On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Trish Clark, Benjamin Hecht, Michael Illian, and Isabelle Gasser — all filmmakers and film enthusiasts — met at Best Video Film and Cultural Center on Whitney Avenue in Hamden. They were there to say hello after a year apart, and to prepare for New Haven’s 11th annual 48-Hour Film Project, a filmmaking competition that happens in cities across the country and beyond, and in New Haven, will span the weekend of July 30 to Aug. 1.
The result will be a few dozen short films, at least a few of which will train their lenses on the Elm City.
Though the filmmakers are competing with one another for first, second, and third place, as determined by a panel of judges of area filmmakers, the 48-Hour Film Project is essentially a race against time to make a complete short film in the span of two days. Before the weekend begins, filmmakers are allowed to form teams of cast and crew, secure equipment, and scout locations. At 7 p.m. on July 30, at least one member of each filmmaking team will assemble at The Beeracks in East Haven for the kickoff event, at which all filmmaking teams will be assigned a genre for the film they need to make — ranging from classics like mystery and science fiction to newer entries such as films about climate change or mockumentaries. Each team also must incorporate a character into the story and a line of dialogue into the script.
“Kickoff is a happening place,” said Clark, who is the city producer for New Haven’s 48-Hour Film Project. “It’s a party. People get to see what everyone else is getting. You get to see each other. Some of them haven’t seen each other in a year, and this year has been a really long time.” She said for many the kickoff event is a reunion.
“Or you can talk trash,” Illian joked.
The teams then have until 7:30 on Aug. 1 to complete their films. As the rules put it, “all creativity must take place during the Official Time Period. Any creative work in advance of the competition weekend is prohibited.” By “creative work,” the rules mean everything from writing the script and rehearsing to costume and set design, to editing and sound, to loading the finished film onto a USB drive. (The full list of rules appears on the project’s website.)
So far, Clark said, over 20 teams have already registered to participate in the filmmaking weekend. She expects more to follow, as registration doesn’t technically end until the event starts. “You can come to kickoff with cash in hand,” Clark said.
Clark is sanguine about the project’s success because she has been with New Haven’s chapter of the 48 Hour Film Project — an international effort headquartered in Washington, DC — from the beginning. In earlier years the project drew from all over the Northeast, mostly from outside Connecticut. She recalled a team one year that had done 48-hour projects in multiple cities on consecutive weekends. “One person” from the team “came in pajamas” to the kickoff event. “They could barely speak.”
With each passing year, she said, she has seen more Connecticut and New Haven-area filmmakers participating. Last summer, during the depths of the pandemic, over 30 teams still showed up. “We still had the same number of teams. It was kind of crazy fantastic,” she said. “I was 100 percent shocked.” But “people wanted to do something creative.”
Among the team leaders were Hecht, with the team name Dutch Elm Disease, and Illian, of West Haven Film Collective. “I was able to still have the same hectic, crunching experience,” Hecht said of last year’s competition, though Clark noted that the forms of the films reflected the times in which they were made. Many used Zoom calls, or actors on computer screens with fake backgrounds. “Some people, that’s all it was — New Haven and worldwide,” Clark said. Illian recalled filming in the basement of his house with his wife. “My script supervisor was on Zoom,” he said, able to work in real time with them, as he would have had he been there.
“The film that won,” The Box, “had a big outdoor location and a cast of two actors,” Clark said. She noted that the team — We Made the Puppet Film Last Year, a team from UCONN — had come in third in 2018 and second in 2019, to finally snag a first-place victory last year.
When all the films were submitted last year, Clark, who works for the city of New Haven as the registrar of vital statistics, had hoped to have an outdoor screening of all the films in East Shore Park. An enormous summer storm put a stop to that, and she did the screening online, with an awards ceremony later at Park of the Arts off of Audubon Street. This year she has booked the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport for both the screening and the awards ceremony in August.
“I want to give the theaters love, too,” she said. In addition to awards for best film and other categories, Clark adds an award for incorporating New Haven. “That’s just me putting in that prize because I love New Haven,” she said. “There are so many good spots” to shoot films. “That’s why they call it the greatest small city in America.”
Clark had advice for the teams competing this year. “Write a four-minute film because you know you’re going to go over,” she said. She also advised that teams not get too big or too small; “I think the sweet spot is 10 to 15, or if you get people multitasking, six to 10.” Many team members wear multiple hats. Hecht and Illian are both musicians; “when I’m filming, I’m thinking about the music” already, Hecht said. But Clark suggested a few roles required singleminded focus: the person doing the paperwork for the film, and the person doing sound.
Hecht and Illian had participated in the 48 Hour Film Project for years. Isabelle Gasser, a costume designer, was joining Hecht’s team for the first time. She had heard about the 48 Hour Film Project while still living in France; she moved to Connecticut in 2006. “When I used to work on short films, I would do work with just a weekend — but you could prepare more,” she said. She was anticipating possibly a long, sleepless weekend. “I have worked 38 hours nonstop without sleep,” she said. “I don’t know if I could do that again,” she said with a laugh.
“What I like about 48 is you have a deadline,” Illian said. Any problems that arise must be solved, and solved fast. “You have to make tough decisions,” Clark said. “The time crunch is what makes you figure out how to make something special.”
Illian agreed. “It really helps you get over these mental hurdles you have for filmmaking anyway,” he said. “It’s really inspiring. And you get to see where your weaknesses are.”
“This is for the fun and the creativity, and you’re going to be a better filmmaker afterward,” Clark said. And at the end, filmmakers get their finished films screened. “You did it,” she said. “It’s up there.”
The 48 Hour Film Project runs July 30 through Aug. 1. Visit the project’s website for rules and information on how to register this year.