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Gotta have Faith 

Josh MacDonald's play Halo ascends to film screens as Faith, Fraud, Minimum Wage.

It's been a busy year for Halifax screenwriter and playwright Josh MacDonald, with two of his projects, The Corridor and Faith, Fraud and Minimum Wage, screening at the Atlantic Film Festival in September. As he nursed the movies through the long, challenging years of the development process, MacDonald dreamed of the day the finished products could be seen by live audiences. He also dreamed about posters.

"I kept hanging onto the idea that, no matter what else happens, and even if the movies are disasters, one day I'm gonna have the posters in my office," MacDonald laughs.

MacDonald can now look at those posters on his wall, while moviegoers who didn't catch Faith, Fraud, & Minimum Wage at the film fest can take a look at it when it opens this weekend. An adaptation of MacDonald's 2000 play Halo, the movie concerns a teenager, Casey, played by Emily of New Moon's Martha MacIsaac, who fashions an image of Jesus out of spilled coffee that the religious folks in her town worship like the real thing. Casey profits financially but loses out spiritually in the ensuing circus, while juggling a burgeoning relationship with her doughnut shop colleague (Ricky Mabe), a father (Callum Keith Rennie) who can't move on from a family tragedy and a young priest (Andrew Bush) making pleas for her eternal soul.

For MacDonald, the tug-of-war between Casey's doubt and the faith of her fellow townies was modeled in part on his own experiences.

"I grew up going to mass with my father and then coming home almost immediately to almost a debater's counterpoint with my mom, where she would sort of question some of the things that had just been downloaded into my young mind," he says. "It was like growing up in the MacNeil/Lehrer Report on that one issue."

MacDonald's protagonist, Casey, may represent the supposedly rational side of the argument, but that doesn't necessarily make her correct. As the character's creator points out, Casey is dogmatic about her unbelief in the Creator, making her somewhat of a hypocrite. This complexity was one of the main reasons MacIsaac signed on to the project. "She's definitely not a saint," says the actor.

MacIsaac's resume includes roles in Hollywood fare such as Superbad and the television series Greek, a far cry from the world of low-budget Canadian cinema. Yet she embraced the opportunity to carry a film and revisit her Maritime roots.

"Every second counts and every penny counts, so you have to be more on your game," says MacIsaac. "But I like that, when everybody's pulling together to make it work.

"The crew was all people I worked with back when I did Emily of New Moon, so it was like a big family reunion."

Small budgets bring certain challenges, however, among them frantic shooting schedules. MacDonald says that for Faith, Fraud, & Minimum Wage, which was shot early in 2009, the production had to try and film nine pages worth of script per day, as opposed to the industry standard of three. For MacIsaac and her castmates, that meant several long takes.

"It was great to have really talented actors who, when you turned the camera on, could inhabit the scene in its entirety," says MacDonald. "With some film actors, you get amazing performances, but they can only maybe carry four or five lines at a time."

MacDonald, meanwhile, had his own burdens. Inclement weather forced several changes to the shooting schedule, which in turn forced him to rewrite scenes on the fly and, in many cases, even change the location of sequences.

"You problem-solve or perish," says MacDonald, who credits director George Mihalka for allowing him to participate on set, a place where screenwriters often don't have much of a say. MacDonald hopes to apply that experience to an eventual turn in the director's chair. "I'm proud of the collaboration with the other artists I've worked with, but it would be fun to hold the steering wheel," he says.

For now, though, he's looking forward to see how people react to Faith, Fraud and Minimum Wage. "We're trying to occupy one screen next to six Harry Potter screens," he says. "But you do hope that a movie that resolutely insisted on being set in our own backyard might get some of the neighbours to come out and see it."

If not, he'll still have the posters.


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