Weekend Warrior

One writer’s account of the agony and ecstasy of participating in the 48 Hour Film Project

My stomach hurts. My body is sore. My throat is dry. I haven’t brushed my teeth today. And I haven’t slept more than nine hours the last few days. This can only mean one thing: I just completed a film for the 48 Hour Film Project.

Now in its 11th year, the 48 Hour Film Project is, as its website states, “a wild and sleepless weekend in which you and a team make a movie—write, shoot, edit and score it—in just 48 hours.” What it doesn’t make as clear are the long days, empty wallets and ego-checks that can plague a team leader (i.e., me) for weeks in advance of that “wild and sleepless weekend.” The 48HFP (as we’ll affectionately call it) has become an international entry point for amateur filmmakers. In 2010, 40,000 filmmakers made 3,000 films in 80 cities on five continents. The stakes are high because the top film from each city gets screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet in the Las Vegas market, the atmosphere between teams seems to be one of friendly competition.

Although I have 50-plus self-produced videos on my YouTube channel and a few unfinished movie scripts, I wouldn’t even deem myself an amateur filmmaker. So what possessed me to sign up for this year’s 48HFP? It was just one more artistic thing I’d never done but wanted to do.

I turned to two people to form a team for the project: Troy Heard, a theater scene regular and aspiring writer/director, and Daniel Lowber, a self-proclaimed failed stand-up comic who dabbles in documentary filmmaking. One brief flurry of e-mails later, Mechanical Cow Productions was formed and entered into the two-day movie-making contest. Our only goal was to make a great film in the allotted four to seven minutes.

Through a combination of networking, dumb luck and personal connections, my co-producers and I assembled an impressive production crew in the two weeks we had prior to the 48HFP’s start at 7 p.m. April 8. We had specialists in sound, lighting and cameras, a slew of production assistants and, of course, a stable of local actors standing by for their assignments—all of whom worked on a volunteer basis. Downtown business owners eagerly agreed to donate their spaces. Equipment was gathered. Dollars were spent. Equipment failed. More dollars were spent.

The kickoff for this year’s project was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Along with 47 other teams, Troy, Daniel and I waited impatiently as Derek Stonebarger, the Las Vegas organizer, gave instructions to the gathered masses. Finally, our group was called to pull our genre out of a hat: We drew “Film de Femme,” which means we could make a film in any style or genre so long as it featured a strong female character. As we had two amazing actresses in waiting, we couldn’t have picked better. The other three elements—prop, character and line of dialogue—were the same for all teams: a set of chopsticks; Vanessa or Victor Black (a musician); and “My motto? Mind your own business.”

Before we even left the convention center, I had already pitched a concept to the team: We do a Behind The Music-style documentary about Vanessa Black, a Gwen Stefani-meets-Courtney Love rock star who peaked early, fell to drugs hard and is now making a comeback—a role perfect for our star, the stunning Brenda Grippi. We called it Sugarhook, and it was perfect: easy to do in a slick package, no special effects required, no exterior scenes to make us worry about weather or noise. We had the story plotted out by the time we hit my house, but our team didn’t finish the script until 1 a.m. Meanwhile, I was making calls, sending e-mails, fielding texts and generally doing the producer thing until 2:30 a.m. We had a call time of 7 a.m. Saturday for cast and crew. Plus, because one actor wasn’t available, I had to be ready to perform a minor role as well.

The actual shooting went smoothly. Most of our cast and crew made it to my house before 8 a.m., albeit barely awake. After running down the shooting schedule and giving everyone their assignments, we broke off to our respective tasks: rehearsing lines, lighting rooms, choosing costumes. We had the benefit of having three cameras at our disposal, so for most scenes we shot from three angles, which later allowed us to create some slick edits. The team caravanned from my house to Daniel’s for one scene, and then to Downtown Cocktail Room for the final shots—a gorgeously lit scene in which I interview Vanessa about her comeback. Somehow, we wrapped by 6 p.m.

I tried to keep a journal throughout the experience, but there wasn’t even time to stop for food (hence the stomach pain) or anything else not directly related to filmmaking over the weekend. So all I ended up with, typed into my cell phone in my car at stoplights, walking to locations or making prop runs, was this:

6:05 a.m. Saturday, April 9, Einstein Bros. Bagel. When they say sleepless, they’re not exaggerating. My team finished writing around 1:30 a.m., I spent another hour editing and printing scripts, and woke at 5:30 a.m. to shower and drive to Einstein to get bagels and coffee for the team.

1:30 p.m., Big Lots. What it means to be a producer: spending a lot of money. Securing locations. Feeding cast and crew. Driving.

3:53 p.m., El Cortez Parking Garage. In the homestretch as for location shoots. Despite worries, Downtown Cocktail Room came through in the end. I know most people don’t have access to the resources I do, and I’m grateful to be part of such an amazing creative community.

8:25 a.m. Sunday, April 10, my house. Hard to wake up this morning. Set alarm for 6:30 a.m., but snoozed until 7:15. Didn’t get any of the music or titles done last night, so trying to cram them in before the rest of my team gets here to do edits. Feel more tired now on six hours of sleep than I did yesterday on three. Right now, we have exactly 10 hours to deliver a finished short film. It seems reasonable, but time moves very quickly, I’ve found.

Those last words were prophetic. After playing catchup on Sunday morning creating and preparing film scores, graphics and still photography, we were staying (what felt like) ahead of schedule. Still, my iMac took its sweet time rendering video files and I was slow learning how to use my new Final Cut Express software on the fly.

By 6 p.m. (an hour and a half before deadline), we had all of our major edits done, but still had to create credits, titles, adjust the sound and make a photo montage. By 7 p.m. (30 minutes to go!), we were done, but couldn’t preview our changes, and had to export the film to a file while crossing our fingers. After about 10 minutes, the file was ready to burn to a DVD. Except when I fumbled that, the next 10 minutes became a mad dash as we waited for the file to copy to a USB drive. Meanwhile, I scrambled for my keys; Daniel rifled through our required forms; and Troy researched how to burn a DVD on the Mac.

We headed out the door at 7:20 p.m., with 10 minutes left to make a 15-minute drive to the Theater7 drop-off point. We had the benefit of easy Sunday evening traffic, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t blow past a stale yellow light or two.

At 7:34 p.m., we were stuck at a red light at the intersection of Fourth Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, literally so close I could recognize the faces on the people standing outside Theater7. As Troy was waiting for our DVD to finish burning on his MacBook, I yelled for Daniel to grab the USB drive and run to the theater. His 6-foot-8-inch frame bounded across oncoming traffic toward the finish line, with our submission coming in seconds before the five-minute grace period ended.

• • •

Making a five-minute movie may sound easy, but even after working with a terrific team, creating Sugarhook came about as easy as passing a ping-pong-ball-size gallstone. Despite all our efforts to achieve perfection, we still overlooked certain details: double-checking sound levels, including all credits and ensuring we knew how to burn a DVD beforehand.

But we made it. We have something to be proud of, something made for the pure love of filmmaking. It would be rewarding to walk away with one of Derek’s homemade trophies. But really, the only validation we need is the finished work itself. If you want to see what 14 very tired people can accomplish in two days of fabulous self-denial, check out the film at FaceBook.com/MechanicalCow.

It was, as advertised, a wild weekend. New friendships were forged, and none were ruined. We all learned so much about the craft of filmmaking, and came to appreciate the dozens of often-overlooked names that fly past on the big screen after the rich and famous people’s faces disappear. I’m proud of what our team produced. And I’m excited to do it all again, but I’m also glad I have a year to recover.

48 Hour Film Project


Premiere Screenings

7 and 9 p.m. April 14 Century 16 Suncoast, 9090 Alta Drive

“Best of” Screening

7 p.m. April 27

Century 16 Suncoast

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Source Code (PG-13)

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Source Code (PG-13)

If The Twilight Zone writers had Wi-Fi, they might have dreamed up Source Code, a genuinely gripping Hitchockian thriller from director Duncan Jones (Moon) that follows an army captain (Jake Gyllenhaal) tapped against his will to aid the government in a top-secret project in which he inhabits the “source code”—an carbon copy of past reality—to attempt to stop a Chicago train bomber. Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright costar.