As many of you know, I'm somewhat Twitter-addicted, or at least Twitter-dependent. It's fun, but it doesn't generally turn me into stalker material, until one day in February, I saw this Tweet by "Sheri_The_AD":
Gone over all the storyboards & know what the director wants so now my job is to figure out how to shoot it all in 27 days (Feb 19, 2010)
I had to know who this "Sheri_The_AD" was. By following her, I learned some snippets about her life, her boyfriend (he got her a bike, he travels a lot for work too, so they often find themselves in a long-distance situation) and what it means to be an assistant director. (She can describe it in 140 characters or less: "I run the set, create a schedule that allows the director to get all they need, and yell a lot.")
I wanted to know more, so I looked her up on IMDb, but sadly, the biography and trivia sections are sparse.
So I did what any curious person who has the built-in excuse of a film column would do: I found a way to contact her to ask her about the stuff that IMDb isn't sharing (I'm bad-ass like that, so look out, Steve Martin). Although Sheri is currently at work in Michigan shooting a film called SALVATION BOULEVARD (with Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Marisa Tomei, Ed Harris, Jim Gaffigan, and Jennifer Connelly), she took some time to tell me about her love of television, indie films, and New York. (It turns out, she's a Simpsons fan—I knew there was a reason I was drawn to her!) I promise you, it's not just me--you'll find her as awesome as I do. In fact, if Sheri weren't so damn cool, you might instead be reading about Amanda Seyfried or my Lost predictions right now.
Shahrzad 'Sheri' Davani was born in Virginia, the second child of Iranian immigrants. Much of her extended family is in Iran, and she makes a point of scheduling long visits to Iran to see family and friends every couple of years. As a high schooler in the '90s, she knew she wanted to make indie films, and took trips into D.C. just to see films that wouldn't necessarily make it to suburbia, films like WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE and RESERVOIR DOGS.
But don't mistake her for an entertainment snob—she watches TV and sees the Hollywood blockbusters; but for work, it's the indie films that really speak to her.
"I love TV," Sheri says, "and I won't pretend that I'm above it." (And I love her for that. I find those "above TV" types annoying. And dishonest. But that's a rant for a different day).
Sheri has a special relationship with television, which goes back to her childhood; she even credits TV for getting her into film. Sheri explains:
"When I was I a child, I had leukemia and spent a lot of time in the hospital. I spent that time watching a lot of TV. TV was always there for me a got me through everything and I wanted to be a part of something so powerful. TV and film, in my opinion, are the most powerful media in the world that can still teach, move, and reach millions."
I ask her specifically about animation (I swear I didn't lead her towards The Simpsons in any way), and she tells me that "animation is an amazing gift to the imagination. I was the kid who had a hard time waking up for school during the week but come Saturday I was up super early to watch all the cartoons, and once The Simpsons came around it was like a dream come true: a cartoon with adult humor—it changed everything.
I'm still a big fan of The Simpsons, Futurama and earlier seasons of Family Guy." Her current favorite shows are 30 Rock, The Office, Glee, Big Love, True Blood, Flight of the Conchords, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Sex and the City, Project Runway,Rock of Love Bus, Deadwood, and Modern Family (there are more, but I think she ran out of steam).
Seven years ago, Sheri moved to New York to pursue work in indie films, even though "being Iranian, we aren't normally encouraged to pursue careers in entertainment; however, I'm lucky that my parents supported my dream."
Sheri tells me a bit about the evolution her career has taken:
"I didn't always get a choice when it came to picking what movies I would work on; in the beginning it was just a matter of working and who was willing to hire me. But once I got to a place in my career where I could be picky, I seemed to gravitate towards projects that moved me or inspired me. That wasn't always just the script itself but the passion of the director or an established producer.
I also love changing this up because each project becomes a part of your life for the time you're making it; you feel like you're experiencing the same things as the characters in the film. We go to the same locations they do, work for days in the house they 'live' in, so it's great that each film is different. I love that in one year (say the last
On set of NIGHT CATCHES US
12 months) I can make a film in the deserts of Death Valley, then one about the Black Panthers in 1970s Philly, to a teenage comedy where I got to work out of a high school every day, to an action/dark comedy with James Gunn, and now a comedy about a mega church. It's awesome!"
The teenage comedy is BEWARE THE GONZO, which was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. She calls it a "fun film about the outsiders in a prep school banning together to make their own underground newspaper after getting kicked off the school's." Sheri had a great time making this film, she says, because of the energy of the cast (Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz and Jesse McCartney). "I had never done a film where the whole cast was under the age of 20 and let me tell you, it's hard to keep track of them." (She's exaggerating a bit-- there are some over 30 types in BEWARE THE GONZO, such as Amy Sedaris and Judah Friedlander [you know him as the guy who wears the stupid trucker hats on 30 Rock], so I'm sure hilarity will ensue!)
The film she refers to about the mega church is, of course, SALVATION BOULEVARD, a project she's very excited about (and, judging from her Tweets, she's even finding Michigan interesting-- I can't wait to see the scene(s) set in the dunes), and the James Gunn film she's referring to is SUPER.
I asked her about working with Gunn: "I had never worked with James Gunn before SUPER, and I didn't actually know who he was before I met with him. Ted Hope, the producer, thought I'd be the right match for James and the project because of my indie background and the tight schedule we were facing on SUPER. When I met James he told me he had never worked with an AD that scheduled better or was as prepared as he was (James is very prepared). I told him I would be the AD to change that for him. I take my job very seriously and so does he, so between us and our DP, Steve Gainer, we made a great team."
(And judging from James Gunn's tweets, the feeling is mutual: @james_gunn "I'm extremely grateful for my cinematographer @stevegainer and my AD Sheri without whom SUPER could have never happened"[Feb. 14, 2010]).
I have to spend two more weeks in NYC for another job and I may never see @matthewmedlin again. #alwaysneedtobeintwoplacesatonce Feb. 26
Currently, Sheri spends most of her downtime in Los Angeles because her parents and boyfriend are there, but she still has a New York apartment for work: "I will always love New York; it's one of the greatest cities in the world, and it will take a lot for me to give it up for good." Sheri claims to be a boring person outside of work; she says she mostly just likes to eat and watch movies. "I think one of the reasons I love New York so much is because of all the great places to eat."
The city may get a snow day but I must slush through it to get to set. Ortega commercial will go on! Feb. 26
Along with films, Sheri occasionally works on television commercials. "I don't work on many commercials because my feature schedule takes up most of the year. I do about four a year; the money is good for little time and a lot less work, but I could never give up working on films, it's just more rewarding."
No, I'm not in a theater about to watch the Blind Side Feb 23
I just had to ask Sheri what she thought about THE BLIND SIDE, which led to discussion of other Oscar nominated films. "I thought THE BLIND SIDE was OK; I do think Sandra Bullock did a great rich man's Erin Brockovich. I went to the movie hoping it would pull at all my cheesy heart strings, but it fell short. I was more moved by Goldie Hawn in WILDCATS. However, I do see how it did well and why audiences liked it, but it was nowhere near a best picture or even a well-made film. I kinda feel the same way about HURT LOCKER even though I do think it's a much better film [than THE BLIND SIDE] that was well-directed and shot, but no real story arc that grabbed me by the throat."
I asked Sheri what she would have picked for Best Picture out of the 10 movies nominated. Although she was fond of UP, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and PRECIOUS, she went with DISTRICT 9. "I'm not usually into science fiction, and I was rather hesitant to even see the film, but once I was in the theater and 10 minutes into it, I was floored. Why I think it deserves to be best picture is that it managed to make me care for these creatures, and it wasn't like anything I've seen before. I can't say that about the other films (except PRECIOUS). I think you can find a theme in what I look for in a film or project: I need to be moved by the story."
Sheri is featured in the following short (1:04 in) called 82 WOMEN, inspired by Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar nomination for THE HURT LOCKER, in which female filmmakers were asked what film they would make if they had an unlimited (AVATAR-esque) budget.
Sheri's choice would be a film about Iran, so I had to follow up with her on that. "If I could, I would like to make a film about Iran and its people. I don't think the Western world has a clear depiction of Iran, nor do they know how Iran got to the place it is now. Iran in the '60s and '70s was one of the most progressive countries in the world before the Islamic Revolution. I'd actually love to make a film about Mosaddegh and 1953 coup. Mosaddegh was the elected Prime Minister and wanted to nationalize Iranian oil (that had been under British control). The CIA helped the British government overthrow him in their first covert operation against a foreign government. Once Mosaddegh was overthrown, the Shah returned to Iran and ruled for 26 years until the Islamic Revolution."
Up until now, my knowledge base about Iran started and ended with Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, so I asked her what she thought of the film made from Satrapi's books. "I did really like PERSEPOLIS. I thought they did a great job showing what life in Iran is really like. I have a cousin in Iran the same age as the main character in the film, and it felt like I was watching her story. I think the fact that it was animated allowed for them to tell an otherwise impossible task. You couldn't make a film spanning Iran before/during/after the revolution without it costing millions."
So proud of our amazing DP Zak Mulligan for winning the cinematography award for @obselidia, I'm so happy for him I almost can't tweet Jan 30
I noticed that producing credits started popping up on her CV, so I asked her why. "I started producing so I could keep making the smaller films that I love so much. I couldn't afford to just AD movies under 500K, and if I did do them, I was usually the most experienced and took on the producing role anyways. So now I try to produce one smaller feature a year, and that way I also get to continue on with the film after we call a wrap. I was really lucky this last year that a film I produced, OBSELIDIA, got into competition at Sundance this year and that surprised us all. We didn't have any name actors and no budget, but we still won two awards at Sundance, one of which was for our DP."
When I ask Sheri what she's got on the horizon, she mentions a few projects. PUTZEL, a comedy about an Upper West Side New Yorker who has never left his neighborhood, and another which is a drama by a talented young Iranian-American writer/director, Samah Tokmachi, to deal with confronting death. "And hopefully," she says, "the next film from our Sundance director, Diane Bell."
To close, I put Sheri on the spot and ask her which of her films (as producer or AD, either one) we want on our queues. Here are her suggestions: