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A Brief Intermission

Yellow House prepares to premiere its first feature film, "Hitiro the Peasant."



Raviotta and the Drays are the core of the film and theater production company Yellow House. This is a moment of calm in the life of their first major production. In a few weeks, their modern-day samurai feature, "Hitiro the Peasant," will premiere at the Byrd Theatre.

Raviotta, who served as a producer of "Hitiro" with Stephanie Dray, teaches film studies at Maggie L. Walker Governor's School and Virginia Commonwealth University, and just came off a retrospective of his short films at Gallery5 the week before. Stephanie, also a professional actress, is about to get very busy again promoting "Hitiro" once it leaves the nest. Justin, also an actor, and director of the movie, will spend his time obsessing over the lawn until they find out at the Byrd if their three-and-a-half years of work have paid off.

It's a tranquil enough scene, but let's go back three years to a summer night on Belle Isle, the setup for a major battle scene, when, at 3 a.m., the horrible realization comes: They haven't brought any gas cans to fuel the generator. Some members of the crew decide to siphon gas from one of the cars. Now, somewhere in the 16 hours of documentary footage detailing the intimacies of feature film production, are a few moments of producer Stephanie cursing that she will not tolerate a dead crew member on this night.

"All it is, is problem-solving," Justin says.

"The problems you've created," adds Raviotta, meaning the arithmetic of 27 days of filming, hundreds of crew members, actors and extras, 60 hours of footage and two-and-a-half years of post-production. It all adds up to the kind of learning-through-crisis you couldn't get in a classroom.

Because of its size as a feature-length production, "Hitiro" developed its own strange gravity, drawing filmmaking energy to the magnetized core of all that digital video stock. Some of the nonprofit's $30,000 budget went to outfitting Yellow House with film equipment — booms, lights, a whole constellation of pieces that turn a bunch of starry moments into a picture. It also drew other filmmakers, who came to Yellow House to rent things like a crane arm. By default Yellow House became Rental House.

The other effect was the result of having so many people gathered together to shoot a film during the hottest months of 2003. The three brought in friends — VCU film students, interns, actors, tech people — and those with their own ideas, their own projects, started talking, sound guy and caterer, dead soldier and editor, and satellite projects came out of "Hitiro's" orbit. Justin calls it "community cohesion," and it's one of the guiding principles of Yellow House — a shared respect for the craft, Stephanie says. It's what keeps a project together.

"You have to do your first feature-length film in order to make the second," Justin says, which sounds like a filmmaking fortune-cookie on the first pass. But it is samurai wisdom born of forgotten batteries, hungry extras, sun-baked blood, damaged tape heads, prosthetic wounds that wouldn't stay in place, and, at the heart of that cookie, a story that could crumble at any time.

The story started out as something that scriptwriter J.C. Lira talked about when he met people in bars after moving here from Harrisonburg in 2000. It became a collaboration on a medieval samurai picture when he met Justin in 2001. Budgetary constraints forced its evolution to a modern-day setting. Emperors drive Hummers, washerwomen go to Oregon Hill Laundromats rather than down to the river, Hitiro becomes a samurai for a corporation.

A feature film is a relay of egos and ideas, too, so at this stage it would have been very easy for things to fall apart as Lira was passing the baton to Justin. As script supervisor, Lira was on the set to instruct actors on the talking part.

"I thought I was going to go out there and protect the script," he says, but after wandering into the backgrounds of scenes and, in his opinion, not having much to contribute, he stepped back, relaxed the ego, and let Justin have at it. "If you're gonna let somebody make your script, you've got to be at peace with that," Lira says.

With the film shot, so began the grim march of post-production, late nights for Justin and the editors at the computer. They toyed with the building blocks of scenes, added the soundtrack of battle borrowed from Playstation games, mixed in the score by New Yorker Thomas James Slater, and put together what an audience at the Byrd will call "Hitiro the Peasant."

"To be able to go on that journey and find the film," Raviotta says — "that's the rewarding process."

In the shade, one of them asks, "When is it done?" The life of a feature film, like that of its makers, is only complete when it chooses to be. Plans for the future include licking stamps and mailing "Hitiro" to festivals, and, a little later, a DVD with those cinematic essentials: the commentaries, the blooper reel, maybe, and the making-of featurette, in which we will, at long last, find out how Stephanie Dray managed to keep her crew from blowing up Belle Isle one summer night a few years ago. S

"Hitiro" will screen at the Byrd Theatre May 6 at 1 p.m. Tickets $5 at the door.

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