For aspiring filmmakers who grow up in Maine, the path to success is a winding, often unexpectedly strange one. To quote The Great Gonzo’s answer to Kermit’s advice about going to Hollywood to become a movie star, “Sure, if you wanna do it the easy way.”
Some Maine moviemakers take (let’s call it) the Gonzo route, staying put, building the Maine film community – and weathering the state’s inexplicable refusal to offer tax incentives for film production. Others – perhaps reluctantly – take the Kermit path, and strike out for Los Angeles or New York to bring their Maine-shaped sensibilities right into the center of the industry.
But filmmaking is a tough gig, and a filmmaker’s best-laid plans generally can’t be contained in one location, or one intended route. That’s the lesson I learned from Billy Hanson. As Maine as you get, having grown up in places like Presque Isle, Caribou, Madawaska and Old Orchard Beach, Hanson says he knew he wanted to make movies since he was “a baby,” planting himself in front of whatever film was playing on the family’s TV.
After leaving Maine for Florida State’s film school, Hanson moved to Los Angeles in 2007 and gradually worked his way up in the industry there. Currently, Hanson is spending most of his professional life at the Food Network (“Iron Chef Gauntlet,” “Food Network Star”), making the upcoming music videos for the band Coach Hop (of “I Like Taylor Swift” fame) and, oh yeah, helming a webseries about a woman dealing with the fact that a freak accident has turned her beloved pet dogs Ralph and Bounce into naked, slobbering human guys.
“Lightning Dogs” – so called because ’twas lightning that transformed said dogs – has found a comfortable and increasingly well-viewed home at Funny Or Die (funnyordie.com), the comedy website founded by comic genius “Anchorman” pals Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Starring Khara Campbell as the understandably beleaguered and confused owner of a pair of dogs-turned-dudes (series writers Brett Elam and Joshua Logan), the five-episode comedy series is racking up a healthy percentage of “funny” (as opposed to “die”) votes on Funny Or Die, the site’s brutally meritocratic measure of success – and opportunity.
“Once we put it up there, we see how it does,” explains Hanson. “It’s all based on the number of views, and the votes, as to whether we’ll want to move forward with it and make more episodes, or, if it does really well, package it as a TV pilot.”
That’s a path open to filmmakers that didn’t exist when Hanson started out, but even with Ferrell and McKay’s imprimatur (“Lightning Dogs” was even featured on the site’s prime front page slot after its April 15 release), the filmmaking profession is still a matter of hard work, sacrifice and not a little good fortune.
The series came about, according to Hanson, more or less on a whim, when he, Logan, Campbell and Elam were all separately attending Vermont’s ITV Fest.
“ITV is an independent television festival,” explained Hanson, “where a thousand creators all come to the small town of Manchester, Vermont. I met Josh and Brett and we just thought, ‘Let’s work on something together.’ Khara heard about our loose idea and wanted in because she thought it sounded fun. Basically, we just wanted something to present at the festival. It wasn’t going to be pristine – just something funny and quick.”
“Lightning Dogs” is both of those things, as the now-human Ralph and Bounce react to their new reality with endearingly goofy dog-like logic, and their befuddled owner tries to figure out how to cope with, for example, her former pets’ desire to sniff butts and drink from convenient toilets. It also looks good, something Hanson credits to the aforementioned hard work and sacrifice, and some generosity on the part of the makers’ network of actor friends. “We’ve all been in LA so long, we know some people willing to work well below their usual rate – or free, if they’re really nice,” Hanson said. “It was all shot out of pocket, but I think it looks polished and professional, largely because I’ve been on enough small projects that I know where to put the money, and cut corners.”
Picked up for distribution by the Canadian company iThentic after debuting at ITV, “Lightning Dogs” rode the company’s connections to Funny Or Die where, like all internet content, it waits for the public to discover it. “We promote it wherever we are,” said Hanson, “but that’s the good and the bad about the internet. It’s always going to be there, but you have to wait – something can be up for a year and then it catches on and goes viral.”
About his future plans, he said, “I’d love to bring projects back to Maine. After a decade in L.A., I know that Maine is really untapped in terms of locations. Plus, I know that, if I said to locals in Madawaska or Old Orchard that I wanted to make something there, the support would be overwhelming. I’ve never really left Maine, and I know there’s great potential for the Maine film industry.”
The entertainingly silly “Lightning Dogs” can be seen for free in its entirety on Funny Or Die (funnyordie.com/lightningdogs), so support a Maine director, have some laughs and don’t forget to vote “funny.”
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Starts Friday: “Lean On Pete.” Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, this wrenchingly heartfelt film follows the journey of a troubled boy (Charlie Plummer) and his beloved horse, as they flee those out to destroy their friendship – and the horse. Starring indie stalwarts Steve Zahn, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Buscemi.
Starts Friday: “Disobedience.” In this powerful indie love story, Rachel Weisz stars as a woman who, after the death of her father, returns to the Orthodox Jewish community that shunned her over her attraction to childhood friend Rachel McAdams.