Jeremy Lutter has learned to be careful what you wish for or you could find yourself having to build a robot.
"I didn't think I was actually going to win," the Victoria filmmaker says with a laugh, flashing back to his triumphant pitch at the Whistler Film Festival for Joanna Makes a Friend last December. His team won $15,000 plus $100,000 in in-kind production services from the Motion Picture Production Industry Association, which sponsored a film pitching contest.
"OK, I guess I'm building a robot!" Lutter recalled saying after he successfully pitched his 10-minute short about a lonely girl who, picked on by her classmates, retreats with her sketch book to the shade of a schoolyard tree where her imagination runs wild. Literally taking her dad's advice to "make a friend," she builds a robot.
Written by fellow University of Victoria creative writing grad Ben Rollo, and produced by Talitha Cummins, Lutter's partners in Broken Mirror Films, Joanna Makes a Friend is now in pre-production, with filming slated to start in August in Vancouver.
Lutter, 30, was elated having been able to cast promising newcomer Dalila Bela, 10, as the imaginative loner, and Fred Ewanuick (Corner Gas, Dan for Mayor) as her dad, an out-of-work VCR and Betamax repairman whose spare parts she uses to build Edgar Allen Poe-Bot (EAP), her robot pal.
Ewanuick came on board because of Rollo's "endearingly written" script that began as a story published in UVic's This is the West magazine before Lutter persuaded his pal to adapt it for film.
"We worked on the script for a while and pitched it around," he said, noting the Whistler pitch was unlike any other.
"It was a hectic experience," recalled Lutter, who likened his spiel before a panel of judges and an audience of filmmakers to an event.
"I felt like I was on American Idol. I've written a lot of grant proposals and sent things off to BravoFact or MuchMusic where it's all about what's on the page, not about me standing up and needing to be entertaining."
An only child until age 10, the six-foot-seven Victoria native said he could relate to Joanna's problems fitting in. His father, a carpenter, would renovate and build houses that motivated a succession of moves, he said.
"I'd have to start school where I didn't know anyone," said the former Quadra and Campus View student who has been friends with Rollo since Grade 8 at Cedar Hill School.
An award-winning director of videos for musicians such as The Smears and Jets Overhead, Lutter has also directed shorts including Psychosomatic, Pirate Santa and a stop-motion animation video for Justin Hewett's Close Your Eyes.
He describes his new film as a fairy tale.
"At least from a stylistic standpoint," he says. "It's like Edward Scissorhands meets Ghost World."
Their biggest challenge is trying to build a robot for $6,000 to fulfil their creative vision.
To cover costs, Broken Mirror Films has launched a Help Joanna Make a Friend fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com.
"We need to build a robot with the functionalities it needs to do what it has to do in the script, be cute and endearing and made out of old VCR parts," says Lutter, who jokingly wonders why he ever vowed to build an animatronic robot.
Actually, he wouldn't have had it any other way despite friends urging him to use computer graphics.
"I just really like the idea of making up characters from scratch. There's so much CG in movies and I'm a fan of making things for real," says Lutter, whose film will also feature puppetry. "People really respond to puppets and shooting with them is fun."
His quest to learn how to build and program a four-foot robot took him to a robotics club at the B.C. Institute of Technology.
"I just walked in off the street and started asking questions," recalled Lutter, who hired "infinitely helpful" mentor Paxton Downard, a props master who was "one of the only people crazy enough to want to take this project on."
It's been quite a process.
"We're building models and having them move on strings to see what movements we like before we try to 'animatronize' some of them."
Downard was most notably the props master for the 2010 Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. His recent film and TV credits include Fringe, Stargate Universe and Red Riding Hood.
Considering Lutter had a near-death experience three years ago, his tenacity isn't surprising.
While he was in the Okanagan for a film festival, a drunk driver in an SUV broadsided a taxi he was in.
The cabbie was killed and Lutter sustained broken bones in his left hand (it had to be reassembled surgically), nerve damage, fractures, bruises and other serious injuries.
"It was a huge kick in the pants in terms of getting motivated," said Lutter, who still has nerve damage and no longer sweats the small stuff.
"It's given me an understanding of overcoming obstacles and going on a bit of a hero's journey yourself. That's what spurred this huge push to direct narrative films. It's been an exercise in dealing with limitations."
Jeremy Lutters website:
Official website for Joanna Makes a Friend
Broken Mirror Films
Promotional video on indiegogo
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