Go ‘West,’ Young Man!

Wild question: Which is a tougher crowd — the West Bank or the Wild West?

"Oh," chuckles Ari Sandler. "Certainly, the West Bank! That's a highly charged subject."

And so is his career. Winning the Oscar for best live short last year, the good-looking director of "West Bank Story" had even better looking prospects after the award and accolades gave him a desert storm of success, evident in his feature directorial debut: "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights — Hollywood to the Heartland," now in the region.

Concert tour after a conquest tour of talk shows? Go "West" young man? Did Horace Greeley grip his imagination? Did "West Bank" lead to "Wild West"?

"I've known Vince for eight years. We're all friends," he says of Vaughn and the traveling troubadores of jesting troublemakers who just signed up for the comedy tour that took them westward ho.

But Vaughn did bank on "West Bank Story" as evidence of his pal's protean talents. "In his eyes, it showed what I was capable of doing."

What Sandler was capable of doing was shooting the six-shooters of comedy as they bunked on a bus, and brought their bona fides to towns big and small all over the West, with a stopover in Vaughn's home of Chicago.

Sighs Sandler: "Thirty days on a bus, 18 hours a day, 600 hours of footage … ."

Was it always happy trails to you on this "Wild West" gig of a comedy fest?

Tiring, sure, but terrific, says its director: "What Vince — he's so smart and talented — wanted was a story about what it is to be a comic, and that's what we showed."

Funny thing — Vaughn had never done a nonstop comedy tour and came up with the idea of 30 days while filming "The Breakup."

Macho madness? Big break for his bud, Ari.

"I was visiting him on the set when he asked me to direct," he recalls.

And away they went — and there were so many ways to go with the film's focus. But one that really drew the director in was interviewing the comics' parents. "Point a camera at a proud parent and they'll talk forever," notes Sandler with a smile.

He's not complaining; it all adds heart to Vince Vaughn's valentine of a victory tour. After all, "it's a movie about chasing your dreams," says Sandler, movie marathoner in his own right.

Indeed, the American-born son of a sabra is interested in kicking up a sandstorm of a saga in the future. "I have very strong feelings about the Mideast and the importance of peace there."

A piece of that action would come from his own family's bedtime stories. "I have some stories based on my father's experience in the army and his experiences as an immigrant arriving in the United States — stories I've grown up on that are amazing and hilarious," says Sandler.

And inspiring. "My father's proud to be an Israeli and just as proud to be an American. At a party for the Super Bowl — there were about 30 of us — as soon as the national anthem came on TV, he said, 'Everybody up!' "

Easy to see why Sandler is so up on "Wild West." But he did have to break away while the tour continued. "I left in the middle for one day," he says.

Aisle be seeing you: "I performed a wedding for one of my friends. You know, for $10 and 10 minutes on the Internet," you can get your certification as a … reverend.

Holy … "Right. A Jewish reverend. It allowed me to perform his wedding."

But did Sandler think the performance tour would go off?

"We didn't think after a while we'd be able to do it," he says of 30 days of tours-cum-torture when away from home for so long.

Didn't help that Sandler was sandbagged by bad weather; Hurricane Katrina whipsawed their plans to tour the Gulf. "We didn't know what the hell we were doing," he says.

But the audiences did — making them laugh.

"We played places where people had never been to a comedy club," he recalls fondly.

And OK was okay by him. "Oklahoma City probably had the nicest people on the tour."

But could a bad-ass bunch of buddies survive the intimacy, the ins and outs of being together for a month of fundays? Could these urbane cowboys of comedy tame the "Wild West"? Or would they end the tour with saddle sores?

"It bolstered our friendship," says Sandler proudly.

And so much of that was Vaughn's doing. "He's intensely dedicated to whatever he does; he had the drive and the mentality to see it through."

Does Sandler see that in himself? As a matter of fact, yes, he says.

"Making 'West Bank Story' was an impossible task. My professor" — Sandler had done the film originally as a master's thesis — "had told me not to do it. I don't even like musicals!"

But the muse was there — as was the Oscar awaiting him for that perfect Kodak Theater moment.

"I remember hoping that I wouldn't win, so I wouldn't have to make a speech," he concedes.

No such "luck." When cries of auteur, auteur reached his ears, he did fine.

Not that he really remembers it: "It was all an out-of-body experience," recalls the director. "I have no memory of being on stage."

But how memorable the triumph; "West Bank Story" has played close to 200 film fests, winning dozens of awards.

And the hearts of audiences, as catholic as they come: "Israeli soldiers, settlers, Palestinians, a Presbyterian married to a Southern Baptist," all have told him how "it resonated with them."

And it took a Jewish guy from California to connect them all. Indeed, as a guest speaker who wowed a wonk-wide conference on terrorism in Washington, D.C., five months ago, Sandler "got the most supportive response from the Arab delegates."

Wild times, he declares of his stops for film screenings in Ramallah, Dubai, Turkey.

What better experience to prepare him for the "Wild West" he's lassoed on screens. Step right up, get your funny bones tickled.

And after all is said and kibitzed, this adds yet another capitol effort to the stampeding successful career of Vince Vaughn. From VV to BB: "Vince is the Buffalo Bill of this show," attests his admiring director.


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