Film's hero mirrors Drazan's younger self

November 06, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Anthony Drazan learned all about teen-agers from two sources: himself and from them.

The director, whose first feature is an archaeologically precise and heartbreaking study of teen life called "Zebrahead," admits that Zack, the sensitive, funny and self-effacing hero of "Zebrahead," is pretty much a version of himself 10 years ago.

The director sits in a Baltimore hotel restaurant attempting his first crab cake. It is momentarily more fascinating than the questions a reporter is lofting at him. He pokes, prods, as if unsure how to proceed, ultimately decides to use his fork, takes a bite and lights up.

"Hey, that's good," he says.

But to return to the issue at hand.

"Yes, that's me and that's my father, though I grew up in suburban Long Island. Now my dad loves the movie" -- the figure of the dad, played by Ray Sharkey, is pictured as quite the lady's man" -- and people are teasing him about it all the time. He may get an agent!" Drazan jokes.

But Drazan also spent weeks in suburban school systems with real teen-agers and a video camera, trying to get the kids to reveal themselves and the way they talked. And once financing was secured, he worked for a long time with his young and largely inexperienced cast until "they almost couldn't do anything that wasn't in character."

The movie itself was an on-again, off-again thing for almost five years, while Drazan worked in the New York theater. At one point, he submitted the script to Robert Redford's Sundance Institute and flew out to Utah for a week to confer with some of the professional writers and directors Redford brings in to help -- the talented young.

"It was very helpful, but they seemed much more interested in the family background -- Zack and his father and the hipster's milieu they lived in -- than the main thrust of the story. I preferred to stick with the kids."

The project fluttered in and out of life until suddenly Oliver Stone, rich in clout and interested in sponsoring non-traditional filmmaking, put his power behind it so that financing could be arranged.

And when that occurred, a curious thing happened.

"I wasn't really sure if I wanted to do it or not. I'd lost contact with it and was working on other scripts."

Drazan said he had to sit down and ask himself if he really wanted to return to the project.

"So finally I sat down to do a rewrite, hoping I could reacquire emotional contact with the story. I hammered through it in about a week, and somehow it came alive for me again."

The movie was shot in 25 days in a suburb of Detroit.

"When I look at it, I think I did all right. I got most of the characters, but there are a few I missed. Maybe next time . . ." he says ruefully.

Next time?

"I want to do something that is completely unautobiographical," he says firmly.

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