One Year, 48 Hours

06/19/2014

As most of you already know, I just finished my third 48 Hour Film Project two weekends ago. I’m not sure if fun is the right word for this event. It’s more like a hearty, occasionally brutal shot of life in the arm. What’s that Tolkien quote, about the “uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome” making for a good tale? Well, life is nothing without its challenges, its all nighters, its goals you can be so lost in you no longer ask why. Most people don’t think about these things when they do whatever their version of the 48 is– that being sports for media nerds. It’s enough for them to accept that the camaraderie and the creation are fun, and they don’t need to muddle up the poetic with the prosaic. That’s one of my very special gifts.

Obviously, an isolated film festival once a year is nowhere near my cinematic ambitions for the future. However, the last three years my 48 films have proven to be the only film projects I’ve worked on as more than a consultant or a writer. I can’t justify that; for which reason I’ve been hesitant to talk about the process. I love making films. I don’t think there’s any valid reason I’ve only made one per year. I’m not interested in going into why I didn’t make any films in the interim, or how I plan to do much better in the future. The last year has more or less beaten those twin impulses out of my writing style. Probably I’m lazy and self-absorbed and I can easily take one weekend out of the year to pay someone to put a gun to my head to do the thing I think I should be doing year round. But I do think that, as more or less my only artistic fingerprints from my post-graduate life, these films and the process of making them warrant some comment.

My first foray into the 48 happened in 2012. It wasn’t my first timed festival–that dubious honor goes to a film I don’t intend to link to here. My writing process has always had an excessive amount of self-flagellation involved. I begin, not with the idea at hand, but with the idea that I must make whatever I have “good” or everyone will, I don’t know, judge me, which apparently my subconscious thinks would be the end of the world. This shows up a lot in my college work. It’s probably the reason I burned out some time during my senior year. Anyway, my team in 2012, comprised of mostly former classmates (and led by Grant Swanson), left me completely in charge of writing the film. I don’t believe any of them, save maybe one, had ever worked with me on a film before.

I’m hesitant to get into my writing process, particularly on 48 films, because I’m not sure anyone who read about it would ever hire me or respect me again. It’s easy to be a well-rounded, considerate individual when everything is going great. But as the anxiety and the pressure mount, and the last trip to sleep fades further and further back in your memory, the more heinous impulses at the back of your mind start to work their way forward. As it turns out–and if you haven’t figured this out by now just from the way I write–I have a tendency to slide toward creative jealousy and egotism. I want my vision for things, exactly the way I want it, even when I don’t have any vision at all. And again, when things are great and I’m totally self-aware, I’ve learned to more or less allow my conscious manners to override my baser instincts. This becomes difficult during the 48.

And so when Grant came into the writing room at midnight, five hours into the competition, and found me pacing–I don’t think he saw the tears, but who knows–without a word on the page, I can only imagine what he thought he’d gotten himself into. Try though I might to explain that my pounding against the door over and over again was symbolic of the battle with the solipsistic wall in my soul, I’m not sure anything I could have said while looking or acting the way I did was much comfort to him. So he stuck around, let me bounce some ideas off of him, even wrote a few things down as I said them out loud which allowed me to pace more actively and furiously. I really love to pace. By 5am we had a draft, and I can thankfully say it was 90% mine. It’s not so much that I care about ownership, but something in me would be upset if I bumbled the assignment so much as to need someone else to do it for me. The film went on to place in the top 10 and we also won an award for Best Actor.

Here’s that film. It’s called First Date. I think a lot of the paranoid outlining I did comes across in a positive way here. It’s screened several times in other competitions throughout the Twin Cities and from what I hear has a pretty positive reputation, whatever that means. At the time I told myself that it was no big deal. I didn’t attend any of the screenings, and I didn’t show it to my family or any of my friends who weren’t part of the team. The summer that followed brought a few other creative endeavors, including a Fringe show and a screenplay, but time and time again that 48, where I was forced to confront myself in a short amount of time and accept the limitations of whatever was present, comes back to me as something important.

Warning: very, very adult language

http://vimeo.com/45156840

The year between my first and second 48’s was perhaps the most eventful of my life. Immediately following the first 48, I rode out two thousand dollars of savings in an apartment near Saint Paul, didn’t work, acted in some shows for friends, watched my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, disc golfed and read and played board games and walked around aimlessly for about three months. It was irresponsible and selfish, and I was as lost as I’d ever been; and it was probably the best summer of my life. Sure I wasn’t making a dent in any capitalistic way, but I was learning the value of time and money. I’d go out to dinner with friends and not eat. I’d walk miles to see an amateur play. I structured my time around the things that mattered to me, and I think I became a genuinely better person for it. The financial toll it wound up taking on me is another matter.

After I could no longer afford to stay jobless in MN, I started nannying for my aunt in Wisconsin. I would drive to Wisconsin for a few days, drive to work security for a couple days in Des Moines, then drive back to Minnesota for a couple days. I maintained this arrangement for about a month before car repairs and simple exhaustion and a complete lack of anything to do in MN finally took hold. That winter I lived with my parents and started reading. You can go back in my blog and see all the reading I did at this time. I read everything from Joyce to Woolf to Faulkner to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Kafka to Vonnegut to Homer. I would sometimes read two or three books a day, as people working overnight security have the luxury of doing.

I got so into my reading and my writing that I decided maybe I’d been wrong about the whole film thing. I realized that, if I worked full time, I could use my in-state tuition rates at Iowa State to return to school and get an English degree so that maybe I could pursue my masters or start teaching. I don’t want to get into the specifics here, but this was the second most financially devastating decision I’ve made. Again, it was also one of the most rewarding. At Iowa State I had professors really take a vested interest in me. I was reading like crazy, writing like crazy, acing all my classes, skipping sleep two nights a week. It was the polar opposite of my previous summer and I had the exact same religious experience. My brain was so full of ideas, so excited by the possibilities of life, that I felt like I could finally conquer the world the way I’d always wanted to. I went almost six months without talking to anyone except my family and one or two close friends. I was lost in a world I’d never had access to before, and lonely as it got sometimes, it was also exciting.

I messaged my friends in Minnesota some time in April, asking them if they’d be willing to do the 48 with me as the team leader. I sold it as “The preface to the creative summer we’ve always hoped for.” Something had happened near the end of my term at Iowa State. I’d read Sculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky, the filmmaker behind Ivan’s Childhood and Solaris. Not only was it the best book on film that I’d ever read, it was one of the best books of philosophy, religion, or really any genre you might want to lump it into. It reminded me how much I loved film, and reminded me that I had a duty to lose myself completely for that love. I retreated to the basement media library at Iowa State and started binge watching films and writing screenplays.

And then my semester at Iowa State ended. I hadn’t yet realized just how completely I was lost in financial ruin, so I took two weeks off work, flying out to California to spend time with my best friend before flying back to MN to start the festival.

People always wonder why bad films exist when smart people with the best intentions often are the ones making them. There are many reasons, but here’s the one that always gets me. We like to live in an idealized world of possibilities. Tarkovsky called it a “fatuous pseudo-optimism that makes art an irritant.” When everything is going to be alright in our minds, we question why art is valuable or necessary except to reinforce didactically that if we keep striving, keep pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, keep “doing the right thing” everything will just be okay. It’s a nice thought but it doesn’t have legs. Life is the flux of bad and good, up and down, dogs and cats, some other thing and its opposite. You have to take both. I think that extends to the filmmaking process. I like the idealized version of the stories in my head because they haven’t been tainted by the limitations of reality. I get far too much pleasure from rattling off my pitch list: “A quadriplegic undertakes an ambitious heist to commit suicide, by ordering items online and having his unsuspecting, protective nurse place them in key locations around the room, creating a rube goldberg machine that ends in his death.” “A wage slave at a dull office building pays a witch doctor to control her body while she’s at work so she can sleep on the job and stay up all night.” “The ghost of a dead twenty-something who died driving drunk follows his friends around as they try to communicate with him via seance.” I like the possibilities in these pitches, but there is a lot of dirty, inglorious, frankly quite boring work required to make them more than an idea; to make them something living.

We can sit around without challenging ourselves, and believe every good thing we say, so long as we don’t venture out and test it. And once again, after a year of preparation, I finally put my creative skills to a true test for the 48 once more. The film was called See You Soon and I wasn’t just the writer this year. I co-wrote, directed, acted, and helped edit, sleeping less than four hours across the whole weekend.

This time I chose my team as well. My team the previous year was excellent. If you have any questions about that, just look at how well shot First Date is. But they weren’t the crew, for the most part, that I shot with in college. Most of my best friends joined me in 2013. We called ourselves Ring of Productions, after our college films Ring of Love, Ring by Spring, Ring of Saturn, and Ring in the New Year (which still isn’t online, Phil).

See You Soon is a flawed film. At times it’s downright amateurish, almost always my own fault. I’ve made better looking films. I’ve made better directed films. I’ve made more ambitious films. I’ve made films that worked better in every way. It was also the most rewarding creative experience of my life. I think a large part of that was that it was one of the first where I really shared the process with others. To start, the entire team stood around in a circle, 2001 Patriots style, and basically threw out ideas for the pitch. Ultimately most of the ideas came from the three writers, myself, Andy Johnston, and Seth Conover; but there was something about the entire team taking ownership, of the purpose of the film going way beyond just me and my own little megalomania, that made it all the more meaningful.

We shot at 12 locations. We shot Sunday morning. We submitted the film within seconds of the deadline (officially). Along the way there were fights, despair, and a small crew spread way beyond its capacity for quality control, trying to make a great film with no resources and no time. It looked and felt nothing like any other 48 film. Most 48 films (and three years in, I’ve seen my fair share) know that 4-7 minutes, with less than a few hours of planning, is no way to make something unique. So they find an easily-recognizable premise that they know their audience will enjoy and they riff on it. A lot of these people do improv and short, pithy advertisements, and I don’t look down on them at all. Honestly, if I played their game by their rules I’d probably lose. They’re better than me at that. They’re funnier, they’re more clever, they’re probably enjoying life a lot more than I am. They enjoy the process, and it comes across quite clearly with the best ones, which showcase an incredible amount of skill in technical and performance areas.

See You Soon had none of that. It looked gorgeous–thanks to Grant still working with me for some masochistic reason–but it wasn’t polished as the cluttered opening sequence perfectly demonstrates. The genre we drew was “Vacation Film.” There was a vacation somewhere in there, but really it was a science fiction fish-out-of-water tragedy half in the spirit of Buster Keaton, half in the sprit of William Faulkner. It was meticulously conceived over hours and hours, delivered with almost no exposition (sometimes because we didn’t know the answers ourselves) and to say we got lost in it would be a profound understatement. While trying (and sometimes failing) to book our twelve locations dozens of miles apart over two days, we’d often reach a scene and forget why it existed. At one point we weren’t sure it would be four minutes long. Often we weren’t sure it was a real story with real characters. So far as a pure creative endeavor goes, we were discovering this film (and our own original intentions) and then losing it again over and over throughout the weekend. By Sunday morning we were certain the film was a miserable failure, and nowhere near certain that we could (or should) submit it.

But for once it wasn’t my insanity, it was our insanity. The whole group owned it. And we submitted it (still rendering in the car on the drive to the Crooked Pint, where it was totally done on time and not five minutes late while we stalled in line) and waited. And eventually clarity arrived. Whether it was just a few nights of honest sleep, or whether it was the unbelievably warm response (nominations for Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Direction, and Best Picture) we eventually realized we’d made something to be proud of. We had broken every rule, not always on purpose, and had expressed ourselves. Again, because the process was so uneven, it’s nowhere close to a exhibition piece. I can’t get this into any festivals. I’ve tried. But I think it stands as probably the purest artistic statement I’ve ever made, and one I hope to surpass many times before I’m done.

I have to return to the fact that I know these are 48 hour films. They’re not a big deal. They’re something fun people do once a year, and ideally they don’t matter any more than the dozens of other things you do throughout the year. Four months after this I was Best Man at my best friend’s wedding. Two months before this I went into crippling debt I’m still dealing with. I’ve been in violent car crashes, gone on dates, gotten new jobs, just had a whole time of it. But I see myself as a creative person, maybe wrongly, and because I’m a bad, lazy person, these have been the few affirmations of that belief.

Two weeks ago I competed in my third 48 Hour Film Project. Once again, it was chaotic. Most of the team members from my second year dropped out, some for practical reasons, some because they didn’t really care about making films anymore. A number of the people from my first year rejoined the team. People grow up and move on. It’s a part of life. The creative summer I hoped See You Soon would spark never happened. I went off my ADHD meds shortly after the festival, got really depressed, got into like four car wrecks over a four month span, moved back to MN just in time for a six month winter, and by the time the next 48 rolled around I honestly wasn’t even excited for it. I no longer viewed it as the preface to a mythical prolificacy. I no longer felt I was an auteur temporarily working in the security industry. I knew this was the most important creative thing I’d done in a long time, and based on all evidence, that I would do for a long time after. In that vein, it wasn’t nearly as exciting. It was something I was doing because it would be really depressing not to.

Dan Reagan

My friend Seth Conover, who had moved to New York in October, just happened to be traveling back to Minnesota for the festival. Another friend of mine, Dan McLaughlin, with whom I had done some of my more personal (and less viewed) college films also jumped on as our “offensive weapon.” Grant was back, again, because he hates himself. Luke Stapleton was our sound designer, Chris Behenen our gaffer, and Ashley Herubin took the daunting role of producer for a team that had take full advantage of two producers the year before with loads of props, locations, and miserable hours. Jeff Dreblow agreed to work as composer at the last second, which is the only reason the film has music. It was an even smaller, leaner, more specifically talented group than the previous year.

I’m not going to say this year’s 48 was as serendipitous as last year’s. I’m not sure it could have been; just like even if the third Hobbit film is somehow miraculously brilliant I still won’t be as blown away by it as my teenage self was by The Fellowship of the Ring.  There’s just all kinds of different baggage in the way now. I wasn’t manically shaking beforehand. I wasn’t apoplectically shaking at the end. I showed up. I did my job. Things went wrong. I kept doing my job. Things went even more wrong. I helped brainstorm solutions for them.

Picture 6

And then the beach happened.

Part of our script prominently featured a man in a monkey costume dancing around. We thought we had a friend with a monkey costume, but unfortunately we learned just before shooting that he only had the mask and gloves. I sent Ashley out to look for a proper substitute, even as we began shooting the film that, I emphasize, very firmly demanded a man in a monkey suit that could hold up to scrutiny.

As always the film shot way behind schedule. It was raining, so we shot our interiors first, something I hadn’t wanted to do (because it would leave us with limited time on the exteriors). Seth hadn’t slept at all (I’d tried to grab a couple hours of sleep so I could storyboard once he finished the script), and he was spacing out between takes. The crew had set up the lighting on the first scene hours before our extras were able to arrive. And Ashley called me to let me know she couldn’t find a monkey suit anywhere close, or for anything less than one hundred dollars, but that the Guthrie costume shop had some animal costumes. They gave her a “rabbit” and Dan and I took some furs from the Northwestern costume shop hoping to maybe create some hybrid mammal from the distant past.

At that point we were locked in. I hadn’t stoyboarded the beach and I didn’t have time. I did second and third drafts of the script during the time I would have been storyboarding, then shot a desperately tight interior shoot when I should have been planning the beach shoot.

We departed for the exterior shoot that covered half our film less than three hours before sunset. We carried all our props down a steep, muddy ravine, and then we realized that our entire location (viewed through internet photos and confirmed through phone calls) had been consumed by flooding. We had no location. We also realized that the ax, the central prop to the shoot, had been forgotten at the interior shoot. We also realized that the “rabbit” costume was actually “the Velvetine rabbit” with comically huge legs and an enormous neck that clearly was meant to support a giant mascot head of some kind. It simply could not be shot around in any possible universe.

And so half the film had to be rewritten; for a new location, a new set of props, and a new central conflict. And we had two hours til we lost sunlight.

As I continue, I don’t want to imply my team was in any way negative, mutinous, or unhelpful. It is simply the director’s job to solve problems like this. I am the one who decides where the camera goes. So everyone stood around waiting to do their job–which they did amazingly, and I would be damn lucky if I got to work with any one of them again–and I had to sort through everything in my mind to see if there was any way we could still do this. Our nine hour pitch session of intersecting ideas and nuances was gone. There was no ideal. There was no ego at stake. Any momentum or enthusiasm that had sustained the weekend had burnt out. There was nothing that was going to save this film and make it what it had been in planning. And yet here I was, and I had a job to do. I could choose to not do anything because I could no longer have exactly what I wanted, or I could plan a completely new film on the fly and hope for the best. I brainstormed a few shots I might possibly need, and I sent Grant to work on them while I tried to plan what this new film would look like. I should mention that at this point I had slept one hour out of about thirty.

When the shoot was done, nobody had any idea what I was doing. Nobody could edit the film except me. So after Grant organized the footage, I took to putting the rough cut together. Laura Hoffman drove to the hotel to keep me company and help edit when my mind began to wander or my eyelids droop. But I searched through my disparate, makeshift footage, and started pulling together scenes. And I layered them around the meticulously constructed interior scenes that hinted at the film we could have made. And Laura wouldn’t give me any indication whether any of it was good. It just was, and it needed to get done.

I did not end up sleeping until the film was submitted. I tried after finishing the rough cut and failed. Instead, I paced like a zombie. On Sunday morning, the film still looked terrible and didn’t make any sense. Seth and I started writing expositional voiceovers, feeding them to our beleaguered editors who accepted our changes with less snark than would have been easily justifiable. As late as noon, seven hours before submission, we cut two scenes and took the reaction shots from one and the dialog from the other to make a new scene which could provide more exposition. It couldn’t have been more different or less glorifying than See You Soon had been. I didn’t know if I was a good filmmaker. I really didn’t. I’d always won enough awards for my work to sufficiently ward off the self-doubt, had some audience reaction to tell me how to feel about myself, but none of that was there. We could very well have made a really bad movie, even by amateur standards.

I don’t think we did, thankfully. Thanks to the entire team working around the clock, being willing to make eleventh hour changes, and fighting even until eight minutes to deadline for a quality final product, we dug ourselves out of an enormous hole and I’m proud of our final product. Honestly, it looks better than See You Soon did. And my shot direction and actor direction are better too. It sounds WAY better. Honestly, after that shoot, a lot of the amateurishness on See You Soon seems far less acceptable. It’s less ideal, but it also felt more earned. There isn’t a shot in the film that wasn’t the result of some blood, sweat and tears. Oh yeah, and I don’t need an audience to tell me how to feel about this one. I know.

After the film was in and I’d gone almost 57 straight hours awake, I realized I couldn’t sleep. The manic magic that had accompanied most of my projects before wasn’t there, but there was a lingering warmth. I wanted to be awake. I wanted to see places. I wanted to be with people. I wanted to taste food. I wanted respond to everything, just for a little while longer. There was no euphoria. There wasn’t even much relief. It was just a peace, a kind of purposefulness that lasted late into the night as I caught up with crew members and showed them the film and we nodded cuz, yeah, we’d made that. It felt like something that could maybe last more than one night; like a feeling a real person might have, and not an idealized projection that figured it all out in some invisible interim. I had done a day’s work for something I cared about, and it felt good.

I can’t post this film yet. We will find out later this week if we made the top ten screening, and if so I can’t post it until after next Wednesday. Keep your eyes open. And hopefully I will be bringing some more projects to the forefront in the next year.

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