Opening e-mail is usually pretty uneventful, but that day in August was different.
I saw an ad for the “The 2nd Annual Debra Hill Fellowship presents Producers Guild Weekend Shorts Contest”. Heck of a long name for a shorts contest.
I’d heard of competitions like this before and they intrigued me. The goal is to make a short film in one weekend. It was a time commitment but I have lots of time. (Some people call my current situation “being retired”. I call it working on my third career as a writer/filmmaker.)
What about resources to make the film? My daughter Leia and her boyfriend Allen Hodge had recently connected through a an old high school friend with Studio School TV guru Josh Quillin, who was opening a studio nearby in Upland, California. I talked to him and he was interested. (The prizes we could win were pretty impressive). So, I had a studio, cameras, lights and post-production support. Leia would do still photography and Allen was set to be our cinematographer.
What about actors? For several years I’ve belonged to the Alameda Writers Group (it’s named after the street in Burbank where you’ll find NBC and Disney studios). Luckily for me, the September meeting featured show-business career coach Shawn Tolleson and so the audience included a lot of her actor clients.
I pitched my project to the group. “I’m going to make a short film. On Friday afternoon at 3:00 p.m,.the Producers Guild will send us a subject and three elements that must appear in the film We’ll need to write, produce, edit and upload a five minute film by Sunday at 5:00 p.m. I need writers, actors and technical people. The rules say no-one can get paid.”
Work your buns off for 2 and a half days for free! How could anyone turn down an offer like that?
To my surprise, by the end of the meeting, I had volunteer writers, actors and staff.
When the big day came, Josh, his wife Katie, Leia, Allen and I were there by 8:00 am. Would anyone else show up?
My co-writers – G. Alan Green and Laurie Lusk — arrived in the early afternoon. We waited for instructions from the Producers Guild. Nothing. Check e-mail. Check their Facebook page. Back to the e-mail. Twenty minutes of this. Finally, the ether spit it out.
The assignment was inspired by producer Debra Hill’s The Fisher King. The setting was to be a city or town. Required story elements were a Grail, a Hat and a Doll.
The instructions explained: “Each of these objects plays a key role in The Fisher King. Entries in the contest must include all three of these items in some fashion. Furthermore, at least one of the items must have a central or important function in the story.” Thematic elements, at least one of which was required were “A Quest”, “Redemption” or “Reality vs. The Imaginary”
We set up a whiteboard, brainstormed and before you could say “Robin Williams,” we were halfway through the script. Then, when Laurie tried to save it, something went wrong with her computer and we lost the file. Start again.
Meanwhile, Josh and Katie coordinated the nitty-gritty of the production. Sign-in sheets, releases, make-up artists, caterers, extras, signs and manning the phones so everyone could find us in far off Dual Edge Studios in Upland. They also arranged for additional technical crew.
Actors started arriving in the late afternoon. We did table reads of the script, and rewrites in real-time. It was dark by the time we offered parts to actors. I had to turn away a couple of volunteers.
Saturday morning, we started make-up at 8:00 a.m., and Josh and Allen coordinated locations with the Upland PD and business owners. We scrambled for costumes and props. By late morning we were shooting.
Josh and Allen shot the script and got plenty of “coverage” — the same scene with different angles and framing — as there would be no-time for reshoots. We finished shooting late Saturday — it begins to get a little fuzzy here. I finished the contest paperwork and Josh edited most of the night. Leia came up with the film’s title — Effigy.
The editing was finished in time on Sunday afternoon, but when we tried to upload the film to the contest website, it kept crashing. I filed an incident with the contest help desk and got a waiver of the deadline. I finally got the film to upload about 10:00 on Monday morning.
Did we win one of the prizes? No.
Was it worth it? Yes.
Filmmaking is a craft. One improves one’s craft by working at it. We all improved. Filmmaking is also about people. Getting to know and work with our cast and crew may have been the real reward. I’m looking forward to working with many of them again.
And, it was a heck of a lot of fun. I’m glad I opened that e-mail.