Life's hard. Love hurts. But art heals -- especially in the form of an acclaimed movie and a multi-picture deal.
Three summers ago, Christopher Scott Cherot, having dropped out of New York University's prestigious film school, was immersed in the pre-production phases of his first feature movie. But the budding auteur was preoccupied.
"At that time I had just gone through this relationship and was suffering, I guess, from an intensely broken heart," the 30-year-old filmmaker recalled in a recent telephone interview, "and the creativity that I thought I would have for this first project was stunted. All of my thoughts and all of what I guess you'd call the creative juices were consumed with the after-effects of this relationship. So I felt, since this is consuming my creativity and it's on my mind, I felt the best thing to do, the most positive therapeutic catharsis for me, would be to write about it."
So Cherot wrote. And wrote. And he realized that the words and scenes were coming much more easily than they did in his other project. When the new script was finished, "I realized this was a good story, and I could make it for less money than I thought I could make my other script for," he said. So, putting the first film aside, Cherot cast the new movie that fall. By early 1996, its mostly-unknown ensemble cast was rehearsing. Cobbling together a $65,000 budget (most of it from mortgaging his mother's house), Cherot spent three weeks filming that spring.
One year later, after editing his feature debut on two VCRs, Cherot showed the film to an audience for the first time at the Acapulco Film Festival. Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds and his wife, Tracey, hot off the success of their first production effort, "Soul Food," saw the film and bought it on the spot. When the movie was screened at the Toronto film festival the following September, executives from Miramax purchased it from them and offered Cherot that multi-picture deal.
And -- after wowing audiences at Sundance just for good measure -- "Hav Plenty," the little romantic comedy that started with a broken heart, opened in theaters last Friday to warm reviews and pretty respectable box office.
"I'm sure some people out there will say, 'This happened to this guy overnight,' " Cherot allowed. "And it may seem like that. But I think my overnight success is how quickly I came out of obscurity. Actually it took me three and a half years."
"Hav Plenty" is set during an eventful holiday weekend at the Architectural Digest-worthy home of one Havilland Savage (Chenoa Maxwell), a lovely young professional who is currently dating a rap impresario (Hill Harper) who is rich, handsome and cheating on her like a dog. ("Am I a biscuit, Michael?" she asks at one point. "Am I a french fry? Than why do you keep playing me like a side order?")
In a fit of pique, Hav invites struggling writer Lee Plenty (Cherot) to spend the weekend with her, her best friend and her sister. Thrusts, parries and general romantic mayhem ensue. Although the title indicates that this hot-and-cold romance ends in the Hollywood-style wedding, nothing in "Hav Plenty" is that simple.
At one point in the film, Cherot -- who took the starring role when one of his actors dropped out at the last minute -- turns to the camera and says, "Remember folks, as outlandish as this all seems, this is a true story." In fact, Cherot initially wanted to keep the story's real-life roots hidden: He even put a pseudonym on the shooting script.
But he was quickly found out. "Once we started shooting, something about my performance as Lee made people think that I wrote it. My assistant director came up to me one day and said, 'You wrote this, didn't you?' I asked him why he should think that and he said, 'Because you haven't looked at it once since we've been shooting.' That kind of gave it away."
Turning your real life into reel life has its other dangers. For one thing, Hav doesn't come off as the most sympathetic young woman. Throughout the film, she teases Lee, manipulates him into hanging around her house and extols the virtues of her rich and powerful boyfriend -- wealth and power meaning more to her than, say, creativity and soul.
Indeed, according to Maxwell -- who makes her feature debut in "Hav Plenty" -- Hav started out as an even more unsympathetic character. She insisted that Hav be given more humanity. "I didn't want to make her a [witch]," Maxwell said during a visit to Baltimore last month. "She's a woman scorned, and she has some walls up. I think Chris would have wanted to make her a total [witch], but I didn't want that."
For his part, Cherot insisted that "Hav Plenty" "wasn't a revenge piece." But the best judge is probably the real Hav herself, who isn't talking. Although she attended the film's premiere earlier this month, there was no record of her reaction to the movie.
But at least one of the real-life characters has seen and approves of the story of her life: "The girl who inspired Caroline [Hav's dotty, French-speaking friend, played in a screwball turn by Tammi Katherine Jones] was at the Pan-African Film Festival in February," Cherot said. "She was very flattered. We talked, and she felt that it was very accurate and very fair and helped her realize some of the things she did wrong. But she's still flamboyant. She had an Afro wig and a leopard coat on.
"One of the reasons I don't think [the real] Caroline or Hav will be offended was that I took a time and event and I wrote about it, but the actors themselves put a new light on these characters," Cherot said. "I think the real-life characters will see little flashes of themselves on screen, but these are different people up there."
Still, the power of "Hav Plenty" lies in its proximity to reality. Life's hard, but when it's turned into art, its mysteries are sometimes revealed. "Several times [in 'Hav Plenty'] Hav says, 'Lee, I know you have to go, but could you do me a favor ' I didn't understand until I saw the film on the screen -- and I wrote it! --
that every time Hav asked that, she was asking Lee to stay," Cherot recalled. "And it brought tears to my eyes. I would never have realized that if I hadn't written it."
As for love? "My heart was mended way before I met who I'm with today," Cherot said softly. "I think the actual writing of the film was where the true healing came."
Pub Date: 6/25/98