October 03, 1988 12:00 PM

Four years ago Fred G. Sullivan had $24 to his name, numerous unsold screenplays in his desk and four children under the age of 6 to feed. His one full-length feature, Cold River, shot near his home in Saranac Lake, N.Y., had sunk at the box office and had been described by the Baltimore Sun as “the worst wilderness film of the year.” His wife, Polly, needed diaper money, his lime-green station wagon needed new brakes, and his dream of becoming the auteur of the Adirondacks—well, that needed a few more bucks.

Where others would have seen only frustration, penury and domestic upheaval, Sullivan, with the help of his wife, saw the ingredients for a great movie: a film about his own family—Dad’s consuming filmmaking ambitions, the hazards of child rearing, Mom’s occasional retreat to the roof when things get too much. “But Polly,” Fred said, “we’d really have to open up, be vulnerable. I could end up being one of the biggest a—— in the United States, the world.” Said Polly: “You’ve got nothing to lose.” He had to admit it, she had a point.

Thus was born The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Fitness and Filmmaking, perhaps the most sophisticated home movie ever made, a zany and endearing film—about the pull of dreams and the reality of family life—that seems destined to become a cult classic. Fred, 42, portrays himself as a “wood-chuck Woody Allen,” changing diapers, picking toys off the lawn and fantasizing that he is an intrepid hero called Adirondack Fred, stalking the woods in a flapping loincloth. In another running fantasy, a flatulent, philosophical, Russian-speaking bear reminds him of his responsibilities. A tapestry of interviews and home-movie footage reviews Fred G.’s childhood in Glens Falls, N.Y., his education at Boston University’s graduate film school, his Army service and his ardent electioneering for Eugene McCarthy.

The $500,000 film was financed with the help of two local businessmen: Bill Sweeney, an accountant, and Charles Ritchie, a former Philadelphia investment banker. To save money and gain verisimilitude, Sullivan had his family and friends play themselves, although Polly agreed to act only when she saw that “everything Fred wrote was something I might actually say.” The custodian of the town dump wanted to be filmed only if he could do his Indian dance, which is why a strange guy in war paint can be spotted stomping around in the background. Fred paid most of his cast by giving them T-shirts.

Early in Beer Drinker’s Guide, Tate, now 11, the oldest of the Sullivans’ children, looks into the camera and remarks, “Daddy says if people don’t come to see this movie, we’ll starve.” For a while that seemed a distinct possibility. Released last year, the 83-minute movie won Sullivan the U.S. Film and Video Festival’s “special recognition for originality, independent spirit, and for doing it his own damn way.” It was hardly an Oscar, and until Sullivan raised an additional $4,000 to change the title on the opening reel from the bewildering Sullivan’s Pavilion, no one came. “It was either try a more attention-getting title or become a lumberjack,” Sullivan admits.

The title is not solely a come-on. Fred does drink a lot of Budweiser in the course of the film (“When I taste it, it triggers a lot of things in me,” he says). And there’s no denying that the change helped: In a seven-week tryout this summer in Burlington, Vt., the Guide outdrew Rambo III, earning it an August opening in New York. Since then, enthusiastic go-and-see reviews from the New York Times, the Boston Globe and other big-city papers have sparked the promise of wider distribution around the country.

Fred hopes that the Guide’s success will at last bring the family some financial security. He doesn’t ask for much. “We don’t have to know what’s happening next week,” he says, “but it would be nice to know what’s happening tomorrow.”

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