Dust off your cowboy boots because the 2002 romantic comedy “Sweet Home Alabama” is officially 20 years old! The film stars Reese Witherspoon as Melanie Carmichael, a New York fashion designer who must confront her past in small town Alabama despite a desire to leave it behind.
Witherspoon, who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, felt a kinship to the character and credits the movie for changing her life. “When I read the script, I was like, ‘Do these people know my life story?’” Witherspoon said.
In fact, these people – aka storywriter, Doug Eboch – kind of did. Substitute one big city for another and you’ve got a glimpse into the inciting incident that inspired him to write the screenplay that would later become Witherspoon’s biggest live-action box office hit and one of the highest grossing rom-coms of all time. It earned over $35 million in the opening weekend and grossed nearly $130 million domestically during its theatre run.
As a young man from Juneau, Alaska (population: ~28,000), Eboch traveled to Los Angeles in pursuit of his dream – to become a movie director like George Lucas. When he got to film school (student body population: 30,000+), he quickly realized a sentiment perhaps best expressed by one of the movie’s most popular quotes: “You can take the girl out of the honky-tonk, but you can’t take the honkey-tonk out of the girl.”
“I definitely felt like a hick when I arrived, and a little embarrassed about my past. But over time I grew to appreciate the value of that background. That experience was the heart of “Sweet Home Alabama,” filtered through a romantic comedy structure,” Eboch says.
The screenplay, which he wrote as his master’s thesis, was optioned soon after graduation and got the green light from Disney three years later, but Epoch says he wasn’t the overnight success critics claimed he had been. He studied film production as an undergrad and emphasized in cinematography, first trying gaffer and grip work before returning to school for screenwriting.
He has a lot of advice for how to break into the industry, but two rules stick out: 1. Just keep writing, and 2. Build a network of friends in the industry. His class, “Motion Picture Analysis,” provides a good opportunity to accomplish both directives. In it, students work together to analyze a wide variety of movies, including ones that seem to break the rules, to gain a deep understanding of screenwriting craft.
When he’s not teaching or writing screenplays, Epoch also enjoys writing novels. Along with rewatching “Sweet Home Alabama,” you can celebrate its 20th anniversary by checking out the three young adult prequel novels he co-wrote with his sister, an established author who writes under the pen name Kris Bock.