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Ryan Shiraki’s ‘Spring Breakdown’ is his big break

Parker Posey relies on yoga and “constant hydration.” Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Jane Lynch and Missi Pyle sing snatches of show tunes. Ryan Shiraki, the writer-director who cast these comediennes in the raucous “Spring Breakdown,” which is playing the “Park City at Midnight” section, has his own formula for coping with the 20-hours-a-day Sundance drill.

“Vodka, cigarettes and coffee,” he quips, nursing a Bloody Mary at the film festival’s Queer Brunch, an annual gathering of gay film folk.

Though it might sound like an appropriate mantra, surviving the festival hurly-burly is more of a Zen exercise for the 38-year-old filmmaker, whose debut, “Home of Phobia” (later renamed “Freshman Orientation”), premiered at Sundance in 2004. “Having been here before and gotten caught up in the mania of possible outcomes,” Shiraki observes, “I am trying to be centered and grateful and not hope for anything more.”

Filmed in 2006, “Spring Breakdown” might be a case study of recession-era managed expectations and the sometimes-uneasy alliance between independent auteurs and bottom-line-fixated studios. The script about three women attempting a college “do-over” -- which might be neatly described as “Where the Boys Are” meets “Revenge of the Nerds” -- was created as an R-rated spring-break farce by Rogue Pictures. It was then sold as PG-13 fare to Warner Independent Pictures, endured a long post-production period, and then sat on the shelf awaiting release.

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“Filmmaking is a series of regrets,” Shiraki admits. “When the film screened in Salt Lake City, this guy told me that it made him laugh for the first time since he lost his job. That validated my choices, but even so, I don’t think this is a perfect movie.”

Nor, apparently, did Warner Bros., which decided the destiny of the film when Warner Independent Pictures ceased operations in May 2008. Instead of releasing the ribald comedy, starring the popular Poehler, in theaters, the studio instead shuffled it off to Warner Premiere, the studio’s home DVD division.

Using a gambit that has successfully launched HBO network documentaries and countless indie films without a distributor, Warner Premiere has now earned impressive bragging rights. For the cost of submitting the film and flying its principals to Park City -- somewhere under six figures and a fraction of a national advertising campaign budget -- the packaging of “Spring Breakdown” might now bear the impressive imprimatur of having been a 2009 Sundance Film Festival selection when it is released straight to DVD on April 9.

For Shiraki, that is anything but cold comfort. “The distribution of all media is changing,” he says. “And I am so honored that the Sundance Institute thinks I have a point of view.”

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With “Breakdown,” Shiraki sprinkles pop-cultural camp and empowerment affirmations into a broad and often base comedy. It is, he says, “the product of someone who has been a misunderstood outsider my whole life. I was a gay Mormon growing up in Hawaii. What are you going to do with that?”

He watched a lot of movies -- Douglas Sirk and John Waters remain touchstones, as does Woody Allen’s somber “Interiors,” which he found hilarious -- and pursued a degree in semiotics and American studies at Brown University. In 1992, Shiraki began an eight-year gig at “Saturday Night Live.” “I started as a secretary planning the after-parties and ended up casting the hosts and musical acts,” he recalls. “I paired Alec Baldwin with Tina Turner and got her to sing ‘Proud Mary.’ ”

He met Dratch, his “Spring Breakdown” co-writer, in New York and discovered a pre-fame Poehler when she did a read-through of his first film script, which later morphed into the gay comedy “Poster Boy.” Says Shiraki, a fan of female-trio comedies including “Nine to Five” and “The First Wives Club”: “I love the ladies.”

It seems mutual. “Ryan is George Cukor,” raves Jane Lynch, referring to the legendary director of screwball comedies and women’s films. “Coming to Sundance is a victory lap for ‘Spring Breakdown,’ and he has great things ahead of him,” she says.

Indeed he does: Seeing perhaps the next Ryan Murphy, HBO has tapped him for “Ladies,” a comedy about LAX airport workers he describes “as ‘Golden Girls’ by way of Richard Pryor.” ABC has ordered “Waffle House,” his take on the 1970s diner comedy “Alice,” and he is writing “Alpha Moms,” a feature film for Katherine Heigl that, he says, “takes ‘Mean Girls’ into the world of maternity.”

“I’m just trying to keep it all in check,” he says. Yet he can’t resist thinking big. “You know what I’d really love to do? A musical version of ‘Imitation of Life.’ ”

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david.keeps@latimes.com

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