Friday, May 18, 2007

5x8 Film Festival-part 3, The Shoot

It is 1 a.m. in Humboldt Park and things are not going well for the Rainbows 4 Jeebus team. One of the members has to leave for Indiana. They still don’t have an idea, and Tyler has locked her keys in her car. They call AAA and wait, though there are all sorts of volunteers offering to break into the car for them. One man tries earnestly to unlock the door, but he soon gives up and asks the group if they have any beer. They give him some money and he walks away. AAA finally shows up about 3 a.m. and it takes the man seconds to open the car. The Rainbows pile in and head to an nearby apartment.

Meanwhile Gushing Artery is having a blast. They are shooting in front of the adult bookstore across Hubbard St. from The Whitehouse offices. Charles Leslie, the orthotist, plays a group 18 member forced to “take a small role” in a porn film to make ends meet because Dick, the Group 18 leader, absconded with Group 18’s film. When they wrap here, they quickly move across the street into The Whitehouse offices.

The Whitehouse offices work well as a location because they offer so many different looks. Sig Froelich is Dick. He sits behind a desk in a Whitehouse editing room complaining that if he didn’t take the film the other members of group 18 would have ruined it. The other Gushing Artery members play Group 18 members left behind. Elizabeth McNaughton, the actress, is standing in Whitehouse’s kitchen all made up. She is playing Dick’s former wife, “Well, we just fucked for three weeks.” Her character has an eating disorder so McNaughton feigns vomiting into the Whitehouse kitchen sink. McNaughton says she likes her character, and “would like to develop her into something bigger.” Jessica Volpe, a journalist in real life, plays the receptionist who Dick had an affair with. She complains to the camera that with her flaming red hair, she should have been a star, but Dick has screwed her and now she is a “fucking receptionist!”

By 1:30 in the morning they are finished. Schonbrun and Shevchenko both have cameras and have been shooting. Between them they have nearly two hours of footage for their three-minute film. The entire Gushing Artery team packs up and goes to Shevchenko’s apartment to watch the rushes and select the clips they want to put into the film.

Ow MyEye doesn’t begin shooting until after midnight. T.W. Li, a Columbia instructor, is the principle director of photography. He feels there is perhaps an embarrassment of riches. “We could shoot with any camera, we are editing with an Avid. We could even finish in an on-line room.” Li thinks less technology might be the way to go. No matter, someone makes the decision and the film is the only one presented in a letterboxed format.

It is 12:35 in the morning and art is imitating life. U’ Ren and Paul are standing at the bus stop on Division and Leavitt dressed in fright wigs and aviator glasses as members of Group 18. They have five minutes of tape left when they begin to argue about the direction of their film. As material it is good, except they aren’t arguing as Group 18, but having creative differences as Sean and Atom. It is all caught on tape. They decide to try to save their film in post.

At 3:00 a.m. Rainbows 4 Jeebus finally settle on idea. They want to make with their own hands as much of their film as possible. So, the remaining three group members begin drawing pictures and making collages. Harley Gambill has some old Super 8 footage she wants to incorporate. Tyler says the film will be a “bizarre parable with a moral that is kind of creepy and might offend some people.”

Part 4 Tomorrow.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

5x8 Film Festival-part 2, The Players

Tyler (Just Tyler) is probably the only filmmaker in the room whose ambition is to become a farrier. This is her third 5 x 8 festival and she is upset by the vibe inside Atomix. Tyler and the rest of the Rainbows 4 Jeebus team, Clare Windhack-Nolan, Sarah Davis and Harley Gambill escape to Chicago Avenue to toss around ideas. They feel the film professionals are dominating the festival and the spirit of the event is lost. Also, the Rainbows 4 Jeebus team is at a disadvantage because they do not know how to edit, so they cut the film in the camera as they shoot.

The group’s first idea is something of a revenge film. “I don’t want to get sucked into the vortex of Lincoln Park,” Tyler explains. They plan to shoot stop motion animation of the group changing out of their overalls and work boots, and becoming consumers. Soon, they reject this idea as too hostile.

Serena Schonbrun, a copywriter at Leo Burnett, and Galina Shevchenko, an assistant editor at The Whitehouse, met at the 5 x 8 festival last year. Today they are best friends and head up Group 30, Gushing Artery Productions. Schonbrun, who also organizes a film collective called Group 101, loves the creative exercise of making a film start to finish in 21 hours. She calls the festival, “Sport Art,” and she and Shevchenko have participated in all but the first contest.

As Atomix clears out, the eight members of the Gushing Artery team take over a table near the front of the restaurant. Charles Leslie, an orthotist at the Rehabilitation Institute begins going over ideas. He runs through a series of scenarios about loss-- death scenes, missing persons, suicides. Schonbrun interrupts to suggest Group 18 talked themselves to death. Everyone laughs. Sid Froelich, an architect, suggests that Group 18 disappeared because the filmmaking process is cathartic and by participating in the festival, Group 18 became healthy. Elizabeth McNaughton an actor and improviser picks up on Froelich’s idea and suggests the members of group 18 never made a film because each member’s idea inspired the other members and they could not agree on a concept. After 45 minutes Gushing Artery comes up with an idea: A mocumentary about Group 18. Imagine a Behind the Music about Spinal Tap.

Ow MyEye is the name of Group 19. Leader, Joe Winston is an editor at Superior Street where he edits programs for HGTV and segments of Oprah. He went to the last 5 x 8 screening and wanted to participate this time. Winston is taking things very seriously. “I would definitely like to win, but it’s not about a prize. I already edit on an Avid.” Ow MyEye has 14 team members including two film instructors from Columbia College, a sound designer, an art department and an animated Ow MyEye logo. “I arrogantly thought we could raise the bar. I don’t know if we’ll do that, or just raise the expense account.”

After the topic is announced Winston and his team congregate outside at the corner of Damen and Chicago throwing around ideas. They are stymied by the topic. As Group 19 they feel they must meet the problems of Group 18 head on. Finally, they settle on an advertising based concept of Group 18 fever sweeping the city. “We are leaving a little bit of room for it not to be understood,” Winston says to no one in particular.

5 x 8 founders U’Ren and Paul are hamstrung. They must wait until Atomix closes before they begin to work. They are also busy making arrangements for the following night’s screening. They only have one 40-minute mini-dv cassette and Paul cannot edit during the day Saturday because Atomix is expecting a shipment of a high-octane energy drink called XTZ and he doesn’t want to miss it. Other than that, things are great.

When Atomix closes they sit down with some iced coffee and begin to brainstorm. They kick out what they think are six good ideas, but in the end they decide to put on costumes and walk around as Group 18 and see what happens. As their cameraman, Christian Matts, says (intentionally, or not) “They are going to go out there like a sail without a ship.” U’Ren and Paul seem to agree and out the door they head.

Part 3 tomorrow.


5x8 Film Festival-part 1

I am going to try a little experiment. I wrote an article for the Chicago Reader a few years ago about a 24-hour film contest. It was a 3200 word story, I am going to serialize it here over the next few days. If no one cares then I will stop.


It is 8 p.m. Friday night at Atomix, a coffee shop at Chicago and Damen, and more than 100 filmmakers are packed into the restaurant waiting for the phone to ring. It doesn’t. Sean U’Ren and Atom Paul, the founders of the 5 x 8 Video Festival, look nervous. Someone shouts, “It’s 8:12 and since the call hasn’t come, can we turn in the films at 5:12?” The room laughs. U’Ren puffs out his cheeks and sighs. He bites his lip and stares at the answering machine that is serving as a speakerphone and announces, “This is not an exact science.” At 8:15 the phone rings and the room goes quiet. The phone rings and rings. Ten times. Fifteen times. The answering machine does not pick up. Finally, U’Ren picks up the phone and hands it to Paul, whose mother is on the other end. A Bob Newhart routine ensues.
“No, Mom, just tell me right now… yes, really.” Paul puts a finger to his right ear, a puzzled look crosses his face. There is a long pause. Paul finally addresses the crowd. “You’re not going to like it. The topic is What Happened to Group 18?”
The sixth, 5 x 8 Video Festival begins with an anti-climax.
The first 5 x 8 festival unspooled in March of last year. U’Ren and Paul, friends from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, frustrated by not being able to make the films they wanted decided to do something about it. Recalling a 12-hour film contest they participated in while in college, they decided to update it for the digital age and involve their friends. U’Ren, an assistant editor at Cutters, and Paul, who owns Atomix, believed they knew enough people with video cameras and access to editing systems to hold a contest. The 5 x 8 Video Festival was born.
The competition is equal parts The Iron Chef and Project Greenlight. The basic rules are simple. At 8 p.m. groups meet at Atomix. A topic is announced and they have until 5 p.m. the following day to deliver a finished film of about three minutes in length. At 8 p.m. that evening the films are screened and prizes are awarded. For this, the sixth competition, the top prize is Avid DV Express software, worth about $1700. Second place wins 80 dollars and third place gets 50, but no one enters for the prizes.
Chicagoans who complain there isn’t a film community here haven’t seen the 5 x 8 Video Festival. Camaraderie, collaboration and the joy of the creative process flow throughout Atomix. As the teams go their separate ways they wish each other good luck, and genuinely seem to mean it. Each group looks forward to seeing what the other collectives come up with. It does not seem to be competitive.
This time U’Ren and Paul wanted to participate in the festival, so Paul’s mother, “Miss K.” was given the job of selecting a theme. Participants submitted suggestions via e-mail. After rejecting ideas such as “a chase ending in a confrontation,” “your first drug experience, and “summer romance,” Miss K. picked, “What happened to Group 18?” Most of this crowd is unaware the Group 18 in question showed up on the Friday night of the fifth festival paid the $15 dollar entry fee, got the topic and vanished- never to be heard from again. The participants aren’t exactly overjoyed with this theme, but they head into the night seemingly in good spirits.
Handicapping this event is like trying to pick the winner of the Calgary Stampede. There are too many choices, and the groups all take different approaches. About one-third of the teams have some affiliation with downtown commercial editing houses such as Cutters, Superior Street, and The Whitehouse. Other teams are comprised of film buffs, architects and Atomix regulars who have seen the festival and choose to enter for the wonder of it.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

1000 Monkeys

This has been a long week for the thousand monkeys and their thousand typewriters who make the blog for the dumb filmmaker. They are demanding a day off and two more bananas per monkey, per day. So, being a good union man I am capitulating and will return tomorrow.

The monkeys appreciate the recent comments about students and the real world. They wish they had time to respond to everyone.

Thank you,


Monday, May 14, 2007

Good Job...Bob!

As a college student I worked for two summers at a mid-market NBC affiliate. The station was big enough to offer me an internship, yet small enough to let me try a lot of things. I was the floor director for the evening newscasts, I watched and logged sports highlights (and got paid!) for the sports anchor, and I was a segment producer for other live broadcasts. I was 19 years old. It was a great experience and even though I left the TV business for the film business, the internship was incredibly valuable because I learned professionalism and how to tell a story on a tight deadline. However, this tale is not about working at that TV station, it is about the cruddy job I had to endure before getting the internship.

I came home from my freshman year of college in mid-May of 1983. My TV job wasn’t going to start until early June and I needed to get out of the house and make some money. I saw an ad in the paper for motivated people looking to earn a good wage. The job offered a paid week of training and no experience was necessary. It said to meet in a Holiday Inn conference room. So, with nothing to lose I went.

About 20 people showed up at the Holiday Inn and after awhile a squat man in a cheap suit and a turquoise studded watch walked to the front of the room. And like any salesman he proceeded to tell us how we too could have the suit, the watch and a car like his Cadillac in the parking lot. The golden calf that would get us these riches- a Kirby vacuum cleaner.

The deal was this. If you made it through a week of training, you would get $250 cash (my internship was going to pay $200 pre-tax). If you didn’t last the week you’d get nothing. So with nothing to lose I became a Kirby Vacuum cleaner sales trainee for a week.

The 1983 model of the Kirby vacuum was an impressive machine. Not only could it do all the normal vacuuming duties, but it could- as Tom Waits sings, “filets, it chops, it dices, slices, never stops.
Lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn, and it picks up the kids from school. It gets rid of unwanted facial hair. It gets rid of embarrassing age spots. It delivers a pizza….”

You get the idea.

I made it through the first four days of training fairly well. By then the original 20 had dwindled to three. On the fifth day of the week Mr. Turquoise Watch announces we are going on a road trip to “sell.” We pile into a couple of vans and take off for Princeton, IL, maybe 60 miles from home. That afternoon I proceed to watch a Kirby sales “executive” sell a $900 vacuum cleaner to a family that had no carpeting in their home. Their income was $10,000 a year if they were lucky, yet, he convinced them to buy the vacuum on the installment plan- 18 percent interest. It’s now a $1500 vacuum cleaner for a house without a rug.

About 6pm we returned to the van. Instead of going home we “reconnoitered” at the local Pizza Hut. A few sales executives felt they could close the deal after the man of the house came home. So we hung around town for another few hours as Turquoise Watch showed us how to close. Finally, about 10pm we were done, but instead of going home we returned to the Pizza Hut to “celebrate.”

CUT TO: 2am. Turquoise Watch pulls out “The Kirby Song Book.” Seriously they (I?) began singing inspirational songs about Kirby Vacuums to the tune of “You’ll be Coming ‘round the Mountain.” About 2:30a.m. the Pizza Hut manager, Bob, really insisted we needed to leave. At that point Turquoise Watch turned to page 18 of the Kirby Song book and encouraged us to sing,” Yippee I-Ay, Yippee I-Oh (hold) Good Job, Bob!”

Bob said he’d keep the Pizza Hut open until 3am.

About 5:30 in the morning I stagger home. Every light in my parents house is on. They have called the cops, the state police, hospitals, everything looking for their little vacuum cleaner salesman. I had no explanation. Good Job Bob was my only alibi.

I slept for about an hour. Took a shower and showed up at the Kirby office. They gave me my $250 cash and a “demo” vacuum and told me to practice the pitch over the weekend. On Monday I returned to vacuum and told them I got a job at the TV station.

No moral here except, you gotta do what you gotta do.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Real World

Graduation was Saturday and once again we unleashed young people, who a week ago were sweating finals, into the real world. When I graduated from college I, too, was full of piss and vinegar and felt I knew everything. I left school with a solid portfolio, I had a film job lined up, but mostly, I was young.

The killer reel I created and awards won as a student meant nothing. The film job out of school ended up COSTING us a few thousand dollars; and before long I was just another dumb broke kid with student loans. Then, slowly, really slowly, things began to change. I got a job at a little corner restaurant/coffee shop and was in charge of the mornings. (Had the term been invented I would have been called a barista, but mostly I poured coffee and schlepped bagels.)

One day I left the job and took my student film to the Chicago Film Festival. I double-parked, ran in and when I submitted the film I also asked if they had any jobs available. The man who took my film asked me to wait a minute and a few minutes later out bounced the director of the festival- The Boss Lady, Sue- who hired me on the spot and asked if I could start working right then. I told her I was double-parked and asked if I could start tomorrow. She said yes. Ten years later we worked together again, this time as faculty at Columbia. Small world. Thanks, again Sue for hiring me.

From the running round for the film festival- I wrote my own acceptance letter and mailed myself the Silver Plaque- I took a job at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. I worked there for two and a half years, writing a script the entire time.

That script became my film Victimless Crimes, but I was still broke, and relatively young. I needed to make a living, so while my film was being shopped around Hollywood I took a job at a toy store in a Chicago mall. I was at work at the toy store when I received the phone call that the film found a distributor. Even though I now had a film that was on its way to the Cannes Film Market I kept the job at the toy store for a few more months.

My point of course is to stick with it. It takes time. A lot of time, and the hardest part of being a successful artist is just enduring the business, the easy part is making the film. I once heard Michael Caine talk about all the down time one has as a film actor. Someone, probably an aspiring actor, asked him, “Isn’t it hard to wait between scenes?” Caine responded, “I get paid to wait, I act for free.” That’s how feel as a filmmaker. I get paid for the days I don’t work. I make the film for free.

By the way, that toy store and mall are long gone, I’m still here. Good luck class of 2007, welcome to the real world.