Actor-screenwriter Myles Berkowitz was struggling to succeed in Hollywood while simultaneously navigating the treacherous dating waters of Los Angeles. Frustrated by his lack of progress in both areas, Berkowitz raised $60,000 and exposed his life to the camera. He videotaped himself on 20 dates with women he met through traditional and not-so-traditional methods, hoping the result would coalesce into an entertaining film.
To his surprise, Berkowitz fell in love with a woman he met during the filming, and "20 Dates" captures many of the nuances and entanglements of the courtship on camera. But he still dated other women to fulfill his contractual obligations, and the film shows the impact of this romantic juggling act on his life. He also wound up with an unexpected antagonist in financier and co-producer Elie Samaha, whose prodding for name actresses and T&A shots became so hostile that Berkowitz taped their conversations, fearing for his life.
Berkowitz spent a year in the editing room whittling down 120 hours of footage to 88 minutes. Together with his editors, he crafted a "documentary" that faithfully adheres to the structure and conventions of romantic comedy. "20 Dates" won the audience award at the 1998 Slamdance Film Festival, and was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight within a week. It will be released in New York and Los Angeles on Feb. 26.
Salon spoke to Berkowitz from his home in Los Angeles about his unique and trying filming process.
Do you consider this a documentary?
There are several reasons why it's not. I don't believe a true documentarian would go into a situation to provoke a response. When I try to sneak past the guards at a studio, whereas that is real, is that a true documentary? I was provoking the situation by showing up there. That's what Michael Moore did in "Roger and Me." I just feel that a true documentary places a camera down and records real life. My going with a camera and trying to get on a studio lot, or into a fancy restaurant, or even on a date, was a lot more provocative than what true documentaries do.
Before filming, did you do a draft or mock script, or any sequencing that you hoped the script would eventually follow?
Yes. I had written a treatment that had me going out on 20 dates, and assumed some things would happen -- for instance, a date where I'll like her and she won't like me. Then I was going to conduct sit-down interviews with people about single life and dating that would somehow relate to the experiences I had on dates in the movie.
I also hoped to have more than one date with a woman that I could blow up into a relationship on screen. I thought it probably wasn't going to work out in the end, so I intended to make a mean, vicious comedy about dating. I could never have planned meeting the woman of my dreams and falling in love while this was filming. So the project kind of got away from me. The mean, vicious comedy about dating became a sweet romantic comedy.
How did the film's structure eventually develop?
From any particular date, we had three or four hours of footage. We had to take snippets of each date that would represent the overall dating experience, and also see whether or not the 20 dates as a whole represented a universal dating journey.
Charlie Chaplin used to make movies that way. He would show up on the set with a basic idea for the story in his head, film some scenes, then close down production for a couple of weeks. He would think more about the story and how he could write it, and he and his writing partner would work out the scenes. Because film was so cheap, and because he was Chaplin, he could do it.
Do you think you'll ever want to work like this again?
No, absolutely not. It was a nightmare. I'm flat-out broke and I'm exhausted. It was very hard work.
How different was the final product from what you had envisioned?
The only reason the film worked in the end was because of several things that I did not anticipate -- because of the villain, Elie, and because of Elisabeth [his fiancie]. I lucked into this movie to a large degree.
The relationship with Elisabeth immediately made the movie more accessible. Now, it's not just a story of a guy going out on dates, but about going from being single to hooking up with the girl I'm eventually going to marry. That's a transition a lot of us make, but we captured it on film.
What was your relationship with Elie really like?
Going in, I only had one or two meetings with him, but when he saw footage of me on dates, that's when he started going nuts and getting angry. Those were the conversations I taped, because he thought I was trying to steal his money, that it was a practical joke or something.
He does actually threaten you with violence in the film.
He would constantly say, "You're in big trouble, brother." There were also more specific threats of body parts being sent to my mother in the mail. At the very beginning when he said something like that, I called my agent, who said, "Ah, that's just the way he talks."
So you taped your conversations with him because you were freaked out?
I was a little freaked out. I was getting messages on my home machine. The other side of him, which isn't apparent in the movie, is that he saw the whole project through, despite all his yelling and screaming. I've been in this town a long time, and no one had ever given me a break, or money to make a movie. He did.
Did you wrestle with how to handle the camera's influence on the dates?
There would come a time when even though we both knew the cameras were there, we forgot about them, because the emotion of being on a date was stronger than the uncomfortable feeling of being in front of a camera. The first half hour, maybe, we were on our best behavior, but ultimately, you want the other person to like you.
Were you self-conscious throughout the filming about how you were going to come across?
You're seeing a movie made by a guy who was very desperate [laughs]. I was at wit's end. I was really going to give up trying to make movies and pursuing my dream. Like what Bob Dylan said -- "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."
I initially thought we would focus on the women, get snapshots of 20 single women, and then have some commentary from other people about single life and dating. When I showed what we had to people, they wanted to know more about me, what I was thinking and where I was in my life. After all, I was asking them to follow me on my journey.
This was a nightmare, because I always swore I would never be one of those first-time filmmakers who makes a movie about himself, and here I was doing that. The other obnoxious thing is that these guys always get these beautiful women who would never go out with them in real life, and here I've got Elisabeth. No one's gonna believe this.
Was there any one moment in the film that crystallized your dating life?
Right after the bungee jump. This was a girl I was very attracted to and thought I might have a shot at. She seemed kind of interested in me, I made her laugh, she made me laugh, we had a good time. I thought we would go bungee jumping, the blood would be flowing. Then, of course, when we jumped, both of us climbed back onto the bridge having gone through the worst experience of our lives, the adrenaline totally gone. I realized that I would go into dates with all these plans and ideas and strategies and it never seemed to work out the way I thought.
A moment that crystallized the movie experience for me, how it was kind of like living in "The Truman Show," was the scene on the beach with Elisabeth. We're talking about something very personal, about her family getting divorced and my dad dying and all that, and out of the corner of my eye I see a woman coming toward us. On one hand I'm having this very personal quiet discussion with Elisabeth, and I really do care what she's saying. On the other hand, I'm thinking that if this woman walks into my area, this is gonna be comedy gold. So I was constantly going through this process, saying, "Am I real? Am I doing it for the camera? Is this person real?" It was a very confusing thing.
When are you and Elizabeth getting married?
October. And there will be no photographers at the wedding.