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Glamor and grits at the 48-Hour Film Festival

by Brian Clarey

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

There’s this guy, old guy, big bristly mustache and baggy overalls. He works for the circus, cleaning up after the elephants. Every day he walks behind them, rolling the giant elephant turds with his pushbroom, and each day at least one of the elephants dumps a five-gallon piss on the poor bastard.

One day Magnifico the trapezist watches the guy work, sees him stepping through mounds of elephant crap and observes Sheena, the biggest of all the pachyderms, unload a steady stream of urine on the guy. It looks like he’s being sprayed by a hose.

Magnifico comes down from his perch and approaches him.

“Hey man,” he says. “I’ve been watching you. You work hard all day and each morning there’s more to clean up. You’re covered with piss and crap. I know you’re not making any money, and even the elephants have no respect for you. Why don’t you quit and get a job cleaning offices or something? It’s got to be better than this.”

The old guy stops and looks incredulously at Magnifico.

“What,” he says, “and leave show business?”

I’m thinking about this as I stand on a ladder outside a townhome in northeast Greensboro holding a thick tarp over a window. Inside the house a film crew shoots a teenage girl slumping up a flight of stairs. There’s too much light, which is why I’m out here, and they shoot the scene over and over again while my tired arms shake and falter.

This, I’m starting to understand, is showbiz.

I came to this crew, the Keene Collaboration, serendipitously. I was eating lunch downtown when I ran into Dustin Keene, the mind behind the Schoolkid Chronicles, and he was all worked up.

“We’re putting together a team for the 48-Hour Film Festival,” he told me. “It’s shaping up.”

Along with the seasoned ranks from Schoolkid, he had recruited a top-notch soundman, a graphics guy, a few trained actors and technicians and his pal Matt McNeill, a local kid who made good in Hollywood, to direct and shoot the thing.

“What we need,” he said, “is a really great writer.”

“Gee,” I said. “I can’t think of anybody offhand.”

But it turns out he was talking about me.

So what the hell. On a whim I signed on.

And on Friday evening we drew the drama category. We set to work in the Schoolkid Chronicles offices above the Broach Theatre on Elm Street, hashing out ideas and working them into the parameters set by the contest: a film no more than 7 minutes incorporating a prop (a magnifying glass), a character (a night-shift worker named Joe or Joanne Taylor) and a line of dialogue – “Hug me close and call me ‘Sugar.'”

McNeill, a young actress by the name of Heather Meek and I knocked out a script just in time for me to get a shot of whiskey in before last call.

It’s the first film I ever worked on, and I learned things both amazing and a bit disturbing.

For one: I’m well aware of the fact that writers occupy a very low stratum on the Hollywood food chain. I always thought this practice was bullshit, and I cited it often when people would ask me if I ever thought of writing a screenplay.

But really, there’s kind of a reason for it.

Sure, good writing is essential. But in my na•ve hubris I thought it was everything. It’s not.

Unlike my line of work, where the end product is essentially words on a page, the writing is just the beginning – a million little things must happen to bring the words to life, little things which I, as a writer, know next to nothing about. So after we finished the script, the most important part of my job was to stay out of everybody’s way, which I performed to the best of my ability.

Second: Making movies is boring. For real. It’s tedious, monotonous and repetitive, with a lot of downtime. During shooting on Saturday there were such long stretches of inactivity I probably could have gotten both thumbs up my ass.

And I should clarify: It was boring for me, a relatively unskilled laborer on the set. The other guys were in constant motion, perpetually tweaking the piece and coming up with new angles and layers for the story. I, for my part, went for cigarettes and coffee. And at one point I was one of three people charged with tearing a tarp off a car.

And finally: It is extremely rewarding. To see words on a page come to life, as clichd as it sounds, is gratifying like nothing I’ve ever done before. To work with a team of talented and driven individuals is an intoxicating thrill. And to mass as a group to see the final product… damn, fella. It’s something, alright.

I’m so proud of my teammates and the work they did, and – in my eyes anyway – the final product is something to behold. Go see it next weekend at the Carolina Theatre, and look for YES! Weekly staffer Jordan Green’s 1988 Honda hooptie in a supporting role.

I’ll surely be back next year if they’ll have me, even if all I do is gas the cars and clean up after lunch.

That’s showbiz, baby.

For questions or comments email Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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