Magic Hours: Following Cleveland's 48 Hour Film Project

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Photo courtesy of Matt Unger
  • Photo courtesy of Matt Unger

Matt Weitz will never have to worry about losing his hair. The thick blonde-brown waves are evergreen, catching the light and framing his baby blues. The locks, flicking out of a black baseball cap, set him apart from other actors. He self-consciously takes off his hat and fluffs out his curls, afraid they may flatten.

Matt probably won’t ever struggle to find a date either. As he steps onto the pitcher’s mound, he toys with the ends of his hair. His impossibly coiffed waves, the sun setting behind him and the camera he points his gaze to are part of the serendipity of tonight.

He looks up from under the hat’s visor, a shadow crossing his face. Fingering a browned baseball, he turns it in his hand and winds up.

“Action!”

These are the magic hours.

Photo courtesy of Matt Unger
  • Photo courtesy of Matt Unger

Friday Evening


Cleveland’s 48 Hour Film Project gathers its hopefuls inside Hot Cards downtown warehouse. It’s Friday, July 10, at 7 p.m., and the humid room is flooding with filmmakers. Forty-three teams this year all hoping to script, film and edit a short film within the span of 48 hours. At 7:15, project co-producers Brian Bowers and Jennifer Feierabend will hand out genres to each team. Then, they'll announce elements filmmakers must throw into the mix in order to qualify for the competition.

Usually, the prizes for this thing are overshadowed by the title associated with winning. These teams know each other. They know who has won, who’s new, who sucks. Lording a W over the others’ boom mics and dollies is worth more than the gift cards.

However, this summer’s fest comes with a particularly interesting prize package. Besides a smattering of vouchers, gift cards and titles, the winners from the 2015 48 Hour Film Project in Cleveland will not only go on to compete in the International 48 but may also be chosen to screen at the Cannes Film Festival this year, an announcement that filled the warehouse with the hum of mass whispering.

Past winners Maple Films face each other near the entrance of the warehouse, reminiscing on past years.

Director Dustin Lee stands quietly in a T-shirt and khakis, an outfit that will become his uniform over the next three days. Across from him is the team’s lead editor Jon Jivan, a gangly, bespeckled man who talks about other teams’ chances of winning this year. To his left, writer Terry Geer, red-haired, flip-flopped and duck-footed, strokes his orange beard as he looks around the room.

They eye a team of suited teenage boys in the corner, adorned with top hats and a purple petticoats. Around them are teams composed of 20-something lilac-haired hipster chicks, middle-aged lumberjacks and humble, dressed-down 30 year olds.

“Musical or Western,” Dustin says, staring down at the large white envelope the project’s given him. “That’s the only genre we don’t want.”

In a few, a representative from each team will approach Bowers and pull genres out of a hat. Of them are drama, thriller, horror, sci-fi, musical or western and romance, among others. Whatever is pulled is the style the team must adhere to for the duration of the fest. Maple’s particularly known for its skill at sci-fi and fantasy, having won the 2014 Horror 48 Hour Film Project with a psychic and psychopathic vixen and the 2013 48 Hour Film Project with couple would communicated by transmitting thoughts through a radio.

“Well, we’ve had headphones. I think it was a frisbee one year,” Dustin muses, listing the required props from projects past.

“Yeah, and we’ve always just thrown them,” Jon quips. “I think we literally said, ‘What’s this?’ and threw the headphones last time.” The required props, genres, lines and characters are all in place to ensure no team begins scripting or filmmaking before the 48 hours officially begin.

Of course, it’s up to the teams to decide how each element is used. As long as each element’s on-screen or mentioned, the project gods say it counts.

Half an hour later, Jon pulls “drama” as Maple Films required genre, exciting the troupe. Bowers also announces the elements: a jumper cable, a comedian named Kelly or Kevin Joseph and the line, “Well, that’s certainly not something you see every day.” The absence of any one of these elements means disqualification, though the disqualified film will still screen.

“We can do a lot with that,” Dustin tells his group. “I mean, it’s so broad.”

Friday Night
Photo courtesy of Matt Unger
  • Photo courtesy of Matt Unger
By 7:36 p.m., Maple Films has grown. Sitting indian style on the floor or propped up on a sofa under Casablanca and Nighthawk prints, the now nine-person team tosses around ideas, usages of the elements. As a whole, they can’t escape the idea of a stand-up comic encountering his worst day ever.

Talking with his hands, Terry explains how the whole thing will be set outside a comedy club. The comic will storm outside after hearing another comic steal his material. He’ll try to dramatically make his escape into his car, tires squealing, but his engine won’t turn over. Insert jumper cables. The series of unfortunate events continues from there.

“It’s a story about being genuine,” Terry enforces his idea. “He’s forced to go back onstage and it shows that being your genuine self conquers trying to be someone else.”

Filled with the most expected uses of the elements and a too-simple plot, the group vetoes the idea and continue to spitball.

At 8:39 p.m., the team decides not to use the comedian as a main character. By 10, Terry’s concerned the story will be too cerebral if they don’t go with something simple. At 11:18, the group’s back on Terry’s initial idea. He’s sent to the basement to write while the rest of the team mulls over the half-baked premise.

Snacking on Sour Patch Kids and pretzels, assistant director Caroline Abbey says she wishes there was more to the idea. Dustin thinks they should do a crime film. Drama is too broad to work with, like when you’re asked what your favorite movie is and your mind blanks.

At this point, as midnight creeps close, team members begin to leave. Actors, sound guys and Dustin’s wife all slip away to sleep or drive home, thinking they’ll wake up to a call time at a local bar to shoot a film about a comic’s lame day.

After the majority of the team’s cleared out, Terry throws out his idea and beckons Dustin to help him brainstorm in the basement. After another kicking another 15 ideas to the curb, it’s officially 8 hours into the project and the group hasn’t begun writing. They talk about filming locations and the chunks of time just before sunset. Magic hours, filmmakers call them.

At 3 a.m., Dustin excuses himself to his office. When he returns, he hovers above his sitting team with a notebook in hand.

“Okay, this is something we’ve never done before.”


Saturday

Photo courtesy of Matt Unger
  • Photo courtesy of Matt Unger

Call time on Saturday is noon at Kent’s Water Street Tavern. Maple Films has secured the basement for filming. It isn’t until 1:08 p.m., however, that the team begins shoot.

“We’re rolling with it,” Caroline says. The script for “Early October,” Maple’s 2015 entry in the film fest, was posted on a private Facebook page around 7 a.m. “This isn’t something we’re used to. I don’t think anyone’s really ever done a sports movie for the 48.”

“Early October” follows a newly released minor league baseball player, portrayed by Kent State University’s Matt Weitz. As he returns to his hamlet of a hometown, pride wounded, he looks for his next move. The team threw in a romantic interest and a lumbering best friend to fluff out the sad-but-not-too-sad piece.

Maple shoots at Water Street for several hours. In between takes, Matt scavenges for reflective surfaces, fingering his hair into place.

“I wonder how many times a day I check my hair,” he says to his co-stars as his looks into his phone’s camera. “It’s kind of embarrassing.”

Matt and the others are surrounded by cameras, lights and microphones. The basement’s small, painted blue and fit with a bar and make-shift stage. There’s little room for the actors, let alone the equipment used to shoot them. While the lighting casts shadows in all the wrong places and extras are asked to move an inch to the left—No, an inch to the right— Dustin stays patient, his blue-green eyes scanning his set, the viewfinder, his actors, the viewfinder again as he hunches over a dollied camera.

Though there are still more than 24 hours left in the competition, team members begin to tire.

“This definitely isn’t our best year,” Caroline says. “We’re used to taking on things that are more ambitious.”

Photo courtesy of Matt Unger
  • Photo courtesy of Matt Unger

It isn’t until dusk that more scenes are shot. At 7:12 p.m., the team finally sets up the actual baseball sequences on a Kent State softball field.

Dressed in a recently purchased baseball uniform, Matt rehearses his choreography at the mound. He swings a black bat back and forth while the crew leans against the dugout railing. Jon is already editing on his laptop at the end of a bench. His pregnant wife stands near him, ready to pop and impatient. She’s due Monday.

Three bulky black cameras are set up around Matt. He’s first set to pitch a few balls; then he has to hit them.

The first three balls bounced passed Matt as he digs his cleats into the dust. He swings and misses a few more times. He tucks in his bottoms lip and runs his hands through his hair as Dustin resets the shot. Matt steadies his eyes at the ball coming toward him as the crew reassures him from the dugout. He spreads his feet, pulls his shoulders back. The ball is thrown gently underhand to the actor. He turns into his swing as hit bat collides with the ball.

It fires off the bat, shooting up and over the farthest fence of the pitch. It’s 8:06 and the sun is on the horizon, the light a grey-toned pink.

“Well there goes our ball,” Caroline says among a smattering of “Did you get it?”s and “That was it!”s from the rest of the crew to Dustin.

“There it is,” Dustin says, leaned over a viewfinder, replaying the footage. “That’s our shot.”

Photo courtesy of Matt Unger
  • Photo courtesy of Matt Unger

Sunday

The rest of the night breezes by. The actors work up an undeniable chemistry; they smirk and glance in the other’s direction in between takes. Against a backdrop of mosquitoes and fireflies, the group films at a Ravenna batting cage and in an abandoned parking lot until midnight.

As streetlights frame the crew with a fluorescent glow, they relax, cracking jokes, interviewing ants with boom mics and dancing around tripods. The family of filmmakers embrace moments to bond, finally settling into a groove. With 18 hours left, the team is relying on Jon to edit into tomorrow, and he’s already on it.

“So Jon’s wife went into labor this morning,” Dustin tells his group at 10:29 a.m.

He rubs his forehead. Below his eyes is the yellow-purple shade of exhaustion.

“It’s fine. We’ll be fine,” he assures. “Jon already finished the rough cut at like 5:30 this morning. I just have to edit the rest now.” Eight hours left and the team still needs to shoot a few minor scenes, edit and enhance all the footage, mix the sound and submit a physical copy to Brian Bowers at the Hot Cards headquarters. With Jon out of the mix, the majority of what’s left to do is thrust onto Dustin.

They bang out the final scenes by 2 p.m. and the rest of afternoon is spent in near si lence at the Lee house as Dustin takes to his office to edit. Sound engineer Josh Suhy isolates himself upstairs to mix “Early October”s audio.

As 6 p.m. rolls around, Dustin finally shows signs of impatience. Less than an hour and a half left and the director has yet to begin rendering his footage.

“You’re still here?” Dustin’s wife Kelly asks him, alarmed.

Taking his laptop with him in the car, Dustin heads out to Hot Cards with 58 minutes left until the 7:30 p.m. deadline. It’s raining in Cleveland as Dustin renders his video. Caroline drives. They arrive at the warehouse around 7 p.m. but still have minutes on their render time.

Around them, teams huddle around laptops, either in vans, sedans or tables inside the warehouse.

It’s 7:23 p.m. when Dustin bursts from his car to run the film up to Bowers. During the bustle, the group in the car next to us shout “Six minutes left?!” With only a handful of minutes to spare, Maple Films turns in on time, “Early October” now primed to compete at the July 22nd screening. Caroline and Dustin look out onto the parking lot, frantic teams still hopeful to get their films in on time. It begins to rain harder as the sun, shrouded in the fog, lowers itself behind the building.

Of the 43 teams, nine fail to turn in on time, putting themselves out of the competition. The first two screening groups will show at the Capitol Theatre 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 22. The third and final group will screen the next night. Though filmed and shown in July, the awards won’t be given until August with a “Best Of” screening on Tuesday, Aug. 4. Maple Films shows in the first screening group.



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