This story was originally published on the School of Architecture & Allied Arts blog here. On this assignment from late April 2014, I followed groups of student filmmakers during an intensive 72-hour competition called Adrenaline Film Project.
Whenever someone asked me what I was doing during the Adrenaline Film Project, I did not have a good answer. My assignment was to follow a student group and document their participation in the 72-hour competition in which each team writes, edits, and produces a short film in an assigned genre.
The competition is a component of the Cinema Pacific Film Festival, which is part of the University of Oregon Cinema Studies Program. UO graduate students from A&AA’s Arts and Administration Program administer Cinema Pacific.
This was my tangential reasoning as to what I was doing. But let me start by saying this: it’s not fair that I merely chronicled what happened. I didn’t suffer the toll that sleep deprivation took on the student groups’ collective mental state. I couldn’t do what they did. I value sleep too much. I’m irrationally jealous that my cat spends two-thirds of his life in slumber. I slept each night of the competition. Most of the competition’s participants cannot make that claim. That was the difference between us.
Each year, a different AAD graduate student manages the competition as the lead coordinator. This year, it was Laurette Garner’s job to secure fundraising, scheduling, and supervise every logistical aspect of AFP.
“I learned a ton. It’s super useful to watch and be a part of. I would love to work with festivals professionally in a managerial way, so it’s perfect for me, to see how a non-profit festival runs,” says Garner, who claims she probably slept approximately ten hours over the three-day run.
I shadowed two of the twelve teams. Each team was given two shared parameters for their film: a prop and a line of dialogue. The groups can incorporate both however they please as long as the dialogue is apparent and the prop is visible.
Since the Cinema Pacific Film Festival, which runs from April 23–27, hosts Adrenaline Film Project, the line of dialogue and prop originate from specific countries of origin. This year, Chile and Taiwan are the two countries in focus. The prop and line of dialogue will be revealed later.
In past competitions, sometimes a film centers on the prop entirely, while at other times it’s more understated. Horror films have used it as an instrument of coup de grâce. While one group could take the prop and line of dialogue toward a comedic route, another may write a drama.
Larissa Ennis, operations manager for the festival, says “It’s really kind of a Hollywood boot camp, if you will, how to make a creative project under pressure and on a really tight deadline.”
The secondary effect of AFP is that between the sleep deficit and the time pressure, people lose their marbles. Delirium takes time to set in. It can take a matter of hours to days. I documented its stages in a handful of film auteurs who underwent all the stages and consequences of sleep deprivation over three days.
The Adrenaline Film Project commenced at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 23.
4:51 p.m. I arrive at the Downtown Baker Center, at East 10th Avenue and High Street in Eugene. Both the Alaska and Mexico Conference Rooms have been opened up for the Adrenaline Film Project participants. I’m handed a press pass with my name on it.
Twelve teams of three to four members sit at the tables. Before every person is a red folder, inside of which are a number of forms and agreement licenses necessary to properly (and legally) film a movie.
Leigh Kilton-Smith, professional acting coach and one of the competition’s mentors, addresses the room.
“I’m the actor’s advocate. If you’re shooting a delicate scene, and your actor’s not living up to the hype, call me. I’ll come, but you need to be there,” she says. “Use me. Use me like crazy. Use me like toilet paper…no, that’s not right.”
Jeff Wadlow is another one of this year’s mentors. He directed 2008’s “Never Back Down,” in which a rebellious teenager is lured into an underground fight club. More recently, Jeff wrote and directed “Kick-Ass 2” and penned two episodes of A&E’s “Bates Motel.”
Jeff co-founded AFP for the Virginia Film Festival in 2004. This is the competition’s fifth annual manifestation in Eugene.
He details the physical toll that AFP can take on its participants, but notes that the only physical injury in AFP’s history was when someone cut his hand on a sword. He was potentially sleep-deprived or over-caffeinated or both. We don’t know the details. We know for sure that stiches were involved. And Jeff wants all of us to stay safe.
Omar Naim is the third mentor, and it’s his third time helping with AFP. He wrote and directed the Robin Williams drama “The Final Cut.”
“When you’re watching a movie, dialogue shouldn’t be the most visible part of screenwriting,” he tells the crowded conference room. “You should think about writing situations. It took me years after film school to learn this.”
Jeff explains that in the past fourteen AFPs, a film has never gone unfinished. Although, there was one isolated incident when one person was so dissatisfied with their work that she took all the footage and fled town.
Jeff likens the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” to AFP: your very first, impulsive ideas may be the wisest decision; our ability to assess what is important about a situation can be collected from a very narrow period of experience. Spontaneous choices are often just as good as – or even better than – carefully planned and considered ones.
“We will not let you fail,” he declares. “Failure is not an option. … You have 51 weekends of the year to make whatever movie you want. This weekend, we’re asking you to work with us.”
5:11 p.m. Before they’re allowed to leave the Downtown Baker Center, the AFP participants need their film to be green-lit. They pitch their five-minute film to the three mentors, including its setting, their character, why one would care, as well as the beginning, middle, end, and button of their story. (The “button” is the nifty way in which a story or scene ends.)
It’s just past 5 p.m. In 17 hours, everyone needs to have the first draft of the script completed and approved. No one has started yet because the line of dialogue and prop have not yet been assigned.
5:35 p.m. Jeff talks about how Robert Rodriguez sold his blood to finance his film “El Mariachi.” Rodriguez also used a school bus in the movie, just because he had access to one. The lesson: if you have access to something cool, use it. If your actress knows mixed martial arts, put her in a fight scene.
Some ground rules are established, including: Make the film more than 20 miles outside of Eugene’s city limits. Oakridge is off-limits.
5:42 p.m. “A bunch of strangers are going to the movies on Saturday night, and we’re responsible for their entertainment,” Omar says.
At 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, all these student-produced films will be presented for a final screening in Prince Lucien Campbell Hall.
Their final product needs to be turned in by 5 p.m. that day.
5:47 p.m. Genres are assigned. Among those handed out include: workplace comedy, B-movie, magical realism, psychological thriller, coming-of-age, sci-fi, horror, noir, heist, romantic comedy, and dark comedy.
Jeff remarks: “I will not let you be a parody of your genre. It has to be authentic. You can have self-awareness, but be truthful.”
The mentors advise the noir group: “Don’t use fedoras.”
6:07 p.m. (70 hours and 53 minutes until final cut is due)
The line of dialogue and prop are assigned.
The piece of dialogue is a Chilean phrase, which means, “You think you’re a badass?” but literally translates to, “You think you’re death?”
The prop is Taiwanese by way of Bed, Bath, & Beyond; 12 red teapots are passed around.
“If you break it, you better write it into your story, or glue it back together. You could try to buy a new one,” says Larissa Ennis, operations manager for the Cinema Pacific Film Festival, “but they’re from Bed, Bath & Beyond, and we bought out all the ones in the tri-state area.” (Ennis also works as program manager for Academic Extension at UO.)
I’m assigned to shadow a group whose genre is dark comedy. Upon receiving the assignment, they are ecstatic. Jeff shouts to them from across the room that incest and killing people is fair game. The Alaska Conference Room gets very quiet.
Their names are Will Cuddy, Zach Feiner, and Tommy Pittenger. The former two are advertising majors at UO, and Tommy is a journalism major.
The conversation begins on a simple idea: what makes a comedy “dark” is the ironic understatement of a heavy matter. Case in point, this dark comedy will be about killing someone, but it will be in a very nonchalant manner. It’s established that dark comedies aren’t about the murder, but the banality of it.
This is not Will’s first year doing AFP. Last year, he directed the largely improvised comedy “Family Dinner,” about a brother and sister who are each trying to come out to their parents during a dinner. The movie received both the Kalb Jury Award and The Audience Award from the Saturday night screening –two of the four possible awards.
As the crew sits and talks, other elements of the film are discovered, piece by piece. These include: a man stumbles out drunk from the bar, but he’s only pretending to be intoxicated. A woman takes him home. He disappears, only to come back and throw a plastic bag over a girl’s head. He breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the camera.
6:30 p.m. (70 hours, 30 minutes until final cut is due) Will, Tommy, and Zach are the first group to pitch their idea. They have been marinating the idea for about 25 minutes. Truthfully, they hardly have the structure for a short film. They have some semblance of what a situation should be, but nothing to hold it together.
They walk into a room where Omar, Jeff, and Leigh sit behind a long table. Will speaks first.
He tells them about the opening of the film – how a man stumbles drunk out of a bar, how a woman takes him home. She makes tea for him, but the man disappears. She wanders around her house and searches for the drunk, only to end up suffocating inside a plastic bag.
Leigh: “I get the darkness of it, but I don’t get the comedy.”
Jeff proposes allowing the girl to be the one stumbling drunk. She appears to be a more vulnerable character, and almost immediately, the audience is invested.
Jeff: “Guys killing women is just kinda icky. We’ve been there and you’re not going to get any laughs out of it.”
Omar: “If everyone turns out to be deceptive and a liar, it’s great because it’s a black comedy because their motives are really bad. Their motives don’t have to go as far as murder. Their motives can be deceptive.
Jeff: “I do like the idea of people who are trying to deceive each other at the same time, but we’d have to figure out a way to not let the characters know until the end.“
Omar: “That’s great, like a battle of duplicity. One of them goes to make tea, and we realize that character’s up to something. Together, they’re both trying to kill each other. The audience knows they’re both bad people. They deserve each other. ‘They deserve each other’ is the hallmark of the dark comedy.”
6:45 p.m. (70 hours and 15 minutes until final cut is due)
Will, Tommy, and Zach come back to the table to reconvene. Four coupons for free Dutch Bros. coffee have materialized on the table.
They discuss the two characters who are playing cat-and-mouse with each other. One has a knife in his pants, and the pants are thrown across the room.
“What’s their motive?” I ask. “Why are they trying to kill each other?”
“They’re serial killers,” Tommy shrugs. “It’s a deeply rooted urge.”
Ideas are crumpled up, thrown out, brought back out of the discarded pile and revived. Nothing is written down.
7:29 p.m. (69 hours and 31 minutes until final cut is due)
I suggest the man and woman try to kill one another, but end up murdering a pizza guy. The movie ends with the man and woman sitting on the floor and eating pizza, surrounded by the pizza guy’s blood and viscera. They discuss their murderous exploits and finish each others’ sentences, except with really grotesque phrases.
My suggestions are rightfully ignored.
7:54 p.m. (69 hours and 6 minutes until final cut is due)
There’s a general agreement that the pizza guy character is overdone and cliché. He’s out of the movie.
8:00 p.m. (69 hours until final cut is due)
They decide it’ll take a very talented actress. Will calls the group’s mutual friend in Portland to see if she wants to play the role of “Female Protagonist Serial Killer.” He eases into the request. First, he asks, so, how was Coachella?
Tommy spills that he dated this girl in 5th grade. She has bipolar disorder, and may be able to play crazy well on camera. There is a brief discussion as to whether this would be an advantage or a setback.
Will comes back. No dice on the girl. She’s in California and won’t be available in time. It’s time to find a new damsel of distress.
8:07 p.m. (68 hours and 53 minutes until final cut is due)
Will tosses the mesh component to the kettle up and down. He details his vision for the film’s killing montage: the woman, at a coffee shop, is nonchalantly explaining how many men she’s killed. She shoves a man’s face into the toilet. There’s a GoPro in the toilet. We see a close-up of a man’s face drowning. She pulls his head back out, and back in, but it’s a new guy. The montage continues with different men being shoved into the toilet.
I point to the red kettle. “She should waterboard someone with tea,” I suggest.
8:15 p.m. (68 hours and 45 minutes until final cut is due)
Everyone gathers around Tommy’s phone to watch a video of Sarah – a new actress – modeling for a yoga or outdoor business advertisement. Tommy is noticeably reluctant when I ask for particulars on the video. Details are vague because of a nondisclosure agreement.
The second pitch meeting is pushed so everyone can go hang out with Sarah and get to know her. There remains little to no story. Building rapport is essential for movie making. They leave the Baker Downtown Center at a quarter after 8.
8:31 p.m. (68 hours and 29 minutes until final cut is due)
I pack up and leave after the group decides to go meet Sarah to determine whether she’s serial killer material. A sign is taped on the exit door:
THIS DOOR LOCKS AUTOMATICALLY AT FIVE P.M.
USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM TO GET BACK IN.
A Cinema Pacific flyer is jammed in the doorway to prevent the bolt from fully locking. I carefully picked it up so I could get out. Outside, it’s raining. It’s 49 degrees. Three men and a woman stand around while one rambles about his vision for an idea.
I shut the door, but the flyer is a good three inches above the bolt lock. The others stop talking and stare at me. I try opening the door again, but it doesn’t budge. All at once, we realize I’ve locked them all outside. We didn’t use the buddy system.
2:08 p.m. (50 hours and 52 minutes until final cut is due)
I text Zach, who tells me they won’t be filming until 8 p.m. tonight. The AFP schedule says a writing workshop is in progress in McKenzie Hall. I make my way down to the first floor and recognize a boy and two girls sitting on the ground against the wall. They look too young to be university students. The boy is looking at his laptop, open on the floor. He introduces himself as Alan.
This group is from the Academy of Arts and Academics (A3) in Springfield. They are the only high school group participating in AFP.
Alan tells me he went to sleep around 2:30 in the morning and woke up four hours later. This goes for all three of them. They blame coffee.
Another girl, Meka, 17, wears a beanie over her red hair. Her pea coat has pins of Dead Kennedys and The Cramps on the lapel. She makes edits to the shot list.
She has a labret piercing, along with two other piercings on either side of it. Alan got his septum pierced back in January as a birthday present to himself. They all have non-uniform haircuts. Art school is easygoing on the dress code.
The final draft of their script had to be approved by 10 a.m. this morning. Cassandra is 15. She has blue hair. She tells me the process for the script re-writes is as follows:
– Show the first mentor the first draft.
– Revise this draft with the first mentor’s notes.
– Show the second mentor the revised draft.
– Revise this draft with the second mentor’s notes.
– Show the third mentor the third draft.
– Revise with this mentor’s notes.
“One of our actors is missing,” Alan tells me, “and we begin filming in about forty minutes.”
This team is making a psychological thriller, and they’re having trouble securing their drunks. This is a problem because their movie has two drunken characters.
Meka and Alan, both juniors at A3, look at their actor database. Among their choices are 28 females, 22 males, 4 children, and a list of specialty actors, with talents like violin or mixed martial arts.
“We can’t use Dash,” Alan sighs. “He’s kind of a last resort. He’s too much of a baby. He’s not really a drunk.”
Meka accidentally kicks over her Fiji bottle.
Cass tells me, “You look like Spiderman.”
“You mean Peter Parker?” I ask.
She gives me a look that says, Point taken, nerd.
She pulls out a pouch of mashed fruit and hands one to me. It’s labeled “banana and multifruit.” She says they went to Albertson’s last night and raided the aisles for fuel. I ask them if they really plan to make a movie subsisting off baby food.
“I have this caffeine headache, but it’s my friend,” Alan says.
2:43 p.m. (50 hours and 17 minutes until final cut is due)
Cass says there are going to be free doughnuts where they’re going.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” I ask.
“I didn’t want you to come under false pretenses,” she says.
I leave McKenzie Hall with the high school crew. I didn’t have to persuade them whatsoever. The press pass speaks volumes.
3:20 p.m. (49 hours and 40 minutes until final cut is due)
It’s half past three and there are three high school students in Max’s Tavern. This might otherwise be a troubling scene, but their main actress owns the bar. The air smells like popcorn.
Cass introduces me to an actor. This is Drunk #1.
“We’re trying to get in touch with a boy’s mother,” Cass tells me. “We need a little boy actor. He’s going to walk in on his mother having just killed someone.”
Alan sits down and tells me it’s too loud to film here, so we’re going to Bren’s house. Bren is their teacher from A3. We leave before happy hour.
In the back parking lot of Max’s, Bren asks the others, “Do you need blood? Should I get some blood? I’m going to get some blood.”
Bren tells Cass and I, “The front seat is too packed. You guys have to sit in the back.”
She drives a truck without a backseat. We pile into her truck bed and crouch as Bren barrels down the road. Cass and I are human cargo en route to her teacher’s apartment.
Cass tells me part of the A3 campus used to be strip club. “The sign’s still out back. That’s how I know.”
She points to a box of crullers from Albertson’s. It vibrates and slides on the truck bed.
“There are the free doughnuts,” she says.
4:22 p.m. (48 hours and 38 minutes until final cut is due)
Bren drops us off at her home somewhere on Lincoln Street.
African masks hang above a window in the living room. Professional feminist photographs are framed on the adjacent wall. Her shelves are lined with several CDs, like Joni Mitchell, Sheryl Crow, Chopin, and books, like “The Idiot’s Guide to Zen Buddhism” and assorted high school literature. On the mantle, a clock ticks exceptionally loud and dings every half hour. It runs fourteen minutes fast. A quivering dachshund named Olive periodically stands on her hind legs as we bring in tripods, cameras, a light box, and other professional lighting equipment owned by the school.
Bren comes back from Hirons with an IV blood bag, blood capsules in pill form, and red face paint.
The child actor, named Orien, arrives. Leigh, the mentor and acting coach, arrives later. She kneels by him while he sits at the dining room table. His hands hold up his cheeks. Both elbows are on the table. They read the script and run lines together.
“So it’s a simple little scene, but what’s it about?” Leigh asks him. “The whole movie’s about the relationship with her son. If we don’t like her in this scene, we won’t care about her at all. So you and your mother are very close. We’re going to bring that same kind of energy to this relationship.”
Orien sighs. “I like comedy.”
“Yeah, I know,” Leigh tells him. “Comedy’s a little easier for you, but this is easy, too because you can put some comedy in there. Let’s find out where, okay?”
5:06 p.m. (47 hours and 54 minutes until final cut is due)
In the first scene, the child is late for school. He sits on the floor and feeds treats to Olive, who, on cue, stands on her hind legs. The boy’s mother packs his backpack and he races out the front door, neglecting to reciprocate his mother’s “I love you!”
This is the opening shot. After a number of takes, the camera moves in tighter for a new angle.
Orien takes a union break in the back porch where he reads the Hardy Boys. The book wasn’t just a prop, he tells me. He really likes the Hardy Boys.
I recommend The Boxcar Children and Goosebumps. He says he’s read part of one of Goosebumps books, and it wasn’t all that scary. Orien is 9.
6:02 p.m. (46 hours and 58 minutes until final cut is due)
Minutes after Orien leaves for soccer practice, the actor who plays the landlord arrives.
Cass instructed him to dress trashy. He wears a wife beater and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. He has a ponytail and a scruffy black beard. He plays the single mother’s landlord in the film. He’s about to be smacked in the head with a teakettle and bleed onto the floor.
His name is Jackson, and he is a stuntman.
8:09 p.m. (44 hours and 51 minutes until the final cut is due)
After I leave the psychological thriller set, I can’t get in touch with Zach to find out where they’re shooting. I call Larissa to retrieve Laurette’s phone number to retrieve Will’s phone number.
8:44 p.m. (44 hours and 16 minutes until final cut is due)
They’re about a block and a half away from my house. On the walk over, a car stops at an intersection and a man and woman stumble out. They don’t stop giggling and joking about being a couple.
“We should walk together like we’re dating,” she says.
“But aren’t we dating?”
“Yeah, right,” she laughs. “That’d be rad.”
I don’t realize it at the time, but these two are actors in the film.
It’s immediately evident when I enter the house that the dark comedy has evolved immensely since I left last night. Some things remain the same. The protagonists are still serial killers.
In the doorway, the woman – her name’s Ally – asks me, “Do I die tonight?”
Campbell, the man she came with, boasts in the living room about how stellar his performance will be tonight. He declares, “If I have any demand tonight, it would be for everyone to act well – because I want this thing to be the bomb.”
Tonight’s first scene is the opening of the movie. The premise is simple: two serial killers are on a double date with another, non-psychopathic couple (played by Ally and Campbell).
The movie begins with a laugh. The trouble is getting all the actors to begin laughing without it sounding forced. Zach improvises to get everyone to laugh so the dialogue can begin, but Campbell keeps interjecting and ruining the take. Campbell has no dialogue. He is just supposed to sit and be silent.
“Well,” Zach starts, “I’m going to stab you in the back of the neck later so that you’re easily incapacitated–”
“Cerebellum,” Campbell nods. “I get that.”
“So, Campbell, I’d say later, you and I go on a date,” Zach says.
“I don’t– I don’t know what to say!” remarks Campbell, flabbergasted. He fans his hands around. “Yes. Yes! Of course!”
“What’s brown and sticky?” Zach asks.
Sarah tries her hand at it.
“What do you call a fish that won’t share its treasure?”
“What?” Ally asks.
“A little shellfish.”
“What’s a pirate’s favorite letter?” Zach asks.
Sarah guesses, “Arrrr?”
“Actually, it’s the C.”
Tumbleweeds pass by.
Will, balancing the boom mic over his shoulders, asks Sarah, “Do you have any more shellfish jokes?”
9:50 p.m. (43 hours and 10 minutes until final cut is due)
They film the final scene immediately after the first. Campbell and Ally are in the frame, while Zach and Sarah elaborate their villainous, murderous exploits. Zach tells them how they’re going to die tonight. He improvises different methods of his plans to kill and torture them both. Campbell and Ally sit there, bewildered.
“This is a dark comedy,” Will says, “so you guys should be more…”
He trails off. Fragmented thinking is another symptom of sleep deprivation. It becomes increasingly difficult to articulate your thoughts.
“Less pensive?” Campbell asks.
“Well, you’re not modeling.”
Pretty soon they change the angle and close the French doors. Make-up girl and I listen from the living room.
10:17 p.m. (42 hours and 43 minutes until final cut is due)
Will busts through the French doors. “That’s a wrap on guests A & B!”
Campbell spills out behind him. “I was definitely guest B. With a capital B.” He wanders over to the box of Goldfish crackers on the coffee table. He says if he were Spiderman, he would have just slingshot some web to fetch it from across the room. His tone becomes grave all of a sudden.
“They hate me in there. I kept messing up on every take.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “At least you didn’t have any lines.”
“But I kept trying to interject with one-liners, and they didn’t want that.”
I ask him at what point today he realized he was going to be in a movie. He was at his fraternity house earlier this afternoon when Ally called him. His beerconfident soul immediately agreed to be in the movie.
He looks back at the closed set of double doors and laments, “I feel like I should say sorry.”
My next twenty minutes is spent in the living room with make-up girl. We hear them do takes, and double takes, and triple takes. We hear the same voices recite the same lines in slightly different inflections.
“As it turns out, we had a lot in common.”
“As it turns out, we had a lot in common.”
“I’d kill for her.”
“I’d kill for her.”
Two housecats meander around. The sizeable tabby sashays toward the French doors. This is Gus. He knows on the other side of the doors is his food bowl, but he isn’t allowed on the closed set.
10:59 p.m. (42 hours and 1 minute until final cut is due)
Sarah makes fake blood in the kitchen with corn syrup, red dye, and water.
Zach says he’s gotten three hours of sleep in the past 36 hours.
“When I took a nap earlier, and I got under the covers, I could feel how clammy and gnarly my body was,” he says.
Will says he’s gotten an hour and a half total since last night. Tommy says he slept for about an hour.
Sarah comes back out to the living room with a ceramic bowl of fake blood. It took her about two minutes flat to concoct this.
11:07 p.m. (41 hours and 53 minutes until final cut is due)
Everyone prepares for the murder montage and talks over one another.
“I’m getting stabbed, right?”
“I think you’re getting choked.”
“No, wait, I’m getting drowned in the bathtub.”
“That’s not that hard. Just a lot of flailing and splashing.”
“Emerson, we’re choking you, bud.”
“No, I say we drown Emerson and choke Joe.”
“Are you getting choked?”
“I think I’m getting stabbed in the face through a pillow. My neck’s pretty messed up, so I can’t do anything else.”
Someone walks through the room with a pillow.
“Is that the stabbing pillow?”
Zach runs into the room.
Sarah turns to me and asks, “Are you ready to die?”
Zach asks, “How long can you hold your breath?”
I’m going to be a star.
12:51 a.m. (40 hours and 9 minutes until final cut is due)
I’ve just spent the last hour bent over Sarah’s tub while she holds my scalp and shoves my head underwater. My job, while being drowned, is to convulse and splash and kick my legs as much as possible.
I only know a little context of the scene. It’s during a killing montage, and I’m one of the victims. I drown in the bathtub. The tap runs during every take. We wanted the bathtub to overflow, but the drain impedes that.
This shot is going to be in slow motion, they tell me, so the more I shake, the cooler it’ll look.
This shot stars with Zach. He carries the red teakettle from the kitchen and into the bathroom. I’m splashing and flailing. He hands Sarah a cup of tea. She smiles. Between them, my still, lifeless body leans over the tub, my head submerged.
On the first take, Sarah accidentally smacked my chin into the porcelain, and immediately apologized. My leg kicks weren’t enthusiastic enough, so we had to do several takes. I forgot to mention: I’d been stripped down to my drawers and my socks.
Between takes, Sarah straddles the side of the tub. Will is in the hallway about to give us a cue.
“You look familiar,” Sarah says. “I think you’re in my Gateway class. Who do you have?”
Will calls to us. “Get ready, guys.”
“Mark Blaine?” I say. “10 a.m.?”
“No way! Me too!”
Sarah tightens her grip on my hair. I plunge into the tub. I do my best tremors. My legs splay around. I repeatedly kick the sink and smack the water.
At the end of each take, we replay each take in the hallway. I am dripping wet. My kicks look comical and fake, like I was in the middle of ballet practice.
I was instructed: “Big kicks, Emerson. Big kicks.”
Whenever I come up from the water, Sarah throws a towel on my waterlogged head. With repeated takes, the towel becomes damper. Eventually the hot water runs out. The bathtub fills with cold water. I am so desensitized from the scene’s violence that my first question when I come up is, “Is your water heater even turned on?”
Before another take, we are in position. She sits on the side of the tub, one leg in. I lean my chest over the tub, ready to fall in.
“What happened to your eye?” Sarah asked me.
“I passed out around 1 a.m. Easter morning,” I tell her. “I hit my head on a granite counter.”
“How many stitches did you get?”
I hold up three fingers.
“It’s okay,” I tell her. The bathwater is an inch from my face. It has stray hairs and pieces of lint floating in it. “It’s just been a weird week.”
And a moment later, she dunks me, and I thrash around like a maniac. This is the ninth take.
Zach asks me, “Did you know there was prize money involved?”
I shake my head. My ears are full of water.
“If we get it, I’ll give you $25.”
I use Sarah’s hair dryer. I look in the mirror and notice another stitch in my eyebrow is loose.
Tommy is baffled. “You hit your head and got stitches?” he bellows. “And you still let us drown you?! What a trooper!”
1:26 a.m. (39 hours and 34 minutes until the final cut is due)
Zach is shirtless and in Sarah’s bed. He has the Steve Jobs biography open in his lap. He’s personally inserted his own page. It’s a new chapter, titled “You Think You’re Death.” The content for the chapter beneath it is what he found when he Googled “stories about birds.”
In this scene, Sarah strides in and strangles Will with an iPhone cord. She has it around his neck in a U-shape as she pulls on it from behind him. I suggest it would look better if the cord were wound around his neck twice. Everyone is generally appalled by that idea.
She stands over Will. He’s on his knees and claws at his own neck as he asphyxiated.
“I don’t really know how to strangle someone correctly,” Sarah says after a few takes. “I don’t really know the body language.”
So Will and Sarah trade places. Will shows her the proper way to choke someone is to cross the cord and pull it sideways. There’s more resistance that way.
2:22 a.m. (38 hours and 38 minutes until the final cut is due)
Sarah, Will, Zach, and Tommy leave the house and go to Max’s Tavern, where they’re filming from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. I call it quits and walk home.
1:23 p.m. (27 hours and 37 minutes until the final cut is due)
The following afternoon, I’m biking along 13th Avenue into campus when I spot some pedestrians who don’t belong. Cass, Meka, and Alan are walking toward the EMU for food. I advise them to go elsewhere. We end up at Pegasus Pizza and we order a giant cheese pizza.
The three of them ask me if I heard that one of the AFP groups got into a fistfight over fake tears.
They had a relatively early night. They went to sleep around 11:30 p.m. We compare medical stories. Meka walks us through the “six or seven” times she’s chipped her front teeth. Alan folds a paper napkin and tears it down the middle to illustrate what happened to his bottom lip. Cass once lost a toenail.
I step into the restroom. Outside, the three of them convene and ask each other if it’s possible that I’ve been hired by Cinema Pacific to implant tracking chips into their skin while they’re dog-tired and defenseless.
2:35 p.m. (26 hours and 25 minutes until the final cut is due)
We go to the Cinema Studies lab. They receive sporadic help from Frank, whose job is to go around and assist everyone with video-editing programs like Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere.
2:53 p.m. (26 hours and 7 minutes until the final cut is due)
Meka gives us butterscotch. She shows me a notebook she’s filled with a long list of movies that she plans to see, including Martin Scorsese’s “85 Films You Need To See Before You Know Anything About Film.”
Alan tells me that the entire shoot last evening with Jackson felt like a dream-like fugue state. He also describes everything as “feathery.” Not in an aesthetic, or textural way, he explains; everything just resembles feathers. Meka nods. She knows exactly what he means.
7:19 p.m. (21 hours and 41 minutes until the final cut is due)
Alan, Cass, and Meka watch all the takes to mark what shots work and what doesn’t. The next deadline is to have a rough cut of the film (without music or adjusted audio) by 10 a.m. tomorrow morning.
7:47 p.m. (21 hours and 13 minutes until the final cut is due)
Meka’s notebook has a page labeled “FILMMAKING TIPS.” It includes a long list of things to take into account, including a quote from Scorsese: “Every film should look the way I feel.”
Alan returns from the refreshment table with a can of Sprite.
“There was a plaque over there with the names of past winners written on it,” he tells us. “So…we need to win because I want my name on a plaque.”
I need to take a break. Video editing is not a spectator sport.
11:26 p.m. (17 hours and 34 minutes until the final cut is due)
I come back to the Cinema Studies Lab. Mostly everyone sits behind computers. One of the heist team guys brought in a dual monitor. I read the heist film’s script. A man is robbed of a special type of tea called “Tibetan Sweet Leaf” by a hippie. He calls up his friends to break into the hippie’s house and steal the tea. His friends have special monikers like “The Toolbox” and “The Muscle.”
Jacob asks me for a name to replace their working title, which is “Teabaggers.” It was formerly titled “Three Old Men Have a Good Time.”
1:22 a.m. (15 hours and 38 minutes until the final cut is due)
Everyone in the Cinema Studies Lab is sprinting toward a finished product with reckless abandon. Somewhere, someone coughs. The room’s volume fluctuates every few moments from tremendously loud to a silent hush. The choppy buzz of manipulated audio from a Final Cut project keeps playing. Cheetos, Red Vines, and the two iceboxes full of sodas and string cheese are the primary forms of sustenance. Everyone is wide-eyed, at varying levels of alertness.
Alan tells me he teaches a class at A3 on robotics and electronics. I am jealous of a 16-year-old.
Cass, Alan, and Meka all go outside for some fresh air. When Cass comes back, she tells me, “I just realized I’ll probably never get the chance to see this library completely empty ever again, so I started walking down an aisle, and I thought someone was watching me, so I started walking back. But then I felt like someone was following me, so I started walking faster and then I ran into a door.”
Sleep deprivation can invoke unexpected psychiatric consequences. Paranoia and hallucinations are some of the more common side effects.
3:09 a.m. (13 hours and 51 minutes until final cut is due)
Cass and I walk a mile and a half to Dutch Bros. for caffeine at Alan and Meka’s behest, and back again. Zach and Tommy berate me for not bringing them coffee. They remark that they should have drowned me for real. People are getting cranky.
5:11 a.m. (11 hours and 49 minutes until final cut is due)
Things have quieted down. Everyone speaks in monotone. The weak have either gone home or fallen asleep on the couches. Water bottles, open chip bags, and cans of stale soda occupy every available counter space.
The rough cut of the film is due in fewer than five hours. Meka says the film’s about 13 minutes long now. She quotes Kevin Smith, who said something to the effect of a film being your baby that you nurture. If you have a great shot but it doesn’t fit with the pacing, you have to “kill your baby.”
“Right now we’re trying to kill the baby, but make it as presentable as possible for later,” Alan says.
6:08 a.m. (10 hours and 52 minutes until final cut is due)
Alan and Meka laugh at something that seems terribly innocuous. Alan believes he’s stretched an arm muscle. Cass has fallen asleep sitting upright.
Someone from the magical realism film wakes up from the couch, walks over to us, and says, “Mmm! Smells like filmmakers.”
6:19 a.m. (10 hours and 41 minutes until final cut is due)
When I leave the library, the sun is out. The birds chirp loudly. It’s a new day already.
1:36 p.m. (3 hours and 24 minutes until final cut is due)
There’s not a more helpless and depraved sight than a room of twenty-somethings scraping the depths of a video-editing binge. While everyone is working on their own unique project, they could shoot a horror film in the Cinema Studies lab. There are an abundance of slack-jawed, free-roaming zombies.
Meka sits before the screen. She slowly turns when I sit beside her. Her vocabulary has degenerated into mumbling.
“What have you been doing, besides this?” I ask.
She looks away for a second. “…this.”
Alan shows up. His cheeks are flushed. He tells me he’s gotten a combined total of thirty minutes of sleep since 5 a.m.
“How are the good times, Alan?” I ask. “Letting them roll?”
“I keep forgetting that I’m awake.”
In the dark comedy corner, Tommy’s eyes are glazed over. His blinks are much slower. He asks me for a title. The film is 3 ½ minutes long.
3:38 p.m. (1 hour and 22 minutes until final cut is due)
Leigh has announced that the goal is for everyone to finalize the film and export it by 4 p.m. today, if possible. Jeff and Omar tell everyone that each film needs music and a title card that acknowledges Cinema Pacific.
Kevin comes around and asks for everyone’s titles. He approaches the psycho-thriller group to pose the question, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
Their title is “Bottom Line.”
The dark comedy is named “Two.”
3:58 p.m. (1 hour and 2 minutes until final cut is due)
The workplace comedy team finishes their first export of the day. They leave with laptop and MIDI keyboard in hand. Their exit is countered with boos and applause.
4:04 p.m. (56 minutes until final cut is due)
Jeff suggests to Tommy and Zach to change the title to “Kill for Her.”
“Great movies always have three-word titles,” says Jeff, the director of “Never Back Down.”
Zach says he’s gotten 12 hours of sleep in the past 72 hours. “That’s not a good ratio,” he mopes.
4:43 p.m. (17 minutes until final cut is due)
Headphone splitters are disregarded. Mostly everyone watches their final film in full through the computer’s speakers and the sounds of every movie are merging over one another. It’s deafeningly loud. Somewhere in the Cinema Studies lab, a jumbo jet takes off. An alarm clock beeps. A tattoo gun buzzes. A woman screams bloody murder and a teakettle shrieks. Time is tight.
4:53 p.m. (7 minutes until final cut is due)
Meka and Alan spend the last minutes scrambling to locate the last names of the actors to enter into the credits. “Bottom Line” is nearly finished.
Bren tells me that “about half” of the students at A3 have “some form of autism.”
Omar visits the “Kill for Her” work in progress and suggests that they add jazz music over the dinner scenes.
“It might be too late for that,” they tell him.
“I don’t know,” Omar says. “Your first impression is everything.”
Jeff comes to the group to tell them they need some sound in the scene. Even room tone. “It’s not going to work,” he says. “You need ambient tone, or room tone, or some innocuous music, or else it’s not going to work.”
He scratches his head as they dispute back and forth about how to fill the empty space. Use the music over the end credits. Use the audio from Campbell’s stupid joke about “The Bachelor.” Really, any form of sound would work.
4:59 p.m. (1 minute until final cut is due)
Somewhere Leigh spells her hyphenated last name for someone.
Jeff insists they need music in this scene.
Will runs a hand through his hair and SCREAMS: “I don’t know what to do!”
Jeff returns and says, “I have an unhealthy investment in this movie right now. Did you get audio or not?”
“Bottom Line” is finalized and exported. “Kill For Her” is receiving one last overview.
I ask Kevin, “Did you sleep?”
“Yeah,” he nods. “Well, on Thursday.”
It’s been a long 72 hours.
9:30 p.m. – The screening
The official screening of all the films has come to a close. The long, arduous effort of these rivals, three days a slave to the competition, is about to be showcased to the crowded auditorium.
It begins with the heist film by Jacob Salzberg, Noah Phillips-Edwards and Derek Brown, now titled “Taking Tibet.”
This is followed with the romantic comedy. A woman pines for the right boyfriend, one who’s sensitive and appreciates the little things in life. So she goes to the cemetery to court and spark a widower. This film, created by Melissa Seda, Maura Turner, and Kory Kast, is titled “Mourning Person.”
The sci-fi film “Ebb & Flo,” the product of Sam Hayward, Henry Huntington, and Robert Chacon, stars two young redheads as sisters who emerged somewhere by the river and follow a man home. The subtle details add an elusive air to the movie. When the twins appear in his front yard, the front door’s window works like a kaleidoscope, and it briefly looks like there are multiple twins.
Fourth is “Bottom Line,” in which the single mother and bartender, played by Kim Fairbain, barely scrapes by to pay her rent and her molesting landlord comes in to torment her, physically and psychologically.
The group drew inspiration from “Kill Bill” to split the screen into two to show action going on in tandem. It conveys a starkly claustrophobic feeling when the landlord brushes Kim’s arm and runs a hand through her hair.
“Get Your Fill,” the revenge film produced by Talon Shever, Elijah Sprints, and Colin Zeal, follows. A man and woman break into a house to kidnap a character named Phil. (Factoid about this movie: a convenience store served as the original filming location. Big signs out front read: “Filming in Progress” with the phrase “fake guns” underlined in red. When Jeff arrived on set, he noticed the police cars and had inferred that the group had officers as actors. In truth, someone, upon seeing a convenience store being robbed, had called the cops.)
The noir “Burn Card” uses the supplied quote as one of the few very lines of dialogue in this sparse film. A man walks into a tattoo parlor to get the tarot card of death tattooed on his neck. The artist asks him, “You think you’re death?” Dale Vowels, Charles J. Griffin, and Jeremy Bronson used a number of noir motifs, from double-crossing to silhouettes to craft the story.
The magical realism film “Bottled Up” shows a man, stuck in the routine malaise of his crude coworkers and exploitative neighbors. The red teakettle appears on the man’s front porch and is smashed into a hundred pieces before a schlubby genie grants him the confidence he desires. Ty Eckmeyer, Mia Schaffler, and Davis Burns were behind this movie.
“Flickers” centers on a movie theater employee, both concession worker and projectionist. He finds a reel strip in which an enigmatic figure appears. He wanders into the empty theater auditorium and is stalked by the shadowy figure. During the screening, Jake Valdez, Jonathan Klimoski, and Joshua Purvis earned some gratifying gasps and screams for this horror film.
Haley Morris, Celia Zechmann, and Claire Chong created “2%,” a coming-of-age film about a woman who finds moral support in the form of a stranger with weighty advice in the milk aisle.
With B-Movie “Rat King,” Monica DeLeon, Blaine Bailey, and Sierra Swan deliberately steer into the skid with their genre. A woman calls an exterminator to eradicate the rodents in her closet, only to fall in love with a man-sized rat in her basement.
“Kill For Her,” previously named “Two,” plays. A double date turns sour as one couple realizes their counterparts are bloodthirsty sadists.
Workplace comedy “Nowhere News” closes out the night. Shawn Kim, Pete Wells, and Will Snyder crafted a story about two news anchors and an airheaded cameraman who try to get laid off when they realize they can be rewarded with unemployment wages.
After a brief intermission as films from past years were shown, awards were handed out.
“Taking Tibet” won the 2014 Ben Kalb Jury award, with “Bottled Up” as the runner-up.
The best actor award, a trophy that featured the red teakettle with a gold-painted lid, went to Kim Fairbain for “Bottom Line.”
The psychological thriller also received the honorable mention for the Mentor’s Award. Jeff explained: “Making a film is hard, but it’s even harder when you can’t drive.”
The Mentor’s Award went to “Get Your Fill.”
After viewers had cast their ballots, “Kill For Her” took home the night’s Audience Award, while the honorable mention went to “Rat King.”
I would personally grant awards to “Bottled Up” for best use of the teakettle, and “Nowhere News” for best use of “You think you’re death?”
The news crew assembled in the park and spoke to a homeless man, who was cloaked under a garbage bag. He shouts, “I’m a cosmonaut working for the CIA! You think you’re death?! I’m death!” before he dashes away, screaming.
Outside, it was raining heavily. It was nearly midnight. The auditorium emptied. Everyone migrated across the courtyard to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art for the after-party.
I walked around and introduced myself to some people. They would ask me what film I worked on, and what my involvement was.
I’d invariably begin to tremble and ask them, “Does this look familiar?”
The most remarkable element of the Adrenaline Film Project was that these movies didn’t exist four days ago. The team members congregated to create a passion project to become the best possible version of itself. As a result, relationships were tested. The police were called. Fistfights may or may not have happened.
Negligible components of the story sparked interminable arguments. Dialogue, character attributes, costume decisions, and music composition were key matters of contention through the last ten minutes of the competition.
While much of the production – at least, for “Bottom Line” and “Kill for Her” – remained in flux throughout the past seventy-two hours, some original ideas from the beginning never changed and ended up secured in the final cut. Truthfully, impulsive decisions turned out to be the most profound parts of the film. Malcolm Gladwell might have had a point.