An Interview with Philip & Lucy Magcalas – By Cary Conley

I first became acquainted with filmmaking duo Philip and Lucy Magcalas, co-founders of Milk and Cookie Productions in Boston, Massachusetts, last month when I reviewed their short drama, Skin and Bone.  In only their second feature, these filmmakers chose to make a poignant and deeply meaningful film about the medical profession and the connections between medical professionals, patients, and the family members of those patients.  Produced over the course of a year for nearly nothing, these filmmakers have made a fantastic, highly polished film that should be seen by anyone who has ever had to deal with tough health choices in a medical facility.

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CC:  I’ve heard of actors becoming directors, producers becoming directors, even screenwriters and effects people becoming directors, but I’m fascinated by the fact that you came from the medical field to make movies. Could both of you please give us some information about your backgrounds? How did you come to make films?

PM:  We actually met way back in high school, doing theatre and choir, and that was sort of where I started off, creatively. I was always interested in writing, but getting a degree in engineering sort of took the front seat for the time being. Moving into Boston after college, I joined a sketch comedy troupe in the evenings while I worked at the hospital during the day.  We had weekly shows with musicians and other comedy troupes, and it was the first time since early in college that I really got plunged back into the creative world. Here were all these people making things from their ideas, so I figured I might as well give it a go, myself. So, I wrote our first script, for “The Quarter-Life Crisis,” and asked Lucy if I could get us a camera and a mic to make it. She read the script, made me make a few changes, took the role of the producer, and I taught myself as we went along; and we kind of just went from there!

LM: I originally hail from Los Angeles, and moved to sunny Las Vegas during high school with my mother. My mother is a writer who has worked as a novelist, travel writer, and screen writer. Because of this, I grew up with a love of filmmaking, and the creative process, but knew I wanted to pursue a career in science where I felt I could succeed based on how hard I worked, rather than in Hollywood where many other factors come into play. Phil and I met during my junior year of high school doing choir and theater in Las Vegas, and ended up staying together despite going to different colleges. I went to college at Boston University for my undergraduate degree in Neuroscience and Neuropsychology. I always kept one foot in the art world though, doing plays and singing throughout undergrad. After college, Philip moved to Boston to start working at the Cardiac Cath lab at Mass General, while I pursued my Master’s Degree in public health. The fall after we were married in 2005 I left to go study in the Philippines and Philip stayed in Boston and joined an improv comedy troupe "Bragging to Children" (BTC). When I returned he was creatively inspired by the great group of people he was working with, and wanted to try to branch out into the medium of film. I told him we could buy a camera and equipment if he gave me a script and a plan, and that’s where it all started. He gave me the script for "The Quarter-Life Crisis" about a week later, and I loved it. So, in 2006 we started our company Milk and Cookie Productions and set out to make a short film. Since then we have been working with many of the same creatively inspiring people from BTC on both "Skin and Bone" as well as our web TV Show "The Presidentials."

CC:  The film was made with no official budget, with cast and crew performing and working for free, and I’m assuming with no location fees or equipment rental fees. How were you able to pull all of that together?

PM: Well, we had our equipment already, which we bought on as tight of a budget as possible, so that was already set. The nice thing about the Boston area is that people are just incredibly nice and supportive for the most part. Of course, it’s not without problems at times.  The restaurant scene was written as a diner, so the first place we tried to film, the restaurant scene was an actual diner car and they gave us some trouble the day we were to film, so we had to cancel the shoot with the actors there and everything. Carberry’s in Cambridge was the original place I had in mind when I wrote the scene, and they ended up being so accommodating and just couldn’t have been nicer. Brent, who runs the place, actually even gave the cast and crew some baked goods at the end of the day. It’s the nice thing about filming in a place like Boston – there are a lot of supportive people out there. All the rest was a combination of luck, guerrilla filmmaking, and just improv out of necessity (for instance, we shot a lot of inserts and procedure scene close ups in our apartment).

LM: One word: Boston! Boston is an amazing place to be an independent filmmaker. There are many people who live double lives – scientists by day – talented musicians, actors, and artists by night. It is also a place where people are still really excited about filmmaking, and the locations we filmed at went out of their way to help us at no cost. The actors are people we know, many of whom are normally comedians, but we also had an open casting call and each person in the production auditioned for the roles they received. We made a lot of our equipment for both films and thanks to thinking outside of the box (groins made out of clay) we have been able to represent Philip’s vision pretty faithfully for the projects that we have done.

CC:  You filmed across an entire year. What kinds of challenges did you have with a production that started and stopped so much?

PM: I think the biggest thing was the fact that we had a cast of roughly 30. Obviously, if people are earning money on set, you can make a schedule and they can follow it. But when you are having people contribute their time and talent for food, copy, and the possibility that the film might see the light of day, you kind of have to work around what people can do. Everyone had day jobs, us included, and the film takes place during the day, so that was a challenge, as it’s difficult to get that many people to be free at once. It’s a great credit to the actors that almost everyone had to film something without the other actor there. So, that and restrictions on the number of people we could have on set at any given time made our scheduling complicated, but productive when we were there.

LM: Dear Lord. Honestly, the biggest issue was the size of the cast! Thanks to the magic of editing though, we were able to have some scenes where not everyone is actually in the same room at the same time. That said, the biggest time constraint was getting actors to set since we only pay in food and good company currently. We were also in the process of applying to medical school, going on a round-the-world trip, and then starting medical school at the same time as making this film!

CC:  Lucy, you are listed as producer, but I also saw your name in several other credits. As producer of a no-budget film, were you prepared to wear many different hats? What job or jobs were your favorites?

LM: As producer of a no-budget film, I did wear many hats, and due to "The Quarter-Life Crisis" I was prepared for the onslaught of activities that would come my way. I feel like my producer hat in this instance was focused on securing locations to film, helping Philip get the cast and crew where they needed to be on time, and making sure everything was done in a timely manner. That said, when you make a film like this you end up playing every role possible from cook to makeup artist, and although it is exhausting, it is also exhilarating in a way. My favorite jobs included effects for the groins, and supervising of editing. The groins I made out of clay with liquid latex and makeup on top because the ones we were trying to make of gelatin would not set the night before our shoot. That is one of the things I love about both film and medicine. You have to think creatively sometimes to find solutions to problems, and you cannot give up. I also love to watch the editing process and see the film come together. That kind of inside knowledge always makes me happy when I see the film and it looks realistic.

CC:  Philip, I’m interested in how you came up with the story line. Aside from the obvious connection you have with heart catheterization labs, the story of a cranky cardiac doctor who abuses his staff only to end up realizing how much he needs them has a wonderful irony to it.

PM: I think this film definitely came from the experiences I had working, combined with a series of “what if” scenarios. I don’t think there’s much of anything in this film that either did not or could not have come from reality. I just felt that there was so much dramatically interesting in what really happens to normal people, every day. When you are in a hospital as a patient, all focus should rightly be on you – so I was trying to widen that lens to touch on the people behind the curtain – medical staff and the family members, who all have to try to find a way to put things aside and focus on the person whose illness brought them there. It’s difficult and the dynamics are definitely worth exploring.

CC:  Philip, you also play a significant role in the film as an actor. Was the acting role by choice or necessity? What challenges did you face in both acting and directing in the same film?

PM: This was definitely a situation of necessity. I was hoping to take a back seat on the acting on this one, so I could focus on developing a proper visual style and getting things to look right in the limited time we had on set. Unfortunately, we had a few curveballs with the casting and even lost a great cast member to conflicting schedules after we had started filming with him. We had a huge cast scramble, a few people ended up switching roles around, and I kind of ended up where I was because it was time to move on with the production. I’ll be honest – I like to be the one behind the camera and I had to take more time in getting shots set up and agreed upon. Not really ideal, and it slowed things down, but it did help me learn a little more about communicating my ideas. I’d say my big huge regret with this situation was that it gave me even less time to properly direct the actors, but luckily our actors are top notch, so there wasn’t a lot I had to ask from them other than what they inherently do anyhow.

CC:  Talk a little about the soundtrack. I thought the music was not only excellent, but very effective and well-placed within the film. How did you find your musicians? How did you collaborate with those musicians to design such a good score?

PM: I actually met a lot of these musicians doing a sketch show with some of our collaborators (Shaun Butler, associate producer and actor who played Anthony, and Rasheed Townes, crew member and actor who played Becca’s boyfriend). These are all musicians with whom we worked on our first film, and both Cedarwell (who provided the opening and restaurant scene songs) and Elijah Wyman played the premiere of “The Quarter-Life Crisis,” along with Mr. Sister whose work isn’t featured in Skin and Bone.

With this film, in particular, we were going for an atmosphere of authenticity, and a good portion of the music is comprised of instrumental versions of songs from “Butterfly Needles,” a stark and brave album that Elijah made, based off his experiences from being diagnosed with a critical rare kidney disorder all the way through receiving a transplant kidney, just a few years ago. The kidney was actually donated by Jason Rozen, our mutual friend who runs Grinding Tapes, and who made a chunk of the atmospheric music you hear during some of the pivotal procedure scenes. So even the music behind this film is based in true life experiences in healthcare, and really contributed to the tone we were trying to achieve in this movie. Elijah provided acoustic and vocalized versions of his music tailored to the mood and timing we wanted, and Jason worked to create the appropriate sound based off of my sort of broad explanations (e.g. “Can you make something about 30 seconds long that goes like this…? Okay, that’s good, now can you take drums from that other song and put them here? ”). These are all really just fantastic people for whom I have a great deal of respect. Each and every single one of them voices a unique perspective which is clearly explored in their music, and I definitely think these ideas behind the music really reinforced the themes.

LM: We found both Erik Neave of Cedarwell and Elijah Wyman through the "Bragging to Children" shows that Phil participated in every Tuesday night at a pub in Boston. When we heard their music we were blown away. Both are really incredible performers, and we were hoping to be able to highlight their music in any way we could. We thought, what better way than putting their music front and center in our films? When we had the screening of our first film "The Quarter-Life Crisis" we also had a concert with Elijah, and Cedarwell to start off the night. Both artists have completely different styles, but they go surprisingly well together in life and on screen. The other music we used was from our friend Jason Rozen who we met through Elijah. He started his own record label called Grinding Tapes Records because he was inspired by Elijah’s music. It just so happens though, that he is also an incredible musician himself and quite the collector of instruments. Phil can tell the story of how he got him to make some music for "Skin and Bone", but I can say that each of these musicians really deserves some attention for the quality work they are creating. Also, it seemed highly appropriate for Elijah and Jason to be included in the project because they have a very intimate understanding of what it means to be a patient in the U.S. health care system. This set the tone of our film and helped us focus in the editing process on the important moments to highlight.

CC:  What has been the most rewarding aspect of seeing Skin and Bone through production and now distribution?

PM: The thing that I’ve found most rewarding is the response, and knowing that, yes, we have made a film which has an audience. Obviously, it’s difficult getting anyone to see your film, period, and there is definitely a narrower spectrum of people who have seen this than we would like. But, when it comes down to it, the people who see it are for the most part enthusiastic about it, and I’m particularly pleased to hear that viewers got something out of it. You never know exactly how a project will be received until it’s out there, and when anyone says, yes, they found something with which they could identify- that’s about the best feeling you can get, when someone approaches you to tell you that your work gives a voice to something that maybe they’ve felt more viscerally. It’s a unifying feeling, and we absolutely hope that more people will be able to check it out.

LM: The most rewarding thing is getting feedback from people that they were able to relate to our story; that they were able to understand what we were trying to highlight with our film, but were still entertained. It is also super exciting when people we don’t know buy the film! It is exciting to think of someone not connected to us seeing what we have worked hard to present.

CC:  Skin and Bone is only your second feature, after The Quarter-Life Crisis.  What lessons have you learned from making these two films? Any advice you would give to aspiring filmmakers?

PM: The Quarter-Life Crisis was really our way of asking ourselves, “Hey, we have no money, no experience, and no training. But we have some ideas we’d like to play around with, and we know some good actors. Can we make a movie?” The advent of digital media has definitely expanded the playing field, and people who could never have even thought of it before can now make movies for next to nothing, and that’s definitely a good thing. We are definitely always learning, as filmmakers. And having not gone to film school or anything, we definitely film from the gut.

I think if you want to make a film, just go out there and do it. Don’t break the bank, ask people for advice, look up on the internet how other filmmakers do things, try to see what you think works and what doesn’t, watch movies you like and figure out what works and what doesn’t.   Don’t be afraid of bad reviews or bad feedback, don’t be afraid of cutting things you like that don’t work, and don’t be afraid of being critical and honest with yourself. And then when all is said and done, be proud of your work, dust yourself off, keep making more, and enjoy it. Lucy can confirm that I can’t sit in a room while other people watch my films – all I can think about is what I want to change. But the idea is to take that and use it on the next project.

I also just want to note that we’ve been able to work with some immensely talented people.  They come down to meet us somewhere and have to trust that we are trying to do something interesting. And these people just nailed pretty much everything we could ask for. The cast, crew, and musicians are absolutely incredible, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. If you are going to make a movie, do your best to get a good community going.

LM: Lessons learned: 1) Always ask! Never be afraid to ask for permission to use something or do something. You would be surprised how nice and/or accommodating people can be when they think they are part of a film! 2) Pay attention to details! Lighting and sound are very, very important to the final product. I feel that no matter how much money is spent on a film the end product is very dependent on how good your editor is, and how attentive you are while filming to what that editor will have to work with. 3) Use blog sites and the internet. Honestly, due to our schedules we haven’t been able to promote our work as much as I would like to, but I know right now there are many forums to do so online and I intend to use them in the future. 4) Be creative! If you are creative you can solve problems cheaply. It also helps if your crew is a bunch of engineers!

CC:  What projects are in the works for you and your company, Milk and Cookie Productions?

PM: We’re smack dab in the middle of medical school, so it’s sort of a difficult time for us to springboard into anything huge at the moment. But we’re planning a short documentary to film this summer which we’re going to try out anyway. As always, I’ll continue developing scripts I’m writing. I’m working with one of our actors from Skin and Bone, to bring a few of her ideas to the page and, hopefully, to the screen as well. Once we are grounded back in the States, we will definitely be pulling some projects together, but I guess I have to write it first. So, in some form or another, we will definitely be around…

LM: We are currently working on a documentary of that focuses on the process of preparing for board examinations. Philip is also working on some scripts, and when we return to the states, we would love to continue "The Presidentials" with our collaborators!