“Ladies and Gentleman, Welcome to the 8th Instant Films Festival...”
The roar is contagious.
Peter Lebow, running down the aisle with a steadycam operator running alongside to capture this exciting moment. The audience goes nuts - applause, whistles, cheers, and chills are beginning to tickle my neck.
Peter continues, “After tonight we will have 62 films made in less than a year. Over one hundred people worked on what you are about to see and tonight we are going to watch what everybody did.”
After a brief introductory film he tosses it off to the host, John Sylvain, who riles up his peers creating a larger than life event to showcase this creative community of writers, directors and actors. This is their night...their big night.
Cut to 48 hours earlier...
I arrive at the Los Angeles Center Studios, located just west of the 101 freeway near LA's “real” downtown: a large complex of sound stages, administrative towers and outdoor areas. LA Center Studio's is a sponsor of Instant Films and the events and meetings all take place on the premises. The Jacarandas are in bloom lending their late spring blue-purple hue to the studio's exterior concrete greys.
The 48-Hour Process: Friday night, where 7 writers (this time it is all women writers and directors) choose at random, words that end up being the basis for their scripts, and how many men and/or women will be in their cast – they have 12 hours to write it. The next morning, 7 directors pick at random their scripts and their actors, gather their crews, find locations and shoot and edit their films. The next evening all the films are shown at the Instant Films Festival.
Peter Lebow, John Sylvain, and Charles Papert are the founders of Instant Films. Peter, worked as a producer at Fox.Com and has a natural affinity and passion for his new venture. Charles Papert currently works as a camera op for NBC's “Scrubs”. John Sylvain, also a former producer for Fox.Com and now part of the Paramount family, is the out-in-front person. He’s comfortable leading a group, probably from his theatre background since he founded two theatre groups: The Annex, in Seattle, and Sacred Fools theatre in Los Angeles.
The Writers Meeting...
Sitting around a large conference table are 5 of the 7 women writers, two of whom we’re still waiting on (Friday night in LA – traffic always a problem). John is anxious to begin, after all, there is a long evening ahead for the writers - getting them primed and ready and out the door was key to completing their task. In walk the last two. John, who is looking a bit tired, perks up when his show time begins – a true performer himself, rising to the occasion. Exuberantly he explains the ground rules that make the process less painstaking. After all, it is not Citizen Kane they are crafting, rather a piece unhindered by elaborate locations, props and sets.
“Go with your first idea,” John says, “it's usually your best one. Either your first or your 99th... keep it simple... six pages max!”
He continues explaining the “rules” and “ideas” to help the writers enjoy their upcoming overnight mission. And then there are the “four F's”.
“Fun, Faith, Fast, and Finish”, John says playfully.
The process is supposed to be fun. No one is being paid for this so you might as well have fun with it. Have faith that you will write the perfect script and get the perfect actors perform and the perfect director to direct it. Be fast – you only have the next 12 hours to complete something and present it the following morning. And the last “F”, is Finish – Finish it no matter what, if it is good, bad or ugly, you must turn it in and you will most likely be surprised at how good it turns out.
Next up - pull names out of a hat, or in this case out of a bag. How Instant Films keeps things interesting is you never know what you are going to write about until you pull it out of the bag.
“There is no way to plan for any part of the process, writing, directing or casting,” Peter Lebow states, and he was right.
Three bags with names on them: Noun, Adjective and Cast. Each writer picks from each bag and they must use the words chosen in their story and center the piece around them – Janae Bakken pulls out the words, razor and valuable. From the cast bag she picks one man and one woman. Hmmm... what can you do with a valuable razor? Well, Janae, who is a regular staff writer for the sitcom “Scrubs”, but a newbie to Instant Films was up for the task and her grey cells were already at work. Another odd word combination is Julie Mullen's pick: romantic and belly button and her cast would consist of three men. Julie Nathanson, who had arrived early and was very enthusiastic, chose magical and chest.
The meeting ends and the writers scurry out the door for hot dates tonight with their computers.
Charles Papert is filming the entire process, including this writing meeting, as a documentary on how to make films in 48 hours. With his team of videographers, editors and other helpers, Charles, is taking this daring move, and will literally film and edit up to the last moments of the festival. The documentary will be shown the festival screenings.
Charles is not certain if they can even pull it off – oh, and that last “F” again...Finish.
“Yes, above all you must finish it!” John’s reverberating challenge.
12 hours later... The Directors / Actors Meeting
Back at the Studios on a beautiful LA morning, chairs are set up, SAG wavers are signed and riders distributed to grant permission to show the films on the internet. And directors, actors and writers are all in tow awaiting more random drawings. I find a couple of the writers and ask how things went in the wee hours of the morning. Julie Nathanson, a first timer for Instant Films tells me, “I was up until 3:30a.m.and then there was a bird, a little bastard bird tweeting its ass off at me in the morning, so I really didn't sleep that much. But I finished the first draft at 1a.m. and then finished up what I liked enough to turn in at 3:30. And I didn't shoot the bird with a BB gun but I came close”
Maureen Cassidy, back for the third time, “Usually there's an overall theme, which helps, but this time there wasn't any”
Maureen is worried that her location will be a problem – she picked the desert. As it turns out the director goes for a rural road and it looks like the desert idea is discarded, maybe a bit too far to go on such short notice.
And amongst all the positive energy and abundant love floating throughout the room, I overhear someone say,
“And ALL these PRETTY people mingling around – they MUST be actors.”
It is always “obvious” when an inordinate amount of actors fill a room – even the men are primping.
Again, John hosts the meeting and goes through the four F's making sure everyone is well aware that this is for “fun” and you will learn things out there. Have a good time, have faith, work fast and by all means finish. Time to pick. The women directors go up one by one drawing their script and their actors. All done in a very supportive atmosphere – after the drawing, the work begins. The directors assemble their cast and sit in circles on the floor - the writer is welcomed to sit but her job, however, is done, having handed off the torch hoping it burns bright once the words rise from page to screen.
Director, Rebecca Asher chooses Julie Mullen's script, “Mike's Big Night”, which has the two key words romantic and belly button. Sam Lloyd is part of Rebecca's cast. Sam is a regular on NBC's hospital comedy “Scrubs”, playing a neurotic lawyer named Ted. In this piece, he describes his part as a very funny character that wears his dress shirt tied up like a woman, exposing his belly button. It's Sam's third time with Instant Films.
I ask Sam, “What is it that makes this worth his while, since there is no pay?”
Sam explains, “The thing that's great about it is that it's such a small commitment, you literally read through it and you hope that you get the part that is right for you and if you have a lot of dialog – you gotta cram it fast. Your’re not getting paid for it, but it's fun!”
“How long does it take?”
“You never know... the first one was relatively harmless. My first one I finished around 7 or 7:30pm after starting around 11am, and the other was finished by 3 or 4pm. I've heard some of them have gone on until 3 or 4 in-the-morning, so I've been lucky.”
Later that afternoon... The Shoot
Back in West LA, I arrive at a single story house – the house completely filled with crew and actors. A scene from “Mike's Big Night” is underway. One character is cooking a gourmet meal to impress a client (Sam Lloyd) who is expected to arrive shortly. The client is sporting an exposed belly button (the gag of the film). Rebecca appears very calm and in control. She is new to Instant Films but not to the industry. She’s worked as a script supervisor for such television shows as Andy Richter, Push Nevada, and Kingpin.
I ask Sam Lloyd how the shoot is it going.
“It's not that much different from my regular acting jobs because I still have a ton of down time.”
His scenes need to be shot with an evening backdrop, so he’s left sitting and waiting for night.
“This is fun, because there's one bathroom... well there's another bathroom but no toilet, and they were shooting in the bathroom with the toilet, so for a long time nobody could use it,”Sam said, laughing with a touch of dry humor.
At this moment, the middle of a Saturday afternoon, all around Los Angeles, scenes are being shot for 7 films as well as a mini-documentary about the entire process. The city is bustling more than usual!
2:30pm on Sunday... Editors At Work
I give a call to Rebecca to hear how things are going. She’s editing the project with her brother in the Valley and she should be close to finished by now. She tells me they were on location until 4 am, no sleep for the weary. I ask how far along she is.
“I'm about 1/16th the way done,” she mutters.
The deadline is 7p.m. and she’s been up since yesterday morning, no sleep, and from the sound of it, she isn't going to sleep anytime soon. What went wrong?
“Technical problems, our tape’s timecode is corrupted, so we can't capture the material that we want... we had to do it in blocks which is taking much longer,” she explained.
This isn't the entire problem – time is always ticking.
“The thing is, I misjudged time: when to begin the shoot, when to start, the scheduling and time in general. You learn a lot about yourself – and decision-making and thinking on-your-feet.”
J.J. Hickey, who’s on Rebecca's crew, is very positive: “Oh, it was the best crew that you can possibly imagine, everyone really knew what they were doing. What was great about it was everyone was thinking ahead and trying to save time... we even took pictures of the house furniture and sent it via email to our graphic designer for this special montage opening. We'll see if it works out”.
7pm Sunday Night... Films Are Due
The show is shaping up. Good looking LA-style people are coming to the gala premiere – Instant Films 8th Festival. A real feeling of something “interesting” and “spirited” is in the air. Tonight, there is a sense of community, a community of talented (most not famous) writers, directors, actors and crew coming together through their artistic threads, and anticipating each other’s work.
Some notables in person and on screen are: Jerry Manthey, of “Survivor” fame who is followed around by a “Bravo” cameraman, who is capturing pieces of this event to be used for an upcoming reality show about people from reality shows (next stop, a reality show about the cameraman shooting a reality show – sounds like another FOX hit). The smoothly photogenic Emy Coligado, a semi-regular on “Malcom in the Middle”. Kevin Farley (Chris Farley's brother), and of course,Sam Lloyd. And, purely as a spectator, Anne Ramsay, best known as Helen Hunt's sister in “Mad About You”. There are others, but faces become a communal blur as the evening progresses. The pre-function has started - drinks are drunk, soft and hard. Tamales, caesar salads and onion rings grace the buffet line in the calm before the storm.
Around 8:30pm... Show Time – LA Never Starts On Time
The line to get in to the screening theatre stretches out and the time is at hand. The 400-seat theatre fills almost to capacity. I bump into Rebecca once again and ask her for her last thoughts.
“I'm alive... and that's good, and there's a tape, they've got it, and it will be... something”
At that moment, Peter makes the announcement: “A first in Instant Films’ history: All the films are in on time!” A rousing applause.
The films are all well received. Some have little technical glitches such as being too dark or a bit too overexposed or so-so sound quality, but it’s all at a minimum, proving the diligent and professional work of the crews. People cheer! It’s a friendly audience in a not always friendly town. John Sylvain introduces cast and crew in between each film. Just before the last and seventh film, he begins to stall a little, then a little more. Has something gone awry? John is good at filling in the gap, he jokes and brings his1-1/2 year-old son, Yogi into the act – a crowd pleaser. Then it happens...a shout from the back of the theatre, “It's here!”
Charles Papert comes running in blurry-eyed and loads a tape into the deck. Tthe documentary, less than a minute old, tells the story of the last 48 hours. Charles' crew-of-many, has gone out on each of the film shoots and captured funny moments and behind the scenes stuff. The end result, a fast paced smattering of what went on over the entire weekend: the random picking, the hovering outside the writers windows as they write through the night, crew setting up scenes, directors and actors laughing and having a good time.
One memorable moment shows the crew of “Thumbing It”, shooting on a rural road in which the police show up telling them they have to leave, no permit – no shoot.
And now, the actual audience is the star. The documentary is showing us in line entering the theatre. And then Peter Lebow storming in yelling at the top of his lungs while running to the front of the theatre, “Ladies and Gentleman Welcome to the 8th Instant Films Festival!”
And just when you think it is over, like magic, John is up on the big screen, but this John is talking as if in another time dimension, dressed and looking exactly the same, and the real John below begins a sparring match with himself trying to interrupt the “big screen John” - it's great theatre! The “surprise” ending is poking fun at just how up-to-the-minute this documentary really is. Everyone is thrilled.
Sometime after 10pm... Party
Awards are presented for a number of categories to acknowledge the accomplishments – everyone is a winner in the end.
The after-party is in full swing. Artists mingling, still full of energy despite sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. I catch up with Julie Nathanson who says, “Diplomacy was very important - a lot of really excellent lessons were learned. There were some changes made, but for the most part it was pretty intact – there were some things that I didn't necessarily write that were in there... you've got to trust the process... a good experience... yes.”
Kathy Anderson says, “I went solidly from Friday thru Saturday night with many different hats. I shot for the documentary... I hope I get a chance to do it again... I think it's really fun and I'm surprised at the quality of the films.”
“And your script, how did that play out?,” I ask.
“I was not happy with it... it was not the way I wrote it. The scene at the end should have been in the beginning... it was thrown in at the end... I don't get it... I will definitely ask the director when I see her. It was my first instant film...”
Kathy however, left an impression on Charles Papert. “One of my favorites is Kathy Anderson, who stayed up all night writing “Casey Goes to Hollywood” and then volunteered to shoot on the documentary crew. She even “rough edited” the stuff she shot for us... that's dedication.”
“Dazzling Spirit” writer, Gale Lerner, was thrilled with the film. She had done something very original, write a foreign film with an invented language, a Russian/Polish dialect complete with English subtitles – she wrote phonetically in this made up language, and the actors faithfully went with it.
Shelley Wenk who directed “Dazzling Spirit” and happens to be the wife of John Sylvain, has acted in a few prior instant films. This was her first outing in the director’s chair. “It's a lot more intense... the exhaustion factor... it was amazing... an amazing experience.”
After Midnight... The Party's Over
John is content, but his natural high is beginning to wane. Peter is still full of juice, the proud papa of another successful creation. Charles is a satisfied zombie, having worked solidly for the past 29 hours managing only 2 hours of sleep. Charles, who previously directed 6 instant films has accomplished something more: it hadn't gone smoothly, he didn't have as many editing stations as originally planned and instead of overseeing the project, Charles had to get his hands a bit dirty editing like crazy in the final hours. “You can plan all you want... but things happen,” he crooned. “There was an amazing amount of people that came to help - the real excitement was the last hour when the films were being shown one by one and we were saying, is this really going to happen... and we had a computer crash... a crash like I've never seen before!”
Yet somehow they all managed to finish...and finish well.
Instant Films has recently begun workshops that bring people together and teach them how to make films by “doing it”, Guerrilla style. Currently to participate in the 48 hour Instant films, it is by invitation only, but all are welcomed to inquire. They hope to take Instant Films on-the-road, to other states or countries and Instant Films has signed a television deal with Dick Clark Productions.
By the time of this printing most of the films should be available for viewing on the internet at www.instantfilms.tv for your own entertainment & scrutiny (You’ll need a broadband internet connection)
©2003 Joseph Beachy For other articles by Joe Beachy, check the Archives.
©2003 Joseph Beachy
For other articles by Joe Beachy, check the Archives.
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