Commentary: Producers' road trip leads to road trip movie


"Sherman's" story: Stories for movies originate in many ways, but "Sherman's Way" is unique in that it's a road trip movie that resulted from a road trip its director and star took while trying to come up with an idea for a film.

"Sherman's," opening Friday in New York and March 13 in L.A. via Starry Night Entertainment, marks the feature directorial debut for Craig Saavedra, who started out directing for television with the 1999 romantic drama "Rhapsody in Bloom" starring Penelope Ann Miller and Ron Silver. Saavedra's partnered in Starry Night with actor-producer Michael Shulman, who plays Sherman. The two originally met, by the way, when Shulman as a teenager was in the "Rhapsody" cast.

Also starring in "Sherman's" are James Le Gros, Enrico Colantoni, Brooke Nevin, Donna Murphy, Thomas Ian Nicholas and Lacey Chabert. Shulman and Saavedra produced the film with Tom Nance, who wrote its screenplay and previously wrote for such series as "Perfect Strangers" and "Ned and Stacy."

The movie's roots, I learned from talking recently to Saavedra after enjoying an early look at the film, are in a road trip he and Shulman took while trying to find a first project to produce through their Starry Night partnership.

"We knew we wanted to make a film that I was going to direct and Michael Shulman was going to star in -- and that was it," he explained. "Michael and I started Starry Night Entertainment together about three years ago, and we set out to make a $25,000 digital feature just to kind of get our toes wet in the filmmaking process as a new entity. It kind of snowballed as we developed this script. We would go on long drives and try to come up with story ideas. I'm a big wine aficionado so we were driving up through Napa."

The considerable differences between the two friends turned out to be the catalyst for developing a story that worked for their first movie. "Mike's much younger than I am. He just graduated from Yale and was born and bred in New York and I'm born and bred in California," Saavedra told me. "While we were driving and I was commenting on the beautiful scenery and stopping off and enjoying good wines, he was cursing the lack of cell reception for his Blackberry and wasn't looking at anything that was so beautiful.

"I realized we had a story right between us -- the difference between the West Coast and the East Coast and the age difference and the philosophies of learning through living life and learning through going to the best schools in the world. So we started developing the script based on that. And after probably 25 different rewrites and a couple different writers we came upon a story that we thought worked."

That story, he said, "is basically a romantic comedy where the guy doesn't get the girl. It's a buddy picture where the two buddies can't stand each other. And it's a road picture that really goes nowhere." Those two incompatible buddies are Sherman (Shulman) as a young Ivy League type who finds himself stranded on the West Coast with Palmer, a washed-up, middle-aged former athlete (Le Gros), as he's trying to get to Beverly Hills to start an internship at a top law firm.

The film's title came to Saavedra in a most unusual way: "We knew we had our Sherman (in Shulman). He was actually called Sheldon (then) and for the longest time the script was untitled. But I was sitting at a stop light driving home to my house in the (San Fernando) Valley and I looked up and saw the sign 'Sherman Way' and I went, 'Whoa! You know, it's kind of a journey (story) so we'll change his name from Sheldon to Sherman and we have a title.' It's funny because people in Los Angeles all seem to say, 'Sherman's Way? I've heard of your movie' and I'm thinking, 'No, you've just heard of the street,' but I'm not going to correct them."

Although they thought they knew where they wanted to shoot, things turned out differently. "We actually wrote it for Napa," he pointed out. "The wonderful thing about writing in Los Angeles is you can scout locations quite well on the Internet without having to go there. The downside is you're relying on beautiful Chamber of Commerce photos that don't always reflect reality. So when we went out to do a scout in Napa we realized that as beautiful as it is it didn't quite fit the setting of the movie and the small towns that did were not necessarily really inviting to filmmakers."

Saavedra and his team got a lucky break, he added, when they were "contacted by the Chamber of Commerce to Lake County (in northern California). That proved to be one of the best godsends for our film. We shot 90% of the movie (there) about an hour and a half north of Napa. (County Administrative Officer) Kelly Cox became our de facto location manager. Basically, they not only gave us the keys to the city, but (also to) the roads and the lakes. It was extremely filmmaker friendly. We didn't pay a single permit or location fee. They closed down entire streets for us. It was really an incredibly wonderful welcoming experience. We couldn't have made the film without them."

Recalling past experiences, he noted, "I've made films in New York and Los Angeles and they're great towns to work in, but (they have) very, very savvy populations that understand how films are made. When you move to a distant location that has never had a film shot in the area, everybody is just so excited. We had people wanting to be extras and opening their homes for us. One guy where we shot a scene actually had a barbecue for the entire crew. That's not something you see in Los Angeles. It was just a great experience shooting up there."

Shooting took place in just 19 days. "It is fast," he said. "We had 18 locations so every day was a different location or two, bouncing around, and then we did a day in New York, a day in San Diego and a day in Los Angeles. I also produced the film so I was wearing a couple hats. It's difficult when as a director you're craving a crane and the producer in you is telling you 'no.' So it was a constant fight between my right brain and my left brain."

Asked how he approached making his first feature on so tight a shooting schedule, Saavedra replied, "Well, you know, I like to have fun on a set and it's important to me that from the top down everybody realizes that we're not curing cancer or doing brain surgery. We're getting paid a decent amount of money just to entertain. If you go in with that attitude and treat your cast and crew well, it becomes a challenge, but a pleasant challenge. We all stayed in cabins that were three to a room (during shooting), including me. The cast was so amazed that the director was sharing a cabin with a grip and the DP and they knew that this was going to be a fun experience."

There's no question, he said, that "it was a lot of work. There were very long hours. But we just said, 'Look, let's have fun.' At one point I said to everybody after a very long day, 'Think back to the time wherever we came from we all came here to Los Angeles to make movies. It's been our lifelong dream and now we're doing it -- so no complaining.' It was tough, but we had a terrific crew and a great cast."

Saavedra would have liked to have rehearsed with his actors, but it just wasn't possible: "Most of the cast met on the first day of shooting. When you're trying to build a camaraderie it makes it a little challenging. When I showed up that first day with my shot list, my story boards and all the diagrams of what I wanted to do and it started to rain, I realized that this wasn't going to be the kind of shoot where everything happens according to schedule. So we improvised a lot. It was one of those things where you just kind of took the existing circumstances and made them work to your advantage. We just kind of went with the flow. I trusted the actors. We made a lot of it up as we went along, actually."

But his having those shot lists and story boards shows there clearly was a lot of advance preparation. "There was," he agreed, "but it all went out the window. My Mom actually put it best. I'm one of seven kids and she said, 'You know, you try as hard as you can to teach them how to dress and how to speak and you send them to good schools (but) ultimately they just kind of do what they want.' When you're putting together a crew and a cast, in my mind it was that I was going to tell everybody where to stand and how to say a line and where to put the camera. But ultimately when you've got all this creative talent coming in, you have to rely on their expertise, as well, and that's what makes the magic happen."

Looking back at production and its special challenges, he recalled, "We were shooting at an apartment in New York. It was a beautiful multi-million dollar apartment. We had all the location agreements signed and everything. When we arrived we were asked to kind of sneak up the back elevator, which I thought was a little odd.

"And then we were asked to bring Donna Murphy, this very well known New York actress (whose Broadway credits include 'Wonderful Town' and 'Follies'), up the back elevator. I started getting the idea that the young man (who made the apartment available) didn't actually ask his parents permission to shoot in the apartment. He kept asking if we would be done within the hour and I said, 'Oh, no. This is a night shoot. We'll be here for eight hours.' We had to be very quiet because apparently the building did not allow shooting films (there). It was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (and) a very, very, very posh apartment."

After they'd finished shooting, he added, "the son of the owner of the apartment says, 'You didn't get any of the paintings in any of the shots, did you?' I said, 'Well, of course. I was shooting 360 degrees. I got all the paintings in.' He said, 'Well, you can't show any of that because they're very expensive paintings and I don't think my parents want anyone to know that we have them.' So I had to digitally remove all the paintings in post-production as well as change the view out the window to make it look like he's looking out at Central Park when he's actually looking at the East River."

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