The Collaboration Filmmakers Challenge, now in its second year, brings a new twist to film contests. You not only have to make a film in two weeks, but then you have to collaborate on another filmmaker’s project. Both of you have to succeed, or neither one qualifies for the prize competition. For actors and technical crew, it costs fifteen dollars to participate, but everyone I spoke with thought this was an incredible bargain.
The collaboration experience was both inspirational and educational. I attended two shoots – SPL Goes Cholo written and directed by Shari Vasseghi and Definitely written and directed by Ariane Von Kamp. I met some of the same people working on both sets in different specialities. In one production, a person might be acting, on the other, doing script supervision. There was also that “pitch in and get it done” attitude one finds in indie film. I was only there as a blogger, but found myself helping out when asked. (Ouch, my back!)
Allen Hodge, Director of Photography on SPL Goes Cholo and co-DP on Definitely, found the process and the contest extremely beneficial. “On Thursday I was in an apprentice mode, learning from a more experienced videographer, and, on Saturday, I was putting to use what I learned. The opportunity to work with people with years of experience is priceless.”
Often one hears in Hollywood that women are not given enough chances to direct. That wasn’t the case in this contest.
Shari Vasseghi’s SPL goes Cholo was an in-depth exploration of the intricacies of Iranian and Spanish American cultural interaction. Just kidding. Fart jokes played a big part in this fun slapstick comedy. Comedy, in this case stand-up, was also part of Ariane Von Kamp’s Definitely. Both ladies drew on their background in stand-up.
Vasseghi explained, “I moved to Los Angeles in 1996 after going to Lee Strasberg acting school in New York for two years. But, somehow, the stars lined up stand-up comedy for me from 1997 to 2005 more than the acting aspect of the arts.”
For Von Kamp the connection was even closer. I noticed that one of the characters in Definetly was named “Dagmar,” like one of Von Kamp’s professional pseudonyms and asked if there was something biographical in the film. “Yes. I performed stand-up for a few years under the name Dagmar Monday,” she said. “I created this character on stage to feel liberated from my own personal forms of stage fright and other comics started calling me that. Yes. I am susceptible to stage fright, but I wanted to make a short that says, ‘We all have some sort of obstacles to overcome, but, those obstacles may seem bigger than they really are. But, do it anyway!’”
This was Vasseghi’s first time as a director. “I do see directing as part of my future,” she said. “The reason I’ve put on the writing and directing hat is because I generally get typecast in dramatic roles. I felt that this was the only way I can put my comedic ideas and self out there.” She explained, “The industry constantly tells actors that you’ve gotta find your niche and my niche according to the industry is drama — I can cry at a drop of a hat. So in order for me to explore comedy in front of the camera, I had to take control behind the scenes as well.”
For Von Kamp, this is film directing gig number two, but she also has had directing experience in theatre. “I started as a theatre actress in New York in a Dream Workshop with Elizabeth Kemp of the Actors Studio. I began journal writing an original character that turned into a three act psychological thriller that I wrote called Trials of the Fire. When we decided to mount the production Off-Broadway, I couldn’t relate to the directors I interviewed for the position. So, to save time, I decided to direct myself. I found the experience illuminated my writing and acting.”
The “SPL” in SPL Goes Cholo stands for the lead character, “Sweet Persian Lady”. The film uses ethnic stereotypes for some of its humor. I asked Vasseghi if she expected a negative reaction to this in our oh-so-politically-correct world. “Well, I had to think about this question,” she admitted. “I can’t imagine that I’d be stepping on anyone’s toes with this character, as I portray a strong heroic Middle Eastern woman who’s not afraid to dabble into a Man’s world. She can do anything that a man can do and better. Her hijab will not stand in her way.”
SPL seemed to me to be a good character for a continuing series. I asked Vasseghi if she was thinking about this. “Definitely,” she said. ‘SPL is such a hero that in my mind there’s nothing she can’t do, there’s no stopping her. This character certainly has a potential for a series. And with everything that’s going on in the world and with respect to the Middle East, she can only bring laughter and joy to everyone.”
I asked both women what appealed to them about the Collaboration Challenge Contest. Vasseghi said, “I was involved last year as an actor and not a filmmaker. There was a huge appeal about it since I was searching to find a team. And with this first film out of the way, I have made some strong connections with other filmmakers and have learned a ton of information about the technical aspect of filmmaking.”
For Von Kamp it was all about teamwork. “I love the nature of collaboration,” she said. “I collaborated with a number of other entrants — all wonderful people!”
In closing I asked if there were lessons learned. Vasseghi suggested, “You should always wear the producer hat. Prepare for the worst and expect the best.” Von Kamp added, “If you are going to tempt fate by making a film, make sure you have good food for your crew.”
On May 4 at the Harmony Gold Theater in Hollywood, the top films will be screened and judges, including Kurt Loder (Rolling Stone and MTV), Matthew Lillard (Scooby-Doo), and Slamdance president Peter Baxter, will hand out over $10,000 in cash and prizes.