In the world of low budget filmmaking, there are guidelines some directors follow to make their jobs easier. But filmmaker Joe Clarke, 27, broke two of those rules: don’t work with kids and don’t work with animals.
“That’s pretty much the entire movie,” Clarke said of his fourth feature titled “Up on the Wooftop,” a holiday family film about a dog lost in Iowa trying to find his way home to the North Pole. With only two weeks to film the entire movie, Clarke soon learned how difficult it is to shoot with a fickle Jack Russell terrier.
“The first day was a huge challenge of everything that you would expect to go wrong,” he said. “The dog wasn’t sitting still and wouldn’t do what we wanted it to do. If it doesn’t want to do anything, you can’t make it do anything.”
After a night of talking out strategies with his producer and the dog’s trainer, Clarke and his crew managed to power through the two weeks of principal photography plus another week or so of pickup shots. Now, nearly 1 1/2 years later, the film is finished and is making its debut in Siouxland.
Clarke, a 2006 graduate of Bishop Heelan High School and a film major from the University of Iowa, arranged for “Up on the Wooftop” to play at the Riviera 4 Theatre, 714 Fourth Street. The film has also been released in many international countries such as France, Germany and Latin America. “Up on the Wooftop” can also be downloaded and viewed online from iTunes and Amazon.
The somewhat wide release of “Up on the Wooftop,” Clarke said, can partly be attributed to one of his previous films -- “The Formula” -- being available to stream on Netflix.
“It’s a way different movie,” said Clarke with a laugh. “It’s about two college engineers who invent a formula to pick up women.”
The film, however, garnered poor reviews. Marketed as a National Lampoon-style comedy, it came as a disappointment to teenage viewers who may have been looking for characters with less clothing. Instead, they got a “boring romantic comedy.”
But “The Formula” served as a learning experience for Clarke, specifically on how to properly market a film. When it came time to create a new movie idea, he decided to work his way backwards.
“We kind of reverse-engineered the movie,” he said of his holiday film. “We started with a concept and a poster and worked back from there. It’s a unique situation how we’re going about it because the movie business is changing so much with technology and how people watch movies.”
Although it was a chaotic situation for Clarke and crew, they had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve. For inspiration, Clarke thought back to movies he enjoyed watching as a kid, borrowing elements from other family films like “Home Alone” and “Beethoven.”
Eventually, Clarke created the story of a talking dog named Toby, who dreams of one day leading Santa’s sleigh. Toby’s ambitions get the better of him as he sneaks on the sleigh for a test ride. He falls off mid-flight and makes friends with a couple of resourceful kids who want to help get him back to the North Pole.
“Our biggest goal was to get as wide of an audience as possible for this sort of movie,” said Clarke, who added that “Up on the Wooftop” will likely entertain children. “But if you go in as a kid watching this movie, you’ll get much more out of it. You kind of get sucked into it here and there, and that’s kind of cool.”
And it’s a vastly different feature compared to Clarke’s previous works.
"It's definitely one of those things where you have to find ways to make it a passion project," he said. "My biggest passion is creating movies. It's one of those things where making movies is the bigger victory."
When Clarke and his crew get a shot just right or when an actor pulls off a perfect scene, it's the greatest feeling in the world.
"I love the camaraderie between the cast and crew and being in the trenches with everyone during those intense moments," he said.
Even when most of the trouble came from a hairy, four-legged mongrel that didn't want to sit still.
"Every single shot you see with the dog is, like, the hardest shot we've ever had to get for one of our movies," said Clarke. "We were able to pull it off. When things kind of come together the way that you envision them, it makes everything worth it."