Featured Filmmaker ~ May Charters

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. …One man in his time plays many parts.”  William Shakespeare

In her young life, May Charters has already played many parts: skater, dancer, painter, photographer, actor, director and author.  A “film rat”, she was born in Toronto, but raised on movie sets all over the world by her filmmaking parents. At the age of three, she was on the ice preparing to become an Olympic figure skater and in dance studios thinking of being a prima ballerina. She also studied painting, a pursuit that developed into a lifetime passion. At the point in her skating career when she had to make a decision, fate stepped in and made the choice for her. Her coach died and she lost the competitive edge she needed to go further. May took off her skates and moved into the movie studio and to the ballet barre, though she confesses she still has “ice dreams”. She hopes to write and produce a film about skating one day.

About May Charters

May had a unique and enviable education. She began as a wardrobe assistant on a number of film sets before assuming more traditional studies at Trinity College. From Trinity, she went to the New York Film Academy and later the London Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Paris American Academy of Art (the Sorbonne).  May honed her acting skills with private coaches in Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles, all the while studying photography, painting and dancing (ballet and flamenco). To prove that dancing wasn’t just a sideline, she performed with the professional companies of Timo Lozano, Esmeralda Enrique, Carla Luna, La Tati and Marc Aurelio.

In 1999 she wrote, directed and starred in Death of Past, a five-minute, 16mm film selected as the official selection of the Dance on Camera Film Festival in 2000. In 2001, she shot a 15-minute film entitled The Spanish Dancer, which also was the official selection of the Dance on Camera Film Festival. Her next project was a music video, Medina, which was produced by BRAVOFACT.

For her first feature-length film, May teamed up with Mark Hug, a photographer and freelance casting director. Together, they wrote, directed and acted in the superb narrative feature, Lovers in a Dangerous Time , which has gained world-wide recognition.  The film won four major awards: The Audience Award at the Calgary International Film Festival 2009, Best Canadian Feature Film Award at the Okanagan International Film Festival 2009, Best Feature Film Award at the Port Townsend Film Festival 2009 and the Maverick Award at the Method Fest.

How this film came about is interesting. May was in Los Angeles waiting for a green card. Her father had inadvertently lost her papers, so she had to begin the process all over again. After eleven years, May had passed her 21st birthday—a complication that further delayed the issuance of her card. Because she was no longer a minor, she was not eligible for the card as a family dependent. While the problem was being resolved, May enrolled in acting classes and studied painting.

It was through painting that she made a connection with Mark Hug. May had an idea to do portraits of actors and film the process. Since she couldn’t paint and film at the same time, she needed a collaborator to go behind the camera. On a hot night in a Los Angeles acting class, she met Mark and he agreed to pose for her. The following Sunday, May arrived at Mark’s studio with her paints and canvas. During the sitting, May explained her idea of documenting the painting process, emphasizing that she did not want the finished product to be a video. It happened that Mark was a photographer, as well as an actor. He began taking pictures of the portrait in various stages of development and the May and Mark Project was born. May painted portraits of fifteen Los Angeles-based actors and Mark photographed the process. The paintings and photographs were mounted in an exhibition they called Portraits and Polaroids at Les Deux, a Los Angeles gallery. As usually happens, one thing led to another.

May and Mark Behind the Camera

Churning around in Mark’s mind was a childhood memory about two brothers in a small town and an apple orchard where they played. He told May of an incident when, on a dare, he and his brother actually branded each other. Listening to the entire story, May had two reactions: the story should be a film and it needed a girl in it—a kind of lost love. Mark agreed. As they bounced ideas off each other, the story took shape. The format would be a semi-documentary of a tenth year high school reunion. A disparate group of alums would gather: those who had made it, those who were on the make and those who were hopelessly caught up in small town angst, obsessing over long-gone high school triumphs. They went to Creston during the actual reunion and recruited nonprofessional actors from the town. The film was part scripted and part improv. It took five years, 20,000 miles of travel and three different working titles to complete the project. The result was a heartwarming, heartbreaking account of love in a dangerous time.

What It’s All About

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of Kings. How some have been deposed…[and] some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed.”  William Shakespeare

The lead characters in Lovers in a Dangerous Time are not Mark and May, but like many Hemingway “heroes”, they bear a strong resemblance to their creators (think Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises). In Lovers, Allison Adamson (May), a painter and illustrator of children’s stories, goes back to Creston, a small Canadian town, population just under 5,000, in southeastern British Columbia. She tells herself she is going for a ten-year high school reunion, but really she wants to reconnect and possibly rekindle an old romance, with Todd Timmons (Mark Hug), a hockey player who was not quite good enough to make it to the pros. They meet, revisit old, familiar places, drink a little too much, sit around telling stories about le temps perdu and engage in an awkward sexual preamble—only to learn that lost love is best left in the past.

Lovers in a Dangerous Time hits all the right notes. Todd and Allison, tug at our heartstrings without being overly-sentimental.  Mark was named Best Actor for his portrayal of Todd from the Maverick Awards in 2009 and May was nominated as best actress in both the Maverick Awards and the Method Fest the same year. Check Out the Trailer for Lovers in a Dangerous Time below.

Projects and Future Plans

May is collaborating with Mark Hug on a number of new projects.  The Zamboni Sisters is a nine-episode Web-Series filmed in HD video.  Please sign up to their Facebook page:  The Zamboni Sisters. They are working on a vampire/zombie film about their nine-year experience as casting directors in the fashion world, tentatively titled Dead Sexy, and they are planning a western to be shot next year in Calgary, called Bred in the Bone. She is trying to get financing for The Free Way, a film she wrote with her good friend Lindsay Stidham. May is also still hoping to do a solo film on dancing.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

May Charters has film in her genes. Her father, Rodney Charters, is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers. He grew up in New Zealand and attended the Royal College of Art in London. For 15 years, he traveled the world shooting documentaries before turning full time to television and film directing. The DP behind the award-winning Fox series 24, and now Showtime’s Shameless, he acted as executive producer for his daughter’s film Lovers in a Dangerous Time.

May’s brother Robin Charters, is also a “film rat” who moved from Tokyo to Australia to New Zealand, Israel, Slovokia, Italy, Scotland and London before he even attended pre-school. After high school, he sailed around the Pacific Ocean before more or less settling down to become a cinematographer and producer for Lovers In A Dangerous Time. He now lives in LA where he directs, produces and writes commercials, music videos and reality TV shows. Gillian Charters, May’s mother, is an accomplished actress who both inspired and encouraged her daughter’s career.

Question: What was it like being in a successful relationship and making a film about a failed relationship?

Charters: I’m not sure what constitutes a successful relationship. I am trying to find out, but it’s complicated. The complications inspired story-telling in Lovers, and I’m sure this will continue to be the case.

Question: What did you enjoy most about making Lovers in a Dangerous Time?

Charters: Standing on my very own set and making a feature film gave me the most joy. It’s an amazing thing to have a vision and suddenly to have that vision become a reality. I loved getting up early to shoot a scene with the sun rising over the mountains. I loved lugging camera and sound equipment into the orchard with Mark and actually shooting a scene that both of us were in. I was rolling the camera and Mark was slating from his mark. On camera, you could see me running over to shoot the moment with him and then running back to turn the camera off. We did have a crew for most of the film, but sometimes, there were just the two of us with the other actors. It was “guerilla shooting” at its finest. Fun, but exhausting.

Question: The music is so well matched to the film. How did you select the music and who performed the various numbers?

Charters: We worked hard on that. We started with a long playlist that included Sam Beam (of Iron and Wine), Broken Social Scene, Stars, Sufjian Stevens, Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. As with most independent films, however, we realized we couldn’t afford songs by all of those artists. So we put aside our “impossible dreams” and went searching for what was possible. Luckily, Mark bumped into our very talented friend Jesse Merchant, also known as JBM. He told us he had been writing his own music and he played some of his songs for us. When we heard them, we knew his music could set the tone and reflect the emotions in our film. He was on board with us. Since we wanted to have a country feel for some of the songs, we bought him a banjo and he began composing the music for Lovers. When he had completed all the songs—about a year later—we went into a friend’s recording studio and recorded the score ourselves in just three days. I sang the title song with Jesse while Mark and Robin did the instrumentals. When the recording was finished, we mixed it at Ironworks Studios in LA. I think the soundtrack is fabulous.

Question: You had so many people who were close to you working on this film: your father, your brother and your partner. How were you able to maintain a professional relationship with all of them?

Charters: By maintaining an atmosphere of respect and honesty. It wasn’t always easy—especially when Mark and I would disagree about something or other. But we would remind ourselves of what we were doing and how lucky we were to be doing it. Stress can be a devil, however, when you work long hours outdoors in minus 25 degree weather and you aren’t getting the shot you want.

Question: The technical aspects of this film are incredible. What were some of your production challenges and what kind of equipment did you use in the production?

Charters: We shot with the camera that I owned at the time, a PD150 PAL. I had gotten the PAL version feeling that I would want to blow up to film someday and the frame rate for PAL was kinder on the process. It’s funny because when we started shooting, all these amazing digital HD cameras were coming out. Now, there is no end to the great camera gear available but I loved the PD150 so much I felt we should keep going with it. Plus, we had shot a lot of fun stuff already. Even though it was only a three-chip camera, we were pushing its limits and fiddling with it to make it less digital by adding a stocking or a diffusion filter and making it more film-like.  It held up so well. I still love the color quality of this camera and I am sad that I had to sell it to help with expenses of the post.

As for challenges, well, we had a very small crew—and sometimes no crew. We had to do so much ourselves. It was hard, but it was also very rewarding. I am proud of the way the film looks, considering what we shot with. The quality of the transfer to HD is all the painstaking work and brilliance of my brother. I think he did an amazing job of taking every frame and treating each one differently mathematically, as well as getting the color coding right to help with digital noise and pixeling. He’s a genius.

Question: Do you enjoy being responsible for all aspects of a film: production, writing, directing and acting?

Charters: Yes I do, very much. But I would also love to just act in someone else’s film and not be involved in any of the technical aspects. That would be loads of fun.

Question: As an independent producer, how do you manage to get your films financed and distributed?

Charters: Mark and I financed Lovers in a Dangerous Time mostly with our own money and with a little help from family and friends. With our limited budget, we went after locations we could afford or get for free and that helped enormously, Our crew size was also a reflection of our limited budget. What we did for this film wasn’t typical. Now, I’m beginning to follow the more traditional path: shopping scripts around, finding a financial match with either a producer or private financier. It’s an interesting and tricky part of filmmaking.  We have a new project in mind where we get a group of filmmakers and actor friends to shoot an ensemble film around one event. Each group would create its own segment of the film, and then we would piece it together. Using our combined equipment and locations will keep costs down.

Distribution is a problem. Lovers was a small operation without any well-known actors. We just had to keep plugging away and sending it to people we hoped would be interested in distributing it. We did very well on the festival circuit and being at festivals is one of the best ways of getting your film before professional distributors. If your film doesn’t get picked up, however, you have to get creative by using the internet and social marketing. The internet provides more ways to view a film. We are fortunate to have our film on Netflix, so it is available to more people than we could reach on our website, Facebook or twitter. The DVD is available on my website.

Question: Who are your professional inspirations?

Charters: Oh boy, that’s a long list. But here goes: my parents, my brother and sister, Mike Leigh, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Gillian Armstrong, Alice Guy Blache, Mary Pickford, Danny Boyle, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nijinsky, Torvill and Dean, Mark Rothko, Vincent Van Gough, Beatrix Potter, Cicely Mark Barker, Terry Gilliam, Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, Ryan Gosling, Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Ken Loach, Carlos Saura. I could go on. I hope to be able to work with those who are still living someday.

What They Are Saying

An undeniably lovely film: natural, gorgeously shot, haunting, funny and practically oozing with Canadiana.  Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald

Finally, a date night movie everyone on the date can enjoy. It has a rekindling love affair for the ladies and enough hockey references to make even Don Cherry blush…love, hockey, beer, houseboat parties…need I say more? When it comes to Canadian cinema, this one’s a gem.  Erin F. Calgary International Film Festival

I’ve seen the film and anyone who tends to despair for the future of narrative film (or just wants an enjoyable night at the movies) needs to see it as well. Where most modern movies lurch along from dull plot point to dull plot point,  ”Lovers in a Dangerous Time” finds its centre in the reality of people’s feelings and lives and allows the story to grow rather than creating it in a test tube. A heresy against Hollywood convention, certainly; but when the result is a charming and heartfelt film like this, who’s to complain?  Adrian Barnes, The Portland Telegraph

A spare but poetic tale of laconic emotions and calm western Canadian farmland, as childhood friends try to make it as lovers.  Rosemary Ponnekanti, The News Tribune

As a child, May Charters would fall asleep to a sound that would not only shape her dreams, but her life. The sound was the click and reel of her father working till wee hours of the morning on a Steinbeck editing machine that shared her childhood bedroom. Born in Toronto, yet raised on movie sets all over the world by her filmmaking parents (Rodney Charters ASC, CSC and Gillian Charters), May received a unique education from the informal of assisting wardrobe on the set, to her formal education at Trinity College School, NY Film Academy, LAMDA and the Paris American Academy for Art (Sorbonne).

After studying acting at LAMDA she trained with various acting teachers in Toronto, NYC and LA. Such as Sears and Switzer, Caryn West and Julie Ariola. She also trained as a ballet and flamenco dancer, performing for companies with Timo Lozano, Esmeralda Enrique, Carla Luna, La Tati and Marc Aurelio. For her first feature length film, she joined forces with Mark Hug and together they single handedly wrote, produced, directed and starred in the international award winning feature “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”. Whether as a filmmaker, flamenco dancer, actor, painter, photographer or anything that catches her passion; it seems May will always be creating stories to the dreamy rhythm of a Steinbeck.




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About the Author

Shirley Baugher has been a resident of Old Town since 1978. She and her husband Norman lived for seven years in the North Park Condominiums. In 1985, they bought the historic row house on Crilly Court and have been there ever since. Shirley earned an M. A. and Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and has written extensively in the area of American History.


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