It was a casting call with a difference: Most of the contenders (the males, anyway) had a leg-up before they even got there.
Sixty-five dogs unleashed their talent Saturday at Windsor Park Pavilion during auditions for Hattie's Heist, a comic caper starring Maxine Miller (Party of Five) as a cash-strapped senior who becomes a silver-haired Robin Hood.
Written and produced by Prudence Emery, the Hollywood publicist whose credits include Good Will Hunting and A History of Violence, the short film pokes fun at the banks through the exploits of the unlikely bank robber and her canine companion.
The film, to be directed by Gail Harvey (The Murdoch Mysteries) in Oak Bay next spring, also features Matt Frewer (The Watchmen), Lloyd Robertson, Moses Znaimer and Carolyn Sadowska as the queen.
After judging dozens of dogs of all shapes and (small) sizes for three hours, the enjoyable but challenging experience began to feel like a scene from the mockumentary Best in Show, or a four-legged twist on American Idol.
Call it Canine Idol, with co-producer Pat Ferns as a more benevolent Simon Cowell heading a jury including Oak Bay mayor Nils Jensen, Oak Bay chief constable Mark Fisher, conservationist Vicky Husband and UVic student Emma Blake.
It was fun, but the tension was palpable as owners from as far away as Port Alberni brought their prized pooches to the table where dog trainer Jessica Bennett put them to the test. The dog would have to sit, stay and lie down on command; wear a red cape; and sit still in a yellow Thrifty's grocery basket, doubling as a motor scooter's basket.
It wasn't easy narrowing the field to the five finalists posted on Facebook today, which also marks the start of the production's fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com. The public will vote through Facebook, with the winner named Nov. 30.
The finalists: Tessie (Yorkshire terrier), Marcel (Papillon), Ollie (pug), Arthur (Pomeranian-poodle) and Bandit (long-haired chihuaha).
Some of the owners with dreams of seeing their dogs follow in the paw-steps of Toto, Benji or Uggie, the scene-stealing Jack Russell in The Artist, went above and beyond. The owners of Bella and Lou brought along a book about their twin cocker poodle Shi Tzu Maltese crosses, for instance. Susan Lewis showed photos of Mitch, her long-haired Jack Russell, dressed as a scarecrow.
As much of a hoot as it was beholding the antics of such a motley bunch of canine characters - including Karma, an adorable toy poodle; Stanley, a Boston terrier who could "speak" on command; and chihuaha Juanita, a sight gag in herself in her black coat labelled WWF Supervisor - the expressions and behaviour of some of the owners was equally amusing.
Cesar Millan would have had heart failure if he had overheard some of the baby-talk commands from owners beseeching their dogs to perform. And treats ruled, with so much kibble tossed into the basket the residual odours became a comic distraction.
It was all in good fun, however.
"What the heck? I was at the beach, having a good time, and then you brought me here?" joked Patsy Hamilton, mimicking what Jack, her Bichon-Maltese cross who looked less-than-impressed, might be thinking.
"That's being optimistic. His name's Whisper," laughed Jennifer Phillips when Bennett asked if her dog could bark.
Sue Jordan, who accompanied Rocky, her Brussels Griffon/Japanese Chin cross, pointed out the origins of his name.
"I came home from Las Vegas after shaking Sylvester Stallone's hand, found this guy and said, 'Dude, you're Rocky.' "
Unexpected comedy ensued, as when some dogs in the waiting room began barking while another auditioned.
"What do you know, he can throw his voice," quipped Ferns, noting barks could always be added in post-production.
"This is like having actors and their agents here," he observed as owners prompted their pooches.
Most of the time, the jury got the silent treatment when dogs were asked to bark. "He doesn't bark unless he sees the mailman," quipped Nancy Prescott about McGee, her one-eyed black pug.
Blake, 23, affectionately described McGee as "a little pot roast of a fella."
Emery was elated by the response to the auditions for her labour of love.
"I was wandering around Oak Bay and saw this old lady staring covetously at this bike," said the Oak Bay resident, recalling her inspiration. "It just sort of happened. After I wrote the script I contacted Pat [Ferns] and he said he'd be honoured to be involved."
Part of her motivation was to provide material for a population estimated to reach over six million nationwide in 10 years.
"They're a burgeoning population and I feel there isn't enough entertainment made specifically for seniors."
The producers have raised $25,000 so far - half the budget for the film being made with considerable community support.
"I've been taken aback by all the enthusiasm. It's not like dealing with L.A."
Despite the challenges of having to make difficult choices, the judges gave the experience a thumbs-up.
Harris said he was impressed by the size of the turnout, but not surprised.
"Everybody in Oak Bay's got a dog, it seems. It's a very dog-friendly community," he said.
"It was great fun," said Jensen, who reluctantly revealed how it was different from a council meeting.
"All the dogs were very well-behaved." Facebook.com/hattiesheist indiegogo.com/hattiesheist
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