Heir of the Dogma
|Photos by Anne Fishbein|
THE SPECIAL-EFFECTS WOMAN IS TALKING ABOUT her third nipple.
"We had to test the adhesive, to make sure it wouldn't come off," she says. "I went to the mall and tried on some clothes. I was hoping it would show up on the security camera, but nobody seemed to care." Meanwhile, she is applying gray-green camouflage makeup to a ghoul couple -- the woman in a Victorian gown and upswept bouffant, the man in an Incredible Hulk wife-beater, although his starched silver hair makes him look suspiciously like Joe Piscopo doing the reanimated corpse of Frank Sinatra.
There are no crew members standing idle on this set, no Teamsters napping or bellying up to the craft-services table. The equipment consists of two tripod-mounted Canon GL-1 Prosumer Mini-DV cameras, one of which is resting on something called a Microdolly, and one lonely light stand. Nearby, a 6-inch Sony Trinitron monitor rests on a rolled-up bath towel. The three-person crew's strongest recommendation, by their own admission, is that they were free on a Saturday night (one of them is here in exchange for equipment he will borrow for his own shoot tomorrow night). Everyone chips in, the lead actor doubling as an assistant director, the lead actress refilling her own prop champagne flute.
Alex Grant makes a beautiful corpse.
"Let's just go," says the director, over the objections of the actual prop master, who is also her boyfriend, as well as a reporter from Variety. He is having trouble getting a photogenic blaze going in the fireplace. "Get me a Bernie Weinraub story to burn," he calls, referencing the notoriously long-winded New York Times feature writer. The impulse is cut short by the sound of a police helicopter circling directly overhead. "Oh, great," says the prop guycumboyfriendcumVariety scribe. "Now they're on to us."
Flashback to December 31, 1999, the cusp of the new millennium. Terrorists are trying to sneak in the back door from Canada. The Artist Formerly Known as Whatever is busy counting his expected song royalties. Congregations from Times Square to Beijing Plaza to the Pyramids watch the skies for a sign, cosmic or otherwise. And six champagne-stoked postproduction flunkies in a hot tub at Big Bear are taking the longer view: They vow to each make a short film a month for six months, by the end of which they will have mobilized their dreams and manifested their destinies. Little do they suspect that, two years later, their simple idea will have inspired 600-plus films by 150 different filmmakers, and spawned auxiliary movements in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Prague, Tokyo and beyond.
Shooting the witching hour:
Dina Mande, DP Justin Lang
and Jeff Consiglio (background:
the Variety guy)
Or at least that's the official version. But in Hollywood, of course, it's more a question of who you know than who you bathe with, and so when five of these six type-A personalities gather at the 101 Café in Beachwood, they recount the following genealogy: Freelance graphic designerart director Aaron Hendricks (who does "show opens and promos" for Warner Bros., Disney, ABC, Fox, etc.) is married to producer Maureen Timpa Hendricks (the Lord of the Rings video game, Coke commercials), who works with editor Jeff Consiglio (main titles for The Truman Show, the trailer for Armageddon, plus documentary features of his own). Aaron works with art director Dina Mande (main titles for The Sweetest Thing, the trailer for Moulin Rouge) and with producer-editor Rachel Tejeda (Disney, NBC, the Playboy Channel), who had just made a documentary on robotics. And Jeff knew theater director Dave Moore (no longer with the project), who was part of a crack design team that had just written, produced and performed its own full-length play in the space of a week.
All six had set out, once upon a time, to conquer Hollywood, and all had found themselves mired in high-paying, low-esteem jobs -- cogs in the studio machine. But rather than "sit around and drink cappuccino the rest of my life," as Maureen puts it, they allowed foiled ambition, impaired reason and peer pressure to chuck them headlong into a commitment: to conceive, write, cast, direct and, yes, post-produce a film per month each, based on a common theme. They christened this quixotic undertaking Group 101 -- as in the freshman curriculum -- and chose as their first theme, appropriately enough, "A Door Opens." (Other themes have included "Nudity," "Pain," "Heaven or Hell," "Angels and Angles," "First Kiss," "Circus" and "Death.")
The films are invariably shot on digital video or Mini-DV, edited on Final Cut Pro, feature a crew of no more than three, and rarely are longer than 10 minutes or cost more than $250 (with a mean cost of closer to $50). As a worker inside the industry, each filmmaker has access to equipment, personnel and resources far beyond the reach of the average civilian. But with 60- to 70-hour workweeks and schedules that often amount to being on 24-hour call, the real challenge -- as in the film industry proper -- is getting it done at all.
"When you've got 30 days and someone's throwing an assignment at you," says Jeff, "you spend a week trying to figure out what the hell you're going to do, you spend another week maybe honing the idea, then you've got to try and write the thing. By the time you crew up, you're just calling people and saying, 'Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night? Can you come over and hold a mike for me?' Sometimes you get a DP, sometimes you shoot on film. Sometimes it's grand, but most times it's just whatever it takes."
IF YOU PULL UP THE GROUP 101 WEB SITE, you are immediately met with the slogan "The first two or three were fun; now it's some kind of sick compulsion fueled by God knows what." Other maxims that seem to have arisen directly from experience include "Tape is cheap and inertia is expensive," "You have 30 days -- get off your ass" and the concise, T-shirt-ready "Freedom to suck." In fact, the entire site is tinged with the sort of breezy insouciance and lack of self-importance that is crucial to the world domination that Group 101 clearly has in mind. In the members-only area, under "Instructions," there is the admonition "Play fair. All I want is for you kids to get along." Elsewhere, a list of standing rules is labeled "Our Bible: Learn it. Love it. Do it."
The obvious comparison is to Dogma 95, the seven-year-old Danish film movement that produced a handful of native features by Lars von Trier (The Idiots), Thomas Vinterberg (Celebration) and others, and whose Vow of Chastity -- a refusal to cohabitate with Hollywood or play along with its conventions -- was subsequently taken up by filmmakers worldwide. With Group 101, the only constraints on artifice are budgetary. But also, the demands of a compressed running time and adherence to a common theme result in a very different approach -- elliptical narrative, technical flash, MTV-style editing hijinks, a high level of abstraction or formalism, bite-size blackout humor -- i.e., one that seems more attuned to Madison Avenue's agenda than to that of Group 101's Dogma 95 forebears. Between the carrot of a compelling theme and the stick of a short-term deadline, it's also far easier to bypass the pretensions and perfectionism that so often leave creative efforts stillborn. And by adjusting the themes to their own strengths and weaknesses, members can force themselves to use creative muscles they might not have otherwise -- short-circuiting their natural skills as editors, for example, by mandating that one month's films all be shot in a single take.
Very quickly, Group 101 formalized a workshop approach to its monthly screening sessions: The films are shown without apology or caveat, everyone present has to comment, and no one besides the filmmakers themselves can attend the first screenings. ("It's hard to say 'Your actor sucks' if he's sitting there, or 'Who shot this piece of crap?'" explains Maureen, pickup talent and cinematographers-in-training being, by definition, hit-or-miss affairs.)
The ghoul-couple shoot is Dina's, and is competing for a place in a program of Group 101 shorts the AMC cable network intends to broadcast over Halloween weekend. Titled "The Witching Hour," the one-minute opus is the story of two couples -- one living, one dead -- who, unbeknownst to each other, occupy the same house. Kind of The Others meets The Honeymooners.
The living couple is played by Group 101 mainstays Pip Newson and Cristo Dimassis. Pip is the undisputed queen of Group 101 actors, having appeared in an estimated 30 shorts, including four for Dina, at least one apiece for Jeff and Maureen, and a whopping 10 for Aaron. Originally hailing from New Zealand, she has chosen to adopt a credible American accent for as long as she's here. "You give casting agents any excuse, and they'll use it," says this softer-edged Ashley Judd. "So I just stay more or less permanently in character while I'm here. Whenever I go back, it starts to slip out."
Cristo, a square-jawed Bruce Campbell type, has done half a dozen Group 101 films, including several by Michael Medaglia (available on Mike's own Web site, www.prettypictures.com; "Danse Mediocre" is particularly goofy). Opposite them (in ghoul makeup) are Gregory Macdonald, who identifies himself as one of the two white guys in Ice Cube's The Players Club ("Not the old white guy in the hot tub, the other one"), and Alex Grant, who was last seen as a leather-clad dominatrix in Dina's spec commercial spot for Coleman's Hotter Mustard.
Indeed, once you start navigating the Group 101 film universe, at least as reflected in the 40-odd films posted on the Web site from the first and second waves, you discover the early rudiments of a star system: Newson in Jeff's "The Exchange" or Aaron's "Terminal Illness" (which both use the same dialogue to radically different effect), Michelle Featherstone in Dina's "A Dog Story" or "Wiggly Man," Michelle Carr in Jeff's "Falling Prey" (alongside Featherstone and Newson). And the closer you look, the more self-references and in-jokes you discover, the more you're drawn into this insular society. Which is no doubt the point.
IN AUGUST 2000, THE FIVE PARTICIpating members of Group 101 organized what was to have been a one-time screening for actors and intimates. Commandeering a weeknight at Club Fais Do Do (on West Adams between Fairfax and La Brea), they showed an hour and a half of homegrown cinema, sans air conditioning, to what turned out to be a rapturously enthusiastic crowd of 250.
"They applauded. They loved it," says Jeff. "And then, afterwards, people were just crazy about the idea, so we made the challenge. We stood up at the end of the screening and said, 'If you want to do what we did, come join us.' And about 15 people stood up and said, 'Yeah, I want to do it.'"
Out of that tent-revival moment, the second wave of eight filmmakers was born -- initially called Group 102, but when the third wave produced some 80 participants, they declared everyone Group 101 and subdivided into nine tribes named after famous film icons: Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects, Max Fischer from Rushmore, Rosebud from that Rosebud movie, etc. A subsequent screening, christened the Shortorder Film Festival, was held in May 2001 as a fund-raiser for the Shakespeare Festival/L.A., before a crowd of 400 at the Knitting Factory. The evening was hosted by Charlie's Angels director McG, and raised more than $10,000. (At the benefit, McG announced, "I'm one of you guys -- I just got lucky.")
A fourth wave of 70 filmmakers was launched earlier this year, some 30 of whom were holdovers from the third wave. Their films will be shown August 15, again at Fais Do Do. In the process of overseeing each subsequent group, the founding members stumbled upon perhaps the biggest secret motivator of all -- community.
"Everybody in L.A. is going for the brass ring," says Jeff. "All of us at this table are. And that's part of our lives. But it's hard to find a community of people who are satisfying their own creative impulses together. There aren't really all that many such communities in L.A. We've created one."
Adds Dina: "I prefer to think of us as the Weight Watchers of filmmaking -- you have to weigh in once a month, there's guilt and shame involved, and we all build support."
Participants in the rapidly expanding program include not only burgeoning directors, but actors looking to expand their demo reels, cinematographers making calling-card films, animators, documentarians -- even working directors who just want to recharge their batteries, or experiment with the medium. Anthony Dalesandro, director of Escape to Grizzly Mountain, for instance, joined to perfect an idea he had about telling a story in a fractured, David Hockney style ("The Box," available on the Web site).
Some recruits even learn that filmmaking, or at least the production end of it, is specifically not what they want to be doing -- a revelation that might have come after five or 10 more years of waiting around for the chance to direct.
"We all have films that will never see the light of day, and that's okay," says Dina. "You're not risking your professional reputation, or your client, or a significant amount of money or time."
"We're advocating action rather than just talking about it," adds Rachel. "You can talk and talk and talk, but once you actually convene to do the thing that you dream of, it's never how you imagine it to be. Once you walk on the set and try it, it's always harder and slower and more painful. But it's ultimately empowering that you realize your own goal, that you walk through some sort of gauntlet. People hold themselves back all the time, and this is one way to overcome that."
"Try the experiment out," concludes Aaron. "If it works, great, you're a genius. If it doesn't work, put it in the closet, don't worry about it, it's 30 days out of your life."
Closing in on its own witching hour of 2 a.m., Dina's makeshift crew is setting up for the "picture martini," the final shot of the night. People are getting tired. Jeff, who's been helping out on sound, just stuck the boom mike into the whirring blades of a ceiling fan. Claire Nach, the special-effects/makeup woman, regales those still with us with her most recent infomercial credits -- one for the Freedom Ring, which shoots Mace, and one for something variously called Eliminodor, Terminodor or Vacu-Fresh, a kind of sawed-off Dustbuster that attaches to the back of your toilet and sucks up noxious fumes. It is unclear from the story where her makeup skills leave off and her special-effects skills begin.
Dina has framed all four cast members in bed in a Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice shot, and is looking to dial up the energy. "It would be nice if you were spooning, maybe," she says to the two male actors, anticipating a comic reveal. "Good Lord," says Justin Lang, her DP, as scenes from a career in porn flash before his eyes. Everyone gets a close-up, and then it's a wrap -- with at least some of them scheduled to start their next film in just 17 hours.
AS GROUP 101 GROWS, CHANGE IS INevitable. In the past year, what it calls "distant chapters" have sprouted up both domestically and abroad. One year ago, friends of Jeff -- an actress and a composer -- put off relocating to L.A. and started a New York chapter, which, being New Yorkers, they renamed Quick Flix. Once the Web site had been established, e-mails started pouring in from Japan, Australia, Korea and across the planet, from people wanting to get involved. The Copenhagen chapter has just finished its first wave of films (Dogma, look to your laurels). The Chicago and San Francisco chapters are in the middle of their first wave. (The Chicago chapter was founded by an actress who later discovered she had been Maureen's roommate in college.) And there are nascent groups in Prague, Tokyo, Orlando, Nashville and Dallas, with many others in the planning stages. Group 101 offers e-mail mentorship to the chapters who request it, and asks a $250 flat franchise fee in return. And the site's message boards have become a continuous scroll of crew positions, casting calls, job opportunities and insider tips, as virtually all of the L.A. members are employed in the industry. "You look at our e-mail list," says Maureen, "and it's like a laundry list of every top entertainment company in the world."
The founding five, as such, are in the process of incorporating, and have instituted dues ($100 for the six-month program), as much to weed out the pikers as to cover operating costs. And they are trying to balance the possibility of applying for and administering nonprofit grants against the much larger ambition of seguing into features and beyond. A showcase of Group 101 films is currently available at http://ifilm.com, and the community is reaching out to a whole spectrum of like-minded organizations in the interest of forming strategic alliances: to the Writers Boot Camp, to Exploding Cinema, to improv groups and theater companies. This year, they sponsored a short screenplay competition on the theme of "The Nick of Time," in conjunction with Words From Here, a Web site established by former applicants to HBO's Project Greenlight. The contest generated more than 200 submissions, the best of which are posted in the members-only area of the Group 101 Web site to attract collaborators. The site also has T-shirts, ball caps and stenciled mugs for sale. And there is always the possibility of corporate sponsorship -- say, by a major credit-card company, which would be appropriate inasmuch as independent filmmaking continually threatens to collapse the private-banking system.
But aside from whatever future markets ambition and innovation may reveal, there is, for now, the confidence that comes from having accomplished something -- especially in an industry that intimidates almost as second nature.
"You know, I felt that I was a great filmmaker five years ago," says Jeff. "I made a $70,000 short film that stunk. I made a $50,000 short film on credit cards. It took me four years to pay it off, and by the time I did, it was $70,000. It's a beautiful film. It doesn't make a lick of sense. But for $70,000, I could have bought a house.
"We're all so precious with our goddamn work -- we're gonna make this epic film that's gonna change Hollywood and our lives -- and I thought, 'My God, I'm never going to make another film, because I blew everything on that one.' But then this group came along, and it said, 'Here's a camera, go make a film,' and that's liberated me. I still haven't made a film that's on Spielberg's radar or anything, but I feel I could do that if I were handed the right materials, because the intimidation is gone.
"I've also learned my life is better in a way, because I've learned to take pride in this thing we've created, in nurturing this huge collective, which I find immensely rewarding. And I feel like I'm getting closer to being the filmmaker I've always wanted to be. When I get there, I'll find out that it's nothing like I ever imagined it. That's what this teaches you: Every time you think you know it, there's something else."
Group 101 will screen a collection of short films on Thursday, August 15, 7 p.m., at Fais Do Do, 5257 W. Adams Blvd.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.