Growing up I wanted to be Steven Spielberg. Filming short movies with a 8mm video camera and using ketchup as blood and firecrackers for explosions, I did it all right in my backyard. Music eventually took over my life, but film making had always stuck with me.
I think Antonio Pantoja and I have more then just like minds, according to many we’re the new kids on the block and “came out of nowhere”. Several months ago I started noticing his short films pop up all over my Facebook news feed, some were better then others, but all had rock solid potential. Without hesitation I touched base with Antonio and had some friendly conversation, but it wasen’t until one particular video for the company “Street Moda” that just absolutley blew my mind and I told myself, I had to work with this guy.
The 48 Hour Film Project was something I had wanted to do for years, but never took the initiative to bring it to a reality and simply didn’t take the time to get involved. The 48 Hour Film Project is an event where 50+ teams of filmmakers draw one genre out of hat and have 48 hours to film a 4-8 minute short film, the screenplay, script, filming, editing and rendering has to be done in that time frame. If you don’t follow a specific set of guidelines then your disqualified. The Louisville winner goes on to compete on the national level in California, the winner of the national contest goes onto Cannes Film Festival in France. When Antonio threw out the project on Facebook for this years 48, I jumped on the opportunity immediately. I had no clue what I would be doing, all I know is I wanted in.
This was our first 48, but we were confident in our work enough to know we really had a shot at winning, at least on the local level. The crew we had formulated consisted of top artists from both Lexington, KY and Louisville, KY. We immediately scheduled a meeting, it was a small team at the start, but little by little actors and actresses were cast and the final core consisted of 13 creative minds. However, we knew our niche. The film would be realistic and probably very dark. Comedy was out of the question.
DAY ONE - GENRE
Even though the movie “The Dark Knight Rises” had debuted at 12:01am, it felt great to sleep in and get a good nights rest, I would be in for a long weekend. At the time, I didn’t exactly know how little sleep I would get over the weekend but, I was amped and prepared. I arrived at Antonio’s at 5pm, the entire team gathered for some small conversation about the hours ahead and Sam Elliot was upstairs composing an amazing score without evening knowing the genre. An hour later we headed out to the drawing at The Bards Town, a local pub and eatery where all 52 filmmakers would meet to go over the guidelines and draw genres. I was nervous and it felt as if my heart was beating out of its chest. We made some agreements, if we pulled “Holiday” “Vacation” or “Comedy”, we would throw it back into the hat for a chance at a wild card genre.
Luckily, we didn’t have to do that, right out of the gate we pulled “Horror”. It was like a shotgun blast, as soon as the text came through the ideas started to flood my brain, almost going into overload. Once Antonio came down from the drawing, we headed back out to his house and came up with several plot lines based upon some ideas we had shared in the group. I was confident we had a winning story, it was psychological, it was deep and very horrifying.
Once we returned to the house, opinions started to surge the room and the story quickly got away from what the original plot was. We ended up scratching the idea. Pizza arrived and we took a break. Ideas were being thrown out left and right and every now and then we’d come across a gem, then to be eventually shot down and/or written on the marker board with the others. Nearing frustration, I came to a waking awareness that we needed to cut out the bullshit, the dialogue and make a horror film that’s simple, edgy and to the point. I constantly pushed the theme of simplicity. No character building, just 5 minutes of pulse pounding dramatic horror. Mostly inspired from the short film “T is for Talk”, where 6 unidentified characters are put in a room and subjected to a twisted game of “Simon Says”. First we had the idea of people/demons being at a table and then the environment actually turning out to be Hell, that it morphed into several other plots. At some point well past midnight, our special effects artist Emily Jones brought up the riddle “Green Glass Door”, brilliant. By combining the two concepts of a riddle and a simple twisted game, we had a winner. Everyone loved the idea and we had our synopsis.
6 random people are suddenly placed in a room and each are given a clue. If they guess wrong they are killed with the answer to that clue. If they guess correctly they are released. The answers are all formed from the basis of the riddle “Green Glass Door” i.e. all the answers will have double letters. In our case; ball, bullet, needle, hammer, noose and dagger. Only one makes it out alive…or does he just move onto round 2?
By 5AM, we had the story in place and the characters solidified. We had a VERY small shot list but, my brain was zapped and I knew I had to get some sleep before the big day. We had written out a list of props and costumes that we would need to purchase in the morning. There was still some unease about the story and how to bring it to life, but I left with confidence. We had a story that could win, IF they get it.
DAY TWO - 13 HOURS IN - PREPARATION
By 9am I was up and packing up gear for the long day of shooting. All my hot lights, cameras, tripods, extension cords, sliders and plexi-glass. I called Antonio and the crew was at Peddler’s Mall picking out props and costumes. I met them there.
Cruising through the aisles we picked out a few appropriate pieces and knocked out about half our list. However, we still needed some essential items, especially a projector. We headed over to Wal-Mart and had zero luck. I got on the phone and made calls everywhere, either out of stock or far to overpriced. I suggested to Antonio that we simply put out a status on Facebook. Within an hour we had locked down a projector and had nearly all the props we needed to start filming.
Because of our plot line we were lucky in the fact we only needed one set, one location. Although we are were slightly nervous about finding the right spot. It had to be dark, scary and something right out of “SAW”. Antonio was convinced that the basement of Mellwood Arts Center would provide the perfect setting. With a few calls we had it locked down and the pieces had fallen into place. I had backup plans, but I’m really glad that the basement worked out for us.
Hair and makeup started as soon as the crew arrived at Antonio’s house. But, we were behind schedule. Antonio and I were able to sit down and get the hints created and burnt to a DVD which were to be displayed on the projector as a part of the story. We rushed it, but what isn’t rushed on a 48 hour project!?
Jordan, Antonio's wife, was running around all over the place… picking up on props, ordering the catering, getting forms signed and being the overall awesome runner that we needed to get the little jobs done. Honestly this project wouldn't of happened if it weren’t for her. When she arrived at the house with the ball-gag, I thought to myself; “Well, here we go!”
My goal was to start filming at 2pm, we didn’t leave the house until 2:30pm.
DAY TWO - 19 HOURS IN - FILMING
When we arrived at Mellwood, we immediately unpacked and went to the basement, it was pitch black. Perfect. We turned on our cell phone lights and started scouting the area, it was huge and completely trashed. Perfect. The smell of old paint and mildew was strong. Items had gone untouched for years and it was very apparent. The first thing that came to my mind was POWER. We had to have power. We brought a few battery backups, but nothing that could really push the massive hot lights we fully intended on using.
Clearly creeped out, most of the crew walked back up to the light. Antonio and I stayed and scoured the area for the perfect setting. I felt at home, abandoned exploration is something I love doing and as a photographer, I try scout on a regular basis. We stumbled into a few rooms that would work, but just didn’t have the scale that we wanted. I happened upon a room that I think the crew wanted to avoid because it was wet. But, there was a small platform that was dry and the smooth ceramic wall tile was just perfect. It reminded me of a prison bathroom that had decayed over years. I was convinced this was our location.
While the others loaded in gear I immediately start running around looking for power in the decrepit basement. The more I scouted the more switches and overhead lighting I found, soon enough lights from our cell phones were no longer of use and the basement was 80% lit. There was power running, but no outlets. Nearly every outlet we came upon, the power was cut. We happened upon one outlet that looked to be connected, I was stoked. So much that Antonio and I gave each other high fives and luckily we had nearly 200 feet of extension cabling. I ran cords all the way through three rooms in the basement and when I finally tested it… nothing. I was out of options and broken down. At this point nearly two hours had passed, the mangled table and chairs were being assembled from areas in the basement and hair/makeup was almost complete.
Already stressed, I took a short break and gathered my thoughts, really took in the lighting and came up with a game plan. Let’s try to power the projector and the DVD player with the battery backups and place the table directly under one of the florescent overhead fixtures, which is exactly what I was going to do with my lights. I observed the lighting and removed one bulb, we had our perfect set light. But, I still wanted some kicker and background light. So, I moved to the battery backups for a glimmer of hope. None of the batteries had enough power to handle the wattage the projector, DVD player and hot lights. Without the projector, we were screwed. It played and essential role in our story. We had to have power. At some point we would have to make do, but I wasn't having it.
5pm. All of our talent was sitting at the table ready to start filming. Antonio was getting a few screen tests and luckily I had my photog side kick Josh Eskridge there to help with the search for power. At the back of our set we had a direct route to stairs which led to the outside courtyard of Mellwood, Josh luckily stumbled on an outdoor outlet two levels above us. We ran 150 feet of extension cords to the basement and soon enough had our projector rolling and some background lights fired up. It was a breath of fresh air.
We would start filming with no screenplay, no script and hardly what you would consider a shot list. This entire film would be off the cuff improvisation, having only the backbone of the story to guide the actors and shots.
Antonio and I quickly came to realize that we work really well together. Using two cameras at different angles of the same sequence played in our favor during post processing. We both had ideas and shots in our mind. From the close-ups to the death scenes we rattled through the first few sequences with blazing speed. We wanted to be thorough with the shots, but also didn’t want to be filming at sunrise. The scenes looked amazing right out of camera. The overhead florescent light played perfectly off the actors faces and we we're grinning after each shot, I seemed to think I even gave a few manic laughs I was so happy at how it looked.
Unfortunately, Antonio had to leave for a client shoot scheduled at 9pm. It was Saturday, 8:30pm. The entire crew took a break and sat down for some awesome Mexican food that Jordan had so graciously provided for us. After a munching down a few fajitas, I walked around, settled my mind and sat in comfort of my air conditioned car for an hour or so, while the others covered in theater blood went for coffee. I was already exhausted and we were only 40% done with filming. I thought to myself, I could start filming before he got there and at least get some shots nailed out, but I didn’t want to overstep my place and I knew that we needed the full team energy to make the shots happen.
Around 10:30pm I returned to the basement, by myself to start planning out shots and the rest of the evening. I was extremely anxious and ready to start filming. A few crew members started wandering down to the basement also anxious. At 11pm I notified the team to get ready to start filming, minutes later Antonio was back on set and we started with the Jill Olsen(played by Laura Lee) death sequence.
I hit a second wind. Although at this point everything was completely improvisational our actors and actresses did a phenomenal job showing fear and anguish through what little dialogue we had planned. We kept thinking of the reality of the situation… If you were in a 5 minute life or death situation would you want to take the time to get to know the person beside you?
Once again, Antonio and I tagged teamed shots. For me it wasn't until the plastic bag scene, where I finally realized we had something magical going on. I showed Antonio the captured scene, Bethany’s emotion just blasted through the back of the camera. We were stoked.
Their were some major obstacles to overcome during filming. Our “first death” actress with the ball-gag, Brittany Baker, had to leave during our 3 hour intermission. We had to shoot everything as if she was still there. Also, filming at a major wedding venue… Go figure, there was a extremely late running wedding reception directly above us blasting music at full volume. It seemed as if the DJ was drunk himself and the party never stopped. It killed us on the audio end, we had to record much of the audio in post and overdub many of the screams and dialogue. Antonio had an on camera attachable Rode directional microphone and I was recording with a Azden wireless microphone that was set under the table at waist level. Despite our challenges, it seemed to work out just fine.
It was nearly 3am and we finally saw light at the end of the tunnel. We had finished up all the deaths and had just shot the final scene, which in the end we ended up not using and leaving it up to the viewers imagination. I was covered in sticky theater blood, dirt and sweat. Thankfully I brought a change of clothes. At this point in a normal everyday shoot, I would go home import the footage and go to bed, but for Antonio and I the night had just begun.
DAY THREE - 29 HOURS IN - EDITING
Loading out of Mellwood moved quickly and it was as true team effort. Todd rode back to Antonio's with me and all we could think about was crushing back a cold adult beverage. We stopped by a gas station, receiving weird looks from everyone and arrived at our destination. Antonio was importing footage and was ready to rock.
I hopped in the shower after a few beers. Third wind, GO. First thing was first, we listened to the score Sam had composed. Antonio and I were both blown away and knew this would take us to the next level. The tracks were perfect and we felt we had everything we needed to start cutting up clips. We cracked away at it, throwing out ideas, splicing everything, gathering sound effects. As the sun started to rise, we were only a minute into the film. We hit a brick wall.
Since we didn’t have a strict screenplay to follow, editing would be the key to telling the story. We knew we wanted quick cuts and intense imagery. But at this point, nothing was making sense. Instead of focusing on the scene one by one, we unknowingly blasted through by making the entire film look like a big trailer. We had to get some extended scenes in there with dialogue to make this a true short film.
We hit our stride once we made it at the halfway mark and were cutting up the suffocation/hammer scene. I felt nervous watching it and Antonio had to stop for a second to regain composure. I smiled, we really had some “killer” stuff at hand. We did however have a lot of good laughs at the expense of our actors. It was nearly 11am, the rest of the splicing came easy to us and Antonio was smart enough to color grade as we trucked through the editing, saving us a lot of time.
We worked, worked and worked some more with zero breaks. Antonio didn’t even eat breakfast until the film was sent into rendering at 3pm. And around that time, I didn’t know what I was looking at anymore. We thought we had a good story, but exhaustion had set in and its tough to judge your own film without stepping away for a period of time. After the first render, we weren’t sold. Empty space needed filling and it was extremely confusing. We visited a royalty-free sound effect website and just started downloading every horrific sound we could. By strategically placing these sounds into the film it amped the intensity tens folds and really brought a new life into the short for us. With some small adjustments and cuts, we came to our final render. We wouldn’t make any more progress on the film and only had two hours before the deadline.
The crew returned to Antonio's at 5:30pm for a private viewing and to sign all the necessary paper work. Everyone was impressed and proud.
DAY THREE - 48 HOURS IN - COMPLETION
We turned in the packet with our film at The Bard’s Town and walked away. It was 7pm Sunday evening and the 48 was over. My eyelids felt as if they had ten ton bricks hanging from them. But, the conversation didn’t stop there. Ideas kept flowing out and at that point we discussed marketing the film. We had to make the project look like a real big-budget film, and Antonio came up with the brilliant idea of the tagline “Will you solve the riddle?”.
I finally returned home at 9pm and for some reason started editing a different video project, my roommate came into my office and said “you probably shouldn’t do that”. I fully agreed and immediately went to bed, feeling quite delusional and almost as if I was drunk.
After a solid 8 hours rest, I returned to my office Monday and came up with 4 movie posters from various behind the scenes images and cinematic stills. That evening Antonio pumped out a trailer which received over 1,000 views in 24 hours. The hype was out and people were all over it.
Thanks to the awesome-sauce of Joey Goldsmith, we were able to get a couple of the posters printed at full quality and hang them in the theater, the reaction was solid and many were surprised we went that far for a 48.
The film debuted on a Wednesday to a nearly sold out showing. The reaction was exactly what we wanted, edge of the seats, no distractions and people glued to the screen. The film played through perfectly and good a round of applause. We recieved a great response but after a few discussions we don’t think anyone got it. At least we could say the the film was visually top notch.
The encore on Thursday was so-so, not nearly the crowd we expected and the film played very dark, compared to the night before. Different projector, different settings. However, it still received a great response and during the post showing Q&A we were able to explain what the riddle was and I believe it opened the eyes of many.
After all was said and done, out of 52 teams our film placed second runner-up and recieved 5 awards one being "Best Cinematography", which for me takes the cake. I couldn’t be more proud of our first performance in the 48 Hour Film Project.
Our team was stellar and exemplified professionalism and hardwork.
Antonio is not only an amazing filmmaker, but an awe-inspiring person. You will see many more collaborations from him and I in the future.