Jameel Saleem's debut feature follows the romantic misadventures of a guy who just can't say those three little words
According to filmmaker Jameel Saleem, it all started in the third grade. The problems with his love life, that is. He figured this out a little more than a year ago, the way men have often sorted these issues out, by thinking about all his relationship issues over the years following a breakup. And possibly, like many filmmakers, he's loosely adapted his romantic life into a movie, Cream Soda, which makes its world debut in Baltimore this week.
What makes Saleem's story of romantic remembrances slightly unusual is that he did so while he was couch surfing. And right after a project's funding fell through. "I just wasn't in a good place," Saleem says with a laugh over the phone from his home in California. "I had just broken up with my girlfriend. I was sleeping on somebody's couch. And I had a movie that I was going to direct that a friend and I wrote together. We had $50,000 to shoot it and that was in January '09, and the money fell through about 10 days before we were to start shooting."
Such a rough patch might have produced some real dark-night-of-the-soul stuff, but even during one conversation you get the impression that Saleem isn't so melodramatically misanthropic. "So I wrote a book called Cream Soda, which was about my love life," he says. "I had been going through some issues, and I broke up with my last girlfriend, who I thought I was going to marry, and I just wanted to get some clarity on why none of my relationships worked out. So I wrote this book and I went all the way back to the third grade and started writing. So from third grade up until now, I wrote down everything. Every thought, every girl, just everything, to try to help myself figure it all out."
Born in Philadelphia but raised in Baltimore--he lived in Federal Hill, where his parents at one time had a store in the Cross Street Market, and he graduated from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute--Saleem moved to Los Angeles in January 2007, after getting his acting feet wet in Baltimore. He did enough shows to get his Screen Actors Guild card--in episodes of America's Most Wanted, The F.B.I. Files, a speaking part in The Wire that eventually got cut--and when he got to Los Angeles, he started working for casting director Matthew Barry, who gave him advice that midwifed Saleem's move from in front to behind the camera.
"He told me to make a short film, because I was trying to get an agent at the time," Saleem says. "He said star in it, write and direct it, and then start sending it out to all the agents and it will help you. Because I didn't have a reel, I didn't have an extensive résumé, so that short film was a way to get myself out there.
"That was pretty much my first time directing, and it was amazing," Saleem continues. "I liked the amount of control that I had over the story and over the creative aspects of filmmaking. When you're acting, you're pretty much telling someone else's story, and it was so great to get my own story and my own vision out there and to have total control over it."
Two shorts later, Saleem is crashing on a friend's couch after yet another relationship's end with no project lined up. So he decided to make Cream Soda the novel Cream Soda the script. "I decided to write something that I could shoot for cheap, cause I just wanted to do something," he says. "So I wrote Cream Soda, based on the book on my love life, because I wanted a comedy. I felt that a lot of the stuff in the book was really funny, so the main character is loosely based on myself--a guy who couldn't say, 'I love you.'"
Shot over 10 days last fall with a $15,000 budget, Cream Soda is an underdog: a romantic comedy with no recognizable name among its young cast, and it doesn't indulge in easy comic stereotypes about the sometimes vast divide between the genders. Instead, it offers a genuinely offbeat sense of humor as it tells the story of Billy (Josh Shelton), a casting agent whose relationships always end shortly after a woman tells him she loves him and he avoids saying it back. Billy knows it's a problem, and even seeks solace in a group called Why Men Can't Love, which ends up being a support group for women who constantly find themselves with emotionally unavailable men. Billy decides to keep coming to the meetings anyway.
"We've been shopping it around and we've had one company screening it, but we haven't got any offers yet," Saleem says of Cream Soda. "I'm thinking about submitting for a couple of film festivals soon. I was mostly scared that people wouldn't get my sense of humor, but I think it's funny, so whatever happens, I just feel good that I got it done and I'm happy with it."
He needn't be too worried: What makes Cream Soda work is how vulnerable his male characters are willing to be. When talking about his love life, he admits that some things were funny then, and some were only funny in hindsight. "The first time I ever got drunk, it was in college--on Valentine's Day--and this girl that I really liked, she started dating one of my friends," he says. "And I got drunk and I was out in front of her dorm, standing on the lawn just crying, and my friends were all there watching me. So, yeah, some were very, very hard to deal with at the time, but when I look back at it they're hilarious. But I actually left that out of the book."
New This Week (8/4/2010)
New This Week (7/28/2010)
New This Week (7/21/2010)
Unnatural Wonders (7/7/2010)
Soledad Salamé's works become more persuasive through distortions
That Nothing You Do (6/23/2010)
Will Eno embraces the banality of everything
All Eyes on Him? (6/16/2010)
John Potash's The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders offers a different version of the slain rapper
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201