Monday, February 3, 2014

Interview with director Steve Cuden: " I believe everything is related, and making Lucky is just a part of the fabric of my entire life’s work."

Lucky was a film I picked up at my local video store back in 2004. The cover depicts an overweight male standing in his backyard. A dog is in the forefront with beer cans, hands and a skull surrounding him. The image was so intriguing that I just had to give it a shot. But I had my reservations about it. I had wasted so much money on indie horror pictures by this time that it was a gamble just to rent one. Somehow, I knew this would be just another five bucks down the toilet. Boy, was I wrong!
Lucky is proof that you can make a great film with little money and without the help of the Hollywood machine. The film is about Millard Mudd, a down and out cartoon writer, who is having a bad case of writer's block. After an uncanny friendship, and a Frankenstein-like miracle, Lucky is brought into Mudd's life and helps him begin a lucrative writing career. Or does he?  I've had the great opportunity to talk with Steve Cuden, the film's director and producer. We talk about the making of the film, his experiences in the field, and his future in feature filmmaking. 

1.  What prompted you to make a feature film?
I grew up devoted to movies and TV shows.  I’ve wanted to make features since I was a boy.  Sometimes life has a way of molding your dreams in unexpected and interesting directions.  After graduating from college with my BA in Theater from USC, I wound up writing musicals for almost ten years before spending the next twenty years writing TV animation scripts.  In the middle of the year 2000 an opportunity arose to collaborate on a small budget horror movie called, Lucky. And I took up the challenge.  I believe everything is related, and making Lucky is just a part of the fabric of my entire life’s work.
2.  How did you get directly involved with Lucky?
My longtime friend Steve Sustarsic wrote the script when he was working as a Co-Executive Producer of the animated TV show, Dilbert.  He and I had collaborated on a number of writing projects over the years, and when Michael Emanuel, an actor who was another friend of ours, found himself out of work due to the SAG Commercial actors strike, the three of us joined forces and decided to make Lucky as a showcase for our work.  The movie is the truest example of an “Indie” you can find.
3.  It's been nearly ten years since its release.  How have the fans responded thus far?
It’s a strange, dark horror comedy, and not to everyone’s taste.  Those who love Lucky, really love Lucky.  We received amazing reviews when it was released.  We even had a beautiful spread about the production in Fangoria Magazine, which was an awesome honor.  Lucky won Best Feature awards at four different film festivals, including the inaugural New York City Horror Film Festival.  But over the years it has fallen into a bit of a dim, dusty, cobwebbed corner of the market and I believe very few of today’s horror crowd even know of its existence.  Maybe it’s time for a revival.  Maybe you‘ll the one to make that happen!
4.  How many drafts were written for this script?
I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think too many.  Steve banged it out at night as a reaction to his intense dislike of working on Dilbert during the day.  Many of us who worked on the movie were concerned about what might lie beneath the surface of Steve’s back yard.  Or in his mind.  Makes me shudder just thinking of it.
5.  Stephen Sustarsic and yourself made up 2/3 of the producers.  How influential were you in the writing process?
I had nothing to do with Steve’s writing process.  He wrote it on his own long before showing it to anyone else.  But I was very influential in the interpretation process.  For example, the very long car ride that Mudd takes to and from the liquor store at the beginning of the movie, when he rambles on in an intense, mostly bizarre philosophical manner about his life and the unusual world he lives in, was, on paper, about three straight pages of free-form monologue.  No stage direction of any kind.  There was no indication from the writing as to what happens during that long, fairly warped rumination on everything.  I had to break that down and figure out what to shoot.  None of the imagery in that sequence is called for in the script. The shots mainly came from my interpretation of Mudd’s mania.  Most of the script had good action indicated in it, but we added lots of things on set, too. When we got to post we decided to rearrange the order of some scenes from the way they were originally written.  In the script, Lucky didn’t appear until the second act.  We bumped that way up and made Lucky appear quite early on.  I think it made a huge difference in how the story unfolds. So, in that way I suppose I had an impactful influence on the ultimate storytelling, but not on the initial writing. 
6.  Cinematographer, Byron Werner shot this film almost entirely handheld.  How do you feel this style helped tell the story as opposed to locking the camera on a tripod?
I believe it helps the audience get into the off-kilter world of Millard Mudd.  Not much in the imagery is stable, or steady, or static – and neither is Mudd.  We shot a lot of dutched angles and POV shots for that same reason.  I think it also gives a significant boost of energy to what could have otherwise wound up as a fairly slow moving story.
7.  Was Michael Emanuel your first choice in the lead role as Milliard Mudd?
As a co-producer of the movie, he was the only choice.  We cast every other character, including Sydney, the female terrier mutt who played the male Lucky.  Michael as Millard was part of the package.
8.  I imagine filming an entire film with a dog can be very difficult.  Was it difficult working with Sydney aka Lucky?
Sydney was the best-behaved actor on the set.  She was a hard worker.  She never complained.  She always hit her marks.  And she gave us an exceptional performance.  There’s that old adage that says you should never work with children or animals, but the truth is that working with Sydney was a fantastic experience.  Sydney was a very well trained movie dog.  Check her out getting stoned in “Dude, Where’s My Car?”
9.  I think the interactions between Sydney and Michael were played perfectly.  If not, it could have ruined the authenticity of the world you were creating.  Do you think it was difficult for Michael to act with Sydney?  Particularly in the scenes where she's laying on Michael's chest?
I think you’d have to ask Michael that, but, no, I don’t think he had any problem working with Sydney.  The two of them got on famously – except when Mudd had to scream at her.  Sydney didn’t like being screamed at.  But that was part of the story.  I think Michael had a good time working with her because she was so well trained and so calm most of the time.  Sydney was a real pro.  My recommendation is that if you ever shoot a movie with an animal, it is worth the cost to hire professionally trained animal actors and their trainers.
10.  Narration in most films gets a bit overwhelming.  Lucky is full of internal thoughts and it works well.  Was it difficult to piece all of this together in post?
Well, yes, kind of.  The narration is all there in the script, so finding it wasn’t hard.  Putting together the dialogue in post was challenging, but Tim Stepich, our fantastic editor worked hard to make the cut happen.  And then we had the great good fortune of having one of the best sound cutters in all of Hollywood, Chuck Smith, do all of our post sound.  Chuck’s worked on dozens of famous movies, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and various others for Quentin Tarantino, a number of films for Robert Rodriguez, and he’s worked with many, many other well-respected directors, too (check out his impressive credits on the  Chuck made Lucky truly come alive.  The hallmark of really bad movies is bad sound.  We were fortunate to have one of the best in the business on our team in Chuck.  I think that helped us to stand out from the crowd.
11.  Where did you find the beautiful Piper Cochrane?  According to IMDB Lucky was the last film she did.
Piper came to us through a basic casting call.  She’s the only actress who auditioned who understood how to play Misty – especially when it came to how she treated Millard, which was nothing but patient understanding and light and love.  Many actresses came in and read the part as if Misty was upset or hurt.  Piper got it that Misty is in Millard’s mind (or is she?), and so she was compliant with his every wish and desire.
12.  You've said that Lucky is not based on actual event.  I see a resemblance to the Son of Sam case in New York.  Was there the slightest bit of inspiration in the script from the real life monsters of the world?
You’d have to ask Steve Sustarsic, but I don’t think so.  Maybe in Steve’s subconscious, but I don’t think there was any overt or intentional reference to the Son of Sam.
13.  With a very small budget and an extremely tight schedule, what were some issues you ran into during production?
Well, we shot the thing in nine and half twelve-hour days.  We did over 420 set-ups.  You do the math.  We were hustling every day all day long.  The biggest issues were not being able to spend enough time with the actors doing multiple takes.  I’m pleased we were able to get such great performances, but there were a few things I would have liked to do again and/or get more coverage.  Despite shooting in Simi Valley (just outside of L.A.), we experienced rain and even a bit of snow.  That slowed us down.  We had nudity on the set and that has to be handled with care and respect and it does slow you down some. 
We also had a scary/funny incident.  The yard in which Mudd buries and unburies Lucky was next to the house that we shot in.  But the yard was part of the house next door.  It turned out that the owners of the house were somewhat unsavory people and someone had made a death threat on their lives.  While we were shooting, every time a car rolled past the location we all thought we’d be shot.  We weren’t, obviously, but we got those images as fast as we could go and got the heck out of there.

14.  What was your favorite aspect of the filmmaking for this film?
I really enjoyed prepping the shoot and directing on set, though that was so hectic that my memory of some of it is a bit foggy.  I loved what we did in post, though that took ten months to go through because Tim Stepich had a full time job editing at E Entertainment and we could only work nights and weekends when he was available.  That part of the process was a bit frustrating for me because I was eager to get to a cut.  But it all worked out beautifully in the end.  So, the time it took was well worth it.
15.  There are so many cuts in the film - over 2,000 I believe - was this something you and your editor had in mind going in or was the editing process experimental?
No, we had no expectations going in.  I knew we had undershot coverage of some stuff.  And we had footage that, in some cases, wasn’t all that great.  We found that by manipulating the footage through quick cutting, we were able to mask certain issues.  And that turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I believe the chaos of Mudd’s mind and erratic nature of his character is extremely well-supported by the speed with which the movie flows.  In large part, that is due to the editing.  I think Tim did a masterful job.
16.  This film has a lot of dark comedy in it.  Towards the end it takes a drastic turn and gets very dark and bleak.  Michael's character literally transforms half way through.  This is a true testament to his acting ability in this film.  How important is it for filmmakers to get it right in the casting process?
It is everything.  I always tell my students that the three secrets to making a great movie are casting, casting, and casting.  It is well known in the industry that if you cast well you are about 90 percent there.  Of course, the script has to be there, too, but get the casting right and so many problems go away.
17.  The score is prominent in some scenes but deliberately subdued in others.  Take me through the process of the score.
Our composer, Ken Mazur, worked closely with me to develop the “tone” of the music.  We set out to give the movie an off-kilter, child-like, almost goofy sensibility in any number of places.  This, too, I feel is reflective of Mudd’s mind, and helped to lend the story a weirdness that seemed simultaneously inappropriate while being perfectly on-the-money.  It felt both science fiction like, and playful at the same time.  What we wanted to do was run counter to what might be considered a normal expectation and work against “type” with the score.
18.  There are different ways one can interpret the ending of Lucky.  In the end it is revealed (or hinted too) that everything that transpires in the film is all in Milliard Mudd's head.  Do you think this was the true ending that Stephen Sustarsic had in mind?
I don’t think even Steve knows what he intended at the end.  We changed the ending various times prior to production, shot a couple of different ending possibilities, and wound up where we did.  The original script called for Mudd to live out his life successfully in an estate in Malibu.  Two things happened: 1) None of us really believed that seemed right – except maybe Steve, and 2) We couldn’t afford to rent a Malibu estate, and no one was willing to lend one to us.  So, the ending came to us like all good things do, as a necessity of having to solve a real world problem.  We figured out the ending as we shot.  It was a bear setting up that whole house as Mudd’s filthy, chaotic hole, and then when we took everything away in that room, which was a big ordeal under such time constraints.  But I love the way he lovingly touches the photos of Misty and his past and that wall of memories turns out to be something completely different. 
Here’s the thing: I think the ending is ambiguous.  We don’t see the result of the gunshot we hear.  Do we need to?  No.  Do we know what actually happened?  No.  But some people will find that kind of ending to be unsatisfying.  Is a catharsis reached?  For me there is, but others may disagree.  And that’s fine.  That’s what makes it an art form. 
19.  Has your perspective on filmmaking changed from the time you started this project until the time the film was completed?
Yes.  I think I gained a much better grasp of the nature of storytelling by employing an interconnected group of people.  Though many filmmakers consider themselves “auteurs” the truth is that it is a group exercise.  No one makes a feature film entirely alone.  Most of the time it takes the whole village.  I also gained a much better perspective on the importance of preparation.  I have always been a preparer in life, but making Lucky showed me just how valuable it is to be as prepared as you know how to be for any eventuality.  Then you have the ability to punt under duress.  Otherwise, you waste valuable time and energy just figuring out how to save your bacon.  And you can be sure there will be some bacon to save.
20.  Do you plan on making another film?
Yes.  I have a new horror script that a producer is working on putting together funding.  Raising financing is almost always incredibly time and labor intensive.  I have had a number of projects on their way to being set up only to fall apart.  That, by the way, is a far more common experience for filmmakers than actually getting into production.  I am more patient now than when I was younger, but I still have the drive, ambition, and the desire to put more images and performances up on the screen.   I truly hope you have the chance to see another movie of mine one of these days. 
Meantime I continue to stay busy.  I teach screenwriting full time at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.  I recently released a book called, Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations (available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Drama Book Shop, Samuel French, and other fine locations).  You may know I wrote the original book and lyrics for a hit horror musical, Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical, which has played Broadway twice and plays steadily around the U.S. and the world.  I am also planning on writing a book on screenplay structure that I hope you’ll have the chance to read soon.  And I occasionally still pick up an animation script here and there.  So, my creative life remains full and fulfilling.

Steve, it was an honor and thank you for your time.
Thanks so much for being such a great fan of Lucky, and for spreading the good word!

For more info on Steve and his work visit him at his website: 

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