This Week in Web Videos: Movie Cram III

On November 14th, 2015, for the third year in a row, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s best Actors, Writers, Directors, Editors, Musicians, Art Directors, and Producers got together to do — in one goddamn day — something it takes Hollywood folks like three years to do. They made a motherfucking movie. Okay, so The Weinstein Company didn’t back it, and maybe there weren’t trailers and coming attractions, or even non-smartphone cameras in some cases. Well, not maybe. There certainly weren’t, and having all that stuff definitely adds to the time it takes to put together a picture, yes. The quality isn’t the point (although, when you consider the The Cicada Hunk was written, arted, shot, edited, scored, VFX’d, and mixed in 24 hours, the quality is pretty outstanding), the drive is.

What makes Movie Cram III (and all Movie Crams before it) so singularly inspiring is the passion it charts. “UCB’s top talent” — from line producer to lead actor — is synonymous with the entertainment industry’s top comedic talent. All of these people work in their chosen field at a professional level. They make money doing comedy and yet, they choose to risk sleep and sanity to do it on their days off, for Movie Cram, for Sketch Cram, and for so many performances and rehearsals on so many nights over the course of so so many years. True comedy people (at UCB and many other theaters, stages, studios, and studio apartments around the world) make a lifetime commitment to comedy. Movie Cram is symbolic of a fire fanned not by dead presidents but by the desire to experiment and create at any cost for as long as we’re allowed.

This year’s Movie Cram was produced by the incomparable Sketch Cram stalwarts Whale Thief. Three of the group’s members, Matt Klinman, Zack Poitras, and Matt Mayer, were kind enough to give me the rundown on this glorious, Rainman-esque clusterfuck of a day.

Give me the background on Movie Cram? What started it, and what’s its goal?

Zack: Moviecram is an outcome of Sketch Cram that we do at UCB, which is sketch show where you come up with a full show in 24 hours. We wanted to push farther and see what else was possible in cramming something in a day. The first year we did a video cram and did a whole section where it was all videos. Then we were like “What’s more ambitious than that?” and decided on movie.

Matt M: We started the conversation about Movie Cram at the second ever Sketch Cram. It was a talk between Benjamin Apple and me. We didn’t come up with the “movie in a day” idea then, but were just coming up ideas of doing different things faster than you should do them. That was before we were even a group. Before I was an organizing producing member. Me and Zack, who had the idea that the same actors could play different roles as long as they were wearing a different colored shirt. That opened it up for us to shoot simultaneously and with multiple actors in a day. From that day on, we had it brewing in the back of our heads, and then we put together the resources, planned for a month, and gave it a shot.

What does the day entail?

Zack: We get together at 11:45 PM, and we are a dozen writers and a writers assistant. This year, we had Andrew Steele, who wrote Ladies Man and wrote and directed Casa de Me Padre, and we had other Onion guys and UCB people — a good group of people who we trusted. At midnight, we all start pitching ideas. Everyone pitches a few loglines of films and we slowly narrow down the list of what movies will be made that day through a system of voting called the Condorcet System.

Matt K: It’s the most accurate form of voting, according to mathematicians. The one that yields the most accurate results. It pits all options against each other in one-off fights.

What are the elements of each choice that the System uses for “pitting,” so to speak?

Matt K: We put in all of the movie titles, and we then rank the group’s preferences of what movie they want to do, from 1-18. Then, when you put it in, it pits each one of your rankings against everyone else’s and counts them so that, by the end, the top vote has won the most battles. It was voted the highest and was picked by the most people.

So you get your movie that way, and then what happens?

Zack: So, you continue the debate and that all happens around 2am. This year we didn’t pick a movie till 3:30. It was down to two that we thought would each be good, and then we just ended up doing a blind hand vote and decided to go with a movie about a cicada.

Matt K: The reason it took us this long is: we took the top 8-10 out of the voting and beat them out and they were all beating out as movies pretty easily, so it had to be a blind vote because we were so excited about all the options.

Zack: Too many good ideas. So it’s 3:30am. We’ve picked our movie. Now, we start brainstorming and beating it out and we used the story beats from [the book] Save The Cat. Matt Mayer is at the board, and has all the beats listed, and we start filling it out with stuff we’d like to see in the movie — funny lines, things like that. This took a long time and it wasn’t until 8:30am that we broke into writing the movie — we were about an hour to an hour and a half behind at this point, and we remained that way throughout the day. We only had an hour to write but we write by splitting up all of the scenes to writers so that every writer has 7-10 pages to do in an hour, which is crazy. At the end of that time, we smash all of our scenes together and, hopefully at that time, what it will equal is a movie script. Then we do a read through. As we do the read through, directors start showing up.

Matt M: We had 29 directing teams this year. Two that were in LA and the rest were here [in New York]. One director is an animator, so he didn’t come in, but we sent him the script and his assignment so he could get a little bit of extra time to do rudimentary animation, which he did on the day.

Zack: About this same time, we also have a head composer come in. We had a crew of musicians who were there. We gave the composer a basic idea of what the movie was about and he started composing, or assigning specific musical moments, to our musicians. His name is Jason Flowers. While all this is happening, we do a final read through which goes until about 11:30am, I’d say.

Matt K: Patrick and Emily Noth were also given the script because they wrote the song and music video that we played at the end of the film. They wrote and recorded a totally original, full-length rap song.

Zack: Yeah, they wrote and produced a song about the movie, and then directed and produced a music video for that song that played at the end of the movie. Back to the read through, though. It’s 11:30am with our first read through. We do notes. All of the directors are now waiting for us because we’re very far behind. We break off and do another round of [sort of unplanned] rewrites and, while that’s happening, Matt has begun to cast the whole thing.

Matt M: I start a process we call The Grid. It’s something we do for Sketch Cram, but, for Sketch Cram, it’s simpler. The Grid is what you use when you have things that you need to get done simultaneously or else they won’t get done. Since everyone is shooting all of the movie at the same time, I take all of the slug lines from the script, try to find which characters are being played, what time of day it is, where they’re being shot — if it’s day or night. I think of every kind of constraint that we will have control over and try to mash scenes up that have similar production constraints, and then mash those up with directors and actors. Then assign the actors roles and get all that stuff into a little packet that goes off to the directors so they know what they have to do. The process takes a long time. This year, I tried starting the process early, during the first read through, and I realized I couldn’t really do my job because I didn’t know what the movie was yet. I didn’t know what the themes were. I’d been in the room for when we were beating it out, but when writers write specific stuff it’s way different than how you imagined it. I had lost all the time I gained starting early. It’s basically a giant two-hour puzzle.

Zack: It was way more than that; it was a four-hour puzzle.

Matt M: It felt like a two-hour puzzle, but it was four-hour puzzle

Zack: The light goes out in New York at 4:30pm and it was about 12:30pm when we started the read through with the director, and that’s when everyone gets it in their bones after the first rewrite. This is where it definitely starts to feel like a movie. As that’s happening, actors are gathering. We had about 100 actors and they thought they’d be given their scenes and put off to shoot them, but we didn’t start to send out actors to shoot their scenes until 4 PM. So, we were way behind.

Matt K: The second read-through goes down and then I’ll go back one last time with the writers and do notes and do some final rewrites although, at that point, there’s really not much you can do.

Zack: We’re also extremely tried at that point so it’s really hard to do any task, let alone speak in sentences. Everything is so hard.

Matt M: You start blanking a lot if you don’t take breaks. You can feel it in the writer’s room when you break and each person individually checks out for a minute and then kind of tries to see when to check back in. None of us are rested or doing any work. Once everything is cast, and directors start getting their scenes, they get their cast members and then go off and shoot their scenes. We shot outside, in apartments, in theaters, wherever they could. The directors are responsible for editing their scenes also so they just have to have their section and have it to us at the UCB Theatre by 11pm where we’re waiting by a computer. We take all of their files and, we don’t have time to edit them all together so, we just put them in a VLC play list and we hit go and they play one after the other. The only thing we do is: the sound guy makes sure the sound levels are okay throughout because, in some parts, they were wildly different.

Zack: We didn’t even have all of the movie parts before we started the show; we were still waiting on parts from California and one in New York, the final scene. We started it without the ending and it went great, but it turned out we accidentally put it out of order so we had to stop the movie and reorder it. Halfway through, I had to run off stage and rearrange it. We noticed that we had skipped 20 minutes of the movie so I ran back to tell them and Benjamin Apple, without even thinking about it, was like “Go on stage now. We can fix it.” The technology now allows us to do things we couldn’t have done five years ago, the cameras just weren’t good enough.

Matt K: The dumb thing about it is: we ordered all of the clips in our binder, but, when we were putting it into VLC, we didn’t think it would automatically put clips in order even though we needed it to be out of order.

The level of detail is incredible. I’m just surprised you don’t have more fuck-ups. 

Matt K: This year was much more precarious than last year.

Zack: This was the year where it could definitely have not worked.

Matt M: Everything else fell apart even though we had planned it better.

Zack: Literally 10 minutes before the movie, we realized that we had one scene that we never assigned, so it would be missing from the movie. [To fix it], we just went into the basement of the UCB Theatre and Matt Mayer put on some different shirts and we filmed it with an iPhone and just put it into the movie. We never had filmed the scenes out of order before because we hadn’t fucked up before and felt like we’d be able to do it.

Matt M: I went into this thinking, after doing it two times, that I was prepared, but I had forgotten how shitty it makes your body feel to be awake for 24 hours. When I had to tell all of the directors and actors what part of the movie each of them had, the entire time, I was actually calling our movie The Cicadia Hunk instead of The Cicada Hunk. Everyone was laughing and I just thought I was killing it and no one explained to me that I said it wrong the whole time, and then, when I was done, I talked to my friends and said something like “That felt weird,” and they told me “Oh, you kept saying the word ‘cicada’ wrong the entire time.” In a couple of the scenes, the actors call it “cicadia” because I said it so much in the meeting.

It’s definitely one of those words that you rush around saying because you’re not sure how to pronounce it.

Matt K: Mistakes happen partially because we’re so tired. We’ve got all these plates spinning and we know some of them will crack, so it’s all about trying to keep the ones that matter spinning.

Zack: Oh we forgot to mention that, during the entire day, we also have production people who are frantically making props. We have people who are designing opening and closing credits. Someone made a movie poster to hang at the UCB when everyone came. There’s so many jobs that everyone is doing.

Oh, and here’s the Movie Cram III’s schedule, beat by beat, for the next time you want to spend a day making a feature film.

11:45 pm Friday – Writers and Whale Thief assemble at writing location
12:00 am – Start pitching movie ideas
1:15 am – Narrow down ideas
1:30 – 1:45 am – Vote for top three ideas
2:00 – 2:30 am – Select final movie idea
2:30 – 6:00 am – Beat out the movie
6:00 am – Assign scenes
6:00 – 7:00 am – Write movie
7:00 – 9:00 am – Read through w/notes and punch-ups
9:00 – 10:00 am – Rewrites
9:30 am – PA’s arrive
10:00 am – Directors arrive
10:30 am – 1:00 pm – Final read through w/ Directors
1:00 pm – Actors arrive at Madison Square Park
1:00 pm – 1:30 pm – Directors assign scenes
1:30 pm – Actors and Directors break off to film scenes
Approx. 5 pm – 9 pm – Editing
11 pm – Directors deliver their edited scenes
Midnight Saturday – Premiere film at UCB Theatre

Luke is a writer/director for CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.

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