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Victoria Film Festival Interview – Mad City Chickens director Robert Lughai

Mad City Chickens - At the Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“Mad City Chickens is a sometimes wacky, sometimes serious look at the people who keep urban chickens in their backyards. From chicken experts and authors to a rescued landfill hen or an inexperienced family that decides to take the poultry plunge—and even a mad scientist and giant hen taking to the streets—it’s a humorous and heartfelt trip through the world of backyard chickendom.” Director Robert Lughai on “Mad City Chickens” which screens at this year’s Victoria Film Festival.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to the industry.

Tashai has a degree in Film, Photography, and Electronic Media from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Conversely, Robert’s degree is in Psychology, but since childhood, we both have been drawn to good stories and the art of storytelling. Whether the medium be in book form, still images or moving pictures, any project worth doing must have at its core a solid story idea. With advances in digital photography and video technology and the supporting software, telling story through films has become nothing less than blissful for us.

How did this whole project come together?

We both have kept backyard chickens at different times in our lives. So we knew just how fascinating and even personable these birds can be. A few years ago, we moved from Boulder, Colorado to Madison, Wisconsin, and not long afterwards, Tashai noticed an article in the local newspaper on the “Chicken Underground”, a loosely connected group of people in Madison that were keeping chickens illegally within the city. We found this intriguing, but when she tried to get contact information on the Underground, the paper would not give it out, which of course was a good thing since having city chickens was against the law and the people wanted to remain anonymous.

Fast forward a year. The Underground has organized themselves into a group called the Mad City Chickens, and they have successfully petitioned city hall to overturn the outdated zoning laws. The keeping of 4 hens in the backyard of a single family home was now legal in Madison. Without knowing, they were on the cutting edge of what would become an international phenomenon, the return of the urban backyard chicken. The Mad City Chickens group began holding Chicken 101 classes to re-educate modern urbanites on the how-to of keeping hens. Tashai attended one of these classes and inquired if the instructors might be interested in talking about their chicken experiences on camera. They said yes and things just took off from there.

At first we just focused on the Madison group, but the project blossomed into including chicken experts, authors, and chicken folk from other parts of North America and internationally as well.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

The film was shot mainly with a Panasonic AG-DVX100A. We chose the mini-DV format because that is what we could afford, and this was before the HD format had really hit the market in a serious way. There are a few scenes that were shot with a HD camera and/or a DVcam because our DVX was in the shop, but we’re pleased with the quality of the picture throughout.

The film was shot over a two-and-a-half year period, so depending upon availability, we each shared camera duties with our cinematographer Henry Hahee. He’s a close friend and knows his stuff.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

The most challenging aspect of the project was just the sheer size of the whole thing, especially when we were holding down day jobs at the same time. We had an Associate Producer and at various points a volunteer crew, but the amount of time and effort required to see this 3 year project through to the end was enormous.

That being said, filmmaking is bliss for the two of us. So following your bliss is not necessarily easy, but it is worth all the effort. There were a great many pleasurable moments in the project, but probably meeting and working with so many great people both in front of and behind the camera is the most memorable.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Whether it’s in documentary form or narrative fiction, we are attracted to storytelling; the telling of good story that both informs and evokes. James Cameron is an inspiration to us. He’s someone who can tell a good story, whatever the genre. Walt Disney had this genius too. We also really like the films of Peter Weir. In addition, the work of filmmaker Stacy Peralta, specifically his Riding Giants documentary, directly influenced the style of our Mad City Chickens film. Keep it moving, keep it fun, touch the audience with a story worth telling.

How has the film been received at other festivals or screenings? Do you have any interesting stories about how this film has screened before? What do you think you will expect at the film’s screenings at Victoria?

Mad City Chickens made its festival premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison before a sold out enthusiastic audience. We had fun beforehand by passing out free chicken buttons, chocolate eggs and those marshmallow peeps in the shape of baby chicks. There are not many things more fulfilling to a filmmaker than to receive multiple rounds of applause throughout a screening.

The most common response to our film has been the heightened desire of people wanting to keep chickens in their backyards. On numerous occasions, audience members have told us that having chickens was not something they’d ever thought about before, but now after seeing the film, they’re seriously considering it.

We’ve had a lot of interest in the film from all over, but we’ve probably received more emails from people in British Columbia than any other area. Backyard chickens are part of a greater movement toward food sustainability, and people in BC are leading the way. We hope poultry and non-poultry folks alike will come out of the woodwork to see our chicken flick at the Victoria Film Festival.

If you could offer a nickel’s worth of free advice to someone who wanted to make movies, what nuggets of wisdom would you offer?

Stop contemplating it and just do it! Get your hands on whatever equipment you can, get some people who want to do it with you, and start shooting. If you stick with it long enough, you will learn what works and what doesn’t. Don’t listen to the naysayer who says you can’t. Because you can!

What do you love the most about film and the filmmaking business?

What we love most is starting with just an idea then building it, changing it, willing it into a story that works on the big screen. And in the process, having the opportunity of working with and collaborating with all the other creative people it takes to make a feature-length film happen. Through collaboration, the project always transforms into something more than if you tried to just do it alone.

For more information on this film, screening times and for more information on this year’s Victoria Film Festival, point your browser to

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Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 02/06/09 17:08:34
last updated: 02/06/09 17:09:47
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