Behind the Scenes with Proletariat Films (5/1/06)



Roberto Serrini of Team Proletariat Films (www.proletariatfilm.com) speaks about his experience in the NYC Midnight Run 2005.   With only 24 hours and a theme assignment of "Spare Change", they produced a suspense titled "Local Call" that went on to take home the grand prize out of 52 teams.

  Roberto Serrini  

"Are you sure that's legal?" is usually the question asked around 2 am. We've been going at it for about 2 hours now, back and forth, trying to push the envelope as far as we can. One of the worst things you can do with a timed contest is be trite. It's perhaps even worse then getting arrested.

But there is nothing worse then doubting yourself. You have to keep moving. Movement is the key.

The topic, "Spare Change" was given to us at midnight. The first ideas, about bums, panhandlers, and other innocuous and insipid characters, are usually the worse and immediately discarded. We brush past them like salad at Benihana and go right for the dancing shrimp show.

"Midgets. No, wait, lesbians!" the ideas come fast and furious. We use a thesaurus, a magic 8 ball, and lots of bad childhood memories to fuel our creativity. The best part about the NYC Midnight Run is that there is no room for pause. There is no time for debate, for arguing who is a better director, Fellini or Hitchcock, or who the girl at the bar was looking at last Thursday night. There is no time for that; there is only one motion toward one goal.

Sometimes I wonder if I lived my life with this mentality how far I would have gone. Surgeon? Nobel Laureate? Hugh Hefner? Hard to say…

We've been hooked on timed contest for a while, starting when two of our films went to the top 50 of the first Project Greenlight. Looking back at Pete Jones’ career we are ecstatic having not won (I think I saw him working at the Duane Reade in Times Square. Sure, it’s Times Square, but in the greeting card section? C’mon man, you’re better than that). However it added up we were hooked on the concept of forced inspiration and seemed to work best under extreme pressure. Perhaps it was all that training in procrastination from putting off homework in High School and College. In any case, six years later and a dozen contests and awards under our belt we feel a bit more confident, but we never mock the power of the timed contest. It is a force to be reckoned with.

And the NYC Midnight Run was the granddaddy of them all.

24 hours to make a film seems like a punishment you give bad directors. We cranked up the caffeine and found ourselves three hours later running around the same idea with no one's nose or ego broken too badly. That is usually a sign to start writing. The person of our three man crew who is shaking the least from caffeine overdose is selected to write out the script. The script and shot list is very important to us as we deviate from it rarely. It is important to trust the script for two reasons; first, as you're barreling down the path toward fame and glory, if you don’t have something to check your shots against, you will forget something. Re-shooting is not an option when you have a 6 hour window of filming. Second, more teams falter each year by getting what they call "coverage" and what we call "crap we're never ever going to use and will only become our living hell in the editing room". We trust in the script. It's the closest thing we have to religion.

After a two hour nightmare we wake to the sun rising. No sleep for the restless. We've done our prep work and the cameras and gear are ready to go. We go in light; one camera, a tripod, and the most important accessory, gaffer's tape. I stress going in light like the Green Beret; the beauty about having to make a film in 24 hours is that it's not he who has the best toys that win; it is he who is the most ingenuity that wins. If you were the kid that had to play with a few passed down matchbox cars in the mud, then the NYC Midnight Run is where you excel.

The actors, having been prepped the night before, arrive right on time since we told them to come half-an-hour before we needed them. We head directly to Paley Park, which is a beautiful, serene and secluded spot with a lovely fountain in the back. The location would be perfect for our metaphysical film since the park itself is pan-like, straight out of a fairytale.

Unfortunately it is totally locked up when we get down there with no hope of ever opening up before noon.

We decide to give up. We start walking back over to the train when we come across a little park behind the Ziegfeld Theater. After a look at each other and a raised eyebrow we decide that we're not beat just yet!

Keep moving!

We film fast and furious. We stick to the script like Hindus to a mantra. Of course there are a few, "do you not believe I'm dedicated?!" shouting matches, but that is bound to happen when you have an Italian on set. For a moment we feel like Gods; capturing the human condition on a thin piece of charge-coupled device to manipulate it at our will. Who can stop us now?!

"What do you mean, no camera detected?”.

There comes a moment when we realize that we should have not been born, this usually happens in the editing process. It is always something or other, either it wont import in 16:9, there is some major issue with time-code, or somehow there is footage of me singing "Take a load off fanny" wearing what appears to be a pirate costume despite having blacked out all the tapes the night before.

What I'm saying here is, leave time for editing. You're going to need it.

"Spare Change" for us was really made in the editing room. We did a ton of sound design and used montage more than any other project. We wanted to create a rhythm to the piece, to elevate a small story to something much larger. It had to be cunning and immediately engaging if it was to hold anyone's attention. Of course you cannot make an excellent film with bad footage, but the real magic truly happens in the editing room. The footage is just the building material. The art happens during editing.

We like to think that we use Caracalla footage and Michelango editing skills. At least, that's what we tell people.

Editing for 8 straight hours we like to leave an hour before deadline to check the tape. This of course will never happen. We edit up to the last minute. There is some cursing, some praying, and of course, some heavy drinking. We love it though. There is something terribly satisfying to be pressed to be so creative in such a short amount of time. We do something that giant production companies, with months worth of time and millions of dollars backing them, can't even dream of doing. So yeah, there is sweat, toil and dread, but the payoff is only that much sweeter because of it.

Somehow, we get it in on time. We have to be honest; we are not sure what it looks like. We're not sure if people are going to get it. It doesn't matter really, we're happy with the end result, and we shoot high and hope someone connects with the film. We are happy with the story; we felt it has a solid twist, and capitalizes on all our assets without over extending them. That is a lesson we have learned: know what you’re working with, know who you're working with, and push it to its very limit.

The win was a great honor for us as we were up against some very talented competition that the NYC Midnight Run attracts. Many great opportunities have come out of this success: we are currently in discussion with Netflix, Amazon, and IFC for distribution of our Timed Contest behind the scenes DVD which we have been very successful with. We are doing actor workshops helping talent find their place in the industry with real footage from well shot short films. We have even found funding for our first feature film slated for this June. But above all, the best thing to come out of the NYC Midnight Run has been the ability to work with so many amazing people who have the same passion in common: to create. To create, unrelenting, without boundary, and without circumstance.

It’s all about movement. Movement, begets movement. And the NYC Midnight Run definitely makes you move your ass off.

Our company is Proletariat Films. We are all are working class individuals that strive for artistic expression through film and digital media. Our film, “Local Call” which runs 7 minutes long was shot with a cast and crew of five (Russell Dreher, Roberto Serrini, Sean Hagerty, Paige Alenius, and Tara Toppino). We shot silent on a beat up Cannon ZR-20 in B/W. All ambient light was used, and all sound was done ADR. The total budget for the film is technically zero as we owned all the equipment, paid everyone with respect, and used old tapes. We graciously thank everyone that invested faith in us and gave us a chance to entertain you.

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To watch "Local Call", other shorts and learn more about Proletariat films, visit www.proletariatfilm.com



Roberto Serrini






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