Takes Us Down to Paradise City
by Jay S. Jacobs
As so often happens, the germ of the idea for actor D.B. Sweeney’s writing and directing debut Two Tickets to Paradise came from a real life experience. In fact, it was a drunken road trip down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with his brother that set the wheels in motion in his head.
At the time, Sweeney was already a well-known actor, starring in such films as The Cutting Edge, Eight Men Out, Gardens of Stone, Memphis Belle and Roommates. His father had recently remarried and their new step-mother had invited the Sweeney boys to come down for a visit. Problem was, Sweeney and his brother didn’t get along with the woman at all.
“He was married to my mom for over twenty years and then he remarried,” Sweeney recalls. “And I hated the woman he remarried. I try not to use that word too often, but…,” he trails off.
Sweeney and his brother had spent just a little time there and they were miserable. They tried to be good sports, but eventually they couldn’t handle it any longer. They needed to get away and blow off a little steam.
“So my brother and I go out and we kind of have a couple beers – or a couple of thirty beers – and we buy fireworks,” Sweeney continues. “We got this great rental car and we turn the back wheel wells of the car into coolers, because that was easier and cheaper than buying an actual cooler. And it made a great sound when you hit the brakes – just ice in both wheel wells and then beers everywhere. Then we had about 200 bottle rockets. We just figured we would pick a color of cars and start firing the bottle rockets at that color cars.”
Okay, Sweeney acknowledges in hindsight, it wasn’t that smart an idea. But that was their plan for the evening. Sweeney and his brother sat drinking at the side of the road and dive-bombing passing cars. However, as so often happens when the plan isn’t too well thought out, it did not work out quite the way they had hoped – if they’d even taken the time to think out what might happen.
“The Myrtle Beach police didn’t agree with the plan,” Sweeney says. “They interceded and arrested us. As they were bringing us into the police station, the guy says, ‘What would lead two seemingly normal guys to drive around with a bunch of open beers in your car and fire bottle rockets at other cars?’ I said, you know what? My dad just got remarried and my stepmother is a bitch. The cop stops in his steps and he goes, ‘You know what? So is mine.’” Sweeney laughs at the memory. “We spent about twenty minutes talking about our respective stepmothers. He undid the cuffs and let us go.”
This brush with the law got Sweeney thinking of all the stupid jams that otherwise completely rational people could get themselves into just out of desperation or boredom or anger or sheer hopelessness. He knew that there was an interesting story in this dichotomy, so he got together with a fellow actor, Brian Currie (The Game Plan), to work on his first script. Sweeney took this opportunity to heart, also directing and financing the film.
This DIY aesthetic was different for Sweeney, who has previously starred in major motion pictures listed above as well as spending most of the last decade appearing in some of the biggest shows on television – including all three CSI franchises, 24, Criminal Minds, House MD, NYPD Blue and Once & Again. However, he was passionate about getting his film made and seen.
Beyond the fact that it was a great professional challenge, Sweeney felt a huge connection to the highly autobiographical story he had written (originally entitled Dirt Nap) about three childhood friends who are reaching their 40s and are each at life crossroads and get a chance for a road trip to see the college football championship bowl. Of course, with the group’s normal luck, there are three guys and only two tickets.
Sweeney likes the idea of kids growing up together and staying friends. Now, decades after making his life in Hollywood, he is still in touch with a few close childhood friends from his Staten Island, NY home.
“I have my friend Scott Lashier,” Sweeney explains. “He did 22 years in the Marine Corps and now he’s retired. We played Little League together. Kyle Stanford sells bonds or something down on Wall Street. He’s a good guy to meet in any kind of bar called O’Looney’s. Who else? Bob Sickle is another guy I played Little League with. So, yeah, I’ve got three guys that’s I’m in touch with from way back, that far in my life. John McGinley and I went to NYU together in the early 80s. That was really why I wanted him in the movie, because we already had that kind of bond.”
John C. McGinley who is best known lately for his role on the sitcom Scrubs, plays Mark, the local hero athlete who is now a degenerate gambler. His mounting debts are poisoning his relationship with his supportive wife (played by Janet Jones Gretzky.) Sweeney plays Billy McGriff, a former local rock star who has now settled into a life driving a delivery truck for Coors and just has learned that his wife (played by Sweeney’sCutting Edge co-star Moira Kelly) is having an affair. The final friend is Jason (played by comic actor Paul Hipp), the brains of the three who is now desperately single, living with his parents and toiling in a dead-end job at Office Depot.
“Brian Currie, who I wrote the movie with, almost every event in the movie either happened to him or me,” Sweeney says. “But my character is McGinley’s character, more or less. Obviously, I didn’t turn out to be a waste-product degenerate gambler or whatever, but I had a sports background that didn’t work out and that was a big problem for me for a while after that – and for a lot of athletes – transitioning into whatever the rest of your life is going to be. That would be the biggest thing. The character that I played was the character I always wanted to play. I always wanted to be the goofy guy who only cared about his guitar.”
Despite the fact that they were old friends, Sweeney admits that McGinley was not the first choice for Mark – though he is very happy with the way it all came out.
“We sort of had Alec Baldwin-meets-John Kennedy, Jr. plus too many twelve packs of beer [in mind],” Sweeney admits. “When we got down to making the movie, Alec Baldwin didn’t return our call, plus he’d gotten too fat. But otherwise, John McGinley was very close. He comes from very patrician stock in New Jersey. His father was a big Wall Street guy. John is a guy who was destined for success at a very young age. I think that’s what this character has. He was the can’t-miss kid – and somehow he missed. That’s the jumping off point of the story.”
Another old friend that Sweeney did not expect to get on board was Kelly, who played the spoiled figure skater who fell for Sweeney’s tough-guy hockey player in the figure skating romance The Cutting Edge. In fact, had he known that she would be a part of the film, he admits, he would have given her character a bit more to do.
“I always hoped Moira and I would work together again,” Sweeney says. “We never found a script. The Cutting Edge sequel scripts were terrible. When this thing came around, she was right at the top of my list, either for that role or for McGinley’s wife in the movie. It turns out she was living in Wilmington, North Carolina, where we were filming the movie. The crew ofOne Tree Hill – a lot of their crew ended up to be my crew on the movie, so I was able to get a hold of Moira. She immediately said yes and came down. Had I known with more lead time that I was going to get Moira, we would have had much more scenes together, believe me. I think there would have been a scene of us at a skating rink. I don’t know if we would have been skating, but we would have been at the rink.”
Sweeney decided early on to give the movie a small-town feel. The guys were supposed to be from Chalfont, Pennsylvania, a town about an hour outside of Philadelphia. Sweeney is from Staten Island, New York and his co-writer grew up outside of Boston, but this rural setting was very important to them.
Sweeney chose his characters’ hometown for a simple reason: “My cousins are from Chalfont,” he explains. “And my favorite uncle, dearly departed, Jack McCullen, he was from Chalfont. His kid’s there. The other thing is my co-writer is from Peabody, Massachusetts, which is just outside of Boston, and like you said I’m from Long Island. We just felt like there’s been plenty of Boston movies and plenty of New York movies. We really didn’t want to make it that specific. We wanted it to be more of a regional thing. That’s why we thought that Pennsylvania more captures that sort of… not rust belt, but blue collar, northeast, old school kind of vibe we were looking for.”
However, most of the scenes of Chalfont were filmed down south – right in the area where years before Sweeney had taken that apocryphal road trip. In fact, that trip led to one of the funnier scenes in Two Tickets to Paradise, where the drunken buddies mistakenly burn down a (fictional) museum dedicated to Wheel of Fortune letter-turner Vanna White.
The whole idea came when on the bottle rocket trip years ago. As they were driving in, Sweeney had seen a sign which read: “North Myrtle Beach, home of Vanna White.” Sweeney found that amusing and stored the idea away.
“Myrtle Beach, they had the Civil War come through here,” Sweeney says. “They had so much American history in this part of the country. Yet, their favorite son is Vanna White. Wouldn’t you think it would be ‘The home of General Beauregard’ or something? It just made such an impression on me. With that said, I love Vanna White. I have watched Wheel of Fortune not for the prizes many times. No knock on her, I just thought it was kind of funny. So I thought what if you take the idea a little further and there is like an Abe Lincoln’s cabin? Like her birth home has been preserved as an historic monument? I thought that would be funny. Then, of course, add drunken guys to fire bottle rockets at it and burn it down.”
That was the origin of the scene, but there is a big difference between writing a funny scene about burning down a Vanna White monument and actually being able to do so. First of all, on a low budget independent film, it is rather difficult to actually be able to afford to burn down a house. Also, of course, Sweeney needed to get White’s permission to do it – after all her name and likeness was being used. Well, sort of her likeness. Because of the limited budget, Sweeney got a local art college to have a contest creating a Vanna White statue. They received only four entries – and frankly none of them looked a thing like Vanna. However, Sweeney used the closest, figuring it would be even funnier to have a statue that didn’t really look like it’s subject. However, there was still the task of getting White to go along with it all.
“A friend of mine who I play golf with, Steve Mosko, works for Sony Pictures,” Sweeney says. “Sony Television syndicates Wheel of Fortune. He said he’ll get me an introduction. I go on the set of Wheel of Fortune and I’d read on the internet that Vanna White likes White Castle hamburgers. I thought I’ve only got ten minutes with her, but I’ve got to make an impression. So I brought the White Castle hamburgers from the grocery freezer counter. I had them in a shopping bag with a script. I said, listen, Vanna, I know you don’t have time to read my script, but I want you to have lunch with me. I took out the frozen hamburgers. She thought that was very charming and she agreed to do it. That’s how I got her permission. She then read the script and was a very good sport about it. Even though she was a little bit the butt of a joke, she was also being celebrated.”
In fact, White even agreed to do a cameo appearance at the big Bowl game later in the film. So Vanna White was on board. They still needed a house which they could burn down. Sweeney drove all around the Wilmington, North Carolina area (where much of the film was made). Finally, one day he came across an area where the state was widening the road. They were going to knock down a bunch of old structures, including one that Sweeney knew would be perfect for the film.
“I went up to the guy in the Land Mover that was getting ready to knock all these houses down and said can you stop?” Sweeney says. “Don’t knock that house down for five weeks, okay? I need to shoot it in a movie. He said some things that you can’t really say on a family website. But, it was basically no, with a lot more syllables. I went and drove around more. I was like, I know the answer to this is somewhere around here. The next town over was Dublin, North Carolina. I thought here’s a great time to be named Sweeney. I go to the fire house. There’s a bunch of Irish firemen there. I tell them the story of making the movie and what I need. Within a half an hour, they had called the North Carolina Department of Transportation and had gotten them to call off the Land Mover. They agreed to turn the filming of the burning of this house down into a fire training exercise, so it wouldn’t cost me anything. They would come over with a fire truck and do controlled burns on the house and then put it out when it was over – and gave me the fire truck for a drive by, to boot.”
Sweeney was happily surprised at how many people would help him out with the movie. For example, Coors Beer loaned him a truck and gave him beer to use in the film. Office Depot allowed him to film in their store. Local carnivals and bars also allowed the filming.
Another huge deal for Sweeney was the soundtrack. He went into the filming with very specific songs in mind by huge artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits – and he was happily surprised that he was able to license almost all of them, mostly at greatly reduced prices.
“This is my first movie, obviously, as a director and as a producer,” Sweeney says. “A lot of people cautioned me, ‘Look, when you mix your movie together, be realistic about the music you’re going to get.’ Because if you put a bunch of great songs in there and you edit your movie accordingly, your movie might work really well, but it’s working mainly because of these songs you’re never going to get. Or, that’s really helping the movie work. In my case, the songs I put in there generally were the songs I wanted and I loved. I got all my temp songs. So it was really, really great. Except the one that got away was U2. The band agreed to give me a song, but then Island Records dragged their feet. At a certain point, I had to lock the movie’s soundtrack and I couldn’t wait anymore.”
Another song that did not make the film was more of an afterthought. As noted before, the original title to the film was Dirt Nap. When Sweeney decided to switch the title to Two Tickets to Paradise, he toyed with the idea of licensing the Eddie Money song of the same title.
“When we changed it to Two Tickets to Paradise, I immediately looked into getting that song,” Sweeney says. “I never got to Eddie Money the way I got to Springsteen and Dylan’s people. I think I just got to a lawyer or something and they weren’t helpful. I just thought we’ve got enough music. We’ve got Springsteen and Dylan and Dire Straits. It’d be great to have the Eddie Money song, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”
However, Sweeney was getting a learning experience on the minutiae of filmmaking. The smallest things turned out to be a negotiation – which was interesting to Sweeney, but also sometimes a little overwhelming since he was often the man trying to get everything straightened out. Even the colleges that were going to be playing in the Bowl game that the guys were journeying to became a bit of a dilemma. Though the final score of the game was just barely acknowledged in the film – it was shown briefly in a newspaper clipping – most of the colleges that were approached refused to have their team be on the losing side.
“In the original script, Texas beats USC 33-30, which is the actual score in the Rose Bowl where Texas won the National Championship,” Sweeney says. “I was going around the colleges the year before and USC would not agree to lose the fictional game. I went around to a lot of other colleges that you might think would be in the championship game, and of all of those colleges, only Marshall would agree to lose in the big game.”
The actual filming of the Bowl Game – done around a real college football game (featuring neither Texas nor Marshall, though) – was also a bit of guerilla filmmaking. However, Sweeney got some help from an unexpected source – hockey great Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky’s actress wife Janet Jones Gretzky played McGinley’s wife in the film – and his son and mother-in-law played those same roles in McGinley’s family. Gretzky was often around the filming – he even did a few voiceover lines, however his actual presence in scenes would have been too much of a distraction, so he stayed off camera. Nonetheless, the Great One was able to almost single-handedly round up hundreds of extras for the bowl game sequence.
“He was a great morale-builder for the crew, especially in one big scene we did in San Diego,” Sweeney says. “He actually helped us to collect extras. We’re shooting a football stadium scene and the game at the stadium – San Diego State University against UCLA, which is San Diego State maroon, UCLA light blue. In our movie it is Marshall green against Texas burnt orange. We needed it to look like there were tens of thousands of people come to see that game. At game time, around four o’clock, as the people were streaming into the stadium, Gretzky was standing where they were coming through with a case of Coors Light and a t-shirt. I got my brother-in-law to make up 800 Texas t-shirts and 800 Marshall t-shirts. Gretzky would stand there like a popcorn salesman and, ‘Hey, if you put this t-shirt on and stand here, I’ll give you a free beer.’ People would be like, ‘Isn’t that Wayne Gretzky?’ He collected hundreds of people who were just curious [because] it was Wayne Gretzky. He was so gracious. Took pictures with people, signed everything, he was just great. Without him, that scene would have been much more sparsely populated.”
Now, a few years after the filming has been done, Two Tickets to Paradise is being released on DVD a second time (it was briefly released in 2008). The film has become a favorite at film festivals. And it was a great learning process for its maker – who is back to a busy acting schedule while he contemplates a follow-up film.
As an actor, Sweeney realizes, he has received an insight in filmmaking that most first-time directors never have had. He has done films with some of the legendary directors in Hollywood, including Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, Peter Yates, John Sayles and Sidney Lumet. Through working with these directors, he has come to a realization about filmmaking – a realization that shows up in his own directing technique.
“All those guys, they don’t do a lot of directing,” Sweeney explains. “They basically hire the best cameraman. They hire the best actors. They make sure they are in the best locations to film. They make sure the script is in the best possible shape. Then they let people do their jobs. Whenever something’s not going right, they may tweak it or fix it a little bit, but all those great directors you talk about, they almost never raise their voice. They never scream. Things proceed as they are supposed to proceed. They have the respect of letting people do their jobs. The amateur directors tend to scream and yell and try to prove to everybody that they are Francis Coppola or Sidney Lumet or Peter Yates. That’s where they go wrong, I think.”
This is a tactical error that D.B. Sweeney is sure never to make.
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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 6, 2010.