Arts & Culture

A sailor's story

Theater critic and reporter Mark Blankenship ’05MFA writes for the New York Times and Variety.

Catherine Jardin

Catherine Jardin

Charles Evered '98MFA wrote and directed the film Adopt a Sailor, featuring Bebe Neuwirth, Peter Coyote, and Ethan Peck, after joining the Navy Reserve. View full image

In the last decade, writer-director Charles Evered ’98MFA has been anointed by an icon, had a life-changing revelation, and joined the Navy. And just like in some Hollywood movie, it all led him to the high point of his career: Adopt a Sailor, a film being screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.

Granted, some might not see this small independent comedy as the bright spot on Evered's resume. After all, shortly after he finished the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama in 1991, Steven Spielberg offered him a "blind deal" -- that is, hired him on faith that he would someday write a great screenplay. That offer jump-started Evered's career. He spent several years selling scripts to major studios, and although none of his movies got made, powerful people knew his name, and the Hollywood checks had lots of zeroes.

Yet "success" didn't make him feel successful. "People were telling me how well I was doing," he says, "but I wasn't telling the stories I thought I should be telling."

His unease came to a head when he was doing research for an action movie set aboard an aircraft carrier. Evered had been scheduled to visit a carrier in San Diego, and thanks to a malfunctioning car and a last-minute call to a car service, he wound up arriving in a limousine. He still remembers emerging from his fancy ride to meet the hard-working young sailors who lived on the ship. "It became this clash in psyches," he says. "I kept thinking, 'What am I doing? I'm disconnected from what matters.'"

So in 2000, at age 36, he joined the Navy Reserve. He eventually entered an officer's program, but before that he spent many days doing janitorial work. "I can't express what it was like to make the kind of money I was making and then pick up cigarette butts on the weekend," he says. "It shook me out of this numbness and cynicism that you develop when you're always sitting at Starbucks with other writers. I was becoming less cool, but I was becoming more well-rounded."

The awakening helped Evered write stories that moved him, or that felt like they might live beyond him. Soon, his plays were being staged by regional theaters. A ten-minute stage version of Adopt a Sailor premiered in New York in 2002, and it was so well received that he expanded it to a full-length play and then a screenplay. The film, which unfolds in real time during New York's Fleet Week, co-stars Bebe Neuwirth and Peter Coyote as a wealthy Manhattan couple who have dinner with an Arkansas sailor (Ethan Peck) who will soon be shipped off to war. As they talk, all three discover new parts of themselves.

For Evered, those discoveries are the point. "It's not a political film at all," he says. "It doesn't condemn any particular political party or administration. It's about how we are all connected in some way, no matter what part of the country we come from, no matter how much money we have or don't have, and no matter what we believe."

In order to protect this human quality in the film, Evered decided to direct the script himself despite having no experience behind the camera. A producer friend gave him the green light, and after reading as much as he could about directing -- and hiring an experienced crew -- he made his movie.

While it's not as flashy as a Hollywood picture, work like Adopt a Sailor contributes to Evered's equilibrium. He now splits his time between California and New Jersey, working within the studio system but also teaching and nurturing his own projects. "Because I'm able to create stories that matter to me," he says, "I can find a balance between the two worlds." 

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