Published on January 30th, 2014 | by Nick Jarry0
Cutting time: an amateur filmmaker’s tale of a short film race
It used to be that if you wanted to make a short film with a group of close friends, you had to either be a film student with access to the equipment or a bored trust fund baby. Now, all it takes is a digital video recorder and editing software to bring your ideas to the screen. Apparently, that’s too easy for some, so filmmaking contests with insanely short deadlines have sprung up all over the globe, challenging filmmakers to create a finished product—from screenplay to editing—in a matter of days. The 100 Hour Film Race, which Tacomans Nick Jarry and Jeny McCray participated in last month, is one such contest. This is their story of what happens when you have only 100 hours to make a film. Tacoma annually features their own version—the 72 Hour Film Competition and Festival, hosted by the Grand Cinema — and registration for teams begin March 7.
5:00 pm PST. Thursday, December 12th.
The email came in:
Theme – Renew
Action – Checking the time
Prop – Ice
These were the three criteria for the 7th annual 100 hour Film Race. 100 hours had officially begun. Now it was up to us to write a screenplay, find a cast, scout locations, get releases signed, gather equipment, shoot, edit, and submit a film not exceeding five minutes, all within that 100-hour timeframe. It seemed simple enough.
After a few minutes of brainstorming, my friend and co-writer, Jeny McCray posed an idea: “A young woman hires a hitman to kill her abusive, alcoholic husband.” We had our concept.
The writing process was unorthodox to say the least. Not only did we have to write a script, but because of time, we had to combine storyboarding and screenwriting, all while keeping in mind a realistic cast and location in which to shoot.
Casting was easy. A few texts to a handful of supportive friends, and we had our characters. Getting the actors’ agreement at the beginning stages of writing the script allowed us to write the parts with specific people in mind. We could hear them deliver lines and show expressions, which aided the development of our dialogue and tone. By the end of the first night, we had our rough draft. A very rough draft.
10:00 am, Friday.
Breakfast. We discussed and mapped out a schedule for the day over plates of eggs, sausage, biscuits, and gravy. We had to finalize our cast, procure any necessary props, find and lock down our locations to be shot, and complete our final draft for the script. It seemed that things were off to a great start.
We walked around Tacoma, looking for locations, peering into windows like a pair of creeps. We had to keep things like lighting, availability, permission, layout, and time in mind. After a few failed attempts, I called my friend and proprietor of The Tacoma Cabana, Jason Alexander.
We met Jason at his lounge, and without any explanation on our end, he offered us the keys and full range of his establishment. This allowed us to not only shoot a bar scene, but a separate lounge scene as well, all under the same roof. All we needed now was a house, which we secured with a quick call to Mom.
We had our locations. Jeny and I were giddy.
8:00 pm, Friday.
We stood by the front window of the teriyaki restaurant waiting for our take-out and perusing the next items on our schedule. In order to email a copy of the script to the cast and crew, we needed a finished product. We inhaled chicken and white rice and returned to the writer’s room.
To define this experience as unconventional is a gross understatement. We had merely a few hours to clean up our rough draft, storyboard and write out a shot schedule for the next day. One of our cinematographers, Cody Char, came by to go over our progress, collaborate and scheme.
Late into the night we tightened ideas, revised, envisioned, acted out lines, and scribbled. Cody eventually excused himself for some sleep, but Jeny and I pushed on. We were beginning to feel the anxiety of actually trying to pull this off.
5:30 am, Saturday.
I had to sleep. I stretched out on Jeny’s couch and embraced unconsciousness. As I drifted off, I wondered if it was all worth it: the stress, the fatigue, the uncertainty. Had we foolishly entered into something we were unprepared for? A voice woke me up an hour and a half later. It was Jeny, who had stepped back into the kitchen with a finished schedule she had stayed up writing. Perhaps we were prepared, after all.
8:00 am, Saturday.
Grocery stop. Two cases of bottled water, two assortments of bagels and cream cheese, one fruit tray, one veggie tray, and a 30-piece set of utensils. I can only imagine the checkout clerk’s analysis of us. We looked drunk. It was only a matter of hours before principal photography, and we hadn’t even sent out the script.
The cast and crew showed up on time an hour later. After a brief introduction and read-through with the actors, we loaded up into the vehicles and made our way to The Tacoma Cabana.
11:00 am. Saturday.
Things were going smoothly. We had an idea on paper, a group of supportive people, and a roof to shoot under. The concept of time, looming ever present, was still not an immediate threat to our goal, though we had only five hours until the weekend patrons of the cabana were expected to start piling in.
2:00 pm, Saturday.
Chaos. We spent hours setting up lights, adjusting cameras, and trying to hack into the air conditioning system to eliminate the ungodly dump truck sound coming through the vents from the street. All of this had been going on for hours, and we hadn’t even captured one shot. Not one.
I joined Jeny in the back room, away from the cast and crew, to have the dreaded conversation, the one that starts with, “We’re not going to be able to do this,” and ends with, “No, seriously. There is no way we’re going to be able to fucking do this.” How could we tell the cast and crew that their support and efforts were for nothing? Jeny stepped out for a smoke.
2:15 pm, Saturday.
It is widely believed that smoking is dangerous. Most would even say deadly. I however, hold firmly to the position that smoking saved us that day.
Jeny’s colleague and mentor, David Coon, Assistant Professor in Communications at the University of Washington Tacoma, had accompanied us to the shoot. Outside, as Jeny lit up, she asked for advice: “At what point do we admit that we just can’t do this?”
David’s direction was simple. “You’re not there yet,” he said. “Just start shooting. Get something recorded; it doesn’t even matter if it’s any good. Once you’ve started, things will fall into place.”
And that’s just what we did. Jeny came back refreshed and reassured, and we kicked our production into gear. We got our shots… well, half of them. We were going to have to shoot the rest the next day.
4:00 pm, Saturday
We finished packing the cars with the equipment, and left the key on the counter at the Cabana. Although we didn’t get a chance to shoot the lounge scene, we counted the takes at the bar as significant victories.
8:00 pm, Saturday
We arrived at our second location. This would be the first shot for our only female actor, who had patiently waited through the long, frustrating day to play her part. And play her part she did. Seeing a woman sitting on a bed in a wedding dress, and crying on demand while her “husband” drinks booze straight out of a bottle proved to be a beautiful thing. This was the turning point, a boon to morale, and things started clicking into place.
We set up equipment in multiple rooms, applied SFX makeup to our actress, continued shooting, and navigated wardrobe changes.
Jeny and I watched our other cinematographer, Martez Rice, choreograph fight sequences upstairs, while Cody gave a beautiful cello performance to the rest of the crew downstairs. We had found our rhythm. We wrapped up around 1:00 am and all went home for a much deserved six-hour rest.
10:00 am, Sunday.
Our outlook improved. But for one reason or another, we didn’t begin filming until about noon, and felt the pressure mounting, the hours being chewed to oblivion. We knew we’d be cutting it close. At long last came the words: “That’s a wrap!” Finally, we could send the cast home.
Filming was done.
4:30 pm, Sunday.
If you’ve ever edited anything before — a film, magazine, photos, a break-up text — you know just how terrible that process is: You’ve conceived, developed, and birthed a baby — you’ve never felt so proud — and now you must take that little baby and cut some fingers off. Or a leg. Maybe even the ears will fall to the cutting room floor.
Then, after you’ve pulled a few teeth and ripped out a kidney, you’re ready to show your beautiful new baby to the world, declaring, “Please, love this baby, world!”
Jeny and I stayed as long as we could bear to, dismembering (and occasionally cursing at) our baby film until Jeny finally cried “uncle.” It was about 4:00 am when we stumbled out to catch a precious couple hours of sleep.
11:00 am, Monday.
With the deadline only 10 hours away, we were scrambling to tighten things up. All the things that seemed like unforgivable mistakes to us as filmgoers suddenly became realities to us as filmmakers: bad portions of audio, few good takes, not enough footage of a certain angle. These were problems with no practicable solutions, but we pressed on.
By the time we felt we had reached a solid storyline, we looked at the length. Seven minutes. Our disfigured baby was still too long. How were we going to shave off two whole minutes? Context! We’ll just cut context!
8:00 pm, Monday.
Fifty-nine minutes to go. We still had to export our file. Jeny hacked and chopped and spliced and layered as fast as she could. I was a useless wreck. I ran around gathering our legal documents while simultaneously trying to find “free ominous cello music” online. It was a nightmare.
8:35 pm, Monday.
FUCK IT! Export file!
It was out of our hands. All we could do was pace and watch the progress of the export, calculating the rate of minutes versus each gain in percentage. The percentage remaining was clearly outweighed by the minutes. We hoped that the file would find a sweet spot and jump up by 20 or 30 percent at any moment. That was all we had left.
8:45 pm, Monday.
Fifteen precious minutes remained on the clock, and our file was only 28% through the export process. The helpless realization that we weren’t going to make it began to set in. 30%. 36%. 42%.
9:00 pm, Monday.
49%. We missed the deadline.
An entire experience felt almost entirely invalidated in the passing of that final second.
Disappointment is not a strong enough word to describe how we felt. Jeny went for a walk as I sat in the room staring at the floor. The thoughts of all our mistakes somehow only sharpened the strain of our effort, and heightened our sense of loss. We didn’t deliver.
My phone began to vibrate over and over with texts. I knew what they were about, but couldn’t bring myself to read them. Jeny came back about 45 minutes later. We talked about our disappointment and hugged. Even though we were both exhausted, we decided to go back and clean up a few loose ends, things left behind.
We owed it to everyone involved to present them with a finished product. So, despite missing the deadline and forfeiting our eligibility in the contest, we stayed to finish the film.
2:00 am, Tuesday.
We finished exporting and headed home. We were tired, overwhelmed, malnourished, and physically broken. But we were proud. In fact, even now, our sense of pride in the thing we accomplished together exceeds any of the other darker feelings combined.
With the help of an amazing team, we had assembled a short film, from start to finish, in four days. It was a tortuous, battering, exhausting, hell of an experience. It was like a nightmare of riding a roller coaster on fire.
And we would do it again in a heartbeat.
*All photos by Melanie Capdepuy