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Cherot Bets the House--and Wins

A fifth mortgage on his mother's home helped launch the filmmaker.

June 18, 1998|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he wrote, directed, edited and starred in his first film, Christopher Scott Cherot--a self-described "natural cynic"--knew enough to limit his expectations.

The 30-year-old former cab driver, who admits to relying on a book called "How to Edit" while in the cutting room, planned to use "Hav Plenty" as a video resume. Someday, he hoped, the romantic comedy--about a would-be writer and the stunning, materialistic woman for whom he pines--would help him get real work.

Then, the $65,000 film was bought for about $1 million by Miramax, which is releasing it Friday. Overnight, Cherot joined the small fraternity of young filmmakers who are lucky enough to have succeeded and smart enough to worry about the impact of success on their work.

What's unique about Cherot is that his worries about the downside of signing with a large distributor do not merely jangle around in his head. They are up on the screen--after Miramax asked Cherot to add a new ending to "Hav Plenty," he decided to make his angst part of the film.

"Miramax wanted a happier ending," explained Cherot, whose original film left the lovers in an ambiguous relationship, neither together nor apart. "I said, 'I can write anything I want?' They said, 'Sure.' I'm sure they were thinking more in terms of, like, a wedding. Or someone riding up on a horse with a rose in his teeth."

Instead, Cherot penned a tongue-in-cheek epilogue that had audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival--where "Hav Plenty" was in competition--giggling. Without giving too much away, the new ending takes place at a film festival, where "Hav Plenty's" main character is screening his first film, "Tru Love." Film distributors hover around him, sounding like hucksters.

"We definitely need to do some business together," says one, who says "Tru Love" needs "a more optimistic ending. But other than that, you stand to make millions."

Cherot admits that when he proposed this scene to Miramax executives--the very people his new ending mocks--he never thought they'd go for it. "But they looked at it and said, 'We love it. What kind of a budget do you want?' It was amazing."

(Ultimately, the new ending and improvements to the soundtrack brought the total budget to about $250,000.)

Thus, Cherot began his film career by publicly biting the hand that funds him. And while doing so, he won the support of not only Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who calls Cherot a "creative force," but also Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, whose company signed on to produce "Hav Plenty" after seeing it at the Acapulco Black Film Festival last summer.

Earlier this year, Miramax signed Cherot to a multi-picture deal under which he will write, direct and possibly act in an unspecified number of films (the first of which will be made in association with Edmonds Entertainment, which produced last year's sleeper hit "Soul Food").

When the deal was announced, Cherot's agent, Cassian Elwes of the William Morris Agency, summed it up this way: "A guy who made a movie for no money is now an extremely rich young man."

Not bad for a Bronx native who never finished college and who wrote "Hav Plenty" to try to get over a broken heart. Cherot studied filmmaking for three years at Manhattan's Tisch School of the Arts, but left one year shy of graduation in order to start preproduction on "Hav Plenty."

During that period, he says, he drove a cab "to finance myself--to eat." To finance the film, he borrowed money from friends and family, the bulk of it from his mother, a physical therapist who took out a fifth mortgage on her Queens home.

"That added a little bit of pressure," Cherot remembers. "On top of being director, producer, actor, editor, writer, script supervisor, makeup and wardrobe and art director, there was this: Make the film or lose the house."

He admits the script is autobiographical, closely following three days in a real-life romance. But he never intended to play the lead role himself, only stepping in when the actor he'd cast dropped out two weeks before the start of production.

As it turned out, the tensions of simultaneously making and starring in his first film helped the handsome Cherot to better resemble the character, whom he envisioned as "a non-leading-man leading man"--a guy who isn't smooth, suave or stereotypically good-looking.

"I didn't work hard at all to make him not look glamorous," he says of his character. During the three weeks of shooting, "I was exhausted. Those red-rimmed eyes and that broken-out complexion were all part of the reality of what I was going through."

In addition to portraying an atypical hero, Cherot also wanted his film to break some other conventions common to big-screen love stories. Not once in "Hav Plenty" does a character wax poetic about what it means to be in love. And never, ever are the two lovers shown kissing in the rain.

"Forget that," said the director. "I don't care how in love you are, put up a damn umbrella."

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