Q & A: Producer/Director Craig Saavedra on “Sherman’s Way”

Middle:Director Craig Saavedra

Middle: “Sherman’s Way“ Director Craig Saavedra

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing series of conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to producer-director Craig Saavedra about the making of the romantic comedy road trip film “Sherman’s Way”, which actually resulted from Saavedra going on a road trip with Michael Shulman, his producing partner in Starry Night Entertainment, to come up with an idea for a film.

“Sherman’s”, opening Friday (6) in New York and Mar. 13 in L.A. via Starry Night Entertainment, is Saavedra’s feature directing debut although he’s been directing since 1999 when he did the TV romantic drama “Rhapsody in Bloom” starring Penelope Ann Miller and Ron Silver. Shulman, who was a teenager at the time, played a small role in “Bloom”. Shulman stars as Sherman in their new film. Also starring 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. Nance’s prior credits include the TV series “Perfect Strangers” and “Ned and Stacy”.

Q: How did “Sherman’s Way” come about?
A: 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. 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.

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. 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.
Q: How would you describe the film’s story?
A: It 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. (The film’s buddies are Sherman, played by Shulman, a young Ivy Leaguer who gets stranded on the West Coast with Palmer, a washed-up, middle-aged former athlete, played by Le Gros, just as Sherman’s on his way to Beverly Hills to begin interning at a major law firm.)
Q: Where did the title come from?
A: 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.
Q: So at that point you had a title and a script, but no cast other than Michael Shulman. Tell me about casting the film.
A: When you’re doing an independent film it’s very important to get some names in there so we went to our friends. Michael had worked with Lacey Chabert on “Party of Five” for a season (she did 142 episodes from 1994-2000) and she was the first actress on board. I had become quite friendly with Thomas Ian Nicholas, who had done the “Rookie of the Year” movie and the “American Pie” films, so we brought him in. (Donna Murphy, whose Broadway credits include hits like “Wonderful Town” and “Follies”, plays Shulman’s mother in the movie. It’s not Murphy’s first time in that role, by the way, as she also played his mother on television in the 1996 episode “Someone Had to be Benny” in HBO’s series “Lifestories: Families in Crisis”, for which they both were Emmy nominated.)

And then we went about casting the other roles, including Enrico Colantoni (64 episodes of “Veronica Mars”), who I’d been friendly with for a long while. Then through the casting process we found Brooke Nevin (one of the stars of the controversial feature “My Suicide” that just had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival) and James Le Gros (“Zodiac”). Once we got our cast together it was a matter of trying to work out schedules and find a place to shoot the movie.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: We actually wrote it for Napa. 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.

(We then 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 percent 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.
Q: How was it shooting a movie in a small town like Lake County?
A: 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.
Q: I understand you had a shooting schedule that was just a fast 19 days.
A: It is fast. 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.
Q: Although “Sherman’s” is your first feature, you were no stranger to directing having started out in TV years ago with “Rhapsody in Bloom”. And I know there’s a casting connection between that film and “Sherman’s.”
A: In addition to Penelope Ann Miller and Ron Silver, I was directing a very young Michael Shulman. That’s where we met. I knew then that he was going to go beyond just acting (and that) someday he would also be behind the camera either as a director or as a producer. So when he graduated from Yale and called me up and said, “Let’s form a company together” I wasn’t entirely surprised because he was just an exceptionally bright young man.
Q: How did you manage to deal with such a tight shooting schedule for your first feature as a director?
A: 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.

(It certainly) 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 on days, but we had a terrific crew and a great cast.

James Le Gros has worked in 50 different movies and he was someone that I relied quite heavily on. Not just to deliver a great performance, but to be kind of the mentor of the cast and the crew on these hard days. He had the experience (of) what happens on these long days and he was a great example.
Q: Did you rehearse with your actors?
A: 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.
Q: But clearly if you came in with shot lists and story boards you’d done a lot of advance preparation.
A: There was, 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.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
A: We were shooting at an apartment in New York. It was a beautiful, very expensive, 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, up the back elevator. I started getting the idea that the young man (who had 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.

What made the story funny is that after shooting the whole thing 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. That was a very big challenge that made us think on our toes a lot. About an hour into it Donna Murphy leaned over to me and said, “We’re not supposed to be here, are we?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a signed contract.” It made it quite challenging, but it actually kind of made it fun because she really felt part of the guerilla (filmmaking) experience.