The Butterfly Circus is a touching tale of a circus that travels across America during the Great Depression. It stars Nick Vujicic as Will—dubbed “the Limbless Man” by the cruel showman at a fairground sideshow, it is only when he joins the Butterfly Circus that he realizes his true potential.
The Butterfly Circus, directed by Joshua Weigel, recently won the $100,000 grand prize at the Doorpost Film Project. Weigel’s film was among 100 finalists, each of which was centered around the theme of hope. With its superb acting and directing—not to mention its outstanding production value and array of Depression-era props and set pieces—it is no surprise that The Butterfly Circus took the top prize. The only question now is what Weigel will be up to next.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): Had the idea for The Butterfly Circus been in your head for a while? How did the script come together?
Joshua Weigel (JW): I had a rough idea swirling around my mind for maybe a year or so before, but it only came together after my wife, Rebekah, and I teamed up on it. We had written several short films together and always find our best stories that way so working together has become essential to the process. It has been difficult at times to find the time to write since we have three small children and I have been art directing commercials to make a living, but we locked ourselves in our room for several months and spent every minute of our free time writing between all the demands of life.
MM: How did you go about casting this film? I know you had some difficulty getting Nick Vujicic cast as Will; how did you go about getting him on board for the project? Was it difficult to find the right actors for the other parts?
JW: Casting the film was one of the most challenging adventures of the whole production, but we ended up with truly remarkable talent. Maryclaire Sweeters helped us find two of our talented young actors, Connor Rosen and Brady Ecklund through A Face in the Crowd Casting, but they were the only two who came through an agency. Most of the cast were either friends or referrals. Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Fantastic Four) was a fan of one of our previous shorts and he became even more enthusiastic once I handed him the script for TBC. It was a major challenge wrangling his schedule, but was so worth the effort.
The showman was such an important character to me and I was blown away when Eduardo Verastegui (Bella) agreed to play the role. I was a big fan after seeing his work in the film Bella, but I never expected to work with him at this level. Ed Vizenor, one of our EPs and a friend of Eduardo, knew it was the kind of project he would get excited about so he gave him the script. What’s funny is that Eduardo never watched any of my other shorts before he agreed. He just loved the story and liked what I did with a spec spot I thought I had wasted my time on! Fortunately, he had an opening in his schedule and he jumped in.
Getting Nick Vujicic proved to be the biggest obstacle of the whole production. My wife and I found out about him and were so inspired by his life and felt he so perfectly embodied the story of hope that we decided to write him into it. The problem was we had never met him and didn’t even know if he lived in the country or how difficult it would be to contact him. A few weeks later, I ran into a friend who I hadn’t talked to in several years who tells me he had recently started assisting a man without arms or legs named Nick Nujicic. My wife picked my mouth up off the ground and we began the three-month saga of trying to convince Nick to play Will. We eventually got the script to him two weeks before production, but he turned it down because he couldn’t fit it into his schedule. There we were with no lead actor and facing some major rewrites with almost no time to do it.
Miraculously, he ended up watching our short film Stained three hours after turning us down and a last-minute cancellation cleared his schedule so everything suddenly changed! We met with him that night and two days later he was on board and excited to make The Butterfly Circus his acting debut.
The rest of the cast came from friends and referrals, some even on the day we needed them. My wife, Rebekah, who helped produce the film, spent much of her time casting the roles and looking for the crowds of background artists needed to pull-off an authentic story. None of this came easy since the demands included brothel scenes (“Want to come play a prostitute for a day?”), deserts and night shoots. All of our actors were so generous with their time and extremely easy to work with. Luckily they all shared a common vision and believed in the story which helped them endure our ridiculous schedule, low budget and lack of comfort. We can’t say enough about our cast and crew. They made the film and we couldn’t have done it without them.
MM: Once Doorpost selected you as one of the 10 finalists you were given $30,000 to make a film based around the theme of hope; for you, that film was The Butterfly Circus. Was Doorpost supportive in other ways, besides the financial aspect?
JW: They are very supportive throughout the entire process from start to completion. To begin, we were given $30,000 toward the production, which gave us momentum and enabled us to round up a very talented crew since it legitimized the project. On top of this, they organize two major events to nurture a filmmaking community that they hope will go beyond the competition. Here they provide nice hotels, airfare and meals, introduce you to their very talented team and provide other accomplished industry professionals as resources in order to help the experience become as fruitful as possible. It’s truly unprecedented how much they give without expecting anything in return.
The Doorpost’s mission is to support and encourage visionary filmmakers who want to make films that will bring Hope to the world. We feel so honored to have been chosen as one of their ten visionary filmmakers for 2009.
MM: The production value of The Butterfly Circus is amazing—you received a lot of assistance from the LA Circus in Riverside, CA in terms of your props for the circus scenes. From the cars used in the film to the costumes, everything seems spot-on; how did you go about getting such a large quantity of period-accurate pieces?
JW: Bob Yerkes was a key player for us and we are so thankful for his involvement. We met him through another film competition in town and once I told him about the circus idea, he immediately took an interest in our film. He joined the circus when he was fifteen, has performed all over the world, and knows so many people in the circus world. Later he started doing stunts in Hollywood but the circus is his first love. He introduced us to Wini McKay at LA Circus which is one of the largest, and only, providers of vintage circus props and costumes in the entertainment business. It happened to be a very busy time for them and they sacrificed a lot to help us with the film and it would not have been possible without their help.
MM: What are your plans for The Butterfly Circus now that the film has won Doorpost? Do you have any other films in the works?
JW: We have already had quite a few people approach us about turning The Butterfly Circus into a feature film and we will be spending the coming months writing the feature script. From the start we had a much bigger story in mind and feel it has the potential to be even better as a full length feature. We have many other feature ideas we would like to develop once we have the funding, including our other short film Stained, which you can see a clip from at www.stainedthemovie.com, but what’s important to us right now is finding the right people to work with.