Making Of Lucky Stars
(or How I Managed to Direct an Ultra Low Budget Feature Film and
Maintain My Sanity)
by Jason Margolis
Lucky Prentice. photo: Aliki Salmas
feature film is like running a marathon, and I don1t mean that as a metaphor
for the obvious endurance required. It's like a marathon because of the
degree of training and preparation involved, and the euphoric feeling
of accomplishment and exhaustion that hits you at the finish line.
The process of making an ultra-low budget feature film is more like a
season of 'Survivor', with everyone fighting over their rations and worrying
about getting voted off.
left to right:
Ray Galletti, Josephine Jacob, Maureen Prentice,
and Sara Walker.
In the case of my first feature film as a director, Lucky Stars, we made
it extra hard for ourselves, creating a movie with over 25 locations,
32 speaking parts, and a dozen dogs. Working with dogs is where the fighting
over rations was most evident.
I should probably explain how I got the opportunity to make this film.
I was a bit of a child actor, and then I got a degree in film production
from UBC. I directed a half-dozen short films, including a frighteningly
prophetic terrorism-related production called 'After Shock', funded through
a Directors Guild KickStart award, and Tierheim, which won Best Film out
of over 50 entries in this year1s Reel Fast 48 Hour Film Festival. In
between, I earned my daily bread editing television series and documentaries,
directing music videos, teaching filmmaking, and writing magazine articles.
Early on in my filmmaking career I teamed up with a fellow aspiring filmmaker
named Maureen Prentice, although neither of us really remembers how that
came to be. We often wish we had some great story to tell of our meeting
because we have had a successful partnership for almost a decade now.
Maureen produced all of my short films and a many of my music videos.
On occasion, she also acted, co-wrote, or co-edited some of the projects.
Lucky Stars came together surprisingly fast. Maureen and I had spent a
couple of years developing an original, never-seen-before kind of science
fiction comedy script, which attracted the interest of some well-known
actors, and the support of many fellow filmmakers, but proved to be too
difficult to launch as a first feature. So, we decided to develop a script
that might be easier to produce, as if shooting a project starring dogs
would really be easier than a sci-fi comedy, right?
Maureen and I co-wrote the script for' Lucky Stars', a romantic-comedy
about Moira, a music publicist who, after being dumped by her fiancée,
pushes her dog into an acting career to compete with the successful career
of her former fiancée's dog. Along the way, Moira meets many unusual
characters, including an eccentric rock star, an overly enthusiastic dog
psychiatrist, and a flamboyant photographer. She also begins a tentative
relationship with her dog's agent.
Both Maureen and I love dogs, especially her dog Lucky, a 16 month old
labrador-boxer cross, and we were fascinated by the relationship people
have with their dogs. I had read an article that proclaimed that dogs
we the 'new kids' and thought that was an interesting phenomenon to explore
in a film.
Many talented writer friends - Anthony Grieco, Jacqueline Samuda, and
Kat Montagu among them - read our drafts and offered helpful critiques.
As film production was at a decade low in the city, we had a lot of time
to try out scenes with cast and do rewrites. We brought on board another
producer, Robin Chan (the Leo Award-winning Mon Amour Mon Parapluie),
and he connected us with a great cinematographer, Shawn Talbot, and assistant
director, Francis Chan, who has extensive international experience working
in television and radio.
We set a date to start production. Then Maureen and I got a music video
gig and pushed the start date. There was a bit of fear on my part in pushing
the start date - a music video is a relatively short term effort to make,
a simple sprint, but a feature film is, well, like running a marathon.
Our music video cinematographer, Carl Bessai, read the script for 'Lucky
Stars' and pushed us forward. Carl had directed the acclaimed features
'Lola' and 'Johnny' and had long been encouraging Maureen and I to get
on with making our own feature films. Carl was a great resource throughout
development, until he landed Sir Ian McKellan for his new feature and
raced into production himself.
A new start date for production was set and we made a pledge to stick
to it. So it came to be, the night before we started production, I found
myself going for a long walk, wondering if I was ready, hoping I had all
my ducks in a row. The momentous event seemed to sneak up on me.
W.C. Fields apparently once remarked on the dangers of working with animals
and children. His concern was that they might upstage him. I should have
heeded his advice. Dogs are masters of improvisation. Giving them motivation
is easy - a biscuit will suffice - but sometimes they will just decide
to take the scene in a whole new direction. Our cast all raved about the
experience of working with dogs. Sure, patience was tested, but there
were also great rewards. Dogs are always 'in the moment' and their reactions
are a great way to gage performance.
Speaking of cast, I am continually amazed by the wonderful performers
we brought together for this project, almost a who's who of acclaimed
local talent. In addition to Maureen (Halloween: Resurrection) and her
dog Lucky, our leads included German actress Josephine Jacob (Madchen
Madchen), Peter Shinkoda (MTV Real World: The Lost Years), Stanley Katz
(MVP), Damon Johnson (The Vigil), Ray Galletti (I Spy), and Sara Walker
(Housekeeping). Josephine brought along her scene-stealing pug Tinkerbell.
Other scene-stealing cast included Brendan Fletcher (The Five Senses),
Frida Betrani (The Last Wedding), Elisabeth Rosen (Murder In A Small Town),
Mackenzie Gray (The Net), Michael Scholar Jr. (Street Cents), Sean Day
Michael (Secret Of Giving) and the perpetually grinning Woody, a sweet
German shepherd-golden retriever cross who I knew from my work as an editor
- his mom is a post production supervisor I have worked with on several
shows. We also had some familiar faces in cameos, such as Tobias Mehler
(NBC's Carrie), Marcia Laskowski (Punch), local talent agent Tyman Stewart,
and Nardwuar the Human Serviette.
There is a reason why low budget films usually have a small cast. Coordinating
the shooting schedule to accommodate such a large and experienced cast
proved to be one of the most stressful elements of production, and how
we managed to pull it off is nothing less than a miracle (either that
or diligence, experience, and graciousness on the part of everyone involved).
We also had a variety of fantastic locations. Many local businesses opened
their doors to our production, including the Howard Hill Talent Agency,
Bukowski's restaurant, Moss Café, the Fetch dog store, Lost Boys
Studio, Toque graphic design, Shea Hampton's Acting Studio, the UBC telescope
observatory, Helmet Hair Salon, and Mark Brennan's photography studio.
However, the majority of our shoot took place in the neighbourhood of
Strathcona, where Maureen lives, which is full of distinctive character
As for weather, we
shot in Vancouver. 'Nuff said. We loved shooting in autumn, with the beautiful
colours of the leaves reminiscent of romantic comedies such as 'When Harry
Met Sally', but suffered the karmic pay back having to suffer through
bitterly cold and WET night shoots.
and Damon Johnson.
photo: Shawn Talbot
than the occasional scheduling nightmare, our hurdles were limited
to technical difficulties and weather. Our camera broke on multiple
occasions. We shot on a high end Sony digital camera (similar to
the cameras used for films such as Dancer In The Dark and The Anniversary
Party), mounted with an HDTV wide angle zoom lens. However, with
great technology come great risk for problems. Digital cameras can
fail in a number of ways, and lunch breaks were called early while
waiting for our camera supplier to deliver us to salvation. We were
very fortunate to have a great camera supplier, who not only cut
us a fantastic deal on the camera, but were also attentive and quick
to respond to every difficulty - which invariably seemed to happen
on weekends. At the end of the shoot, we were excited to see that
we didn1t lose a single piece of equipment, and in fact, somehow
acquired extra dolly wedges along the way.
Our crew was small but dedicated, combining experienced filmmakers (particularly
in our art and lighting departments) with not-so-experienced filmmakers.
Everyone kept busy and were involved in the process. My goal was to not
work the crew longer than twelve hours a day. That keeps morale high and
mistakes low. Unfortunately, we did go past the twelve hour mark a few
times, but we also wrapped at the six hour mark a couple times. Both crew
and cast shared their delight on how laid back the set tended to be, and
that was an incredible relief to me. I would rather be a director than
a dictator, letting everyone bring their individual strengths to the collective
effort, and only stepping in to give a gentle nudge or correction when
One of my actors, Stanley Katz, sent me a wonderful note. 'You trust actors
and you respect them. You give direction when you want something but allow
them space to discover. And it takes confidence to watch actors flounder
as they work their shit out as the clock ticks away. It's a much more
fulfilling process with you I don't just feel like an actor hitting my
mark and saying my lines I feel like I'm contributing in the creation
of the work.'
I wish I had some crazy anecdotes to share, but I was so wrapped up in
work every day, I probably missed out on some of the more colourful behind
the scenes shenanigans. One evening, when we were shooting at Maureen1s
house, we were visited by a representative from Nielsen Media Research,
who had chosen Maureen to be one of the 'Neilsen families' who determine
the ratings of television shows. The representative's first question was
whether Maureen worked in television or film. He looked into the living
room filled with a dozen lights, a camera mounted on a dolly, and numerous
crew members, and immediately disqualified her.
left to right:
director Jason Margolis, cinematographer
photo Aliki Salmas
The big game on set was to be the last person to step in dog poop. Given
the number of dogs on set, it was a difficult game to win. Our more sordid
game, stemming from having many locations near the downtown east side,
was to be the last person to step on a used condom. I was knocked out
of both games quite early. I believe our props master Jon Fox and production
manager Frederick Heartline tied as winners of the poop game, but I don't
know who won the used condom game.
Our show concluded last night with a bang up wrap party at the Shark Club,
from which I am still hung over. We screened a ten minute reel of bloopers
and candid behind-the-scenes events documented by producer Robin Chan
and his ever-present Canon XL-1. It was sad to see this all come to an
end, because despite the stress and exhaustion, I had a great time. I
feel fulfilled and excited. I have won the marathon. I wasn't voted off
photo Aliki Salmas
Now begins the process of putting it all together - the editing - and
that's a triathalon in it's own right.
© Jason Margolis December 2002
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