Film made in Vancouver earns honors, lands distributor

'Dancing on the Edge' playing this week at Kiggins Theatre

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photoActress Nicole McCullough, left, and director Alexander MacKenzie won awards for “Dancing on the Edge” at the New York City International Film Festival

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photoDirector Alexander MacKenzie, right, discusses a scene with teenage cinematographer Daniel Steely, left, on the set of “Dancing on the Edge” last year.

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photoAlexander MacKenzie hired almost the entire Steely family for his film “Dancing on the Edge.” From left, grip Ken Steely, still photographer Jubilee Steely, cinematographer Daniel Steely and MacKenzie. Daniel, then 17, won an award last year at a New York film festival for his cinematography, as did MacKenzie for his direction.

(/The Columbian)

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If you go

What: Locally produced film “Dancing on the Edge.”

Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

When: 6:30 and 8:45 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 6:30 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday.

Information: Highland Light Productions or Kiggins Theatre.

What’s next

Highland Light Productions will start filming “Michael’s Ride” this summer in and around Vancouver. The film about a boy with leukemia is slated to star John Savage and Sam Elliott.

A local project fueled by faith and stubbornness is paying off. Not in dollars and cents yet but in hearts won over.

The film “Dancing on the Edge,” which was shot and produced in Vancouver by a Clark County crew with a cast of fledgling actors plucked from around the region, has won a string of awards on the film festival circuit. A distributor just picked up the film, which means it might soon be sold to a TV network.

The inspiring tale of a teenage ballerina’s struggle to overcome drug addiction is coming to Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre for a weeklong run starting Friday.

It’s been a long time coming.

Alexander MacKenzie has been working with kids for decades. The veteran character actor teaches acting classes, including to young people with a history of drug or alcohol abuse. About 30 years ago, he met a teenage girl battling alcoholism. Her perseverance impressed him so much that he wrote the script for “Dancing.”

Life took many turns some of them sideways for MacKenzie after that. Eventually, he stumbled onto the set of “War and Remembrance,” the successful World War II miniseries starring Robert Mitchum.

MacKenzie is a Navy veteran, which landed the extra a speaking part.

“I was the only who knew how to jump out of a submarine hatch without falling on my face,” MacKenzie said with a laugh.

The movie business has been his home ever since, in one form or another. MacKenzie became a character actor and played the sheriff in 2003’s “The Hunted,” a Hollywood production starring Tommy Lee Jones that filmed in Portland. He also made a name for himself as a casting director able to find talent in the Pacific Northwest. He’s produced and directed commercials and corporate programs.

Then, in the fall of 2010, a company offered him a big commercial job. It could have made MacKenzie a good chunk of money, he said.

But he had his suspicions about the investors’ ethics and turned it down. MacKenzie is a devout Christian.

Instead, he decided to launch his own production company, Highland Light Productions. The first project would be the script he’d written so long ago.

MacKenzie gathered up a cast of enthusiasts with minimal to no acting experience. He found local crew members willing to work on deferred payment.

While visiting the Kelso Highlander Festival, he noticed a young man filming the event with a digital camera. The two started talking about the more-affordable movie technology, which MacKenzie would have to use for his low-budget production.

Daniel Steely, a then-17-year-old who was volunteering for the local cable-access channel, became the cinematographer for “Dancing.”

When shooting started in and around Vancouver in early 2011, MacKenzie had $2,000 to run the production and feed his cast and crew for several weeks. It was a leap of faith. But everything fell into place once word got around about his project.

“People came up to me and handed me checks,” MacKenzie said.

They made it through the shoot without starving. But then MacKenzie needed money for post-production film editing, sound mixing and such. On the last night of the shoot, a man called him from Yakima, wanting to invest $20,000.

Now, it was time to create some attention for the project, which for independent film means entering festivals. The naysayers told MacKenzie he wouldn’t get into the festival circuit with a film that lacked even a minor star.

“Dancing” didn’t just get in; it cleaned up. The festivals it played were small, to be sure, but the Vancouver product got excellent reviews.

At the New York City International Film Festival, MacKenzie, Steely and the 13-year-old lead actress Nicole McCullough of Warren, Ore. walked away with little golden statuettes.

“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Steely said.

He was still in high school at the time and didn’t have his driver’s license yet, but when the lights came on after the New York screening, he noticed all eyes on him.

He didn’t know why, hadn’t heard the announcement, but his mother nudged him and told him to go up to the microphone.

The teenage boy had just won the best cinematographer award, beating out much older and more-experienced competition.

“I didn’t expect to win,” Steely said this week. “I had no idea what was happening.”

The film picked up several more awards, including in San Francisco. And Breakthrough Entertainment recently agreed to distribute “Dancing,” MacKenzie said.

It’s a family film and likely headed for television. There won’t be very much money coming in from it, but it’ll be enough for MacKenzie and his collaborators to continue on their mission.

There’s a Christian message tucked into “Dancing”: helping people, forgiveness and treating each other right.

“We preach the principles without preaching religion,” MacKenzie said.

There’s another intent behind Highland’s productions: keeping money in the local community.

“This isn’t to get the big house in Beverly Hills,” MacKenzie said. “Just enough to make the next picture and to do it here at home, where the money stays at home.”

Highland Light not only hires all-local talent, crew and contract services, it strongly encourages its cast and crew to donate a small part of their earnings to local charities.

It’s part of MacKenzie’s bigger plan. He wants to use his production company to train unemployed workers in skills they can use on and off the set. He wants to strengthen the local economy by circulating all profits here, rather than shipping them off to Hollywood. And he wants to do so with films that families can watch together, films that open viewers’ eyes to hardships in their community.

It might sound like an uphill battle, but so was taking a movie from Vancouver to New York City.

It just requires conviction, MacKenzie said.

“We all believed in what we were doing,” he said. “We believed in the dream and made it come true.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.