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From Page to Screen in 48 Hours

Cinema: Dozens of teams of aspiring filmmakers participate in a project to produce a short movie in one weekend.

September 23, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aspiring director Gina Levy had a few problems putting together her latest movie.

The screenplay required a major last-minute overhaul. Some of her editing software broke down. And her sole shooting location--a relative's North Hollywood plastics factory--suffered a busted pipe that was threatening to flood the place.

Compared with the gold standard of Hollywood production nightmares--Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"--Levy's travails were minimal. There were no monsoons, no Ferdinand Marcos, no mumbling Marlon Brando.

Then again, nobody asked Coppola to do it all in two days. Levy and her crew were among 44 teams of Los Angeles filmmakers over the weekend who answered the challenge of the 48 Hour Film Project. Organizers are sponsoring the project in cities throughout the country, promising to screen just about anyone's short movie--as long as it is written, shot and edited between Friday and Sunday nights.

It's an idea that guarantees stress, if not full-blown hearts of darkness. But as of midnight Saturday, Levy--an unemployed victim of the San Francisco dot-com bust--was keeping her wits about her.

"I'm not freaking out at all," the 37-year-old said, even though she really didn't have a plot to work with. "You know, at the end of the day, it's just a movie."

The project is the brainchild of Washington, D.C., independent filmmakers Liz Langston and Mark Ruppert. Inspired by a similar New York City theater project called 24 Hour Plays, the pair tested the idea in their hometown last year with a small group of filmmaker friends.

They set a few ground rules: All the participants had to be unpaid volunteers. Directors would pick their film genres out of a hat. And all the movies had to include a common character, prop and line of dialogue chosen by the festival organizers.

"The idea is to just level the playing field," Langston said.

*

For Gina Levy, the project gave her another opportunity to show that she is capable of reinventing herself as a director. Since March, the Harvard graduate has been living in Calabasas with her aunt and uncle, taking film classes and trying to crank out one short film per month.

"If you want to learn the craft, you make movies," Levy said.

Levy and her director of photography, Lise Kearney, spent two weeks assembling a cast and crew, advertising on Hollywood Internet sites and holding auditions. Their final group of about 20 included curious Tinseltown professionals, other laid-off dot-commers, and an enthusiastic handful of struggling semi-pros.

At 7 p.m. Friday night--the official start of the project--the group had convened at Levy's uncle's house, where a flowery living room would serve as the evening's makeshift drama lab. If they were going to begin shooting by Saturday morning, they needed a story by sunrise.

By 8 p.m., Kearney had returned from the Film Project's opening event in a Fairfax Avenue bar, where the 44 teams--a predictable gaggle of Hollywood extroverts, hipsters and young auteurs in black-rimmed glasses--had picked their genres at random.

Levy's crew members were pleased with what they had drawn: film noir, the melancholy province of gumshoes and urban corruption. They could do noir parody easily, shooting on digital video and converting to black and white on a computer. What's more, noir was complemented by fog, and Levy had rented a fog machine earlier in the week.

Noir, it was agreed, generally works best when there are lots of hats. The group had hats. Thanks to a Levy family connection, it also had access to the plastics factory, as a shooting location.

Led by comedy writer Peter Crabbe, the group began riffing scenarios immediately: There would be an evil plastics factory magnate. He would be guarding a secret invention--plastic surgery! There would be sly references to "The Graduate," with its famous promise that there's a great future in plastics.

This was getting good, they thought. Someone mentioned David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," which featured a lesbian love tryst. They threw a pair of double-crossing lesbians into the mix.

The actors began improvising scenes. Levy slurped on a Diet Coke and jotted a few notes, furrowing her eyebrows when the improv--or the rapid-fire pop-culture references--spiraled out of control.

"What was that Vonnegut book where everybody lived in a cage?" someone asked. "Huh?" came a reply. "The Hanukkah book?"

In another corner of the room, screenwriter Chris Mancini tapped out some of the choicest bits on his laptop. By 10:30 p.m. Friday, he was ready to put something together; the crew left him alone in the living room. Mancini's work was complicated by the mandatory elements that Ruppert and Langston had assigned back at the bar: an ex-Marine for a character, swim flippers as a prop, and a line of dialogue: "I think I've tapped into something here."

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