The film combines reality TV with the confessional nature of blogs.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
PHILADELPHIA -- Like many college graduates on the brink of a career, Brian Herzlinger was a worm looking for his glow. For the self-described nobody from Marlton, N.J., the source of all luminescence was Drew Barrymore.
If the struggling filmmaker, then 27 and a production assistant on "Chicago Hope," could meet the human sunbeam on whom he'd nursed a crush since "E.T." (he was 6, she was 7), it would be a sign. A date with Drew would foretell his future as the next Steven Spielberg.
"My Date With Drew," which opened last Friday, is an $1,100 guerrilla film chronicling Herzlinger's quixotic quest to dine with his dream girl, a journey that is by turns as irritating and irresistible as its traveler.
But don't call "Date" a stalkumentary. Back in Philadelphia last week advancing the project he made with two Ithaca College buddies, John Gunn and Brett Winn, Herzlinger describes himself as Barrymore's apostle.
"People have always had heroes," he says. "Instead of Odysseus and Athena mine are Harrison Ford and Drew Barrymore."
In particular Barrymore, whose fan club he belonged to since childhood, and who had overcome alcoholism, drug addiction and has-beenism by 15.
"To have watched Drew go through these dark periods in her life and yet emerge so passionate and optimistic is an inspiration to me," explains the filmmaker, now 29, as to why he pursued Barrymore instead of, say, Condoleezza Rice.
For the dreamers
A fan of Spielberg films who once had an internship at the director's Amblin Entertainment, Herzlinger believes that his modest comedy about an ordinary guy trying to meet an extraordinary girl will "inspire the dreamers in the audience to pursue their dreams."
Because "Drew" combines the process of reality television with the confessional nature of blogs, Herzlinger's film strikes a cultural nerve. It won audience awards at New York's 2004 Gen Arts Film Festival and Aspen's U.S. Comedy Film Festival, beating out "Napoleon Dynamite," "Super Size Me" and "Garden State."
In person Herzlinger, who now lives in L.A., is sunnier, funnier and less neurotic than he is in his film. Big smile. Wavy hair. Untucked shirt. His jeans are the only thing stressed about him. You would cast "Cocoon"-era Steve Guttenberg to play the aspiring filmmaker.
But ask how his Barrymore obsession differs from John Hinckley's fixation on Jodie Foster and he cringes. Why liken his attempt to score a date with Barrymore to Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan meant to impress Foster? Well, because both apostle and stalker sought celebrity attention as personal validation.
But their tools were different. Where Hinckley packed a pistol, Herzlinger carried a mini DV camcorder, courtesy of Circuit City's 30-day return policy. (The chain has since amended its incentive to a two-week trial period and now charges a 15 percent "restocking fee" for any cameras returned.)
Rules of engagement
"Our biggest concern was not to come off too stalkery," admits the filmmaker, who with his collaborators carefully outlined respectful rules of engagement.
No invasions of privacy. No contacting Barrymore's mother. No hanging around Barrymore's house or her production offices. No approaching her ex-husband, Tom Green. The film's $1,100 budget came from prize money Herzlinger won on "Taboo," a game-show pilot (winning answer: Drew Barrymore). It was made physically possible by Circuit City's unintended in-kind contribution.
Dubbing themselves "the Drew Crew," the filmmakers took a six-degrees-of-separation route. They called people they knew who might know someone who might know someone who knew Drew.
Through these contacts they met Barrymore's aesthetician (who gives Herzlinger a free facial); Barrymore's childhood crush, Corey Feldman; and producer Kerry David, former personal assistant to Nicole Kidman. David cops to her crush on Kidman's then-spouse, Tom Cruise, before she joins the Drew Crew to produce the project.
When Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, "My Date With Drew" is not what he meant. But for Generation X, the children of blogs and Red Bull, it is the undocumented life that's not worth living.
Most of the people Herzlinger meets cheer him on. A most eloquent boo-bird is TV director Bill D'Elia, his boss on "Chicago Hope" and "Ally McBeal." Upon hearing that meeting Barrymore is Herzlinger's lifelong dream, D'Elia looks askance at his prot & eacute;g & eacute; and says with a sigh, "When I was your age my dream was world peace."
One can agree with D'Elia and still get caught up in the excitement of watching guerrilla filmmakers make a picture for peanuts. They use the digital-video equivalent of a Polaroid Instamatic. They edit on a laptop computer. They plead with friends to fake credentials for Herzlinger to crash the "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" premiere.
Practice makes perfect
At boot camp a recruit prepares as if for war. At "Drew Camp," Herzlinger prepares as if for a date. To this end he even goes on a "rehearsal lunch" with a woman who looks enough like Barrymore to be her stunt double.
While "Drew" has all the how-do-I-look, will-she-think-I'm-a-dork, I'm-not-worthy moments that precede any blind date, it also boasts the suspense of whether the platonic rendezvous will actually happen.
As to whether the film has a happy ending, well, no spoilers here. Let's just say that Barrymore appears in the film and gave permission to use her image in the advertisements. And that NBC offered to buy the project and run it in eight parts as a reality-TV series. Though the Drew Crew was tempted by the offer, it held out to distribute the film in theaters.
Since the film's completion, the Drew Crew has been working on a pilot for an I-Have-a-Dream television show. "The goal," Herzlinger says, "is to make movies that inspire people, but on bigger budgets than $1,100."
Epilogue: A funny thing happened on the way to "Drew's" distribution, when Herzlinger began keeping company with David, a good-humored Aussie who is as practical as she is pretty.
He puts it like a movie pitch: "On my quest to make a dream come true, I met my dream girl."