Escape Room: 48 Hour Film Project

Peggy Lee and me, preparing to shoot a walk-up scene. Photo Credit Jose Juarez, Special to Detroit News


Shortly after we closed Romeo & Juliet at Little Door Theatre, a castmate texted many of us to say that a friend of hers was looking for actors to participate in his 48 Hour Film Project production. As it happened, that friend of hers was also a friend of mine: Jeremy Rahn, who had played Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the previous summer at St. Dunstan’s Theatre. He had also helped out on Romeo & Juliet with fight choreography, during which I had told him I’d be happy to help on anything he was ever working on, because he was just a damn cool dude, and one who I respected both personally and creatively. So I texted him to remind of that offer…

And like that, I was on the team.

Dan Dobrovich, who had directed us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was the other team leader with Jeremy, and we were being joined by a couple other veterans of that production: Peggy Lee and Christian Zilko who had shared assistant director duties. This time, it would be Jeremy directing the show and Dan was slated for the lead actor, with Peggy as lead actress and Christian as assistant director again. By the time we got to shooting, we had added Stephanie Peltier, who had played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Apart from that, Dan had assembled a ridiculously competent crew who brought a lot of very professional equipment with them. I was incredibly impressed and really hopeful that this would turn into something really cool. In truth, it met and exceeded my expectations.

To give a quick background on the 48 Hour Film Project, it’s a contest run in a couple dozen cities around the US. The goal is to write, shoot, and edit a short film in just 48 hours. Team leaders select a pair of genres and must shoot their film recognizably as one or the other, and everyone is given the same character, prop, and line of dialogue that must be incorporated into the film as a protection against teams writing and shooting early. After the kickoff event, we gathered at the home of one of the crew, a beautiful lake house in central Oakland County, and started to go over the basics of our challenge. Enhanced difficulty: the genres we drew were Horror and Period Piece, neither of which the creative team were all that excited about. Jeremy and Dan had brainstormed an idea on the way back from the kickoff event for a horror movie centered around the recreational escape rooms that have started to spring up. We tossed the idea around a bit, discussed some challenges, and then Jeremy and Dan went off to write the script while we went off to sleep. Call time would be 7:30am, back at the lake house.

We showed back up there pretty promptly and got to work, reading over the script, discussing shots and locations, and then we were off and running. I had to jet away for a little bit in order to attend a picnic I was theoretically helping to host, and the script had been written to reflect my lower availability. And there was still tons to do when I got back. (Starting with putting drops in Stephanie’s eyes so she could shoot a crying scene.) We shot out of order, as happens often with film, taking advantage of natural light and other opportunities. In fact, we ended up reshooting most of the stuff I did before I left for the picnic on account of the light being better in the room we had been in. The last thing I shot, however, was my last appearance in the film. It had to go last, though, since it involved me being soaked with fake blood and our wardrobe department (namely, my closet) only had one of the button-down shirts I was wearing. Had to be judicious with it.

We wrapped shooting less than twelve hours after we started, which everyone seemed to think was a pretty decent accomplishment. For my first experience filming anything, I was just happy that I had gotten to do it at all, and would gladly have gone on into the night. But we were also getting a bit tired and loopy, so it was probably just as well.

Tonight I’m attending the screening for the film, along with eight or nine others. Around 40 total teams participated this year, so I gather that they were all divided into groups to make the screening process easier. I’m really looking forward to how it all turned out, and what it looks like to see myself on the big screen. Should be exciting!

Building A Set

Last spring, my friend Erin approached me and said, “Build me a set worthy of the gods!”

Well, not really, as Erin is rather shy and retirning, so when I went to her and said, “I can help build you a set for The Haunting of Hill House, if you need it.” She kind of shrugged and said, “Suuuure?” From anyone else, I’d take that answer as a hint and smile and wait for them to call me. But it was Erin and that was an eager acceptance of the offer. I first met her doing Out of Order, my first show back acting in years and years, and it took until a trip to the bar after our final regular rehearsal before she actually started to talk to any of the cast, really. But we bonded during the performances and after-parties, and so when she got her first shot at directing a show of her own, I jumped up to help her.

So what I’m saying is, it’s like she came to me and said, “Build me a set worthy of the gods!”

What followed was one of the more interesting creative experiences I’ve ever had. I got some help from other theatre members, but not really enough, so for the most part it was Erin and I, laying it out, going to the hardware store, and then a lot of quiet hours on my own putting up flats and building platforms, the latter with some help from Scott, the Assistant Director. The set required a few special effects, including doors that closed themselves, a flexible wall that could stretch and make it look like the house itself was reaching for one of the actresses, and a door that could flex without looking damaged after the fact. The last effect is the only one I wasn’t entirely pleased with, but time ended up being scarce, not to mention most other resources. In the end, though, I’m pretty proud of what we accomplished with it.

I ended up also being cast in the show, which was also a good experience as it helped me understand more intimately what was required of the set as I was building. Not something I generally want to repeat, since it ate most of my evenings for all of October, but interesting just the same. And now I’m about to embark on building my next set for my friend Chris, who was in The Haunting of Hill House and let me know right then and there that he’d be asking me to build the set for the next show he directed, whatever it was.

For funsies, here’s an animated gif of the set coming together.

Election Aftermath 2016

I suppose I’ll be writing a lot of these, because I have a lot of thoughts, and I don’t want to ramble on endlessly. But it occurs to me that the most important thing, in the moment, is to recognize the essential weakness of the recent progressive movement.

Now, it’s entirely possible that we’ll wake up tomorrow, and he will in fact have lost. Though the problem, and the weakness, will by no means have gone away. And it’s also possible that, if he has indeed won, we’ll find in the months and years to come that undoing the legal progress of the last eight years in particular will be harder than we fear. Even with someone like Trump at the helm, even with a very conservative legislature, and likely a conservative judiciary. It’s possible. But it’s also unlikely. One has to imagine that new legal challenges to progress we had thought finally enshrined in law will crop up immediately, anticipating a Scalia-like arch-conservative to be appointed to the Supreme Court. And one can’t help but imagine them succeeding.

And therein lies the weakness.

Rather than try to convince our fellow Americans of the righteousness of social progress, of acceptance, of tolerance, we’ve put a lot of eggs into a singular, authoritarian basket. We have put uncountable energy, and so very many hopes and fears, into the election of a single person that we hope will stand up for us, and we hope that person will push, shove, and bludgeon those that disagree with us into acquiescence, if not agreement.

But acquiescence is not something to build long-term change on. In fact, I think it’s growing more apparent all the time that this strategy–engaged on by both sides–has done nothing but to carve a hole in the middle, where we might meet and discuss things. You against me. Us against them. If we don’t defeat them, it will be the end of us. They don’t understand. They can’t understand. I think the reasons for this are legion, and are reinforced and encouraged in so many ways. I don’t think it’s anything like a conspiracy even, but more like a feedback loop. An echo chamber. We often talk of people as though they’re in particular echo chambers, learning only what they want to learn. And while I think that’s true, I think we’re all within another one, that increasingly amplifies the notion that the only way to progress is through electoral domination.

I think I’ve always disagreed with that notion, but tonight has crystallized the idea perfectly.

Let me be clear that I don’t think we shouldn’t fight for the right laws to protect people who need protecting. But I think we’re too focused on law, and using law as a shield against a hostile other, for the most part utterly abandoning that other and their needs and values in the name of promoting our own. If we can convince people who disagree with us, and maybe understand why they disagree with us, the matter of law and the question of electoral leadership could, in theory, become much less controversial, and much less divisive. Otherwise, we run the very serious risk of tearing this society apart, irreparably.

We have been on that trajectory for a while. Lots of blame for it can be laid here, and there. I personally think the more conservative elements of society are more to blame, but then, they’re the ones who have traditionally relied more on authoritarian solutions. As a defensive measure, for the most part, progressives have relied on it more and more themselves. And the despair I see in the words of my friends tonight makes me realize what a hopeless game that is. Any progress could be undone. Walls could go up, marriages made illegal, rights of all manner curtailed or destroyed.

But here’s the interesting thing. While all of this doom has been descending, one of the cornerstone strategies of old, racist authoritarians to keep African-Americans poor and disenfranchised, has quietly been crumbling. Tonight, nine states voted to in some way legalize or decriminalize marijuana use, many of them voting to do so even for recreational purposes. While we’ve been tussling over who controls the White House, we’ve been steadily working away on a lower level at one of the myriad tools of injustice.

What else could we do if we focused all of this election energy in that direction? And not even just to state or local referenda, but to the very basic job of finding common ground with the people who disagree, and changing their minds. One of the most pernicious lies I’ve seen tossed around is that you can’t change anyone’s mind, particularly in a Facebook discussion. I certainly have bought into it myself, and I believe it true still to some extent, but I think it’s more about how we craft those conversations than the conversation, or the medium of Facebook (or Twitter or whatever) itself.

Democracy isn’t just, or doesn’t have to be just about who gets the most votes, and the power they wield over the loser. Two champions whacking at each other with swords on a battlefield is recognized to be a fraught and bankrupt method of deciding who knows best how to serve a people as leader. But tonight in particular, it seems like that is what our democracy has come to. We have to stop putting our eggs all in that basket. We have to find new strategies for bringing America, all of it, everyone, forward. We have made progress on that score in a lot of ways, and it is incumbent on us who want to see change, and to see progress guaranteed, to double down on those strategies, particularly in the coming months and years.

And if I wake up in the morning, and somehow Clinton has pulled it out, and we’re spared the nightmare of a Trump presidency, this work will still be before us. The system is still wrong, even if our champion rallied at the last second and came out on top. We’ll still hold the advantage only by a knife’s edge, and she will still just be a shield against the other. It’s time to stop thinking of them as the other, and start working on making them us.

Last One Out

Last year, I found myself in the strange position of being the last member of my extended family to live in the house my mother’s parents had owned since the late 1950s. That was a rather odd experience. I was working in metro Detroit (while there rest of my own family was still in Grand Rapids), my grandmother had moved to assisted living, and the family needed someone to do some extended house-sitting while they first convinced my grandmother to sell it, then prepped it to be sold. It was cheap, and close enough to work, so I jumped at it.

Leaving it was strange, getting the last of my things out when I moved with my family into an apartment nearer to my job. Walking through empty rooms, knowing that it had been sold to someone else, that someone else would soon start to build memories there. I liked the town the house was in, hard against 8 Mile Road, the infamous northern border of Detroit. Whites had streamed out of there in the 80s and 90s, furthering the “white flight” from the inner city to the suburbs, then to the more distant suburbs (precisely the path my parents had taken in the mid-80s). The neighborhood was exactly as I remembered it, with well-tended lawns and houses and working class folks everywhere.

Saturday, I kind of get to do it again. My other grandmother passed away back in December and that side of my family has gotten their act together, cleaned out the house, and sold it. Closing is in a couple weeks, so Saturday I go over there to take the last couple things we elected to save out of the garage. My Dad’s parents had owned that house since the 1950s, or early 1960s, and it was a touchstone of my childhood, a constant where my own home and neighborhood had changed. Grandma’s was always, or nearly always the same.

And now, like my other grandparents’ home, it’s about to be gone, to be a new home for someone else. I hope it is for them what it was for me.

Greater Mobility

Speaking of geographic mobility, yesterday we ended our temporary single car adventure by getting my wife’s minivan fixed. The “fix” involved replacing the battery–no simple task in her van’s crowded engine compartment–the alternator tested, and a headlight replaced. We hadn’t bothered when we discovered the issue back at the end of February because, aside from a couple points where we needed to be in two places outside of the home at once, we really didn’t need two cars.

However, those points added up and looked to continue to be obnoxious. It meant I had to go into work late, or get dropped off and picked up, and while those were doable, they’re not really sustainable. And the costs savings of only operating one car wasn’t all that great, either. Since we don’t drive the second car all that much, we don’t spend a lot filling it with gas, and the insurance, while not exactly negligible isn’t a life-changing amount of money, either. So we figured having the flexibility, ultimately, was more valuable than the minor cash savings.

That said, I’m forever attracted to the idea of going car-less or car-light. Even living in Metro Detroit, bastion of the automobile, I figure its really quite feasible. I’ve gone without a car on a couple of other (extended) occasions, and it mostly meant a lot of walking and having a certain savvy for the local bus system which, truth be told, isn’t terrible around here. I know, “not actively awful” isn’t exactly high praise, but I’ll take it. I’m confident it’ll (probably) get better.