Film racing tour puts movie in fast forward

A crew of over-caffeinated students and recent grads put a film to bed in 24 hours

The digital clock in St. Cloud State's student newsroom reads 10:01 p.m. It's time.

"All right, people," says Brian Prom, a tall guy with glasses, short gelled hair, and a trimmed beard. "The theme is 'saving' and the surprise element is 'knocking on a door.'"

Prom and his 23 cohorts—a motley crew of aspiring actors, producers, and lighting and sound guys dubbed "the SCSU Garden Club"—are participating in the 2008 Diesel Film Racing Tour. Started in New York City in 2006, the competition pits aspiring filmmakers from 17 cities against one another for $5,500 in cash and prizes. The Garden Club is just one of 28 Minneapolis-based film crews scrambling this April evening. The top-ranked groups will go on to compete nationwide, but for these cinematic fledglings, it's all about the experience. They have 24 hours to write, shoot, and edit a four-minute movie. There's no time to waste.

No time for method acting: Director George Sirbasku gives actor Bryce Zackery advice on how to be a getaway driver
Matt Snyders
No time for method acting: Director George Sirbasku gives actor Bryce Zackery advice on how to be a getaway driver

As the producer, Prom must act as part ringleader, part administrator, and part group therapist: the level-headed "big picture" guy. He briefly consults Derrick "Panda" Silvestri, the crew's bearish editor, and George Sirbasku, the project's director, a young man with rusty, combed-back hair and a confident swagger.

"I think we can work these into the heist film we've been bouncing around," says Prom, now at a wall-length whiteboard. "Whaddaya think, Fletch?"

Standing off to the side is Kyle Fletcher, the group's pensive writer. He absentmindedly nods, as if already pondering how to work the saving theme and door-knocking element into a heist scenario. "I'm thinking two guys sitting in a car listening to a CB," he says. "We'll need police uniforms—badges, sunglasses, and nightsticks. Black leather gloves." Prom jots it all down on the whiteboard under "props."

At 10:20 p.m., Fletch excuses himself to a basement office where he'll write the six-page script. He's not to be disturbed; Prom and Sirbasku expect a draft by midnight.

In the meantime, Prom, Sirbasku, and Silvestri comb the campus for location shots, darting briskly through halls. The bulk of the film will take place in a swank financial institution. They find the ideal locale in the sprawling reception area for the dean of the business department. Talk turns to logistics and plot devices.

"How are the burglars going to get the receptionists into this room?" asks Sirbasku. "They can't just push them. That's not believable."

"These are questions we should probably ask Fletch," says Prom. "Let's scrutinize the script later."

Sitting off to the side, a couple of sound guys listen closely to the exchange.

"I love how dead the sound is in here," says one, thoughtfully chewing on his pen. "No reverberation."

At 12:35 a.m., the trio reunites with Fletch to rework the draft. By 1:15 a.m., they get down to the business of casting. Then they brainstorm ideas for the title: "'Dead Money'?" offers Silvestri. Someone suggests simply calling it "Robbery." They eventually settle on "Deadline."

By 4 a.m., scripts are handed out. Actors try on their wardrobes—business attire and security guard uniforms—and apply makeup. The coffee pot burbles in the background and every few minutes an audible chsssk! erupts as another can of Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew opens. Kanye West and Fall Out Boy blast from a computer's speakers ("wake-the-fuck-up music," as one actress puts it).

The shooting in the reception room begins at 5:15 a.m. An adjoining boardroom plays host to a business-meeting scene. The talent and crew plod through take after take. After five hours of shooting, fatigue sets in. A few actors slink off to the commons area for some shut-eye, their bodies contorting awkwardly in unforgiving chairs.

At 9:25 a.m., editor Silvestri bursts through the doors and walks onto the set. "Panda looks angry," observes one actress. The buzz of activity quiets. A boom mic lowers dejectedly. The crew is nearly two hours behind schedule.

"When do you plan on getting out of here?" Panda asks his director.

"Quarter after 10," Sirbasku says.

"If you don't finish shooting this scene by 10, don't expect to get an edit."

Even with the help of film editing software, it can easily take six hours to cut, splice, and score a film. Just printing the finished movie to video will take up to three hours.

The crew cranks up their effort. The lighting guys carrying tripods no longer walk, they run. The footage reaches Silvestri's desk by 9:55 a.m.

Finally, the shooting is over. Almost. At 11:45 a.m., word comes from Silvestri that the audio for the car scene is unintelligible. "Ah, shit," Sirbasku says, and begins the process of assembling the sound guys and three actors for a frenzied reshoot.

By 2 p.m., the camera work is complete. In the newsroom, Sirbasku looks a little harried, but relieved. "So far, I'm pleased," he says. He reflects on the previous day and night, then adds, "Honestly, there's gotta be something wrong with us to keep coming back to this."

Five hours later, Silvestri is done with the edit. Twenty-four hours of frantic filmmaking has yielded a fast-paced heist piece heavy on split-screen action and quick cuts. The required action—"knocking on a door"—is subtly carried out at the 1:48 mark, while the theme—"saving"—is explicitly addressed when the getaway driver declares, "We saved your tails on that escape."

At exactly 8 p.m., Dusty Peterson, the crew's grip, takes off for Minneapolis's Bryant-Lake Bowl, the drop-off point. He gets there 30 minutes before the 10 p.m. deadline.

Five days later, "Deadline" and 27 other Film Racing shorts are up for a one-time showing at the East Bank's Oak Street Cinema. Last week, the crew got the news that "Deadline" wasn't one of the finalists for the national competition, but they're not discouraged.

"To see your work played on a big screen is its own reward," Sirbasku says. "That's what we all live for."

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