Drive-by shooting: 'Swedish Auto' drives into town
Published on October 20, 2005 in issue 0442 of the Hook
PHOTOS BY JAKE MALONEY
During their days as frat brothers in UVA's chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Tyler Davidson and Charlottesville native Derek Sieg shared a passion for filmmaking. After Davidson's graduation in 1997 and Sieg's a year later, the two found and lost touch over the years. But now, nearly 10 years later, the duo has transformed their passion for film into overlapping careers– Davidson as a producer, Sieg as a writer/director.
Swedish Auto, their first collaboration and Sieg's feature film debut, is currently filming around town. An unconventional love story about a mechanic in a Swedish repair shop and the woman with whom he crosses paths, the movie shows what happens when two characters take dramatic control of their lives.
Drawing from his life-long connection with Charlottesville, Sieg has transformed his personal experience and memory into script material at locations all over town. And while plenty of Volvos and Saabs tool around Charlottesville, Sieg says the Swedish shop is 100 percent imaginary.
"We've really been unearthing every corner of the town, whether it's the University or segments of Main Street, the Downtown Mall or Beaver Creek," says Davidson. "We're getting a mix of all the best parts of the city."
Sieg was born and raised in Charlottesville, graduated from Western Albemarle in 1994 (the same year fellow local Jeff Wadlow, director of Cry Wolf, graduated from CHS), and still has a soft spot in his heart for Charlottesville. His grandfather started the local Budweiser distributorship J.W. Sieg in the '60s, which his dad took over some years later.
"My dad gives me a little bit of pressure [to join the family business] now and then," laughs Sieg, "but they were always really supportive in everything."
Davidson, who has been in the business eight years (his production company, the Lab Entertainment Group, is based in LA), says Sieg brings fresh creativity and talent to the mix. But after graduating from film school in London, Sieg wasn't even sure he wanted to work in film– his main interest was writing.
Just this spring, Sieg cranked out the script for Swedish Auto in under a month. Then, after a short round of revisions and troubleshooting, the film was ready to be cast.
Lukas Haas dons a mechanic's jumpsuit to lead the cast as loner Carter. Haas, whose mild disposition made an impression during the casting process, garnered acclaim for his turn as Scott Dandridge, the suddenly conservative son of Goldie Hawn and Alan Alda in Woody Allen's 1996's musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You. In the end, doctors discover the source of his political rebirth: oxygen deprivation to the brain. While his impassioned defense of Reganomics was memorable, Haas may be best remembered as the kid from the 1985 thriller Witness, staring Harrison Ford.
In Swedish Auto, a grown-up Haas sheds his Amish garb to portray Sieg's solitary mechanic slogging through his boring daily routine, watching a local University student and violin virtuoso from afar.
But he's not the only one doing the watching. January Jones, Stifler's eye candy in American Wedding, is tailing Haas's character as the equally off-beat Darla. Voyeuristic, sure, but "not in the sexual way," Davidson promises. The characters are captivated by each other's aesthetic appeal rather than motivated by any creepy desires.
"Really, it's a love story– a progression where I'm opening up and coming out of my shell," says Haas. The young cast, including Chris Williams (Dodgeball) and Tim deZarn (Spider-Man) in supporting roles, has enough big-studio credits to have the indie creative team eager to see the finished product.
"The performances that we're getting are bringing life to these roles that we never could have fully anticipated," says Davidson. "You just don't know fully what you have until you get everyone together like this."
The professionals aren't the only ones getting their shot at the limelight. Locals who wandered into Mel's Café last week were offered the chance to be extras. One set of parents and their four kids were diners on the set. The real estate agent for the film doubles as a featured extra. (Admittedly, she isn't a novice– she heads her church's thespian group.)
Other locals are getting a piece of the pie as well. One of Sieg's best childhood friends, John McAllister, was Sieg's right-hand-man when he experimented with movies in elementary and middle school. Now, 20 years later, McAllister's little sister, Chris Dougherty, is working as the film's executive producer.
Blending childhood friends and professional colleagues, the movie is taking a chance on the character-driven drama– one reason for actors like Jones, who had a supporting role in Love Actually, to get involved.
"Right now there aren't a lot of risks being taking studio-wise– just a lot of remakes and comic book movies," says Jones. "So when something unique and different comes along, you just want to jump on the boat."
Once the filming is finished October 20 and post-production wraps in the spring, Sieg and Davidson hope to gear up for a bout of international film festivals– from Cannes and Sundance to Toronto and TriBeCa.
"The only thing they can do at this point is create a great film and have it finished and ready to be submitted," says Sundance veteran Barry Sisson. "They have to work everybody they know to tell the festivals that they're shooting."
Sisson's first experience with Sundance was a positive one: he took home the audience award for his film The Station Agent and signed a $1.5 million distribution deal with Miramax's Harvey Weinstein on the spot. Now president and producer of Cavalier Films, Sisson is confident that with Sieg's good script and great cast, Swedish Auto has a fighting chance.
However the festival circuit goes next year, Sieg has no desire to direct Hollywood blockbusters with 10-figure budgets. Swedish Auto's budget is hovering just around $1 million.
"I just want to continue making films of this size. I don't have aspirations of directing Hollywood films– just character films," says Sieg who cites as influences The Return and the Icelandic mouthful Nói albínói.
Shooting six days a week can be strenuous, but the cast and crew take time to let their hair down especially Thursday, October 6, when the Rolling Stones performed.
"We 'scheduled' our off day on the production in advance for Thursday nights," says Davison. "One consideration, of course, was that we needed our locations, but we wanted to see the Stones!"
Sieg, on the other hand, is a huge Virginia football fan and vied for a Saturday respite. Even though he missed UVA's surprise October 15 win over FSU, Sieg's happy with his project and his professional collaboration with Davidson.
"It's nice to have a friendship in place when you head into a situation like this," Davidson says, "because you already know that the foundation of the relationship is solid and the business sort of becomes the gravy on top."
Producer Tyler Davidson, left, and writer/director Derek Sieg plan on a Spring 2006 premiere at the restored Paramount theater.
Lukas Haas as Carter
The crew set up camp behind William's U-Haul on Main Street.
Haas kicks back between takes. The actors adopted Charlottesville during their month-long stay, going to local restaurants, local bars, and loving the music scene.
Lee Weaver as Leroy
January Jones as Darla