How I made my first short film.
I have always been interested in movies – the first film I ever went to see was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was five years old. The experience of seeing a movie like that (it still holds up) at that age at the cinema was incredible. If, by the next day at school, you hadn’t seen the film, you were on the outs.
In 2008 I was working at an investment bank and editing screenplays on the side. A friend of mine, Peter, had just made his first feature film, which he’d directed, written, edited, produced and funded himself. Even though I didn’t think the film was great, it was inspiring to see all those different credits to his name at the end of the movie.
Peter and I had attempted to make some shorts together, but nothing had really panned out. I was often yammering on about projects I’d like to make, and he was constantly challenging me to get off my ass and make them. It wasn’t that easy – I had next to no money, I didn’t know how to get actors, and the one idea that was fully formed enough in my mind to go ahead with was so outlandish that most, if not all of it would be impossible to actually make. Peter didn’t want to hear it, “Just get out there and make it, man.”
The idea in question was one I had cooked up a few years before with another friend, Andrew. It involved a man being annoyed by his pet duck to the point where he releases it back into the wild. It was missing a few things, like the three act structure, humour, and any kind of semblance to a story at all, but there was something there. Spurred on by Peter’s challenge, Andrew and I sat down to brainstorm ideas for this would-be raucous comedy.
Was a duck itself funny enough? Would a chicken be funnier? How did the man get a duck? What was the duck’s name? These basic questions led us on to heavier stuff: what was the man’s life like before he had the duck? What caused the duck to play up and start annoying him all of a sudden? Along the way, we realised that the answers to some of these questions could be as funny as the annoying duck itself.
We eventually banged out a cliche-riddled plot: a man (SPOILERS), devastated by the death of his beloved dog, goes out to find a replacement pet. He finds a duck and the two get on great…
But when the honeymoon is over, the duck’s true colours start to show. The man learns that living with a loved one isn’t always the great pleasure it’s made out to be, and he finds himself longing for his old dog. Sensing this, the duck flies into a jealous rage and wrecks the man’s house. It’s the last straw – the duck has got to go. In an act that suggests he’s temporarily remembered that as a man, he’s superior to a duck in the scheme of things, our protagonist pays a hunter to have the duck killed.
The fun part of writing the script was coming up with things the man and the duck could do together to show how in love they are initially, and then the different ways the duck could annoy the man to push him over the edge. We made up a list, keeping in consideration the limitations of what a duck would actually be able to do, IF we got a live one.
Another thing to consider was, if we make this film, how are we going to make a duck happen? Would we animate one? Use the ‘Get out of jail free’ card that is low budget short filmmaking by using a plush toy? Or maybe, we could source a real duck.
It didn’t take long to decide that the real duck was the only way to go. If we could get a real duck, the audience would be completely on-side as they watched him do all of the fantastical things we’d come up with, and still find him endearing as he became a pest. This raised yet another set of questions – what kind of duck? Classic farm white, or woodland brown? Deciding on the real duck was the end of our casting woes, however. I’d taken the man role on myself.
I spent a surreal few hours at my day job calling around to different animal acting agencies, asking if they had any ducks. It seemed a tall order – I was told by several places that they didn’t have any, and even if they did they’d be out of my price range. One place seemed too good to be true, “Yes, we have ducks! And your script is so funny! You can have up to five different ducks all for [a three figure sum].” It didn’t feel right, especially based on the kinds of quotes I’d been given thus far.
The next day, I heard back from another place that had originally told me that they didn’t have any ducks at the moment, but ‘we do have a very good goose!’. We considered his headshots and showreel, but it just wouldn’t have been the same. This time, they told me that they had a duck, Ralphie. Could we send the script so they could get an idea of the sort of things we wanted him to do? Shortly afterwards I received a series of photos featuring Ralphie (not Ralph, NEVER Ralph) in various scenarios from the script. Some things weren’t possible – we’d originally wanted him to spend one scene in a birthday hat, but he didn’t like hats. We were told that instead he was more than willing to wear an Hawaiian lei.
We were also told that in no way would Ralphie perform unless his ‘wife’ Lulu was also present. Ducks mate for life, and Ralphie would become distressed unless Lulu was around to calm him. We were assured this diva-like demand wouldn’t cost us any more money, so we had no choice but to accept. After seeing the photos it was obvious that Ralphie, a colourful sensation, was the perfect choice, although I was concerned his naked sexual charisma might blow me off the screen.
Andrew and I spent an afternoon on the Windsor farm with Ralphie, Lulu and Lindy, their handler, so that the ducks could get to know me and feel comfortable doing the crazy things we’d have to do in the name of entertainment. It was another surreal moment, but Ralphie could sure wear a lei.
We could only afford Ralphie and Lulu for a day, so we spent that day getting every single shot we needed. We drove him all around town, from location to location, putting him in all sorts of situations that must have been frightfully embarrassing in front of his wife. At no time did he disappoint, or require more takes. We even found a role for Lulu, as part of a double date for the man and the duck. At the end of the (hot) day, we threw him in the pool to cool off, but Lindy warned us, “We can’t let them both out together. They’ll collude and fly away”. I wished I’d worked that into the script.
The music was a problem. We’d envisaged it as a silent movie because if neither character could speak, they were equals. Given the cartoonish nature of the film it made sense to source cartoonish music, and our first stop was the extensive production music library used in The Ren & Stimpy Show. It took days to pick the right music, and to edit it properly into each scene. I’d foolishly gone into things thinking production music was all free, but no. APRA-AMCOS took their sweet time, but finally presented us with the kind of bill you’d normally get from buying a signed bar of Hitler’s gold.
When the post-production work was all done, we entered the film, now titled Man’s Best Friend, into as many competitions as we could. We got into a surprising amount of them, including the Melbourne Comedy Festival and the Shorts film festival in Adelaide. We even made some money in the end. In its afterlife, the film hasn’t become a YouTube sensation, but it has proved a useful calling card when drumming up interest for future projects.
As painful as it could often be attending each of the festivals and sitting through…interesting films, and as painful as it straight-up was to watch myself every single time, Ralphie’s comic timing and colourful plumage always got a smile out of me. Plus, I’ll always be able to say I’ve been screened in an Academy-recognised film festival. It was an encouraging sign for a first effort, although Peter still wasn’t impressed.
I never saw Ralphie-not-Ralph or Lulu again. We’d been told that their owner was a little girl who was terminally ill, and her dream was to see her pets in a film. I don’t know how that little girl is today, but we did send her a copy, so I hope she enjoyed it even if the movie didn’t end well for Ralphie.
Below is the film in all its glory. Decide for yourself how successful it is as a comedy, or perhaps, pretentiously, as an allegory for either serious relationships and incompatibility, or a ‘rebound’ relationship. Either way, I hope you enjoy it.
W.C. Fields said “Never work with children or animals.” but where I’m from, all you gotta do is tell me no, baby.