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.”

No comments:

Post a Comment