An Interview with Steve Gomer, Writer and Director of Sweet Lorraine

Interview conducted by Phil Brown
from In the Mountains #6 October 1998

Anyone who has seen “Sweet Lorraine” will agree that no other work of the cinema has come close to portraying the life of the Catskills resorts like this one. Nor has any other film on the Catskills touched our tender memories like this one. Of course, Steve had to grow up in this milieu in order to create such a film. He summered in a bungalow near the Heiden Hotel, scene of the film. His long involvement with the hotel made it an obvious choice to refurbish for “Sweet Lorraine.” We tried years ago to track Steve down through the film distributor, but they had gone out of business. But all we needed was a little more sechel, because we found Steve … a few miles away, at the Heiden. Along with his wife, Jane, and his son and daughter, Steve leaves Santa Monica and spends the summer there, in a small bungalow-like guest house whose 8 old guest rooms now comprise the house of his wife’s parents, Herb and Nat Heiden.

Phil Brown: How did you wind up making “Sweet Lorraine?”

Steve Gomer: Joe Chaikin (from the Living Theater) said to me, “If you can raise $200,000 I can guarantee completion of the picture and distribution. ” I drew up a limited partnership and went first to family. We made the share $18,000. We got thirds of share from a bunch of people. Then I went to cocktail parties, wherever I could go. It was like going door to door. After about two years we raised just about $200,000. This was in 1980. We shot in summer of 1986. It was finally released in 1987.

My grandmother on my mother’s side , many of her brothers and sisters settled up here. The sister she was closest with was Jenny Rubinstein, who married David Heiden. Jenny and David began the Heiden Hotel around 1905. My grandmother and grandfather, May and Sol Goldberg, they built a bungalow about a mile from here, and I think during the Depression. We spent most of our summers at the bungalow and at that point my grandfather was working here at the hotel as the salad chef. My older brother would come here to the hotel to go to the day camp. The only time I would come to the hotel was to spend time with my grandfather . So I have very powerful memories.

So that was why you could cast the saladman character so wonderfully.

Yeah, thanks. The original idea was something to do with a grandfather and grandson. I had these great memories.

When you came to see him did you stand next to the salad counter and watch him work?

Yeah. I have a strong memory of him picking me up and putting me on the counter. I loved the activity of the kitchen. It had this real warmth. It had this real heart, you know, people working hard, cooking, the smells were terrific. To this day. I love kitchens. When I go to a restaurant, if I get friendly with the people I always ask if I can go to the kitchen.
I wanted to make a picture about that relationship in this place. I knew about the decline of the area and so it felt to me like it had to get done.

When had the hotel stopped operating?

The hotel stopped operating as a hotel sometime in the early 1970s but my in-laws ran it as a sort of motel. They stopped running the kitchen and all that stuff and ran it as a motel till about 1982.

The building was not in such bad shape since it was only closed up for about 5 or 6 years when you started filming.

The kitchen had been closed for a long time so we had to do extensive work. But when you do work for a movie, the work you do is superficial. It has to last as long as you shoot. I hadn’t been here in a long time. I came up here with a friend who was a writer, to do research. And so I called Nat Heiden, Herb’s wife, and said, “Look I’d like to come up . Can I stay for a weekend?” This was about 1980. And Jane was here, their daughter. Jane and I had know each other when we were little, but since I didn’t come over for the day camp we didn’t really ever get friendly.

So this is like a whole new twist on the proverbial Catskills romance. You came to make the film and fell in love with the owner’s daughter.

And she’s my second cousin. Jennie and May were sisters. My grandmother and Jenny, the founder of the hotel, were sisters. So Jane and I re-met. It was the first time we had seen each other as adults. We got married here in September of 1982. I kept continuing to want to make the picture. By 1986 we were able to raise the money and we started shooting.
I had such a strong image of this place and of where I wanted the scenes to take place, and what I wanted it to look like. I saw the movie before we made it. This picture came out pretty close to what I had thought of.

But instead of the grandfather and grandson you have the grandmother and granddaughter. How did that happen?

When I spent time here with Jane and Jane’s folks. We spent every summer. It just became more immediate. It seemed that it was more compelling to do what was going on, about a family who had a family and a business which was all tied up together. Jane’s two older brothers didn’t want to have any part of the hotel. Jane really wanted to keep the hotel going. She still does. She wants to buy it back. So there was this sort of subtle conflict going on ’cause the hotel had been for sale for maybe 15 years and they couldn’t find a buyer and the business was dwindling.

How did you decide to go after Freddie Roman and Maureen Stapleton?

My first choice for the part was Maureen and John (his business partners) knew Maureen. We sent the script to her and she was really gracious. She liked the script. she and I met, we hit it off. She said I’ll commit to this. If you can get the money I’ll do this.

Did you actually do this on a $200,000 budget?

No the final budget was a little less then $1.2 million

How did you decide on Freddie Roman?

I wanted a tummler. I didn’t want to script all the dialog, I wanted that person to see the situation and go with it and add stuff as we were in rehearsal or right on the set. What I wanted was for the person to be that person. So Jane and I went around the summer before to all the hotels and we called the Rapp agency, to see all the comics who were working. So we saw everybody. When we saw Freddie we really liked his act a lot. Freddie’s comedy is really good-natured. He’s not bitter.

And you cast Bernie Cove (long-time maître d’ at the Pines) in a cameo.

The guys I cast as the waiters and busboys, I wanted them to work in rehearsal at a hotel. I didn’t want to completely script their parts. Bernie was the only one who was receptive to the idea. He let the guys come over [to the Pines]. He gave them uniforms and they would work breakfast and lunch and I would get together with them after and we would debrief and we would do improvisations. They really got to know how it worked.

That’s why the flavor of the whole film was so real.

I had to learn it too. I spent time when I was little in the kitchen. I never worked as a waiter or a busboy.

How did the film do?

It opened in March of ’87. It opened at the 68th St. Playhouse in New York. It ran for maybe 11 weeks. Through the country it got very good reviews. It played well in odd areas. It played very well in New York and LA, which we were hoping. But we find it was playing well in some area in Northern Michigan where there was a summer resort area. It was a Norwegian or Swedish resort area. But it was just the fact that is was family places; that was a place where they could go and feel comfortable. Then the film was invited to the Tokyo Film Festival in the fall of ’87, the part of it that’s young filmmakers where they invite 18 pictures made by people 35 or under. Gregory Peck was chairman of the jury the year. The picture got the second prize, a ten million yen prize. I worked on the picture full time for three years and didn’t make any money. Gregory Peck said, “Steve, the Japanese really loved the movie.” They related to it on the family level. Then it played really well in Japan.

What are your feelings now, looking back? Are you really happy you made it?

Yeah, I’m really happy I made it. It was a great experience and it’s very deeply gratifying that you can do something and any number of years later people can say, “I liked that picture. I appreciate that picture.”

What have you done since?

I did a thing for American Playhouse which was specifically because of Sweet Lorraine. The producers really liked Sweet Lorraine and invited me to do an adaptation of a short story by Harold Brodky called “First Love and Other Sorrows, ” which was an hour-long TV production. Then I was invited by the Comedy Channel ñ they did a series of 10 short films with standup comedians, with each one directed by a different film director, not a TV director. They did one on Freddie (Roman). and Freddie asked me to do it. So Freddie and I did this thing that I’m really happy with, that we actually shot at Kutsher’s .

Then I did a picture called “Fly by Night” about the rap culture in New York. I was really fascinated about what was going on between blacks and whites, blacks and Jews. It won the award at Sundance (Film Festival) in 1993. It was buried by Columbia Tristar. When it won the award it got seen by a bunch of people in LA and Danny DeVito called me to do a film which eventually we called Sunset Park which was based on a 60 minutes piece about a woman phys. ed. teacher who became the coach of the boys’ basketball team., she became he first woman to coach a boy’s basketball team. She really turned them around and made it to the championship in New York City. This year I made “Barnie’s Great Adventure. It did really well and it will be out on tape in September (1998).

Would you ever like to do another Catskills film?

I’d love to do another Catskills film. It was such a great experience. I’d love to find a way of doing it that would be really honest and tougher than Sweet Lorraine. I think it was tougher. If I have any criticism, I feel like I was a little soft in the picture.