The Arrow interviews Steve Cuden
"Lucky" is a nasty and funny little movie about a loon, his dog that talks and the women he kills. Winner of the New York City Horror Festival, the B Movie Film Festival, the Micro Cine Fest and the No Dance Film Festival, "Lucky" has been getting great word of mouth and deservedly so. It's a strong film. Arrow had the chance to talk with the man behind the pooch, first time director Steve Cuden about all that is "Lucky" and here's what he barked back at me.
ARROW: What would you say is your favorite horror movie?
SC: Without question, “The Exorcist.” I was a kid when it first came out, and it hit me really hard when I saw it in the theater. I was afraid to cross my back yard in the dark of night for many days after. But I also have several very close seconds, the original “Night Of The Living Dead,” “Jaws,” “The Omen,” “Aliens,” “28 Days Later.” They all get to me almost every time I see them.
ARROW: What was it about the “Lucky” screenplay that made you want to tackle it?
SC: It was the most unique, unusual, odd, difficult, troubling, and funny script I’d ever read. The words pushed a lot of my emotional buttons, and yet it made me laugh out loud. So, I thought it presented an excellent opportunity to demonstrate real range. I recognized immediately that it could be shot super fast for next to no money (both prerequisite to tackling the project), yet it presented substantial directorial challenges. The script was claustrophobic, contained almost entirely inside one house, yet had over 150 scenes, so I knew it would force me to be incredibly creative in constantly finding camera angles fresh enough to hold the viewer’s interest. And it had a dog throughout most of the movie. You know what they say about working with children and animals. So, I felt that it had to be done, just to prove that it could.
ARROW: "Lucky" was your directorial debut. How much pre-production time did you have before the shoot and what did it entail? Did you storyboard the whole film?
SC: I spent almost four months, full time, prepping the movie. I drew my own storyboards that ran over 170 pages. The drawings were quite crude, but it was the only way I could pre-visualize the movie well enough to go into production feeling like I had a clue about what I was going to do. We had very little money to play with, and that severely restricted our production schedule. I knew we couldn’t get to the set and screw around trying to figure out a plan of action. We had to be good to go on day one. And we needed to be very disciplined, which for the most part, we were. We spent a lot of pre-production just figuring out how to shoot which scenes in what order, especially as we had to shoot both a house completely covered in beer cans, and then a cleaned up house.
And we had to figure out how to maximize our use of Sydney, the fabulous mutt who played Lucky. Coordinating the logistics of all of that took a little time to work out. And of course, on a tiny indie like this, we all did everything, from gathering props, to moving furniture. Michael Emanuel, who plays Mudd, and I painted the downstairs bedroom red by ourselves. Steve Sustarsic, who wrote the screenplay, spent three years collecting all those cans and bottles. Of course, there were a million and one things to do: finding a crew (a small but professional group who had all worked together before), deciding upon which equipment to use (ultimately we didn’t use much at all), casting, scouting the location, etc. It was a lot of hard work, and a lot of frenetic activity.
ARROW: I heard the shoot took place over a period of 9 days? To be blunt, how the hell did you wing that?!
SC: Well, tons of preparation was the key. Drawing the storyboard really made a huge difference. Byron Werner, our excellent D.P., and I did a detailed shot list that ran 25 single spaced pages. Then, with just a few exceptions, we basically shot the shot list (completely out of sequence, of course). We decided early on to change all but one of the many “day” scenes (as written), to “night.” We blocked off the windows of the house and shot split days, which enabled us to absolutely control the lighting. We pre-lit the house with a few movie lights, and a lot of practicals, and then, most of the time, Byron only had to use a handful of small wattage movie lights on simple c-stands to supplement the practicals. We used the power available in the house, so we just plugged into the walls. No generator was needed. The movie has only one locked-down shot in it.
Virtually every other shot is handheld. We used no track, no tripod, no Steadicam, no cranes, no special equipment or rigging at all (we couldn’t afford any of it). Byron was like a human Steadicam. Watch that opening walkthrough of the house again. You know it’s handheld, but it’s really marvelous how smooth he is. We knocked off over 420 set-ups in those 9 days. That means we were doing between 45 and 50 set-ups a day, or about one every 12-15 minutes. We were really flying. We shot with a Panasonic 480P DV camera (60 fps progressive), which afforded us great latitude and flexibility in both lighting set-ups and where we placed the camera. The 480P takes DVC Pro66 tape stock, which holds about 30 minutes of footage. It is relatively lightweight (about 15 lbs.), which meant we could just keep moving without too big a hassle. We also shot mostly one or two takes per set-up. Occasionally we did four or five takes, but it was generally a couple of takes then move on. In short, lots of prep allowed us to shoot very fast and with a fair amount of confidence. And even though we were moving at crazy-fast speed, all that planning enabled us to punt fairly easily when things didn’t go as perfectly as we would have liked. We set absurd goals for ourselves, and worked very hard to achieve them.
ARROW: During the opening credits of the film, it says that the picture is based on a “true story”. Is that true? If so, which true story?
You mean you don’t remember the story of Millard Mudd hitting the nightly news a few years ago? LOL! It’s a ruse, a feint, whatever you want to call it. It was in the script, and was, I believe, designed to suck the audience in, to, hopefully, make them pay even closer attention. They immediately wonder, “Who is this guy? How did I miss such a wild news story? Could it really be true?” Mudd’s story constantly plays around with our reality vs. his reality vs. his perception of reality, and the “based on a true story” card is just one example of many of Steve Sustarsic screwing with our heads. It’s total fiction. At least I hope like hell it is…
ARROW: How many dogs did you have to audition for the part of Lucky? Was it a grueling process?
SC: One dog. And, no, it wasn’t particularly grueling at all. We looked at lots of pictures of dogs available for hire at Paws For Effect (the animal trainers who we used), but once we laid eyes on Sydney, she (yes, Lucky is played by a female), quickly became our first and only choice. It’s interesting to note that casting her, like many other elements of the movie, was counterintuitive. Reading the script, you might envision Mudd as being more of a wild man, like Charlie Manson. Instead, Mike Emanuel looks like your next-door neighbor. Reading the script, you might imagine Lucky’s voice to be a tough talking, harshly nasty son-of-a-bitch, but instead we cast David Reivers, who played Lucky as a suave, hip, jazzy, cool sounding bastard. Reading the script, it was easy to imagine Lucky as a wolfhound, or a shepherd, or dobie – something big and vicious. Instead, we went with a tiny, harmless looking Terrier mix, and converted her into a symbol of pure evil. That counterintuitive casting makes the movie work on so many unexpected levels.
ARROW: And how was the dog on set? Did you find it challenging having to direct an animal on your first gig?
SC: LOL! Sydney was a dream. We had her on set for 5 of the 9 days. And I was very nervous about the whole thing up until the first time we rolled camera with her. She is what the trainers call a good worker. She works long and hard hours, with only minor breaks needed. Occasionally, she wouldn’t quite do what I was looking for, but she almost always nailed it. And that face! That amazing face! She has what they call a “good stare.” Once you get her focused on an off-camera treat, she’ll hold that stare for a long, long time. That was critical for getting her to appear to be “in the scene” with Mudd. Without that stare, Lucky would have had no focus and would have seemed to be just another dog. Of course, Tim Stepich’s clever editing made Sydney’s “acting” opposite Michael truly come to life.
ARROW: “Lucky” is a mixture of drama and comedy. From a director’s point of view, was it challenging for you to find a balance to the tone of the picture?
SC: Of course. That’s very challenging. Our good fortune was that the drama and comedy were extremely present in the script. The thing we decided very early on was that Michael and the other actors would play scenes straight ahead, dead on, and not play them for laughs at all. The script, the seriousness of the situations combined with the total absurdity of those situations made it simultaneously creepy and funny. We believed that if we treated every scene as “real,” as a drama, and not play up the comedy, the movie would be excruciatingly funny as is. Audiences have proved our theory to be true.
ARROW: There are a couple of VERY harsh scenes within the film. Did you, at any time, entertain the idea of "censoring" some of the material on the spot, thinking it was going too far?
SC: Not really. All of our decisions were made well ahead of production. The biggest question I had was whether or not we really needed the nudity. Was it necessary? Steve Sustarsic and I had a couple of testy discussions about it. He believed it was critical, I wasn’t so sure. He was right all the way. We shot the script almost exactly as written. We had to be brave and go right down the throat of the beast and not flinch. Otherwise, had we softened it up, it wouldn’t have the same impact that it does. Also, I’m a major free-speech advocate. The politically correct world we live in sometimes numbs my mind. If you don’t agree with something, if you don’t care for it, don’t watch. Turn it off. That is your choice. That is freedom. I don’t think, within the context of fiction, you can actually go “too far.” That’s totally an issue of taste. What’s too far for you may not be too far for me, and vice versa. The script was so assaulting on the senses that I wasn’t sure anyone would like the movie anyway. Boy, was I dead wrong to worry about that. While “Lucky” surely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I am constantly bowled over by how many people love the thing.
ARROW: How was your trip down MPAA lane? A smooth or a rocky one?
SC: Oh, God, I thought we were gonna get creamed. I thought we might have to do a major trim or two. But we got an “R” on the first go round. Nothing to it. Smooth. Once we finally locked picture it has never changed. But you know what, go look at “Jeepers Creepers,” or “The House Of 1000 Corpses,” or any of dozens of other “R” bloodfest movies, and then tell me “Lucky” is really all that bad. We’re not. Almost all of the true “horrors” in our movie are perceived horrors that take place off screen and in your mind. And most of the viscerally nasty stuff is offset by it being set in a quirky or funny context. We’re not that bloody, not all that physically violent, but we are psychologically brutal. Maybe that’s actually harder for some people to cope with. The biggest compliment I get is when people tell me they were very uncomfortable watching the movie, and that they were upset at themselves for laughing. That’s cool.
ARROW: What’s next on your plate as a director? Do you plan on staying within the horror genre?
SC: I have four projects in various stages of development, including three scripts I’ve written with Steve Sustarsic. One of them is a quirky horror piece based on the story of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” only it’s set in a tough inner city area and has a young woman in the lead. Another is a Farrelly Brothers-like romantic comedy called “Fraudulent Styles,” about a lying insurance adjustor. We also have a sci-fi comedy called “Unleashed,” about a scientist who accidentally turns a dog into a man, and then the dog teaches the man how to really be a man. I know, you might be thinking, “Another man/dog movie?” But this one’s a goofball comedy, so very different from Lucky, so much more mainstream, so non-horror, that the two can’t really be compared. I also have a script circulating around town called “Scouts,” that is a down and dirty sci-fi action piece about humanoid aliens who have landed on earth to commit one monumentally heinous act. I like horror and wouldn’t mind directing several more, but as you can tell I have eclectic tastes and hope to work on many different types of projects.
ARROW: I have to ask, the name Millard Mudd...was it an intended homage to that other twisted character with pets of his own…Willard?
SC: LOL! I’ve never thought about it that way. Steve Sustarsic and I have never had that conversation. I don’t think so. I think he just thought the name sounded a little odd, a little sad, a little lonely, maybe. Certainly, Mudd is easy to understand as a name for this character. But I doubt Millard was a conscious twist on Willard. It would be an interesting question to ask him.
Mucho thanks to Steve for this in-depth interview and for the hard hitting delight that was "Lucky". I encourage you all to seek this mean, yet hilarious, little doggie out. Getting psychologically neutered was never this much fun!