How to lose your mind in 10 days

The Sacramento Film and Music Festival’s 10x10 Filmmaker Challenge had would-be directors screaming for action

“Everybody get down!” roared the big guy in the orange ski mask. “This is a stickup. Get on the goddamn floor, now. I said get down!” His thunderous voice was convincing. So was the shotgun. People scrambled in every direction, diving under desks, behind partitions. Whoever hadn’t been paying attention certainly was now. The scene looked just as you’d expect it to—with one exception.

“Cut!” Erik Candiani shouted, sooner than expected. “Um, you in the white shirt, who was, uh, smiling…”

Laughter erupted. Candiani, grinning, emerged from behind the camera to politely remind one of his extras that armed robbery is a serious affair. The smiler apologized. “Ken, nice,” Candiani said to the robber, who nodded exaggeratedly under his mask. The crew set up for another take. One man let fly with some “Jungle Boogie”: “Get down, get down!” he sang, swiveling his hips. It helped that the man was in such a sporting mood, because Candiani would need him to spend most of the day lying contorted and motionless on the stony floor, letting the place get robbed over and over and over again. Not that they had forever to get it right. It absolutely had to be today.

Here’s what Candiani knew, going in, about the movie he made last week: It would take no more than 10 days to complete, it would run no more than 10 minutes, and it would involve a bank robbery. More precisely, a credit-union robbery, because Candiani works at a credit union, in its information-technology department. His co-workers are so supportive of his creative endeavors, he said, that “it’s not even funny.” (Actually, his co-workers made up about three-quarters of his crew.)

What Candiani didn’t know, until the night before his production began, was his movie’s theme. He wasn’t allowed to know, at least not until its official announcement, because that’s the challenge of the Sacramento Film and Music Festival’s 10x10 Filmmaker Challenge. As if the 10-days, 10-minutes thing isn’t challenging enough.

Two Friday evenings ago, the bar of the Crest Theatre was thronged with local filmmakers, Erik Candiani among them. The mood was easygoing but perceptibly anxious. People were eager to get in on 10x10, which began last year as an experiment and is the festival’s closing program this year (Sunday at 6 p.m.). The filmmakers recognized each other, or didn’t, and slyly sized each other up. This gathering included what the program’s supervisor, Tony Sheppard, called “the usual suspects” of the local moviemaking scene, like sisters Kristina and Victoria Rodriguez or last year’s 10x10 gadfly, Jason Bortz, who went long and was late—and, as the auteur himself put it, “still lived to tell the tale!”

Yet, the crowd also contained newcomers, like Seth Shore and Hector Marquez, who, by the latter’s account, “only found out about it this afternoon. We’ve never actually made a movie!” Most seemed more excited than daunted. Candiani seemed determined.

Sheppard explained to the group that, because these movies will play on a weekend evening, presumably to a diverse audience, the festival must insist that their content accord with a PG-13 rating. The filmmakers mulled it over.

On the set of </i>Days End<i>, branch manager Greg Logoteta thwarts robber Jason Holt’s nefarious plans. Vanessa Marie looks on.

Photo By Jonathan Kiefer

“Can you say the F-word?” someone asked.

“Probably no full frontal then, huh?”

As more rules were elaborated and forms were handed out, a pulse of antsiness swept through the room. The clock, everyone knew, was already ticking. Finally, with a devilishly drawn-out ceremony involving sealed envelopes, Sheppard revealed the theme: the end of days.

Laughter, nodding, recognition.

Candiani was relieved. He figured that theme could work easily enough with an armed-robbery movie. “My only concern,” he said, “PG-13. That means some ideas, they’re not out, but they’re toned down.”

Like the rest of them, Candiani was figuring out how to combine his ambitions with his available resources to produce something artful, on very short notice. That’s the point. “I have no talent, no equipment,” somebody else was saying. “I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be fun.”

Candiani had a different process. He had a location, at least one plot point and a large crew of volunteers—the co-workers, plus friends, family, neighbors and a few strangers he recruited through Craigslist. He had real guns, and a special-effects guy, and a hankering to try directing some action. And now he had his theme. It was time to go home and write a script.

“Just so you know, I finished the script at 3 this morning,” Candiani disclaimed more than once on his set. “And they haven’t had much time to look at it.” It was Sunday morning, less than 48 hours since the theme had been announced. The ski-masked, shotgun-wielding robber, Ken, had stuck the place up a few times. Between takes, other robbers were coaching each other’s performances: “You want to scare the shit of her, but you don’t want her to totally wig out.” The outside doors all wore the same sign: “The Watt Avenue Branch will be closed today, August 7. A movie production is in progress. There is no need for concern or alarm. The lobby is a movie set location.”

Candiani, who was serving as his own camera operator, darted and flitted throughout the room with subdued urgency, whisking and planting his tripod, and peering through his viewfinder. He had command, even in those moments when, admittedly, he wasn’t sure what the hell to do. “I think the hardest shot today was the first one,” he said. “I’ve got all these people looking at me, saying, ‘OK. What do we do? Where do you want the lights?’ I’m like, uhhhhh …” He pantomimed a deer-in-headlights face. But then he snapped out of it and got back to work.

Joseph Amey takes one for the team.

Photo By Jonathan Kiefer

By midday, when people came at him with questions, he had quick, firm answers. When they made suggestions, he accepted or rejected them, deciding with prompt, professional confidence. When his extras pointed out small discontinuities between shots, he expressed gratitude and fixed the mistakes.

But as the day wore on, patience wore out. Exhaustion, delays and disappointments—uncooperative equipment and unruly special effects—eroded the appealing atmosphere of joshing camaraderie. People got testy. When, in frustration, Candiani demanded, “I want blood everywhere. I want it to come out of his mouth and everything!” he was perhaps a degree too persuasive. He sighed and made an effort to smile, but his eyes looked too weary. The crew members passed yawns around, implicitly acknowledging their lost momentum. Whether you have 10 days or 10 weeks, the basic nature of moviemaking remains the same; the name of the game is hurry up and wait. Inevitably, it gets tedious.

Ken, his shirt torn and bloodied, lay dead on the floor next to his shotgun. “It’s nice to get off my feet,” he said.

Last year, of the 13 teams that signed up for 10x10, seven crossed the finish line. As of this writing, it wasn’t clear how many of this year’s 20 enrolled teams would make it all the way. Bearing in mind the event’s built-in limitations, you’d be within your rights to expect mixed results. It’s hard to get past the adage that haste makes waste. And while moviemaking has indeed been partially democratized by inexpensive and easy-to-use digital technology, better tools don’t guarantee better storytelling. That takes practice—which is part of what 10x10 is supposed to be: a prompter of creative growth.

Said Sheppard, “Short movies tend to be calling cards for people. They can use little projects to try teaching themselves technique. For an established filmmaker, it’s an opportunity to try something new.”

As first-time filmmaker Hector Marquez put it, “We had some hellaciously awesome bloopers, man. We’re gonna do a 10-minute movie with an hour-long making-of documentary!”

Marquez’s rookie team, after much brainstorming, decided to interpret the “end of days” theme with this very sobering question: “What if one day you could get no more coffee?” The plot of his movie is his answer: “There would be a miniature holocaust.” When asked if the crew took a fast from coffee to get the real experience, he replied, “No. We started out the day heavily caffeinated. Heavily caffeinated.”

However sober or silly the project, there’s always something to be said for just getting out and doing it—even if you have to be forced to do it in a certain way. “It’s a crazy way to make a film,” observed Brad Clark, another of this year’s 10x10 participants, “but nothing focuses the mind like a deadline.”

On Monday, when the completed projects were due, Candiani took the day off. The longest stretch of sleep he’d had all week was five hours, but he is the sort of filmmaker who would sooner give up sleep than give up hope. “My first final cut Friday night was 11:45,” he explained. “It took me from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday to cut it down to 10 minutes flat—with credits! Yes, I did it. Some of the edits really hurt, but it’s still a semi-coherent story.”

Here’s what Candiani knew, coming out: “I think the perfect length for this short would be 11 minutes. Ten is just not quite enough. Damn rules!”