Feature: Turning first film into a career

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  March 9, 2004 at 4:04 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 9 (UPI) -- Eric Saperston confounded conventional wisdom by making a successful first film without any actual training in the medium, and the project has now made him an in-demand motivational speaker.

By his own admission, Saperston was never the kind of guy to show up on the school yearbook's "most likely to succeed" short list.

"I wasn't destined to be successful," he said in an interview with United Press International. "I wasn't born on third base. I don't come from money. I barely made it through high school. I had to go to a community college. I had to go to a state school."

When he graduated from San Diego State University in 1993, Saperston's great ambition was to spend a little time traveling the country in his microbus, following the Grateful Dead. Today he is marketing the DVD release of his first film -- a documentary called "The Journey" -- and fielding speaking invitations from companies who want him to motivate their employees to reach beyond their grasp.

"The Journey" -- which documents Saperston's encounters with Hollywood stars, literary lions and business and political leaders -- won the Audience Prize at the 2001 Atlanta Film Festival, and was named Most Memorable Film at the 2003 South by Southwest Film Festival. It has turned out to be a solid credential for his newfound role. Getting the film made in the first place, however, was a real bootstrap proposition.

"I did not have any real credentials," he said. "I didn't go to film school. I had no deep pockets."

What he did have, in ample supply, was chutzpah.

Through sheer force of personality, along with a few breaks here and there, Saperston managed to put together a small video crew and tape interviews with scores of well-known people -- including Billy Crystal, Henry Winkler, the author Ken Kesey, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and former President Jimmy Carter.

The topic of every interview was, in essence: What does it take to succeed?

Scoring interviews with the chief executive officers of Home Depot and Ritz-Carlton may count as a coup, but one of Saperston's more impressive feats was convincing his crew to travel with him for little or no money, working under some pretty meager conditions.

"I had to build a team without the luxury of payment," he said. "Everybody saw the importance of what we were doing -- opening a much-needed dialogue between young people and elders in America."

Saperston said the documentary is as much about the transfer of knowledge between generations as it as about picking the brains of prosperous people for clues to their success.

Because of the low-budget -- not to say loose-change -- nature of his project, Saperston spent a good deal of time with his hand out, collecting favors as well as words of wisdom. Watching him tease and cadge as he interacts with his subjects and his crew, it's easy to compare him at times to Prof. J. Harold Hill.

The soft-shoed schemer of "The Music Man" sold musical instruments and band uniforms to the good people of River City, then tried to teach the children to play using "the think method" -- a dubious approach by which the music comes out if the players just think the notes. Saperston conceded that his approach to success relies on believing in something strongly enough to make it happen.

"If you will it, it is not a dream," he said. "You can think it into existence."

In January, Saperston was keynote speaker at a meeting of Meeting Planners International -- which he said helps such corporations as Coca-Cola, Nike and Delta Airlines plan major conferences.

He said a growing number of business leaders have decided that they want their employees to see his movie and hear his message.

"People look into my movie and see themselves," he said. "They get inspired by it and they choose to do something with it. That's just awesome."

In any event, Saperston said the project has yet to make him wealthy.

"We're not rolling in dough and I'm not going in style," he said. "Maybe some day."

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