Thinking back on his teen years at Saguaro High School, John Way uses three words to describe fellow Saguaro alum Savanah McMahon, who was two years his senior: “the cat’s meow.”
“She was everything and I was a dorky, nerdy freshman,” Way said with a laugh.
One production of “Grease” at Saguaro and nearly 10 years later, the two reconnected in a very untraditional way.
Not only did they meet again at their 10-year high school reunion, but they are on the set of the film “Sweet Sunshine,” which makes its debut at Roadhouse Cinemas in Scottsdale with a one-week run from March 13-18.
“To think we’d be working with each other just under a decade later, it was just crazy fun. What an awesome happenstance,” Way said.
Written, directed, and produced by Craig McMahon, “Sweet Sunshine” is a romantic musical drama that tells the story of TJ Millhouse (Way), a young superstar who suffers a tragedy and eventually meets Sunshine (McMahon), a talented young woman who gives him the strength he needs to believe in himself again.
“What initially attracted me [to ‘Sweet Sunshine’] was the plot itself,” Savanah said. “It’s about two people who are living in parallel worlds, very different but also similar in that they’re both facing hardship. They’re both trying to figure out a way to see those challenges as opportunities; and I thought that that’s a really important message.”
According to Way, the essence of the film can be described with three words: “love, family and music.”
“This is a show the whole family can go and see; and hopefully if you leave humming a couple of tunes, I think it’s mission accomplished for ‘Sweet Sunshine,’” he said.
Way, a classically trained actor who has won several national awards for his work in Shakespeare productions, spent about a month filming and recording original songs for the film; McMahon about two-and-a-half weeks.
“Filming ‘Sweet Sunshine’ was almost a double pleasure because it was not only working, but it felt like a vacation most of the time,” said Way.
Way lives in New York but spent his high school years in southern Scottsdale. “We just had great sets, a great cast, a great crew.”
“Sweet Sunshine” was shot in many locations throughout Arizona, including Heber.
“We loved the locations, from mountains to desert. Arizona has it all in one state,” Craig said. “Other states offered tax incentives, but we shot here because of locations and access to fantastic local talent.”
In addition to Way and Savanah, the film also features Miss Arizona and fellow Saguaro grad Savannah Wix, who plays Tonya.
For Savanah, filming in the state in which she grew up was very important to her.
“Phoenix and Arizona, in general, is a pretty underrated place that not a lot of people talk about. It’s kind of one of those hidden gems. And I think there’s a lot of talent here. Why not show off not only the people, but [also] the landscape?
“It’s beautiful, it’s spectacular, and especially moving somewhere else and reflecting back on what it means to me, I miss it. I miss that a lot,” said Savanah, who moved to Connecticut in July to start her residency in pathology at Yale New Haven Hospital.
Savanah describes Sunshine as a “really fun, very outgoing, pretty outspoken” person.
“She doesn’t let life’s obstacles get her down, and I thought that that would be really, really fun to channel,” she added.
It’s a character Savanah said she greatly relates to:
“[In] my career as a physician, you face a lot of adversity through that education. It’s a very difficult course, and I feel like if you just treat those obstacles like chances to succeed and become a stronger person from it, that’s really important.
“Sunshine definitely emulates a lot of those aspects, not completely similar to going to med school, but she has obstacles of her own that she gets to overcome.”
Savanah has always been interested in the arts. She grew up singing and playing the guitar with her father, who would teach her new chords.
“That’s how we bonded, and through that, that morphed into theater work, being on stage and performing in front of people, and then that morphed into acting,” she said.
While Savanah always had dreams of becoming a musician or actor, she also had a love for science.
“I try to do both as much as I possibly can. I don’t think that I’ll ever leave the acting world. I think it will always be a part of me, just as being a physician will be. I think nobody has to limit themselves to just one career. If you make the time for both and you figure out a way to do both, why not?” Savanah said.
Way, on the other hand, is a full-time actor.
A National YoungArts award winner, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon, and certified by the Royal Academy of Dance, Way has not only guest-starred in the Amazon Prime series “The Romanoffs,” but his next major film project is “The Boardinghouse Reach” starring David Arquette. It’s slated to hit theaters in 2021.
Way describes his character, TJ, as an artist and a dreamer — two words he said he also uses to describe himself.
“He’s a kid with a dream that was born in some pretty hard circumstances and continues to have many challenges throughout his life. But he always moves forward in pursuit of that goal no matter what obstacle lies in his path. And I think that’s something that we can all relate to on some level,” Way said.
The most difficult part about taking on this role, Way said, was getting into the headspace of TJ.
“He goes through a lot of hardships in, and not to spoil it, but he suffers the death of a family member who gets a pretty critical illness,” he said, adding:
“You have to renegotiate the worth of his life at every step and what matters and what doesn’t matter. Dealing with those circumstances, even just for a moment, was certainly challenging.”
The most rewarding part of filming “Sweet Sunshine,” according to Savanah, was recording the original songs for the seven-song soundtrack.
Way and Savanah are both trained in vocal performance.
“That is definitely the first time [she recorded original songs], and I’m so happy I did it. Pretty much one of my favorite parts about the entire film,” Savanah said.
“I’m happy with the way that the songs came out,” she added. “They are very catchy melodies that I think will resonate well with the audience. When I immediately heard them, I was very excited to record them.”
The songs were written by Lou Yoelin and produced by Chad Rubin; the soundtrack is currently available on Spotify and SoundCloud.
“It was really cool to be in a professional recording studio,” Savanah said. “It actually inspired me to seek it out in the future. I hope that if there’s any gigs out there that require backup vocals or something, I would love to be a part of it.”
To celebrate the opening of “Sweet Sunshine,” a red carpet VIP reception will be held at Roadhouse Cinemas on March 14 for cast, creatives, press and specially invited guests.
Snacks and refreshments will be served, and cast and crew will be in attendance, including Savanah and Way.
An audience Q&A with the special guests will take place after Saturday’s screenings.
“Honestly, I really love the movie,” Savanah said. “It’s really well made, and I think that because everybody had such a good time filming it, it really shows on screen. I think that the audience is going to see that as well.”
“Sweet Sunshine” will become available on streaming platforms this spring, starting with Amazon Prime on March 20.
For more information about the film, visit sweetsunshinemovie.com.
For tickets, visit roadhousecinemas.com.