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Plenty of Something

[whitespace] Director and star Christopher Scott Cherot talks about the making of 'Hav Plenty'

By Richard von Busack

Christopher Scott Cherot is the director/star/editor/writer of the very low-budgeted Hav Plenty, a new film about a broke writer named Lee Plenty, who is blocked in both art and love. Cherot is a native New Yorker who went to the Tisch School of Communications at NYU. His independent film, based on incidents in his own life, gained ground as follows:

Last year, Cherot was screening Hav Plenty in a small New York projection room. Cherot's producer, Robyn Greene, saw directors Warrington Hudlin and Bill Duke in the building and invited them in. The well-known pair lured Cherot to Mexico, in May 1997, to a new black film festival just starting that year in Acapulco.

There, music producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds saw Hav Plenty and signed on as executive producer. At the Toronto Film Fest that fall, Miramax signed Cherot and brought in completion money. From there, Cherot went to the Sundance Film Festival, still feeling like an outsider.

"Sundance was pretty much exactly what I thought it would be," he says, "a political power scene. I fail woefully at self-promotion. I didn't feel I fit into the scene."

Metro: I enjoyed how Hav Plenty wasn't built on the Syd Field model for commercial success.

Cherot: A lot of filmmakers and producers get a little too driven to be commercial, in actually promoting this actor or that actor, making a loose storyline for a big star. Actually, I've never seen a movie like mine, and I was afraid people wouldn't get it. I've never seen a leading man who wasn't a player, who didn't try to hit on the women, who wasn't particularly groomed or good-looking.

Metro: One of films I'm reminded of, watching yours, is Renoir's 1932 Boudu Saved From Drowning.

Cherot: The original Boudu is one of my favorite films.

Metro: Did you see Paul Mazursky's 1989 remake, Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills? It's underrated. Little Richard is hilarious in it. I noticed also your quote from Cabin in the Sky--a real treasure of a film with a racist reputation.

Cherot: It's only racist by today's standards. It stars Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne--all of these greats. As far as influences, what I used as a model for Hav Plenty was Stalag 17 [1953], which isn't as far removed as it sounds.

Billy Wilder is my favorite director. What I was doing in Hav Plenty was writing about an event that was still very painful. Watching Stalag 17 was helpful. It's a painful setting, about an American stuck in a prisoner-of-war camp, and yet it's a very funny film about prisoners of war.

I was noticing how Wilder handled the humor. Did he start with a big laugh, with broad physical comedy? In this comedy/drama, Wilder managed to bring out the humor without making fun of the subject, without harming the integrity of the drama. My question was, Where do I bring out the funniness of the situation? Do you hit the audience over the head, aim for a broad physical laugh in a scene, a sharp witty laugh, a big dramatic laugh?

Metro: Hav Plenty is based on a true experience, you've said. How close to the truth is it?

Cherot: I was amazed how accurately I recreated it. It's 90 percent autobiographical. As a writer, I made a few situations a little more extreme. When I originally set out to write this, I never intended to make it. The original writing process was catharsis for me to get over a broken heart, I guess. At the time when I was beginning to write this, I was trying to write other scripts. But my imagination and my creativity were consumed with thoughts of this girl who just sort of ended our relationship.

Metro: Has the woman who is the real-life model for Hav Plenty seen the movie yet?

Cherot: I don't know if she'll be at the premiere. There have been a lot of screenings that she could have gone too. Since she's in this business [i.e., the film business], she'll have access to it.

Metro: Where did you find Chenoa Maxwell, who plays Havilland Plenty?

Cherot: Through the pages of Back Stage, a magazine for local actors. I met her on a casting call.

Metro: In one scene, Hav roots through Lee Plenty's stuff, and finds his books. Are the books Hav finds really yours?

Cherot: Yes, they're all my favorite books at the time--books that I carried around, the Bible, Of Human Bondage, Beloved, an anthology of Langston Hughes poetry.

Metro: How did you raise the money for Hav Plenty?

Cherot: That's not too different a story from other filmmakers--you scrape and you save, you establish credit that you won't get unless you lie. I borrowed a lot of money off of friends and family. My mother took a fifth mortgage on her home--that's how she was billed as executive producer.

Our budget was low. We only had four major locations; every other location in the film was a cheat. The film was shot in three weeks, in May 1996; two of those three weeks, we were at one location. These were six-day weeks with Sunday off, no fewer than 14 hours a day. The set was a house in New Jersey that belonged to a great family who were amazingly, divinely tolerant.

Metro: It seemed as if you were apologizing onscreen for the happy ending.

Cherot: That was an ending I shot after Miramax picked up the film. Miramax afforded me an opportunity to finish the film. There were changes and cuts that a studio asked of me. I had basically raised this baby on my own over the past three years, and I had to give up that control.

The cuts weren't as significant as they could have been. The cuts they asked for were stuff, like, maybe a scene that felt too long or a laugh that could be a little stronger. These guys knew a lot about what they were doing. This is nothing new; all filmmakers need to do this. I think Miramax still managed to keep the integrity of the film they purchased.

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Web extra to the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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