From Page to Screen in 48 Hours

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aspiring director Gina Levy had a few problems putting together her latest movie.

The screenplay required a major last-minute overhaul. Some of her editing software broke down. And her sole shooting location--a relative's North Hollywood plastics factory--suffered a busted pipe that was threatening to flood the place.

Compared with the gold standard of Hollywood production nightmares--Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"--Levy's travails were minimal. There were no monsoons, no Ferdinand Marcos, no mumbling Marlon Brando.

Then again, nobody asked Coppola to do it all in two days. Levy and her crew were among 44 teams of Los Angeles filmmakers over the weekend who answered the challenge of the 48 Hour Film Project. Organizers are sponsoring the project in cities throughout the country, promising to screen just about anyone's short movie--as long as it is written, shot and edited between Friday and Sunday nights.

It's an idea that guarantees stress, if not full-blown hearts of darkness. But as of midnight Saturday, Levy--an unemployed victim of the San Francisco dot-com bust--was keeping her wits about her.

"I'm not freaking out at all," the 37-year-old said, even though she really didn't have a plot to work with. "You know, at the end of the day, it's just a movie."

The project is the brainchild of Washington, D.C., independent filmmakers Liz Langston and Mark Ruppert. Inspired by a similar New York City theater project called 24 Hour Plays, the pair tested the idea in their hometown last year with a small group of filmmaker friends.

They set a few ground rules: All the participants had to be unpaid volunteers. Directors would pick their film genres out of a hat. And all the movies had to include a common character, prop and line of dialogue chosen by the festival organizers.

"The idea is to just level the playing field," Langston said.

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For Gina Levy, the project gave her another opportunity to show that she is capable of reinventing herself as a director. Since March, the Harvard graduate has been living in Calabasas with her aunt and uncle, taking film classes and trying to crank out one short film per month.

"If you want to learn the craft, you make movies," Levy said.

Levy and her director of photography, Lise Kearney, spent two weeks assembling a cast and crew, advertising on Hollywood Internet sites and holding auditions. Their final group of about 20 included curious Tinseltown professionals, other laid-off dot-commers, and an enthusiastic handful of struggling semi-pros.

At 7 p.m. Friday night--the official start of the project--the group had convened at Levy's uncle's house, where a flowery living room would serve as the evening's makeshift drama lab. If they were going to begin shooting by Saturday morning, they needed a story by sunrise.

By 8 p.m., Kearney had returned from the Film Project's opening event in a Fairfax Avenue bar, where the 44 teams--a predictable gaggle of Hollywood extroverts, hipsters and young auteurs in black-rimmed glasses--had picked their genres at random.

Levy's crew members were pleased with what they had drawn: film noir, the melancholy province of gumshoes and urban corruption. They could do noir parody easily, shooting on digital video and converting to black and white on a computer. What's more, noir was complemented by fog, and Levy had rented a fog machine earlier in the week.

Noir, it was agreed, generally works best when there are lots of hats. The group had hats. Thanks to a Levy family connection, it also had access to the plastics factory, as a shooting location.

Led by comedy writer Peter Crabbe, the group began riffing scenarios immediately: There would be an evil plastics factory magnate. He would be guarding a secret invention--plastic surgery! There would be sly references to "The Graduate," with its famous promise that there's a great future in plastics.

This was getting good, they thought. Someone mentioned David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," which featured a lesbian love tryst. They threw a pair of double-crossing lesbians into the mix.

The actors began improvising scenes. Levy slurped on a Diet Coke and jotted a few notes, furrowing her eyebrows when the improv--or the rapid-fire pop-culture references--spiraled out of control.

"What was that Vonnegut book where everybody lived in a cage?" someone asked. "Huh?" came a reply. "The Hanukkah book?"

In another corner of the room, screenwriter Chris Mancini tapped out some of the choicest bits on his laptop. By 10:30 p.m. Friday, he was ready to put something together; the crew left him alone in the living room. Mancini's work was complicated by the mandatory elements that Ruppert and Langston had assigned back at the bar: an ex-Marine for a character, swim flippers as a prop, and a line of dialogue: "I think I've tapped into something here."

Mancini, 33, has worked full time as a writer since college. He learned to write fast during a stint on a daytime soap opera. He delivered his 10-page script to Levy at 12:20 a.m. Saturday. "I fit in a lot of stuff," he told Levy. "But I couldn't fit in the lesbians."

"Ten pages in two hours," Levy said. "That is un-be-lievable."

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Langston said the films from other cities have been surprisingly entertaining--for the most part. "Well, I'd say they're all watchable the first time, because they're only five to 12 minutes long," she said. "I'd say about 50% are actually good."

This year, Ruppert and Langston took their idea on the road. It has already played in New York, Washington and Atlanta. Early next year, a panel will choose the best 48-hour film of 2002. Today and Tuesday, the films that met the deadline in Los Angeles will be shown at the Laemmle Fairfax Theatre.

The more ambitious goal, Ruppert said, is to get the nation's do-it-yourself filmmakers off their sofas and behind the camera. Though digital video equipment and home editing software have never been cheaper, Ruppert said, potential directors often lack the free time to put the technology to use. The 48-hour deadline solves that dilemma.

They estimate that as many as 650 people were working on films over the weekend.

Writer Crabbe, who also starred in Levy's movie, said the idea was particularly alluring in Hollywood, where young creative types can grow old taking lunches at trendy restaurants, chatting up projects that never seem to get made.

"This is a town of development hell--and trust me, as a screenwriter, I've been in development hell," he said. "This is more like instant gratification."

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On Saturday morning, Levy was stuck in traffic on the Ventura Freeway, late for her own film shoot. It turns out she hadn't been crazy about the script. She, Kearney and crew member Kevin Chesley had been up all night, e-mailing new dialogue back and forth. "His script had too much going on in terms of who was dying, and how many people were disappearing--it felt a little too kitchen-sinky," Levy said. "I was so tired. We just had to make a judgment call."

The cast assembled in the boardroom of the plastics factory to run through the new script at 2 p.m. It had a distinct beginning, middle and end, and the bald and burly Crabbe--a perfect fit as the ex-Marine plastics magnate--had written some strange, strong lines for his character: "I took on the chancellor of Germany," he barked. "I took on the mustard gases, the ketchup and relish gases--all of the basic condiment gases, really!"

By 4 p.m., Levy's cousin had fixed the gushing pipe. The crew began filming, working strategically around the recreational lake that now dominated the factory floor. Fueled on Chinese takeout and coffee, the crew rolled through the script without a hitch, wrapping at 2 a.m.

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The project's founders had set a strict deadline of 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Some teams were confident they would make it. Others were not so sure.

West Hollywood writer/actor Alec Nemser's director quit early in the process, but Nemser, 28, was pressing ahead with a hip-hop musical about a couple who fall in love over the Internet: "In high school, I took typing as an elective," his protagonist raps. "When it comes to women I date I'm selective!"

The editor of Lisa Gold's film--a "mockumentary" about a guerrilla poster artist--could not get her computer to work. Gold was able to get hold of a distant cousin about 9:30 a.m. Sunday. She had only met him three or four times, but she knew he was an editor for "The Sopranos." He agreed to bail her out.

"It's really touch and go if we make the deadline at this point," Gold said just before noon.

Levy awoke at 6:30 a.m. Sunday in Kearney's cluttered West Hollywood apartment, with the goal of slicing more than two hours of footage into a 10-minute short film. Because Kearney's computer processor needed about three hours to transfer each frame of film from color to black and white, the rough cut needed to be finished by about 4 p.m.

"We will get a rough edit in," Levy said. "It will not be wonderful."

A few minutes later, the editing program on Levy's Power Mac began acting up. There was a hailstorm of expletives. Levy had slept for fewer than five of the last 48 hours.

"Lise!" she cried. "This is not working!"

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The seventh short film in the budding oeuvre of director Gina Levy is titled "A Touch of Plastic"--a title partly stolen from that patron saint of put-upon filmmakers, Orson Welles.

It has romance. It has Nazi spies. It has a number of clever jokes about surgically enhanced breasts. It even has flippers, and an ex-Marine who says, "I think I've tapped into something here."

Perhaps most important, it is finished: Levy and Kearney dropped their print off at the bar on Fairfax with four minutes to go.

"I know it sounds corny, but we were just so lucky to create something over one weekend," Levy said. "And it doesn't stink."

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