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Celluloid dreaming

Warren teen moves from stage to screen with lead in independent film shot in Vancouver
by: Courtesy photo ON THE SET — Warren actress Nicole McCullough, 13, and director Alexander “Sandy” MacKenzie (left) take a break on the Vancouver, Wash., set of the independent film “Dancing on the Edge.”

While some teens fantasize about seeing their face on the big screen, one Warren girl is about to see that dream become a reality.

A majority of 13-year-old Nicole McCullough's life has been spent acting. Now with nine years experience under her belt, the teen was able to get her foot in the door of the film industry when she was cast as the lead in an independent film shot in Vancouver, Wash.

But it hasn't always been so easy.

Earlier this year McCullough learned she had been passed over for a play in Portland. On the ride home from that audition with her mother, Sally McCullough, the young girl was filled with tears.

Pulling herself together, the teen said the director would regret not casting her.

She soon saw a reversal of fortune.

A Vancouver film director had seen her headshot and resume on a casting agency's website and was interested in making her the principal lead in his movie, 'Dancing on the Edge.'

The call was a pleasant surprise to McCullough, whose previous acting experience was on stage in productions for the Children's Theater Kids Company Northwest. She had not-so-secretly pined over the chance to ply her trade in front of the camera.

'Screen acting is what I find to be the most fun, anyway' she said. 'I like it more because I like to show emotions subtly.'

The low-budget production, paid for primarily out of writer-director Alexander 'Sandy' MacKenzie's pocket, wrapped shooting earlier in the month after a 21-day production schedule.

MacKenzie, president of Vancouver-based Highland Light Productions and a veteran character actor and casting director, called McCullough one of the most mature young actresses with whom he's worked

W.C. Fields' famous remark about working with children - that one should never do it - did not apply to McCullough.

'I had to jump on her before she got too expensive,' MacKenzie said. 'She's the next Jodie Foster.'

Much like Foster's formative work in such films as 'Taxi Driver,' in which she played mature roles, McCullough was required to tackle tough subject matter.

In the family-friendly film, McCullough plays Corey Farmer, a teenager with dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. But she's a troubled youth - not simply because her divorced parents don't seem to want her, but also because she's struggling with substance abuse issues - whose road to recovery leads her to learn about who her real friends are.

The movie is intended as an uplifting story about seeking one's dreams, MacKenzie said.

The next step for the movie is selling it to a distributor.

Though MacKenzie characterizes selling the movie as the easy part - the hard part being acquiring enough money to make the movie, which came to 'less than $1 million' - nationwide theatrical distribution deals for family films are still rare.

MacKenzie has already begun pre-production on his next film, 'Runaway Hearts,' which will also feature McCullough.

Editing 'Dancing on the Edge' will take place over the spring, after which he will start shopping it around to distributors and at film festivals.

Sally McCullough is proud of her daughter and has high hopes for her future. But she tries to keep those hopes tempered in order not to become an overbearing stage mom.

But while watching the production, Sally McCullough was struck by the positivity she saw on the set. She is happy her daughter will have another opportunity to work with MacKenzie in the future.

'Sandy [MacKenzie] always stayed positive about everything,' she said.

Though McCullough doesn't have her future plotted, she said she would like to move to Hollywood.

Through the filmmaking process, which required her to take up ballet and an entirely new way of acting, McCullough said she learned a lesson about her craft: 'You can't be afraid of failure,' she said.

And after one failed audition led to a dream come true, she plans to carry that lesson with her in the future, wherever acting takes her.

Dancing on the Edge

'Dancing on the Edge,' which used a Pacific Northwest crew, wrapped principal photography earlier in the month. More information can be found at: highlandlightproductions.com