starting in 1998-ish. No intention of making a documentary about her. By 2003 I had accumulated a lot of footage of my sister. And I just realised that I had never really seen a film like it, something that intimate, that POV, disability or otherwise. But I just started to think, ‘wow, maybe there’s a story here that I could share’. The intention, or the hope was that the spirit of my sister would translate to film because I think my mission when she was alive, was just to make sure that she was in the room with me. And make sure that people could experience her in that way, true inclusion if you will, and so that was always really important to me. I had hoped with the film I could carry that on and just have people in the room with my sister on her terms, as a fully realised woman, to get to know her. And include her in society.
But you know, I was an actor, I’m in front of the camera, I was like, ‘what does filmmaking really mean?’ Even though I’ve been around it most of my adult life, being in the business, making a film is a whole other package.
I did start shooting her with more intention from about 2003 to 2006, when things were a little rough. And then we did the live show, that was really the tipping point because a good friend, thank god, had suggested that I shoot the large show with three cameras. Like really shoot it as a show, and I think once we did the show and I had that footage, I realised that there’s a real trajectory here, and a real climax.
I started post production, and then when I was in post my sister passed away, so as you can imagine it was a huge blow and I sheltered for two and a half years and emotionally I was just trying to figure out how do I get back to this. And to finish the journey, finish the story, finish the dream.
Here in Australia, we know Tempany as an actress [Home & Away], but in the film you’ve described her as a writer. Did Tempany have any input to the final film?
Tempany: When I met Brian and he introduced Kelly to me, he was always filming her right from the get-go. They were always filming because I think there was always this intention that Kelly wanted to be a star. He always filmed her to make her feel like she was performing that way. And I hated being filmed. Unless I was acting, which is kind of ironic. So, I was trying not be filmed in the documentary all the time and I tried to stay out of all of that, that was their thing. There wasn’t really much input from me other than me telling Brian when he was doing certain drafts of the film, this is not going deep enough. I was like you need to show the problems. There was a lot of love for his sister, and how much he loved her and the fun they had together. I was like, ‘but you need to show the issues we had’. I don’t mind being the bad guy in the film. You need to show the levels of complexities of families. And all those layers of what happens when you have someone in a family who might need more attention or disability comes into it.
We started grappling with that and it was challenging. But I always left it up to Brian. I said, ‘you’re the filmmaker’ but I would go with it. I think he described me as a writer because at that time I was writing. I wasn’t acting, I was working as a writer. But no, I just kind of let him do his thing.
Brian: I would add, it’s one thing to make a movie, and another to make a documentary about yourself, your own life and your sister. But then of course, I asked a lot of Tempany and my mom and exposing them that way and to our relationship. I’m always very appreciate to Tempany, not only for what you see in the film but also for allowing to dig in this way. Especially because she did have a very public past, it would be a big ask to ask any spouse, but certainly someone that has had the past that she’s had.
Obviously, the film is a tribute to Kelly, but it’s as much about you and what you needed, which was to give Kelly 100% of your attention, which I know many parents of children with disability grapple with. Additionally, your devotion impacts on the people around you.
Brian: Yeah well, I mean look, I think there’s a big difference between being a brother and being a parent. The film does reflect that, it’s called Kelly’s Hollywood for a reason. It reflects our time in Hollywood, and her time with me and us together for those two months, which is a very concentrated amount of time. I’d liken it to divorce couples that juggle the kids between relationships and there’s almost always one parent that’s like the day-to-day grind and then there’s the good time Charlie parent. And in some ways, I was that. She came to Hollywood and we had two months and it was a good time. That two months is extremely special to me as you can imagine, and what’s depicted in the film. It was kind of sacred, and I did kind of create 100% me and Kelly time, which of course was problematic on my other relationships. That was something I had to figure out. I didn’t find out what that meant, to have a long term loving relationship, and those boundaries and compromises and stuff.
We all know in any relationship, there is finding those lines for sense of self, and then sense of who you are in a relationship and those boundaries and compromises. It evolved and devolved depending on those things constantly changing. I think very early on there was always a ticking clock with my sister and so that also heightened the intensity of our time together and not knowing every time I said goodbye to my sister after our two months together or me being back in Buffalo visiting… I didn’t know if that was going be the last time. As you can imagine that raised the stakes if you will, which was also I think how I justified it myself throughout a lot of my relationships prior to Tempany. ‘I’m not going to compromise this because this could be the last time literally’. It was kind of a non-starter really until I had to go ‘okay, well I want a long term relationship with Tempany so how do I navigate this?
In the film you talk about Kelly being the other half of your whole. I know that you love Tempany, but is there like a hole in your own life?
Brian: I cried every day for two years. She was my soul mate and she’s all I knew for so many years, and as Tempany will attest, I wasn’t exactly sure who I was without her. There will always be a hole in my heart. That said I have a spectacular wife, I have two beautiful boys, and Tempany’s been remarkably supportive. Not only while my sister was alive and then I was working on the film and then I finished the film, I was promoting the film. This journey continues, and she’s literally by my side right now too. You fill your life up, we have a very full life because the boys and our family. And time heals of course, so that helps. And frankly I am the luckiest brother in the world to still be able to celebrate my sibling and her legacy.
And she’s given me this incredible platform to speak about things I really care about like compassion, inclusion, equality, all these wonderful things and quite frankly there’s not enough in the world right now. I don’t know if there’s ever been enough for those things in the world. If I could have a small part in tipping the balance in favour of compassion and awareness and these things that really matter to me then lucky me, really.
Tempany, had you been exposed to disability before you met Kelly and Brian?
Tempany: I hadn’t really, my dad had a friend whose brother was born with Down syndrome but I remember being a kid and being scared of him because no one explained anything to me and didn’t really sit me down and introduce him to me. And I didn’t really know anything, so I remember when I met Brian and he said, ‘Oh, my sister has Down syndrome and she comes to live with me for nearly three months of the year’, I was terrified. And I also had no idea how to prepare. I was like, ‘what is she gonna be like? How is she gonna treat me?’ I think for people who don’t have anyone with disability or Down syndrome specifically in their lives, that person is more scared of how to deal with a person who has it because you don’t want to offend them or you don’t understand them, or you’re scared you’re going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. And then when I met her, within about 10 minutes, I was just like ‘oh she’s just his sister’. I suddenly got it, I was like ‘oh Down syndrome doesn’t mean anything that I thought it did, she’s just his sister’. And she has all the same qualities as anyone that doesn’t have Down syndrome, she just has this thing, but it doesn’t make her any different in the way that I perceived her. I had a few conversations with her where she would put on this performance a lot of the time. And whenever Brian was not there or asleep, she became this other person who was much more mature, and wise. Through her, it helped me understand that any type of disability doesn’t make a person. We’re all just people and it’s just an element of someone but it doesn’t actually change who they are. It was a big eye opener for me, it was a great lesson. But I know I was terrified of it, and I think that’s the big obstacle to people in the community. There’s not enough awareness of people with disabilities, that they are actually just the same as everyone else. We just need more awareness as with everything in life.
Brian: This film is as much an homage to my sister and to moms and families. Without getting too wacky and weird, I truly believe in the vibration of the human being. If anything is carried on from the film, your experience with the film, when you lay on your pillow tonight, just remember that we’re all here for a reason. And that what we choose to vibrate in this world, truly affects the world. I look at my sister and I look at that vibration that she’s had throughout her life, it’s just nothing short of a miracle really. This little girl born with Down syndrome in Buffalo, New York in 1969 and now here we are watching a movie about her.
I encourage you to talk to kids, I encourage that you remember that if you have a dream that anything can be. I mean that is the mantra, that’s on the poster of the film, anything can be. And just that vibration, just remember that you can change the world, and that’s pretty amazing.