HOLLYWOOD-A hush falls over the filmmakers and their families gathered at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Calif., on Saturday evening, March 31. John Ware, the founder of the 168 Film Festival, holds an envelope in his hand and announces, "And the winner of the Best Film award is ..."
Producers Dennis and Olivia Bentivengo wait in anticipation. Their film Shaken, which focuses on one man's inner turmoil as he faces an approaching tornado, is one of the eight films nominated for the award at the annual 168 Film Festival. The 76 entries are based on a randomly assigned Bible verse and each team has 168 hours-one week-to finish filming and post production.
The tight time frame and low budgets-each 168 team raises funds for its own project-force everyone, from screenwriters to directors to the post-production team, to plan ahead and focus on what's most important. The Bentivengos hope tonight will be a repeat of last year, when their film Useless took the top prize of Best Film. This year they collaborated with screenwriter Albert Portillo and director Joth Riggs, who are both veterans of the 168 competition. So far this evening, Shaken had been nominated for nine awards and had won Best Sound Design.
Bentivengo's Team 41 invited me to follow the process, from script writing to filming to post production. It began on Feb. 6 when the local teams crowded into Media City Church in Burbank to pick stones with verses taped to them. Team 41 drew Proverbs 18:10: "The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run to it and are safe."
The verse reminded the Bentivengos of a video they had seen of people taking refuge from a tornado in the freezer of a Joplin, Mo., convenience store. The Bentivengos, who had gone to Joplin to help with the cleanup efforts, now imagined the film's main character finding literal safety in God amidst the chaos. Dennis Bentivengo shared his ideas with Portillo, who spent the next week-when he wasn't at his full-time job or playing with his 6-month-old baby-pounding out draft after draft until he had one that felt right.
Then the Bentivengos and director Riggs raced to find actors and a set. They rented a defunct Burger King in Thousand Oaks for $200 for the weekend. Riggs pieced together a schedule to film the entire movie in just two nights. The night before filming began, he brought the five actors into the restaurant. Sitting around a lantern-since the building lacked electricity, water, and heat-Riggs walked through each scene and invited the actors to imagine how their characters would react, rewriting lines as needed.
When filming began on Friday, Feb. 17, the team worked creatively with what it had. To create tornado effects, production assistants (PAs) threw ripped-up newspapers and styrofoam in front of two large fans aimed at the actors. After every shot PAs swept the debris back off camera for the next take. For one scene that included a close-up of a baby, Portillo's 6-month-old bawled on cue. When actor Kevin Sizemore accidentally caught his finger between two shelves, cameras kept rolling as blood rushed down his hand. That unplanned event ended up being used in the film.
The set grew colder as the night progressed. In the darkened freezer scene, crew members filed into an adjacent room, screaming and banging on the walls to increase the sense of chaos.
The next night the set designer prepared the empty restaurant for a wide shoot-stacking food behind the counter, hanging "Mighty Mo's" menus overhead, filling the dividers with plants, and installing a TV screen that displayed "Tornado Warning." Director of photography Abe Martinez used spotlights, overhead lights, and flags to make the scene look as though it were shot in the daytime. To simulate breaking glass, Bentivengo shot rubber glass out of air mortars. One was a dud, but the one closest to the camera fired, bouncing "glass" all over the room.
Cameras zoomed in on Sizemore and Joanna Sotomura, playing his mistress Sasha, during their break-up scene. After every take, Sizemore joked around with Sotomura to keep her awake as the night dragged on. Filming wrapped as the sun rose on Sunday-five days and many steps to go before the film would be finished.
First the raw film had to go to Matthew Reithmayr for editing. With director Riggs looking over his shoulder, Reithmayr cut and stitched the film together in his home studio. He added visual effects, creating the tornado, lightning, and flying debris where green screens once stood. He added "dirt" to the corners of a window to make it look more realistic.
Then it was time for composer Fred Smith and sound editor Brandon Griffith to get to work. Smith's top priority was pacing. He started by plotting a roadmap of the film's rhythm using composition software. Then he added layers of high strings and low bass, creating a minimalist soundtrack that conveyed urgency. Griffith worked on sound editing from his home, re-recording dialogue and giving sound to the "tornado" by combining wind, rustling paper, banging metal, and even freight train sounds. He added Smith's soundtrack, then mixed the sound level so each line could be heard.
Meanwhile the producers discussed the film's budget. The whole thing cost an estimated $3,500. They had raised more than $2,300 from church members, actors, friends, and family. The Bentivengos agreed to cover the rest.
On Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours until the deadline, a copy of the rough cut went to colorist Keith Roush, who made sure the color levels from the two cameras matched. He worked at a station that resembles a turntable, with each wheel representing a different color component.
Early Friday morning, editor Reithmayr went back to work, combining the colored version and the sound, and adjusting the specs to match the 168 requirements. At 9 a.m., he loaded the final product onto an external hard drive and Riggs got stuck in traffic driving it to the Media City Church. At 10:19 a.m., 41 minutes before the 11 a.m. deadline, Dennis Bentivengo cartwheeled over the finish line and turned in Shaken.
On stage at the Alex Theatre a month later, Ware opens the envelope and pulls out the card: "...Refuge," he announces, referring to another short film set in Iraq. The Bentivengos stand up-along with Riggs and the cast and crew-and cheer for their fellow contender.
Although they didn't win the top prize, the Bentivengos plan to send the film to other film festivals, partner with like-minded 168 filmmakers on future projects, and return to the whirlwind of competition again next year.