Nick Strickland wanted to make a musical.
The 31-year-old has participated in the 48 Hour Film Project since the international short-film contest — in which teams write, film and edit an original film over the course of one weekend — first landed in Des Moines in 2005. And every year the filmmaker (by day, an online advertising manager at Meredith Corp.) hoped his team would draw the “musical/western” category, only to draw from a hat categories like mockumentary, surprise ending, comedy and romance.
But this year, Strickland stacked his deck in favor of a musical. He got his friend, Steve Capp, to let the team use his recording studio, Capp Audio Productions in Norwalk. He picked a cast of musically inclined friends. All he needed now was to draw a category conducive to making his musical dream come true.
At 7 p.m. on July 29, the 43 teams registered for this year’s 48 Hour Film Project are gathered in the Levitt Auditorium inside the Des Moines Art Center. The teams sit in the auditorium, like high schoolers at an assembly. A member of each team walks on stage to draw a genre. Strickland’s team, White Poison Industries, draws ... thriller/suspense.
The writing team of Marnie Strate and Michael Tabor quickly nix this idea. If a team doesn’t like its first pick, it can draw from the “wild card” choices. Wild card options, though, include adventure serial, time travel and one that would have been certain death for Strickland’s musical dreams: silent film.
The second draw: drama. There is no third option. Leaving the Art Center, Strickland is optimistic, saying, “Drama is a broad enough category that I feel we can do anything.”
He decides to make a musical anyway.
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
The rest of the White Poison team waiting at Strickland’s home near Merle Hay Mall is less optimistic about the selection.
“We don’t want drama,” says Bridgette Braswell, 27, there to help organize cast and props. “Six-minute dramas always suck.”
She has a point. Last year’s Des Moines winner, “Rejected” by Fruwaukoo Films, was a comedy. The films usually lean toward comedy, since it’s a lot easier to make someone laugh in five minutes than to make them care about a character or story.
In the hours after choosing the genre, the 15 or so members of White Poison Industries mill around Strickland’s backyard, drinking beers and talking. Inside The Mint, a green shed that has been converted into a recording space and video editing suite, Strickland, Strate and Tabor go over their available resources: Two computers set up for editing, along with a drum kit, guitar and microphones. A window air conditioner hums noisily.
A teacher at Indian Hills Junior High has agreed to let the team shoot in her classroom. Strickland, Strate and Tabor sequester themselves inside The Mint and start pitching stories.
They have drama. They have a school. School shooting?
A school shooting musical. At this point I’m slightly nervous about what the finished product might be. I’m not the only one.
“I think we might have to abandon the musical idea,” says Strate, 25, who as Strickland’s girlfriend seems most likely to dissuade him from the Don Quixote-like idea of a school-shooting musical. “It feels so far off genre that I’m afraid it’s going to hurt us. So many dramatic musical dramas suck. It’s possible, but it will be difficult to pull off.”
Strate’s suggestion: Move away from a shooting, toward more trivial problems. There’s drama in everyday life. Especially in high school.
Strickland, Strate and Tabor work into the night inside The Mint, outlining a story that includes a pregnant teen (Strate), an alcoholic teacher (Tabor), a lovesick boy (Nick Cornelison), a judgmental preppy (Courtney Kain) and a bulimic cutter (Shaina Mugan). At 5 a.m. Saturday morning, Strickland emails his team with instructions on who is needed where, adding that he has laid down temporary vocals for some of the songs overnight.
The musical is on its way.
Saturday, 11 a.m.
I arrive at Steve Capp’s Norwalk studio mid-morning Saturday to find Strickland has already been working with the actors recording their parts. Matt Oleson, a college friend of Strate’s, is in the basement recording his part: singing genitalia. Strickland opens the door to the studio and Oleson’s voice cries out the lyric, “I am your penis!”
Drama. This is going to be a drama.
More specifically, “Oh Drama: A Hip Hopera.” Oleson is providing the voice of an erection causing problems for Corneilson’s character in class. Kane and Strate are working on a rap battle between their two characters. Tabor has already recorded his vocals, and Mugan is getting ready to write and record her part.
By creating a musical, White Poison Industries has found a way around one of the most problematic aspects of 48 Hour Films: sound. Poor sound is often more detrimental to a film than poor visuals, and it may not be noticed until the editing process. By prerecording nearly every line of “Oh Drama,” sound shouldn’t be an issue. But it also means less flexibility, as lip-synching during filming means the delivery of lines is set, and can’t be changed.
4 p.m. Saturday
By mid-afternoon, most of the cast is gathered in a classroom with no windows (which allows for consistent lighting throughout the shoot) at Indian Hills Junior High.
Adam Carney, owner of local film and video production company Red Noise 6, arrives with his Sony PMW-F3 high- resolution camera, which Carney believes is only the second of its kind in Des Moines and one of but a few in the Midwest. This is the kind of camera used to shoot the kind of film that takes more than two days to create.
Carney and Strickland work to light the room, experimenting with colored gels over the lights.
The shoot begins with a song by Tabor’s character, a teacher named Kelly McBride, who sings about his sad-sack life. Strickland and Carney move the camera around on a wheeled rig through a space cleared between rows of desks. Tabor’s growling voice and Cookie Monster-like singing cadence make lip syncing difficult for this song. Unlike the other leads, he’s not a singer. Tabor signed on to write, but his unique voice and stage presence has been honed by years at the Des Moines Social Club’s Open Circus. Re-creating his vocals in a live setting proves challenging. On the other hand, it’s also comedy gold. Strickland, Carney and most of the cast laugh with each take (and not at Tabor’s expense).
Cornelison’s song (the one featuring the erection) is next, with Strate, Kane, Mugan and other students sitting around him in desks. Filming his song goes fairly smoothly, but there is one problem: How to make it look like he’s wetting his pants. The solution: A straw, duct-taped into a water bottle and quickly shoved down his pants.
With two scenes down, the team has four more to knock out before 10 p.m., when they need to be out of the building. Kain is unhappy with the sound on her heavily auto-tuned track, so she plans to rerecord her audio the next morning. A rap battle scene between Kain and Strate slows things down, and by 10 p.m. the team still has two songs left to shoot in a hurried next morning.
The final day
Crew is due back at the school at 9 a.m., cast at 10 a.m. Before 5 a.m., Strickland is awake, emailing a rough cut of the film to the team.
At the school, the students are back to refilm Kain’s scene with her new audio. The scene moves quickly, then the crew focuses on more B-roll shots, like female students saying Mr. McBride’s name (Tabor’s character) and funny extras to cut away to between songs.
“I’m getting a little time anxiety,” Strickland says around 1 p.m, six and a half hours before deadline. There are still two scenes left to film. He leaves Strate and Carney to call the shots on the final scenes and heads back to The Mint to work on editing. His self-imposed drop-dead time to have editing finished is 5 p.m.
At 2:30, Strickland receives an email containing a stereo mix of the film’s songs. Then Strate calls to say the sixth and final scene is finished. Fifteen minutes later she’s back at The Mint with the final footage, and starts filling out the pile of paperwork teams must turn in with the film.
Strickland continues editing, grabbing a handful of grapes from a bowl on his desk — some of the rare sustenance he’s taken in this weekend.
Around 5:30 p.m., Carney walks in to help and offers some advice: “Don’t get caught up in it. It’s a 48 Hour movie, there’s going to be some problems.”
48 Hour films have to be submitted in standard definition, which adds an extra step since “Oh Drama” was shot with an HD camera. The footage has to be converted, before being rendered and finally burned to disc.
“I could spend another 48 hours making this look pretty, but this is pretty damn good,” Strickland says.
Strickland and Strate decide to each take a disc to Fleur Cinema, the drop-off location. That way, if one gets a flat or pulled over, they don’t lose any time. At 6:43 p.m., Strate rushes out the door. After burning a second disc, Strickland leaves at 6:55. The films must be turned in by 7:30 p.m.
Fleur is a madhouse. Dozens of teams show up at the last minute to submit their films. Rendering and burning of discs is often done in the Fleur’s lobby (like this year, when Team Last to Enter’s laptop spit out a disc with four seconds to spare). In total, 42 of the 43 teams submit their films on time. It’s the highest percentage in Des Moines’ seven-year run.
Both Strate and Strickland make it on time, the latter just 10 minutes before the deadline. They walk to the concession stand and chat with other teams. It’s an odd bonding experience: Everyone here is in competition, but they also all just went through the same thing.
The finished product
“What I get out of this is watching my film in a theater full of people,” Strickland says.
At 8:45 p.m., most of the cast and crew of White Poison Industries, 13 people, is packed into The Mint, huddled around Strickland’s computer for the first viewing of “Oh Drama.” Space is tight, and nearly everyone has a beer (or two) in hand. Even with the air conditioner on full blast, the temperature is rising.
Strickland hits play and leans back in his chair to give everyone a clear view. The laughs are loud, but brief. The room remains mostly quiet, with no one wanting to disrupt anyone’s big moment. As the credits roll the room breaks into boisterous applause and cheers.
The film, surprisingly, works. Strickland and his team created a musical drama that includes a singing erection, and while it may not fit the standard definition of drama, it’s certainly full of drama: There’s love, rejection, desperation and betrayal.
“Oh Drama” is no “King Lear,” but it’s good enough to be one of the top 12 films of 2011 (screened Thursday at the Fleur). At the first public screenings on Aug. 4, the crowds reacted warmly, laughing at all the right moments.
“We set up a lot of obstacles for ourselves,” Strickland says while finishing a beer at the Fleur. “I’ll admit, for a while I thought I had maybe invited Juice to document the worst move I’ve ever made.”
48 Hour Films Best of City screening
What: A screening of the top 12 films of 2011, including “Oh Drama.”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday (An encore screening is at 7 p.m. Aug. 25)
Where: Fleur Cinema & Cafe, 4545 Fleur Drive
Info: Go to 48hourfilm.com/desmoines. Event includes a catered reception
Watch “Oh Drama” right now: Go to youtube.com/user/yostrick9