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Against the Clock

Local filmmakers compete against the clock -- and each other -- in a novel filmmaking contest.

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It's 4:30 p.m. on Fri., Aug. 3, and sitting side-by-side in a booth at King's Restaurant in Bridgeville, amateur filmmakers Ted E. Haynes and Ephraim Stockwell are optimistic about their chances in Pittsburgh's first-ever 48-Hour Film Project.

"We're going to win it," Stockwell says. "We're going to kill it."

The competition Stockwell expects to "kill" has drawn 28 production teams to the Pittsburgh region to produce four- to seven-minute short films from Aug. 3-5.

The event, sponsored locally by Hughie's Audio-Visual Productions, originated in Washington, D.C., in 2001; six years later, the 48-Hour Film Project has held more than 100 competitions around the world. Winners in each city receive a trophy and the chance to have their films screened at Filmapalooza, the official 48-Hour Film Project Awards Weekend.

Each team has precisely two days to produce a film from start to finish, but the deadline isn't the only limitation filmmakers face. Each group must pick a genre out of a hat, and filmmakers are required to use a given prop, line of dialogue and local landmark in their film.

An undisclosed panel of three judges will select the best overall film, best use of prop, line of dialogue, landmark and adherence to genre, among many other categories, including best direction and best script. Awards are also available in these sub-categories.

Only a couple of hours before picking their genre, Haynes and Stockwell are unfazed by the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

"Give me a musical Western hot-dog vendor story," Haynes jokes. "I don't care."

But when the check arrives, Haynes' superstitious buddy begins to doubt. "Check this out, dude," Stockwell says, pushing the check -- totaling $16.66 -- toward Haynes. "666. That always makes me nervous."

Haynes is quick to assure his friend that there is little to fear, given their thorough preparations for the competition. For three weeks, Stockwell and Haynes have scouted locations, cast actors and actresses, developed story ideas and put together crew lists.

"I didn't want this project to be like a fire drill," says Haynes, 30, of Squirrel Hill. "It's a 48-hour film, but that doesn't mean we have to run around like a chicken with our head cut off. We've done so much work to have a good team, to pre-produce the hell out of this thing."

Haynes and Stockwell aren't filmmakers by profession, but they would surely like to be. Haynes works at FedEx and Stockwell, 34, works at Hollywood Video, yet their passion is clearly in producing and directing films.

"I've always been writing," says Haynes, a self-educated writer and producer. "For extra credit, I would write plays and get kids in my class to perform them for the entire school." Stockwell, on the other hand, has about five full years of training in film, although he's been infatuated with it since he was 15 years old.

Fri., Aug. 3, 6:30 p.m.

"I'm starting to get that tingly feeling at the bottom of my stomach," Stockwell says, wiggling his fingers on the second floor of the Star City Theatre, in Bridgeville. "I'm so freaking excited."

More than 100 people from the 28 teams anxiously await their chance to draw a genre from the hat. When it's finally their turn, Haynes wastes no time. He plunges his hand into the cap, pulls out a slender piece of paper and flatly says: "Romance."

Initially, the genre doesn't sound like a good fit for Haynes and Stockwell, who are partial to science-fiction and fantasy films. Plus, "They don't want soft-core porn, which really kills all my creative juices," Haynes adds with a laugh.

After the genre, teams are told each film must include an unmistakable shot of Pittsburgh. The line of dialogue they have to use is, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." Their prop is a teacup and saucer, and one of their characters must be either Jason or Julie Whittaker, a camp counselor.

Such specifics garner groans from most of the crowd, but not from Haynes.

"Now we take this and turn it into the winning short film," he says as he walks out of the theater.

Fri., Aug. 3, 7:30-10 p.m.

Eight members of Aloomination Productions gather in the suffocating heat on the second floor of Bellevue's Creative Treehouse. The space, typically used for various local arts groups, serves as the team's home for an intense brainstorming session.

Stockwell coined the name Aloomination Productions when he was a teenager, but it's stayed with him. This short film will be the fourth he has made under the name, but the first with Haynes as producer.

Chairs are quickly circled, and ideas immediately shoot across the room.

Stockwell spits out the first idea. As is his style, it involves a dark, twisted ending, which turns the romance into obsession. But other team members have doubts.

"That is going to put a lot of people off," says cameraman Michael Smith, 40.

Smith then suggests an alternative angle on romance.

"It could be a guy in love with an object," he says. "It doesn't have to be people."

That idea takes off when production manager John Campbell, 28, pitches a story about a man's love for his guitar.

Most of the crew latches onto the guitar idea for about a half hour, until they consider the logistics of it. Finding an actor who can skillfully play the guitar on such short notice was a main concern. Eventually, the idea fades.

But after two hours and about six skeleton story ideas, Stockwell tells his team, "By nine we need to have a story."

"We're going to knock whatever story idea we decide on right out of the park," Haynes adds, changing the topic. "What's true to us? What are we going to want to show our buddies?

"Do we want, 'That was really well done,' with a smile?" Haynes asks. "Or do we want, 'Wow!'"

Ultimately, the crew decides on Stockwell's original idea. They call it "Love Addict."

The plot begins with two lovers together on a bed, speaking romantically until it becomes obvious to one of them that something isn't quite right. The story unravels from there, with multiple twists and turns packed into the short film -- the "Wow" factor they're after.

Sat., Aug. 4, 2-5 p.m.

Stockwell saunters through the automatic doors at Spring Hill Suites in Robinson, noticeably fatigued. He and Haynes spent the majority of the night writing a seven-page script, and Stockwell says he didn't get to sleep until about 4 a.m.

At 7 a.m., the crew met to review the script and begin planning the day of filming. After splitting the team in half, one group headed to Crafton to shoot a newscasting scene, while the other half refined the script and frantically called local hotels, hoping one would consent to filming on their premises.

"One hotel told us that they would not let us make an X-rated film in their hotel," Haynes jokes.

The morning seems off to a good start, especially after Haynes received an unexpected call from Stockwell saying that he had found two actual police officers to play cops in their film.

"[Stockwell] called me and says, 'Do you believe in fate?'" Haynes says. "He said he got pulled over, managed to get his way out of the ticket, and then convinced the cop to be in the movie with another officer. We thought that was a sign."

But as the day progresses, that sign looks more and more like a curse. Multiple attempts to contact the officer go unanswered, and stress starts setting in.

Meanwhile, the film crew occupies two first-floor hotel rooms, one for the actresses to rehearse their lines, and the other for camera operators to create the perfect setting for the film. Both rooms are occupied by about eight crew members.

The film's lead actresses, Anji Corley and Gina Priano (lesbian lovers in the film), act out their lines on the rehearsal room's bed as Stockwell, crouching at their feet, looks on with a copy of the script clenched in his teeth.

"I need you to time me like a racehorse," he tells one assistant. "This is like energy-drink direction, dude."

Finally, after reviewing the script with Stockwell for about an hour, the actresses take their scripts to the set, and filming begins.

Sat., Aug. 4, 5 p.m.-1:45 a.m.

"Camera's ready, audio's ready!" shouts director of photography Rich "Ringo" Noel.

"Let's do this!" Stockwell calls out.

The first few takes go smoothly. Stockwell runs through three wide-angle shots of a scene, then he and Ringo agree to change camera positions for close-ups.

But Stockwell notices things aren't going as quickly as he would like. Trudging through a minute-long scene in about an hour, without close-up shots, worries him.

"Time is killing us," he says. "It can't go too late tonight. People have lives they have to go back to, and this thing has got to be edited."

Fortunately, the editing process is being sped up through the work of assistant editor David James. While filming continues across the hall, James assembles the morning's footage on his laptop. After each scene is shot, James compiles everything on the computer, making the final editing job much less burdensome.

As for Stockwell's cops, they never show. At the last minute, Haynes calls someone who fits the chiseled look they are after, and Haynes himself steps in to play the other part. Instead of cops, they play FBI agents, the only roles for which Haynes could find the appropriate garb.

But that doesn't solve their problems with the ticking clock. Stockwell says that at about 11 p.m., with hours of filming remaining, "[Haynes] came in and put on his producer's hat."

Still, they aren't able to finish filming until 1:45 a.m. By the time they break down the set, it's 3 a.m. Most of the crew decides to crash in the hotel.

Sun., Aug. 5, 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.

After waking at 10 a.m., Stockwell and James spend the rest of the day editing in Stockwell's apartment. Stockwell says they were able to include almost everything they wanted in the film, although "We walked away not being able to score it the way we wanted to."

At 7 p.m., only a half hour from their 48-hour deadline, Stockwell sits in the van with Haynes at the wheel, en route to the Star City Theatre to turn in their final product.

"We're driving very quickly," Stockwell says by cell phone. "We haven't even been able to watch the film from beginning to end. That's right down to the wire."

They finally deliver their film at 7:24, a mere six minutes before deadline.

Even without seeing the final product, Stockwell says he and the crew "feel extremely successful." Judges won't pick the winner until Sat., Aug. 11, but Stockwell has no doubt about the outcome.

"I think we're the winning team," he says. "I really do."

Ephraim Stockwell, left, directs Anji Corley, center, and Gina Priano during filming of their entry in the 48-Hour Film Project. - PHOTO BY BRIAN KALDORF
  • Photo by Brian Kaldorf
  • Ephraim Stockwell, left, directs Anji Corley, center, and Gina Priano during filming of their entry in the 48-Hour Film Project.

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