Nearby Delaware County resident, Rehoboth Beach lover – and, oh, yeah, Academy Award-winner Tammy Tiehel-Stedman co-produced the recently released Slow Learners (available on cable, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu and more), a romantic comedy the New York Times called “unexpectedly smart and consistently amusing.” While attending the American Film Institute, Tiehel-Stedman produced My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York, which won the 2000 Oscar for “Best Short Film – Live Action.” TSD connected with Tiehel-Stedman to learn about her latest project, the fun and challenges of being an independent film producer and her love of Grotto Pizza.
Town Square Delaware: This film took a long time to get to the big screen — can you tell us some of the hurdles you’ve had to jump to get this project off the ground?
Tammy Tiehel-Stedman: Slow Learners took four years to get from script to screen. My three co-producers and I optioned a script that was already written but had been tied up by another producer in Los Angeles. Once it became available, we paid to option it so we could officially begin to develop it and raise money. The financing part of any indie film is always incredibly difficult. You need well-known, A-list stars to be able to raise money easily and yet, you can’t hire A-list stars without your financing being in place; so it’s a tough Catch-22. We were able to raise enough seed money that we felt comfortable bringing the well-respected casting director Allison Jones (40 Year-Old Virgin, Bridesmaids, The Office) on board, and she helped so much with getting the script out to actors. Once we had our two leads, Adam Pally and Sarah Burns, on board, other actors were more interested, and it really got the ball rolling.
TSD: This is one funny romantic comedy. The original script was called Bad Boys and Crazy girls, which was written by a girl, but it also nails all the insecurities that single guys face when dating. The male protagonist’s nerdy friends are especially hilarious.
TTS: Thanks! I first heard about the script through my sister. It was written by a friend of hers and she kept telling me that I should read it. One of the things we all liked from the very beginning was that the story was told from both the male and female perspectives. So often in romantic comedies, the story is told only from the female point-of-view. We loved that in this story, you follow both the male and the female lead character on their journey and get to experience all of the different insecurities that they both suffer. Also, we chose the directing team of Don Argott and Sheena Joyce because we felt like their directing the film together would add another layer of male and female points-of-view.
TSD: This wasn’t a tame romcom, and reminded us of a kind of ’40 Year Old Virgin’ meets ‘When Harry met Sally’ — was the original project so edgy?
TTS: The original project was not so edgy, it had more of a “sweet” feel than “raunchy.’ I like to think that the final product has a good mix of both. Don and Sheena were very clear early on that they wanted the film to feel real and wanted the characters to talk to one another the way friends do in real life. They are both fans of comedies and like the work of Judd Apatow and Adam McKay in particular. The film was influenced by their taste but also by the actors, many of whom have strong improv comedy backgrounds and used that to riff on set and come up with some very funny lines.
TSD: One of the biggest characters in the movie is actually the location. You grew up in nearby Media, PA — what was it like filming so close to home?
TTS: Filming in Media was a home run for everyone. One of the directors and three out of the four producers have ties to Delaware County, not to mention the fact that our director of photography grew up in Media. From the beginning, we knew that the script called for a charming little town. Our wonderful line producer, Ed Eberwine, suggested we find a town in suburban Philadelphia where we could kind of move in and call it our home for a month of pre-production and a month of shooting. We looked at Ambler and Media and briefly thought about West Chester. Media had such wonderful charm and the town’s officials were so open to our shooting there that that’s where we chose to go. Many people in the town were incredibly helpful, from the police department to location owners to people who showed up to be extras in the film.
TSD: The film has been getting unbelievable reviews — NY Times, Philadelphia Daily News, Seattle Times — did the critical reception surprise you?
TTS: It has been incredibly rewarding to see the great reviews. I think when you set out to make a romantic comedy, you know you’ve already got a strike against you as far as some critics are concerned … for some reason, critics seem to be extra tough on them. So, in that regard, it was a nice surprise to get a great review from a paper like the New York Times.
There is something in this film though, despite the fact that it may have a somewhat familiar rom-com plot line, that touches people. People (critics included) really seem to love our cast, particularly Adam Pally and Sarah Burns; the authenticity of their performances and the very funny dialogue and situations. People have been tweeting that they love the film and see themselves in the characters.
TSD: Any other projects in the pipeline that you might do in our area?
TTS: We are currently reading scripts and are discussing what might be next. We had such a fantastic experience shooting in this area that I think we would all like to do it again. Also, we were lucky to get a Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit which really helped us stretch our small budget.
TSD: Tell us about your career trajectory — how did you end up in this field, particularly here in an area not known to be the center of the entertainment and film industry?
TTS: I had always been interested in film but studied international relations at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. When I graduated, I felt like I should get a “real” job, whatever that is. I tried several different things in my 20’s and finally, in my late 20’s, began working at a small production company in suburban Philadelphia. That led to a staff position as a production manager and I loved it and learned so much there that I realized I wanted to take it to the next level.
I knew I needed to learn more about the art of storytelling and so, at age 30 I applied to and was accepted at the American Film Institute. I moved to LA to attend AFI as a Producing Fellow and while there, received a Master of Fine Arts degree. For my master’s thesis, I had to produce a short film. That film went on to win in its category in several film festivals and eventually won the Oscar for Best Short Film Live Action in March of 2000.
I’ve been working in TV/film ever since, with some time off when my three children were younger. My husband and I left LA after our first child was born and moved back to Philadelphia to be closer to family and friends. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find film work here but it’s been ok … I just find projects to produce and create my own work!
TSD: Lastly – you are a summer resident of Rehoboth. What are your favorite haunts when you are at the beach?
TTS: We love being in Delaware! My in-laws purchased a wonderful second home in the Baywood Greens area so that our family would have a place to gather during the summer. We’ve spent many days there at the pool, going to the beach, going for golf cart rides and having great family dinners. Our kids think of Delaware as a very special family place. We’ve also celebrated some fantastic Thanksgivings there. We love to take the kids to the boardwalk and out for dinner once in a while but more than anything, we eat A LOT of delicious Grotto Pizza!