Sign up for our free newsletter
In 48 sleepless hours, 11 teams of local filmmakers pull art from a hat-or somewhere.
By most folks’ standards, Mark Ruppert’s weekend has just been shot to hell. He’s standing inside Tryst on 18th Street NW, where bands of 20-somethings sip on fruit-splashed cocktails, unwinding into, on this sweltering Friday night, what promises to be the first revoltingly hot weekend of the season. Toward the back of the coffeehouse, Ruppertwho runs a video-production company and has directed two short independent filmsis handed a miserably rigid assignment.
He must write, shoot, and edit a film noir. The flick may be shot anywhere, but a character named Max the Repo Man and a severed human body part must appear in the script. Also required is the line “I made you who you are, and I can just as easily break you.” If Ruppert includes a psychic character named Dinita Evers, or a gun, or the line “That’s just what the doctor ordered” or “I’ve got a baaad feeling about this,” he will score bonus points, but those are hardly essential elements. Oh, and the screening is Sunday night.
Ruppert and his 23-person cast and crew have exactly 48 hours.
Clad in a short-sleeved burgundy polo shirt and tan shorts, the thin-lipped, steady-eyed, 39-year-old director seems remarkably composed. Twenty minutes after taking the assignment, Ruppert is crawling through Adams Morgan traffic in his blue Chevy Silverado with the air conditioning humming and the windows rolled down, en route to screenwriting headquarters. The plan is to write Friday, shoot Saturday, and edit Sunday. The weekend’s first obstaclea low hurdle compared with what’s comingis laid bare in a query by 23-year-old soundman/actor Joe Brener, who’s riding shotgun: “What exactly is film noir?”
Ruppert is still rhapsodizing about vintage black-and-white cinematography and fedoras when we enter the writers’ meeting, held inside a Mount Pleasant living room owned by screenwriter Liz Langston. It’s about half past 7. “We’re already 37 minutes behind schedule,” announces film editor Mark Zuckerman from a blue-and-white floral-print sofa.
Ruppert joins the huddle of writers and actors plopped down on two couches and a handful of chairs surrounding a white tile coffee table. Settling the severed-body-part question is first on the agenda. “We do know that we have access to an ear,” says Ruppert, referring to a plastic ear-shaped chip clip secured from a crew member’s friend.
“An ear is a very good body partvery symbolic,” replies Zuckerman, nodding.
“I might have some fake blood, but I don’t know if it’s still good,” says actress Julie Ann Myers. “I’ve just kept it for so long.”
“If we’re gonna shoot in black and white, all we need is chocolate syrup,” counters actor Nick Galifianakis.
In an adjoining room, the crew’s cinematographer and light man are hunched on a pair of wooden chairs studying a video of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. On screen, Henry Fonda, in a dark hat and
overcoat, strolls across a front porch and toward a door. Vicki Hill, the camerawoman, rewinds the sequence and raises a hand to the television.
“He ends up as a silhouette against the white wallvery film noir,” she says, describing Fonda. “Video doesn’t show light/dark contrasts as well as film, but we don’t have time to send film to a lab. We’re using digital video. It’s good for a quick project like this, but I wouldn’t put much else on it.”
The frighteningly early deadline is Ruppert’s doing. He didn’t merely accept the assignmenthe designed it, more or less. Ruppert is the creator of this weekend’s 48 Hour Film Project, which has attracted 10 other Washington-area independent film teams besides Ruppert’s own, which is called the Big Ouch. To prevent head starts, Ruppert had each unit draw its film’s genre from a black plastic top hat at tonight’s kickoff event inside Tryst. The character of Max the Repo Man, the severed-human-body-part prop, and the line about making you and just as easily breaking you were also drawn from the hat. The gun, psychic Dinita Evers, and the two additional lines of dialogue are point-boosting “wild cards.”
But the project isn’t really a competition. There are no judges and no winners or losersonly a Sunday-night screening of all the films at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge in Dupont Circle. “The competition is really within yourself, to meet the challenge,” Ruppert says. “You have this ridiculous time limit, and the point is to see what a pool of creative talent could do. The challenge isn’t to complete a filmit’s to complete an interesting film. Whether any of these films are gonna be any good, that’s the big question.”
At the living-room writers’ session, Galifianakis shouts, “Not to pigeonhole anyone, but you actually look like a repo man!” with a finger pointing at Brener.
The crew’s brainstorming session has yielded a protagonist who’s been duped by a femme fatale into giving up an organ to the repo manbut there’s a twist: Our hero cracks the scheme and plans to poison the organ so that it’s useless. Half an hour later, the crew nails down the organ as a kidney and the femme fatale as a blood-bank worker hired by an aristocrat looking for a kidney that matches his rare blood type.
Just past 9 o’clock, Ruppert dismisses everyone but three writersLangston, Lora Engdahl, and his brother, Tom. He tells the crew to watch for an 11:30 p.m. e-mail announcing Saturday’s filming location. Meeting time is 8 a.m. Before midnight, the screenwriters, who have written together for Ruppert’s local late-night comedy talk show, the 11 O’Clock Show, have loosely sketched out a script on a laptop, with Joe, Veronica, and, of course, Max as main characters.
The screenplay opens with Joe in a tub of ice sans kidney, awaiting death and recounting the story of the two days leading up to his fatal predicament. By the time the writers kick me out, at quarter to 12, Langston is suggesting that they call a plumber friend who might know where to find a claw-foot bathtub.
It’s Hour 13 of the project when gaffer Chris O’Leary pulls up to the set, a vacant three-story building owned by Ruppert’s family on 7th Street NW above Chinatown. “What’s you doing?” asks a gruff, Southern-sounding construction worker, who wanders over from the building site across the street as O’Leary pulls lights and cameras from his car’s trunk.
“We’re shooting a 10-minute movie,” O’Leary explains.
“We don’t know yet.”
When the script for Black Monday is handed out upstairs, the kidney and bathtub are history, and the characters of Joe, Veronica, and Max have been replaced by private eye Sam Tarmac, femme fatale Ann Fairchild, and Maxine the Repo Woman. Langston and Engdahl have pulled all-nighters, and Ruppert clocked two hours of sleep.
“At about 2:30, we realized we had to completely rewrite it,” says Engdahl, wearing the same cut-off jeans as last night. “We had to realize that we weren’t really tied to the original idea. It was kind of scary to start over, but we couldn’t find a bathtub.”
In an empty second-story room with worn sliding doors and a plywood floor heaped with costume-stuffed suit carriers, actress Marie Sardelliwho’s playing the lovely and dangerous Ann Fairchildleans into a window frame stuffed with a box fan and a cosmetic mirror and starts experimenting with blush and lipstick. She won’t be on-camera for another eight hours.
O’Leary is on the top floor, fitting four tall windows with black plastic sheets for the morning’s first scene, a nighttime meeting between Tarmac (Galifianakis) and Maxine (Myers). The third-story space breathes film noir: cracked plaster walls, a long, airy partition of wood beams, and a ceiling of bare rafters. But with the crew’s bright lights blazing away and no ventilation on an 80-degree day, it feels like a sweatshop.
Seated in a half-moon of chairs downstairs, Ruppert and the actors rehearse the scene, which actually falls near the end of the movie. Hoping to collect his bounty, Detective Sam Tarmac brings Maxine an ear as proof that he has deep-sixed Ann.
“How do I know it’s the bitch’s?” snaps Myers, looking up from the script. “Do I have to say ‘the bitch’s’?”
“‘The slut’s’? ‘The tramp’s’?” Ruppert offers.
When we climb the creaky wooden stairs for the shoot, half of the scene’s dialogue has been touched up or rewritten. Myers stands in front of a wooden desk with broken legs that’s propped up on reams of faded pink, yellow, and blue business papers. “For me, the subtext for this scene is that Maxine wants Sam dead,” she says. “She’s thinking, You stupid little shit, I want your money. My character is very sexual and poisonous. She’s this beautiful thing that you don’t want to touch because she’ll kill you.”
“Quiet on the set, roll cameras, and action!” yells Ruppert.
“Your unfortunate person,” says Galifianakis, handing Myers a small box that holds the ear.
“What’s this? Did I ask for an ear?” snaps Myers, dropping the box to the floor.
“The rest of the body wouldn’t fit in the box,” coos Galifianakis.
At 10:22 a.m., the first take of the scene is completewhich means that the crew has produced a little less than 30 seconds’ worth of digital video. At about 5 p.m., Zuckerman, the film editor, calls Ruppert’s cell phone from the production studio with bad news: All the dialogue on tape so far is obscured by a static buzz. The film looks good, but the audio is virtually unusable.
Nonetheless, a runner intermittently drops off digital tape at Zuckerman’s studio until shooting is adjourned for the day, just shy of midnight. Filming will resume Sunday morning at 8. Because most of the film has already been shot, it’s the editor’s turn to stay up all night.
At 10 on Sunday morning, Zuckerman is sitting in a swivel chair in his production suite above Connecticut Avenue, watching the 6-minute, 22-second rough cut of Black Monday, which is running pretty low on dialogue because of yesterday’s audio crisis. The movie flashes simultaneously across a computer monitor and a television screen perched atop the black desk that runs the length of the room. After last night’s talk of reworking the flick into a silent movie or adding subtitles, Engdahl and Brener massaged chunks of the script into a voice-over for Tarmac.
“We kind of have a beginning, middle, and an end,” yawns Zuckerman, who caught an early-morning nap on the studio’s green sofa using a plastic UPS packing cushion as a pillow.
With a film-editing program called Avid, Zuckerman has been rapid-clicking the mouse for the past 18 hours to splice together different shots of the same scenes and then attaching the completed sequences to others he’s already finished. Except for the scenes still being shot on 7th Street, recording Galifianakis’ extended voice-over track, putting the voice track over the film, and laying down the score, the movie is complete. The final cut will be not quite two minutes longer than the current version.
Before the last scenes and the score arrive, Zuckerman wants to dub sound effects over a shootout between the FBI and Maxine and her henchwomen. He grabs a five-CD set called 505 Digital Sound Effects from under the desk and opens the case to Vol. 3: Machines of War. Zuckerman gasps: It’s empty. He’s forced to record poorly made gunshots off a CD of cheesy effects that Brener picked up for a few bucks.
Ruppert and Galifianakis knock on the door a little after noon. The actor says he’s not upset about the scrapped dialogue. “Going into this, you know that you’re not shooting Lawrence of Arabia,” Galifianakis says. “I’m proud that we started and completed something. I don’t want this to be my legacy, but I think the final product is a secondary consideration.”
With Ruppert perched on an Igloo cooler and offering various bits of directorial critique”More oomph,” “More emphasis on ‘I,’” “More pause between the words ‘She was playing with my balls’”Zuckerman records Galifianakis’ voice-over. It’s 5 o’clock by the time they finish and Zuckerman has inserted the scenes shot that morning into the rough cut.
As Hour 46 begins, Zuckerman starts layering on the soundtrack from a freshly minted MiniDisc. Neeta Ragoowansi and Ariel Francis, two 34-year-old D.C. musicians, penned the ominous-sounding tracks on a pair of keyboards. The film closes to Ragoowansi singing, “I made you who you are, and I can just as easily break you,” in a pinched Betty Boop voice as Francis’ fingers dance an old-style two-step on the keys.
Ruppert drives a backup version of Black Monday down Connecticut Avenue to Visions in time for the project’s 7:30 p.m. drop-off deadline. A final version, with opening and closing credits attached, arrives with Zuckerman at 9. The screening is the theater’s first-ever Sunday-night sellout. All the teams have managed to complete films that clock in at at least five minutes, but horror stories float through Visions’ lobby before showtime: One crew got booted off its set inside a cemetery; another produced two rival scripts for Saturday’s shoot.
Ruppert’s film is the first to hit the screen. Tarmac’s opening dialogue sounds like the collective soliloquy of the theater full of drained filmmakers: “I felt like a piece of toast, butter side down, and run over by an 18-wheeler. I’ve had one hell of a 48 hours.”CP
Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge will offer two more screenings of the 48 Hour Film Project entries at 6:45 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 15.
For more information, call (202) 667-0090.