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Arts Beat
Lights, Camera, Frantic Action
Film Project Puts Local Moviemakers on the Clock

More reviews and information about area exhibits can be found in the Museums & Galleries section of our Entertainment Guide.

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By Nicole M. Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 23, 2002; Page C05

Sure, they came for the art. But the filmmakers really came for themselves. They wanted to have fun, to see their work on the big screen, to actually finish the movie this time.

So they showed up, 30 teams in all, Friday night at Metro Cafe for the kickoff of the third 48 Hour Film Project. The goal was simple: Write, shoot and edit a 5- to 12-minute movie in 48 hours.

Participants included friends, and colleagues, and the friends of friends and colleagues. Some had experience, others were neophytes. They didn't know exactly what they were getting into, but whatever happened, they had to hand in a tape Sunday night. And for that, everyone knew their finished work would be screened this week at Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge.

To pay the bills, Jai Mitchell, 30, is a production assistant at the Discovery Health Channel. To feed his creative passions, he shoots his own videos -- in the 20- to 45-minute range -- in between his day job and helping other filmmaking friends on their projects.

"It's a nice escape to be able to create your own," he said at Metro Cafe. Having it on a big screen for the first time was also enticing.

Making movies is a lot easier and cheaper than it used to be. With digital video and in-home computer editing, filmmakers don't need the film anymore. Forget developing time. Now you can see the results of a shoot immediately.

Mark Ruppert created the 48 Hour Film Project after hearing about a 24-hour play in New York; if a play could be written, rehearsed and staged in a day, he thought a movie could be written, filmed and edited in two. Since the first 48 Hour Project last May (the second was held in October), it's grown from 11 teams to 30.

This time around, each team was guaranteed a screening earlier this week at Visions. A compilation of the top films, chosen through audience surveys and a panel of judges, will run tonight through next Thursday at the theater. One movie will be named the best.

To cheat-proof the process, participants got key elements for the scripts Friday evening. Each movie had to include the same character (Carmelle "Courvoisier" McMurtry, a hooker), a common prop (a sleeping bag) and a common line of dialogue ("Get your wallet and let's spend some money, big boy.") -- elements that organizers pulled from hats. Each team got a chance to pull its own genre (comedy, mystery, action/adventure, gangster, film noir, etc.).

The crowd went wild when Mitchell drew "musical."

Not just any team can pull off song and dance, so Mitchell also had a choice to do a Western or sci-fi flick. But he took the cheering as a mandate.

His teammates didn't agree. They argued most of Friday night -- the prime script-writing hours. His lead actor couldn't sing. His music director quit. But Mitchell held firm.

"I've helped out a lot of friends on their films, so it's come back to haunt them," Mitchell said.

By Saturday, the team was shooting scenes around Arlington about a guy who dresses up as a rapping bear for parties but wants to be a filmmaker. There was no script. The star, the guy in the bear costume, was Steven Eskay, a local actor who doesn't know Mitchell well, but worked with him on another movie. He wasn't getting paid (no one in 48 Hours does) and he thought the story line, what there was of it, didn't make sense, but the chance to make a movie is a chance to make a movie. A musical, even.

"It's not like I'm trying to trick you into thinking I'm a great singer," he said at one point Saturday.

The story essentially goes something like this: Rapping bear performs inappropriate material at children's party; rapping bear/aspiring filmmaker meets with film exec who hates his ideas; depressed and out of costume, our star hooks up with hooker.

At Lubber Run Park's amphitheater in Arlington, the team shot its big rapping and break-dancing finale. Everyone pitched in with lyrics, or what passed for them: "I went to law school, my friends made some noise, but I'm here to say, I'm still down with the boys."

There was a woman with a clapper ("Scene 7, Take 2!") and "forties" of apple juice. There was a guy who did "the worm" and a woman who came up with some funky kicks and a backspin. Mitchell used a wheelchair as a dolly for himself and his camera.

But the finale ended up on the cutting-room floor. Okay, the computer's recycle bin. Turns out that when Mitchell edited the movie, it was 17 minutes long instead of 12.

"Instead of ending on an upbeat, it gives it more melancholy," he says.

Kenneth McLeod is the producer of Pretty Little Heads, a group of moviemaking buddies who regularly make "short, sarcastic videos."

They drew "superhero" from the hat and decided to explore a day in the life of "The Chevron." His powers are unclear, but the daily grind of his job includes seeing an endless stream of fans who visit his office.

They shot some of their video at the art gallery Signal 66. In contrast with Mitchell's team, this group seemed right at home on their makeshift set. The lighting was just so. The sound man was bothered by the hum of a computer across the room. Between takes, an actor reviewed his script, trying to get the lines just right. The superhero sat at a desk nearby, patiently waiting for his turn on camera.

Everyone was so organized and focused that at the end of each scene, the dozen team members applauded. They were even running ahead of schedule.

On Sunday night, 21 teams arrived at the Warehouse Theater lobby by the 7:30 deadline.

They were buzzing with excitement, exhaustion, camaraderie and plenty of stories to share.

There was the team of mostly Discovery Channel employees who did a mockumentary called "Trading Spouses," based on the popular home redecorating show "Trading Spaces." Two wives switched husbands for a little revamping. For one, the hooker was a consultant on his libido problem.

There was the only all-women team, Girls Night, who decided to make its hooker a rugby player. It's a position for the athlete who "hooks" the ball into the scrum.

And the missing teams? Two dropped out, and seven others missed the deadline.

"It's the 49-hour film project," joked Ptolemy Slocum of the Washington Improv Theater team. They had computer editing problems. But last night they still got to screen their story about a detective on his last day of work, trying to solve the mystery of his surprise party.

Latecomers aren't eligible for the "best of" designation. But Mitchell, Pretty Little Heads, Girls Night and the Discovery Channel employees have all won a spot in the Visions screenings that start tonight, says Ruppert, who is expanding in coming weeks to the 48 Hour Film Project to New York and Atlanta. (For information, see http://www.48hourfilm.com/.)

The moral of the weekend?

Mitchell summed it up:

"It's just a matter of survival."

The 48 Hour Film Project screens at Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge, 1927 Florida Ave. NW, through next Thursday. For showtimes and prices, call 202-667-0900 or visit www.visionsdc.com.

2002 The Washington Post Company