We’ve all had moments we regret — the date we didn’t go on, the interview we flubbed, the comment we can’t take back. They’re the moments that keep us up at night, wishing we could turn back time.
David Seth Cohen, a filmmaker from Plainview, has one of those moments. His just happens to revolve around Adam Sandler.
That’s right, the comedian and actor, whose cinematic output includes “Big Daddy,” “Jack and Jill,” “The Ridiculous 6” and other critically panned works. Cohen, a Long Islander and Sandler fan from a young age, once passed up a chance to have a friendly drink with his hero. Years later, still haunted by his decision, Cohen decided to fix the past and reach out to Sandler for a second shot. Cohen’s extraordinary efforts are chronicled in “Finding Sandler,” his first feature film, which premiered March 26 at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
“Finding Sandler” has been roughly 15 years in the making. Along the way, romances ended, marriages began, friendships frayed and a lengthy legal battle brought production to a halt. One of the film’s producers, Dan Hagendorn, left his native West Hempstead for California, got married, had two children, found a new career in the liquor industry and — 10 years later — returned to Long Island to settle in Rockville Centre, all while Cohen kept plugging away at “Finding Sandler.”
“He reached out to me month after month,” said Hagendorn. “I couldn’t believe it. I had moved on, I had kids. But he was still putting this movie together and he never gave up.”
Cohen describes himself as “not the kind of person who quits.” He added, “It was just a matter of: How am I going to get this done?”
Now, about that drink. In the fall of 1998, Cohen, newly graduated from Maryland’s Towson University with hopes of working in the entertainment industry, landed a job as a costume designer’s assistant on Sandler’s comedy “Big Daddy.” It wasn’t glamorous work — he was essentially a gofer — but Cohen was thrilled to be working on a big Hollywood movie featuring his idol.
As Cohen tells the story, he was charged one afternoon with delivering some wardrobe pieces to Sandler’s Manhattan apartment. His instructions were to simply hand the clothes to the door attendant, so Cohen parked the car in an illegal spot and told his passenger, a co-worker, that he’d be right back.
Instead, the door attendant directed him upstairs to Sandler’s apartment, where the actor not only answered the door but invited the star-struck Cohen in for a drink. Then came the fateful moment: Afraid of getting a ticket, and with his co-worker waiting, Cohen politely said no.
Cohen still remembers telling his parents the story: “My mom said, ‘You’re such an idiot. Why didn’t you just leave the girl in the car?’”
Flash forward to 2006, and Cohen, then 30, was taking stock of his life. At the time, he was working for Telecare, a Catholic television station — an odd fit for a Jewish guy, he felt — and living in his grandmother’s basement in Plainview with his girlfriend and two dogs. “I just really wasn’t where I thought I’d be,” Cohen said.
“I would have these nights where I would toss and turn in bed,” he added. “What if I hadn’t passed up that chance to have that drink with Adam Sandler? What would he have told me to trigger me ending up somewhere different, or doing something else?”
And so, the morning after a troubling, Sandler-centric dream, Cohen decided to make his film. His first call was to his friend Hagendorn, then a camera operator at Telecare, who answered the phone despite the too-early hour of 6 a.m. “It was like he had had a vision from somewhere,” Hagendorn recalled.
With Hagendorn on board, Cohen put together a small crew of friends and colleagues to help shoot the film, which found him traveling across the country and going to somewhat extraordinary lengths to get close to Sandler, or even anyone who might know him. Cohen ambushed the chef Emeril Lagasse at a Barnes & Noble in Carle Place, buttonholed Billy Joel at the inaugural Long Island Music Hall of Fame ceremony, talked to Sandler’s old high school gym teacher in New Hampshire and flew to Los Angeles in the hopes of meeting Sandler on the set of “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.” (Sandler, through a representative, declined to comment for this story.)
Throughout the film, Cohen comes off as a combination of dogged reporter, good-natured fan and camera-conscious entertainer. “It was all real, but you have to perform a little bit,” Cohen said. “I would have done anything to make it fun and quirky and crazy.”
Even during a six-year lull in production due to a legal battle — a tale Cohen declined to discuss in detail, citing a pending resolution — the filmmaker persisted, hitting up total strangers who were willing to donate their time editing the film or creating animated segments. It’s hard to estimate the movie's final price tag, Cohen said, which included money from family members and his own funds. Cohen described “Finding Sandler” as “ultra low-budget.”
Today, Cohen is married and living in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. He runs a video production company, Precision Pictures LTD, and said he hopes “Finding Sandler” will be the first in a string of other creative projects.
“To me, it’s more about the journey than the destination,” he said of his movie. “I hope people who see the film will think, ‘This guy followed his dream. Why can’t I?’”