I made a movie. My first, actually.
They gave me 48 hours. I needed only 36.
The world premiere of “The Last Fish” is at 8 tonight at the Carver Theatre. This short film and a couple dozen other entries are products of the latest Sidewalk Scramble, a semi-annual competition among local directors, actors and crews.
My one-man film will make festival history.
But before you see the final product tonight, let’s go behind the scenes of my first (and likely last) foray into filmmaking.
I’ve participated in Scrambles before, in which teams have 48 hours to script, shoot and edit a five-minute movie. Some are great, many are … long.
Somehow, Biff has talked me into at least two Scrambles. For one in 2005, I helped with the story and secured a hangar and private jet. Yeah, private jet.
The other time, I drove him from his apartment to the drop-off location at reckless speeds to make deadline. We were late, and his film was screened but not considered for competition.
I was cursed early on with an idea, an approach that was so crazy, it just might work. The Feb. 6 Sidewalk Salon was all about the new rules for the competition, setting up a pro and an amateur division. I still had a week and a half to figure out if I really wanted to humiliate myself against people who do this for a living.
Aw, what the hell …
I became familiar with my equipment. I registered with the team name Awed Wonk. I lined up possible extras, just in case.
All that was left was to show up and pray for inspiration.
Friday, Feb. 17
5:45 p.m.: Driving through downtown, I must get to the Carver by 6 for the check-in/kickoff. But I’m stuck behind a flatbed that’s decided to park in the street. Great. I’m already flustered, and now I’m going to be late. Already, I’m scrambling.
6:01 p.m.: Enter the Carver and see no familiar faces, save the Sidewalk folks. I’m almost overwhelmed. I receive my rules packet and hand over my inspiration object. Each team receives a random object that must be used in its film, objects that are donated during this kickoff hour. I turn in a crappy TV antenna, hoping I somehow don’t get stuck with it.
I grab a seat and check over the many pages of rules and forms, which beats sweating and fidgeting for the next 56 minutes.
6:09 p.m.: A familiar face: Jennifer came to the Salon and decided to try her hand at the Scramble. She and her boyfriend and a couple of others form Silver Dog Productions. She’s excited, naturally, and since I don’t want to give away any surprises, I keep mum about all the fun things they’ll encounter during the next 48.5 hours.
Erik and Cat review the rules and field questions. Oh, look, the senior citizens who asked odd questions actually formed a team. Will their film have sound? Will it be about yarn? Will I be further humiliated when I lose to them?
6:35 p.m.: In the order we arrived, each team comes down front to draw two slips of paper. The first has a genre (romance, comedy, noir), while the second has a number corresponding to one of the objects (including a cutesy red inflatable chair and a suitcase).
I draw “science fiction or fantasy” and “38” which lands me … a plastic fish. (In addition, each film had to include a montage and a spinning object. Yeah, this should be interesting.)
I pack up and leave. The clock’s ticking.
On the way to the car, a bum asks what all the boxes were. Each team had received a cardboard coffee container, refillable all weekend at the designated sponsor. And I don’t drink coffee.
I offered my container and told him where it could be filled for free. It was going to be cold that night. He really wanted food. Come to think of it, I really wanted food, too.
So I went to grab dinner, leaving him there with my empty paper jug.
8:42 p.m.: Think. Think think think. The ideas aren’t coming like I had hoped. Dinner wasn’t bringing focus, clarity or a winning script. Maybe something about an apocalyptic war. But how the hell was I going to film that?
It had already been a long day, and now, the script was just one half-baked idea after another. Oh, God, and I had planned on the writing to be the easy part. Stupid stupid stupid.
10:57 p.m.: I can barely keep my eyes open. I took a TV break, but only because I didn’t think I could focus without seeing the latest “Battlestar Galactica” (nerd alert!). Hey, it’s sci-fi, so I might glean something.
Nope, got nothing.
I pass out in my chair, hoping nap time will help somehow.
Saturday, Feb. 18
4 a.m.: Drag myself from the chair to bed for a more comfortable fitful sleep.
8:15 a.m.: The guy shooting a documentary about the Scramble calls and leaves a voicemail asking to film my team. The ringing wakes me up, and I decide to take another run at the script, now that a fourth of the 48 hours is gone, wasted.
Talking fish, end of the world. It’s starting to come together.
10:04: a.m.: Send an e-mail to Steve looking for an aquarium to film. Then I start sending out e-mails to everyone looking for an aquarium. Meanwhile, I assemble a shot list in my head and type up a list of props. Wonder if I can get my hands on one of those annoying singing mounted fish …
Noon: Still no aquarium. I call Maddie and catch a break. After she returns home at 3 with the baby, I can get my aquarium shot.
I’m going to drive 70 minutes round-trip to shoot two minutes of footage of a fish swimming in an aquarium that will end up as a 10-second shot in my final film. This is movie magic.
I finish up the script and prepare for the roadtrip/on-location shoot.
3:35 p.m.: The first shot is in the can. Maddie lends me a picture frame for a later shot. Now to drive to the superstore for fishing lures and hooks as props (to be returned for a full refund) and then all the way back to Birmingham.
4:45 p.m.: At the fast-food place for a fish sandwich (another prop). Struck out on the singing mounted fish.
Back home, I shoot in order by following the script. Biff calls to see how I’m doing, which makes it difficult to film. I tell him the script’s done, and that the final product will likely top out at two minutes. He reminds me of all the lousy five-minute efforts. I remind him that my lousy two-minute effort will seem like five minutes. I hang up and get back to filming.
By myself, I’m lighting the scenes, improvising backdrops, looking at footage and trying out pans and zooms. The plastic fish has to move in one shot, so I’m both cameraman and puppeteer at once.
8:11 p.m.: The most complicated set-up is here, the one I’ve been dreading. I need my dining room to look like an art museum. I take my frames and add art. Using a level, I mark nail holes and hammer in picture hangers. The light’s not great, so I aim a lamp minus shade at the wall.
I print out info cards to go with the art and mount them to the wall.
Almost two hours later, I have my gallery wall. For four minutes of footage. Which will be another 10-second shot.
10:14 p.m.: The museum shots are in the can. One more scene to film, and I can begin editing.
10:50 p.m.: Transfer the footage to the laptop. Slowly, I begin to assemble the footage in order, dumping the audio entirely.
11:10 p.m.: Record the voiceover narration for the movie. Two takes and I’m done.
11:45 p.m.: Crap. I need to do a few reshoots. The background on the main fish shot is the wrong color; I had changed it after the first two takes. Back to filming while working the puppet.
Sunday, Feb. 19
Midnight: Continue editing. It’s slow going for a novice like me. I can’t figure out how to slow down or speed up footage (it’s only days later that I discover I was using the basic editing program instead of the advanced one with the better features).
My energy picks up. With all the filming done, it’s now just a matter of digitally splicing shot after shot after shot until the end. As the hours wear on, I see ways I could’ve filmed scenes better, but it’s best to press on.
If I run into an editing problem, I can’t call anyone in the middle of the night. I work around it, fake it, whatever. It’s still coming together.
3:28 a.m.: Film one more shot for a new idea for the closing credits. Almost done.
4:01 a.m.: Finish tweaking the credits text. It’s the very last piece of the puzzle. But then …
The editing program crashes.
Uh oh. It hasn’t done that before. I’ve saved all along, so I restart the program. The movie isn’t playing correctly.
Careful examination reveals that out of 50 scenes, maybe five or six are corrupted. Each one will have to be replaced from the raw footage; some of them are less than a second long, but all must be fixed.
This is somewhat of a relief. I would’ve completely panicked if I had to start from scratch.
At this point, I must decide: Go to bed and risk having enough time to fix this bitch. (Last-minute editing and rendering have wrecked many a team’s schedule.) Or keep editing.
I keep editing. Oh sweet merciful Jebus, now I know why Biff’s a wreck after nonstop editing on Scramble weekends.
7 a.m.: It’s all fixed, not exactly as before, but close enough.
A moment of panic: Will the 12th scene be OK or did it need clearance rights? Nuts. I figure out in my haze that it’s fair use and all clear. Whew.
I’m burning the DVD and going to bed. The movie is essentially done, with 12 hours to spare.
1 p.m.: I force myself up, basically because I don’t want to fall asleep through turn-in time, and I must check one last time to make sure the DVD works properly. If something is wrong, I still have enough time to fix it. Fortunately, the DVD is fine. Four hours till turn-in. Maybe I can be the first one to hand in an entry.
I check over the paperwork one last time. It’s all here, all signed.
5 p.m.: Arrive at Rojo to hand Cat my completed entry. BJ is there to record my arrival and buy me a much needed glass of merlot. Steve and Andie join us at the bar for a celebratory round.
They ask how it turned out, and I have no answer. They could probably ask my name and I’d have no answer. I’m just too out of it to properly judge my efforts. That’s what the jury’s for anyway.
We’d stick around to see the teams running in at the last minute, but I need to go home and pass out. Preferably in that order.
But I am satisfied. I made a movie, and it came out about how I wanted (and expected). The rest is icing.
So come out tonight and see it and a bunch of other hastily made, poorly acted films. You too might be inspired to lose yourself — if only for a weekend — in making a movie.
I left a surprise for you in the movie. It will make festival history … and might make you laugh.
The Sidewalk Scramble screenings are at 8 tonight (for amateur division) and 8 Saturday (for pro division) at the Carver Theatre, 1631 Fourth Ave. N. Tickets for the screening are $7, $5 for Sidewalk members.
Updates to follow …