Moviemaking on Speed

You have 48 hours, no script, and a squishy rubber rat. Go!

The two main ingredients for creating a film in this modern world are time and money, and the more important of the two is time. Even if you don’t have piles of money and eager foreign investors, more time means you can seek out, for instance, a cheaper location for shooting. More time means the actors get a chance to really know the script, to get into the parts they are playing. More time means the scriptwriters had more opportunities to develop their ideas. All in all, more time means life as a filmmaker is easier.

And that is why we say, “fuck that.”

For several years, my film group and I have been participating in various 48-hour film competitions. Though rules vary from competition to competition, the basic premise is the same: teams have 48 hours, start to finish, to produce a 10-minute movie that fulfills a given set of criteria. And when I say start to finish, I mean it. This is everything from the first inkling of an idea to a completed script to an edited and polished film. Though more often than not, the “polished” part is somewhat lacking.

Though we participated in several competitions last year, the highlight was our run in the Creative Alliance MovieMakers’ 2005 “CAmm Slamm” in Baltimore. The Slamm always takes place over a weekend in September, and this was our third year participating. We took second prize our first year, and we had two movies in the top 10 last year, when we entered as two teams and made two full films. This was, as you can imagine, insane. But we did it anyway.

After that experience, we felt making just one film this year would be relaxing in comparison.

Rules for these various festivals range from making film in a specific genre to including a pre-ordained character. The Slamm has but one rule: all teams receive the same prop on Friday night at the kick-off, and they must have it in their film in some capacity. So, come Friday night, a few of us piled into the car and headed to the CAmm theatre to receive the prop in question. We, as is so often our style, arrived late. Approaching the building, we were greeted by the sight of the other teams pouring out, most of them griping that the prop was a “fucking rubber rat.” And upon our foray into the building, we confirmed that the prop was indeed a fucking rubber rat.

Squishy prop in hand, we headed back to our base camp to begin the brainstorming session. Energy was high, coffee was consumed, and we gathered on the porch to get started. Now, every team probably has a different method of brainstorming, and we fall into the Democratic camp. We like to have everyone sit around and toss out ideas until one develops into something everyone likes. Of course, with a team roster of 10 or 12 people, this can be a pretty daunting prospect.

Ideas started off flying strong and fast; unfortunately, there were so many it was hard to find one everyone could support. As the first hour passed, then the second, then the third, things began to seem a little more urgent. We dredged earlier ideas back up, trying to wring more life out of them. Films about “rat hockey” were discussed and discarded. Many members of the team began to slowly vanish from the porch, drifting off to more interesting video game playing or book reading. We tried word-association games to come up with ideas, resulting in gems such as movies about SWAT-team rats and people cursed to do nothing with their lives except smash rats with their every action. Things were not looking up.

By 1 a.m., several hours after we had planned to move on to writing a script, I was still camped out on the porch with a few others, all of us wracking our brains for the perfect idea. We split off individually, each intending to write a semi-fleshed out script of whatever idea we were championing. I sat down to work on my plot about a noble young man trying to save the local orphanage while struggling with his evil cousin who cared more about their grandfather’s Tahitian beach house. (I did mention I’d had a lot of caffeine, right?) When we reconvened a few hours later, stepping over the sleeping bodies of those that didn’t quite have the stamina, we decided we still pretty much hated every idea we’d come up with. It was 4:30 a.m., and we finally gave in and called it a night. We would start fresh at 8 a.m.

I will skip the details as to how “starting fresh” involved throwing a few rocks, getting some bagels, and debating the finer points of “The Warriors,” jumping instead to the exciting part where we finally came up with a script around 2 in the afternoon. Our film, we decided, would be about a cursed Tahitian beach rat trophy.

The script was not the refined piece of art we had set out to write. In fact, it was essentially the opposite. And when I say we “wrote” a script, I mean we settled on the cursed trophy rat idea and decided to make up most of the dialogue as we went along — pretty much exactly what we swore we wouldn’t do when we began 16 hours earlier. We figured if we were going to be over the top, we were going to do it properly, good sense be damned.

We then entered the thrilling “running around for props and costumes” phase of the shoot, which I think has a fairly self-explanatory title. Sets were prepared, lights were set up, and by about 9 p.m., we were ready to start some actual shooting.

I was to play the roll of Gaston, the cousin of the guy who inherits the cursed rat trophy from his Uncle Mortimer … well, it’s complicated. As this was a pretty free-form shoot, there were no lines to memorize. I was in charge of thinking up more gags. Twenty-two hours remained.

Despite the track record established thus far in the project, shooting went pretty smoothly. We finished for the night around 2 a.m., then got up at sunrise to finish up the outdoor shots and the interior day shots. When all was said and done, we wrapped around noon.

Plenty of time to spare, you say? Not at all, I say. The rather critical act of editing still loomed. Editing is, by its nature, a slow process. So telling your editor he’s got around four hours to create a quality finished product is a little like asking your Aunt Mildred to please be a little less drunk. Fortunately, this kind of high-pressure environment was just the sort of thing our post-production team thrives on (though not by their own choice).

While they started splicing, I went home to take a shower. This is an important act that is often overlooked in these kinds of competitions.

I next saw my team at 7 that night at the CAmm theater. Our project was in before the deadline, and we joined 18 other teams that finished in time. (Three teams turned in entries after the deadline and were not eligible for judging.) Some of the films screened were very well done, some were painfully terrible, and, either way, a lot of beer was consumed throughout.

At the end of the night, our team walked out of the theater with first prize.

That sense of achievement would completely carry us on a high for a whole two weeks — just in time for us to do it all again at the National 48-Hour Film Competition.

Check out the finished film here. It may not work on computers that don’t have the latest QuickTime software.

Article © 2006 by Joel Haddock