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The Making Of Lucky Stars

(or How I Managed to Direct an Ultra Low Budget Feature Film and
Maintain My Sanity)
by Jason Margolis




Dog: Lucky Prentice. photo: Aliki Salmas

Directing a 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.


cast. -
left to right:
Ray Galletti, Josephine Jacob, Maureen Prentice,
and Sara Walker.

photo:
Aliki Salmas

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 homes.
THE SHOOT

Maureen Prentice and Damon Johnson.
photo: Shawn Talbot
Other 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.
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.

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 required.

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.
crew left to right:
director Jason Margolis, cinematographer
Shawn Talbot,
camera assistant
Cameron Grierson.

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 the island.
Peter Shinkoda and
Woody Kendrick-Gronick.

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
jason@jumpfilm.com
www.jumpfilm.com.

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