Drake Doremus' 'Douchebag' at Sundance

OC stage prodigy-turned-filmmaker Drake Doremus brings his 'very personal' movie to Park City, Utah

THE RACQUET CLUB. PARK CITY, UTAH. FRIDAY, JAN. 22, 9:30 P.M.

Dressed in a suit he picked up the week before at a Los Angeles thrift shop, Drake Doremus nervously trudges over to a microphone stand illuminated by a single spotlight as the end credits finish rolling for the world-premiere screening of Douchebag at the Sundance Film Festival.

The 26-year-old filmmaker squints as he tries to make out the people filling nearly all 608 seats of the temporary cinema space. He asks Douchebag cast and crew members to join him up front for audience questions. Eight people who have worked on the quirky slacker dramedy off and on for two years—and who also managed to make it to Park City—surround their director. The remaining two crew members are back home.

John Gilhooley
John Gilhooley
Doremus' mother, Cherie Kerr, in her DePietro Performance Center in Santa Ana
John Gilhooley
Doremus' mother, Cherie Kerr, in her DePietro Performance Center in Santa Ana
Jones had to be coaxed back to Southern California to finish filming Douchebag
John Gilhooley
Jones had to be coaxed back to Southern California to finish filming Douchebag
Andrew Dickler (left) and Jones make their feature-film debuts 
playing brothers in Douchebag
Andrew Dickler (left) and Jones make their feature-film debuts playing brothers in Douchebag

Shoestring productions of personal stories such as that of Douchebag are exactly what Sundance co-founder Robert Redford was talking about at the previous day’s opening press conference, where he vowed the festival had returned to its roots of presenting groundbreaking new voices.

To that end, a new category called Next was added for 2010, reserved for indie films “stretching a low budget to create big art.” Doremus (pronounced dor-ee-muss) submitted Douchebag hoping that it would be chosen for Next. Instead, it is among 16 films singled out in the more prestigious U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Each movie in that Sundance category last year was bought for movie-theater distribution—the holy grail for American independent filmmakers. Douchebag is the only movie in that group this year without a single Hollywood name attached to it as a star, director or producer.

Doremus mentions to the crowd that while his feature debut, Spooner, was being shown at last year’s Slamdance Film Festival, a smaller and scrappier event that runs concurrently with Sundance in Park City, he snuck over to the Racquet Club to watch the then-unknown Precious.

“I dreamed that someday I’d have a film playing in this room,” he says, still amazed at what a short, strange trip it has been. He had no idea in January 2009 that his “very personal” picture—shot in 20 days with a minuscule budget, unknown lead actors and a tiny crew—would fulfill his dream a mere 12 months later.

   

THE WORLD WIDE WEB. PLANET EARTH. MONDAY, JAN. 25.
Following a weekend of Douchebag screenings at Sundance, the positive reviews pop up online. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman calls it “a bubblingly sharp and fresh and dark and winning comedy.” Erik Davis writes on Cinematical.com that “Douchebag is great in its delivery of awkward, relatable humor.”

“With the festival halfway over,” Sharon Waxman reports on TheWrap.com, “so far features titles like Douchebag, Buried (which sold to Lionsgate) and Blue Valentine have the most heat.”

As this story goes to press, Team Douchebag are being seriously courted by a small film distributor.

Shot in Santa Monica, Palm Springs and outside the home of Doremus’ dad, Rick, on the Newport Beach peninsula, Douchebag follows brothers Sam and Tom Nussbaum, played, respectively, by big-bearded Andrew Dickler and big teddy bear Ben York Jones, making their feature-film debuts. The Nussbaums are separated by age, personality and a mutual hatred for each other. But, for the sake of opinionated vegetarian Sam’s bubbly fiancée Steph (Marguerite Moureau), passive artist Tom agrees to come to Santa Monica for the impending nuptials.

Prodded at dinner with the couple to open up about his love life, Tom reveals he’s still carrying a torch for his fifth-grade girlfriend, Mary Barger (the actual name of Doremus’ fifth-grade girlfriend at Oakridge Private School in Orange). She must be found, it is resolved. Much Googling ensues, and it turns out there are Mary Bargers in Santa Monica, Palm Springs and San Diego.

Sam’s wedding day nears, and many errands must be run. So, naturally, he volunteers to help Tom find out which Mary Barger is his Mary Barger, who can then be the younger Nussbaum’s date to the wedding. This leads to a road trip in which the full scope of Sam’s douchebaggery and the brothers’ loathing of each other are exposed.

And yet, by the end credits, a real love story has emerged, and it’s not the one you expected.

   

DEPIETRO PERFORMANCE CENTER. SANTA ANA, CALIFORNIA. THURSDAY, JAN. 14, 11 A.M.
Newspaper clippings cover bulletin boards in a hallway inside this brick building; several yellowing Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register articles follow the youth stage work of Doremus, beginning when he was very young up through his teens. He was obviously a genuine prodigy.

“Drake was always with me at the theater,” Cherie Kerr says as she sits in a conference room, flipping though snapshots of her son. “It was not forced on him. He loved it.”

Named after late jazz bassist Charlie DePietro and his singer wife Margaret, the DePietro includes offices where their daughter Kerr runs Kerr Public Relations and ExecuProv, a communications-skills training center for business people.

Adjacent to those offices is a 70-seat black-box theater that is home to the Orange County Crazies, which Kerr, a former cast member with the Groundlings in LA, founded 20 years ago. Then based in Huntington Beach, the Crazies were a comedy troupe with an inaugural cast of 12. Kathy Griffin, who'd also been a Groundling, helped Kerr with the auditions. Known for topical sketch shows with titles such as Orange Side Story, Orange-lahoma! and Orange Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Crazies moved to Santa Ana in 1993 and shifted the focus to improvisational theater. It’s now a school for improv, although Kerr hopes to mount a new Crazies’ sketch show later this year.

As a little boy, Doremus helped Crazies performers with their lines, says Kerr, who concedes her son was “very unusual.” How unusual? His first word was “rebate.” At 3 years old, he made his own costume and mask to sing the complete Phantom of the Opera for Kerr and his stepsister. Asked at 5 what he wanted for Christmas, Doremus replied, “A leaf blower.”

That was around the time Kerr divorced her second husband, Drake’s home-builder dad. Their boy was then shuttled between his parents every other weekend, and Kerr often found herself struggling alone as her other two children were already out of the house.

“It was very painful,” she recalls. “I had this child and had to start all over again. Going back to comedy was a very helpful choice for me.”

Comedy was Doremus’ choice as well. He produced, directed and wrote the first of several original plays, Presidents Are Funny, as a third-grader. It was performed for every class at Harbour View Elementary School in Huntington Beach.

Doremus was so committed to pursuing a stage career after seeing the Broadway production of Rent that he convinced Kerr to let him drop out of Fullerton High School his senior year so that he could write plays and musicals. She cut a deal in which he could take high-school-equivalency courses in the morning and do theater work in the afternoon.

When she came home at 2:30 p.m. one day after Doremus had earned his diploma and found him lying on the sofa in his boxers, eating ice cream and watching movies on TV, she threatened to kick him out of the house if he did not find a job. He instead applied to the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles and, at 19, became the youngest member of his class.

“I rounded up every friend I had to write letters of recommendation,” Kerr says of the AFI application process, “but he got in on his own. He’d produced an impressive body of work.”

Doremus is now the first member of his AFI class to have a film screen at Sundance.

When talking about her son, Kerr worries about coming off like she’s taking credit for his success. This is particularly true when she describes how he showed her an early Douchebag scene but explained the project was on hold because his buddy Jones had moved to New Mexico. Unbeknownst to Doremus, Kerr later got Jones on the phone and said that scene convinced her he should return to finish Douchebag and further pursue acting.

Kerr, who has written 11 books, including Charlie’s Notes, a memoir about her dad, is tenacious—a quality that has apparently rubbed off on Doremus.

“He has the drive and discipline to get things done,” she says. “He’s talented, too, very much so. But it is his ability to say, ‘I don’t care what the odds are, this is going to get done’ that I am way more proud of than anything else.

“I tell him, ‘Just don’t go Hollywood on me.’”

   

BROWER HOME. CORONA DEL MAR, CALIFORNIA. FRIDAY, JAN. 15, NOON.
The tri-level, 1970s modern home of Jones’ grandparents—Ed and Pauline Brower—features an all-white living room with a black grand piano next to one wall and stunning views of the Corona del Mar coastline and Catalina Island through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Another room in the home has been converted into an art gallery that displays colorful landscapes painted by Ed, who was the U.S. Assistant Postmaster General during the Nixon and Ford administrations from 1972 through 1976 and later the CEO of Pacific Scientific Co. in Newport Beach.

Up a few steps from that is a large family room with a billiards table on the north end and a big-screen television on the south side. Sitting at a bar table in the middle of the room, Jones says he has spent most of his time here since relocating from New Mexico to care for Grandma and Grandpa. Once they retire for the evening, the 25-year-old loves nothing more than holing up in the family room and writing.

He is the son of actors who met while studying in New York. Born in New Jersey, Jones was about 5 years old when his parents split up and he moved with his mother to Irvine because she was originally from Orange County and her support system was here.

“It was extremely safe,” Jones says of Irvine. “Periods of time I would be angry we lived there, especially when I went to LA. Irvine has no character.”

Fortunately, he fell in with other kids who liked “the escape” of staging shows and making movies. When he was a 15-year-old sophomore at Woodbridge High School, a friend in a play called Subway that was written, produced and directed by 16-year-old Doremus convinced him to run the lights for the show at the DePietro.

“I volunteered to do it until he got someone else,” Jones recalls. “It was a no-budget play. Drake did the sound at each performance, so we were in the booth together for the run of the show. That’s when the bonding began.”

They discovered they had much in common, including tastes in movies—the sillier the better.

“We decided we should make a movie,” Jones says. “We decided to base the film on one of the characters from the play.”

The Bum was about a clueless filmmaker named P.J. Chomps (played by Jones), who tries to make a documentary about a homeless man.

“We had ridiculous expectations,” Jones says. “We thought we were going to make a 90-minute feature film. . . . We pieced it together into an hour version, and then a 13-minute version. We showed it to people for fun. It was our first foray into filmmaking together. It’s the first time we made something together and realized people liked it.”

Jones went off to Chapman University in Orange about the time Doremus enrolled at AFI. Jones worked on his own films and those of his friends at Chapman and also helped form a comedy troupe that performed on campus and in LA. He barely kept in touch with Doremus.

“We were so involved in our own things,” Jones explains. “Then, once we’d both graduated, we started talking about working together again.”

But, for the next two years, Jones co-directed music videos in LA with fellow Chapman alum Joseph Armario under the pseudonym Jurassic Technology. Jones did perform a small walk-on part in Spooner, and while that film was being edited, Doremus called to say there was a guy he had to meet: Spooner’s editor, Dickler.

“He said I’d either love him or hate him,” Jones recalls Doremus saying of Dickler, whose editing résumé is peppered with such titles as Pulp Fiction, Best In Show, The Green Mile, Anvil! The Story of Anvil and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

“Drake had built him up so much,” Jones said. “We just met, talked a little bit. We have a lot in common. We share the same tastes in music and movies. I like him. He’s cool.”

But Doremus had more in mind than a simple meet-and-greet.

   

BROWER HOME. CORONA DEL MAR, CALIFORNIA. FRIDAY, JAN. 15, 1 P.M.
Trudging up the spiral staircase leading into the family room, with clothing draped over each shoulder, Doremus mentions these final days leading up to Sundance have been “a whirlwind.”

In addition to the demands of submitting a completely finished film and doing three media interviews per day, he continues to play with his Burbank-based East Valley YMCA league ice-hockey team, Agent Orange.

Doremus recalls that 10 years ago, in this very same room, he and Jones hosted a screening of The Bum. “We projected it onto a big screen, and we had 70 folding chairs set up,” Doremus says. Once the lights came up at the end, the teens solicited donations from friends and family members for the Just for Laughs Film Festival entry fees.

While editing Spooner, Doremus had told Dickler he was too funny not to be in a movie. To the amazement of Doremus, Dickler went for it. Somewhere along the way, the director got the idea of playing the strong-willed editor off his mellower friend Jones. A 30-page outline for what would become Douchebag was shot with the newbie actors. Jones and Dickler supplied all the dialogue as it came to them.

“It was entirely improvised with Drake’s direction,” Jones says. “It was a very free-form, comedic improvisation.” He also stressed that Dickler’s Douchebag character “was a wacky caricature of his personality, as was mine.”

Based on the early footage, Lindsay Stidham, who attended AFI and co-wrote Spooner with Doremus, banged out an actual script.

There was just one problem: After about half the film had been shot, Jones suffered what he called a “mini midlife crisis” and retreated to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The official reason was to learn carpentry from his father, but the more he talks about it, the more it is obvious he needed to find himself after he discovered he hated directing music videos.

Doremus let the Douchebag project marinate while he made the festival rounds with Spooner last year.

Then came Kerr’s phone call, which inspired Jones to recommit to Douchebag. So did e-mails from Stidham, who is credited as a writer along with Doremus, Dickler and producer Jonathan Schwartz—although she was the only one who put anything on paper. As the line producer, Stidham also scouted all the filming locations.

“Lindsay would end her e-mails with, ‘P.S. This is my passion project. Let’s not let it fall through the cracks,’” Jones says. “It’s been my passion ever since.”

   

POOLSIDE AT THE BROWER HOME. CORONA DEL MAR, CALIFORNIA. FRIDAY, JAN. 15, 7 P.M.
After a long photo shoot, Jones and Doremus pour themselves into lounge chairs, share warm Newcastle Browns and trade funny stories about their fathers.

“Both our dads are going to be there in Sundance opening night,” Doremus says. “They are huge fans and supporters. My dad has always been supportive of me.”

The Shirt, the first short film Doremus made after AFI, was about a guy who can’t find the perfect shirt, so he ultimately goes without one. “At the premiere, my dad took off his shirt,” Doremus says.

He says Douchebag is more in the spirit of The Shirt than Spooner was. Starring Matthew Lillard (Scooby-Doo, SLC Punk!), who attended Tustin schools from first grade through high-school graduation, Spooner was about a guy who had no interest in growing up until love came along. It was based on a story idea, Doremus says, while the darker Douchebag “is way more personal.”

“We use the name of my fifth-grade girlfriend, my best friend is one of the stars, and my film editor from Spooner is the other,” he says.

“It’s extremely personal,” Jones concurs. “And I think working with you, there’s an escape there. It’s not all about the camera. With so many movies, you can feel the camera, you can feel the crew. I hope that comes through.”

Maybe it’s the warm English beer talking, but the usually optimistic Doremus is growing increasingly somber.

“I know some people are going to hate it,” he says of Douchebag. “But if you add up the amount of people who will see it at Sundance, more people will have eventually seen it than any of my other films. Not enough people saw Spooner to hate it.”

“But the name is Douchebag,” Jones offers, trying to keep his friend’s spirits up.

“People will find it.”

They agree the name was a stroke of genius, courtesy of Schwartz. After some initial doubts, the title grew on everyone, until all agreed the picture could be called nothing else.

“It has some very sweet moments,” Doremus says, as if trying to convince himself.

“It has a lot of humanity in it,” Jones agrees, “and I think people will get it.”

Doremus is already jittery about walking into the Sundance buzz saw, and now the PR people there are playing up the scheduled attendance of Mary Barger—the real one, with whom Doremus reconnected and who is flying in for the premiere.

“I’ll be nervous Friday night,” Doremus says. “It’ll be the first time anyone has seen it. The LA Times will be there. It’s so nerve-wracking. It’s not like Slamdance, where you’re showing the film to 100 people. This is the biggest stage for movies in the world besides Cannes.”

He starts fretting about all those seats Douchebag will have to try to fill in Park City and Salt Lake City—3,445 at six showings, not counting the press-only screening.

The beer is not working.

   

BING BAR. PARK CITY, UTAH. Friday, JAN. 22, 7 P.M.
Snow flurries have fallen all day on this former mining town. It’s pretty to look at—from inside a toasty room. Thankfully for sun-spoiled Southern Californians, the Absolut Douchebag Party—in deference to the official beverage sponsor, of course—is indoors.

For the invite-only slurp fest, the Main Street watering hole’s front doors are locked, and entry is only possible through a door marked “Exit” once you clear a large bouncer with a guest list in his mitts at the top of the steps.

Inside, the Bing is packed—and oozing with schmooze-itude. The 2010 incarnation of Twiggy is telling a slightly sneering Jason Schwartzman look-alike how she’s known Doremus for years and years.

The director of the hour holds court in the next room alongside Jones, Dickler, Stidham, Schwartz, co-producer Marius Markevicius and actress Amy Ferguson, who has a supporting role in the film. Decked out in their Sundance best, Team Douchebag cracks up as photographers snap them against a festival backdrop.

Beaming with pride between the camera lenses is Jones’ father, Wellington Stroud Jones.

The younger Jones leans over and says, “Time to go, Dad.”

   

THE RACQUET CLUB. PARK CITY, UTAH. FRIDAY, JAN. 22, 8 P.M.
The temporary, ascending rows of theater seats quickly fill up. If it’s not a full house, it’s pretty darn close. After a brief welcome from Doremus, the film begins. It’s funny and better-paced than Spooner, although that could also be because of the things coming out of the titular character’s mouth. You’re on the edge of your seat wondering what dickish thing Dickler will say next.

The end credits produce hearty cheers and applause, although film critics and distributors in the room are sitting on their hands like poker players concealing their tells.

The most boisterous howls and clapping come moments later when Doremus reveals Barger is in the crowd, which by now knows she is central to the movie, even though she never appears onscreen.

Then it’s complete silence.

“Mary?” Doremus asks sheepishly. “Is she still here? Uh-oh . . .”

“WOO-HOO!” comes a yell from the back of the room, prompting another audience outburst.

A young woman in the crowd suggests Doremus marry the real Barger to help with the film’s marketing.

All questions and comments are positive. “I loved this movie so much,” says another woman. “Now I have to see Spooner.”

Schwartz jokes Spooner is now showing as a double feature with Avatar. Actually, it’s to be distributed on DVD and pay-per-view, although a Douchebag-Spooner package deal is also being floated to potential buyers.

Doremus is asked how he found his amazing lead actors, who seem so real onscreen.

“Well, Andrew was my editor on my previous film Spooner,” he says. “I just had this crazy idea that my friend Ben play his brother. It was in my heart and my mind, and I just had to do it.”

The most surprising disclosure of the night is that Dickler, who plays a committed vegetarian in the film and really is one, ate five hamburgers for one scene.

   

FILM FESTIVAL HEADQUARTERS. MARRIOTT HOTEL. PARK CITY, UTAH. SUNDAY, JAN. 24, 7:20 P.M.
Standing with Dickler, Kerr and a family friend in the hotel lobby before leaving for an intimate Douchebag screening an hour away at Sundance Resort, Doremus is jazzed about a post that went up on an LA Times blog a couple of hours earlier.

Writing about the thriller Buried starring Ryan Reynolds being the first feature film to sell at Sundance 2010, John Horn reported that many of the festival’s most star-laden movies had not yet been snatched up. “Instead,” he wrote, “the buyers’ attention was focused on smaller genre titles like the low-budget road comedy Douchebag, the digital-age romance documentary Catfish and the Afghanistan war documentary Restrepo.”

Dickler concedes it’s weird being on the acting side of the Sundance buzz-athon, as is having strangers come up and praise his acting or say they can’t believe Douchebag is his first lead role.

Now sporting a tightly trimmed beard, Dickler also misses the big, bushy version seen onscreen.

   

SUNDANCE INSTITUTE SCREENING ROOM. SUNDANCE RESORT, NORTH FORK, PROVO CANYON, UTAH. SUNDAY, JAN. 24, 9 P.M.
The drive over is miserable: long, dark and fog-shrouded. When you can actually make out a sign, it says things such as “Watch for Falling Rocks” or “Watch for Falling Avalanches.”

That’s a buried memory by the time Douchebag finishes rolling in the 164-seat theater at the resort Robert Redford built. This audience reaction is downright boisterous.

A question that had been asked at previous screenings surfaces here: What was the real seed for the fractured brotherly relationship of Dickler and Jones? But there is no real-life family drama. The realness of the relationship came from the improvisation produced after Doremus brought his two leads together, according to the actors.

“I loved it,” Dickler says of working that way. “It was awesome. Lindsay and Drake encouraged us going off the page.”

“Lindsay’s graciousness coupled with Drake’s ability to capture a moment allowed us to use our own words to capture what they wanted to say,” Jones adds.

“It felt enormously real,” a woman in the audience remarks. “I feel like you know [the brothers] loved each other. The way you showed the strong raw emotions with each other was really well-done.”

Asked about his film’s title, Doremus says three days in Park City confirmed they made the right choice:

“Everyone is coming up to us calling us douchebags on the street.”

mcoker@ocweekly.com

This story appeared in the print edition under the headline "Douchebag at Sundance."

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