Co-producer Mike Wlodarczyk tosses
director Mike Heath a Monster Energy
Drink. Heath's eyes light up. It's his fifth since the clock started 19 hours ago. He relies on liquid energy more than he should, certainly more than food, with nothing else in his stomach aside from a slice of Little Caesars pizza this entire weekend. They don't plan to sleep until this project is done.
The 17-member team Most Dangerous has been filming for a seven-minute short, Something Fishy, for 14 hours when I join them on a Saturday afternoon. They're shooting in a 5,400-square-foot house in St. Augustine that belongs to Will "Power" Duquette, a motivational speaker who travels around, promising to help people get rich. Heath met Duquette when Duquette was auditioning for a role in a TV pilot Heath is producing.
In the 48 Hour Film Project, no one gets paid and the pace is fast. Heath sets a deadline of 5 p.m. Saturday for filming to be finished and postproduction to begin. It's essentially Heath and Wlodarczyk's vision, and they're confident. "I believe we have everything it takes to be the most dangerous team in the competition and capable of winning everything," Heath says.
The 48 Hour Film Project is an international event with organizers setting up competitions in more than 100 cities in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania. At the kickoff Friday night, 48 Hour Film Project Jacksonville producer Chris Ackerman laid down the ground rules and requirements to 37 registered teams: Each film must have a character named Bobby or Barbara Vincent who is a debt collector, as well as a balloon, and the inclusion of the line "It's my turn." Then, teams were randomly assigned one of 14 genres. The deadline is 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Heath and Wlodarczyk were hoping for comedy or sci-fi, but they drew romance, which unnerved them. They weren't prepared for that one.
As soon as Heath learned the genre, he and Wlodarczyk made a list of items they needed: a fish, a fishbowl, balloons, a dress for their 6-foot-4-inch fairy, a toga for Cupid, and a
bow and arrow.
Of the stories they'd brainstormed weeks before, the one that might work now is a concept for a fish out of water. Heath and Wlodarczyk agonize for two hours writing the script. They finally get it down.
Barbara Vincent — played by Wlodarczyk's wife Liz — is a debt collector who grows tired of the misogynistic men she's dating. She throws a penny at her goldfish and makes a wish. A fairy arrives and turns her pet fish, Bubbles, into a hulking bodybuilder of a man (played by Benjamin Reeves), who wins Barbara's heart. Cupid arrives near the end of the film and offers Barbara a choice. Bubbles must become a fish again, and Barbara can remain human or join him in the fishbowl. Barbara chooses life as a fish.
Wlodarczyk and Heath are best friends who are both large and in charge, in height and width. Heath, especially, has an attitude befitting a director. Within the first few minutes of our meeting, he's complained how irritated he is. A makeup artist arrived late, but Duquette's girlfriend, Raiza Rangl, could do makeup as well. When the other makeup artist arrived, she didn't think there was enough to do and so left.
"There are a lot of prima donnas in this business," says Heath, acting unfazed by all the drama.
The living room stands in for a party scene, all DIY and low-budget, with balloons floating everywhere and shot glasses with soda in them. And it's packed — with the lead actors, supporting players, a cameraman and his 17-year-old assistant, and a few people who aren't helping at all. They're the production assistants, but Heath tells me they aren't capable of assisting with much of anything.
The leading man, Reeves, is nervous. He hasn't acted very much, and seems a little stiff.
Out on the balcony, filming continues as Liz Wlodarczyk kisses Reeves. It's the first time she's kissed a man besides her husband since her wedding day. Reeves is married as well, and as he plants his lips on Liz's, Mike Wlodarczyk's facial expression reveals his discomfort. Heath insists the filming must go on.
It's 4:41 p.m., and it's clear the deadline Heath set, 5 p.m., won't be met.
This is not Heath and Wlodarczyk's first time working together. They own Eternity Captured, a production company that specializes in wedding and event film and photography. Currently, they're also producing a pilot for an adult Hunger Games-type comedy game show called Most Dangerous, the source of their team name. Their friendship grew while they worked together during last year's 48 Hour competition. This is the fourth year Heath has competed, and part of the reason he's so sure of himself is the taste of success he had in 2011, when his team won an audience award.
By 6 p.m., an hour past Heath's filming deadline, they've returned to Wlodarczyk's apartment on Philips Highway — where filming began on Friday — to shoot one last scene, planned as one of the first in film. The apartment is small, cluttered and claustrophobic.
The tension has reached its apex. Wlodarczyk's dog is disturbing the set and
a phone conversation being conducted by one of the production assistants is being picked up on audio. Heath screams at his cast and crew: "We don't have enough fucking time. We've got to get this done!"
Then, videographer Bradley Hayes' camera stops working; a frustrated Heath pulls out his lower-resolution Canon T3i SLR.
Outside of his apartment, Wlodarczyk attributes some problems to the distractions of production assistants and newcomers who couldn't take direction.
"Last year, we wrote our scripts in, like, an hour, we went out and got our props. On set at 6, done filming by 2, done editing by 6 in the morning the next day, just hanging out, having a good time laughing. This time is the exact opposite," Wlodarczyk says.
It's after midnight, and editing has begun. The footage freezes every so often, sending Heath in the direction of a heart attack. He's also getting sick from the stress, the lack of sleep and possibly whatever is in those Monster Energy drinks. Heath and Wlodarczyk continue to edit through the next day.
By Sunday evening — with less than an hour left — Wlodarczyk is driving Heath to The Jacksonville Landing, where he has to drop off the final product. The film is nearly ready, but Heath's still putting the finishing touches on it. Heath leaps out of the car with his laptop, running toward the Landing.
Then the computer freezes.
With the film turned in two minutes late, Most Dangerous was disqualified from consideration for nationals. But they turned it in anyway; it was still eligible for an audience choice award.
Sun-Ray Cinema screened the completed films in June. At the first premiere, Jacksonville producer Ackerman introduced 11 of the films, including Something Fishy, which drew some big laughs from the audience. Select films will play at a "best of" screening July 12 at The Florida Theatre. Something Fishy failed to win the audience award, so it won't be shown there.
"I have done this four years now. I don't want to retire from the competition unless I know I submitted the best-absolute-quality film on time, unless I have a chance to win it all and say I'm done," Heath says.
Team Most Dangerous didn't win anything, but Heath says he'll enter the competition next year, with his best friend at his side. He'll be there the year after that, too, and for years to come, until he gets what he thinks he deserves.