Relighting Candles: The Tim Sullivan Story is a wonderful, heartwarming story just in time for the holiday season. It is a feel-good documentary about a genuinely kind guy, Tim Sullivan, and his journey from an alcoholic ad man in NYC to his sobriety and his move to sunny West Hollywood. Sullivan started making candles, and people loved them. He turned this into his new career and started a new chapter in his life that he transformed into an opportunity to serve his community. He employs homeless and recently sober people, mainly in the LGBTQ community, and gives them a chance to rebuild their lives.
Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows that in the past ten years or so the homeless population has dramatically increased, and it seems that there is no end in sight. It is a tragedy of epic proportions mixed with the staggering Fentanyl crisis, as well, which feeds into the overall malaise in the city of angels. Most people would like to turn a blind eye, but the beautiful thing about Tim is, he doesn’t ignore the devastation; he outwardly puts himself in service to his community.
The filmmaking team of Zeberiah Newman and Michiel Thomas recently spoke with us about the project. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Below the Line: How did you guys first learn about Tim Sullivan? What was your first impression of him? When did you first become aware of him?
Zeberiah Newman: I’m in the sober community here in Los Angeles, so I’ve known about Tim ever since I’ve been here, which has been about 15 years. He’s sort of an icon in the community. Everyone knows that every holiday season, if you’re looking for work, you can go to Tim’s shop and help pour and package candles. He’s helped thousands of people over the years to get sober and some of the previous workers are some of my closest friends; they’ve gone on to be very successful in their own lives and careers, and it all started at the candle shop.
Below the Line: Prior to Relighting Candles: The Tim Sullivan Story, how was your journey here? What were your backgrounds?
Newman: My background is in television production. I started at the Ellen DeGeneres show and was there for six years and then I moved over to The Late Show with James Corden where I was a supervising producer for the entire run of the show, and then I started making some reality shows, and after that I bought a camera and made my first documentary. I’ve been making documentaries ever since.
Michiel Thomas: I was born and raised in Belgium, and in 2008 after I graduated from the film school in Brussels, I moved to Los Angeles to study broadcasting at Santa Monica College. And the plan was to just go there for one year and then go back. But once I arrived and I saw the palm trees and the sun, I said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I did mostly camera work and editing jobs, freelance. And then in 2015, I created my first feature-length documentary called Game Face, which was first released on Netflix and it’s now available on Peacock.
Below the Line: How did Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone become involved in the project?
Newman: When I was at The Late Show with James Corden and had worked with them many, many times; we had some really fun bits with Melissa at The Late Show. So years later I reached out to them and asked if they were interested and we had a meeting. I was very nervous and shaking a little, but they were super receptive.
Ben scribbled on my notes, his personal email address, and said, “When you get some footage, send it to us and we will take a look. We’re interested.” Then we sent him a string of footage, and within an hour they got back to us and said they were in. And it has been a wonderful working relationship ever since.
Below the Line: This film balances a lot of heavy issues, can you shed some light on some of those topics (Homelessness, Drug Addiction)?
Thomas: Unfortunately, homelessness and addiction go hand in hand, and the link with Tim becoming sober, and then when you become sober, what they teach you is also to be of service and then he passed it on with his candle shop. It was very important for us to include those stories of workers at the shop to show a variety of situations that happen to people, because we all see a lot of homelessness, people on the streets under bridges, but at the same time, we also don’t see them because we don’t know their stories.
Initially, we wanted to hold back a little bit, not to exploit them, but we realized as well that it was very important to give their raw story that it was a reality of the lives that they lived, because once they got to the shop and got into the program their lives improved.
Below the Line: Tell us a little bit about the main filming of Tim. What did you hope to capture there?
Thomas: We filmed him for eight hours at his home which is so nice and cozy, and we wanted him to be in a very comfortable situation on his couch, in the comfort of his home with some lights in the back to have kind of that feeling of grandpa telling a Christmas story about his life.
Below the Line: What about filming at the shop?
Newman: We were in and out of that shop quite a bit. I think that part of the thinking or the strategy was to become familiar with the workers and the shop so that they would trust us and be more comfortable. So the first few times we were there, things were a little bit more tense and stiff, but I’d say by the third or fourth, maybe the fifth time, they’d treat us like we’re workers. They’d welcome us, and they’re very casual and relaxed with us. And that’s when we got the best interviews with them.
Below the Line: Please tell us about your editor, Leah Turner. What’d she bring to the table?
Newman: Leah is the secret sauce to this mission. I’ve worked with her on all of my films.
Thomas: She delivers so fast, we had more than four hours of interview and she went to work and delivered a montage of an hour, which was a great starting point to work with. She’s so amazing, so talented.
Below the Line: So, how are happy are you two with the doc’s reception? How’s it been?
Thomas: It’s been great, especially the screenings in Los Angeles. Tim is so loved within the community, and we have one screening hosted by the city of West Hollywood, and they gave him a Tim Sullivan Day in West Hollywood. He already had a key to the city, so I’m very happy that he’s being celebrated and that the work that he does is being celebrated.
Ben and Melissa created their signature candle, which is on sale right now on the website of the shop and it’s great also because those sales help to employ people who struggle with addiction and homelessness, and always that’s been the goal as well.