Filming for ZOOEY took place over the course of two weeks in the winter of 2003 on a budget of $20,000.  The crew of 20 and cast of over 40 had to survive single digit temperatures, a dozen locations and hundreds of problems to complete the feature film.  The filmmakers called in on favors and borrowed against credit cards to finance the project.  With a bit of luck, ingenuity and tireless hours, the production team got the most out of every dollar.

The production utilized a myriad of New York City locations including, Bushwick, DUMBO, Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Tribeca and the East Village.  The team shot around noisy radiators during interior locations to news helicopters flying overhead covering the MTA Transit Strike during the exterior shots.

The project started after writer/director, Sherman Lau discovered the true story of a NYC prostitute who was married.  “Her husband would drive her to work and would watch over her from their car.  I thought that was such an incredible bizarre love story” says Sherman Lau.  From there the characters of Zooey and Angel were born.  The writer/director then spent almost a year interviewing NYC prostitutes and drug addicts while writing the script.  “Almost every scene is inspired from an actual story.  And what I found is that these people aren’t very different from you or I, which is what the film is about.”

After a two month casting process, the filmmakers were seeing their project come to life.  “Once we had our leads, it was like this is for real, “ says Lau.  The actors then rehearsed for three months.  “We knew we didn’t have time to figure things out on the set so I wanted everyone to be on the same page before we started shooting.”  The actors also found this time to be incredible helpful.  “The way Sherman works is that he allows the actors to develop their own dialogue, he never said you have to say exactly this.  He feels the script is just a blue print and that we should become the characters and speak in way that is comfortable and natural,” says Sarah Louise Lilley who plays Zooey.

The cast was coming together and there was less than two weeks till the start of production, yet there was still one problem.  The role of Jake, the 10 year old child that Zooey and Angel look after, was not cast.  Lau says “we had dozens of kids read, but we couldn’t find Jake.  It was frustrating since he was such an important part of the film.”  After several failed calls to local acting schools, the filmmakers got a glimmer of hope.  “We spoke to one school who doesn’t even have child actors and they said they knew of a kid named Jordan Burt.  It turned out that kid not only had the right look, but he could act.”  In fact, Jordan will be seen this summer in M. Night Shymalan’s “The Village.”

Now that the cast was set, pre-production was able to move forward.  To make sure the look was authentic, costume designer, Leigh Ridpath researched and observed actual prostitutes.  “We went to the same stores that they went to and then added items I found at thrift stores and the Fredericks of Hollywood catalog.”  Ridpath also created some original designs for the film.  “The character, Zooey is suppose to make some of her own clothes, so I created several tops.  One shirt became a crew favorite, The Brooklyn Bridge shirt, which Zooey wears during the interviews.  Everyone wanted me to make one for them.  They were like you could sell that at Barneys for $300.”  In fact you can order one on the film’s web site www.zooeyfilms.com

Director, Sherman Lau and Director of Photography, Brett Albright spent weeks finding the right locations and discussing the look of the film.  “We shot a lot of tests, using different lighting techniques and camera moves,” say Albright.  “We even practiced the moves in the actual locations.  We knew we had the actors well rehearsed, we wanted the crew to be as well.”  Still the cinematographer knew his team was limited, which they say worked to their advantage.  “There is only so much you can do if you don’t have a lot of resources.  We didn’t have many lights, most of the film is lit with a couple of China Balls and an HMI.”  In fact most of the production equipment, from lights, batteries to extension cords were bought at Wholesale Liquidators, a local liquidation center.

The filmmakers worked around a very limited budget, but were still able to be on schedule.  “There were very few days that went over.  Mostly 12 to 14 hour days as oppose to usual 18 to 20 hour days like most indie shoots,” says co-producer, Sandra Kuhn.  Still the shoot did have its challenges.  

“We shot a lot of our exteriors in DUMBO which is experiencing an incredible change.  Most of the locations we used are no longer there or they’ve been changed so much you wouldn’t even recognize it.  This use to be a place where the mob would dump bodies and now it’s become SoHo.  So there was a lot of construction going on during the shoot.  Fortunately most of the film takes place at night, so we’d wait for the bulldozers to stop before we would start” says co-prodcuer, Toni Judkins.  “I feel we were truly blessed.  Everything just seemed to work out.  Radiators would stop clanking just enough to record some dialogue and it never rained during our exteriors.”

“When you have no money, you have to be creative.  We couldn’t afford a crane or a dolly so we bought a $300 porta-jib and used a wide lens.  We called in favors and got a great deal on a camera package.  We needed a hair salon, it just happens that my mother owns a hair salon.  We also saved a ton of money because our director is also an editor.  So Sherman edited the entire film on an AVID DV Express system at his apartment,” says Judkins.

After the exhausting process, the filmmakers say luck and ingenuity aren’t the only keys to a successful shoot.  “Everyone on the crew got paid which I think is important.  It was much below their normal rates, but if they believe in the project and the people they’re working with it just makes it click,” says Lau.  “I can’t wait to do another one.”