If you can only see one movie during the Savannah Film Festival this year, make it the independent feature Take Me Home.
The directorial debut of Sam Jaeger, a star of the TV series Parenthood, Take Me Home is a romantic comedy - not the cookie-cutter, Jennifer Aniston-in-a-delightful-conundrum variety currently clogging the Multiplex.
Jaeger wrote the script, and plays Thom, an aspiring photographer in New York City, who drives an unlicensed taxi around town to make a few extra bucks.
One night he picks up Claire, who's just walked out on her husband and is distraught because her father - in California - has had a heart attack.
"Just drive," she tells Thom.
Claire is played by Amber Jaeger, the filmmaker's wife, and the two have a winning, low-key chemistry that carries Take Me Home from its earliest scenes to the last. The supporting cast includes Victor Garber (Alias) and Linn Shay (There's Something About Mary); they're terrific, but the movie belongs to the Jaegers, Mr. and Mrs.
The film is funny, unpredictable, touching, beautifully paced - and extremely well-made. I predict it will be Hollywood's next My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the dark horse to come from behind.
In light of all the crapola that the big studios continue to turn out these days, Take Me Home is a revelation.
You didn't have a huge budget, and you shot a lot of it on the fly. You're a relatively inexperienced filmmaker. How did you know it wouldn't suck?
Sam Jaeger: The honest truth is, at many points during the process it did suck. I wrote the first draft in three months, thinking "My wife and I will just shoot this on weekends, we'll get a three-person crew and travel across the country." That was seven and a half years ago. And thank God it took so long, because the second draft took almost two years. It just took a lot of weaning. In that time I tried to figure out, in watching as many movies as I could growing up, what stuck with me?
And the truth is, unless it has a universal theme - whether it be the search for love, or loneliness, or whatever it may be - unless it has theme that we can all relate to, it's really not a movie that I think is worth telling.
How did it change over time?
Sam Jaeger: I started with this woman getting into a cab, and talking the cab driver into taking her across the United States. All the pieces were kinda there, it was mostly about trying to make every scene lead to the next. One movie I saw recently that did that extremely well was The King's Speech. There's a problem, and then he's got to solve it, and he goes here. Every scene leads to the next. And I felt like, if I can justify every scene in my movie, then I'll at least have something I'm proud of. Whether or not it reaches an audience is another thing.
In the writing process I was thinking "Does this really, absolutely need to be here?" And also, the movie took so long to film, and then edit, that I had the opportunity to do that in both of those stages as well.
Were you and Amber already together when you started the project?
Sam Jaeger: We were boyfriend and girlfriend when I started writing it, and when shooting started we were freshly married that summer. I wrote it with her in mind. I guess I was always juggling in my head, in the early days, basically deciding what it means to be married. And although there's a lot of fun moments in the film, it's really kind of a discussion on the real merit of committing your life to somebody.
At the same time, I knew I had this complication: Here I had this married woman, and she certainly wasn't happy. Nor was her husband. And how do I get them out of that scenario?
So what's it like working day-to-day with your wife?
Sam Jaeger: My wife happens to be one of the easiest actresses on planet Earth to work with. Doing an independent film, you have to be pretty humble and focused. When there's crew members running all around, you have to kind of make your performance your own under extreme circumstances. And I don't think circumstances could have been more extreme than what I put her through.
The filming actually unfolded the same way the film does. When we shot the scene where she throws her purse in the forest, we were already a day behind. I was like, "You know, guys, somebody run and get socks for the crew, because I know there's poison ivy here," and "Honey, you just gotta suck it up and do it." And she got poison ivy so bad that by the time we drove out to Utah, we couldn't even shoot one side of her face. She looked like a leper.
So at that same point in the film, where the characters break down in the desert, my wife and I were kind of at wit's end. I was trying to catch up on several days missed, and the crew was poorly rested. At the same time, she was just in such pain from the poison ivy.
Once we stopped shooting those desert scenes, we stopped at an emergency care unit and they injected her with a bunch of medication because she had skin poisoning.
Long story short, I guess the one thing we could fall back on is that we put ourselves through much worse in the process of deciding whether we wanted to be married. This was just one of those road bumps that a married couple goes through.
Did you have all the locations planned out, or was it a matter of "This looks good, let's stop here"?
Sam Jaeger: We definitely had the locations mapped out. In fact, that spot in the desert even, we had the rights to that huge tract of land. You could get permits for like 30 square mile units.
But then there were certain days where the schedule fell apart. We spent way too long trying to suction-cup a camera onto the hood of the taxi cab. And then the second half of the day, you'd be going "Oh, that looks like a forest! Let's go in there."
We had no problem with the cops in New York. We set up huge lights on Park Avenue, drove through Times Square, but the second we get to Asheville, Ohio, the whole police department - which at the time was two cops - decided to shut us down.
What happens next? Are there distributors sniffing around?
Sam Jaeger: It's kind of a riddle. One of the harder things to get people to watch is a romantic comedy without any clearly recognizable stars to it. But that's why we're trying to build word of mouth, and having all the fans that we've gotten so far from the festivals has really helped.
I don't know. I spent seven and a half years trying to get this movie made, I just want to spend a few more making sure it finds the right audience.
I've often felt that the life of an actor is so dependant on luck, or someone else's permission. And I've always considered myself a filmmaker as much as I do an actor. If I can contribute in some way to filmmaking, then I'll have lived a pretty enriching life.
Take Me Home
At 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 30
At 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 3
Q&A with director/star Sam Jaeger