Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hope We're All Still Friends

The completed short films from the Baltimore 48-Hour Film Project will be screened tomorrow night at the Charles Theater.  Thankfully, I’ve already flown back to Austin and will not be in attendance.  Although I haven’t actually seen the final edited version of our film, my general impression is that it’s embarrassingly bad. 

After the competition ended and the films were handed over to the judges, I received a flurry of text messages from people asking how it went, as if I could possibly explain what transpired that weekend via text message.  It would take a hell of a lot more than 160 characters to convey the sheer chaos of making a movie in 48 hours, especially when those involved are amateurs at best.  To tell the story right, I’d need several hours and a whole slew of hand gestures (some of them offensive).  But for those of you with a short attention span, here is my best attempt at a concise version:

Underprepared. Technical difficulties. Creative differences. Yelling. Endless filming. Relentless heat. Cast and crew resort to alcohol. Only camera goes missing. More yelling. Found the camera. Are we quitting? Please say yes. I know, let’s change the ending for the tenth time! No continuity between shots. Editing nightmare. Tornado warning! Last scene accidentally deleted. Made no sense anyway. Disqualified for being late. Exhausted. Starving. Hope we’re all still friends.

And now here is the long version, minus the hand gestures (It's pretty much impossible to make offensive hand gestures while typing):

On Friday evening, our core team of six gathered at the kick-off event in downtown Baltimore.  At precisely 6:45pm, our team leader got up on stage and picked our genre out of a hat, handing the little slip of paper to the festival organizer, who announced our fate into the microphone: “Film de Femme.”  (Meaning a film that features one or more strong female characters.)  I let out a triumphant cry.   Not only had we avoided the dreaded “Musical or Western,” but my strength as a screenwriter was strong female protagonists!  In my excitement, I failed to notice that the guys on my team were having a completely different reaction.  They stood in disappointed silence until one of them finally said, “I hate it.”  They wanted to trade in “Film de Femme” for the mysterious Wild Card genre (which turned out to be “Time Travel”), but with a little persuasion from the girls on our team, they eventually warmed up to the idea.  “I guess we can always throw in a female character,” they said with a shrug.

After the genres had been assigned, the festival organizer announced the required elements that would have to appear in every team's film:

Character: Wayne Hooper, Collector
Prop: Hula-hoop
Line of Dialogue: “That’s not how I would’ve handled it.”

With genre and required elements in hand, we headed to our filming location (i.e. our friend’s townhouse) to begin the writing process, which immediately turned into a battle of the sexes.  We found ourselves stuck in a weekend-long argument that went something like this:

BOYS: You’re stifling our creativity!
GIRLS: We just want it to make sense!

After two hours of fiery debate, we settled on a basic plot: A dysfunctional couple gets involved in the dangerous world of underground gambling and must repay their losses to the kingpin ... or else.  (We could never agree on what “or else” meant, so interpret however you like.)  Bear in mind that when you’re brainstorming in a large group, it’s hard enough to keep up with the conversation, let alone separate the good ideas from the bad.  At one point, we were racing ahead with the idea of an underground hula-hooping ring.  Later, we replaced “hula-hooping” with “electric car racing” and ultimately with “the board game Operation.”  (That game where you try to remove the patient’s ailments with a pair of Tweezers without setting off the buzzer.)  Now, if you’re anything like me, you might not think an underground Operation ring qualifies as a decent film premise, but when you’re working under such an insane deadline, there isn't time to worry about pesky little details like “story” and “plot.”  One minute, you’re pulling “Film de Femme” out of an Irish top hat, and the next minute, you’re sprinting down the aisles of Wal-Mart looking for a hula-hoop and a board game that you haven’t played since elementary school.

I spent the remainder of Friday night typing up our script and adding dialogue, most of which consisted of insults and threats – not really my forte after all.  The rest of my team was busy dealing with equipment malfunctions.  Although we were allowed to secure and test out equipment in advance, things seemed to fall apart at the last minute.  I blame limited funding, our lack of experience, and the fact that our “prep meetings” were held at bars.  The guy who was supposed to be our second cameraman – until we realized that there was no second camera – spent the first eight hours in the basement by himself, fighting with our fancy microphones and trying to rid the audio of cracks and static and hums.  (We eventually discarded all of that audio and used the crappy built-in audio from the camera instead, but don’t tell him that.)

After only a few hours of sleep, we began filming bright and early on Saturday morning, without ever bothering to agree on the final script.  Over the course of the day, scripts were misplaced, dialogue was ad-libbed, scenes were cut and sometimes added back in, and the plot remained in flux until we wrapped filming fifteen hours later.  Every ten minutes, an argument would break out over basic story elements: “Wait, is there a baby?  I thought we ditched the baby!  Whose baby is it? ... Does he know it’s his baby?”  I would come back from a coffee run only to find out that our “strong female character” was now going to murder everyone in the last scene with a shotgun.

If I had thought to Google “Tips for a Successful 48-Hour Film Project” before the competition began, I would’ve come across this very useful piece of advice: “Make sure when you are writing your script or outline, everyone agrees on the basic plot, story, and theme of your film.  No matter what, this core concept will not change on the fly.  That’s when things turn to crap.”  Oh well, live and learn.

The first scene we filmed was the underground Operation ring.  Okay, picture this!  We have our heroine, wearing an outfit carefully selected by the guys on our team: short denim skirt, outrageously low-cut tank top, and knee-high leather boots.  In a previous scene, she’s been ordered by the kingpin to win tonight’s match (or else!) and is now battling another girl in a very intense game of Operation.  They're straddling an old coffee table covered with a black velvet cloth, hunched over the board game, and gathered around them is a crowd of big-time gamblers.  And I use the term “crowd” in the loosest possible sense.  Having invited everyone we know to come over and help us film, four girls and one guy showed up!  Somehow I got roped into being one of the extras.  We had to stand really close together to create the illusion of a packed crowd. We were wearing sunglasses and hoodies and holding bottles of Jim Beam, and I’m guessing that we looked more like The Real Housewives of Baltimore than an underground gambling crowd, but hey, you have to work with what you have.

The scene begins when the ruthless kingpin, who wears a sport coat and carries around a Mickey Mouse Pez dispenser, announces the final round of betting.  He would say something like, “You may now place your bets!  The minimum is $350,000.”  And then the five of us would throw a handful of one-dollar bills into a cereal bowl and begin “cheering loudly.”  We must have filmed at least thirty rounds of Operation, so it got harder and harder to keep the energy up.  We would yell the same stuff over and over again.  “Steady hands!  You got this!  Yeah!  You got mad skillz, girl!”  It was truly pathetic.  There were silences that seemed to last forever, until one of us would finally spit out, “Yeah!  You go, girl!  You get that rubber band!”

The best part of the scene (and the film for that matter) was our required character Wayne Hooper, collector of debts and the muscle for our kingpin.  Lucky for us, we had an extremely tall, extremely tattooed friend who was born to play the role of Wayne Hooper.  We convinced him to call in sick to work, and he just showed up in his normal everyday attire: cut-off cargo shorts, a cowboy hat, and a denim jacket with cut-off sleeves and a red-eyed squirrel spray-painted on the back.  He didn’t even have to do anything.  He just stood in the foreground of our underground gambling scene looking tough, and it was an incredible standout performance.

The brilliant actor who played Wayne Hooper was also assigned the task of disfiguring the trademarked Operation board and covering the brand logos with orange duct tape.  Technically, vandalizing something doesn’t give you the right to use it, but by the time we called the 48-Hour Film Project hotline to ask this question, it was already too late.

Filming that one underground gambling scene took hours.  Since we only had one camera, the master shot and the close-up shots had to be filmed separately.  By the time we got around to filming the close-ups, we couldn’t remember where everyone was standing, so we had to shoot scary, extreme close-ups of people’s faces with nothing else in the background.  The one person who we forgot to film a close-up shot of was our heroine and the supposed star of our film.  In our defense, we'd been forced to turn off the air conditioner because it was interfering with the audio, so I think we were all suffering from heat stroke by then.

It was after we finished filming the first scene that things really began to deteriorate.  Up until that point, we’d been writing the scene and the take number on a dry-erase board and then clapping once on camera. That way, when it came time to edit, we'd be able to both identify the take and sync the audio.  But as the day wore on, the laziness set in.  We stopped labeling the takes and started leaving the camera on for twenty minutes at a time, filming someone’s left shoulder as we argued back and forth.  The only thing we kept up was the clapping, except now we were clapping way too much, both on and off camera, which only made it more confusing later on.  Apparently, we all really love to clap.  It was around that time when our second cameraman/sound guy went home to “walk the dog” and never came back.

At three in the afternoon, someone made the first liquor store run.  With beers in hand, we began filming our second scene.  Seeing as it was a thousand degrees outside, we thought it might be fun to film this particular scene inside a parked car in full sunlight.  Nothing adds drama to a scene like huge sweat rings. I’m surprised our camera didn’t ignite from the heat.  Looking back, I kind of wish it had.  Next, we set up in the yard and spent no less than two hours shooting our couple walking from the car to the basement steps. We kept changing the path they took and the angle that we shot it from.  It was riveting stuff, let me tell you! Between every single take, Wayne Hooper would turn to the crew and say, “Did I mention that this denim jacket is lined with flannel?”  This went on for hours.

One of our most heated arguments was how to incorporate the hula-hoop.  Should Wayne Hooper wear it as some sort of fashion statement?  Should he physically beat someone with it?  Should a random person be hula-hooping in the background?  Should our male protagonist trip over the hula-hoop and hurl it at a neighbor’s car in a fit of frustration?  With so many excellent suggestions, it was impossible to choose.  In the end, we left the hula-hoop hanging on a wall in the background, and I’m not even sure it was visible.

By the time we moved back to the basement to film what was supposed to be the opening scene, I had mentally checked out.  I was sitting in the fetal position in the living room, listening to them shuffle around in the basement, setting up lights and moving things around, when I heard someone yell, “Hey, where’s the camera?”  Suddenly, everyone was stomping around the house, frantically searching for our only camera that had all of the recorded footage on it.  Finally, our heroine looked out the window and saw the camera lying in the grass, unattended, with big storm clouds rolling in and random strangers passing by.  It had been out there for over an hour.  Oops.

Now that we had located the camera, we were ready to film the scene where Wayne Hooper threatens our couple over their outstanding gambling debts.  According to the script, Wayne is supposed to “intimidate” and “taunt” our male lead by flicking his ear and saying things like, “Did you think you two could rack up fifty-thousand dollars of gambling debts and walk away unscathed?”  But under the direction of our male team members, the scene quickly turned into a violent physical fight – kicks and punches interspersed with strings of profanity.  I will say that our actors were very committed.  One of them came away with a bloody toe, but luckily he was drunk and didn’t feel a thing.  And where, you ask, was our strong female protagonist during this bloody fight scene?  Well, she did make a brief appearance – just long enough to yell, “Back off, you bearded goon!” – before being physically catapulted out of frame with a look of genuine terror on her face.

By nine o’clock, all we were missing was the ending.  Unfortunately, we had yet to agree on what the ending should be.  We had been arguing about it all day.  Needing a break, I snuck upstairs to the guest room and tried to squeeze in a power nap, but I could hear everything through the vents.  They were supposed to be filming the ending, but all I could hear was that damn Operation buzzer going off again and again and again, for what felt like hours.  I just lay there with my eyes wide open, thinking “What the hell are they doing down there?!”

Team morale was definitely at a low.  One of our actors started filming “Behind the Scenes” footage on his cell phone, asking questions like, “So do you think we’ll actually hand something in? ... Yeah, me neither.” The girls had a powwow in the kitchen and contemplated waiting until the boys fell asleep, deleting all of the recorded footage, and replacing it with new footage of us “finger-racing” through an obstacle course of peanut butter and dog toys.  What can I say?  We were sleep-deprived.  When we finally wrapped filming at around midnight, the girls decided to go home and sleep for a few hours, even though the boys insisted that they were going to stay up all night and edit.  We wished them good luck and ran out the door as fast as we could.

We returned on Sunday morning at 7am only to find them all passed out.  The entire house smelled like day-old sweat, so I went around lighting every scented candle I could get my hands on.  We sat down at the laptop to check out their amazing progress and saw that they’d uploaded one scene, extracted 16 seconds of usable footage, and renamed the project “the end of our friendship with the girls.”  Our first reaction was to pack up the car and leave, but instead, we woke up the boys and resolved to finish what we had started.

Together, our determined team leaders began the excruciating task of editing.  Every take was drastically different – people standing in different places and saying different lines.  It was a mess.  I really thought our poor editors were going to quit, but they just kept going.  All.  Day.  Long.  I myself can’t take any credit for editing.  The one and only thing I contributed on Sunday was going to buy blank DVDs from Best Buy during a torrential downpour, with a tornado warning in effect and a driver who was still drunk from yesterday and a broken passenger seat belt.  (I risked my life for that film!)  During the afternoon, I borrowed someone’s car and went to see my friend and her one-year-old twins.  You know you've had a rough weekend when you have to visit screaming toddlers in order to escape the stress at home.

When I returned to the house, my team was back to filming again.  They had borrowed a 7-year-old child who was recording different voiceovers: “This is the story of how my mom saved my dad ... This is the story of how I become a surgeon ... This is the story of how I got a Daffy Duck tattoo.”  I was dying to know how we were going to integrate those lines into our story, but sadly, we didn't end up using them.

Despite the best efforts of our team leaders, we weren't able to finish editing by 7:30pm, so our team was disqualified from winning.  (Trust me, it was never going to happen.)  Thankfully, films that are turned in late on Sunday are still screened at the premiere.  According to the website, we were one of two teams that missed the deadline.  48 teams, 48 hours, 2 disqualifications.  Rumor has it that we dropped off our film in the organizer’s mailbox in the middle of the night, but only after accidentally deleting the last scene (whatever that was).  Hopefully the credits weren't deleted.  My name was never listed in the credits because I refused to have the "writing" attributed to me, but the credits did include an apology to everyone involved, which I found amusing.  I guess that's the one good thing that came out of all of this ... I'm pretty sure we're still friends.  I figure if we can survive a weekend like that and still be on speaking terms, we’re destined to be friends forever.  (As long as we don’t do it again next year.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lights, Camera, Action

A few years ago, a guy showed up to my Screenwriting 101 class looking like hell with two-day stubble and bloodshot eyes and empty cans of Red Bull falling out of his bag.  I thought nothing of it – I just assumed he worked in finance – until he mentioned that he had just finished competing in the 48-Hour Film Festival. I had never heard of it before, but he looked so fulfilled and so accomplished, his eyelids heavy, his mouth hanging open, drool running down his chin, that all I could think was, “Okay, where do I sign up?”  It's been on my bucket list ever since.

This year, the 48-Hour Film Festival is happening in 100 cities worldwide.  In each city, teams compete to make the best short film in only 48 hours.  All of the writing, filming, and editing has to be completed between Friday at 7pm and Sunday at 7pm.  To ensure that the writing isn’t done ahead of time, teams are randomly assigned a genre fifteen minutes before the start of the competition.  (Possible genres include Anniversary/Birthday, Comedy, Dark Comedy, Detective, Fantasy, Film de Femme, Horror, Mockumentary, Musical or Western, Period Piece, Romance, Sci-Fi, Superhero, and Thriller/Suspense.)  Each team is also assigned a character, a prop, and a line of dialogue that must appear in the film.  So you could end up having to make a Superhero movie that features a prostitute named Bertha, a pogo stick, and the line, “I curse the day you were born.”  You pretty much have to be ready to improvise.  After the films have been turned in and scored by the judges, they’re screened at a local movie theater.

When I first heard about the festival, I tried to persuade my friends in New York to form a team with me: “Come on, deadlines are fun!  All that pressure...  Staying awake for days, propelled by a fear of public humiliation!  You know you want to...”  When that didn’t work out, I put my name on the "seeking a team" list, hoping that one of the existing teams would contact me – but no one ever did.  I suspect it had something to do with my information form and the big blank space under “Relevant Skills.”  I’m sure the teams were hoping to enlist a sound editor or a musical score composer or, at the very least, someone who could operate a camera.  Still, it’s a sad day when you’re rejected from a volunteer position.

A couple of months ago, I found out that some of my friends from high school were forming a team for the 48-Hour Film Festival in Baltimore.  Finally, my time had come!  Here was a team that was obligated by friendship to take me on!  They accepted me with open arms, although we never actually discussed what exactly I would be contributing.  When our team leader sent out the official list of team members and their corresponding roles and responsibilities, my name had a big question mark next to it.  Given my near-success with screenwriting, the obvious answer would be for me to help with the writing of the script.  But with only 48 hours to shoot and edit the entire film, the writing process will likely be reduced to twenty minutes of frantic brainstorming.

Another option would be for me to act in the film.  For weeks now, our team has been sending out desperate, pleading messages on Facebook, trying in vain to find actors and actresses willing to take on an unpaid role that requires waking up before ten on a Saturday morning.  I suppose I could step up and volunteer.  After all, I do have prior acting experience.

When I was in fifth grade, my elementary school put on a musical production of A Chipmunk Christmas.  I auditioned and landed the highly coveted role of Jeanette the Chipette, the female counterpart to Simon the Chipmunk.  I like to think that I got the part as a result of my charisma and my natural singing ability and not because I was tall and already had the dorky glasses.  The musical itself was five minutes long and featured the six of us – Alvin, Simon, Theodore, Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor – singing “Christmas, Don’t Be Late” in our highest-pitched chipmunk voices.  I totally nailed the part.  Afterwards, my mother told me that I had brought "something special" to the role, and my father noted (with some concern) that I had “natural chemistry” with the boy who played Simon.

After a two-year acting hiatus, I made my triumphant return to the stage as an extra in the high school production of Oklahoma!.  I was only twelve at the time, but my piano teacher happened to be the musical director over at the high school, and she thought I would be wonderful in the role of “extra.”  I got to choose one lucky friend to act in the play with me (I made sure to pick someone with zero stage presence so that I wouldn’t be overshadowed), and the two of us got to lean out the window of the farmhouse set and sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” while we made large, dramatic gestures with our arms.  We were the envy of our entire class.

But the height of my acting career was still to come!  The following year, it was announced that a select group of eighth graders would be tasked with writing, directing, and performing a play for the entire middle school.  I desperately wanted to be one of the playwrights.  I thought we should’ve been allowed to submit story proposals, but the teacher in charge thought it would be "more fair" if she just picked her favorite students.  Normally, I would’ve been okay with that – teachers have always loved me – but this particular teacher didn’t seem to recognize how special I was.  Instead of picking me to be one of the writers, she picked my best friend and several other untalented non-writers, and together they proceeded to write the worst play in the history of playwriting.  (If you don’t believe me, I’ll send you a copy.  I’ve held onto it all these years to make myself feel better about my own writing.)

Since I couldn’t be one of the writers, I auditioned to be one of the actors and landed one of the starring roles.  I like to think that I got the part as a result of my charisma and my extensive acting experience and not because my best friend was involved in the casting.  Either way, it would prove to be my most challenging role to date – the kind of role that makes or breaks an acting career.  I was cast as: “Amy, an everyday, average girl who seldom worries about anything except for school, popularity, and boys.”  The role demanded both heavy emotion (with tear-jerking lines like, “Friends are there for the good times and the bad times”) and physical comedy (in act one, my character gets electrocuted; in act two, she “accidentally” falls out of a chair; and in act three, she headbangs to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody").

The moment I laid eyes on the script, I knew that the writing was spectacularly awful.  It seemed unfair that I had to be the one to stand up in front of the entire school and say those terrible lines.  At one point, I was supposed to exclaim “What a co-winky-dink!” while skipping.  It was beyond cheesy.  During rehearsals, I would stomp around the stage with my arms crossed, rolling my eyes and mumbling, “This is crap!  I can’t work with these lines!”  Our English teacher had to repeatedly pull me aside to lecture me.  She felt that “my bad attitude” was ruining the play; I told her that wasn’t possible.  In the end, I got through it, although it was incredibly painful and embarrassing.  My best friend and I stopped being best friends, and I haven’t acted in anything since.

At least with the 48-Hour Film Festival, I would be involved in the writing (i.e. frantic brainstorming), so I could edit any truly bad dialogue.  Still, perhaps I’d be better suited to holding a boom microphone or fetching coffee or painstakingly editing the raw footage at three in the morning.  I tend to excel at the things that no one else wants to do.  With that in mind, I’m currently learning how to edit film.  I’m 35 minutes into a 7-hour online tutorial.  Oh, and did I mention that the film festival is this weekend?  That’s right, starting at 7pm on Friday, my team and I will be going up against 46 other teams for the Baltimore trophy and the chance to compete against the winning films from other cities.  And whether I hold the microphone or add the credits, at least I’ll be able to say, “Yeah, I did that.”