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Greensboro’s 48 Hour Film Festival

by Glen Baity

Saturday, 10 p.m.

Kim Moore lies on the couch in Kelly Gordon’s living room, her eyes closed, a smile on her face that seems to say ‘It is completely ridiculous that I’m still awake.’

‘“It’s finally happening,’” she says to no one in particular, ‘“I’m passing out.’” I point out that, as the screenwriter, she could probably go home. In the basement, Team General Pictures is shooting the final scene of a film that will eventually be called Terrarium, their entry for the 48 Hour Film Project. Soon, the editing process will begin, and the majority of the team will get some much-needed sleep.

‘“I just want to hear those magic words: ‘That’s a wrap,”” she says dreamily. It’s a wish that will soon come true, but even after the end of filming, nearly 27 hours removed from the beginning of the project, there are still miles to go before they reach the finish line.

Filmmakers half-jokingly call themselves a masochistic lot, but it takes a special kind of lunatic to write, shoot, and edit a film in 48 hours. Since its inception in Washington, DC five years ago, the project has grown to include 27 American cities, with worldwide participants as far reaching as London and Brisbane. Greensboro, only in its second year of participation, has already expanded by nearly half ‘— 32 teams enrolled for the 2005 tour, up from 22 in 2004, far more than such densely populated cities as San Francisco and Chicago. Each team must plan for the unplannable, co-organizer Ed Moye says: ‘“You can put some things in place, but things are gonna happen and you gotta deal with it.’” It’s a bit of an understatement ‘— unpredictability is what draws participants and viewers to the project, and beyond the initial arrangements (shooting location, equipment, etc.) there isn’t much one can anticipate. It’s an exhausting ride.

Friday, 6:20 p.m.

The members of Team General Pictures stand by the stage, excited and anxious. Location Scout Jeff Smith smiles and turns to actor/writer Keith Robinson.

‘“What genre do we want?’” he asks.

‘“Not romance!’” Keith replies. Last year’s experience was frantic for General Pictures, a band of stage veterans formed by director/producer Stephen Hyers for the occasion. Though most rate the experience of their first film, the romantic comedy Speed Dating, as positive, Stephen still cringes slightly at the thought of it.

‘“We beat the deadline by ten or fifteen minutes,’” he tells me. But as I’ll come to find out, he’s a man who learns from his mistakes.

The bare brick-and-mortar walls of the Sky Bar are lined with eager filmmakers on this unnaturally humid summer Friday. At 6:30 the selection will begin as each team’s leader reaches into a hat to draw a genre. These range anywhere from mystery to mockumentary, with stops on the way at detective, fantasy, and my personal favorite, the esoteric ‘musical or western.’ These will be the first in a series of variables dictating the course of events to come.

Stray rumblings from the crowd punctuate the silence as last year’s Best of City winner, Good as a Mugg Productions reaches into the hat. Their genre this year will be Spy, an announcement that brings applause for the team. The drawing goes quickly as the genres are announced: Horror! Superhero! Comedy!

Finally, General Pictures has its moment as Stephen reaches into the magic hat.

‘“Science Fiction!’”

The immediate response is difficult to gauge, but like everything else tonight, it’s energetic and mostly positive. ‘“Where’s Kim?!’” Keith yells, seeking the head writer. The answer comes from somewhere in the crowd: ‘“Against the wall!’”

‘“Tell her to start thinking!’”

In addition to the 48 hour stopwatch, each year the project’s Washington office hands down a set of criteria by which every film will have to abide. These come in the form of a line of dialogue, a prop, and a character, all of which must appear in every film. Nisha gives the word just before the official 7 p.m. kickoff: each team is required to include a softball, a character named S. Stephens (a locksmith), and the line ‘“It hurts when I do this.’”

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

The post-selection gathering is initially relaxed as the cast and crew reconvene at Kelly Gordon’s house on the northern edge of downtown Greensboro. The team members stand in clusters around the refreshment table and casually discuss possible sources of inspiration. Talk of Star Trek, Ed Wood, The Outer Limits, and Dr. Who drifts back and forth breezily while people trickle in. When head writer Kim Moore arrives, things quickly change from idle discussion to a serious rendering of style and content. Kim’s job, apart from writing all night, is to steer the proceedings and find a common thread in the many and far-flung ideas. It becomes clear immediately that the restrictions set by the Film Project aren’t as mitigating as they appear to be on the surface.

‘“We have enough people on the team that we know someone who can get us into a restaurant; we know someone who can get us into a bar. We need limitations to focus,’” Stephen will later tell me.

In fact, the limitations offer a place to start ‘— Stephen is intrigued by the locksmith character. More specifically, he’s interested in the door the locksmith is trying to get through. As Kim sees it, they have a trump card: ‘“The advantage of us theater ilk is that we know how to tell small stories.’” At a required length of four to seven minutes, the size of the story won’t be an issue; the challenge, at this point, is finding out which small story to tell. But everyone is relatively sure that it has something to do with this door.

With that, the hypotheses take flight: maybe there’s something behind the door, and the locksmith has the key; maybe they’re in a strange place, and the door is the way home; maybe there’s an outbreak, and the door is keeping people out; maybe there are two groups of people, one trying to get out and another trying to keep them in. ‘“Maybe it’s two separate doors,’” says Keith. ‘“You think it’s the same door, but it’s not.’” The prefacing of each idea with ‘“maybe’” is telling: the writers don’t seem to possess or desire control over their story, preferring instead that it reveals itself to them. It’s an interesting idea, and it stands in service of Kim’s notion that everything must lead up to a singular moment, one that defines the film by a revelation of its true meaning.

Getting to that moment is tricky. I notice that Kim is receding behind her glowing laptop with more frequency as time passes, taking shelter from the ideas flying back and forth. Occasionally a member of the nine-person writing team will leave the room briefly, returning with some variation of the same question: ‘What’s the story now?’

‘“What’s interesting is that if you add one element to this thing it could send it careening in a completely different direction,’” Stephen observes.

As if to illustrate, Kelly strides in quietly. ‘“So, are we still concerned with the door?’” she asks Jeff, who replies, ‘“The door isn’t even important anymore.’”

By 10:15, the varied thoughts are beginning to hang together, though members of the writing team take turns wondering if they’re straying too far from the genre. Kim, who has a positively adorable habit of adding a ‘y’ to the end of nouns to form adjectives, takes brief breaks from her keyboard to encourage ideas that are ‘“more science-fictiony.’” There are still questions to be answered, but the concept is set. It will center, with deceptive simplicity, on a family in a house. The door remains (in a way), and the softball figures prominently, but nearly everything else has changed completely in the three hours since the genre selection.

Kim sets off at 11:30, bidding the room goodnight. ‘“Gonna go write a screenplay now, see ya tomorrow.’”

Saturday, 7:15 a.m.

‘“Hey, Paparazzo!’”

I’m greeted by my new nickname as the bleary-eyed cast and crew files into the High Point studio. Keith is among the first to arrive, bearing doughnuts and a collection of royal blue lab coats. ‘“I love being popular,’” he booms as breakfast is snatched from him and relocated to the makeshift craft service table.

Overnight, the script has traveled light years. It concerns Cameron (who will be played by Meg, the daughter of script supervisor Andy Ralston-Asumendi), the completely normal child of a completely normal couple (Keith Robinson and Mariette Booth) who is horrified when her parents lock her in the house and then disappear into thin air. This turn of events is perhaps less odd than the quirks of the family, who are wholly ignorant of the fact that they cannot, and have never, left the house. Yet strangely, they still feel compelled to do ‘outside’ activities indoors ‘— growing plants in the sink, for example. We gradually learn that the family is inside a computer program, the different parts of which are being deleted slowly. The child, however, finds a way into the scientists’ world, and the two realities merge when a member of the scientific team attempts to inhabit the program. Kim labored over the script until 4:30 this morning (under the working title ‘“Weird Sci-Fi Script’”), at which point it was e-mailed to the director for approval. After forwarding it to the cast, Stephen met the production crew at 5:30 in the morning to plan shots. The comparatively relaxed writing session of last night is over and the process has broken into a sprint.

The technical crew springs to action immediately while Stephen mentions the ticking clock for the first time. ‘“If we start production by nine, we’re behind,’” he says, as the crew scurries back and forth to hang the lights and set up the cameras. The nature of filmmaking is such that every person needs to be readily available should the need for them arise. Unfortunately for the already-tired cast and writing team, this means hours of waiting. Accordingly, time moves differently depending on one’s role on the set.

‘“This is so tedious,’” Kim says at one point. She’s been considering returning to Greensboro to add to the one hour of sleep she got after finishing the script, but it’s not possible at the moment ‘— Stephen needs her around in case script issues arise. Retiring from the role of writer, she stretches out on the floor, a dozing Oracle in the corner. She’s not alone ‘— several other cast members nod in their chairs while the sound and lighting crew sets the stage, which is comprised of a bank of laptops on a black table against a black background. The film’s spare dialogue means that much of its coherence will be derived from its visual presentation. The present task is to contrast the cold laboratory with the warmth of the home in which the rest of the film will take place.

Shooting begins with a hush at 9:35, and the word passes around the table of scientists with terse authority:

‘“Delete.’”

‘“Delete.’”

‘“Delete.’”

The long day of shooting begins. In the yet-to-be-filmed family scenes, Cameron’s parents, along with the rooms of her house, are disappearing with each keystroke.

Saturday, 2 p.m.

The cast and crew arrive at Kelly Gordon’s house after finishing the lab scenes in High Point. Filming will be more complex in this setting ‘— there are more odd angles to contend with, more narrow hallways, infinite sources of light to factor in, and anyone can mistakenly walk into a shot in these close quarters. As Kim talks to me about the script, I observe that there seems to be more than one defining moment, and I ask her if it holds true to her original aesthetic. Yes, she says, in fact there are two or three moments. ‘“I’m never satisfied with one moment. I tell everyone to focus on one moment because when they come in they have such big ideas. I have to tell them ‘draw it back, draw it back.”” This, it appears, is the secret to collaborative writing.

Saturday, 6 p.m.

Though daylight isn’t yet fading, it’s getting undeniably closer. The crew still seems calm under the mounting pressure, but it’s beginning to occur to them that time is running out. The script has to be revised as a result. Whereas before, each ‘Delete’ accompanied the disappearance of an object from the house (creating a more gradual effect), now Stephen has decided that the more efficient idea would be to simply delete the mother and father. It’s a move that will save time, but some members of the writing team are visibly frustrated with the change, fearing that it comes at the expense of clarity.

‘“We’ve deleted everything interesting from the script,’” says Andy.

Keith is also concerned. ‘“As filmmakers, we fill in the gaps in our minds,’” he says. ‘“You have to make sure the audience can make sense of it.’” I ask him how he manages to put himself in the mindset of an audience member, since he’s been wedded to the material from its inception. He raises his eyebrows with a shrug. ‘“That’s the question,’” he replies.

Minutes later, Meg, dressed in bright green and pink, stands at the kitchen sink with her hand outstretched. She glimpses something out the window, a shadow of the larger world she can’t rightly see. As the glow from the waning daylight strikes her face, Keith comments that it mirrors the glow of a corresponding shot of another actor this morning on the soundstage. People nod in appreciation; it’s a moment of unplanned symmetry, and it seems to relieve the lingering doubts about the hasty revisions.

Saturday, 10:30 p.m.

Shortly after Kim’s weary wish to hear the audible close of shooting, Stephen’s voice pipes up from the basement: ‘“Cut! That’s a wrap!’” A calmness immediately settles on the remaining cast and crew: though there’s still work to be done, another major milestone has been reached.

Sunday, 9:20 a.m.

‘“Why do we grow flowers in the sink?’”

‘“Why do w’—’”

‘“Wh’—’”

Jonathan Spafford rewinds over and over to the beginning of the take, calmly shaving off the rough edges. The previous evening, he refused to eat so much as a slice of pizza after finishing in the basement, saying ‘“I want to get this done. I’ll eat later.’” Eleven hours after the official end of shooting, he’s still hard at work. Acting as both the film’s editor and a member of its technical crew, he and Stephen have gotten less sleep than anyone on Team General Pictures. After wrap the previous evening, the pair returned to the High Point studio to make a rough cut of the film for the composer so scoring could begin. The task kept them up until just before sunrise.

Stephen, who throughout the process has exhibited few signs of fatigue, appears worn for the first time. Editing is monotonous work; clutching a giant cup of coffee and looking on, he gives occasional direction as Jonathan pieces the film into a coherent whole. After a few minutes of quiet observation, he lets Terrarium (a title conceived by writer Grace Ellis) play in its entirety. A messy collection of nonsequential scenes just hours before, Jonathan’s quick editing skills have transformed it into a cool sci-fi yarn reminiscent of vintage ‘“Twilight Zone.’” Stephen seems generally pleased, especially with the realization that they’re not going to be rushed from this point forward. ‘“After we finished the rough cut’… I knew we at least had something to turn in. But we’ve got all day to tinker with it,’” he says, the memory of his turbulent first film eclipsed by his newest accomplishment.

Sunday, 7 p.m.

Half an hour before the deadline for drop-off, only six or seven teams have turned in their entries. Kim, Stephen, Kelly and Andy perch at the bar of Next Door Tavern, laughing easily and sharing their first mutually relaxed moment in days. I ask Stephen if he’ll be back next year. ‘“Definitely,’” he says without hesitating. ‘“I got into drama for collaboration, and this is very collaborative.’” He likes the pressure, he says ‘— it gives him a real reason to finish what he starts.

As the final countdown to the 7:30 deadline looms, the crowded bar cheers each filmmaker who races in the door at the zero hour. Though it is ostensibly a competition, the 48 Hour Film Project seems to have instilled a real sense of community among its participants. Inevitably, some teams won’t make the deadline, and the filmmakers are generous with sympathy; after all, they’re veterans of the same war. But despite the casualties, it occurs to me that I won’t find a happier bar anywhere until this time next year.

Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.

The lobby of the Carousel Cinema is packed with filmmakers, friends, and curious parties, awaiting the first showing of the 2005 48 Hour Film Project contestants. All around, teams have put up posters advertising their films. Cameraman Noah Davis designed the one-sheet for Terrarium, a picture of a softball in a fishbowl that looks every bit as professional as the major-studio publicity pieces surrounding it.

The near-capacity crowd erupts in applause after each film’s credits roll. I do my best to gauge the reaction of the crowd as the plot twists of Terrarium begin to unfold, and I can hear approving sounds of realization. It manages to be both ambiguous and satisfying, a hard balance to strike. ‘“If people leave questioning, then we’ve done our jobs,’” Kim says.

Evidently, the meaning of the film has remained intact, which is good enough for Stephen Hyers. ‘“Our goal was to finish in time and not embarrass ourselves,’” he says, a modest statement that belies his feverish commitment.

Still, it captures the spirit of General Pictures, who all along described themselves as a ‘“relaxed, fun group of theatre performers.’” It’s a description that still rings true after the hectic weekend, though it might need some tweaking. They’re a fun-loving bunch, to be sure. And they’re the most relaxed group of workaholics you’ll ever meet.

To comment on this article, e-mail Glen Baity at egothelivingplanet@excite.com.

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