Monday, May 21, 2012

Take me to your leader. Bloop bleep bloop.

This weekend, creative types all over Boston have been working themselves ragged as part of The 48-Hour Film Project. Cameras in hand, costumes on backs, they've been writing, shooting, and editing films in just 48 hours. At 7:00 on Friday night teams were assigned a genre, prop, character, and line of dialogue. The completed project was to be turned in at 7:00 on Sunday night.

I didn't do it this year. I've done the 48-Hour Film Project twice. I don't know why I even attempted the second time, given how my first year went..

The year was 2005. Springtime. Pope John Paul II had just passed away. Prince Charles married longtime mistress Camilla Parker Bowles. LOST fans wondered if Locke would ever be able to open the hatch. I had just started performing with The Tribe, an improv and comedy collective. I was so excited to finally be part of a creative community again. I'd largely given up on performing when I graduated from college five years before and found I was afraid to do anything outside my comfort zone of performers and producers I'd known in school.

Like a high school freshman desperate to be part of the cool crowd, I signed up for every project that would take me. I heard about the 48-Hour Film Project through another Tribe performer and was disappointed to hear that The Tribe wasn't looking for additional team members for their project. I signed up with 48-Hour Film as an artist in search of a team. A group contacted me and said they were looking for actors and writers. Yay! I volunteered that I could do both.

I got an e-mail from Annie, a group co-captain, telling me where to meet the team. She wanted us to get together early, so we could get to know each other. I arrived around 6:00, the soonest I could make it after work, and met Zelda, another co-captain, and her 3-year-old daughter Polly. Zelda said everyone else would arrive later. I sat on the couch and watched a video of past entries as Zelda disappeared into the kitchen. I tried to talk to Polly, but was told not to bother, as she didn't speak any English.

After about an hour, other people trickled in. Tom was a heavy-breathing sound and camera operator with a Frankenstein haircut and questionable personal hygiene. Mindy was a friend of Annie's. She wasn't sure why she was there and asked me “So why do you want to spend your time on this?”. Mitzi was Zelda's 8-year-old daughter, who does speak English. We, along with Annie, who arrived later in the evening, and Ed, the third co-captain, head camera person, and Zelda's husband, would the writing team.

We started talking about movies. Tom brought up a recent release and said he thought is was pretentious. Mindy asked why, and he fired back "I don't have to justify my opinion. YOU tell ME why you didn't think it was pretentious." I sat on the couch and tried not to look at either of them. Polly poked a finger into each of the avocado and cheese sandwiches Zelda had made for the team. It was the only food we would get all night.

The call comes in at 7:00 that our genre is science fiction, our prop is a string of pearls, the character is to be a former child star and the required line is "I'm not really like this". I broke out my stack of index cards and started calling out plot ideas, inviting the others contribute. Everyone was silent except for 8-year-old Mitzi, who suggested we could go to iParty and buy alien costumes and walk around saying "Take me to your leader. Bleep bloop bleep bleep bloop." All of the other adults in the room shot her bemused smiles and gently said that wasn't the kind of science fiction film they wanted to make.

I suggested a plot in which a former child star (to be played by Mitzi, as none of the other adults wanted to act and I didn't feel comfortable making myself the star) was genetically altered to remain the same age forever. Everyone nodded enthusiastically. “Okay,” I pushed on “So she's going to look the same forever, but now she's getting older, so what are some problems she could have? How do we get to the line of dialogue? What do people think she is that she's not really like?”

The room was silent, except for Mitzi, who suggested that we could go to iParty and get green alien masks – you know, like the ones with the big eyes - and ray guns and things that glow in the dark and planet stickers. Like, we could build a model of the solar system with styrofoam balls and pretend to be aliens. “'Bloop bleep bloop bloop. Take me to your leader." She had a jerky little dance she did every time she made this suggestion, lurching off the sofa and around the room.

Mindy suggested we talk about science fiction from which we might draw inspiration. I described The Handmaid's Tale, a science fiction story that isn't about aliens. I guess I gave away too much of the story, because Tom suddenly sprang out of his chair and yelled at me "You stupid bitch! I didn't want to know the book ends. You girls just stay here and have your estrogen fest. I'm leaving." He stormed out, slamming the door.

After a few shocked moments, those of us left started laughing. Thinking the tension was broken, I suggested we start over with a new story. “Okay, how about a new food that does something? An invention than changes how people communicate?” I tried to come up with new ideas, but the others kept coming back to the genetically-altered-child-star plot. Ed liked it, and so did Mitzi. In fact, perhaps she could secretly be an alien, suggested Mitzi. And we could go to iParty and get masks, and there could be a part where she has a ray gun and points it at someone and says “Take me to your leader.”

Mindy was worried that we hadn't come up with anything that was poignant. She had recently read The Life of Pi and found it poignant, and she cared a lot about our story being poignant, and she thought it was really important that our film have poignancy. She had no idea how to make our film poignant or ideas for a story, poignant or otherwise. She was insistent, however, that if she DID have ideas, they would be poignant.
“How do you think can we bring poignancy to this story?” I asked.
“Just... include things that are poignant.”

A few more people arrived, friends of Annie's with a bit of film experience. They were supposed to be production advisers, but got sucked into the writing process. The hours dragged on. We kept trying to pull a story together, and write actual dialogue, but Zelda shot down everyone's ideas. As the night wore on, Zelda said she didn't think Mitzi could pull off being the star of a film, and I had to agree with her. No other actors ever arrived, so the cast would be me and two kids, only one of whom spoke English. Around 11 PM Annie's friends left. One of them slipped me a note that said “You're good at this. Speak up more.”

We stayed up into the night and cobbled together a skeleton of a script. Mindy continued to complain that the story wasn't poignant. Mitzi continued to ask when we could get alien costumes. Zelda continued to counter every suggestion by saying she didn't think it would work, but didn't have any ideas as to what might be better. Ed said it was too late to start over and we'd have to go with the story we had. Polly jumped on my index cards with nary a word of parental interference. At 1:00 am I left with the agreement that I would meet them at 9:00 the next morning to start shooting. I slept fitfully, dreaming of big-eyed aliens.

At 8:30 am I got a call from Annie, who said that the kids needed more sleep and we'd meet at 11:00. At 10:30, while I was driving to meet them, I got another call.
“Hi, Lynne? It's Annie. How are you?”
“Tired, but functioning. What's up?"
"Well.... We were wondering, how are your improv skills?”
“They're good. What's going on?”
“Well, Zelda and Ed and the kids went home and decided they didn't like the script. They started playing around with the editing software and found they can morph people into each other, so they came up with a cute idea about someone who can change forms. It's really... cute.”

I wasn't in the mood for cute. Not poignant enough, I guess.

Epilogue: I went home and got some much-needed sleep. When I looked at my e-mail later in the day, I found a message from the director of The Tribe's 48-Hour Film Team, asking if I'd be available as an on-call actor. It had been sent earlier in the day, and it was way too late to for me to contact them. I spent the rest of the weekend moping and eating Chinese take-out.

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