Commentary: 'Sisterhood 2' follows original's DVD success

Returning stars all better known than in '05

"Sisterhood" sequel: Although we typically think of movie franchises as being sequels to comic book based blockbusters, that's not always the case.

Consider, for instance, Alcon Entertainment's romantic comedy adventure "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," opening wide Aug. 6 via Warner Bros. The franchise's original title was only a modest success in 2005 with $39.1 million in domestic theatrical grosses, but it then found its young female audience in DVD release, prompting this sequel. Now "Sisterhood 2" should benefit from the fact that women of all ages are doing lots of moviegoing this summer and it's a brand name with returning stars who are all better known than they were three years ago.

Directed by Sanaa Hamri, "Sisterhood 2" brings back the original film's stars Amber Tamblyn, America Ferrera, Blake Lively and Alexis Bledel. Also starring are Rachel Nichols, Rachel Ticotin, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Blythe Danner. Its screenplay by Elizabeth Chandler is based on the novels by Ann Brashares. Produced by Debra Martin Chase, Denise Di Novi, Broderick Johnson and Kira Davis, it was executive produced by Andrew A. Kosove, Christine Sacani, Alison Greenspan, Leslie Morgenstein and Bob Levy.

For Hamri, a top director of music videos for artists like Maria Carey, Prince and Christina Aguilera, "Sisterhood 2" is her second feature, after the small 2006 romantic comedy "Something New." A native of Morocco, Hamri was graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and began her career in 1992 at the age of only 17 as an assistant to music video cinematographer Malik Sayeed at his post-production company Salaam Inc. That ultimately led to her learning to edit music videos, which in turn got her a shot at directing them. For some insights into the making of her new feature, I was happy to catch up recently with Hamri.

"I heard that they were looking for a director for the sequel and I had loved the book and I loved the first movie, so I just thought it would be a great fit for me," she told me. "So I went and met with the producers and Alcon and we really saw eye to eye on a lot of things so it was a really great start. This was around last March. It happened so quickly because they had a treatment. I helped develop the first draft into the final shooting draft. We were done within a year."

Starting with the treatment Alcon already had, Hamri explained, "I gave my point of view of what should be used from the treatment and then we condensed books two, three and four (from the series of four novels) into one script so we could take each character and further their journey. And from then on we had Elizabeth Chandler, the writer, who went ahead and spent a couple of weeks turning around a first draft. And she did such a good job because there was so little time. We wanted to make sure that it stayed true to character for each of the girls because they're now 19 year olds and they're going through 19 year old experiences. They're growing up."

Production got underway in Santorini, Greece: "That was our kick-off in the beginning of June. We went from Santorini to Connecticut. We shot all over Connecticut and then we wound up in the East Village in New York. There were a lot of logistic challenges, especially with time constraints. A few of our actors had to go back to TV shows -- America Ferrera with 'Ugly Betty' and Blake Lively with 'Gossip Girl.' So we had to make sure we finished up before they went back to (their) shows. So it was strenuous shoot days. And, of course, starting in Greece was a challenge because you have to prep not only for international, but also for domestic."

What was it like filming in Santorini? "Santorini is one of the most beautiful islands, but it is a challenge to shoot (there) because where we were there are no main streets with cars so everything had to be lugged either by donkey or by manpower. It's (very) steep and (there are) extreme cliffs. Everything's uphill or extreme downhill. It's like you're on a precipice. So in terms of maneuvering the crew -- and it was a big crew, for that matter -- it's extremely challenging. Yet the imagery is phenomenal. It was well worth it, but a lot of hard work for my crew and myself and the actors, as well. We were walking like 10 miles a day just because (of the terrain)."

When they returned to the U.S. to shoot in Connecticut, Hamri recalled, "we were chasing 'Indiana Jones' and 'Indiana Jones' was chasing us. We were the two productions at Yale at the same time at one point and then we kept bumping into (each other). I loved the look (of Connecticut) and it produced a lot of locations for (both films) so the movies feel like we went to different places."

Asked how she works while directing, Hamri replied, 'I really love rehearsal and putting the scene on its feet because then you can see what really works and you can go with that and with what doesn't work you can just let it go. I believe in seeing it on its feet. I really enjoy the process and I love working with actors. I come from an acting background. I studied theater performance at Sarah Lawrence College. With very complicated sequences (like) special effects I usually like having a storyboard for that."

Has her background in music videos influenced how she directs features? "I would say starting from a music video and commercials background does influence you technically," she said. "I was able to work with so many different types of cameras, film stock, lighting, amazing DPs. A filmmaker who just does one medium usually doesn't get a chance to work with so many different people. You really get adept at thinking on your feet and quickly and knowing what you want. Like it's a lot easier for me to assess a scene and know what type of coverage (is needed), especially because I used to be an editor, and just really to be able to execute what's there on the page."

Needless to say, her editing background is a big help when she's in post-production. "Being an editor and just coming from that background allows you to know what you need," she pointed out, "especially for moments that are going to be important. You know how to hit the comedic moments. You know what coverage you need. And then when you're editing, it's helpful for the editor (that you have your own editing background). My editor who did both of my movies, Melissa Kent, is amazing. (We) work well because she's very creative. I let her come up with really cool sequences because I know that if it doesn't work out or I want to change it it's easy for me to communicate to her. So it's a really great balance."

Looking back at production, Hamri noted, "We had to finish a scene and we went into nights. Usually, people are not excited when you go into nights. We were filming the scene of America Ferrera's character Carmen on the porch making a phone call and it's supposed to be night. And because we were in nights and it was the last scene (being shot that night), we were fighting the sun rising, which is so ironic. Usually, it's like 'we're losing the light.' This time we're going, 'Oh, my God, the sun's coming up.' That's like the reverse."

Other days brought their own unique challenges. "You know, I'm one of those filmmakers who loves being on set," she said. "It's always a challenge and I love thinking on my feet. One moment which is a great scene in the movie is when the girls jump off a cliff. That (came about) because the day prior to (shooting) that scene the girls met these guys called the Brotherhood of the Traveling Pants that were in Santorini. It was the craziest thing and they were jumping off the cliff. So America and Blake and Alexis and Amber came up to me and said, 'We've got to jump off the cliff. It's going to be great. It's like we're bonding. It'll be a great scene.' At first I said, 'Oh, God. I don't want anything happening to the girls. We have to check this cliff out.' But it really worked for the movie. It's a poignant moment. So it's really about thinking on your feet and going with what feels right versus being stuck in a pre-conceived notion of what you need to do."

With "Sisterhood 2" about to open, Hamri's starting to think about her next project. "I have a few things in the works, but I can't really comment on them yet," she apologized. "One of my mottoes is that (a film) should be entertaining but have heart and be refreshing and unique with its own perspective. That's what I really look for. I gravitate from dramas to romantic comedies. I've been looking at musicals because I come from a music background and I feel that doing something like a 'Chicago' would be a really great outlet for me that combines all the skills that I have from the past."

Golden Globes: We still have about six months until the Golden Globes, but there's a happy reminder that they're on the way with today's (30) Hollywood Foreign Press Association luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The HFPA will be making its annual presentation of financial grants to film schools and non-profit organizations and will also be installing its officers, including Jorge Camara who's serving his second term as president.

I always look forward to these HFPA luncheons because, in effect, they kick off the awards season by providing an opportunity for many of Hollywood's awards marketing gurus to get together informally and start speculating about who the leading contenders are likely to be. As I've said for years, if you want to win an Oscar the best way to start is by landing a Globe nomination. When Academy members are trying to get their nominations ballots back in time to be counted in early January and don't have enough time to watch all the films competing for their consideration, the Globe nominees become a great short list of what they absolutely must see before voting.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel