Diary from the 48-Hour Film Project
Imagine having only 48 hours to write a script for a film, shoot all of your scenes in a variety of locations, and edit the film so that it is ready to be judged in a competition. Who would want to put themselves under such pressure?? Even faced with these crazy conditions and an insane deadline, local film makers eagerly signed up to compete in the 2003 Tour of the 48-Hour Film Project in Washington DC this month.
The project, which takes place in major cities throughout the US and Europe, allows independent film makers to use the latest in video technology to write and produce a film within 48 hours. The results are then judged at a local theater and the top ten films are chosen. This diary captures the experience from my perspective as a journalist/actress who auditioned for a role in one of the films and was invited to follow the project team during the hectic weekend.
Friday night, May 2nd, 9:30 PM
I get a call from my buddy, Patrick Beltran, one of the script writers on the team. Patrick had informed me earlier in the day that I had actually landed a role in his film. He was calling to tell me that the team had not yet decided which role would be best for me, but that I should be prepared. I need to bring a variety of outfits — a waitress outfit, something mysterious and magical looking, and just casual attire. I am so excited about being a part of this that I can’t sleep, though I know I will be hating life when I hear the alarm beeping at me at 5:30 AM. I am supposed to be in DC at 7AM, when the entire team will meet to review the script.
Saturday, May 3rd, 8AM
Apartment, Washington DC
The day didn’t start out great. I just knew I should have taken the Metro; I hate trying to navigate the streets of DC! After getting lost, almost getting a ticket from a DC cop and having to call Patrick twice for directions, I finally arrive. How embarrassing. I’m late, and they are already reading through the script. Well, that’s ok, I’m here, and everyone seems happy to see me.
The energy and enthusiasm in the group at this point of the day is high; you can feel the adrenaline pumping — though it is clear that, like me, everyone there had gotten very little sleep the night before. The actors and actresses chat and joke about the script, obviously excited about the story and the witty dialogue. Their discussions focus on how to interpret certain lines, and who could best portray certain roles.
One of the friendly cast members hands me a script and looks intensely at me when they get to a scene where the four main characters are ordering a pizza. “Umm… yeah?” I ask, as I gaze down at the script. “That’s you,” says one of the other actresses. “Pizza delivery girl.” ME? Playing a pizza delivery girl?! I looked at the script again, in disbelief. While I had envisioned many roles for myself in this production, pizza delivery girl was not one of them. I sighed, inwardly disappointed that I had not landed a larger role.
But wait, there was more. When we get toward the end of the script, there was yet another crucial role that had been assigned to me. In the last scene, as the four women fight over the ‘perfect man”, another woman watches the scene from her barstool, and, martini in hand, encourages the cat fight. That’s right, that was to be my other claim to fame. I was going to play a barfly. (Note: The script writers don’t realize it, but the real irony is that alcohol and I had to part ways after my wilder partying days, and so I have actually not had a drink in over eight years. Hardly bar fly material).
After deciding which female could best play each of the major roles, we get up and leave the comfort of the apartment to begin the shooting. Mario Pareja , the sound guy, introduces himself to me, and offers to let me follow him, so that I don’t get lost in DC again. Thank God.
Saturday, May 3rd, 9AM
We arrive at our first stop of the day, an out door bar/restaurant known as “The Reef.” Well, apparently, they aren’t open yet, because they aren’t responding to our loud knocks. So far, things aren’t going as planned! I remain calm. At this point we have the entire day to shoot the film. No sweat, right?
I am glad to be here with my newfound friends, and I’m feeling confident that the day holds new adventures and learning experiences for me. Since there is little I can to do change this situation, I decide to go across the street with a couple of my newfound friends — Mario and Suzanne — and grab a cup of coffee to prepare myself for what promises to be a long day.
I talk to Mario a bit about what he’ll be doing today. He explains that he’ll be holding the boom and the mike, and ensuring that there is no background noise during the shooting. But why would he want to get up at the crack of dawn to be a part of this project? “I’ve always liked film,’ he explains. “This is a great opportunity to see how things are really put together.”
By the time we come back, it’s 10AM, the restaurant is finally open, and the gang is upstairs. Patrick, Lu Ugaz and Step Armah, the film project team leaders, begin to set up the equipment, getting ready to shoot scenes. All of the actresses crowd into the small ladies’ room to change into the ensembles they’ll be wearing. In the midst of the chaos, a number of them decide to make a run to the local Safeway, for some mascara, safety pins, and other items they wish they’d remembered.
After changing into the outfit I plan to wear for my barfly role, I first take this opportunity to carefully read over the script. The story later to be named ‘After Adam,’ focuses on four young women trying to create the ‘perfect man.’ The action begins with one of the women getting dumped by her boyfriend, followed by a scene where her girlfriends commiserate with her. After fantasizing about what the ‘perfect man,’ means to each of them, the women perform a magical spell to conjure up this flawless man — only to fight over him and then lose him to a gay man.
I ask one of the other actresses what she thinks of the script. After sharing our perspectives, I end up conducting my first interview with Glorianna Rodriguez, who plays the role of Buddy Johnson. I am amazed to discover that Glorianna, who is very poised and could easily pass for being in her early 20’s, is only 16 years old. But Glorianna is a very mature teenager, focused on her goal of becoming anactress.
“A lot of people my age place emphasis on their identity,” she says. “But because of acting I have learned how easy it is to manipulate that. It has freed me from that pressure; I don’t have this urgency to define myself. It’s more about exploring human nature.”
Glorianna believes that the film we are making is a reflection of today’s culture. She points out that there would have been a time when, due to limiting moral standards, the play would have been unacceptable, due to its references to homosexuality and magic.
Saturday, May 3rd, 10:30 AM
My interview is interrupted by a call of “Quiet on the set!” They are starting to shoot their first take, where Adam and one of his leading ladies share a champagne toast. I’m confused. I’m no expert, but to me, it seems to take an extra long time to capture what they consider to be a perfect take for such minor interaction. Patrick explains that they want to shoot the scene from a number of different angles and close-ups so that the film editor has a lot to work with when he puts it all together.
Once we finish this scene, we round up the troops and move to the downstairs bar, where the fun really begins.
Suzanne Carter, our ‘gofer’ for the day, agrees to keep track of the time code for each take. Patrick, Lu and Step gather in the corner, debating how to best tackle their first major scene. They try to gauge how much room they will need in the corner of the bar to comfortably fit all of the actresses.
“Where are we going to get a camera shot with all of them,” asks Step. “Well, we have to avoid the bright windows behind everybody” Patrick points out. “Let’s just block out the scene with the actors and see how they’re going to interact.”
I chuckle inwardly , thinking that this should be interesting. This is the scene where the four women claw and push and fight for their ‘perfect man.’ “As soon as all of the girls are ready, let’s do this,’ Step suggests. In the midst of the noise and confusion, one of the actresses, Vanja Scholls, asks me what I think of the fake eyelashes she is going to put on for this scene. I tell her I think she looks great.
While Step and others wait for the women to quickly memorize their lines and mentally prepare for the scene, I take this opportunity to talk to Step to find out about how things went the night before, when the 48-hour deadline began and the clock started to tick.
He explains that the team leaders first went to DC to find out the film category assigned to them. After discovering they had to produce a fantasy film, they had to wait to find out about the three elements that each 48 Hour Film Team had to incorporate into their film. They learned that they had to integrate the character of Buddy Johnson, Shoe Salesman, the prop of a paint roller, and “So you’re the guy with the shoes” as the line of dialog.
As soon as they received their assignments, Lu, Step and Patrick rush back to Step’s apartment in Foggy Bottom, to begin the creative work. For three hours, they put their heads together and did some high level brainstorming, coming up with 30 or more ideas for the plot. They then decided to each choose what they considered to be their top three ideas. They dug deeper, analyzing which story would allow them to come up with jokes, and witty dialog.
When they voted on the basic story to develop, they started developing the outline. “And that is when the fighting began,” Step said. He and the others disagreed about things that he hadn’t imagined would be a problem. “It was simple stuff we disagreed about. Surprisingly weird stuff, like whether we should begin a scene with all four girls sitting down, or whether we should have one of them walk into the room,” he said.
But, after finally settling any disagreements, the guys took shifts to each work on the script. Step took the first shift starting at 2AM, and a short nap, Patrick took over. Step found that, once everyone had a clear idea of how the script should shape up, he was able to develop a draft. “It was a lighthearted story, so it came together quickly, and flowed easily” he said.
Wow, he sure made it sound easy. I don’t think that I could have written a script under an intense deadline, operating on no sleep!
Ok, I have to stop my interview. They are finally ready to start shooting. As the bar fly, I watch the catfight as the four women fight over Adam. I watch the action, hold up my martini, and say my one line during the scene, ‘You go girls!’ and apparently I didn’t say it loudly enough. Mario suggests that I try it again, with more punch. That’s ok. I have plenty of opportunities to get my line in. I can see we’re going to be here for awhile!
Saturday, May 3rd, 1:30 — 2PM
Still at the Reef
At this point, the energy in the group is changing from anticipation to anxiety and a little nervousness. I am feeling edgy, tired and hungry. I can’t believe it’s the afternoon and we have only shot a couple of scenes! Whoever had told me once that acting is just a matter of memorizing lines didn’t know what they were talking about.
It took us over 3 ½ hours to shoot the bar scene. I am incredulous that it has taken this long to shoot a couple of scenes, but the actor and actresses say that this comes with the territory. Little, unpredictable things kept going wrong. First they had to lower the boom to get the sound right. There were problems with getting the lighting just right. Someone moved one of the props, and they had to shoot another take to ensure that the prop was returned to its original position.
I had to laugh at another issue that arose in the scene when Adam and Step wink at each other, and Adam leaves the group of women fighting over him to leave with his newfound male squeeze. The guys had a very difficult time working out the logistics of the wink and walking off with each other. They obviously felt uncomfortable putting their arms around each other’s shoulders, which caused a debate about the best way to portray the connection between them.
After his scene, I ask Step how he feels about how things are going. “It’s taking a lot more time than I thought it would,” he says. “It’s all technical stuff. The setup part is just endless. It’s starting to worry me. We’re working with perfectionists here. At some point you have to go with practicality.” He suggests that the group may need to have a detailed discussion about how to speed things up. “The worst thing would be if we have to shoot Sunday,” he says.
During lunch, I interview one of the leading ladies, Vanja Scholls. Vanja works full-time as an Information Assistant at the World Bank in DC, but says that she got ‘bitten by the acting bug” and that for her, acting has become an obsession, something she can’t get enough of. “I can’t just do a little and then pull away,” she says.
I ask her if she is as surprised as I am at how interminably long it is taking us to shoot just a couple of scenes. “There is a lot that goes into making a 10 minute movie,” she points out. “But I don’t regret it. I’m just trying to savor it as much as I can.” She is a perfectionist, she says, so she is glad they keep re-doing the takes.
In the background, I hear the others trying to come up with a title for the film. Most of the ideas focus on the name ‘Adam,’ the leading male role in the story. “How about claiming Adam?,” someone suggests. “No, how about Adam woman’s creation?” another voice chimes in.
Lu interrupts this light banter to point out the seriousness of the situation. “Does everyone realize we’re behind schedule?” he asks. He says that we have to speed things up, because there are a few outdoor shots that they need to take while it is still light outside. We better get a move on.
As we round up the troops to move outside, I ask Mike Noble, the film editor in the group, about what it will take to piece together all of the scenes into one cohesive story. “Well, we’ll be going tomorrow at full tilt,” he says. He plans to start the editing process at 6AM, and will have only 12 hours to edit the entire film. He invites me to come along and follow the editing process — “Six AM!?.” I think to myself. “Are you crazy??
He explains that he’ll be working with Media 100 on Mac, to edit the film and do a rough cut of the final version. He’ll be working with others to review a detailed list of each shot, writing down the time codes, putting the takes together and then working on the coloring. Noble works full-time editing corporate videos and documentaries so he is used to working under such daunting deadlines. Better him than me!
Saturday, May 3rd, 3PM
Adam’s Morgan, in front of “Shake Your Booty,” a shoe store
I feel better now that I have eaten, but I’m a little worried — and getting tired. Are we going to finish the film and turn it in by the deadline? Even Patrick, who is normally calm and collected, shows signs of anxiety over the impending deadline. “I am a little stressed,” he says.
The team gathers in front of a shoe store for our next humorous scene, during which Adam fulfills another one of the leading ladies’ fantasies. In this scene, he and Toni, played by Nicole Pettus, browse the local shoe store, while he encourages her to buy a few new pairs of shoes. “Honey, I don’t think you have enough shoes,” he says, as she looks up to heaven, with a look of gratitude, as if to say, ‘Thank you God!”
It is crowded by “Shake Your Booty”, the store is located right next to a bistro, where throngs of people are gathered, having lunch. Mario is struggling to get the sound right, with the busses passing, and crowds talking in the background. “You’re not loud enough!,” he instructs the actors.
A few people approach us, to inquire about our project. All it takes is one camera, and a sound boom, and everyone wants to get into the act, I think to myself. One homeless man even steps up to me and boldy suggests that he should be given a role in the film! Step tells me we need to move away from the store, because we are attracting too much attention. I am irritated at his comment — I don’t want to back off. As a journalist, I am here to be in the center of the action, not in the background.
I can hear others in the group asking “Did the motorcycle arrive yet?” We need a motorcycle to film another funny scene where the most aggressive leading lady, Val, imagines her perfect guy as a Harley man. In her daydreams, her man is sitting on the back of the motorcycle, as she drives, the wind blowing through her hair.
While we wait for this motorcycle to be delivered, I interview another actress, Nicole Pettus, who tells me that she works as a social worker in the private sector. But, like the others I had spoken with, she is serious about acting, would like to be able to pursue it full-time, and has been in a number of independent films. Hmm… I start realizing now that I can’t take it personally that I had been given the role of pizza delivery girl. And a barfly. After all, I am really writer, not an actress.
Like Vanja, Nicole also expresses no surprise at the time it has taken us to capture just a segment of the film. She says she is used to it. “I knew we’d be up ‘till the wee hours of the morning,” she says. She does point out that it is taking the group longer than it would take professional film makers because the team doesn’t have in-depth experience with the lighting, the camera, the sound. “Sometimes, when working with independent films, I don’t feel… safe,” she says. “They may not pay attention to continuity, to makeup,” she says. “When working with professionals, you have someone taking care of everything.”
Nicole says she’d love the chance to re-locate, to pursue her visions of acting being in the spotlight. “But I have three kids,” she says. “So, I don’t think it will happen.”
Finally, the motorcycle arrives! Gary, who plays the role of Adam, comes out in a different shirt and a vest. “Is this something you’d wear, when riding a motorcycle?,” he asks me. “What would you think of a guy who wore this outfit?”
Saturday, May 3rd, 5PM
On the Move
Next stop is in Alexandria, VA. We are warmly welcomed by one of Mario’s friends, who was kind enough to let us shoot a few scenes in his home. He shows me to his basement, where I can change into my outfit for the pizza delivery scene. In the bedroom, as I change my outfit, I see that bed, and I just want to crash on it. I am exhausted, after getting little to no sleep last night, and being on my feet all day today. I can’t even imagine how the actors/actresses are memorizing their lines at this point.
Oh, this is hilarious. I can’t stop laughing. We film a scene where Gary is again fulfilling one of the leading ladies’ fantasies. He is watching a ‘chick flick’ with Beth (played by Jennifer Ridgway), and getting choked up and emotional as the movie continues. “I’m trying to get into character,” Gary says. He grabs a bottle of Visine and squirts some of the liquid into his eye, so that it appears that he is crying. He and Beth (get her real name!) cuddle on the couch and she consoles him as he cries. His expression is priceless; we all burst into laughter. I am having a blast, seeing what goes on behind the scenes.
In between takes, I begin to interview Gary Greenfield, who works full-time as an attorney for the Federal government. Gary was contacted by Patrick to act in this film via the Actors Center database. I am impressed by his energy and positive attitude. Gary says that, in recent weeks, he has participated in various TV, film, and stage appearances. Most notably, he just portrayed a Secret Service agent for the season finale in the TV show “West Wing.” He says that, though he was on the set for 13 hours, all of his work translated into “a millisecond of screen exposure that is only evident after VCR slow-mo replay and careful scrutiny!”
Saturday, May 3rd, 7:30 PM
An apartment in Fairfax, VA
I continue my interview with Gary in the kitchen, as we attempt to find some coffee to brew. “I’m pretty good at memorizing lines, but when I’m tired, it’s more challenging,” he says. “Coffee does wonders!”
When asked how he feels about playing the only male role in the film, he says he would like life to be like this all of the time, with a group of attractive women fighting for his affections. “One more bedroom scene with all of the women would be great,” he jokes. “I’ve never been tied to a bedpost before, and I’m looking forward to it. “ He is referring to a later scene in the script where Val ties him up to her bedpost, so that he can be her ‘love slave.’
The four women gather in the den of the apartment, to block out the scene. They discuss who should sit where, who should sit in the beanbag chair, who should sit on the couch, etc. I am picking up a definite nervous vibe from Patrick at this time. I follow him out to his car, where he runs to retrieve some equipment.
“If we get in all of our shots, it will be good,” he said. He said he is learning that filmmaking is a laborious process. “The whole idea of doing a film in 48 hours is extreme,” he says. “But it can be done. It’s our first time, and I’m still trying to figure out how people do it.”
He has a very determined expression, and seems very focused. He says he is determined not to be one of the teams that doesn’t turn in a film. I am surprised — and concerned — to hear that, every year, there are a number of teams that don’t complete their film during the 2 day timeframe. I think that we have to stop taking breaks, and that the film makers have to stop being perfectionists, and just plow through, if we’re going to make the deadline. But, I’m going to keep my mouth shut and not add to Patrick’s stress!
Saturday, May 3rd, 8:30 PM
I get a call from my boyfriend, and an emergency has come up that I must take care of. I’m upset that at the unexpected event, and I don’t want to have to run off. I hate to leave the group — my new friends that I have bonded with during this crazy day — and I would really hate to cut out my big scene as a pizza delivery girl!
I reluctantly approach Patrick and Lu and ask them if they would mind shooting my scene now, so I can leave. I feel kind of guilty asking them to change the schedule just for me; I don’t want to be a prima donna! I am relieved when they oblige. I throw on my jeans and cap and get ready for my big lines. My role is actually ‘bored pizza delivery girl,’ but since I am upset about having to leave anyway, I decide to really put my all into it, and I end up portraying the role more a “sullen pizza delivery girl” or pizza delivery girl with an attitude!
After a couple of takes, they are satisfied with the scene. I make my round of goodbyes, and promise to see everyone Monday at the showing of all of the films competing in the 48 Hour Film Festival.
Monday, May 5th
Day of the Premiere
This is the big night, when the final product, the result of all of the hours of work, and the painstaking attention to detail, and reshooting scenes over and over, will be shown at Visions Cinema and Bistro in Washington DC. Our film will be shown, along with 45 other teams who turned in films on Sunday, to compete to be named the best film in the DC 48 Hour Film Project. The best DC film will then compete against the winning films from all other participating cities.
I take my boyfriend and best friend to share this experience with me. We get to the theater and it’s so packed that we sit in the very front row. They start showing the movies, one by one. My stomach is turning and I’m nervous. Nervous about what the final movie is going to look like, how others will react to it, and what my friends will think of it. I’m wondering if my pizza delivery girl scene is going to appear in the movie as Patrick and others had warned me that, due to time constraints and editing requirements, the scene might not make the final cut.
I’m impressed by the quality of the other movies, frankly. I’m surprised at how much all of the teams were able to produce within a mere two days. I enjoy the horror movie, specifically. Finally, they get to our movie, “After Adam.” I pay close attention to how the audience is responding to it and I am thrilled to see that they are into it, laughing in all the right places.
The film finally comes to the living room scene where I should be knocking on the door to deliver the girls pizza and — nope! My scene was cut. At first I am disappointed, angry almost. But then I remember something that Gary told me. What ends up in the final film is out of the control of the actors/actresses. So, I swallow my disappointment, and accept the fact that my big debut didn’t make it. When the film gets to the bar scene, I lean over to whisper “That’s me! That’s me!,” to make sure my friends know that that is me, sitting at the bar, glass in hand.
As we are walking out of the cinema, there is a ballot and we are asked to vote for our favorite films. Well I know I want to vote for that horror flick — but of course I am voting for our film! I really was amazed at the end result and the fact that our team was able to pull together to do what it took to produce an easy to follow, funny movie with witty dialog and captivating scenes.
Days later, I hear that our team did not win the title of best film for Washington DC. I’m disappointed, of course, but don’t regret being a part of the project for a minute. I learned many valuable lessons: one of which was that, though I enjoy acting for fun, I would never want to pursue it as a profession. Though I had aspirations of being an actress at a younger age, I had no idea of all of the responsibility involved until this film project. I think I’ll stick with writing.
Soon after hearing the news, I talk to Patrick again to see how he felt about filmmaking after participating in this project. He says that hearing the audience laugh at the funny lines and to see them enjoying the movie made it all worth it. “To have them react to certain scenes was very gratifying,” he said. “I was able to get a renewed sense of confidence in my ability to work with material and what’s funny.”
Lu agrees, and said he would encourage anyone with an interest in filmmaking to participate in the project, which has been dubbed “the hottest filmmaking experience of the year.” He tells potential filmmakers to forget about their skill level and experience and to just do it. “We were concerned and felt intimidating going into this, “ he admits. “ It forces you to just get in there and do it and have a good time with it.”