Chris Sheridan Would Like To Thank The Academy

So would Scottsdale Community College, where Sheridan made his Academy Award-winning student film

A young man struggles along an empty stretch of desert road. Behind him rise the craggy fortresses and spires of Monument Valley--the Monument Valley of John Ford's Stagecoach and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, of Easy Rider and Thelma & Louise and Forrest Gump. It's such a quintessential American-movie location that the image might almost be a visual cliche, but for two factors. First, the majesty of this place rebukes the idea that it could ever be a cliche. And second, the hawk-profiled, longhaired man in the foreground isn't riding a stagecoach or a horse, a motorcycle or a convertible or even a pair of good, strong running legs. He's inching along in a wheelchair.

His name is Chris Sheridan, and he's the writer-director-star of Walk This Way, a student film from Scottsdale Community College. Sheridan says the opening shot of his 13-minute, neodocumentary opus wasn't intended as an homage to any particular movie. "There's just nowhere else in America where you get that road to nowhere, or that road of life. You know, in some ways, you're out on that road alone. I wanted to capture that vastness."

Capture it he did, along with the poignancy and optimistic humor of his travails with paraplegia since a 1991 accident. He also captured a gold medal in the 24th Annual Student Academy Awards this year--beating filmmakers from Stanford and University of Southern California--and stuck a nice feather in the cap of SCC's small but vigorous film department. Not bad for a 33-year-old frustrated rock musician/screenwriter/sport pilot from Athens, Ohio.

Chris Williams is Chris Sheridan's real name. But when he and his older brother, Laine, played in the metal band Sweet Savage in the late '70s and early '80s, they decided "'Williams' didn't cut it as a rock-star name. So we took the name 'Sheridan' from this southeastern Ohio farmer we knew, who always was sort of happy. We thought that was a better name than the one we got from our father, who was never happy no matter what."

Sweet Savage had a recording that hit No. 1 on the import charts in Europe, and had some popularity on the road in Texas and Baltimore, Maryland, playing clubs that, at the beginning, Sheridan was too young to be served in. But before the band could be signed to a major label, it broke up. "For reasons I still don't understand," Sheridan says.

Sheridan landed in L.A. in the mid-'80s, where he tried his hand at scriptwriting. He wrote three screenplays, none of which was produced; one was optioned. He spent some time working in project development for a firm called Stargate Films--he claims that Roland Emmerich, the German director of Stargate, the 1994 sci-fi epic, had an office nearby and had been inspired by the firm's sign for his film's title.

Stargate never got any projects (alas, other than naming Emmerich's) off the ground, but the paychecks gave Sheridan the freedom to explore a longtime interest: flying. "I sold most of my guitar stuff, and raised the four grand or so I needed to get my license. Stargate still had some '80s money, so it wasn't a problem paying me--until it was. Then the company folded, and I went to work in the airport in San Diego where I'd been flying. It was basically just to eat and fly. I knew a lot of people who had planes, so I was able to fly for cheap, just gas."

At the time that Sheridan entered his first air show, he says, "I'd already gotten most of what I wanted to out of flying. I'd had some incredible experiences, flown some cool planes, but it had sort of run its course for me. I was ready for the next thing in my life.

"And I got it."
On Memorial Day, 1991, at an air show in Kanab, Utah, Sheridan was flying a Long-EZ, an experimental high-performance aircraft designed by Burt Rutan, creator of the nonstop, around-the-world plane Voyager. The event was a ribbon-cutting competition. "You cut and recut a falling ribbon of toilet paper with your wing. Whoever cuts it last wins."

It was on Sheridan's third pass that his amiable, aimless life, profitable in little more than fun and good memories, was forever altered. To use the minimizing central metaphor of Walk This Way, he got a flat on the road of life. "The plane was a Canard," Sheridan explains. "Not to get too technical, the tail's in front, and the engine's in back, so it's basically stall-proof. But I managed to get it into a stall, which surprised some engineers." A combination of wind shear and other factors sent the little plane tumbling from the Utah sky. Sheridan didn't lose consciousness when it crashed. In the film, he describes his initial reaction: "I thought, 'Fuck! I broke my back.'" Then, with characteristic forethought, he wondered, "Now what?"

"What" turned out to be, first, several months in a Salt Lake City hospital. Sheridan credits his brother Laine with getting him through this initial period. "He was in a band, and he quit his job and put his life on hold for six weeks to hang out with me at the hospital, sleeping on the floor in my room and stuff. He kept me laughing. He'd come into the hospital dressed in scrubs and tell the nurses I was suffering from 'gross testicular itch.' The nurses would come in later with some kind of supermedicated powder, and lift up my balls."

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