Explosions, con jobs, and brutal crimes dominate recent ties between the Coachella Valley and Hollywood. Mission: Impossible: 3, Ocean’s 11, and Alpha Dog were all filmed here. The violent scenes might reflect the film industry’s current interests. Bombs, heists, and spilled blood trigger box-office success.
This makes playwright and screenwriter Charles Evered’s filming in and around the desert all the more noteworthy. Nothing blows up in Adopt a Sailor, apart from preconceived notions; and the drama focuses on simple human emotion rather than outlandish plot devices.
“It doesn’t degrade humanity,” says Evered, an associate professor of playwriting at University of California, Riverside. “There are no scantily dressed teenage girls being tortured in it. There are no saws, no spattering blood everywhere.
Adopt a Sailor began as a 10-minute play about a New York couple that adopts a sailor during Fleet Week. It burgeoned into a full production and then, after Evered moved to Palm Desert, blossomed into a feature film. “We made a movie we can be proud of no matter how many people end up seeing it,” he says. “And at the end of the day, that just isn’t such a bad thing.”
Set in Manhattan, Adopt a Sailor stars stalwarts Bebe Neuwirth and Peter Coyote as a troubled married couple, while newcomer Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck, plays the sailor. Evered and his crew spent five days filming exteriors in New York during Fleet Week, including on the deck of a Navy warship, before returning to the desert for three weeks of preproduction and filming last summer. WonderStar Productions, headed by Michael Marix and Kim Waltrip, is producing the movie.
A conference room on UCR’s Palm Desert campus became a production office — with production assistants scurrying in with coffee and phones constantly ringing as the team sets up vendors, readies the crew, and handles press responsibilities. Though featuring only three principals, the film called into action dozens of players valleywide. When the time came to film, Bel-Air Greens in Palm Springs became an East Coast course (with newsmen Dan Ball and Patrick Evans in bit roles as golfers), and an alley in Indio became an alley in New York. For the primary location, a residence in Palm Desert was turned into an Upper West Side apartment. Those shots were not in the original plan.
"Kim and I did a lot of location scouting from coast to coast. We looked at apartments in New York City. We looked in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, lots of places,” Evered says. “The decision to shoot in the desert had more to do with Kim Waltrip just being a smart producer. She knew that if we could achieve the same effect by shooting it locally, that would free us up to spend more time and money on the things that mattered, like getting first-rate actors and an amazing crew.”
Attracting actors of the level of Neuwirth and Coyote is difficult for a first-time director working on an independent film, but Evered’s experience on the stage and in television placed him in an opportune situation. After earning a master of fine arts degree from Yale, he embarked on a successful career as a playwright. His work garnered several top prizes, including The Chesterfield/Amblin Fellowship and Berrilla-Kerr Award, and rave notices in Variety, The New York Times, and Newsday. With raves come top-shelf actors. The list of actors who have manned the stage for Evered’s plays include Academy Award-winner Olympia Dukakis, Academy Award-nominee Paul Giamatti, Academy Award-nominee Sam Waterston, Academy Award-nominee Amy Irving, Golden Globe-winner Peter Gallagher, Golden Globe-nominee Eric Stoltz, Tony Award-winner Liev Schreiber, Tony Award-nominee Mary Stuart Masterson, and Neuwirth, who has earned an Emmy and a Tony for her work.
Evered’s subsequent work in film and television — including deals with Universal Pictures, Dreamworks, NBC, and Paramount Pictures — enhanced his reputation. But it’s his personal history, particularly as it relates to Adopt a Sailor, that adds another level of authenticity to his already acclaimed work.
In 1998, after selling a script to Dreamworks, Evered traveled to San Diego to conduct research aboard an aircraft carrier, interviewing enlisted men and talking to them about their lives. “I was living a typical Hollywood writer’s life then, getting paid pretty terrific money to write stuff that never got made, but I can’t say I was happy or fulfilled. Somehow meeting those kids who were making less than 20 grand and working 16 hour days put my pampered Hollywood existence into perspective for me,” Evered says. “It just so happened that the Navy captain who was our tour guide started pitching me the Direct Commission Program, where people like me could join and not have to go the usual route of the academy or a long training process to become an officer. And so I joined. My agent at the time was more than a little surprised.” Evered was 33 at the time.
The result, Evered says, was a life-altering experience. “I’m sure I never would have written Adopt a Sailor had it not been for my joining the Navy. On paper, it had to be the worst career move I ever could have made. But then, as it turns out, it was the best thing, career-wise, that ever happened to me,” he says. “I think this just goes to prove that trying to micromanage or plan your career is folly. The best thing a writer could do is live an interesting and varied life.”
Now, a year after the completion of filming and with a year of arduous post-production behind him, Evered sees the result as he readies his film for the festival circuit and angles for distribution.
“To us, truthfully, it’s already surpassed our expectations,” Evered says. “We made a movie. It actually exists. Unlike most people in the business, we’re not just having lunch after lunch talking about making movies; we actually went out and did it.”