Indie Movie Is Nearly an All-Wolverine Affair

Two friends and classmates use their U-M connections to create their first feature-length film
By Jeremy Carroll


Read time: 3 minutes
Four men walk on the set of a movie.
Pomme Koch, ’11, Neal Kelley, ’13, Yuriy Sardarov, ’10, and Jono Sherman, ’13, star in the dark comedy "Daddy."

Four years after graduating from the University of Michigan, Neal Kelley, ’13, was looking for a change. He had gone to New York City to pursue a career in theatre and had worked on off-Broadway productions.

But having acted on stage since he was about 6 or 7 years old, Kelley was starting to get an itch to do something different.

“I found that I was drawn more and more toward writing and directing less toward acting and less toward the theater,” Kelley says.

That’s when he reunited with his friend and classmate Jono Sherman, ’13, at a wedding. Sherman had moved to Los Angeles and was writing and acting there. Growing up in Ann Arbor together, the two had been friends since they were 13 years old. Soon they decided to become professional partners, and Kelley packed his bags for California.

“It wasn’t until Neal moved out here that I felt like I found someone who was a collaborator with really the exact same kinds of goals in mind and the same kinds of sort of lofty expectations for himself and his work,” Sherman says.

The two started writing film and television scripts, but when COVID-19 hit in 2020, their plans for their first feature film were put on hold due to costs and the pandemic.

“We decided, let’s take a chance on our own, trying to do something a little smaller scale,” Kelley says.

In the fall of 2020, amid the presidential election and the ongoing pandemic, the two wrote a dark comedy called “Daddy.” In the film, the state has the power to determine who can and cannot father children and four men are sent to a government-sanctioned retreat in the remote mountains of California. But when they arrive, there is no guide or instructions and the group is left to their own devices, unsure if they’re being monitored from a distance.

Sherman says that while he was at U-M, he gained an appreciation of how world events can impact cinema, such as French films before, during, and after World War II. He says “Daddy” follows that tradition as something that was born out of a response to the isolation of the pandemic and what he calls “the national daddy issues” the country was experiencing with the election of Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden, and how prominently their children played a role in the campaign.

The film is nearly an all-Wolverine affair. Sherman and Kelley co-wrote and co-directed the film, and play the two of the four men on the retreat. The other two are Yuriy Sardarov, ’10, and Pomme Koch, ’11. Jacqueline Toboni, ’14, plays a character that shows up in the middle of the movie and Britt Barron, ’13, does voiceover work. The director of photography is also a U-M grad, Bryce Holden, ’14.

“I really don’t think Neal and I would have been able to make this movie the way that we made it without the relationships that we built at Michigan,” Sherman says. “The fact that so many of the relationships that we created while we were there ended up playing a major role in what is, to date, the largest professional endeavor that Neal and I have undergone, says a lot.”

“Daddy” has been shown at several film festivals and Sherman and Kelley are working on landing a distribution deal. It will be shown at the Cinequest Film Festival and they are planning on having an event with the U-M Club of Silicon Valley on Aug. 19.

In the meantime, the duo is working on their next project, a thriller that is based in Northern Michigan.

“If you had told me 10 years ago when I was graduating, ‘Hey, you will have made a feature film in 10 years.’ I’d take that,” Kelley says. “It’s important to kind of have those reflections and perspectives, and remember, it’s just one piece of the hopefully a longer journey of a career in the arts.”

Jeremy Carroll is the content strategist for the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan.

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