Dreaming of celluloid success (9/17/09)

Williston resident finishes first movie

Sept. 17, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

For Williston resident John Oliver, a low-budget movie is his chance to realize a long-deferred dream.


    Photo courtesy of Rich Docherty
Producer and director John Oliver (left) discusses the script with actor Bridget Burke on the set of ‘Dumping Lisa.’


    Photo courtesy of Rich Docherty
Actors Matthew Nicklaw and Bridget Burke are shown in a scene filmed outside Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston.

“Dumping Lisa” is the first film for the Emmy Award-winning television producer. Over the past 25 years, Oliver has earned a living working for WCAX-TV, NBC, the National Basketball Association and most recently as a freelance producer. But for many years, he wanted to make a movie.

“This movie has taken two years of my life,” said Oliver, who was both producer and director. “I pretty much had to take myself out of the freelance world to get this accomplished. It was a huge risk.”

He paused to reconsider.

“Well, not a risk. It was a dream,” he said. “It was a dream, so to pursue it you had to take the risk.”

The comedy, shot on a $1.2 million budget in Williston and other locations around Chittenden County, will be shown this Thursday during a private screening for the cast and crew as well as investors and friends.

“Dumping Lisa” is about a pair of young slackers, Marty Cutter (Matthew Nicklaw) and LaDon Love (Al Thompson), who earn a living by helping “confrontation challenged” men dump their girlfriends. But when their new client Jerry Skinner (Logan Lipton) tries to get rid of Lisa Klinger (Bridget Burke), he fails again and again.

Marty decides to do the job himself. He succeeds in breaking up the couple, but finds himself stuck with Lisa. Now he needs Jerry’s help.

“Dumping Lisa” mines the same vein of edgy, gross-out humor used in “Superbad,” “Knocked Up” and other films by Judd Apatow, another former television producer.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try to emulate that style,” said screenwriter Rich Docherty.

But he added that “Dumping Lisa” is a little sweeter and a little less risqué than Apatow’s films.

Still, Oliver said, “F-bombs are dropped all the time,” likely earning the movie an “R” rating.

Oliver, 49, talked about his life and the movie during a lengthy interview. Dressed in a grey sweatshirt and sporting a shaved head, he spoke in staccato bursts.

He was born in upstate New York. His father was an airline pilot, so his family moved frequently before settling in Colorado.

At age 15, he moved back east by himself to attend high school at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, a boarding school that combines academics with ski training. He made it to the developmental level of the U.S. Ski Team.

Oliver later earned a degree in meteorology from the University of Colorado. His first job out of college was working as a production assistant and a part-time weatherman at WCAX.

He soon learned he was best suited for work behind the camera, admitting, “I did weekend weather and I was just terrible at it.”

Oliver stayed at the station for five years before moving on to the NBA’s fledgling entertainment division. He profiled stars and produced promotional pieces for the basketball league, which aired on NBC.

That gave Oliver an in with the network, and he was hired to produce pieces for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He traveled around the world to profile athletes. During his two years at NBC, he won a pair of Emmys.

Since leaving the network, Oliver has been a freelance producer who has worked on projects for ESPN and the Speed Channel. He moved to Williston in 1998, where he lives with his wife, Kara, a school nurse in South Burlington, and two preschool-age children.

Local production easier

The movie, a collaboration between Oliver and Docherty, was a long time in the making.

The men first met at NBC. Docherty, who now lives in Burlington, had bounced around the country working in various television jobs before landing at the network.

Docherty has been writing screenplays since the 1980s but none of them had resulted in a movie. He and Oliver collaborated on an earlier script in the late 1990s, but realized the idea was outdated and impractical for an independent film.

“We wanted to try to do something that would generate cash,” Oliver said. “That’s not to say we sold out, but we wanted to be realistic.”

The movie was shot over 22 days in June of last year. Numerous area locations were employed, including Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, the Williston Fire Station and U.S. 2 through Williston Village.

The impact on the town was minimal compared to the big-budget movie “Me, Myself & Irene” starring Jim Carrey, which was also shot partly in Williston.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said municipal operations were disrupted for several days during the shoot in 1999. He said the production company reimbursed the town several thousand dollars.

Oliver cast “Dumping Lisa” in New York and Los Angeles. But filming locally meant less expense and bureaucracy.

Not that there weren’t headaches. That scene on U.S. 2 involved 16 takes. At one location in Burlington, the owner of a building complained about a scene that included an actress playing a prostitute.

“He was concerned that the building was going to be portrayed as a place where hookers hang out,” Oliver said.

Lipton, in a telephone interview from New York City, complimented Oliver for staying cool when confronted with obstacles and for allowing actors to improvise, which he called a “gutsy” move that helped produce funny scenes.

Big chance for stardom

Oliver said “Dumping Lisa,” unlike his television production gigs, is more in keeping with his personality. The Olympic profiles he worked on, for example, called for “tears and drama.” The irreverent movie’s main aim is to make people laugh.

“This is more me,” he said. Though television production is his craft, “it’s truly not my love.”

For Lipton, who has appeared on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning play “Wicked,” the movie gives him a chance for movie stardom — or at least hone his chops as a comedic actor.

“If it blows up, great,” he said. “But if not it could be a kind of calling card: This is exactly what I can do.”

Docherty also won an Emmy while at NBC. But at age 59, he would welcome another taste of success.

“In a perfect world we would get into Sundance,” he said. “Then we could strike a distribution deal and be seen in theaters across the country.”

“Dumping Lisa” has been entered into both the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals. Word on whether the movie will be selected from among the thousands of entries to the festivals is expected in December.

Oliver acknowledged that the movie is a long-shot gamble. If it doesn’t succeed, he said he can’t afford to spend years making another. But no matter what happens, he’s glad he tried.

“The great thing now is that I won’t look back and say, ‘What if?’” Oliver said. “If you really believe in something, you should take that risk if you can.”