A freak wind last Friday evening snapped treetops, downed power lines and hurled leaves and debris almost horizontally across Broadway, pitching plastic drink tops past the pedestrians rushing indoors. In other words, it was perfect weather for the annual madness that is the 48 Hour Film Project. Outside J.J.’s Market, this year’s meeting place, a film crew watched the wind and lamented how they couldn’t even catch a breeze last year. Their film last year was about storm chasers. “This sucks,” one said.
Ah, but adversity is the mother of inspiration for the contest, in which teams of filmmakers compete to write, shoot and hand in a finished short film in exactly 48 hours. A record 44 teams signed up for this year’s competition in Nashville, and the winner will face teams from points as distant as New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Brisbane. This Saturday through Wednesday, the Nashville films will screen in four programming blocks at the Belcourt, leading up to the awards ceremony Thursday, Aug. 3.
Bad weather and all, the sign-in line ran all the way from a table in J.J.’s back corner past the coffee bar up front. Along with 48 Hour veterans such as Jeff Wilson, Michael Carter and Kai Porter—whose film “Pieces” was a national finalist last year—the crowd included first-timers like Jonathan Baker and his wife Alison, who moved to Tennessee after working as an intern with producer Joel Silver. The contest also drew ringers like the team of David Alford and Robert Archer Lynn, whose thriller Prisoner (starring Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon and Elias Koteas) has been picked up for release by Arclight Films.
The rules were simple, and simply exasperating. To keep anyone from getting a jumpstart, a team representative had to show up at J.J.’s and draw a genre from a hat: horror, holiday movie, period piece, whatever. (God help you if you got the dreaded “musical.”) At 7 p.m. Friday, local project coordinators Andy van Roon and Bob Giordano announced a common character, prop and line of dialogue that had to be worked into every film. Miss one, and it’s an automatic forfeit. The teams had until 7:30 p.m. Sunday night to hand in the finished film on DVD.
In past years, sleep-deprived filmmakers have been stung by bees, attacked by horseflies and buried up to their necks in potting soil. This year, one group suffered an 11th-hour software meltdown and almost had to film their finished short off their computer screen. Another group who drew Western ended up at a horse ranch in Dickson with the clock ticking at the ol’ corral. By Sunday, more than 450 actors and crew members had participated in this year’s event. Why do they enlist for 48 hours of under-the-gun misery?
“There seems to be a certain creative masochism at work here,” says Andy van Roon, who has chaired the local contest for four years. But there are other factors at work: pride, competitive spirit and the chance to complete a film which can then be submitted to festivals. One persistent strong finisher, Nashville writer-director Wes Edwards and his inventive Team Ruckus, was even invited to compete in a national 48 Hour Project sponsored by the Red Cross. A panel of celebrity judges, including Julianne Moore and Zach Braff, awarded their short film “Do What You Can” first place. (The film can be seen at www.wesedwards.com.)
What’s more, van Roon says, the awards ceremony—which hands out 70 prizes covering most every technical category—has had the effect of making teams more aware of every component of filmmaking. The practice goes into their work, which builds a stronger film community. “Filmmaking energy is conserved,” he says.
Judging from the synopses, this year’s entries prove Nashville is the most versatile setting in movies—capable of serving as backdrop to the Manhattan Project, a hellish yard sale, a bad trip for space bounty hunters, and a momentous 1986 game of Dungeons & Dragons. And that’s the fun of the 48 Hour Film Project for outsiders—it’s a prism that reflects the city more than 40 different ways, in twisted new light.