It was one of those ideas just stupid enough to appeal to me: put together a team of filmmakers and write, shoot, edit and score a four- to seven-minute film in 48 hours.
A sort of filmmaker’s party game that’s gone international, the 48 Hour Film Project has become a genuine phenomenon, drawing dozens of teams in larger cities. It finally trickled down to lil’ ol’ Little Rock this year. Beyond the 48-hour time limit, the rules are simple. Each team draws a genre in the minutes before the contest begins, and all teams in each city must work in a given line of dialogue, a prop and a character. All of Little Rock’s completed films would be shown on July 20-21 at Market Street Cinema.
I barely know how to take off a lens cap, so I called in a few ringers: filmmakers Robert Kirkpatrick and Mark Clifford, whom I had met a few years back while working on a story about the largely hidden film scene in Little Rock. To help with the $125 entry fee, I called on our publisher, Alan Leveritt.
If Little Rock didn’t field any teams this year, I told them, the next cultural event of national prominence might well pass us over. I underestimated this city, though. By the time the contest started, Little Rock had 28 crews ready to start the cameras rolling.
The night of Friday, July 14, the writing team gathered at the North Little Rock home of Jennifer and Matt Reed (Jennifer is an associate editor here at the Arkansas Times) — me, Jennifer, Matt, Mark Clifford and Sandra Hawn, all huddled over our drinks of choice like Washington’s troops over the fires at Valley Forge. Robert, our director, had been sent to the downtown office of contest sponsor Dempsey Film Group, cell phone in his pocket, to pick our genre.
A little after 7 p.m., the phone rang. The character: R. Mumford, anesthesiologist. The prop: a word-of-the-day calendar. The line: “There’s a first time for everything.” Most importantly, the genre: Superhero.
Comic-book nerds in the room — including Matt Reed, in his Green LanternT-shirt — rejoiced. And we all wondered where the hell we’d buy a word-of-the-day calendar in July.
By 10:30 p.m., we had half-settled on a plot: a washed-up superhero is approached by a young would-be sidekick, who talks him into getting back into the game. Dull, but the candle was burning low.
Then, through the blur of too little sleep and too much vino, someone had a stroke of genius. “Heroes are boring,” someone said. “We should have a washed-up VILLAIN.”
By midnight, we had a script. What we needed now were tights, capes, brightly colored underpants, and a doomsday device.
While some in our crew hit the Wal-Mart dancewear department, I was given the task of destroying the world — or creating something that looked like it could, anyway. I called on my brother, Derrick, who’s something of a mechanical genius. He was in his boxer shorts when I pounded on his door at 7 Saturday morning.
“A doomsday device?” he said, bleary-eyed, never missing a beat. “Let me get my britches on.”
Who knew it was this easy to take over the world?
By 7:30 a.m., we had scored the ultimate doomsday device foundation: an Olympic-size swimming pool sand filter. Black, round as a shot put and three feet across, it already looked like a bomb Wile E. Coyote would roll after the Roadrunner with the fuse crackling.
Three hours, a punch bowl, a tie rack, a pot lid, two strings of Christmas lights, a chimney cap, a rubber skull and a roll of red duct tape later, we strapped our newly minted WMD down in the back of my pickup and headed to Harvest Foods for some dry ice to make her belch ominous smoke.
After a few near-collisions at red lights, Derrick turned to me and said: “Ever get the feeling there’s a satellite somewhere doing nothing but watching this truck?”
Meanwhile, back on Park Hill in North Little Rock, Robert and the rest of our crew had commandeered Jennifer’s block.
Mark, our young wanna-be bad guy, was outfitted in a black trench coat and a pair of Grapette-colored polyurethane pants. For our washed-up villain, Dr. Despicable/R. Mumford, Robert landed Tucker Steinmetz, a long time Little Rock reporter who’s turned to acting in recent years.
Too bad for Tucker, Robert had called in a favor from a friend, a medieval re-enactor who supplied us with the piece de resistance of Dr. Despicable’s costume: a helmet made of chromed plate iron, big enough to bathe a newborn in, weighing easily 10 pounds. After numerous takes in the 90-plus degree afternoon heat, Tucker looked like he was going to drop right over like a wilted daisy.
A dozen hours after shooting started we wrapped principal photography. At around 8 p.m., in a flurry of activity, we gathered the gear and loaded it up. Jennifer, who would be house-sitting for her sister for the rest of the week, gave Robert the number where she would be staying, and then we all split, satisfied that we were ahead of the game.
The gods, however, are not without a sense of humor.
At 11:30 p.m., my phone rang. It was Robert.
Bad news. His laptop was missing.
The worse news: He needed the laptop to finish our film by the deadline.
The semi-good news: It was probably at Jennifer’s house.
The worst news: the phone number Jennifer had given him had been disconnected, and nobody knew how to reach her otherwise.
With all my possible phone numbers at the Times office, I rushed to downtown.
I’ve worked side-by-side with Jennifer, had dinner with her and her husband, laughed and drunk with them. Along the way, however, I never learned anything that would help me track her down if she, say, mysteriously disappeared while house-sitting. You know: Her father’s name. Her brother-in-law’s name. Why she never went ahead and bought a damned cell phone.
Trying to figure out a way to reach Jennifer besides barging into the governor’s office and activating the Emergency Broadcast System, I brought all my strange, reporter-like powers to bear. I flipped through her Rolodex, looking for “Mom.” I Googled her name on the Internet. I Googled Matt’s name. I e-mailed Matt. I even searched Lexis Nexis for their wedding announcement, hoping to get her dad’s name. After that, in the grand, dogged tradition of Woodward and Bernstein, Nellie Bly, and Geraldo Rivera, I gave up and went home for a little shut-eye. It was 2:30 in the morning.
The next morning at daylight, I was back at the office. Just as I was about to drive to her house in my O.J. Simpson ninja outfit and lay a tire iron upside her laundry-room window, Jennifer walked in.
There are moments in life, friends, when excitement is simply too much to bear. The moment I saw Jennifer — who had rushed to the office herself to pick up something before heading to church — I was literally so excited that I made monkey noises, with my hands over my head, like the trained orangutan in “Any Which Way But Loose.” I’m not proud of that, but there it is.
Eventually I regained my grasp of the English language. Sort of.
“Laptop. Your. House. Phone. Number. Wrong.” I’m pretty sure I also worked “Klaatu Barada Nikto” in there somewhere. Jennifer tossed me her keys, and I drove like the revenooers were behind me to her house, got the laptop and hot-footed it to Robert’s place on Col. Glenn Road.
Robert met me at the door at around 9 a.m., eyes red as cigar embers. We had 10 hours left, and we needed 14.
I did the only thing I could. I drove to McDonald’s and bought him a Big Breakfast.
Back at home, I climbed into bed. After all that work, the prospect of not making it before the deadline felt like a lump of dough in my belly.
At around 4:30 p.m. I woke with my wife pressing a phone into my ear. It was Robert. “Get over here,” he said. “We might make it.”
Rendering — how the computer turns your fruit salad of cuts and splices into “Citizen Kane” — wouldn’t take the hours he’d estimated. That only left adding the music, sound effects and final credits, doing a final edit, getting it transferred to tape, and getting it to Dempsey Film Group at Fourth and Scott.
Over the next few hours, it all came together. Finally, the completed movie, now titled “My Hero,” went through a last quick render, and with 45 minutes left, we were ready to transfer it to tape. I went out to turn my truck around and put on my Lance Armstrong face.
After a long time of waiting, I dashed back into the house. The first words I heard were, “It’s not working!”
It all went bad from there.
After all the work, despair, cash, good will and sweat — after going warp-speed across town, making it from the foot of John Barrow and Col. Glenn to the corner of Fouth and State in less time than it takes to make microwave popcorn — we were six minutes late.
Six minutes.
We gathered in the parking lot of Dempsey Films — me, Mark, Robert and Sandra — under a wool sky the exact color of our mood. No one spoke. After awhile, Sandra took our sheaf of meticulously filled-out paperwork and a copy of our film inside, to make sure that someone, somewhere, knew we finished it. When the door of Dempsey opened, you could see other teams inside, smiling and slapping backs. They might have been on the other side of the moon — or, in this case, on the other side of the movie screen.
In the end, only 10 teams made the 7:30 p.m. deadline. Two had dropped out completely. But being in the majority didn’t help.
There was good news. While our film wouldn’t be in the running for the Best of Little Rock prize, it would be shown at Market Street with the others. The day after — with me still swerving between dark patches of grief — Robert Kirkpatrick e-mailed. During a dark moment of his own, he had been commiserating with James Morrison, our director of photography, who’s a walking manual of film technique who works long, hot hours as a carpenter’s assistant to bankroll movies only a handful of people will ever see.
We missed the deadline, Robert told him. We’re out of the contest.
“Screw the contest,” James said. “Did we make a good film?”
That, friends, is the difference between the artists and the rest of us.
The next night, a Monday, we all got together and drank beer and watched it, laughed in the right places and hissed the villain. That helped. Two nights later, we assembled with a sold-out crowd at Market Street Cinema and watched it again. After seven other entries, ranging in quality from great to “root canal,” our movie swam onto the screen, blaring its “Ride of the Valkyries”-inspired intro music.
Watching our movie there in the dark, with all the other people around — listening to perfect strangers laugh and gasp in all the right places — it was magic. For me, for the first time, it stopped being a failure. It was really a film, and it was good. Warty — horrible sound, goofy special effects, bad cuts and some continuity errors that would probably cause Stanley Kubrick’s corpse to rise from the grave — but good. Not just good for a movie made in 48 hours. Good, period.
The applause when it was through seemed to go on forever.
While the overall winner of the Little Rock leg of the 48 Hour Film Project still hasn’t been decided at this writing (due to our six minute tardiness, Team Arkansas Times’ film “My Hero” wasn’t eligible for that anyway), we did learn just before press time that we managed to win one of two audience awards for the best films made in Little Rock during the contest, as decided by attendees of the July 20 screening at Market Street Cinema.