Hollywood Movies

‘Sweet Dreams’ Director Lije Sarki on Johnny Knoxville’s Dramatic Turn

April 10, 202414 Mins Read

Paramount Pictures hosted a ‘Friends & Family’ screening for its new Johnny Knoxville-starrer Sweet Dreams at L.A.’s Laemmle Royal on April 1. Even with a handful of comedians in the building and a date that coincided with April Fool’s Day, the world premiere of filmmaker Lije Sarki’s recovery-centered softball dramedy was no joke.

The scene mirrored much larger Hollywood premieres as members of the starry cast and their friends (Anderson .Paak, Bobby Lee, Lil Dicky) mingled with movie stars (Josh Brolin, Shia LaBeouf). Guests took advantage of a red carpet complete with a veteran Tinseltown photographer (Todd Williamson) while others waited in long lines simply to get into the Laemmle (an overflow theater was added to accommodate the number of RSVPs).

Three days later, Sarki was still soaking it in. “It’s wild to me to have that much support,” said the filmmaker over coffee on the patio of one of his neighborhood haunts, Venice’s Rose Café. “I honestly didn’t think that many people were going to show up. There were so many people there that I’m close with in my life because of being sober. It’s a community, and truly they’re like family to me. People have supported me on the little things I’ve done in the past but not like this. I was really blown away — it’s so special.”

Sarki wrote and directed Sweet Dreams, which follows a man named Morris (Knoxville) who awakens on a park bench after a brutal bender. He is forced into a sober living where he attempts to confront the wreckage of his life. But when the house winds up in auction due to financial woes, he reluctantly agrees to coach the house’s misfit softball team comprised of recovering addicts in order to win a cash prize and save the day. Knoxville stars opposite Mo Amer, GaTa, Lee, Theo Von, Brian Van Holt, Jonnie Park, Shakewell, Adam Faison, Erik Anthony Gonzalez, Beth Grant, Jay Mohr and Kate Upton. The film opens April 12.

The storyline is personal for Sarki, best known for producing the critically-acclaimed, indie charmer Peanut Butter Falcon starring LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Zach Gottsagen. He’s been sober 11 years and leaned on personal experience, in and out of 12-step meeting rooms, to craft the Sweet Dreams story. A passionate surfer and skateboarder — who previously directed the features Doug Out and Concrete Kids and shorts Belong and Sundays — Sarki also worked his network of friends and peers to cast the film and shoot at recognizable Westside locations from softball fields to restaurants Barrique and Baby Blues BBQ. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with him to discuss Knoxville’s dramatic turn, the film’s biggest challenges and what’s next in his directing career.

Josh Brolin and Lije Sarki attend the premiere of Paramount's Sweet Dreams at the Laemmle Royal in Santa Monica on April 1, 2024.

Josh Brolin and Lije Sarki.

Todd Williamson

Where did the idea for Sweet Dreams come from?

I saw the movie The Way Back [the 2020 drama starring Ben Affleck], and I really like the movie a lot but it’s not an uplifting look at recovery. Ben Affleck is so good in it and I remember being really moved when he opens the fridge and grabs a beer. It’s, like, oh God. I felt that. But recovery rarely looks fun on film, and I really have a good time. I also like baseball and have always wanted to make a baseball movie.

A few years back, I was picking up my friend from a sober living and taking him surfing. He’s now four years sober and his kid is four years old, his whole journey is incredible. It got me thinking about sober living because those [houses] can be filled with a really great, odd group of people. My friend helped me think of all of the different types of people who could live there and could come together as a team. I used to play softball with bars and stuff as I was coming along in life — more in my drinking days — and softball is an easier sport for everyone to play. It’s something that all the guys in the movie could do.

Did they actually play before they were cast?

No, some of them had never played before at all, but they all actually played in the film. I had a plan and adjusted their positions based on their skillsets. There was no cheating, other than a few hits here and there, but for the most part what you’re seeing is real.

How long did it take you to write?

I’ve written a handful of movies and the ideas sometimes take a while to see if it’s any good. Then, I’ll try to break an outline with all the beats, basically a page of 15 things to make the story a story and once I get that figured out, the writing is usually a few weeks for a first draft.

What’s your writing process? You’re an early morning writer?

I get up at 4:30 a.m. and I do a get ready routine, mentally, spiritually, all my sober stuff. Then I will write. I will keep that up from Monday through Friday for four weeks with the goal of finishing five pages per day. Then I will stop. I’ve been blessed with having [Alex Rudolph] at my company [1993] because I can send him pages after I’m done for the day, he will proof them and tell me if it’s working or not. The next morning, I will adjust what I wrote the day before. It’s nice having somebody give me feedback. I will do that for 20 days, or so, but sometimes I can finish earlier. I try to keep things on the shorter side because, for me, I want all the movies I make right now to be less than 100 minutes.

Once you finished the script, how did the movie come together?

Once I finished it, I went to a [well-known comedy star] to make it with me as the lead. He loved it, and we started working together on it. It was a really hard movie to put together financially during the pandemic. We thought we would be able to do it much more quickly but then he got really busy and we both agreed to try another avenue because his window [of availability] got smaller. Some of the parts I wrote specifically for those guys, like I wrote Theo’s part for Theo. I love the show Dave, so GaTa was the first guy I went to for that part. Most of these guys I just reached out to myself.

Bobby Lee stood out to me as somebody who would be great because you might not expect him for something like this. I have a friend who knew Bobby and I called to ask her if she would talk to him about this and he loved it and came on. Mo was really last minute for the role of Pete, which was supposed to be Method Man. He had something else he was juggling so he had to drop out about two weeks before we started shooting.


A still from Lije Sarki’s recovery dramedy Sweet Dreams.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

What about Johnny Knoxville?

Knoxville popped in my head in the beginning of the summer. I’ve not seen him do a lot of dramatic work like this and I thought it could be really cool. The way the script is written around this guy, Morris, offers a really grounded, serious role. There’s a lot of absurd, ridiculous stuff going on around him and they all give him shit and they’re all so funny, but not for his character. I thought he might be into it, so we met and he was. Then we were off to the races, but we had to be quick and didn’t have a lot of time to prep.

Some of the most profound moments come from Johnny’s performance. You can see the pain in his face caused by drinking. What were your collaborations like?

He’s a serious actor and he takes it all very seriously. He came fully prepared. We didn’t rehearse at all. We’d talk but he just came with it every time. We weren’t doing a lot of extra takes for him. It was very personal to him and he delivered. Overall, the whole thing, for the cast and myself, it was personal for everybody. Whether you are sober, you know someone who is or you know someone who is struggling, this touches so many people in our lives. There’s always one degree, whether it’s a family member, friend or loved one. No one had a hard time making the personal connection on this. My only job as a director was to ask, do I believe them? Do I believe what they are saying. I believed them every time.


Johnny Knoxville in Sweet Dreams.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

I also believed the moments that happen in the 12-step meeting, which is one of the most authentic recreations of what happens in those meetings that I’ve seen. How was that to shoot?

I’ve been sober for 11 years. I was sober before that, too, for a year and a half, but I didn’t do any work around it. The authenticity of the rooms is because I wrote exactly what I’ve experienced. A lot of the what’s said is stuff that I’ve said myself, versions of it or things I’ve experienced. Like the part about falling over on a bike, that’s me in a way. I look back on it now just grateful that nobody got hurt. I was very selfish at times. There’s seriousness to what is said, but there’s also joy and laughter with it. Somebody said this to me a long time ago, that other people’s pain is funny now but your pain is funny later.

You wrote and directed the scenes but what was it like to experience just as a sober man?

I was very self-conscious because I wanted to do it right. I really wanted to do it justice but for it to also remain anonymous, if that makes sense. I didn’t want it to look anything other than great or inspiring because that’s what it has been for me. I kept saying over and over, “Is this good? Is it fucking working?” I just cared so much about making it real.

Lije Sarki on the set of Sweet Dreams with actors Kate Upton and GaTa.

Lije Sarki directs Kate Upton, left, and GaTA on the L.A. set of Sweet Dreams.

Courtesy of Lije Sarki

What was the biggest challenge?

It’s always like this for me, but the prep, and locations. It was harder to get our baseball fields dialed in. When your time is scrunched, prep gets scrunched. For me, the last two movies that I’ve directed, we’ve done 10-hour days. I don’t like to do longer days. I need to have time to go home and get ready for the next day. If I’m working 12 hours, that means I’m working 14. Then I’m going home and I have a wife and kids and everything else, so a long day means I’m not sleeping and I’m an asshole the next day. I also want to make sure my crew can go home, they get to sleep and rest, too. That way everybody’s happy, and it keeps morale high. I really planned this down shot to shot because we had 20 days. We had enough time but what we didn’t have enough time for was the softball.

Why so?

We had a lot of montage stuff, but in a perfect world, it would’ve been a way bigger softball tournament, a way longer experience. I would’ve done a lot more with the sports, but you can only do so much with the time. Six of our 20 shoot days were baseball, and I wish it had been half. But, look, I am very happy with how it turned out. You do the best you have with what you have, and I think we did the best with what we had.


Brian Van Holt, Mo Amer, Bobby Lee and Johnny Knoxville in Sweet Dreams.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

During your introduction at the premiere, you said that as long as there were six laugh-out-loud moments in the film, it’s a win. You exceeded that during the screening …

That came from Shia LaBeouf. He’s a friend and he’s a tough critic. He said, “Look man, if you can get six laughs and its got heart, it’s fine, you’re good.” So I sat there watching the film, counting how many laughs it was getting. By 10 minutes in, we had four really good moments. So I thought, we’re good. When Shia walked out at the end, he said, “That’s a good movie.” He never says that, so it was really nice to hear that from him.

Also during your comments, you said if one person gets sober from watching this film, it’s considered a win. After you said that, cast member Jonnie Park grabbed the microphone and announced that he got sober as a result of making it and he now has a year clean. How did that make you feel?

It just so touches my heart. It happened on both sides actually, on the cast and crew. I think things like this help bring awareness or at least an opportunity that some people don’t know exists. They have no idea. I had an idea because my dad got sober when I was a kid, so I knew that I was a raging alcoholic when I was a raging alcoholic. When I start to worry whether people are going to like the movie or if anyone will care, I just go back to the thought of, hey, look at what’s happened already. It’s a win.

On the eve of releasing this film, how are you feeling?

I feel great. I just hope people go see it at the theater. It also comes out digitally a few days later and the point of a lot of these limited theatricals are to help raise awareness. But I’m excited. I really am truly happy with it. I’m not going to look at it and look at all the flaws. I’m just focusing on all the fun and the good stuff. The next one, I’ll do better. I went to Sundance this year and someone on stage there during one of the Q&As said, “Man, I’m just trying to get better.” And that’s all I’m trying to do. I try not to take myself too seriously. I didn’t learn to do this by instruction. It’s basically just experience. I wrote another movie that I’m about to start putting together that I’m excited about. It’s a kind of Christmas action movie. I made two movies that touch on alcoholism, so I want to try and step up, do something bigger and get some more money. We’ll see.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

The cast of Lije Sarki's Sweet Dreams from Paramount Pictures attend the premiere at the Laemmle Royal in Santa Monica on April 1, 2024.

The cast of Lije Sarki’s Sweet Dreams from Paramount Pictures.

Todd Williamson

Guests, including Shia LaBeouf, at the premiere of Sweet Dreams at L.A.'s Laemmle Royal on April 1, 2024.

Guests, including Shia LaBeouf, at the premiere of Sweet Dreams at L.A.’s Laemmle Royal on April 1, 2024.

Courtesy of Lije Sarki

Lil Dicky, Anderson.Paak and GaTA attend the premiere of Paramount's Sweet Dreams at the Laemmle Royal in Santa Monica on April 1, 2024.

Lil Dicky, Anderson.Paak and GaTA at the screening on April 1.

Todd Williamson

Lije Sarki introduces his film, Sweet Dreams, at the premiere of the Paramount Pictures title at the Laemmle Royal in Santa Monica on April 1, 2024.

Lije Sarki introduces the film, joined by his cast.

Todd Williamson

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