Filmmaking Tests A Marriage

Thomas Breen PhotosRuss D and Li Martin spend most weekends simply as husband and wife. Last weekend, they tried on a new pair of roles for their decade-old relationship: competitive filmmakers.

From Friday through Sunday, each spouse led a team of colleagues, friends, and other eager volunteers through the sixth installment of the 48 Hour Film Project New Haven, an annual weekend-long competition that challenges participating teams to write, shoot, edit and produce a four-to seven-minute film in two days flat.

The public can watch the results Wednesday and Thursday nights. (See details at the bottom of this story.)

Russ, a professional filmmaker by trade who runs the Bridgeport-based production company Enormity Pictures, produced one of the award-winning short films in last year’s competition and wanted a chance to sit in the director’s seat. Li, who has worked with Russ on film sets before but spends a vast majority of her time as a nurse and dental hygienist at Bridgeport Hospital, was stepping into the director’s role for the first time.

Of the 39 registered team leaders participating in this year’s competition, Russ and Li were something unique: a professional filmmaker and an amateur, a husband and wife, trying to make two different movies over the course of 48 hours ...  without sacrificing a relationship of 10 years.

Fortunately, they felt up to the challenge.

Scene 1, Shot A, Take 1: The Competition Begins

The competition began on Friday night at the Outer Space in Hamden, where Trish Clark, director of New Haven’s 48 Hour Film Project, revealed the three criteria that all teams were required to include in their short films: a fortune teller named Leon or Leona Midnight; a lollipop; and the line, “Oh, hell no.”

The couple laughed and picked at some nachos as 7 p.m. approached, a year’s worth of anticipation nearly over. After waiting in line to draw their movies’ genres out of a hat, Russ pulled “holiday film” for team Enormity Pictures and Li pulled “Fish out of water” for Team Art. Soon enough, they were driving back to their home on Elm Street to start working on their scripts.

Scene 2, Shot A, Take 2: Writing All Night

In a living room crowded with couches and DVDs, walls covered with wedding photos, old movie tickets, and a black-and-white poster of Newman and Redford as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Russ and Li briefly strategized about the night to come.

“What kind of lollipop do you want to use in your movie?” she asked. “A big round one, something that will show up easily on camera,” he answered.

“Who do you know who might have tarot cards?”

“I just got a text from your mom, wishing me luck.”

“Why hasn’t she texted me yet?”

By 7:30, Russ had locked himself in his office, an adjacent room bedecked with snowboards and biology textbooks, to start working on a screenplay about a director’s journey to fund a short film. Li hopped between the living room couch and a nearby desk, typing through a story about unlikely sources of artistic inspiration.

So commenced a sleepless night, where a solitary rush of screenwriting led to brainstorming, Hawaiian pizza slathered in hot sauce, beer, cigarettes, and revision after revision after revision. As Russ finished a first draft, his Director of Photography Dave Sikora and actor/writer/self-described “fun guy to have around” Nick Palmer arrived at the house, suggesting edits for the script while riffing on the merits of style versus substance, Nicholas Winding Refn vs. Chantel Akerman, Hellraiser II vs. Hellraiser III.

By 1:30 in the morning, both Russ and Li had gone through a few drafts of their respective scripts. Several more hours would pass before either went to bed, but the stories, dialogue and action were in place. The clock was ticking: long night or not, they would have to make an early morning of it to stay on track.

Scene 3, Shot A, Take 1: “Let’s Make Some Art”

By 8 a.m., 30 people had converged on the front lawn of a Milford mansion perched right at the edge of the Long Island Sound. “Suffragette City” and “Starman” blasted from a truck’s speakers, scoring the impromptu scene as the cast and crew for Enormity Pictures and Team Art prepared for the day to come.

In the car ride back from the Outer Space the night before, Russ had offered a theory of filmmaking that seemed to anticipate the collaborative, polyphonic display the following morning. 

“Film is supposed to be art by committee,” he said. “With filmmaking, there are so many hands in the mix, you can’t judge the final product by one person’s input alone.”

As the bustling community of amateurs and professionals came to life on the lawn that morning, each looking to perform his part well, those words sprang to life. The art hadn’t technically begun, but the picture had already begun to move: a production assistant taping the slate, the camera crew unpacking lenses, the sound engineer following the humming trail of a plane as an actor nervously memorized his lines.

But this was a competition defined by its time constraints, and, as the early morning progressed, Russ and Li began to lead their teams through the frenzied, meticulous steps of making a movie.

“Alright everyone, let’s make some art,” Russ said to his team as they prepared for the first scene of the day. “Let’s have some fun. Let’s win this competition.”

The sun was shining, gold flecks bouncing on the water. Both Martins were surrounded by friends. Equipment was assembled.

Which is when things started to go wrong.

A rogue air conditioner layered a hum beneath the recorded dialogue. The light flooding in through the house’s windows overexposed the frame. The rain forecast for 7 that night started falling at 5:30.

Inside the mansion and outside by the water, Russ and Li confronted each challenge decisively and with good humor.

“Worst comes to worst, we’ve got a great picnic set up,” Russ joked, gesturing towards the craft services table where Jamaican beef patties, pulled pork, and bottles upon bottles of water beckoned.

There were laughs, and nods of agreement on both teams. But everyone on set knew that, rain or shine, food or no food, professional or amateur, they would keep going and going until every scene had been shot.

Russ and his team spent a majority of the afternoon working their way through the different sun-soaked rooms of the mansion, shooting one scene on a towering staircase, another in a semi-circular office that looked out on the pool. Meanwhile, Li and her team lay claim to the stretch of yard directly abutting the Sound, turning a trellised courtyard into an artist’s outdoor studio.

By 6:30 on Saturday evening, Russ’s team had finished shooting. By 7Sunday morning, Russ and his editor Alessandro Signore were done cutting through the footage and assembling Enormity Pictures’ short film, preparing it for submission well before the 7 p.m. deadline back at the Outer Space. They left the house to get food and allow the film to render, jovial at the thought of an early finish. 

Scene 4, Shot B, Take 2: A Mad Dash At The End

But the 48 Hour Film Project is not complete without a mad dash at the end. And so Li’s team, which had finished shooting at 10 the night before and was hoping to be done with editing in the early afternoon on Sunday, found themselves frantically composing music and searching hard drives for missing scenes as the deadline approached.

“I feel like we’re trying to kill the death star,” Li’s composer and editing collaborator said as Russ helped the less experienced filmmakers assemble the final movie. “Why do we always cut these things so close?”

But with minutes to spare, and with just enough technical and emotional support from partner to partner, Russ and Li managed to get their completed films to the Outer Space in time. At the end of the weekend, the movies were done, the relationship intact, the competitive filmmaking urge satisfied.

At least, until next year.

The 48 Hour Film Project New Haven will be holding screenings of all of the participating teams’ completed movies at the Whitney Humanities Center at 53 Wall St. on Wednesday Aug. 3 and Thursday Aug. 4. Click here to learn more about those screenings.

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