Sam Jaeger: First A Love Story, Then ‘Parenthood’

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“I just said, ‘Honey, you’re going to have to tuck those things in somehow, or we’re going to have a major continuity problem.’”

Let the record show that it’s Sam Jaeger, star of NBC’s Parenthood and writer/producer/director/co-star of the winsome new film Take Me Home, who brings up the subject of his leading lady’s transformation from wispy starlet in most of the movie’s scenes to curvy va-va-voomette in its final one. But it’s his fault that that change happened in the first place.

Maybe it’s best just to start at the beginning.

The process of making Take Me Home began just after Jaeger had completed a relatively complex musical project with Jordan Beckett of the indie band Bootstraps. In Jaeger’s words, “it was such a torturous process that I really wanted a movie that just felt simple to explain.”

He began writing what he thought would be a quick and easy vehicle for his girlfriend Amber Mellott and himself: a little road-trip film showcasing the American landscape. “There’s a huge expanse of this continent that so seldom gets photographed. Hollywood so often likes to make movies that are just about itself. I felt there were a lot of stories that were yet to be told in the middle of the country, and I wanted to capture some of that beauty. And I thought, you know, I’ve got my girlfriend, and we’ll grab a camera and shoot on weekends.”

He figured they’d be finished in a year or so. “That was eight years ago,” Jaeger laughs.

Along the way, he kept discovering thematic resonance in the geography of the road trip. “I felt like the country lays out like a pretty beautiful story itself, heading from the East Coast to West. In this story, we’ve got the excitement of New York, then we get into the Midwest, which is really the heart of this story, and then things really start to unravel to a climax in the Rockies and the Utah desert. Years back, I had read this lovely poem that said ‘the desert is where we go to be with death.’”

The fictional couple’s near-death experience in the desert leads them to a funeral, and of course, to the bittersweet/hopeful climax could only happen on a Pacific Coast beachfront.

As the film’s story unfolded across the country, so did Sam and Amber’s own story. Their relationship evolved from that of a dating couple, to an engaged couple, to a married couple. Which is why it’s okay for Sam to be talking so frankly about the physique of the actress who, you’ll notice in the credits, is now Amber Jaeger.

Sam Jaeger also had a multi-year object lesson in some of the fundamentals of writing a film script. “The good thing about taking so damn long to make a movie,” he laughs, “is you have so much time to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I think my first draft took me three months and my second draft took me a year and a half.”

One prime example—the common but seldom-heeded dictum that each scene should push forward into, and give a reason for, the next scene. “I think it was in that time when I realized a lot of this stuff I’m holding onto because I think it’s clever, but it’s not getting us anywhere. I had to pare that down in later drafts. You want to think, what are the biggest obstacles in each scene I can give these people that will cause them to redefine themselves in some sense?”

Jaeger knew that music plays a huge role in setting the tone for a film like this one, so he turned to an expert for help in that area—the same Jordan Beckett he had worked with previously. “I wrote this movie with a lot of music in mind. Music that we could never afford in our wildest dreams. But I felt like my secret weapon in this movie, other than my amazing wife, was my friend Jordan—a guy who I feel understands music like some of the great musicians do. His music has kind of this lonesome yearning, and I thought it was perfect for two people traveling cross-country and who are alone in their own worlds. And when we talked about the country sort of playing a role in the film, that it’s a part in the movie, I wanted this big swath of the America to have its soundtrack represented.”

Beckett also made room for the music of Mark Kozelek. “Yeah, I feel really blessed to have gotten Sun Kil Moon involved. I was lucky enough to get two of his songs from Ghosts of the Great Highway. That whole album just feels like the great American road trip to me”

The film came at the perfect time for Beckett. “When Jordan came in,” Jaeger says, “we actually recorded many of the songs that are going to be on his upcoming Bootstraps album. In many ways his music and the film impacted each other in a great way. I think he was kind of getting close to hanging up his hat because of the torturous process of making music and I asked him for one last favor. And I think the movie is helped tremendously by it.”

It’s telling that Beckett’s music is able to stand up to the classic Sun Kil Moon tracks, and at times he also bears an eerie vocal resemblance to another well-known singer. “I showed one of the early cuts to [fellow Parethood star] Dax Shepard,” says Jaeger, “and he said ‘You know I was amazed with what you did with the music, and then I realized you stole it all! That guy on our show, Ray LaMontagne, you stole that right?’ And I said, ‘Oh no, that’s not Ray LaMontagne, that’s my buddy Jordan.’”

Maybe all that romantic music had its own side effects, because by the time Sam was ready to shoot the final scene, Amber had her own creative project underway—she was pregnant. When it’s suggested his son should get an in utero IMDB credit, Sam laughs and adds, “Yeah, we can also give him credit for my wife’s boobs in that last scene. She was pregnant and she’s walking down the shore and I just said, ‘Honey, you’re going to have to tuck those things in somehow, or we’re going to have a major continuity problem. It ruins the film if your character is pregnant! So you’ll notice she has this very flowing dress in that scene.”

Just a few short months after that day, Amber brought their son into the world. And now the Jaegers have brought their other joint venture into the world with Take Me Home getting its release on DVD and VOD. “I think doing a first film,” Jaeger says, “at some point you get halfway through and you wonder is this is good enough to define who I am for the coming decade? And originally when I first started writing Take Me Home, I thought maybe she doesn’t want to fly because of 9/11 or maybe—I don’t know, it was supposed to be about all these big things. Then I thought, ‘You know what, Sam? There’s nothing wrong with a love story.’ At the end of the day, I’m just happy to have a movie out there that really captures where I was in my life. I was deeply in love with my girlfriend then my fiancée, now my wife. And today, we just put our two-year old down for his nap. So I think it’s kind of a celebration of all the work of falling in love with someone.”

And whether it’s his newly found experience as a father or as a feature film director, he’s getting a chance to direct an episode of Parenthood. “Basically, getting that job just involves a lot of begging. If I hadn’t done Take Me Home, I don’t know if I’d have this opportunity. [Parenthood is] obviously close to my heart, and even if I weren’t on the show, I’d feel pretty invested in it. I really love the dynamic of the show. It’s one of the very few shows I’ve been involved in, in my 12 years of acting that I can say I’m proudest of contributing to, in some small way. And I just respect [Parenthood show runner] Jason Katims so much that it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m sure I’ll catch a lot of flak from the cast and crew, and I’m looking forward to that too.”

After seven years of making his first feature, several years of courting and landing his dream bride, and two years of being a new daddy? That flak, he can handle.