When D.B. Sweeney began working on his labor of love, he wanted it to be authentic. So Sweeney, who co-wrote, produced, directed and stars in the movie about Marshall fans called "Two Tickets to Paradise," he obviously wanted two real programs playing in the fictional college football championship game featured in the film. But to get Marshall University and the University of Texas to sign off on the idea, he had to jump through some legal hoops. That was something new for the actor perhaps best known for his starring roles in "The Cutting Edge" and "Eight Men Out," where he portrayed "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, the White Sox's great outfielder, who (along with seven teammates) was banned from Major League Baseball when the "Black Sox" threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
"When I set out to produce my own film with my own money, I had no idea of all the detailed legal nuances that would come into play," Sweeney told Chris Dickerson for an article found on the Marshall University Alumni Association (marshall.edu/alumni) web site. "From actor and crew contracts to music licenses, it was a daunting stack of legal obligations I had to rapidly educate myself on." But the hard work apparently paid off.
"It was real important to me to have two real college football teams competing in the fictional bowl game in 'Two Tickets to Paradise,' " Sweeney said. "I wanted to visually reference the teams' logos and feature them on tickets, T-shirts, etc. I felt this was important to the atmosphere of a Bowl game and that the audience would be distracted by 'fake' school names."
"It's always intriguing when you're approached with an opportunity like that," said Kemmeth Rivers, Marshall University's Director of Marketing and Branding. "But it's the university's responsibility to protect its name, its logos and how it all is used. The university wants to understand the premise of the movie. Is it something that the fans of Marshall would appreciate? The university wouldn't want to be involved in a project that is offensive to its fans."
D.B. Sweeney (rear) and John C. McGinley star in "Two Tickets To Paradise," a film about three Marshall fans who travel to Florida to watch the Herd play Texas for the National Championship. photo courtesy of D.B. Sweeney
The plot of Two Tickets to Paradise follows three high school buddies (played by Sweeney, "Scrubs" television series star John C. McGinley and Paul Hipp) whose glory days are long gone, and they still are stuck in their small Pennsylvania hometown. To break free and escape their much too ordinary lives, they embark on a road trip to the fictional College Football Championship at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida. In that game, Marshall's Thundering Herd faces off against the Texas Longhorns. The journey takes the trio through hilarious twists and turns, boozing and misbehaving every step of the way. During the adventure, they discover the most important thing in this uncertain world is friendship.
But Sweeney admits Marshall wasn't his first choice to play Texas in the movie's title game. "In the script, Texas beats USC by three points 'in a squeaker,' to reference the gambling lingo John McGinley's character uses," Sweeney said. "USC would not agree to let us use their logo if their team lost the fictional game. Ridiculous as it was, I could sort of see their point in terms of brand management. That's when I hit on the idea of Marshall being in the game. I was familiar with the story since I was a kid. The plane crash was on my ninth birthday, and I remember the reports. The Cinderella team, overcoming adversity, etc. I thought the school might like it since, frankly, in this era they'd be considered a longshot to be in the BCS game. The officials at the school were into it, and we went ahead."
Sweeney said the Marshall partnership paid great dividends. "A great side benefit of having Marshall was access to the motivated alumni base in Southern California," he said. "Keith Spears (Marshall's former Vice President for Institutional Advancement) got a huge number of them to show up to be extras at the tailgating scene we shot at Qualcomm Stadium (home of the San Diego Chargers of the National Football League). Energetic, passionate, wonderful people ... they added so much to the movie. It was a great experience for me to get to know them."
Spears, who also acted in a similar role during the filming in Huntington and Atlanta, Georgia, for "We Are Marshall," agreed that the experience was great. "Rhonda Mullins, administrative assistant in Marshall communications, helped a great deal in getting the alumni folks together," said Spears, now director of special programs with the West Virginia Department of Education and the Arts. "She made contacts and assisted in coordinating the Qualcomm activities of the Marshall crowd." Spears said Marshall alumni came from as far as Las Vegas to help out in the filming.
"We had a much bigger crowd than Texas alumni, and they were stalwart in their support of the Herd, even in a fictional game," Spears said. "At one point, the film crew asked if some of the MU alumni would put on Texas t-shirts to even out the numbers. Our Herd fans refused and stayed true to their green and white. D.B. had to go down to a local Hooter's restaurant and solicit extras."
Sweeney said the legal maneuvers for the film didn't end with college logos and mascots. "A similar legal issue in the filming concerned the use of products," he said. "We needed a beer company and a stationary store, and both Office Max and Coors came on board in a big way. Using the Office Max store and its employees saved us a ton of money, and they didn't make any demands of us script-wise. They requested I highlight an HP product since that is what they were pushing in their advertising, and I was glad to do it." In the movie, HP is the corporate sponsor of the championship game. "They (Office Max) pushed through the approvals to HP, so that didn't cost me any extra time," Sweeney said.
He said Coors was an even bigger help. "I wasn't willing to cut the scene where the driver opens a beer and passes it to a sleeping passenger in the back seat -- it is a movie about misbehaving on the road, after all -- so we worked out a fairly intricate deal," he said. "I agreed to never show any other companies products, to create a 'fictional' product for use in and around the car, always feature Coors in bars and restaurants and never litter with Coors products. There was a bunch of other stuff, too, but that was the gist of it. They gave me significant cash and use of uniforms, trucks, warehouses, etc., so it was a huge help to creating a 'big' look for the movie."
Oh, and if you're wondering what happens to the three buddies on their 1,000-mile quest and who wins the big game, you'll have to check out the movie. But Sweeney did reveal one key plot point. "Marshall covers," Sweeney said. However, many Marshall fans got to see the premier of the movie in Huntington during a local film festival in the spring of 2007, following a Thundering Herd Green-White Spring Football Game. Once again, the historic Keith-Albee Theatre in Huntington, built by the famous Vaudeville promoters of the same names in 1928, served as a showcase for another film featuring Marshall football.
Rivers said that like the makers of "We Are Marshall," which told the story of the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 members of the Marshall football family, Sweeney was passionate about showing Marshall on the big screen. "Of course, that's good for Marshall University and all the people who love Marshall and enjoy seeing the university in a different light," she said. "In terms of the game in this movie, Marshall fans are passionate and they're loyal. Whether or not Marshall wins or loses the fictional game in a movie, the university still wins."
Sweeney got help on the picture from a number of actors who worked for free to help him make the movie. He had hoped to land a distributor and put the film into theaters around the nation, but limited by the financial end of making pictures, the film went straight to DVD.
One thing is certain. Marshall fans will want to add "Two Tickets To Paradise" to a film library that might include "Ashes To Glory," "Cam Henderson: A Coach's Story," "ESPN's Remembering Marshall," "We Are Marshall," and "The Thundering Herd" (both the 1925 silent version, starring Jack Holt, and the 1933 sound remake, starring Randolph Scott. Both films featured Noah Berry, Sr. and Raymond Hatton), as well as some recordings of Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd band, a "Big Band" group that played blues and jazz, but later was influenced by rock and roll and other music styles.