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SXSW ’10 | “Cherry” Filmmaker Jeffrey Fine and His “Unusual Friendship with an Older Woman”

SXSW '10 | "Cherry" Filmmaker Jeffrey Fine and His "Unusual Friendship with an Older Woman"

SXSW-goers may be surprised to find out how closely “Cherry” is based on reality, and in the iW interview below, he claims that he calls it semi-autobiographical so that he can deny it all! “We meet Aaron (Kyle Gallner), a very bright but sheltered freshman as he arrives at an Ivy League college to join their elite engineering program. He encounters Linda (Laura Allen), a vivacious 34-year old former wild-child who has returned to school to straighten out her life. She becomes the first person to encourage Aaron to follow his own dreams and he is soon smitten. When Linda invites him home for dinner, Aaron thinks he’s getting lucky. Instead, he meets Beth (Britt Robertson), Linda’s punky, sarcastic 14-year old daughter who immediately develops an aggressive crush on him. The romantic math doesn’t work in either direction but Aaron is nonetheless drawn into a dysfunctional triangle. He soon learns that life can be more complicated than any engineering equation.” [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening in the Narrative Competition, Documentary Competition and Emerging Visions sections at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.

Emerging Visions
Director: Jeffrey Fine
Cast: Kyle Gallner, Laura Allen, Brittany Robertson, Esai Morales, Matt Walsh
Producer: Sam Kitt & Matthew Fine
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Fine
Cinematographer: Marvin Rush
Music: Bobby Johnston
Editor: Cindy Parisotto
99 minutes

Fine on going from drama to doc to drama again…

I graduated from USC film school planning to work in narrative, but got some great directing opportunities in the documentary world.  I got to study what’s authentic in people’s behavior, whether it’s FBI agents following criminals, scientists trying to make breakthroughs in robotics or Navy pilots living on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.  This work became a great resource for observing people in moments of stress and discovery, which I feel is really a foundation of drama. Now that I’m working in narrative again, I’m excited to use that training to find truth in fictional characters.

On making a “semi”-autobiographical piece of work…

“Cherry” is semi-autobiographical.  I say “semi” because that gives me a comfortable cushion to deny, deny, deny.  During my freshman year in college, I had an unusual friendship with an older woman who had come back to school to make a new life for herself. She and her daughter were very different from anyone else at school.  In fact, they were unlike anyone I’d ever met in my life up to that point. I was also intrigued by my freshman roommate’s academic dilemma.  He was an amazing illustrator who felt pressured to become an engineer.  In the end, he incorporated his love of science into his art and ended up becoming a really successful children’s book illustrator with work that’s full of physics and imagination. Over the years, some of the people and events of that time kept calling to me and I finally had to write this script.

I had a few opportunities to sell the script, but it became painfully clear that no one in Hollywood was going to let me direct it.  Because “Cherry” is such a personal project, I was never comfortable with having someone else do it. With the support of my producers, Sam Kitt and my brother Matthew Fine, I embraced the idea that this would be a “do it yourself” labor of love. We knew we’d never have enough money, that we wouldn’t get paid up front, but that we’d have the chance to make the film our way. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to find a lot of amazing partners in this, from cast and crew who saw this as an opportunity to show what they could do to an army of student interns in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who helped us tell this college story in a way that felt authentic.  Our entire crew moved into the dorms at Western Michigan University and we lived like students throughout production. And yes, I’m really afraid that some of the more incriminating photos will find their way on the internet.

Besides the obvious limitations of low-budget filmmaking, I think the biggest challenge was tone. Sam Kitt read an early draft of the script and really connected with the material, but recognized that there was still a lot of work to be done clarifying the tone.  The script had a lot of moments that felt comedic, but there were also a lot of dramatic undercurrents that kept creeping in. That felt appropriate for a story of a freshman who’s immersed in a new world, populated by people with very different perspectives.  But at times, it felt like we were caught between “American Pie” and “American Beauty” and it was a challenge finding the right balance.  Hopefully, audiences will feel that we succeeded.

On bringing the film to SXSW…

SXSW and Austin audiences are known for being young, hip and enthusiastic and for getting behind stories that portray relationships that are unusual, unexpected or even taboo.  The trio in “Cherry” are an unlikely team, but I think the SXSW audiences will take the journey with them. And, of course, since it’s a college town and the film is set in a university, I hope a large chunk of the SXSW audience will really connect with that.

Fine’s influences…

Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” is a film that shifts gears tonally in a way that is surprising and really exciting.  Every time I wrestled with tone on “Cherry,” I reminded myself of what Demme did and it emboldened me to take some risks.

In the pipeline for Fine…

I’m co-writing a film set in 1850’s Mississippi and am also adapting a novel that has some tonal similarities to “Cherry.”

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