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."
When he at last freed his supermedicated appendages from the hospital, Sheridan decided to settle in the Valley, an area he remembered fondly from his rock touring days. "I couldn't go back to Ohio. I mean, there's people in wheelchairs there, I'm sure, but . . . I wanted a nice place to heal. Plus, the Phoenix, the bird that rose up from the ashes, was a strong metaphor for me." Once he had established Arizona residency, Sheridan began working toward a Communications/Performance Studies degree at Arizona State University.
He became interested in Performance Therapy, the channeling of personal trauma into theater works, in the manner of Spalding Gray's monologues or Julia Sweeney's And God Said Ha!
"A friend of mine did his master's thesis with a performed narrative about the death of his sister," says Sheridan. "That's the first I ever heard about performance therapy." When the time came for Sheridan to prepare his honors thesis, he knew what form he wanted it to take: film.
Some years earlier, another ASU student named Penelope Price, a candidate for a Ph.D. in English Literature, did her thesis on the effect of film on 20th-century literature. Weary of the endless paper writing, she says, "I decided it was time to pick up a camera and play." It quickly became her career. Thirteen years ago, Price was hired to teach film production part-time at the tiny film department of SCC, and three years ago, her position became full-time. During that period, the department has grown to the point that it now offers, in Sheridan's words, "a world-class film program."
Scottsdale apparently agrees. The department is currently housed in a few cramped offices in the music building, but a bond issue was recently passed to build the school a new studio in 1998. "We're gonna have two sound stages, a recording studio, and editing bays," says Price, gleefully displaying the blueprints.
"But even now, we have two AVIDs, which are the big, nonlinear editing systems, which no other community college has. It's amazing that we have them. To research the new facility, I went over to USC and toured the whole place. They were really nice to me; the dean took the whole day out and took me around. But they have the stuff we have--the same cameras, the same flatbeds, the same editing systems. We just have fewer. But, then, we have under 200 students.
"The thing that we have going for us," says Price, "is that all the students have to pay for is the courses--$33 a unit--and a course fee that helps pay for the equipment--$25 for the lower classes, and $100 for the higher classes. That's phenomenal compared to USC, where it's $10,000 a semester."
Of course, when making their films, the students must put their own money into stock and lab fees--about $300 a minute, Price estimates. But so do students at University of Southern California.
"I don't mean to suggest that we're not still struggling, but the administration has been very supportive, and we are able to keep up. We're still growing. In fact," Price adds, "I don't want to grow any faster; I'm a little worried about this article. Every time we get something written up about us, we get all these phone calls."
About 35 courses are offered, taught by Price and her associate Ed Everroad and a variety of part-time faculty. The core of the program, however, is the production of a reel of 16- and 8-millimeter work, made with SCC's equipment. Says Price, "A lot of the kids don't care about the degree or anything, they just want to make their film."
This was the case with Chris Sheridan, who says, "It's sort of on the chopping block now, but ASU had an animation class in connection with a sculpting professor, Lew Alquist. One little course, and they're trying to slash it now, I hear." (Currently, animation classes are scheduled for the fall term; however, Alquist confirms their future is uncertain.) "Anyway, that got me interested, so I moonlighted at SCC because they had the cameras and faculty to make films. Then I transferred the credits to ASU, what credits would transfer." Price even campus-hopped to sit on Sheridan's thesis committee.
Price displays a rather den-motherish pride in her students, noting that several have gone on to finish their degrees at schools like USC, Cal-Art and Loyola Marymount. Others have made forays into the nonacademic film world. Two have made features--Rhea Crossland's The Candidate Kid and the lively slackerbabble comedy Whatever, by Sheridan's friend Karl Hirsch, are both in various stages of postproduction limbo--and another former student is currently "editing with Coppola."
Still, Price readily admits that the Student Academy Award given to Walk This Way is by far the most prestigious honor yet to befall an SCC film alumnus. Of the 10 awards--gold, silver and bronze medals, plus an honorary prize to a foreign student--two of the winners were from New York University, one from University of California-Los Angeles, one from Stanford, two from USC, one from Columbia, one from the School of the Visual Arts in New York, one from the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, and one from SCC. The Academy's press release inserts "Arizona" in parentheses after "Scottsdale" in the school's name.
Rich Miller, awards administration director for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, says, "We have had winning entries from community colleges before, but it's very rare. Some states, you just don't get any films from." The finalists come from three regional competitions--California, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii compose one region; New York State alone composes a second; and the other 40 states, including Arizona, compose the third. Walk This Way was the only winner this year from this space between the coasts.
"The talented people come from where they come from," continues Miller. "I hope it says a lot for our process, that the judges aren't just looking at where the films come from." Maybe, and maybe not. But it does say something for Walk This Way, since, as Miller notes, "Regions can send us three films, one, or none. We don't just want the best of the worst." It may say something for SCC, too.
Sheridan financed Walk This Way with money scraped together from a variety of sources. "My mom gave me some money; that's why I gave her executive-producer credit." ASU found a bit of departmental money for Sheridan, and his girlfriend, Anndee Rickey, kicked in a few bucks, as well. The rest of the film's slim budget--about $4,000, Sheridan estimates--came out of the welfare checks on which he lives.
"I'm not even finished paying it off, to tell the truth," he says with a sigh. "One of the guys at SCC, Ron Walker, let me put some of it on his Foto-Chem account."
Sheridan was disappointed in his attempts to raise money from the wheelchair community. "I tried wheelchair companies, I tried [former Miami Dolphin linebacker] Nick Buoniconti's Miami Project, and Christopher Reeve, and I even put a product placement for my wheelchair cushion in the films in hopes they'd give me some money. I got a stack of rejection letters. It kind of irked me for a while." The only firm that gave Sheridan any help was, amazingly, a record company: Warner-Chapel, who gave him a discount to license the Aerosmith song from which the film takes its title.
Shooting the film was almost as arduous as funding it. "Some directors use nonactors. I use nonfilmmakers," Sheridan says. "Most of the crew weren't film students, and hadn't done anything like this. It's tough filming yourself. I'd set up the shot, and then get someone else to actually run the camera. Anndee shot probably two thirds of the film. I had my upstairs neighbor shoot a scene, and one of my drinking buddies did another."
Equipment problems were another hurdle. "The night we shot the scene of me doing the comedy-club gig at the Star Theater, we had a light leak in the camera, and the film was ruined. It was evening, and the film stores were closed. So here I am about to go on, and the camera's not working, and I have to worry about being funny. Fortunately, these two friends of mine, Karl Hirsch and Dave Long, saved my ass. I called them at home, and they brought some stock they had down to the club. As soon as I saw them come in, I knew I could relax."
All those tribulations weren't for nothing. The academy wasn't wrong; Walk This Way is the feel-good movie of the year for the short-attention-span set. It packs a lot into its quick, 13-minute running time. The scene of Sheridan running over a smiley-face button on his way out of Monument Valley and blowing out his wheelchair tire is, in the director's words, "the real-time story--it takes about 12 minutes to change a tire." Deftly intercut with this core drama is a nonlinear collage consisting of the hard-won documentary footage of Sheridan performing "sit-down" comedy, or answering interview questions from behind the camera, or wheeling around Tempe, or hanging around his apartment with his cat Stash, to whom the film is dedicated.
The tone throughout is one of good-natured irony: We hear Sheridan holding forth in voice-over about the new sense of meaning and purpose that his condition has given to his life, while onscreen, we see him sorting laundry and cleaning the cat box. There isn't one frame that hints, even slightly, at self-pity.
After the closing credits, Sheridan's production logo appears. Sheridan's wheelchair-bound silhouette flies past a Spielbergesque moon a la Elliot in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The legend reads: Ramblin.
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It's that freedom from the maudlin to which at least one of the film's industry admirers has responded. John Bailey, the distinguished cinematographer (Ordinary People, Swimming to Cambodia) and director (The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, China Moon), met Sheridan after the award ceremony, and invited him to visit the set of The Kiss, the film he's now shooting.
Bailey says of Sheridan's film, "It has a kind of startling, unexpected sense of delight and engagement, of life-affirming buoyancy. It wears its tragedy like a coat of many colors."
This may be a more elegant way of saying the same thing that Sheridan claims Holly Hunter, star of The Kiss, said after she watched Walk This Way. "She told me it was 'fun.' That was cool. I'd heard a lot of people say, 'Oh, it's inspiring, it's uplifting,' but fun is really sort of what I was going for. I mean, This Is Spinal Tap was one of my big influences--a funny documentary. I just loved that."
Sheridan, now living on Sunset in Hollywood, has a similarly lighthearted angle in mind for the next phase of his career--he wants to develop a sitcom based on the film. "It just makes the most sense. In most sitcoms, there's a juxtapostion of the character with the situation he's in, like an alcoholic working in a bar. With me, nothing has to be contrived. I can't rollerblade, but I can bounce down steps. I'm a sitting person in a walking world. That's situation enough.