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Humorous NZ look at red-light life by Hans Petrovic

Athina Tsoulis says she wanted a good laugh when she set her first movie, I'll Make You Happy, among the colourful people of Auckland's red-light district.

When the first-time director read her sister Anne's screenplay for this wacky comedy, she saw that its prostitutes and pimps were fresh and vibrant characters.

What Athina likes about the final, much-altered screenplay is that none of the characters is "saved" at the end -- they just stay the way they are. "They make their own families and look after each other," she says.

I'll Make You Happy follows a teenage prostitute, Siggy (Jodie Rimmer), who is plotting to get out of her profession. Motivated by love, greed, and anger, she comes up with a plan to hijack the latest money-making scheme of her sleazy pimp Lou (Michael Hurst).

With an unlikely team including agoraphobic Lester (Carl Bland), mild-mannered Drew (Ian Hughes), dominatrix Fran (Sandy Ireland), and sex workers Mickie (Rena Owen) and Mel (Jennifer Ward-Lealand), she attempts a heist involving decoy cops, sexual distractions, misleading code words, and narrow escapes.

The film, shot in four weeks and two days, pioneered the do-it-yourself 1990s version of the "no-budget" concept in New Zealand.

When they could not raise production investment, Athina and producer Liz Stevens decided to go ahead anyway. They shot the film and took it to the fine-cut stage with only $130,000, financing the shoot from their own resources and with help from a friend.

Relying on the dedication and good will of cast and crew, who deferred their fees, and calling in favours from suppliers, friends, and family to work within the production budget, Liz and Athina nursed the film into life.

"It was a case of asking people for favours," says Athina. "I saw Rena Owen at a fund-raising screening, grabbed her by the arm, and asked her if she wanted to be in my first film. She agreed. "I saw Lucy Lawless, who makes a cameo appearance, in a Ponsonby Road cafe."

Athina asked Lawless if she wanted a small part in the film, and she agreed. The star of Xena: Warrior Princess was returning a favour, for her first movie role was in Athina's first short film, A Bitter Song, in 1990. Lawless waived her payment and donated her time.

"It's nice to see that fame hasn't gone to her head," says Athina. "Actually, that's a good part of our industry -- successful people helping others get to where they are now. It's certainly not the money that drives people in the film business in New Zealand."

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