I'd never seen anyone actually drop keys down an elevator shaft before. And really, when does that particular phobia ever come true? Apparently at this, the worst possible time. But if you know anything about entropy, the universal push for disorder that keeps things changing, then you'll understand filmmaking and why the keys chose that moment to go snaking down the damn elevator shaft.
Back in late July, I was a writer for The Branching, a team competing in Richmond's first 48 Hour Film Project. The director, Lucas Krost, was gathering a small army for the weekend and called in local poet Darren Morris as a writer. He asked my friend Jarrod Fergeson and me to head down the rabbit hole with him. It seemed promising.
The project, which Mark Ruppert and Liz Langston started in Washington, D.C., in 2001, went from 10 teams in one city to 54 cities and 2,200 films this year. The object is simple -- simple like Russian roulette: Each team draws a genre (science fiction, horror, comedy, etc.), a line of dialogue and a prop. Then they have 48 hours to write, shoot and edit the thing.
In Richmond, there were 30 teams who slogged through a weekend of sustained chaos and came up with all sorts of four- to seven-minute films. My team, The Branching, drew horror and birthed "Decisive Moment," a movie that allows the audience to watch, as the Times-Dispatch's Janet Caggiano eloquently reported, "a deranged man beat his neighbor to death with a golf club, then set the victim's wife on fire." Well, yes. But what about the nuance?
Anyway, The Branching won, due in large part to that small army of crew members. The movie goes on to compete against those other cities for a $7,500 prize. But first there would be a second competition: The 48 Hour people invited The Branching to participate in the Fall Shootout against the winners from 47 other cities another 48 hours of craziness that lit up Lucas' eyes with visions of car chases and a larger army.
The winning team would have its film screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
The rules: similar to before, except they give you only 3 1/2 minutes, or two 2 1/2-minute parts, to tell the tale. And, ominously, they'd provide the back story
In the planning phase for this latest project, Hektor Stockton, one of the producers, defined their world best: "If the military and the circus had a baby, it would be filmmaking." Like Lucas himself, Stockton and the other producers Christina Garnett and Lucas' wife, Al (short for Alexandra) have been in the trenches of various big-budget films and manage to operate at the eye of these storms. Al used to be in the Red Cross and felt right at home on sets. "Oh, this is just like a disaster," Lucas intones in his wife's British accent. They're part of that strange society whose work is underground, that keeps odd hours while working on commercials, Web sites, the occasional feature film, and industrial videos for law firms, medical colleges and museums those images that come endlessly out of somewhere, created by someone.
On any film set, the electrical crew is at the heart of the machine, powering the cameras and lights and microphones and monitors for the director, cameramen, grips, boom operators and so on. Orbiting the electrical core are the costumers, set designers and actors, the ones whose work gets caught in the camera's eye. Beyond that are drivers, caterers and there, way out, the production assistants toil in darkness, hoping to someday get called into the light ("Being a PA is a good way to learn that you don't want to be a PA," Lucas says). I think the writers are somewhere out here, too.
So there are thousands of extremely specialized people working in film production in Virginia, and when a project like this comes along, it takes a ringleader and a general to bring them all together.
Todd Raviotta, editor for The Branching's two 48-hour project films and a filmmaker himself, recognizes the mastermind in Lucas. "He can really see that potential that an artist has," he says, "what they're capable of and beyond." Lucas' talent, beyond his individual vision, may be in knowing just what to use in others to create the best result.
So he gathered together 80 crew members and 23 actors for a five-minute film, which breaks Atlanta's record of 70 for a 48 Hour crew. In fact, this may be the biggest little film ever made.
During the first weekend in November, people came from all over Virginia and down from New York to work on what would be called "Terminus," a bit of community forged out of chaos. The story they gave us was absurd, but it didn't stop The Branching from making a five-minute film with six locations, 43 camera setups on the first day alone, two visual effects shots, some explosions and actor Scott Wichmann watching a kid pick his nose. Whatever it started out to be, it became something shared, communal, under the weight of all these hands. "You have to make so many sacrifices that it doesn't look like what you started with," Lucas says.
And you never know what those sacrifices are. So on the final day of filming, when everyone is rushing over to the burned-down chemical plant to film the climactic battle, and Al, moving cameras and gear off the elevator, lost her keys down the elevator shaft, she only has time to chant, in a charming British way, "Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!" before we all load the stuff into another car and follow the storm. S
The Branching screens "Terminus" and "Decisive Moment," along with a making-of documentary and some other short films, Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Byrd Theatre at 2 p.m. 358-9901.