Screenwriter/actor Myles Berkowitz
was at wit’s end after a decade of frustration in Hollywood. He
had paid for his education at the University of Pennsylvania and
the Wharton School of Business by acting in commercials for Coke,
McDonald’s, and the US. Army, and subsequently starred in several
offBroadway plays before moving to Los Angeles. He got work writing
for television with producers at Universal, Paramount, and Columbia,
and wrote several episodes of HBO’s “Tales From The Crypt,” and
even won a including the Cable ACE award. But all his successes,
including a Cable ACE nomination of his own for producing a short-lived
Family Channel series called “The Beef,” proved fleeting, as he
still couldn’t get his feature-length scripts produced. To make
matters worse, his dating life was a mess.

So Berkowitz, now 36, took one last shot. He secured
$60,000 in financing to videotape himself on 20 dates. The plan
was to produce a dark, documentary-style comedy about the harsh
realities of singledom, hoping to find an hour and a half of humor
within a mountain of footage. 20 Dates has succeeded beyond
his wildest dreams. Berkowitz fell in love with interior designer
Elisabeth Wagner, and caught their courtship on camera. He nurtured
this new love while he was contractually obligated, for the film,
to date other women, an ordeal Wagner described as “intimidating
and emotionally draining. I wasn’t intimidated by any one woman,” explained
Wagner, “but by all the women.” The charming courtship turned his “mean,
vicious” comedy into a romantic one.

The film’s other saving grace was financier Elie
Samaha, a virtual cliche of the over-the-top B-movie producer.
Screaming for obligatory T&A shots and threatening to mail
Berkowitzs body parts to family members, Samaha provided Berkowitz
with both an antagonist and some wildly comic moments. Wagner and
Samaha gave essential story points and structure to 20 Dates, and
cemented the film’s success. After winning the audience award at
the 1998 Slamdance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight picked up 20
for distribution. 20 Dates shows Berkowitz and
DP/cameraman Adam Biggs running around Los Angeles eluding harassment
by the police, since the shooting was done without a permit. “We’d
set up our cameras and then see cops coming, and either try to
act like we weren’t really there with a camera, or take the stuff
and disappear into an alley” recalls Berkowitz. He originally made
the filming obvious to his dates, but soon found that influencing
the evenings, so he went the Candid Camera route instead. This
strategy proved dangerous.Two girls sued after being informed of
the filming, and one reacted violently, stabbing Berkowitz in the
hand with a fork. The injured filmmaker required stitches, and
eventually reached settlements with the girls involved that allowed
their scenes to be included in the film.

Berkowitz shot 120 hours of video for the 88 minute
movie, a ratio more akin to documentary filmmaking than the traditional
5:1 or 10:1 of an independent, low-budget comedy. But the film’s
manipulated nature led Berkowitz to consider it more comedy than
documentary. “On any one date, we would have three or four hours
of footage, and had to choose a couple of minutes that would serve
our story,” explains Berkowitz. “When you’re only using two minutes
of footage, I don’t care if you’re trying to make a documentary,
there’s going to be debate about whether it’s reality or not. But
we didn’t care about that.We were going for the laughs:”

Berkowitz endured a grueling one-year editing process,
intentionally choosing a male and female editor, Michael Elliot
and Lisa Cheek, for different gender perspectives. Elliot, a top
commercial editor who has worked with directors such as Tony Kaye,
Barry Sonnenfeld and Spike Lee, was excited about getting involved,
according to Berkowitz, but also made him promise not to cop out. “I
asked him what he meant by that,” said Berkowitz, “and he said
`well, you know, you’re a bit of a jerk (in the movie). But that’s
ultimately why the movie will work.” I had another way of saying
it, which is “If it’s funny, it’s in.” Elliot and Cheek had, according
to Berkowitz, “much more power in the editing room than editors
usually have,” since he felt that as the film’s subject he would
be the worst judge of what was funny or interesting. In essentially
writing the film in the editing room, Berkowitz took a page from
Charlie Chaplin. “Chaplin wrote his movies from different takes,” he
explains. “He would film a few scenes at a time and then close
down production. Then he would work out the scenes and story with
his writing partner, who was the big fat guy who always beat on
him in the movies. So instead of sitting down with a piece of paper,
writing a script and then shooting it, he wrote in the editing
room and kept going out to shoot more. That’s basically what we

Besides hostile dates, guerrilla filming tactics
and an excruciating editing process, Berkowitzs other primary obstacle
was Samaha. In 20 Dates, Berkowitz shows several long shots
of the outside of Samaha’s once, while the audience hears their
conversations. It seems mysterious while watching it that Berkowitz
would secretly tape conversatioru with his own producer, but he
taped because of his real life fear that Samaha might make good
on certain threats. “When he started seeing footage of me on dates,
he started to go nuts and get angry. He thought I was trying to
steal his money” says Berkowitz. “With all the movies that come
out of Hollywood about relationships and dating, I had to bring
something more to the table, which was reality. That was the point.
That was why I kept saying to Elie, `You think you can sell this
movie if you throw in pretty actresses, sex, T&A, but you’re
not going to be able to sell that movie. The only way you’re going
to be able to sell this is to keep it real.’ He didn’t understand

Berkowitz and Wagner are to be married in October.
Professionally, however, he feels his future depends on how well 20
fares at the box office. “If we bomb, that’s fine, because
I’ll have given it my best shot-and I’ll be able to move on in
my life because I got the girl.” MM