Kelsey Andrae and Adam LaFramboise in a scene from “The Opposite of Cleveland,” filmed in Portland. Photos courtesy of Dan Chaimowitz

For anyone who’s covered the Maine independent film scene, the story behind the Maine-made romantic comedy “The Opposite of Cleveland” is familiar.

Made for very little money, the movie, about the uneasy meet-cute and subsequently rocky relationship of charming oddball Kyle (Adam LaFramboise) and sensible nurse Brenna (Kelsey Andrae) plays out over recognizable Portland locations (she clearly works at Mercy Hospital). The film is making the rounds of various film festivals and the director, looking to get eyes on his first feature, has put the movie, in its entirety, online. So far, so standard for a Maine filmmaker looking to get his foot in the door.

Dan Chaimowitz

The thing is, the director of “The Opposite of Cleveland” is Dan Chaimowitz, a 20-year screenwriting teacher at the University of Southern Maine. In his long and varied career (he’s also the executive director of Affinity, the Maine-based nonprofit organization for people with intellectual disabilities), Chaimowitz has written dozens of scripts, some of which (like “Squished,” optioned by the Jim Henson Company) have been sold but not produced. He’s worked, studied and lived in the expected movie meccas of Los Angeles and New York. But just like the works of the aspiring Maine filmmakers and screenwriters he teaches, “The Opposite of Cleveland” represents a first-time director deciding that the only way to do it is to go ahead and do it.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Chaimowitz said of his 2019 directorial debut. “I’ve been teaching screenwriting for a million years.”

It’s his relationship with those many years of students (along with the unexpected small inheritance he received after his father’s passing) that finally helped convince Chaimowitz to pick up the camera after years of writing and teaching – and frustration.

“I’ve always been more of a behind-the-scenes guy,” he said. “But I started to feel like I was not being as relevant with my students, frankly. It seemed like everyone was making movies and me, with my old school screenwriting, was starting to lose their interest. Plus, my tragic flaw as I get older is that I don’t put myself out there. I’m shy, self-conscious – a writer guy, you know?”

Chaimowitz credits his “wonderful wife” of 28 years, Brenda (whose romance with Chaimowitz forms the loose core of “The Opposite of Cleveland”) with encouraging him to “go for it” and make a movie of the script he’d been sitting on for so long. “Essentially, ‘Cleveland’ is a love letter to my wife,” said Chaimowitz, who also views his first film as a “bucket list” achievement “to have at least one screenplay that I have written reach the silver screen.”

That all makes for a feel-good story, but as longtime screenwriter Chaimowitz knows all too well, a good story is just the starting point. Networking with students and former students (and with their help, finally getting on social media to connect with other members of the burgeoning Maine film community), Chaimowitz put together a team and a plan.

“I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I had no idea, so that was something,” he joked about the process, noting that his executive director skills made him “pretty good at problem-solving,” an essential craft all low-budget filmmakers have to learn. Plus, he said, “a sense of humor is one of my strengths, although I’m a very serious person.”

That sense of humor extends to the Chaimowitz’s website, which hosts two versions of the film’s trailer, one for those “in the mood for a sweet romantic comedy,” the other for people looking for “an edgy, Seth Rogen-type comedy.”

In addition, the mature trailer begins with the laurel-wreathed honor of having an been an “official rejection of the Sundance Film Festival.” The actual, 86-minute film itself resides there too, free for all to watch, a decision the director said was a question of getting “The Opposite of Cleveland” out there, and letting people see what he and his cast and crew had accomplished.

“I’m pretty objective.” Chaimowitz said. “I know where it’s no good and where it is.” On the good side, Chaimowitz remains confident in his screenplay and praises the performances of his “great group of actors,” along with the score from Kate Beever and songs by Lena Rich. “There’s a lot of great talent involved,” he said. “Plus, everyone got paid. Except for me, of course.”

With one film under his belt, and a lifetime of scripts and screenwriting experience, Chaimowitz already is planning his next foray into directing, working on a “proof of concept” short film as the basis for a TV pilot, as well as another feature. Noting the deliberately static and small-scale nature of “Cleveland,” Chaimowitz said his next projects (including the thriller “Essence”) will see him expanding and honing his visual skills.

“I need to demonstrate that I can actually direct,” he said, laughing. He credits being “really immature” for his willingness – eagerness, really – to finally take a more active role in his filmmaking career. As he puts it, “As I get older, I think, this has been my life and, you know, I’m going for it.”

You can watch “The Opposite of Cleveland” and read much more of Dan Chaimowitz’s writing at danchaimowitz.com.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

Kelsey Andrae and Adam LaFramboise, the stars of “The Opposite of Cleveland.”

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