One of the special guests of the upcoming Savannah Film Festival, D.B. Sweeney is more accustomed to being in front of a camera rather than behind it.
Perhaps best known for his portrayal of baseball legend “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in 1988’s Eight Men Out, Sweeney -- who once considered a baseball career himself -- jokes that “as far as actors go, you’re not going to find many ballplayers better than me.”
Sweeney has also starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s Gardens of Stone, 1989’s Lonesome Dove, 1992’s Cutting Edge (with Moira Kelly, who rejoins him for his new movie), episodes of CSI and House, and narrates the Fox Sports TV series Behind the Glory.
However, he comes to town not only as an actor in his newest film, but the director, writer and producer as well. Dirt Nap -- as we go to press Sweeney tells us a title change is “very likely” -- is about three middle-aged men, buddies since high school, and their comedic road trip across America to see a football game.
In addition to Sweeney and Kelly, the film stars two of Sweeney’s best friends in real life: John C. McGinley of Scrubs and Platoon fame, and Paul Hipp, who played Joe Odom in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Sweeney is coming off a fairly historic event, winning Best Director at the Boston International Film Festival this past June -- the only first-time director to have garnered that award.
The 44-year-old Sweeney currently lives in L.A., but remains very much an East Coast kind of guy. We spoke with the New York native two weeks ago, the day after the major league playoffs began with both Big Apple teams, the Yankees and the Mets, having spots in the postseason (the Yankees have since been eliminated).
Connect Savannah: Let’s start with the most important question: Are you a Yankees guy or a Mets fan?
D. B. Sweeney: I’m actually a Boston Red Sox fan, if you want to know the truth (laughs).
Connect Savannah: Oh, no.
D. B. Sweeney: Yeah. (laughs) But between the Yankees and the Mets -- the Mets, most definitely.
Connect Savannah: You played Shoeless Joe Jackson in Eight Men Out, a film about the White Sox gambling scandal of 1919. Did you know he lived in Savannah?
D. B. Sweeney: Yes, Joe lived there for awhile after his playing days. I did so much research on him for that role. I could have written five books about him myself. I really, really wanted to play that character. There’s such a big story to be told about him, and one day it will be.
In a way he was never this dumb guy that people have portrayed him as. He was illiterate, but not dumb. He did really well in business after he quit playing, for example. But in Eight Men Out you really couldn’t get that nuance. The way that movie was written the focus was supposed to stay on John Cusack and the Buck Weaver character.
Connect Savannah: You’re just coming off a Best Director win at the Boston International Film Festival. What was that like?
D. B. Sweeney: It was a really good experience. Apparently it was the first Best Director win at that festival for a first-time director. I’m very honored.
Connect Savannah: What was some of the feedback?
D. B. Sweeney: The jury told me they’d never seen a comedy get such big laughs that came from a movie with such real, believable people. With other movies like this, things like Wedding Crashers or Old School, you’ve always got somebody like Will Ferrell or Owen Wilson -- basically they’re comedies with a bunch of comedians in them. This movie gets similar laughs to those films, but you always believe that it’s real guys in the movie.
Connect Savannah: Was it your plan all along to direct and star in your own film?
D. B. Sweeney: I wrote it as well, cowrote it with Brian Currie, and no, I didn’t plan to direct or produce it myself. I spent a couple of years raising money and trying to find a director. It’s difficult to get a director that way. Usually a studio finances the film and gets the director, and then they want their own actors in it. But I wanted it to be believable and just continue to be about these East Coast guys. So I kind of faced a choice, of giving away control or keeping the movie the way I wanted it. I had a short list of directors who I thought could bring a lot to it, but it’s difficult getting a director when you’re a first-time producer and writer. So I sort of became director by default.
Connect Savannah: How have you financed Dirt Nap?
D. B. Sweeney: I financed it myself. It’s a big risk -- I basically stopped working as an actor for two years, and put all my chips in on this. In the long term it’s going to be very beneficial, though. Because the response has been so great, it’s opened up other avenues. But it’s a nervous time. So far the festivals have been great for me. The response there has been tremendous. But I don’t sleep a lot (laughs).
Connect Savannah: One thing working in your favor is that the business end has really opened up for small films. There’s no longer a stigma with going straight to DVD.
D. B. Sweeney: Well, yes and no. The kind of money that was in DVDs three or four years ago isn’t really there anymore. I’m still trying for a big theatrical release with this. DVDs are great in the sense that you can make a small movie that can be seen by a bunch of people. But that kind of big upfront money in DVDs is not there like it was three years ago. I’ve really tried to get this one out there like an old-fashioned movie. I’ve always thought movies should be a more of a community experience.
I mean, we’ve got the best soundtrack you’ve heard in years. We’ve got U2, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan. These are all artists who have seen the movie and love it. But the financial realities are, if you want to release a movie in theatres anymore it requires an investment of at least ten million dollars. Unfortunately, most of these studios would rather spend 40 million on their next movie trying for a blockbuster, casting people like Ashton Kutcher or Josh Hartnett. They’d rather swing for the fences hoping for that one huge hit.
Connect Savannah: What kind of budget did you have for this film?
D. B. Sweeney: It was really barebones. There was only one camera, and no video playback. I did wardrobe myself. I was the casting director, and called everyone up when I needed people. We didn’t have the money to afford union rates.
One way I did find to ease the financial pressure was I did a lot of interesting product placement, which as you know is very unusual for independent movies. For example, one of the characters is a beer truck driver, so we needed some trucks. Coors was a great help, they came along and joined up. Dunkin’ Donuts was great too.
Connect Savannah: Apparently Dunkin’ Donuts is the new Starbucks.
D. B. Sweeney: Well, they’re attuned to the idea behind these independent movies. Some companies are now smart enough to realize that movies don’t go away --a movie will be watched by many, many people over the next several years. I wouldn’t do product placement in any movie. But I felt like a road trip movie is sort of inundated with Americana anyway. And Americana usually involves a lot of advertising images. And in a way I think it’s more distracting for the audience to have fake fast food and fake companies with fake products they don’t recognize.
Connect Savannah: Why a road movie?
D. B. Sweeney: In a funny way, the road trip movie is a genre that’s really taken from the western. Almost all westerns are about a cattle drive or a military objective or finding lost child. When you think about it, pretty much every western involves getting on your horse and going somewhere. High Noon is one of the very few examples where someone waited for someone to ride their horses to them. Generally speaking, the western is a road trip genre. There’s a very enduring story to be told. The Iliad is a road trip story. It’s just a very serviceable structure for telling stories.
Connect Savannah: But clearly this isn’t the usual buddy flick.
D. B. Sweeney: One of the ways I wanted to make it different is I wanted the audience to feel something for the characters as well as have a good time. I want the audience to feel like the characters are like them. You know, everyone senses anxiety as they approach those unattained milestones. In high school you’re always told you’re the next great quarterback or the next valedictorian. But there’s only a small amount of people who actually succeed in that conventional sense. So the question is, are all those other people losers? And the answer is no.
Connect Savannah: I interviewed Paul Hipp when he was down here filming Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He must be a lot of fun on the set.
D. B. Sweeney: Oh, Paul’s a character. One of the hard things about directing this film was that I didn’t really get to goof around as much with all the horseplay. But I secretly had a lot of laughs.
I’m very lucky to have them both in my movie. John and I were at NYU together 25 years ago. He’s my oldest friend in the business. Now he’s the godfather to my daughter. Paul I’ve known for about ten years. He was so good as Buddy Holly on Broadway, and I just feel like he never really got the appreciation I thought he deserved. So I guess you could say this is the first movie that will unleash the fresh talent of Paul Hipp on a mass audience (laughs).
Connect Savannah: I think it’s interesting that none of you guys screams Hollywood.
D. B. Sweeney: That’s a real key element of the casting. There were some pretty well-known actors interested in doing this script, but I didn’t want to make that movie. I didn’t want that guy from San Diego or northern California. Nothing wrong with those places, but that would give a very different feeling than the guys in this story. I felt it was important to cast guys who could capture that spirit, who were reflective of blue collar East Coast values.
As far as casting John and Paul is concerned, a great thing about working them is I don’t have to be concerned about how I’ll work with some guy I’ve just had to create a relationship with. With these guys, I feel like I can say something like, “Hey, I’m dead here, guys, can you help me out with this scene?” Or, “Look, the sun’s going down and we can’t reshoot tomorrow, so we’ve just got to suck it up and get this done tonight.”
Connect Savannah: You’re also working with Moira Kelly again, your costar from The Cutting Edge.
D. B. Sweeney: We’ve stayed in touch over the years to honor our pact not to do a Cutting Edge sequel without the other. The scripts were always bad and they never wanted to pay us, so it wasn’t hard to stay away from it. She’s a very instinctive and alert actress. You have to be on your toes with her. As director I just tried to stay out of her way. She’s so easy to be around she gave us all a lift.
Connect Savannah: Have you ever been to Savannah?
D. B. Sweeney: I’ve never been there. I’m very excited. It’s a place I’ve heard about often in my travels. I mostly want to come down there and have a great time, that’s the main thing. It’s selfish, but I want to savor some of that Southern hospitality. On top of that, I’m always interested in seeing how people in different parts of the country respond to the movie.
Connect Savannah: Tommy Lee Jones will also be here. What was it like working with him on Lonesome Dove?
D. B. Sweeney: Tommy Lee was a little skeptical when he heard that Dish Boggett was going to be played by a New Yorker, but he saw I wanted to get it right and was a big help to me. He, Robert Duvall and I had a roundup of Tommy’s cattle on his ranch in San Saba. A tremendous experience.
Tommy was dead serious about getting it right. As a Texan, as an actor and as a horseman. A wonderful example for a young actor.
Connect Savannah: You’re in your 40s now.
D. B. Sweeney: It’s funny -- now I’m sort of like one of the graybeards. It’s such a young industry now. It’s weird to play the dad or the senior law enforcement officer. I remember when it was different, when it wasn’t all about much younger people. You’d go somewhere and you’d be like, hey, there’s James Caan over there.
A lot of young people doing movies now are sweet as pie the first week. But by the second week they have their sunglasses on, and they’re all snippy with people. And I’m like, oh, that was fast. You see so many people here in L.A. that are like that now.
I never really was interested in that kind of thing. I love acting, but when I first started to get high-profile jobs I could sort of sense that they wanted more from me, posing for all the magazines and stuff like that. Looking back on it, I probably should have done more of that kind of thing, I guess.
But I grew up in a small town. My dad was a schoolteacher. I didn’t have any idea about becoming some big star. I just wanted to play baseball like the other kids.nç
Dirt Nap (a title change is being contemplated as we go to press) is scheduled to be screened at the Trustees Theatre on Monday, Oct. 30 at 2:30 p.m. and at the Lucas Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 2 at 11:30 a.m. To comment e-mail us at email@example.com