Big Picture: A fast lesson in film production for Victoria lawyer

It sounds like a Hollywood movie pitch: Seeking more out of life, a rugby-playing lawyer and pig farmer finds salvation as a film producer. Actually, the tale of Lou Webster’s excellent adventure isn’t that far-fetched.

It describes a detour the Victoria lawyer, rugby player and coach took three years ago when he became executive producer on writer-director Ross Ferguson’s thriller Primary.

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“It was a crime of opportunity,” said Webster, laughing, as he recalled his reunion with Ferguson, a friend from his days studying criminology at Simon Fraser University, and their mutual friend Vince Prokop, a Vancouver Film School graduate.

After working up north, Prokop, an award-winning music video producer, was looking for a fresh challenge and called Ferguson, his old Stelly’s Secondary schoolmate.

Prokop was intrigued by Ferguson’s script for his low-budget feature debut, which stars Dustin Milligan as Nicholas Gray, an ambitious insurance executive whose attempts to live a moral life are thwarted.

The puzzle picture’s supporting cast includes Andrew Francis as Nicholas’s friend and rival, Tom Butler as their “ethically dubious” boss, Michael Eklund as a charismatic drifter, Katharine Isabelle as a free-spirited altruist and Merritt Patterson as the boss’s coveted daughter.

His experience making Primary, which premièred recently at the Shanghai International Film Festival, wasn’t the first time Webster, 45, had sought a change of pace.

Four years ago, the rugby player and longtime Castaway FC clubhouse board member became a part-time hobby farmer, helping his brother-in-law and his family raise pigs, chicken and cows.

“I prefer pigs to mortgages,” joked Webster, who discovered farming offered “a really peaceful contrast” to his intensive career that includes criminal law and real estate transactions.

Being an executive producer provided a different change of pace, albeit not unlike his work in court and on the farm.

“When you’re working at that level of intensity, you have to keep your head down and keep moving,” Webster said.

“Nobody waits for you. You’ve got animals to feed every day,” Webster said, recalling farm life by comparison. “Herding animals is kind of like running a location with a crew of 60 in some ways.”

His legal expertise came into play on the movie, especially “having to be prepared to say no,” he said.

“I convince people, whether it’s a judge or the other side or my client that what I’m proposing is reasonable, and it was the same talking to owners of locations,” he said.

Webster has learned a lot about the movie business since the day he asked his friend, Victoria filmmaker Hilary Pryor: “What does an executive producer do?”

When you’re shooting an independent film in 20 days on a shoestring in Vancouver, the answer is “almost everything,” he learned.

“I humped lights around, ran wire, did catering, made sandwiches,” said Webster, whose main duties included securing locations, arranging cars, negotiating production deals, dealing with clearance issues, providing legal advice and helping write authentic courtroom dialogue.

The exhaustive process began in the spring 2011 when the creative team spent 48 hours rewriting in Victoria.

“That was the end of my creative input,” said Webster, who later lived with them at Ferguson’s sister’s home in New Westminster for three weeks. While Ferguson and Prokop worked on creative aspects, Webster and Ferguson’s wife, Lisa Rae, raised funds for their self-financed production.

Webster, who, to his wife Denise’s surprise, lost 25 pounds during filming (“we ran everywhere”), said he was amazed by the dedication of his largely volunteer crews.

“Almost everyone was working one pay grade up from what they normally did,” he said, referring to crews whose skills outweighed the kind of experience such a project provides.

Money was so tight Webster and his partners slept on makeshift beds in studio offices after 17-hour-plus shooting days.

“We had one day in Vancouver that turned out to be snow day on a location we had paid for, so for the first four hours we were melting ice with tiger torches,” he recalled.

Even the film’s stars economized by staying with friends, he said. “Dustin was in just about every frame of that film and he was on set every day, being really helpful and accommodating,” Webster said.

It also helped that the film’s young directors of photography, Graham and Nelson Talbot, gave them access to a Red Epic camera, the type Peter Jackson used to shoot Lord of the Rings.

“We had to be very creative in how we saved money,” Webster said.

Whether he continues as a movie producer remains to be seen, but Webster already has a wish list. “It would be nice to have assistants, and a real bedroom,” he said with a laugh.

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