WASHINGTON — It could be called extreme filmmaking. The assignment: write and produce a four- to seven-minute-long movie in a single weekend.
The idea originated with two friends in Washington, Mark Ruppert and Liz Langston, who wanted to provide an outlet for creative people to harness the power of digital-video technology. Mr. Ruppert had seen the 24-Hour Plays in New York, and the two hoped to translate that idea to film. So in 2001 they began the first 48 Hour Film Project, which invited teams of people to make a movie in a supercompressed timeframe. To spice things up, all the films would include three specific elements: a single line of dialogue, a particular character, and a prop. Finally, each film receives a screening and a "Best of Show" is announced.
From six cities in 2002, the project has expanded to 30 cities in the United States and overseas, including London and Sheffield in England, and Brisbane, Australia. Word of mouth continues to build, attracting neophytes and pros alike as cameras and editing software become less expensive.
"The technology levels the playing field for people. It doesn't take money, it takes vision," says Ms. Langston.
Last month, the 48 Hour Film Project returned to its Washington roots. Seventy teams signed on, including No Snoring Productions, Oozing Sarcasm, and The Procrastinators - which showed up late for the opening session - and I See London, I See France, which decided to take the challenge for a second year.
These pages follow the latter team from conception to the delivery of their comic movie.
Representatives from each of the 70 teams wait expectantly at the Warehouse Theater, where each will draw a paper out of a hat with the name of a film genre written on it. This is to ensure no one gets a head start.
Matt Botwin of I See London leans against the back wall talking with Martyn Green of Poolboy Productions. Their voices join the nervous chatter. Like kids waiting in line for a roller coaster, a mix of dread and excitement courses through them. Once each team has drawn, they will be given the three required elements. The groups can reject their initial draw for a wild-card selection. The challenge for everyone is to turn in the work by 7:30 p.m. Sunday. If they are late, their film will be screened but won't be eligible for top awards.
This is Mr. Botwin's second project with girlfriend and executive producer Jennifer Prediger. Last year they delivered their film at 7:25 p.m., and they know every minute counts. Despite the stress of the 2004 project, they decided to sign up again. "It created sense of community and gave us something to laugh and giggle about for months," Ms. Prediger says.
Botwin clutches his cellphone, and waits to call Prediger and Jim Jones, the film's director and CEO of iKoya, a Virginia film production company, at the team's headquarters - dubbed Underpants Central - when he knows their assignment.
A hush falls over the crowd as 48 Hour Film Project executive producers Langston and Ruppert step up to the microphone. "Welcome to the Washington, D.C., 48 Hour Film Project," Ruppert says.
The film styles pulled from the hat first are mystery, romance, and mockumentary, which the recipients yell out. Botwin snares science fiction. It is not one of the team's top choices. For such a film to be good, it takes technical skills the team doesn't have. He reaches for his cellphone. "What do you think?" he asks. "I think we should go for the wild card. You're sure? OK," he says.
Tension builds as he joins more than 10 others who are taking the wild card. Langston opens an envelope and slowly turns the paper around. Botwin shakes his head and chuckles at his misfortune. "This is the worst possible choice. Is there any way I can trade?" he pleads with Langston. But the draw is final. He calls Prediger. "You're not going to believe this, but the wild card is 'Silent Film.' "
Jones and Prediger sit on the back porch of the house she shares with Botwin, working through the shock of drawing silent film, but warming to the possibilities. They won't have to worry about dialogue. Botwin joins them.
Around 9 p.m., three other ideas people, Len Schmitz, Brian Levy, and Anna Collins, have joined the trio and brainstorming is in full fury. It is a scene surely playing out among other teams across the city. A consensus emerges at 10:30. The film will be series of vignettes about moments everyone faces - the awkward silence. The film is Charlie Chaplin meets the Farrelly Brothers: No words, but the scenes are meant to elicit laughs by relying on a moment of dishabille, bodily functions, and personal phobias.
The team works to incorporate the required character of R. Moellering, a hypochondriac; the prop, a bottle of wine; and the line of dialogue: "It was like that when I got here." By midnight the first scene is sketched out.
R. Moellering, hypochondriac, goes through his routine of taking a handful of pills. He looks in the refrigerator for milk, only to feel something stuck to his forehead. Looking in the mirror, he sees only disfigurement and, of course, fears the worst. He rushes, screaming, from his house. But a woman sees the "tumor" is only a prune, peels it off his head, and feeds it to her dog. Moellering is mortified.
The final scene comes together quickly. It is the easiest to sketch and draws considerable laughter from the tired crew.
A group of friends are gathered at a table enjoying dinner and drinks. Suddenly, one of the diners experiences an enormous bout of flatulence. Everyone freezes, not saying a word but casting accusatory glances at one guest. He is not the guilty party; actually, it's his date. Her heart pounds with embarrassment as she adjusts her dress. The party slowly resumes.
"[These] jokes never get old. They're universal," says Prediger.
Just before 2 a.m., the group is confident enough about the film's outline that they can spare the luxury of a few hours sleep. Prediger sends an e-mail at midnight for a 7:30 a.m. crew call. She crawls into bed at 4 a.m.
A steady rain falls at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, as the cast and crew of nearly 30 begin to arrive at Underpants Central. Some of the cast members are aspiring actors, while others are friends returning for their second production with I See London, I See France. Crew members scramble to set up lights for the first scene as Jones and Stephen Lyons, director of photography, go over the list of scenes to shoot.
Actor Dan Deluca, the star of Scene 1, shaves off his goatee, slicks back his hair, and begins his transformation into R. Moellering, hypochondriac.
Jones and Prediger watch Mr. Deluca on a monitor and cast members gather around. Jones shouts directions and Deluca responds. His performance elicits uproarious laughter. With no dialogue, success rides on Deluca's ability to communicate with his body. After three takes, the first section of the first scene is in the can at 10:55 a.m.
By 1:30 p.m., the crew is back in the kitchen for close-up shots to complete Scene 1. "We're moving at 48 Hour Film speed now," declares Botwin.
"I think we should wrap by 7 p.m., have everything digitized by 9 and have an assembly cut by 2 a.m.," Jones predicts.
Botwin is hopeful but laughs, knowing they cut their final scene at midnight the year before.
Finally, at 6:30 p.m. filming of the final scene begins. It is clear Jones's self-imposed deadline will be missed.
Lyons moves in for the final major scene, the dinner party interrupted by flatulence-induced awkward silence. He shoots wide and tight, moving around the room to create the right mood. The eight actors around the table have a great time drinking, talking, and reacting. Alexandra Walker, cast as the gassy woman, actually gets flushed with embarrassment during the scene. When played back on the monitor, the effect is just right.
All day, the ideas people have struggled with how to work in the required line of dialogue. They have avoided using subtitles for almost all of the film, but now they have no choice. They decide to create a scene with two dogs "talking." A cast member's pooch named Loretta is pressed into service. The dog is filmed and then a split screen makes it look as if there are a pair of dogs. Later in the editing suite, Jones will add the lines:
Loretta: Hey, what happened to the party?
Larry (the other dog): I don't know.
Loretta: What's that smell?
Larry: I don't know. It was like that when I got here.
Less than 24 hours after the final scene was conceived at the same table, Jones yells a conclusive "Cut!!!" The filming is finished.
It is 8:25 p.m. and there are hugs and high fives all around. This phase of the project is done. For Botwin and Prediger, it is a major relief as they are a full 3-1/2 hours ahead of their 2004 schedule.
Jones is confident he has what he needs to knit together the film. Not only is he the director, but he will also edit the film back at his production studio.
"The key to telling a good story is to cover yourself really well in the filming. I think especially when there is no dialogue, it's really hard. But it's been really, really fun," Jones says.
He takes off into the rainy Washington night with Lyons and the crew, leaving the cast to their impromptu wrap party.
The goal is a film that is four to seven minutes long. Prediger and Jones work in tandem to identify segments to tighten or cut to get to the time limit. They both are professionals and know it is better ultimately to have a short, tightly edited film.
Lunchtime passes but there is no time for food. They keep editing. Botwin wants to be on the road at 6:45 p.m. to give himself plenty of time to deliver the film in downtown Washington. Jones constantly asks for the time, calculating what remains to be done. At 2 p.m., the opening scene nears completion. They discuss the need for music and the appropriate places for silence and sound effects. By 5:05 p.m., the credits are done. Prediger checks her watch. They have a little more than an hour before they must leave to deliver the film.
At 6:15 p.m., all of the cuts are made and "Awkward Silence" is done.
There is just enough time to make sure the film is actually on the tape. The I See London, I See France team had a close call in 2004 when their first tape had no audio, creating a mad rush to the finish that they don't want to repeat.
The Warehouse Theater buzzes to life as filmmakers swarm back to deliver their films under the deadline. Prediger clutches the film as she crosses the threshold at 7:11 p.m. and waits in line. Filmmakers trade stories about their weekend and looks of relief wash across faces. The mood is celebratory.
Finally, at 7:19 p.m., Prediger hands the film over to Liz Langston and the I See London, I See France film, "Awkward Silence," is officially completed. Botwin and Prediger hug. They have finished with time to spare.
The marquee at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., glows as "48 Hour Film Project" scrolls over throngs making their way inside. The Tuesday evening showing already featured a dozen films from the project and the 9:30 p.m. screening will feature 12 films, including "Awkward Silence."
The I See London, I See France team listens as the audience roars with laughter at all the right moments and rewards them with sustained applause.
Jones says the group had a strong sense of ownership of the film that is different from commercial work.
"When a client signs off on a project, they are responsible for it. There was no client approval for this. It was all of us working together and just saying, 'I think this is good.' "
"The goal was for everyone to feel so much a part of the film that it was theirs, not mine," says Prediger. "I was really impressed with what they did."