Margaret M. MacDonald’s twenty years of experience spans several roles in the film industry, living and working in Los Angeles, New York, and Sydney. A background in production design has helped her to hone a unique visual voice, which conveys a tangible sense of place, inviting readers into the story world. She creates character-driven films and often infuses a mix of genres with a twist of the fantastic.
Her written work includes a library of spec features and series that have earned her a few laurels and several features written on assignment. In 2017 she wrote and produced the sci-fi/thriller Enter Sanctum, which was adapted from her award-winning script, The Residents. She is currently in development on One Summer’s Night, a modern-day comedic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Margaret has directed several shorts, including her 2021 film, The Writer, which won the Audience Award at A Night of Horror Festival. She is working on several shorts and planning to direct a larger-scale project in the near future. She is also in development on a sci-fi/fantasy novel series inspired by her award-winning screenplay, The Phoenix Effect, under contract with Oghma Creative Media in the United States. Margaret loves to tell stories that transport people into other worlds and help to make this one a little more extraordinary.
FilmCentral magazine recently caught up with Margaret to discuss her journey in the industry, and here’s what went down:
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I’m a writer and director with a penchant for unusual storytelling. I live in Sydney but am originally from the U.S., so I bring a bit of both experience to everything I create. My first passion in film was production design, but it wasn’t long before I went from designing filmic worlds to creating them through writing. I’ve been doing that for over a decade now, writing features, shorts, series, and a novel trilogy, as well as directing several short films. I love telling character-driven stories and enjoy the challenge of infusing them with a mix of genres and a twist of the fantastic. I am passionate about creating films that transport people into other worlds and help to make this one a little more extraordinary.
Your new project is very unique and intriguing. Tell us a little more about it and what makes it so unique.
I’m in the midst of making a trilogy of one-woman thriller shorts. These are all single-location stories about a woman suddenly encountering an unexplained phenomenon during the course of an average day, and I take on writing, directing, and the roles of cast and crew to capture these stories on camera. The first film is titled “The Pool” and the second is “The Bridge.” The third is in planning, and I hope to have it released in the next couple of months. I guess these films are unique because they are a self-imposed creative challenge. I’m not just shooting alone for convenience but as a way to discover how to tell an effective story through simple but impactful filmmaking. The core of each film is a basic story about a person and a place, but my goal is to elevate these stories into spine-chilling and surprising adventures. In a sense, these stories explore the experience of being totally alone, which I am making totally alone, so the process feeds the storytelling.
How did you come up with the idea to do something like this?
It all started with the moment that inspired the first film, “The Pool.” One day while I was swimming, whenever I put my head under the water, I could hear voices in conversation, doors opening, and closing; I swore I heard someone running on the treadmill in the gym next door, but every time I surfaced there was no one around. It got my imagination spinning and inspired the first story. I realized that not only could I make this story into a film with just me and my phone, but also that that’s how this story wanted to be told, simply. Two days later, I had a shotlist and a couple of bullet points on performance, and I went to the pool just to see what I could capture. It took a lot of lap swimming and a bit of improvising, but eventually, I shot everything I had planned for and more.
“The Pool” then evolved into quite a special little film, especially thanks to many talented people’s contributions during post-production, not the least of which was sound designer and composer Vitaly Zolotarev. “The Pool” got a great reception as soon as I released it, and greatly appreciated the creepy spin I gave to an otherwise ordinary setting. Creating the first film was such a challenging, educational, and rewarding process that as soon as I saw the location that inspired “The Bridge,” I knew I wanted to do it all over again.
What is the production process like?
The locations inspire me to think about “what if” scenarios that ultimately become scripts about ordinary circumstances spinning into extraordinary ones. I then spend some time on the location with my phone camera, testing various angles and lenses and trying to figure out how to best capture the story and what is unique and cinematic about the location. The great thing about using a phone is being able to stick it into tight spots or positions where I can naturally move around it. I always try to find a cool little niche or unique angle to shoot from.
From there, I make a shot list and schedule. In the case of “The Bridge,” I literally mapped out all the positions I was aiming to shoot from and then scheduled according to where the sun was likely to be as I moved from one to the other. When it comes time to film, I simply go shot by shot, moment by moment, until I have everything on camera. There’s always a bit of working around unforeseen circumstances and lots of conversation with curious people passing by. Still, as long as I keep in mind what moments are most important to the story, and make sure to capture those in a simple and effective way, I know it will all come together in the end.
What are your future plans for the project and/or what do you hope to achieve from it?
The next step is to make this trilogy’s third and final chapter. I don’t want to reveal too much about the next “The..” in the series, but I’ll just say I’m looking forward to finding lots of creative camera angles in a tight location. Once the trilogy is complete, I’d like to find a platform where these films can connect with an international audience that loves chilling and usual stories just as much as I do.
What was the most challenging part of bringing the project to light?
I’ve never trained as an actor and had no idea if I would be comfortable on camera when I started this journey. In addition to having to find my inner performer, I discovered how difficult it could be to switch back and forth between the headspace of director and actor, especially when you’re on your own. One moment you’re setting up the shot, thinking about frame and exposure, thinking three shots ahead to make sure you get everything before the light changes, planning to combine two shots into one to save time, then the next moment you suddenly need to forget all of that and be in an emotional place. At the start and end of most of my shots, you can hear me giving directions to myself, reminding myself what I’m supposed to be experiencing and feeling at that moment.
It’s also worth mentioning that it’s incredibly hard to hit your mark when no one is behind the camera to tell you where it is. Another advantage of phone filming is quick playback and lots of storage for all those takes where you accidentally stepped completely out of the frame. I still wonder what my performance was like on those.
Who is the character in these films, and how much of her is similar to you?
In the scripts, I refer to her as “The Woman.” I like the idea that her identity remains anonymous as if these stories are urban legends that begin with people saying, “Did you hear about the woman who was swimming one day and…”. She is definitely the same Woman throughout, experiencing and responding to all of these extraordinary events in a completely unique way. As much as I would love to have one of these crazy experiences myself, I know I wouldn’t react the way she does. I share her curiosity and desire to explore, but I am nowhere near as intrepid. If it were me in these films, they would end about a third of the way through with me running for safety.
Did anything funny or exceptional happen on set?
One of the quirkier and more inventive moments actually happened in post-production on “The Pool.” While Vitaly was busy with sound design, I was spending a lot of time at the location, listening to the sounds under and around the water, trying to feel out if the mix was really capturing the experience of hearing through the water. I realized that when you jiggle your finger in your ear to help release stuck water, as I do in the film, it sounds like a hand running over a microphone. I suggested Vitaly try it, and he one-upped my suggestion by sticking one of his little mics in his own ear to capture the sound. Once a wet squish noise was added to the mix, it sounded perfect.
Are there any great achievements you want to mention?
Better than any award, I’m most proud of getting positive reviews on my work from friends, colleagues, professionals, and total strangers. Every time someone has enjoyed the journey, my films or scripts have sent them on; that’s when I know I’ve done my job as a storyteller.
What would it be if you could redo anything in the process or the film itself?
Every time I make something new, I learn something new. Putting myself behind the camera and into the editing chair, as well as taking on a bit of visual effects, has taught me so much more about those arts. I’ve also gotten to know my little phone camera pretty well, trying many different apps and settings and learning about it’s limitations and strengths. I wouldn’t redo anything in these films, as they became what they wanted and needed to become at the time, but I now know how to avoid some of the issues I encountered along the way. I enter the process of making each new film armed with everything I’ve learned on the last one, the one before that, and so on. That, combined with my desire to come up with something inventive and exciting to try for each new project, hopefully, leads to a better film each and every time.
What is the next step for you?
Once the trilogy is complete, and ideally, in a home where appreciative viewers can discover it, I can dive into the next journey. At the moment, that includes development on a comedy feature, pre-production on an episode of a wacky web series, an upcoming development of my novel series, and continuing to work away on an ever-growing pile of stories that are looking for their future audience.