Elizabeth Friedland ran down her apartment stairs, smiling as she opened opened up the door to a dark 22nd street. We went up to where she and her co-filmmakers, Heath Benfield and Jordan Updike were sprawled across her living room, with chips, bottles of Stella and laptops peppering the coffee table and floor. The three were settling in for a long night ahead. After all, they had only the next few hours to pull together a story idea, set and scripts for their short film.
They were four hours and 37 minutes into the 48 Hour Film Project.
The idea of the project is simple: teams have two days to make a short film. They can’t do any prep work before the weekend begins, no story ideas, no costumes and definitely no scripts. All of the teams meet on Friday night to draw a lottery for the genre they would have to use. For Swipe Left Productions (the team mentioned above, in the living room with the laptops) their genre was dark comedy.
In addition to the genre each team is required to incorporate the three items in each production: a hair brush, the name Sam or Samantha and the line “Oh, really? Tell me more.” Other than that they have free reign. The crew of Swipe Left had just received all of this information, and were ready for a long night of writing ahead.
Four hours in, the three had just settled into an idea and were starting to bounce lines back and forth. Benfield was on the couch, adjusting the bill of his running hat, commenting on what ideas would be feasible to film in the amount of time they had. Updike lay on his stomach on the floor, taking notes in an ever-growing Google Doc.
The story that they would eventually settled on was a dark and twisty flick about what appears to be a creepy dinner date. You know, the kind where you are frantically texting your friend that you need a rescue.
They decided to keep the setting in Friedland’s apartment; having zero set changes would make for an easier shoot and keep them from wasting precious time. The date would be a stay-in diner at Sam’s (played by Wilson Mack) home. His date, Diane (played by Megan Weber) starts to notice that something is off. His off-handed creepy comments make him sound a bit like a serial killer. Then she finds a woman’s hairbrush and knows something is up. The story is extenuated with close shots of Sam with a kitchen knife and Diane’s uneasy glances.
All of the possible murderous signals from Sam are later revealed to be misunderstood products of his true self—a transvestite named Samantha. The best part of the film is Diane’s reaction of utter adoration at the end when she walks into his bedroom. It’s a damn sweet ending.
But they weren’t there yet. They had two days to go, roughly one million details to attend and the nagging fear in the back of their minds that the end result would look nothing like what they imagined.
Sitting on the floor and couch of Friedland’s apartment, the three were mulling over how to really portrait the nervousness that the woman on the date felt while watching Sam cook.
Friedland was writing down lines and scene descriptions in the Google doc, while Updike was following behind in a red cursor, constantly reformatting what she wrote.
Friedland took a drink of beer and set it down on the coaster with a thud.
“Let’s come back to that,” she says.
She points out that the easiest way would be for Diane to call or text a friend during the awkward date. She convinces the other two that when she personally is on a date she texts her friend emojis based on how it is going. Updike started to thumb through potential emojis.
“What emoji is herpes,” he laughs. "Ooo there's a screw!”
Friedland’s phone starts buzzing every few seconds. Updike keeps sending her texts of emojis they should use.
"Jordan stop it,” says Friedland. ”Chief emoji translator over here, Jordan Updike.”
Benfield keeps bringing them back to the scene at hand. It’s clear that he is already processing the potential shot by shot line up.
The three spend the next few hours rolling through questions like: how to break tension when you are trying to be funny and how to start hinting at the fact that Sam is a transvestite.
By midnight it was clear that aligning all of the details they needed was going to take some time.
Twenty-five hours and fifteen minutes into the project, Benfield is fully in his element. He is setting up tripods, lights and starting to frame shots. it was time for the walkthrough.
Early on Benfield (the producer) decided that he wanted to shoot at night, giving them all time to rest after a late night on Friday. By early evening on Saturday, the seven member cast and crew was crowded into Friedland’s vintage apartment. Benfield was setting up his camera for test shots, and rehearsal was well underway.
Standing behind the battery operated lights in the hallway, Friedland nods over her computer to one of the actors.
“He is our good luck charm.”
She was referring to Wilson Mack. He has been on the winning team of the 48 Hour Film Fest for the last two years in a row, and has won even more before that. His eyebrow raises and side-eye looks were undoubtedly what made the dark comedy just the right amount of creepy.
"And this is the dinning room,” says Mack as he steps through the french doors that mark the opening scene. “Want something to drink?"
"Yeah something stiff,” says Weber with her script in hand.
"Oh it'll be stiff,” says Mack. “I don't make a flaccid drink, honey.”
Cut and reset.
Benfield, flanked by two assistants, twists the lenses into focus, dictates shots to be recorded on an iPad, and chats through framing and set placement over his shoulder.
For Benfield, a producer at Fox 59 by day, the entire experience was about the filming and pushing his own limits.
“I was more interested in the technical side of the work flow,” Benfield noted later that weekend.
While they were shooting, he set several rules for himself like no handheld shots and no camera movement whatsoever. Decisions like this placed all of the pressure on how he would frame each shot. Every movement had to work within a set boundary.
Walkthroughs, like the opening scene, were where he decided the direction of every shot and how he would cut each step together.
Meanwhile, Friedland’s attention was zeroed in on the actors; what lines needed extra emphasis and the expressions that the three imagined late last night that would be needed to sell the story.
After hours of going through each scene, it was time to start shooting. Each line had to be shot at least four times: One master reel, one over each actor’s shoulder and one from across the room.
They cast and crew worked through the night, finally wrapping up around 6 a.m. By then a few crew members had fallen asleep on couches and chairs, and everyone was ready to go home.
“We were grumpy at 6 a.m. but not at each other,” says Friedland.
Benfield added that everyone got along great.
It helped that the two of them had complete veto control. Only two cooks in this kitchen.
Forty-seven hours later the two sat at a conference table at The Bureau in Fountain Square, Benfield with a sleep deprived shade of pink under his eyes and Friedland just a dial lower than her normal enthusiasm.
They were tired but hopeful.
“It’s like when you go home with somebody after the bars,” says Friedland describing how she felt dropping off the film. “Thinking ‘they’re so hot, they’re gorgeous,’ then you wake up and you are like ‘please still be as attractive as I thought you were.’
“It’s like that. You are shooing it and like ‘this is going to be amazing.’ Then the next day you wake up and go watch it.”
“That’s kind of where we ended up,” laughs Benfield. “It’s not that bad.”
“It’s kind of fun to push yourself,” says Friedland. “You know on Friday that you are going to turn something in in 48 hours, but you have no idea what it is going to be. I am a procrastinator, so it’s like the ultimate challenge. I’m not ever going to do a film if I have 3 months. But if you make me do it in a weekend, you have no choice but to crank it out.”
A panel of four judges (including our own Sam Watermeier) watched each of the 30-plus short films. They selected Dessert by Swipe Left Productions as Best Film.
Benfield and Friedland will travel to Hollywood to see Dessert shown at Filmapalooza in the TCL Chinese Theater.
Swipe Left also took home Best Writing, Best Use of Line and was the audience’s choice for their group.
Not bad at all guys.
Swipe Left is made up of Megan Weber, Wilson Mack, Elizabeth Friedland, Heath Benfield, Jordan Updike, Jared Updike, Ashley Ratliff and Luke Woody.