The cameras were in focus, the actors in position, the lights and furniture in the antique barroom rearranged in preparation for the next scene of the movie.
But just as the various players on the set were about to launch into their respective roles, 9-year-old non-professional actor and assistant-director-for-the-day Isaac Blau shouted out to the group, “Wait, wait, wait! I forgot to say, ‘Action!’”
Director Anna Marra smiled at Blau and flashed a wink towards the cast and crew as she said, “Of course, you are right. Thank you so much, Isaac. Where would we be without you?”
Hands forming a makeshift slate in front of his circular, bubblegum-pink glasses, Isaac looked towards cinematographer Dustin Gavin. “OK,” he said, breathlessly drawing out each syllable. “3 ... 2…. 1… Go!”
Such was the scene at Lyric Hall in Westville on Saturday afternoon, where a team of students, musicians, non-professional actors, and one precocious, enthusiastic 9-year-old worked in harmony to complete a short movie as part of this year’s 48 Hour Film Project New Haven.
An annual local competition that celebrated its seventh anniversary this weekend, the 48 Hour Film Project New Haven is by its very definition an exercise in creativity through constraints: Teams must write, shoot, edit, and deliver a four-to-seven-minute movie that complies with a variety of playful, randomly assigned criteria, all in just two days flat. (A winner will be chosen this week after a two-day screening of the films.)
While all teams share similar obstacles of little time and limited budgets, each team must also untangle itself from a unique web of challenges specific to its own cast, crew, and story they are trying to tell.
Marra’s team, One Side Neglected, found itself working in a genre it had been hoping to avoid, under a team leader making her first fiction film and whose English, though fluent, was not her first language, and with their cast anchored by the 9-year-old actor with a passion for geodes.
And yet, the team made it work. And work well. Not merely with technical competence and filmmaking know-how, but with a flexibility and ingenuity and fundamental mutual respect that exemplified the brightest, democratic impulses that animate this amateur filmmaking competition.
Kickoff at the Outer Space
The competition began on Friday night at the Outer Space in Hamden, where 48 Hour Film Project New Haven producers Trish Clark and Patrick Whalen unveiled the different criteria that the 37 participating teams would have to abide by as they made their respective movies over the course of the weekend.
Marra, an Italian-born medieval literature PhD student at Yale who moonlights as a documentary filmmaker, was joined at the Hamden venue by teammates Bill Fischer and Marie Comuzzo. Standing in a crowd filled with return participants, Marra and her teammates prepared to embark on their first 48 hour competition.
At 6:30 p.m., Clark randomly assigned genres to those present by rolling a Bingo wheel and letting the numbered balls and their corresponding stickers on a board before her determine whether a team would have to make a buddy cop movie, a musical film, a sci-fi movie, or any one of a few dozen possible genres.
She also announced that each team, regardless of its movie’s designated genre, would have to satisfy the following criteria: Its movie would have to feature a character named Grant or Grace Broha, who must be a cheerleader; it would have to include the line “Let me tell you something” somewhere in the movie’s script; and it would have to use a wallet as a prop.
“Comedy or sports! My two least favorite,” Marra lamented as she learned which genres her team had been assigned. With some words of encouragement from Comuzzo and Fischer, a barefooted musician and dance leader whom Marra had met while working on a recent documentary about his monthly contra dance parties in Bethany, Marra quickly drove back to her downtown apartment and started working on the script.
Writing the Script
In a low-ceilinged living room just below street level, surrounded by bottles of wine and prosecco, boxes of Brick Oven Pizza, and a diverse assortment of stringed instruments leaning behind furniture and propped up on window sills, Marra sat on a sagging couch alongside her roommate Ben van Buren and her cinematographer-to-be Dustin Gavin and started bouncing around ideas for the movie.
Should they make a sports mockumentary bubbling with absurd feats of un-athletic prowess? Could they even make a mockumentary that they would be proud of, let alone one that would win over the 48 Hour Film Project judges?
Or should they try to craft a father-son comedy with gags that could be both silly and poignant? One that better took advantage of the iconic New Haven location that Marra had been hoping to shoot in?
“When I think about making a movie, I first think about space,” Marra said. “And Lyric Hall is truly a place for imagination.”
They wrote until 11:40 p.m. on Friday night, brainstorming, drafting, and revising each line to the patient sounds of van Buren’s banjo. They settled on a comedy built around storytelling and malapropisms, turning Marra’s occasional confusion of similar-sounding words (“kitchen” and “chicken,” “whistle” and “whisper”) into a comedic short movie about an imaginative child slowly taking control over the story his dad is trying to tell.
By the time the three had parted, they had a rough draft of a screenplay in hand, and were anxious to see how the story would play out during the following day’s tight shooting schedule.
Making a Movie
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, Marra had arrived at Lyric Hall. She had spent most of the night restlessly revising the script, had woken up early to pick up some culinary props at Stop & Shop, and was now unpacking and organizing her filmmaking equipment in the front room of the Westville antique restoration business-cum-performance venue.
“Because I’m Italian, people always expect me to be an hour late to things,” she said. “So I make a point to show up 15 minutes early to everywhere I go.”
Her cast and crew trickled in over the next hour as Marra prepared for the first scene of the day. Blau practiced his lines with his dad Sequoia Miller; Gavin moved the cameras around the tight space to find the best angles for each shot; Gavin’s friend and fellow Howard University graduate Nickolas Vaughan, an actor who had come up from New York City for the day to help out Marra’s team, sat at the kitchen table and focused on getting in the mind of his character; and Comuzzo and Fischer danced barefoot in the hallways in between takes, waiting for their turns to act.
In Lyric Hall, Marra and her team found exactly the “place of imagination” that she was hoping for: each room of the century-old theater offered a different canvas for Marra and her team to work with, from the high, pressed-tin ceilings and wide, glass display windows of the storefront; to the back kitchen crowded with antique clocks, lamps, tables and cabinetry; to the carefully restored bar lined with paintings and framed prints of an older New Haven; to the small theater, with its proscenium, stage, and black grand piano.
Any concerns that Marra and her team may have had about looseness of the story melted away with the splendor, character, and specificity of the setting.
As Blau became more and more engaged with the process of making the movie, his attention focusing on the coordinated creativity overseen by the director, Marra harnessed his scattered, youthful enthusiasm into an energy that the team could benefit from.
After he finished his scenes as an actor, Blue transitioned into something like an assistant director, helping Marra get the actors and crew into position before each shot, and then eagerly calling out the countdown before the cameras started rolling.
He reviewed footage with Marra and Gavin during a lunchtime pizza break, and Marra, open to each teammate’s contribution to the overall vision for the movie, did not hesitate to try out suggestions made by even the least experienced members of the crew.
After the team had finished shooting at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Comuzzo took the stage with her violin to play a little music for the group in celebration of finishing the shoot. Marra still had a day’s worth of editing before her, taking the three hours of video she had recorded on Saturday afternoon and turning them into a five-minute short movie to be returned to the Outer Space on Sunday evening. But she would do it, submitting the movie with time to spare, and with a weekend’s worth of shared responsibility and creative trust in her teammates behind her.
All of the movies created during the 48 Hour Film Project New Haven will screen on Wednesday, Aug. 2 and Thursday, Aug. 3 at the Strand Theatre in Seymour. Click here to learn more about those screenings.