Cameron Watson explains why he had to tell this very personal story

With a long pedigree acting in such shows as Wings and NYPD Blue, as well as doing work in an assortment of films, Cameron Watson finally made the leap in 2005 to director. In writing and producing Our Very Own, a film that chronicles the daily hopes and dreams of high schoolers and their parents in a small Tennessee town, circa 1978, Watson (a Shelbyville native) brought a very personal piece of himself to the screen.

He recently sat down with us to discuss his experiences directing his first feature film.

What was it about Our Very Own that made you want to tell this story? This film seems like it emanated from somewhere deep and personal within you.

Cameron Watson: It did. It was a project of the heart from the beginning. I wrote the script, I'd been an actor for my whole career, 20 something years, it was the first thing I'd ever written. I'm from that town, I'm from Shelbyville where the movie takes place. I always used to telling funny stories about these characters and the people that live in that town, and the odd things that happen to everybody in their hometown. We just had an unusual amount of odd characters and funny things that would always make good conversations and great stories. People used to say, "You really oughta put this stuff down." I thought about about it and said, "Maybe there is something to tell there."

I was always intrigued with the idea of people leaving a small town like that and going to pursue their dream. We didn't have a lot of opportunities like that, in a small town in the 1970s, what it took for someone to have that kind of a dream and to do something with it. So the whole concept has always intrigued me. I wrote it and didn't know what to do with it when I finished, I certainly wasn't thinking of making it myself in any way. Over the course of 7 years we just decided that it was something that needed to be told, because it was so personal. A director friend of mine at a reading one time said, "You need to tell this story yourself because it's too personal to let someone else do." I said, "I don't know how to do that. What do I do?" He said, "You need to make it."

That's how it all started and that was 7 years ago.

Did you allow the actors in the film to improvise a lot?

Cameron Watson: I was really open. We ended up pretty much with what we'd written, the thing that worked so well with those kids was several of them, at the time, were already names. Jason Ritter, Hilarie Burton were obviously TV names already. The others were not. We found Derek Carter who plays Ray... he was living in the town next door to where we were shooting, literally, cutting grass for the summer and we found him there. There was a blend of very experienced young actors and then very inexperienced young actors. The thing that worked so well with them is that we got them all together in Shelbyville on location, 10 days before we started shooting. We just started bonding and doing all these great things as a group, and they really discovered, I think, the core of their characters that way.

There was a lot of improv work in the rehearsals and they really found their individual voices that way. Once we started to shoot, it wasn't because I was a stickler, but we stuck pretty close to the script.

What was it like wearing all the hats you did on this production?

Cameron Watson: I've said this before, it's just the truth, it was a very blessed and magical experience. Everything went right. We just had beginner's luck. I don't know what you want to attribute it to, but everything fell into place from the moment we decided to make this movie to the end of the story; selling it to Miramax. It was a hard journey but we were very lucky. I will give myself credit. I was smart enough to surround myself with a lot of good people. The things that I didn't know, or the areas where I needed help, I attracted producers and people that... really knew what they were doing. I always had somewhere to turn and say, "How do we do this?" Or, "How can we make this easier?"

It was a long time in the making and for some reason, in the pocket of time that we made it, it was just right. All the stars were aligned. It was chaotic but it was very enjoyable chaos.

Did shooting this movie in Shelbyville, TN make the shoot any easier or harder?

Cameron Watson: It ultimately made it easier because we were in my hometown. You gotta remember I grew up here. My high school teachers, my parents, my friends... everybody that I know from the history of my life is still in that town. They made it so easy because the town couldn't wait for this project to be made. We'd been brewing it for a long, long time. They were as anxiously awaiting it as we were. The town was amazing. The Mayor, the City Manager and the Film Commission, everybody just opened up their arms and said, "What do we need to do to make this work?" We had very lucky circumstances in terms of locations, and housing, and food and all of the logistics that are so difficult when you're on location.

The other side of that question... I was always worried that we'd never get these stars. They all loved the script, they all wanted to do it but then you say, "You've got to come to Shelbyville, TN for a month. You're gonna be stuck in this tiny town, in 100 degree heat for a month." Everybody came and everybody ended up having the best time. It was almost like summer camp which fit the movie because that's kind of the spirit of what the whole movie is. "Lets put on a show..."

Do you plan to direct again? Is that something you'd ultimately like to move into doing?

Cameron Watson: Yeah, absolutely. I've had some really good opportunities come up since the movie. We've had a long journey getting it to where we got it to. We had a year and a half of doing the festival circuit, and then it took awhile to sell it and then we finally did sell it. Now its got such a wonderful home and is getting such great attention, some opportunities are coming my way. I'm working on a couple of other scripts that I would like to direct. At this point in my life, I don't know that I have it in me to do it from the ground up again. I don't know that I can start from nowhere and just go out there and raise the money, and put it all together from A to Z like we did on our own. I'd like to come into something with a little help the next time.

What do you have coming up next?

Cameron Watson: I'm actually in Atlanta right now, I live in Los Angeles... back and forth between Atlanta and Alabama for a few weeks. I've been hired to adapt a novel, a beautiful Southern novel into a screenplay, by a producer... who if he can get it all put together, wants me to direct it as well. I can't really say what the novel is, it has been on the stands for awhile. I hope that that's the next thing. It's very much down my alley in terms of sensibility. Not that I'm just a Southern director but it certainly makes sense that they would want me to be involved with this project because of the tone. That's happening. I'm directing a lot of theater. It's really a blank slate right now. I don't know what it's gonna be.

Our Very Own comes to DVD July 3 from Miramax.