Trailer for local Christmas film to show at Cannes

BY MICHAEL KADRIE | MAY 14, 2015 5:00 AM

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While Iowa eagerly readies itself for Kris Kringle’s annual holiday visit,  Santa tows along a rambunctious talking dog named Toby, who finds himself stranded in Iowa City and forced into mischief.

So begins Up on the Wooftop, the latest film from local filmmaker Joe Clarke. The Los Angeles firm Lighthouse Pictures is showing a trailer of the flick to prospective purchasers at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, which began on May 13.

Clarke’s previous work includes a feature-length comedy, The Formula, about picking up women, available on Netflix, a short film about a retired hit woman, and a film about a pizza delivery driver caught up in crime. Much of his work is filmed locally.

Before deciding on his next film he consulted Lighthouse. His question was simple: How could he keep filming in Iowa?

“I was hoping for a Goodfellas, but they said a Christmas-talking dog movie,” Clarke said.

Initially, this was an unlikely project for Clarke, but Lighthouse representatives said the project’s marketability in foreign territories would be a great way to get his work and name out there — especially when promoted at a prominent festival such as Cannes. It also increases the likelihood of earning back some crucial cash.

Festivals such as Cannes and Sundance are spawning increasingly large ancillary markets for the purchase and sale of films and scripts beyond the marquee attractions. Even if Up on the Wooftop is not purchased, it will help to spread the word about the project, Clarke said.

“When you want to tell a story to someone who doesn’t speak English, it’s hard to use straight dialogue,” he said. “Stuff like a dog, Santa Claus can be easily dubbed … [like] Transformers, it’s giant robots and explosions. You don’t need to speak English to appreciate it.”

Though he was frustrated at first, Clarke soon found himself flourishing in the film’s humorous framework.

“Joe is a good guy, and I think it’s a good project, a smart project,” said Tom Garland, an Iowa City comedian.

Beyond casting local Iowa talent such as Garland, who has a cameo role alongside comedian Bruce Jay, the film also attracted the attention of former Jackass star Preston Lacy. He lends his voice to one of the talking dogs in the story.

“It was fun being the voice of a dog,” Lacy said. “I really got into my character Rusty. There’s a lot of layers there. Rusty is a bipolar nutcase who has multi personalities, all of which are various levels of jerks.”

Clarke said he enjoys filming in Iowa because of the reception from locals — who were eager to sign on as extras — and the locations they showcase.

“It’s cool to see [filmmaking] going on around [Iowa],” Garland said. “People think you have to leave [Iowa] if you want to make it, but if you look around yourself there is always some kind of door at least slightly cracked open.”

Auditioning dogs for the starring role was a particularly interesting adventure, Clarke said. Dozens of respondents to a Craigslist posting for an eligible Jack Russell terrier included untrained animals, dogs of the wrong breed, a pooch bewilderingly dyed bright pink, and a respondent Clarke described as “probably a serial killer.”

Though he said working with animals is challenging, the crew has become adept at handling them as they enter the home stretch. Up on the Wooftop will première somewhere in Iowa City this winter.

“I’m not saying Up on the Wooftop made me cry and believe in the magic of Christmas all over again, but it was funny, fast-moving, and well-made,” Lacy said. “It showed off the Iowa corridor in a great way.”

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