Features & Columns
LAST AUGUST, at about 4am on a Saturday, San Jose filmmaker Jacob Rangel began to worry about the unfinished script he was due to start shooting at 9:30 in the morning. Having scrapped his previous idea, Rangel was doing a little more work after two of his fellow writers had gone to bed. Recalling the early-hours process later, Rangel admitted, "It was not a good idea" to get rid of what he had already written, just over five hours before filming.
Weird enough that Rangel would put himself through that much deadline stress once; the weirder part was seeing him do it again a few months later, with only an extra 24 hours to solve the problem of what to put on film.
Rangel is one of the many filmmakers involved in the creation of instant movies to enter in competitions like the 48 Hour Film Project. The difference is that he and his group are very good at it. Rangel and Team Stroganoff, a collective of local filmmakers, garnered five awards at San Jose's branch of the most recent 48 Hour Film Project.
At the Sept. 13 awards ceremony after the August public screening, Rangel's six-minute entry, Ratón, earned five awards. These included best film, audience-choice award, best directing and best actor for Jake Lyall.
Now San Jose's Team Stroganoff is one of a few dozen teams worldwide trying for the International Shootout, a competition selected from the judges' favorite 48 Hour teams in various cities where the festival takes place. The Shootout allows 72 hours for the creation of a film.
If all goes well, Stroganoff will be represented at Filmapalooza, part of the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) show in Las Vegas, where 80,000 digital-media professionals will descend in April 2010. If luck holds out further, Rangel and Stroganoff will have a shot at one of the 10 to 15 slots in the short-film competition at Cannes in May.
The 48 Hour Film Project started in spring 2001 when Washington, D.C., filmmakers Mark Ruppert and Liz Langston decided to start a contest among their filmmaking friends to see who could make the best film in only 48 hours. Today there are some 150 editions of the 48 Hour Film competition around the world, with about 130,000 participants in the last nine years.
Ratón (visible at jakefilm.com) is easy to understand and doesn't look like anyone's 48-hour film; in acting, photography and editing, it's a thoroughly professional short. All the team had, before the filming began, was an inkling of an idea: as Rangel put it, "Gattaca meets Children of Men, set at a Laundromat."
Under the rules of the 48 Hour Film Project, Rangel and his three writers had to meet several requirements. They were told they must include a crystal chess piece and a particular line of dialogue. The line the judges gave them is a sturdy friend of all screenwriters: "Tell me again why this matters." Also, the rules mandated that an exterminator, female or male, must figure in the plot.
Sometime before sunrise on the first day of shooting, Ratón's twist materialized. Ratón is a little parable of a near-future world full of human degradation, shot at the Diamond Laundry underneath the Guadalupe Parkway overpass, next to the landmark "Miss Careful Works Here" billboard. (The business is run by the parents of Jason Burton, director of photography and executive producer of Stroganoff's upcoming 72-hour film: "My right-hand dude, and the man who helped get me into this," Rangel calls him.)
A pair of exterminators—wearing black suits and white ties, as per Jean-Pierre Melville and Quentin Tarantino—come in to deal with an infestation problem. The true nature of the infestation is revealed in the shocking last shot.
I met Rangel at La Victoria Taqueria in downtown San Jose for a quick lunch a couple of weeks ago. He is unmistakably a showman—fast, energetic, able to get to the point without detouring. For a man in his 20s, Rangel has led an interesting life.
He moved around between parents in various locations in Northern California, starting in Martinez, then resettling in Sonora, where family troubles aided his decision to drop out of school. He spent some time in McKinleyville, living with his father.
Rangel was educated everywhere from home school to "six or seven years" at De Anza College's first-rate film department. He had even done Toastmasters for a year—all the better to learn how to pitch his films to investors and the crew: "Helped me to rile people up and convince them one at a time—and in a group, too."
Rangel is currently running his own moving business as his day job. He handed me a card: "Go Pro, 'Moving Made Simple.' See us at Yelp." Rangel noted that the trucks and the warehouse were useful for his vocation.
Rangel had tried to get into USC film school but was rejected; he then moved to New York City to stay with a friend who was learning to be a filmmaker at NYU. In New York, Rangel worked as an editor and a production assistant for Sam Baer—the video director who did "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for Nirvana and Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"—who was working on a commercial for the failed bid to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York. Rangel said, "I got tired of New York after a year, because I'm California born and raised."
In San Jose, Rangel's friend Michael Chance, an indie filmmaker who made the cop feature The Reason, had talked Rangel into trying the 48 Hour Competition.
"I had the usual procrastination," Rangel recalled, "and I wanted to opt out. He said, 'Dude, you know, whether it's good or bad, we'll have a film.' Sometimes it's good to just tie a rock to your leg and push it off the hill."
Since the film industry boasts its share of cheats, I wondered how Team Stroganoff could prove the film had been made in 48 hours, even with the plot elements the judges introduce at the last minute.
"It's an honor system," Rangel explained, "and there's a lot of people on a film set, and it's easy to piss one of them off, what with the long hours and no pay. So they could easily squeal on you." The post-production took place at Chance's house in the Bird and San Carlos area, with 15 people gathered at six laptop work stations.
"It all comes together in post-production, but the first night of shooting was the real wringer," Rangel said. "The script wasn't there; we had one night to shoot outdoors; and the closing shot was set at dusk, everyone inside having to run outside. We made it at the deadline at 7:30 sharp, the four of us racing to South Street Billiards, where the films were supposed to be turned in. Right when we dropped it off, the editor realized he left the house without his shoes on."
As for Team Stroganoff, the name—Rangel explained as he squirted some orange sauce on his burrito—was one he had always wanted for a band. It's a good name because it is perhaps a little embarrassing. "There's an underlying meaning. Stroganoff is supposed to rhyme with 'stroking off.' How seriously were we taking ourselves? We gotta have fun, and we were seeing that the other teams had names like 'Deep Red' and 'Unlimited Edge.'"
Yet Rangel hopes that these instant films are more than stunts. As we parted, he mentioned his admiration for low-scale yet powerful cinema such as Let the Right One In. He wondered why filmmakers have to exile themselves to New York or Los Angeles. "San Jose has everything you need as a filmmaker, and I'm committed to trying to make it happen here."
Chaos and Art
A few days after I interviewed him, Rangel emailed me: "Come see how chaos and art go hand in hand." Team Stroganoff was going to tackle its new 72-hour film. Producer Chance reiterated the invite for Saturday morning, Dec. 5, via phone, and I quote: "Just about now we're brainstorming. We have a crew call about 8 o'clock, basically a cast call around 9. First shot about 10. It's a two-day shoot if all goes as planned."
I drove down off of Hacienda Avenue on the far side of Campbell. It was a neighborhood that had been settled so long ago there was a "Gay Street." On the right was a private driveway with townhouses clustered around it. I drove up about 100 yards and instantly the neighborhood turned semirural: old one-story houses with barred windows and jumbo yards big enough to accommodate some chickens or a big dog.
About 20 people were milling about in the side yard of Burton's house, a small cottage with a latticed porch wrapped around the front, woven with bougainvillea vines. Black plastic was taped over the picture window so that filming could take place inside. A couple of the figures were clad in black: black helmets and black gas masks. They carried dummy automatic weapons.
Most of the rest were wearing ski caps to ward off the cold. The hatless, shaven-headed Rangel was easy to spot; he was standing around the base of a half-dead citrus tree talking to director of photography Burton. He came over.
"It's a bit hectic today," Jacob said. "About 7:05 last night is when we got the email telling us what the genre was: 'End of the world.' We're supposed to mention our city and show it in some fashion. There's no key phrase or other props we have to use."
The other rule was that the film could only be eight minutes long, maximum. Some 20 members of the team had been gathered the previous night, waiting for the official word. They snapped into action. Rangel started writing until Chance ordered him to stop at about 3:30am.
"We decided on something quirky," Rangel told me. He spun out a tale of a couple of male roommates eating breakfast and getting the news report on the TV: "'Streets in crisis, thousands killed,' and then the TV goes dead, zzzzzzzz." Rangel made a static television noise. He sketched out scene 2AB, which he was setting up.
"Simon, played by Galen Howard, decides to go looking for his girlfriend, but then he finds out his car's battery is stolen. At that point, that's when you see the guy crash through the fence over there, with the SWAT guys in pursuit." Rangel indicated a redwood-slat fence.
"David Bettencourt was the name of the guy who went through the fence," he told me. "He's one of the producers."
Rangel mentioned a few of the other things he and the team had organized—an end-title song by Corpus Callosum to conclude this as yet untitled film on a whimsical note.
Producer Chance came over and introduced himself. For years, Chance had worked at the video and multimedia house Shepherd Video in Los Gatos. Chance also had an AA in film at De Anza College.
"I try to refocus Jacob," Chance explained. "He's a creative guy, and he gets lost in the details; like last night when he was co-writing the script, worrying about the motivation when we needed to get the scene done."
Photographer Burton walked over and said hello. He was worrying a lasso of rope in his hands, so I asked him if he was going to be acting in the picture. "No, this is to make sure the camera doesn't fall out of the crane."
Burton was supervising three cameras for the scene, Panasonic HVX200s with Redrock adapters, meaning that the digital cameras could be used with 35 mm lenses. One of these three cameras would be in the bucket of Area Custom Tree Services' cherry-picker crane, driven there by the father of one of the teammates.
The crane was fired up, making an uneasy creaking noise as it carried the dad and a cameraman skyward. They went up to what I would have thought was a satisfactory altitude, about the height of a parking-lot Ferris wheel. Then they went up dismayingly higher, the crane groaning as it settled.
Goldie Chan, cast as the girlfriend Julie, came by. She was wearing a blue hoodie and belted leather boots. Chan had got the notice of the 78-hour film push in advance and was on standby; she had hooked up with Stroganoff through castingconnection.com.
"A great resource," she told me. "There's a bunch of projects out there, but this one looked particularly cohesive and professional, which is not always the case in the Bay Area."
The petite, intelligent-looking Chan—"actor first, casting director second, writing third"—earned a degree in biology and then switched careers. She plugged her upcoming locally made film, Underachievers: Champions of Mediocrity ("Going live in February, it's hilarious"), and also mentioned that she had done an industrial film for Wells Fargo. "We're telling them how to dress appropriately and so forth. Everybody who gets a job as a bank teller there is going to see my lovely smiling face."
Chan leaned back against the chassis of a parked car and went back to studying her script. "They're rewriting it now," she commented. "I mean, they're perfecting it."
The film set exhibited the usual hurrying up and waiting, but it was as focused as any set I had ever seen. The crew dealt without apparent panic with the handicap of having one of the shorter days of the year for a shoot. You could practically see the light waning by the minute.
I heard the actor whose job it was to crash through the fence explain what was up to Tara the production assistant: "I happen to be an anarchist or freedom fighter, whatever. But then they fire at me—the government, the SWAT team, whatever."
The scene started to get organized. Everyone blocked out his or her part, and the fluffy boom mics and gel-covered can lights were moved in around the talent. At 3pm, a high school football game started about a mile away. First came the quavery warble of "The Star Spangled Banner" and then one after another dull roar drifted in on the wind.
"Quiet on the set," Rangel yelled.
Galen Howard's Simon looked under the hood of the plundered and exclaimed, "We've got to find Julie!"
His cool buddy, played by Jake Lyall, the star of Ratón, abstractedly arranged his long hair back as he studied the engine. Lyall calmed Howard down: "It's just propaganda. It's not the end of the world."
"Bang!" Rangel shouted, to indicate this was the cue when the wounded unfortunate was going to smash through the redwood fence, with the SWAT team in hot pursuit.
They went through the drill a couple of times. "Give all the credit to this boy. He could get hurt," someone said.
"We've got some lookie loos," someone else shouted, indicating a couple of kids sitting on a neighbor's roof. Finally, all was stillness, except for the crane, swaying slightly.
"We've got to find Julie!
"It's just propaganda, it's not the end of the world."
With a gratifying crash, sure to be amped up in post-production, the actor burst through the fake board in the fence, to be shot dead by a pair of black-clad killers yelling, "Bang! Bang!" Down he went, dying on the grass.
"Boom! Perfect cut!" Rangel shouted.
Everyone applauded, me the loudest I hope, and I left them to figure out the rest of the marathon.
Three days later, I got an email from Rangel: "What a ride! This was our most difficult task yet, twice as hard as the Ratón shoot! But it was four times as fun! My core team was up for the last 48 hours straight, we rushed to the 24-hour FedEx on Blossom Hill and turned it in at five minutes to midnight, the cutoff time for mailing your movie out. We had some last-minute problems with the audio but managed to get it to an acceptable level before having to export. We aimed big, literally using up every second of the eight-minute time limit (not counting credits)."
He was full of praise for Corpus Collosum: "Avery, the lead singer, brought us a French press and two pounds of freshly ground gourmet coffee to help us get through the second night."
And he had a title for his 72-hour film, Knuckle Berry. I called him on the phone to ask about that.
"The two main characters have different facets," he explained. "Galen Howard is the weaker character, the berry; Jake Lyall, is the hard-ass. It also refers to the cereal the two stars are eating at the beginning of the film and also to the nasty-looking neck blisters that are a sign of the plague ending the world."
Unfortunately, no one can see Knuckle Berry quite yet. The rules of the International Shootout stipulate that filmmakers aren't supposed to put the work online until the judges have checked for copyright violations—things as small as a song half heard in the background or a logo on a bottle.
"We checked all that," Rangel said. "We got releases from the actors and locations. We got the music, too." The rules of the Shootout forbid composing music in advance. "We sent Corpus Callosum QuickTime files of the film and they spent Sunday night to Monday morning composing. They brought the music over and played different tracks for me, and I'd say yes or no."
What was the last dash like?
"Well, I mean, I was so tired. As soon as I dropped off the film, I called to the house and told them we made it, and they were joyous because they didn't think we'd make the deadline. As soon as I got back to Jason's house, they poured a bottle of water over my head. We had some cases of beer and wine for the crew. Once you finish something, there's this rush of euphoric energy. Everyone stayed up, everyone was stoked. They had the film set up on video in Jason's room, and we all stayed up until 4am watching it, figuring out what we could do better next time. And I was the last one up, there was no place to sleep on the floor, so I got in the car and went home."