Sunday, July 11, 2004

'Lucas' film short finally pays off for 'Sleepover' director

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

Becoming an overnight success in Hollywood usually takes a lot more than an overnight.

That's what Joe Nussbaum has discovered. His first feature, Sleepover, is on the screen; his "overnight" has taken four years.

Nussbaum was the hot new thing in 1999 when his clever Star Wars parody short, George Lucas in Love, became all the rage. The eight-minute comedy was shown at the Toronto Film Festival. Its popularity got Nussbaum on The Today Show, and it won praise and laughs from no less than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Soon it was a smash hit as an Internet download, and sold 80,000 copies on - pretty amazing stuff for a short.

All sorts of studio types courted Nussbaum; he was a sure thing for a directorial job almost immediately.

"Ever since George Lucas in Love, I've been in the loop for directing assignments," Nussbaum says. "I got hired a few times at MGM and at other studios. And then the proposed films ended up in development hell. For one reason or another, things were stalled or things were slowed."

Though discouraged, Nussbaum kept working. He was responsible for several ESPN commercials and spots for Footlocker. Then he found a relatively new script on a developmental pile at MGM. It was a teen comedy called Sleepover, about a slumber party that goes wacko.

"I thought it had the flavor of Adventures in Babysitting and the John Hughes movies, though its target audience was slightly younger than those. I thought that was a plus."

Nussbaum says MGM liked his pitch and hired him to direct his first feature.

"Miraculously, within two months of being hired, we were casting the movie and in our production offices. We shot it in Los Angeles and in Pasadena and on the Universal back lot." That meant Nussbaum could get home every night. He lives in Los Angeles, near Beverly Hills, with his wife of one year, Abby, a TV game-show researcher.

So how did a 31-year-old filmmaker know he was on target for 14-year-old girls?

"We were lucky that the writer (Elisa Bell) channeled her inner 14-year-old. She understood that voice. The other great thing is the girls in the cast. About 10 kids, plus more during the casting process. They became great barometers. And I immersed myself in teen culture. I read the magazines and did the Internet, and went to dinner with families with young girls.

"The girls on the set between takes would giggle and sing and dance. My main goal was to try to take that energy between takes and put it on the screen," he says.

"I'd be happy to do another teen movie like this," Nussbaum says, "But I'd also be happy to break out as well. I definitely want to do comedy. I'm not looking to do big, dark, important movies. For now, anyway."

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