I’m sitting in an editing room at the studios of GTN Inc., next to co-producer Michael Moreland, who is ostensibly in charge of the movie being made today. He was released from an emergency room around midnight last night, diagnosed with strep throat, and he hasn’t slept since. He’s following a constitution-rocking course of antibiotics and coffee, and it looks like a thousand-yard stare is building up behind his eyeballs.
I ask him about the film, which must be finished and transmitted to New York before midnight. With seven hours left to go, and less than half of the short film cut for the screen, he enthuses weakly but sincerely, “We couldn’t ask for more. The blessings keep raining down.”
Moreland and his filmmaking friends won an “extreme” moviemaking contest this summer. That cinematic stunt assigned 270 competing teams a random genre and subject, and demanded a short film within two weeks. Ferndale-based production team Circle of Confusion came away with top honors in their Midwest group, making them finalists in an even more frantic quest to make a movie on demand in exactly one day.
The team first enlisted the help of GTN, a full-service production firm in Oak Park, this summer. “We figured, why not ask,” remembers team member David Rumble. Ask they did, meeting with such success that GTN and other local vendors donated $50,000 in rentals and services. This enabled the team to make a first-round science-fiction entry, The Brain Scanner, that is a showcase of soaring production values and dazzling technical events — despite some stilted acting.
Of course, being a semifinalist in this insane-sounding contest means being one of more than 20 teams that now must make another short film in just 24 hours. Would the team’s strategy pay off on a schedule that tight? Over the phone, on the day before the contest, I sense an ambivalent tone in Rumble’s voice as he explains his plan to power-nap Friday night before meeting the team at GTN’s multimillion-dollar facility to receive the midnight e-mail from the festival organizers outlining the assignment. It sounds like a fascinating experiment on sleep deprivation and the creative process.
I don’t know quite what to expect when I show up early Saturday afternoon in the suburban industrial park. Having checked the Web site, I know that the genre is “mystery,” and the subject is “an unwanted gift.” Co-producer Rumble looks uneasy, warning, “We got off to a bad start.” He describes a frantic night of brainstorming until 5 a.m., when their writer started on the script. The pages were whisked, still hot from the printer, to the set, where freshly awakened actors got a first look at their dialogue. It had been a hectic morning, with the writer churning out revisions and actors stumbling with mismatched versions.
Moreland says of the plot, “It’s about a man who is at his wit’s end because he can’t get a cup of coffee in his own office.” It seems more farce than mystery. And how did a sleep-deprived crew arrive at the theme of a person tantalized by coffee?
Peeking in on the set, I find that shooting seems smoother now. The crew has taken over an office, which now hosts heavy light stands and high-voltage cables. The equipment and crew are jammed against a wall claustrophobically, crouching in odd positions to accommodate the scene. The air is churning with the dry heat of 5,000 watts of tungsten lighting. Everybody holds their breath as the tape is rolling.
The director shouts, “Places, everyone!” The crew prepares for a shot of Alex Safi, cast as a company executive, striding through the office. After a few takes, the crew agrees they’ve shot enough tape to make a complete cut of the scene. Safi can leave the set and go home. Morale is beginning to turn, and the crew breaks into applause. The director, Drew Titran, orders a five-minute break. I should be talking to him, but he’s one of the busiest people I’ve ever seen, helping move equipment, answering a question every 10 seconds, all while gulping down a can of energy drink. I decide to let him work.
A delightful woman guides me over to a deli tray and irresponsibly leaves me alone with it. I’m soon building an imposing Dagwood. I open the refrigerator and find 100 cans of energy drink, dropped off by a promotions team.
I return to the set, where Rumble is marking up a script furiously, Titran is hashing out the camera placement, and writer Natalie Milbrodt is finessing dialogue on the spot. It’s a shade of the old days of Hollywood’s factory approach to producing hundreds of movies a year. Where else would a crew member ask, quite innocently, “What’s the name of this movie?” By this time it has a name: The Coffee Culprit.
I retire to the relative calm of the quiet, dim cutting room, where editor Charlene Tilly has already put together the first few minutes. She screens it, and I realize that the video is really more of a comedy. I ask Moreland about the choice to make a comedy-mystery. He explains, “We were thinking about our audience in New York. … We think they’re going to appreciate the chance to laugh after being up all night.” (The original plan, now scrapped, was to have the judges screen all the entries within 24 hours.)
Late in the afternoon, things are looking positive for Circle of Confusion. As each take is shot, they suppress slap-happy laughter over the humorous climax. Detroit actor Darius Thomas’ character is discovering where all the coffee is going. As the group makes up for lost time, they grow more jocular, and when two actors are allowed to leave the set and go home, the crew celebrates with ebullient vulgarity.
I have to wait until the production “wraps” before I finally get to talk to Titran, the director, who still looks fresh despite his 5 o’ clock shadow. Cracking open another energy drink, he cheerfully nods, “I’m pretty confident,” when asked about the picture. Just before I leave, though, he confesses, “I never did get the chance to read the script all the way through.”
Judges are to render their verdicts on the 24-hour films within the next week.Michael Jackman is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org