Friday, March 6, 2009
Phil Calvert, as Thom
I have both been looking forward to profiling Phil Calvert in his role as Thom, and dreading it, as I know that at some point while I am writing this I am likely going to cry. It is pretty much a given, actually.
That is because Phil plays Thom, a character who is loosely based on my dear deceased friend Thom Hickling. If you go waaaaayyyy back to the beginning of this blog, back when it was www.charmcitythemovie.blogspot.com, you'll get a longer version of the story. (you can also read more about the real Thom at www.thomhickling.com) I will try to abbreviate it here, because this posting should be about Phil, not Thom. But it is impossible to talk about one without explaining about the other.
Reader's Digest Condensed Version: I wrote the first version of this screenplay in one month, in December of 2004. I didn't do anything with it for a year. One of the characters I had based on my friend Thom, but I never told him about it. A year later, Thom said something to me that sparked me to start rewriting the script. Less than two weeks later, he was killed in a car accident. My (and many other people's) heart was ripped out. I couldn't touch the script. It hurt too much. I could never have imagined anyone other than Thom playing Thom. The following summer, I met someone who had a familiar, mischievous twinkle in his eye, a unique speaking voice, an easy and perpetual smile, and a way of making a person feel like they were the only one in the room. I don't think I have ever dropped that person's name in this blog, but I will finally do so - that person was the actor Bill Pullman (yea, the guy who played the President in Independence Day, among many, many other films). He was staying at my hotel for 3 weeks that summer while workshopping a play he wrote called, "Expedition 6," at Baltimore Theater Project.
It took awhile for it to dawn on me that Thom is the person that Bill reminded me of, but once I made that realization, lo and behold, I was able to write again, without being terribly sad. Well, at least not all the time. Bill is a great person, funny, kind, down-to-earth, thoughtful. While he was here, he nicknamed me Jeanie-us (genius), I think because I introduced him to the cocktail known as an Ice Pick (thank you, Elizabeth, for introducing ME to it!) on a very hot summer day at a crab feast we had with the cast. I was hoping the nickname would stick, but alas, no one else picked up on it.
Anyway, Bill's company finished their workshop and drifted back out of Baltimore, but by now I was off and running. Though I doubted it would ever happen, now I could picture Bill playing the role of Thom and I could write again, with a smile.
Somewhere along the line, maybe it was last March when Phil and I took Michelle Farrell's filmmaking class at the Creative Alliance, I thought of my friend Phil in this role. I had no idea that Phil was interested in filmmaking before he ended up in this class with me. We had been friends for a few years before this, but not real tight, just kind of see-you-when-I-see-you kind of friends. We had a great time at Michelle's class and hung out together outside of class more often. I always liked Phil, he is a sweetheart, and the more I got to know him, the more that he, too, reminded me of Thom.
I'll tell you a few things about Phil as a person, and you can pretty much add on, "just like Thom," to the end of each sentence. Phil has a heart of gold, and is a real live-and-let-live kinda guy. He's funny, and a gentleman. He likes a good party and a good time. And, bonus, he plays guitar!
What Phil did not have is a lot of acting experience, and that was a concern of mine. I made him audition, like everyone else. I made everyone audition, even the people I thought I wanted. I made no assumptions.
He did just fine. Though there were other actors that may have been better actors, there just honestly wasn't another actor in the auditions that was a better Thom. I knew I was biased, I knew it was a risk, but I also knew I could trust Phil to work very hard, and I also had to believe that I would be able to bring out the Thom in him, which would not be a stretch. I had to trust that the chemistry that really exists between me and Phil, like the chemistry that actually existed between me and Thom, would translate onscreen into the chemistry between Thom and Gracie... whoever ended up playing Gracie.
Gracie, of course, ended up being played by Cheryl Scungio, and Cheryl has chemistry with everyone, so that really helped. Phil is definitely at his best in his scenes with Cheryl. I think he trusted her lead and they were very comfortable with each other.
Thom in real life was Tucker's best friend and a member of Tucker's band. So I assigned Phil extensive homework, to drink with Tucker and play with the band as much as possible before we went into production. Phil is a professional and took his research assignment very seriously indeed.
Another concern I had was having a friend on set, and I had a few. Phil, Tucker of course, and also Kyle, who played David, though at the time Kyle and I were more casual friends. But Phil never took advantage of our friendship on the set, always came super-prepared, on time, good attitude, and ready to work. Now that I think about it, I believe that Phil had less acting experience than anyone on the set, but he had a pretty substantial role with many lines, and dramatic as well as comedic scenes. He did well in both. As a matter of fact, every time I have shown anyone the film in its entirety, there is a scene where Thom (Phil) is speaking to Andrew (Will Lurie), and Phil's delivery of his lines in this scene consistently gets more laughs than any other scene in the movie.
I know that deep down Phil was nervous a lot of the time, and I have to hand it to him for overcoming that. When all was said and done, we were out one night having drinks at the watering hole where we first met, Kisling's at Chester & Fleet streets. Phil raised a beer and told me, "You know what, Jeanie? I have done some pretty amazing things in my life. Lived overseas, flew in planes that only a handful of people have ever set foot in (Phil is ex-Air Force and currently works for Lockheed Martin). But making that movie was definitely in the top ten coolest things I have ever done. Thank you."
How funny... I am tearing up now, and not for the reason I thought I would before completing this post. I mean, Wow. What do you say to that? It made me very happy to hear that, it meant a lot to me, and I will never forget it. It made me very proud of Phil, because I know he really pushed his own limits and stepped far, far out of his comfort zone.
Having gone through the wringer that is making a feature-length film, I am glad to know that Phil is even more interested in filmmaking than ever, particularly in directing, I think, but still acting as well. One great advantage that Phil has is that he has a great look. He can be the sweet-but-strong teddy bear of a friend that he is in "Smalltimore," but in a flash his sparkly, smiling blue eyes can turn to ice and suddenly he is a scary, large, craggy-skulled serial killer-type.
The character of Thom, though his scenes did involve drama as well as comedy, did not have a broad range. But I believe Phil does, and I am really hoping to be the one to bring that out of him. We've talked briefly about another film idea I have that I would like to make happen with him, in a much more demanding role that would truly test his mettle. We'll see.
And to answer a question you probably were asking closer to the beginning of this posting... yes, I did indeed ask Bill Pullman if he would consider playing the role of Thom. He turned me down so sweetly and gently that I practically thanked him for doing so, and much later, I actually did thank him for doing so, more or less. We have kept in sporadic touch, I don't like to bother him much, but he did ask me to keep him apprised of my progress and I was and am happy to do so. A few months ago, while I was editing leading up to the screening of the rough cut, I sent Bill a brief status report. At the end of the note, I told him that in a way I was glad he did not agree to do the part, because if the movie does go anywhere, I would always be left to wonder if it was because the film was good, or because it had Bill Pullman in it. He kindly replied with a few sentences, saying he agreed and it was likely better not to have sort of skewed how the movie is received by putting a known actor in it. He also said he was proud of me.
So in closing this posting, I'd like to thank Bill for his support, express my extreme gratitude to Phil for the enormous amount of hard work he put into the role, and to thank the person who is ultimately responsible for allowing me to better know each of these wonderful men. As it is said in the ending credit of, "Smalltimore," this is... fade in...