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Chaos and community: How to make a movie in 48 hours



Everyone's waiting. All the batteries are charged, all the actors are chosen, all the crew is ready, the city's signed off on our locations: Havana '59, Rosie Connolly's, the Science Museum, Main Street Station. You never know what you're going to need. Now the crew of The Branching stirs, impatient and electric, around In Your Ear Studios on 19th and Broad the first Friday in November. We're all waiting for a genre, prop, and, most ominously, back-story so we can make a movie. But it's no big deal. We've done this before.

Back in July, the rather massive team put together by Lucas Krost and his loyal lieutenants and producers -- including his wife Alexandra (Al), Hektor Stockton and Christina Garnett -- participated in Richmond's first 48 Hour Film Project and won against about 30 other teams. Now that first film, "Decisive Moment," goes on to compete against nearly 54 other cities sometime in March. In the meantime, the 48 Hour people have, perhaps sadistically, invited the Branching and all 47 other teams to compete in the Fall Shootout -- same rules as before, with the drawing of the genre and what not, only there's this back-story thing they'll give us, which the organizers imply will make our lives hell. And so, when the email goes out to those 47 cities at 7 p.m., they are proved to be right.

The word "Hatuchama" will become a blasphemy by the end of the weekend: It's the story we have to build the movie around. We have to make a movie about a member of this secret society, the Hatuchama, an ancient sect whose members use a magic amulet to fight for truth, can't lie unless their fingers are crossed, and a host of other restrictions to cinematic zestiness. The 48 Hour organizers found this supposed secret on a supposed website, for which I immediately curse Al Gore for inventing the Internet. And our genre is Comedy Action-Adventure, which could be a problem, since we writers enjoy the occasional pratfall and Lucas might as well have "No slapstick" tattooed on his neck. Except that that would be slapstick. Also, it's got to be PG-13, so any thought of writing a five-minute movie with gratuitous nudity is squashed.

In New York, a team reads the email and immediately throws in the towel: This is just, I mean come on, can we…I mean really. Hatuchama? Forget it. In total, 15 teams around the country will bow out during the weekend, but many probably spiritually quit during those first moments.

So while Lucas and his team scramble to figure out about costumes, set dressing, getting the cameras located by morning and so on, the three writers, Darren Morris, Jarrod Fergeson and me, sit sort of stunned. It's like we suddenly were forced to add a 13-year-old boy to our team. Except one that doesn't like nudity.

But after some meetings with Lucas and the other players, we get a rough storyline going and they leave us be to write. The only other restrictions are that the movie has to be either 3 1/2 minutes or two 2 1/2 minute parts. So we have to tell this teenager's tale quick.

The writing of it is no such thing. It takes all night. The three of us bring different things to the process, roughly this: Morris = absurdity, poetry, reason; Fergeson = dialogue, practicality, structure; me = good looks, beer. We triangulate ideas throughout the late hours, Lucas and Stockton appearing periodically to figure out where we're at.

We get the final edits of a tiny little epic -- with room for a car chase that Lucas really wants -- printed up around 5 a.m., around the time the crew is getting set up for a full day of shooting at Right Minds, the high-tech office space in Main Street Station.

Main Street is still and empty when we park and the three of us roll out, charged up from sleeplessness. Even the Spaghetti Works have ceased their trembling for a moment. But crossing the street with the scripts in the darkness we see movement under the awnings of the Farmers' Market: Grim figures are just beginning to stir the great steaming vats of Brunswick stew for the coming festival.

Maybe it's because of the night behind us, without people, with limited movement save for the typing of laptop keys, but the sudden kinetic bustle of the crew in Right Minds is overwhelming. It's just like in those movies about filmmaking, when you see the set of a movie. People hurry around with equipment in black wheeled boxes, a surreal assortment of clothes hangs on a rolling rack, everywhere the press of technicians. Everywhere there's a purpose, a focus, that became static for the three of us a few hours back. With nothing to do, we leave. Outside, steam boils up from vats and fills the air as the day starts and we go home to bed.

It is a long day for The Branching, some 43 camera set-ups for shots in the office, in the Science Museum (the train car became a set, as did the stairs), from the roof of a building down into the Brunswick Stew Festival, now in full swing. Lucas is shooting a five-minute movie like it's a feature, a result of his ambition and the competence of a crew that, thankfully, didn't mutiny. Things change based on necessity; our precious dialogue is shuffled around, though a clever bit was preserved by actor Scott Wichmann, who's just a funny sumbitch.

Oh, The Branching managed to get Richmond's finest acting folk on this project: Jeff Wincott (from the first movie we did), Mark Joy, Jennifer Massey, Ken Moretti, Jen Meharg. We gave them lard and a box of matches and they came up with crème brulee. It's pretty impressive stuff to have fine and great actors putting breath into your lines on a page. Even the invisible 13-year-old was pleased.

At about midnight my phone rings: The first day was edited, and there need to be some massive edits before the shoot the next day. Fergeson and I rush downtown (Morris has perhaps wisely turned in for the night) to discover that it is indeed grim: The car chase will have to be cut. And we need to retrofit the story, the monologues and talky-talk, to fit what they'd shot. Weird? A little. But one hand slaps the other in projects like this, I've learned. So while Lucas and his editors, Todd Raviotta and Scott Witthaus, and consultant Ruben Rios retire for a few hours sleep, Fergeson and I spend our second sleepless night reworking and rewriting what we'd done the night before, adding funny that would only be so to us, that Morris will have to come in and take out the next morning.

But that night is stretched not only by delirium but by the cruelties of the calendar. We're burdened by another hour somewhere in the depths of the night -- it's daylight savings time, and there's a surreal feeling the night will never end.

By morning we're tucking into bed again and Morris comes in to clean up what we've wrought a little more. The second and final day of filming begins at a burned-out chemical plant, another scene of filmmaking from one of those filmmaking movies.

It too is a full day, but to cut to the point, the five-minute monstrosity is finished, edited and sent off the next day, containing the efforts of 103 people, 24 visual effects shots, one broken camera, some bruised egos, some wrung out crew, and what emerges, a film called "Terminus," is something belonging to everybody: it's not what any one person, even Lucas, could have imagined at the onset, but it's ours, the bastard.

"You have to make so many sacrifices that it doesn't look like what you started with," Lucas says later.

But of this, the second and final film contest Lucas or the three writers will probably ever commit to, there's a really interesting phenomenon that Morris pointed out.

There's all this commotion that second day at the chemical plant (really a roofless affair with three walls and some outbuildings): the cluster of the director, camera, crew and actors; the set dressers painting and applying dirt to 50-gallon drums to be used in the grand finale (stunt coordinator and fire wrangler Kid Richmond standing nearby like a proud papa of destruction); the fella shooting the documentary of the thing (which will be far longer than the actual film, of course); the Henrico fire marshall (standing nearby to Kid like a concerned father); three writers (Hi mom!) and others.

But all this bustle and movement halts the moment the camera starts going. Morris points out that there aren't many times when people are all quiet in public, and here we are, all standing together in this burned-out cathedral receiving the gospel, reflecting the silence of the audience on the other side of this world.


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