John Henry Summerour's ('06) first feature film, SAHKANAGA, opens in New York City and Atlanta this Friday (December 7th) John recounts here the moment he got the news that he'd be heading to Nantucket to develop the script for SAHKANAGA.
"Six years ago I was leaving my shift at a coffee shop in NYC and waiting in line at a CVS when my phone rang. At the coffee shop (and I imagine at all coffee shops, all over the world) it is incredibly dismissive, demeaning and impractical to stand in line chatting with your mother (people are always talking to their mothers) while the exhausted and deeply depressed employee tries in vain to get your attention and extract an order so that the line can keep moving, others can get served, and we can all go home, where we invariably think about how horrible our lives are and cling to the tiny hope that tomorrow, maybe, people won't be so awful.
|(John Henry Summerour directing Trevor Neuhoff and Kristin Rievley in SAHKANAGA)|
So I'm at CVS, and my phone rings. I don't recognize the number and for some reason that always intrigues me enough that I have to answer, but I don't want to be that self-involved prick blabbing in line and giving the perfectly innocent CVS employee The Finger (you know, when you ask, "How can I help you?" and the blabberer erects his index finger, thrusting it at you like an exaggerated shush, in case you're dumber than you look). I swiftly calculate the number of people ahead of me, how many items they appear to be buying, plus the speed and efficiency of the CVS staff. The odds look favorable that I can answer the phone and deal with the call in time to hang up and interact with the consideration of human decency.
It should also be noted that I hate talking on the phone. Either I don't hear very well from years of aural abuse (screaming family members + loud music), or I have a severe, undiagnosed learning disability which causes my brain to ingest sound and morph it into new information that defies the rules of sense and logic. A ringing phone signals the terror of imminent communication meltdown. In the best of times, my confusion results in bemused wonder from the person I'm mishearing. Sometimes it gets ugly.
I pick up and a tiny voice speaks to me from the world beyond. It's a cheerful voice. I try to sound pleased and surprised. We chirp pleasantries at each other, and the first 30 seconds of any call is key. It gives me time to adjust to the sound and start interpreting. The words Hey, Yeah and Oh can be used to effectively stall a conversation for at least 30 seconds when applied with an overly positive tone. During this time the line at CVS is moving forward and I'm trying to use my best library voice while figuring out who is on the other line. I hear "Nantucket" and "script" and the picture slowly comes together. It's Chase Palmer from the Screenwriters Colony, and he's calling to tell me that I have been accepted, and can I fly to the Nantucket Film Festival in two weeks... or something. At this point I just start squawking Hey, Yeah and Oh repeatedly, trying to play with the order so there's some convincing variation.
And suddenly I'm standing in front of the CVS employee who is looking at me like I'm one of "those people" and I want to jump over the counter and hug her and say, "No! I'm one of you, and I'm flying to Nantucket, and you can too! We can all fly away and become our best selves and escape the monotony of serving people who compulsively call their mothers because they're so lost and sad and they spend their empty days trolling the CVS and the coffee shop, searching for a line to stand in that will give their spineless existence some structure, hoping that someone will serve them and subsequently pay attention to them so that they don't feel so desperately alone." But the happy Chase Palmer voice is singing to me and I'm filled with extreme elation and crushing guilt while making a phone sandwich between my skull and right shoulder, and my hands flail around, digging through pockets, picking at dollar bills, and I'm sure at some point I make the absolutely insane decision to count out exact change from a coin purse, which is the definitive move of "those people," so I have to just own it and keep smiling. Luckily the CVS employee can tell I'm not practiced at this sort of horrifying behavior, or at least I'm hoping she can see that I'm on her team and the look on her face falls into the "bemused wonder" category of social interaction. I grab whatever forgettable item I was there to purchase and do a goofy sidestep out the automated doors and into the exhilarating, bruising NYC summertime heat.
That was the seed of hope the Screenwriters Colony planted in 2006, the moment when I transformed from a guy who sits at home in the dark typing out his obsessions in screenplay form to a real, live screenwriter. That was the moment I began taking my future as a filmmaker seriously. The Colony launched me on this journey, and six years later I have a finished feature-length script, a short film, a feature film, fellowships, awards, distribution deals, new friends, incredible collaborators, world travels, and the images in my head projected onto movie screens before hundreds of strangers.
I still work at the coffee shop, but now when I try to take someone's order and he gives me The Finger, I can hand him a postcard advertising the theatrical opening of my debut feature film, and then I can move on.
John Henry Summerour grew up in Chickamauga, GA, the son of a Methodist minister. He attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and the British American Drama Academy in London. His first short film, CHICKAMAUGA, was co-produced by Chase Palmer of the Screenwriters Colony, and his first feature, SAHKANAGA, was developed at the Colony and went on to play multiple festivals, receiving theatrical distribution in 2012. John is the recipient of the IFP Narrative Lab Fellowship in NYC and TheFilmSchool's Great American Storyteller Prize in Seattle.