Spooner is Hidden Gem at Newport Beach Film Fest

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Herman (Matthew Lillard) and Rose (Nora Zehetner) get a jump on their relationship in "Spooner."

This post is based on one of life's happy accidents. Folks at the Newport Beach Film Festival, which runs through Thursday, asked weeks ago if I wanted to write about a film called Spooner, which was directed by former Santa Ana resident Drake Doremus and stars former Tustin resident Matthew Lillard in the title role. Sure, I answered, just send me a screener copy of the film so I'll know what to ask in an interview. For reasons not quite fully explained, that could not be done, so I explored other festival stories.

Then, Doremus' mother, Cherie Kerr, contacted me asking the same thing. We've corresponded for years because the former Groundling founded and promoted the Santa Ana-based Orange County Crazies comedy improv troupe. About that time, someone else from the festival mentioned Spooner again, I indicated I was still interested, but for reasons that were never fully explained, again, no screener. So I went on to other stories.

Then, I bumped into Kerr and Doremus at Wednesday's pre-festival party for directors. I explained I had wanted to see the film for a possible "hometown-boy-done-good" story, but there would be nothing to base it on without seeing the actual film. "That sounds great," said Doremus, who hand delivered a screener to the Weekly the next morning. (He also explained why there had been no screeners before: a producer's fear that the film was getting overexposed.)

I was then struck with a horrible thought: What if I hate Spooner, I mean, really loathe it to the degree where I would not want my name associated with anything that might be interpreted as promoting it. Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Spooner is one of the best, freshest and quirkiest romantic comedies in a long, long time--better than Garden State, in my humble opinion.

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Spooner teaches himself to spoon.

Lillard plays Herman Spooner, a 30-year-old used car salesman who lives at home in Monrovia with his increasingly unaccommodating parents. He's one of those people who just refuses to grow up and, realizing this, his mother (Grey's Anatomy's Kate Burton) and father (Happy Gilmore's Christopher McDonald) have simply had enough. Herman's not only unwelcome at home but also at his crappy job, which is ruled by an abusive asswipe (Shea Whigham, with a really bad handlebar mustache).

Spooner rescues pretty young stranded mortorist Rose Conlin (Brick's Nora Zehetner), who is just as lost in life as Herman is. Call it true love. But before a budding romance can blossom, Spooner learns Rose is bound for the Philippines to pursue a dream of becoming a teacher. Herman starts off with the best of intentions to woo her, but his increasingly desperate and inappropriate schemes to keep the object of his affection stateside turn disastrous. Throw in some goofball mechanics, a funky hotel and a really bad date (Reno 911's Wendy Mclendon-Covey, who leaves you wanting more in her very brief, hilarious screen time), and you've got a rom-com unlike any you've seen before.

The cast and especially Lillard, who I can't recall ever being so much in command of a part, deserve much of the credit for this. But this is also an impressive first-time outing from Doremus and his screenwriter, Lindsay Stidham.

So back to those happy accidents: I saw the film, wanted to recommend it and keep my word to Doremus about a story. But time was running out before Saturday's showtime. So I emailed him this morning, told him all this and asked when we could conduct an interview. He replied he'd be running around today but would make himself available. So after seeing another solid film this afternoon (the doc Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison), I waltzed over to the festival's hospitality suite to check my emails for Doremus' cell number. While sitting there staring at the computer, I overheard the couple next to me mention "Matt." I looked at the screen they were staring in and saw a publicity still of Lillard from Spooner. Bending my neck around, I saw that I had been sitting next to Doremus and Stidham the whole time.

"Hey, Drake, ready to do that interview?" I asked.

"Sure," he answered, and away we go.

As you'd expect, he was pushed on stage by his mother at an early age, but around 17 or 18, he decided he wanted to be the one calling the shots off-stage/-camera. During his senior year at Fullerton High School, he was in the middle of writing a play when he decided to drop out so he could finish it. "I just said, 'Fuck you, I'm done with this.' I learned from that play," he recalled. What he learned apparently led him to get accepted by the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where he met Stidham, who hails from Florida, during their studies from 2003-05. They became writing partners and created some short films.

They also wrote a feature film script that required a bigger budget. The Toy Chest, a dark comedy that was set to cost $5 million to make, would have Lillard playing a dentist obsessed with the toys he gives out to young patients, and Sarah Silverman and Jenna Elfman in supporting roles. But that project "completely fell apart," reports Doremus, and "we decided let's do something for under a million dollars."

Having already met and bonded with Lillard, Doremus and Stidham spent a weekend banging out the script for Spooner with the actor in mind. Though Lillard grew up in Tustin and attended Fullerton College, it was not common county roots that attracted the director to the actor. "I knew there was something special in him that he had not done yet," Doremus said.

They gave Lillard a copy of their Spooner script, and "Matt loved it," says Doremus. "It happened quickly from there."

Not that there wasn't resistance from Lillard's representation. "His agent at CAA was like, 'Matt needs something like this,' he was a big proponent of Matt doing it. But a lot of other people at CAA were not into the fact that he would be making $100 a day," says the director, whose film was shot in 18 days at less than $1 million.

Most surprisingly, Lillard was willing to trust first-time filmmakers to show him at his most vulnerable and least heroic.

"Yeah, it's pretty amazing," said Doremus. "He saw some shorts we did. But I think it was because I had a really clear vision of what I wanted and how I would direct the film, how he would come off in the film. We were thinking on the same page."

Lillard's performance in 1998's SLC Punk inspired Herman Spooner, according to the director. "He had some really amazing moments in that movie doing nothing on camera, just thinking and being. I thought, 'What if he did that for 90 minutes?' He is so subtextual and interesting. There is so much confidence and vulnerability about him. I really believed he could do this."

Herman lives "in a state of arrested development," explains Doremus. "He's socially damaged in a way because he's not being in the real world, he's not dealing with real-world issues. And he walks a fine stalker line. I think and hope the film has an honest and heartfelt tone about it."

It may be too honest for those in the used-car business, which can count another comedy that makes mince meat out of the profession. And yet, the car lot scenes were shot on an actual car lot. "The owner read the script and said, 'Um, yeah, this does not really paint car salesmen in a good light.' The boss [on screen] is a douchebag. But the owner let us shoot it. He thought it was funny."

Most of the film is shot in Monrovia, where the story is set, although the car lot was actually in nearby Alhambra. And the Aztec Hotel shown in the picture is an actual place. "There were people living in the hotel every day, drug dealers and hookers. It's quirky and fun," said Doremus, who had to build the actual hotel room becase the Aztec's rooms "surprisingly were not as kitchy as the rest of it."

A crude boyhood fort was also built specifically for the film, and quickly.

"We didn't know we were going to get Chris McDonald, which was a blessing, until the day before we got him. We finally had it confirmed 24 hours before we had to shoot that part. We switched sets and had the fort built in three hours. We had to get it ready for Chris."

Casting director Eyde Belasco, who also worked on the festival's closing night picture (500) Days of Summer, brought aboard Mclendon-Covey. "Of course, I had seen her in the Groundlings because of my mom," said Doremus. "She is unfuckingbelievably funny. In screenings, you can't even hear the dialogue in the date scene because everyone is laughing so hard. She's an amazing woman."

He said the comedienne's scenes were shot in one day, adding, "It is mostly improvised."

"What?" protested his screenwriter, Stidham.

"All that stuff was mostly improvised," corrected the diplomatic director. "Lindsay wrote a really great scene, but we've got some moments, some in the hotel room also, where everyone was so in the moment."

Doremus and Stidham have been promoting the film ever since their story first jumped off the page two years ago. It debuted at Park City and just won the jury award for best feature at Sonoma.

"We've been overwhelmed by some of the response and how much it has meant to people," Doremus said. "It's a really genuine thing. There is no agenda to it. It's a simple love story, really."

While "building buzz" in hopes of selling the film for distribution, Doremus is currently cutting his untitled second feature, an improvised flick starring his Spooner editor, Andrew Dickler. "We were working together for six months and I said, 'You're fucking funny. We've got make a film with you.' We shot it earlier this year."

Stidham, meanwhile, is writing Captain, which she describes as "a very dark comedy about a captain who leads a boat that conducts burials at sea." Jeez, is that requiring a lot of research? "It's mainly from my own bizarre mind," she says of her "Fargoesque" project. She and Doremus are also adapting the teen novel, Funny Little Monkey by Andrew Auseon.

That's a lot of product coming together very fast.

"That's the way we like it," Doremus said. "We have too much passion and energy to slow down."

Spooner screens at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Lido. Please come if you can; our hometown boys who've done good have 600 seats to fill.


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