Sleep deprivation is a common theme of the 48 Hour Film Project, which allows just two days for teams to write, shoot and produce a film that will be entered into competition and shown at local movie theaters. Filmmakers choose a genre from a hat on Friday evening (Team Salutations picked "Western or Musical" and chose Western) and receive three required elements in the forms of a character, prop and line of dialogue. From there, the 48 Hour Film Project's site describes itself as "a wild and sleepless weekend," the latter part of the description being the first thing I address with Team Salutations' director, Courtney Jackson.
"Did you sleep?" I ask, assuming the answer is yes as she does not appear to be running on fumes in any way.
"Uh, maybe half an hour," she replies. "I think I was pretending to sleep. Maybe I just closed my eyes."
Later, I learn that the writers -- team member Ashley Fleming among them -- had received the Project's three required elements Friday evening and worked on the script until 2:30 Saturday morning, and that Jon, who helped to edit the film, was actually asleep on a nearby couch for the first hour that I spent at First Punch.
Courtney and third team member, Carson Minow, leave just after I arrive to shoot the film's first scene with actor Kimber Hall. I choose to stay behind in the studio to chat with team helpers and admire Carson's Cherokee Street-influenced art collection. In the semi-dark of the loft space, Nicole, a friend who worked on last year's film, describes the logistics of throwing a film together in 48 very short hours.
The process includes the obvious challenges of writing a script and arranging for locations ("last year we shot in a junkyard and had to be out by three...I think we finally left at five"), and ephemera like the impossibility of buying a bottle of Jack Daniel's before 7 a.m. to use as a prop. Rosemary, a first time volunteer whose father listens to KDHX and told her about the Project, does costuming. She explains that her family has worked in theater for three generations, and that she chose an theater major at the University of the South "because it looked like Hogwarts." Around 7 a.m., Laura arrives and describes herself as "an assistant...maybe an actor," and for the next hour, we sit around and talk about the McRib, TLC's "My Strange Addiction," and Thom Yorke. Between topics, someone asks about the day's plans.
Next to sleep deprivation, a major theme of the 48 Hour Film Project is "how much do you know?" Courtney e-mailed everyone the script at 5:14 a.m. on Saturday, and additional requests for clothing, props, and extras are still being texted out. At this early hour, actually filming a movie seems to be an afterthought. First, there are concerns about the Internet (spotty), a light switch (impossible to find), and a phantom phone ringing somewhere in the loft (the outside buzzer, it turns out, is broken, and actors need to be fetched at the door). Most of the actors have arrived by 8:30 a.m., which is also when Courtney, Ashley, and Carson return.
Carson plugs the camera into Jon's laptop and I hover to catch a glimpse of the first scene. It looks surprisingly professional to me, but then, I am accustomed to the grainy behind-the-scenes footage from DVD extra menus. As I watch Team Salutations watch their footage, I get a sense of how they work so well together. Courtney is the Zen master of the project, with a confident-yet-quiet way of communicating what she wants with half-sentences and gestures that everyone seems to understand perfectly. Ashley is a feisty, talkative firecracker with an idea a minute and a genuine enthusiasm for feedback. Carson is the cerebral one who, when she's not hauling camera equipment, is framing shots with her hands cupped around her eyes.
While the team discusses the first shot, I wander off to speak to Laura Hepburn, another one of the writers and a friend who worked on last year's entry (a horror film titled Tea Party in a Gasket Casket and winner of four awards). When I ask about this year's choice of genre, Laura explains that it's all about the tension, sweat, and shifty eyes. She acknowledges the weirdness of shooting a Western, but says "with the more offbeat genres, if you can get it right, it's REALLY right."
The studio is filling up with light and noise. Almost everyone else is carrying something: more costumes, shopping bags, trays of food. People call friends to ask them to be extras. Everyone has ideas. Although Team Salutations is officially just three people, the 48 Hour Film Project is a collaborative effort because there's no time for it not to be.
When asked about the cast/crew of like-minded individuals who spend 48 hours working for free, Carson acknowledges that filmmaking can be "horrible and hellish" at times, but that watching everyone come together to create something from nothing is "a hugely empowering experience...[that] gives growing filmmakers the essential test ground to make sure they're really in the right career and working with the right people." The "right people" in this case are largely friends of Team Salutations, though some, like Rosemary, are simply people interested in making a film. Another participant is actor Dennis Corcoran, who has worked with Courtney on several projects and describes her as talented and focused, and having "a gentility about her...an openness and a lot of neat qualities as a director."
I follow Carson, Courtney and Ashley into a partially demolished and totally un-air-conditioned part of the building to set up the second shot. It's a saloon scene, and Nicole and Laura arrange dust-covered bottles and Western-y looking detritus in a space shared by an abandoned toilet. Carson tiptoes around the mess, adjusting lights and finding electrical outlets. "Yeahhhh," she says when one works. On this kind of mad scramble, slapdash project where sometimes things don't work and adaptation is necessary, an available electrical current is not always a given. "Sorry," Carson apologizes to Laura, who is creating the tabletop vignette. "I'm kind of messing up your set. What a bitch."
In between determining the quality of the set (Is it old enough? Is it dirty enough? Is there flannel?), Ashley changes the plan by wondering aloud if a particular one will make sense to a viewer. Ashley had originally described involvement in the Project as "amazing to reflect upon what each of us will fight for or stand ground on, even in times of sleep-deprived confusion," and the ease with which her fellow team members accept this observation and work to correct the film around it is truly impressive.
Eventually, everyone but Nicole and Laura escapes the hothouse atmosphere to re-group in the studio. Carson reports that her lights are ready for shooting to begin, and it is agreed that everyone is waiting on the Dudes. The Dudes are an essential part of any Western, and these particular Dudes were wrangled via text for their gruff, burly appearances. The Dudes are coming for the scene but have to leave by one, and Courtney wants closeups while she can get them. I sit in a corner and write, appreciating the buzz of sleep deprivation-becoming-a-second wind. Then word comes that the Dudes are arriving. I don't want to get in the way, so I thank Team Salutations and promise to follow up via e-mail within the next couple of days. When I get home, I re-read the script. It is indeed a Western, with the shifty eyes, a tumbleweed-y slide whistle in my mind, and a funny twist in the climax. I call Courtney two days later and tell her that I hope she's had a chance to sleep.
"Have you decided on a title?" I ask.
"We decided on Blink, You Sucker," she answers, which to me is both an excellent title for her script and an apt description for the wide-eyed, laid bare, tough, funny, weird and at times panic-stricken nature of the 48 Hour Film Project as a whole.
Team Salutations' "Blink, You Sucker" will screen as part of the Best of St. Louis 48 Hour Film Project June 16 at the Tivoli Theatre.
Tickets are available at the Tivoli website or box office.