The 48 Hour Film Challenge
In just a few minutes, the clock will start ticking, and I will have 48 hours to write, shoot, and edit a complete short film. But that's not the hard part.
I only have one actor who is available for the entire weekend, but that's not the hard part, either.
I don't have a cinematographer, a cameraman, a boom mike operator, or, for that matter, a boom mike. But those are not the hard parts.
The hard part is, I don't actually have a movie camera.
I'm queuing up outside the Curzon Soho Theatre for the start of the National 48 Hour Film Challenge. Every one else in the line seems to be accompanied by at least some sort of crew-- a producer, perhaps, or a Director of Photography and a couple of actors. It's an intimidating sight, made more so by the knowledge that similar queues are forming in Bristol, Edinburgh, and Manchester.
Watching the other contestants talk about locations, rehearsal spaces, and other exotic luxuries to which I don't have access, I can't help noticing that some of them are carrying not merely three-chip prosumer-level miniDV cameras, but tripods as well. And light meters. And around-the-neck-thingies-which-I-don't-know-what-they-do-but-they-look-pretty-impressive.
I begin to second guess my plan, which is to take photos using a digital still camera, and then load them into my computer and edit them together to create a short film. This would have the added advantage of allowing me to round out my cast with stuffed animals, action figures, pots-and-pans, and other inanimate objects, since, in a still image, they won't seem any less animate than my human actors. But I'm now beginning to wonder if maybe a series of still photos of a stuffed animal won't be quite as compelling as I had thought.
It turns out that I have plenty of time for second-guessing; the Challenge was supposed to begin at 10AM, but by 10:30, the line hasn't started moving. By now, the queue stretches down Curzon street, well beyond the Ladbroke's betting parlor, where an elderly security guard watches us with amusement through the front window.
Eventually, though, the line starts moving, and I reach the lobby, where I register my team name ("The Last Minute Irregulars") and take a seat in the theatre. Even if I am not the most poorly prepared person present, I am certainly the least hip. I begin to feel as self-conscious about my lack of piercings as about my lack of camera equipment. The guy next to me is breakfasting on a bottle of Smirnoff Black Ice.
Eventually my musings are interrupted by the improbably-named Louis Savvy, who, along with the even-more-improbably named Johnny Oddball, is one of the organizers of the event. He explains the rules. He has two bags full of little paper slips. The little slips of the first bag each bear a different phrase that could be used as the title of the move. The little slips of the second bag each bear one of 9 possible genres. One by one, Louis will summon forth a representative of each team, who will reach into each bag, and grab a piece of paper therefrom. The team will then have until 1 PM on Monday afternoon to hand in a miniDV video cassette containing a film with the assigned title, in the assigned genre. Films must be no less than 4 minutes and no more than 5 minutes long. Spoofing of a genre is permitted, but I have decided in advance that I am not going to do a spoof; parody is too easy, since it carries a built-in excuse for bad writing, directing, and acting.
Louis begins calling out team names (my favorite: "Children's Television Sweatshop") and eventually comes to The Last Minute Irregulars. I stride to the stage, reach into each bag, and look at my little paper slips. My assigned title: "The Herb Garden." My assigned genre: "Romantic comedy."
For a few minutes, I consider making a heart-warming film about a rosemary plant that escapes its window box, travels to an exotic herb garden, and falls in love with a handsome and roguish basil. After all, Lauren has a window box full of herbs, and I'm sure that our rosemary plant is just as good an actor as any rosemary plant that ever lived. But if I'm going to take the genre seriously, my film is going to have to be at least a little touching, and even the Laurence Olivier of rosemary plants isn't going to have the dramatic range of, say, a teddy bear or an action figure. At least they have faces.
Could I just draw a smily face on a post-it note, and stick it on a pot of rosemary? No, I'm not a very good artist, and I'd hate to lower the high production values of my film.
So real actors it is. Lauren has already volunteered to devote the weekend to the film, and I have two other actors who are available for part of tomorrow. But for most of my shooting schedule, my wife will be my only cast member. So how am I going to make a romantic comedy with only one person in most scenes?
Aha! I've got it. I'll tell the story entirely in the first person. The camera will act as the point of view of one of the characters for the entire film; we'll see the whole story through the eyes of the narrator. That way, each scene will feature at least two actors: Lauren, and the camera.
That decision made, the narration gradually takes shape in my mind. A nostalgic, retrospective feel seems right for a story told through still photographs; I'll open with the words "It was many years ago, and I was a much younger man, but I remember it well." But what, exactly, is he remembering?
By the time I reach home, I've settled on a story about a stuffy professor who needs to a sample of a rare herb, and the freespirited young woman who steals it out from under him. It'll be just like "Bringing Up Baby," only with a rare herb playing the part of the dinosaur bone. And with Lauren playing the part of Katherine Hepburn. And with the lens of a Canon A40 Powershot Digital Camera playing the part of Cary Grant.
It takes me a few hours to write the script, but by late afternoon, I'm ready to start shooting. Lauren and I head out to the South Bank, which I think is one of the most beautiful and cinematic parts of London. We're met there by my friend Eric, who has agree to help out with the film. I tell him I need him to help carry my backpack, which includes a costume change and such equipment as I have. In exchange, I offer him an onscreen credit as "Equipment Wrangler." He quickly negotiates this up to "Associate Producer."
At long last, after a whole six-hours of pre-production, it's time to commence principle photography. The first scene we're shooting is a chase scene; having stolen the herb, Lauren dashes away from the narrator, who follows in hot pursuit. To film this, Lauren runs ahead of me while I jog behind, madly snapping photos. My hope is that, when I put the photos together on my computer, they'll create a sort of herky-jerky animated effect.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17
After googling for "herb garden London" I've found something that will suit for the titular setting: The Geffrye Museum, in Shoreditch. In the scene we will shoot, The Narrator has been invited by Professor Tarmac (who is even snootier than he is) to investigate a possible spontaneous mutation in the lavender bed. But when he arrives, he discovers a mystery Woman cutting herbs and stuffing them in her purse. She runs away and the Narrator pursues her, leading into the chase scene we shot last night.
I've asked my friend Zsu Ard� to play Professor Tarmac, and told her to meet us at the Geffrye, dressed in the sort of thing a snooty herbologist might wear; I am assuming that, like most women, she has an entire closet devoted to snooty herbological wear. I've also snipped a big piece of lavender from our own herb box, so that we won't have to snip the Geffrye's lavender to get the shot.
The gardens are lovely, and filming goes well (if you can use the word "filming" to mean "taking a couple dozen still photos"). But as we are leaving the premises, walking past the security guard, I feel a sneeze coming on, and I reach into my pocket. Suddenly, I am stricken with the fear that, when I take the tissue out, the lavender trimmings will scatter over the floor, and I'll be too busy serving time for herb theft to finish my film. I hold in the sneeze.
Then it's on to Zsu's flat; she has a sunny balcony with several big pots of fresh herbs, which will work perfectly as the location for a meal shared by The Narrator and The Woman. For the big kiss with which the scene climaxes, I need a few photos of the Narrator putting his hands on The Woman's shoulders and pulling her in. Like every other shot in the film, this shot must be from the point of view of the Narrator. That means that I have to stand up straight and put my arms on Lauren's shoulder, then tilt my head out of the way while Zsu stands behind me and puts the camera where my eyes would be. I can only imagine what Zsu's neighbors make of this odd tableaux--especially since an earlier shot required me to stand on Zsu's balcony in nothing but shorts and point the camera down at my bare legs.
By evening, I've gotten all the shots I need, and it's time for my secret weapon: David, who will be providing the voice over narration. A professional actor for decades, David has worked with John Frankenheimer, John Boorman, Istv�n Szab�, Norman Jewison... and now, me. Not that this makes me self-conscious about the fact that I am going to be recording his voice using the built-in microphone of a cheap handheld minicamera for a film that has been shot in 48 hours using a still camera.
Over tea, David asks me a few simple questions--he wants to know, for example, if I mind changing the American phrase "tenured professor" to something more British. Then he's ready to go. I record him reading his lines, and after one take, it's obvious that he's nailed it. His performance is so warm and nuanced that it's going to make even a series of still photographs come alive.
I step out of the room to listen to the tape, and, to my dismay, there is an audible background hum, probably because, when I hold the camera the wrong way, the microphone has a tendency to pick up the sound of the tape transports. Damn it.
I have David do two more takes. On each of them, he varies his performance subtly, creating a slightly different character just by the way he says the words. Fortunately, these takes prove to be hum-free.
But as I listen to them back at my computer, I decide that I'm going with the first take, hum or no hum. It's just too perfect to discard. Anyway, the hum is consistent and quiet, and after a few moments, the audience is going to automatically tune out it.
By 2AM, I have a rough cut of the film. I've even added in a score. Dominik Hauser, the composer who scored my Citizen Kane musical, has a website full of short pieces in a wide variety of moods and genres, and he's given me advance permission to include any of them that fit the movie. Now all I really need to do is tighten some of the edits, and record a few sound effects, and I'll be done. It's best to be at least somewhat fresh for my final cut, so I go to bed.
MONDAY, AUGUST 18
I wake up and, being careful to hold the camera in a non-hum-generating grip, I record some "splooshing" noises in our bathtub, for the moment when The Narrator falls off the Millenium Bridge and plunges into the Thames.
I sit down and start loading it into my computer... and my computer crashes.
No problem. I restart the computer, then wait while it reloads. Except it doesn't reload. I get the sight that every Macintosh user dreads: a blank screen with a blinking question mark in the middle.
For the next hour and a half, I fight my damned computer, but it resolutely refused to start working. It's now noon. The film is due at 1PM. In a panic, I call my friend Jake on his mobile phone.
"Hi," he says. "How's the 48 hour fi--"
"I-can't-talk-because-it's-almost-due-and-my-computer-died-and-I-can't-get-it-to-start-but-I-think-I-have-all-my-data-stored-on-my-external-drive-and-you-have-a-laptop-with-final-cut-pro-on-it-can-I-borrow-it?" I say, squeezing the words into five seconds and a single breath.
"You're computer isn't starting? Have you tried--"
"I'VE TRIED EVERYTHING!"
"OK," Jake says, in the tones you would use when trying to calm down a madman with an axe. "I'm out right now, but Paloma is home, and--"
Moments later, I am out the door, external hard drive in hand, sprinting towards Jake's flat.
Paloma lets me in, and soon I am frantically loading my movie onto a miniDV cassette using Jake's laptop and camera. At least, I think I am. I'm not too familiar with his setup, and I can't tell if the process is working. The rational thing is just to rewind the tape and check, but it's 12:50, and it's going to take me more than 10 minutes to get to the Curzon Mayfair, where the tape is due at 1. So there's no time to rewind.
I sprint out the door, hail a cab, and arrive at the Curzon 10 minutes late. I dash in and see that they are still accepting films. Giggling and exhausted, I hand mine in.
As I leave, I start to have doubts. Why in God's name didn't I spend a few moments rewinding the tape to make sure I had actually transferred the film? What if I just handed in a blank tape? After spending two straight days making a movie, why didn't I spare three extra minutes at the very end?
I try to put those worries out of my mind. They'll post the screening schedule for all the films soon enough, and when I see that "The Herb Garden" is listed, I'll know I transferred it properly. If not... Well, I can worry about it then.
The schedule for the 48 Hour Film Challenge screenings is posted, and "The Herb Garden" isn't on it.
[To be continued...]
Events described occurred between August 16 and October 16, 2003.