Growing up in New Jersey, Brian Herzlinger was always a movie buff, and he eventually went on to film school at Ithaca College in New York and, after graduation, moved to California and worked in the entertainment business as an intern and production assistant, all the time making short pictures with his friends and old classmates. But what ultimately brought him into the “big time” was a crush he’d had as a kid on the sweet little Drew Barrymore of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” While looking for a new job he went on the game show “Taboo” and won $1100 by correctly answering a question about Barrymore. Taking it as a sign and an opportunity, Herzlinger decided to put his life on hold and sink his winnings into a month-long video diary documenting his effort to get a date with the Hollywood star. His college buddies Jon Gunn and Brett Winn joined him in the roles of producer, director and editor, and seasoned veteran Kerry David, a partner of Gunn’s, joined them on the producers’ list. The result is “My Date With Drew,” which is now going into national release.
“I’d never wanted to be in front of the camera,” Herzlinger admitted during a recent Dallas interview. “It was not something that I’d planned on doing. I happened to be the guy that had a crush on her since I was a kid.” As well as the budget.
Of course, $1100 isn’t much to make a movie with, so improvisation was essential, especially insofar as equipment was concerned. Here Winn’s experience proved useful. He knew of Circuit City’s long-standing no-questions-asked thirty-day return policy. “Brett…used to get the big-screen TVs for the Super Bowl and then return them,” Herzlinger said. “That’s like the genesis of the whole returning thing.” (Before you get any bright ideas, he added that Circuit City has since changed their policy. “They’re not attributing it to our movie,” he added, “but it’s no longer a thirty-day, hassle-free return policy. It’s now a fourteen-day return policy with a 15% restocking fee.”)
So cast and crew were set and the necessary equipment secured for a month-long shoot. “We decided to do the project on Friday, and then on Monday we started shooting. It was that quick. There was no prep involved, just ‘Let’s just go ahead and do it, we have thirty days.’ The impetus obviously was the game show, when I won the game show with the winning answer being Drew Barrymore, and that was like, ‘Well, cool, that’s a nice sign.’ And we did not spend a cent more than the $1100 grand prize. So when we started it, we knew two things. One was that this movie could go either way–I could get the date or not get the date. And if I got the date, wow, that would be a amazing–there’s a real-life dream come true, unbelievable. If I didn’t get the date, then we would have something that we shot for thirty days that we could look back on the following summer and say this is our summer project and watch it over the July 4 barbeque. ’Cause we’re all really close–Brett, John and I grew up together in New Jersey, [and] went to film school together at Ithaca College in upstate New York. But we had no idea what was going to happen throughout the thirty days except for one thing. And the one thing was that we knew that there was going to be a ‘Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle’ premiere happening during our thirty-day shoot. So we made it a goal, as reluctant as I was, to try to sneak me into the premiere and ask her out in person.”
To find out how things turned out, you’ll have to see the movie. “We don’t tell people whether or not I got the date,” Herzlinger said, “because it’s about the journey and, as you know when you see the movie, none of us knew what was going to happen from day to day, and there were plenty of highs and plenty of lows. So it’s kind of fun to have the audience go through the highs and lows with us, as we did when we actually made the movie. We shot over eighty-five hours of footage, because you never knew when a lead was going to go in this direction, or something was going to pop up when you got a phone call. That spontaneity, and not having a plan, is where the charm of the movie comes in. You’ve got to keep in mind that this thirty-day journey has turned into a two-year journey. Kerry David, who produced the movie, she’s produced $30 million movies before–she did ‘Agent Cody Banks 1 and 2’–she said that she’s never had this much fun or hasn’t been prouder of a movie than this little $1100 movie that we made. And the thing is that the experience of these last two years has been much like in the film–the whole journey has been a roller-coaster ride. As you see in the movie, there are days that you’re just ecstatic, and there are days where you’re just, ‘What?’ It was just all about the unknown and taking the risk and, as Drew [once] said, if you don’t take risks, you have a wasted soul. Whether you get it or don’t get it, that’s a separate issue, but the idea of just being willing to try and go for the dream–that’s what we did, and that’s what people are responding to.”
That response began toward the end of the shoot, when the filmmakers got the idea of putting up a website about the project. “Within two weeks we had about 150,000 hits,” Herzlinger recalled. “People writing in to the website so much that it crashed the server and we got an $800 bill we couldn’t pay. They identified with the quest, because it’s a universal theme. Every single one of us in this room and in this world has had an unattainable crush on somebody that was out of their reach, or seemingly out of your reach–on the posters in your bedroom growing up, you know? We realized that we had something special when we saw how many people were rooting for me.”
Originally, Herzlinger said, “it wasn’t so much about the movie. All my hopes were focused on getting the date. I was going to keep going until I got a yes or a no. If I got a no, fine, I knew I gave it my best shot, I won’t ask myself ‘what if’ for the rest of my life. If I got a yes, holy moly, I got a date with Drew Barrymore–my dream girl–this is unbelievable! The movie happened as a side effect of that.” But after the shoot was over, the producers watched their eighty-five hours of footage and thought there might actually be a movie in it. So they edited it down to feature length and took it to the festival circuit. “What we wound up doing was winning all the festivals,” Herzlinger said. “Before we did the film festivals, the only people who had seen the film were really close family and really close friends, who loved it…but you’re thinking in the back of your mind, they know us, they’re invested in us because they know us–we don’t know if this movie works. And the first festival we played was the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, and we won the audience award for best picture over ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ ‘Super Size Me’ and ‘Garden State’ and got a standing ovation there. And that’s when we went, O my God, people really like the movie! They come up and say that we inspired them to follow their dreams. The idea of putting your life on hold for thirty days is hard. Are you going to stop working for thirty days to go after [your dream]? But then on top of it to have three of your best friends say that they’re going to stop their lives and document and help you try to get this lifelong dream, I mean it’s a very selfless thing. They’re amazing, the best friends you could ask for. So when people come out of the theatre and tell us that we inspired them to follow their lifelong dream, to take the risk, to start the journey, we realized it really is about the journey. And that’s the best feeling as a filmmaker. You never presume to be able to inspire people. You hope to do it.”
And though Brian Herzlinger might initially have hoped just for a date with Drew and winced at the thought of others seeing him so close-up (after all, he said, “this movie is like an open window to my life, my family, my neuroses, my body hair”), he now hopes that “My Date With Drew” will attract audiences and inspire them to follow his example and take a chance to chase their dreams. In fact, he and his friends are preparing a television series that will document other people’s efforts to do just that.