Lance Saint P.J.
It all started at a D&D session (4th edition at the time, for those interested). Our group was made up of filmmakers that had all worked in the indy scene around Chicago. Our DM, Josh, had gotten word of a seventy-two-hour film fest and was gauging our interest. The grand prize was $2,500 cash and an additional $10,000 to be used for a short film. The rules were simple. They would give us a line of dialogue, a random prop, and a location we would have to include in a film created entirely in within that time frame. It didn’t take much goading to get us to sign on. Dan, would direct, Chris would handle the camera, I would handle the sound, and Josh would produce.
Then I heard Dan say, “What if we made a D&D movie? My brother works in theater and I can get him to loan us some costumes.” We all laughed. Seeing as we were essentially role-playing group with a film making problem, it made sense.
“You know what would be really cool?” Josh had said next, “If we did a D&D musical.”
If I had been mid sip through a drink, I would have hosed the whole table down. I had a background in music and knew my way around a microphone, but that seemed insane and it would be up to me to make that happen.
The others were incredulous too, but Josh had connections. Musicians, actors, singers, writers, you name it. We had the raw assets. However, it would depend on if the three random elements would line up with the concept.
Dan was convinced. “You think you can bring it together?” he asked me.
I can still remember how it felt to suppress the panic in my system. In my mind, I could see how I might be able to do it, but I had no idea how much time it would take and there was a chance this idea would die on the vine. Hopefully, I managed to not look too stressed when I said, “Yes”.
Then the day came. We had gathered over a dozen people to help our team and eagerly awaited the official e-mail that would signal the start of the race.
When it came, it listed the three elements we had to include in the film; our prop was a picture of some random guy who vaguely looked like Eminem, our line of dialogue was “Call me when you are on the other side”, and our location was a stairway. We all knew then that there was nothing stopping us from taking the D&D musical concept and running with it.
We split into two groups. Dan took the lead in a room full of writers and I was in another with musicians. The trick was, as the writers developed the plot the musicians would need to write and record lyrics to go over stock music. (Note, we had to waste a little time to get approval by the powers that be about this, but they deemed it legal).
Josh would pop back and forth between the rooms to communicate. “We need the first song to be about a guy singing about his love for a princess.” He told us. “The next bit will be a scene in which the group armors up. Get back to you on the rest.”
Both groups began to pick up steam as ideas began to flow. In the writer’s room there was some conflict. Halfway in they threw away the script, but kept the skeleton of the plot because they knew they were married to moments they were giving us to flush out in song.
Josh came back to us. “We are killing off a character at the end of the second act and we need a swan-song. You can include our assigned line in that, right?”
That was too delicious of an opportunity to pass up.
“Hell yes!” I had said.
Time was ticking away and I was riding the rush of fear and excitement of chasing the deadline.
Once we had all of our lyrics written down we had to record the vocals we had roughed out over the stock music. At this point, everyone was already exhausted, but the singers pushed through. By the time the script writers were calling it a day, I was finishing up recording vocals and began editing the music because we needed to have at least roughs tracks ready for playback when we filmed in the morning.
I didn’t sleep that night. I don’t think any of us did. We all met up and began filming. We spend all day popping around from location to location. Nobody’s home was safe.
Our cinematographer, Chris, was constantly trying to stay ahead of the sun on the single day we had to film, shooting on only a single DSLR camera. He had been busy the day before as well, calling in favors to get us lenses and jib for the staircase location.
Josh who had already done so much had to take one for the team. When one of our actors had to back out, he donned a suit of armor to play the villain of the story, even though he was allergic to the metal on the costume. I never forget his perfectly miserable face as he squatted down between takes trying to remain calm despite his lack of sleep and obvious discomfort.
At the time we hadn’t figured out how the fight between the main character and the villain should end. I suggested having the “true love interest” throw her dice under the feet of the biker-knight and for our hero to take advantage. This came at the cost of using my own for the bit.
Those dice never forgave me for that and have been considered cursed ever since.
As the sun began to set we knew we were almost out of time to get the ending of the film in the can. Other interior scenes could be faked as day, but this one we had to finish outside. Dan had a dance number in mind, but that plan was dropped and he put together that sequence on the fly pulling in everyone in the cast and crew except Chris and I.
After another several hours of filming the interiors. It was time to move on to post production. Dan went immediately to the editing booth and I went back to my computer to finish the music. At this point people were getting loopy.
My body was sore. I had just spent the day with a mixer strapped to my chest and holding a microphone on a stick over my head to capture all of the dialogue and sound during production. My brain was reduced to a gray Jell-O, powered by black coffee, that buzzed in my skull.
Hours passed. Anyone who had the opportunity to sleep was too strung up to take it. Instead they handed those still working more coffee or pizza as they waited for their shift. Eventually, I had to stop picking at the music. It was as good as it was going to get.
We almost had to pull Dan off the computer with six hours to go. Chris needed time to color correct and I had to finish the post sound work.
I hadn’t slept in two days, but we had to land this bird. So I plunged on.
I wish I could tell you more about these last hours, but my memory fails me for the most part. I do remember pitching a different song for the moment when the heroes charge the villain. At the time, I was on the fence about it. The horn sounded cheesy and I had access to tracks with a better sound, but Dan insisted. It was absolutely the right call. Later, when we would get together for game sessions, I would play it when the Josh asked us to roll initiative. It became a tradition.
The only other bit I remember from the last hours of the race was that I wasn’t completely satisfied when I had to walk away from the sound edit. I knew I wouldn’t be. That was just part of deal. When it comes to the creative process many will tell you that you can pick at something forever, but at some point, you have to just call it done. In this case the deadline was unforgiving and absolute. I had no choice but rub my sore ego and submit my work so we could complete the and send off the film on time.
Once delivered, we all could finally sleep. It was time to pay the piper. Many brain cells had died, relationships were strained, and some feelings were hurt, but we finished it and come away with more stories than anyone has time to read about here.
A month later came the night of the big screening. We sat in the crowd and watched the films. There was one other group who also had a solid entry, but it wasn’t a musical where they made the prop a character, pulled off a jib shot to showcase the assigned location, nor did they sing the assigned line back at the audience. We dominated.
The Grand Prize was ours and we were handed a trophy; a toy rubber t-rex that was spray painted white and nailed to a bit of wood that was spray painted gold.
We treated it like the Stanley Cup. Everyone in our group got a day with it. We rode the high of the hard-earned victory that night not knowing of the trouble ahead.
It was revealed in the coming weeks that we hadn’t actually won a production budget as advertised. We had won the opportunity to the give a concept we developed to the guy who had put on the festival film. He would produce it and control the rights to the film completely. This left us to be essentially be free labor. We were shocked. It was like the grand prize was to be exploited.
We reached out to another group of filmmakers who won second place. They were given the option of a similar deal and weren’t about to take it either. They had done some research on the guy and found out he was a known scam artist who worked under different aliases. We looked into it and found he hadn’t even been out of prison for a whole year. The whole thing had been a crock.
We had a few more tense conversations with the guy, but we were a bunch of broke artists who couldn’t fight him in any meaningful way. Our group’s plan had always been that, if we won, we would roll the prize money of $2,500 back into the $10,000 production budget. We never saw a penny. Not even the prize money.
Everyone who participated in what was called “The Windie City Shootout” put the word out on the scam artist and the festival.
We got articles posted in local entertainment magazines about the dispute. People walked off sets if they saw the guy was involved. And when the festival was announced to come back the next year, we launched a campaign to let everyone know what a scam it was. It was canceled.
At the end of the day, we didn’t come away completely empty handed. We still had this wonderful little film we were all very proud of. Don’t get me wrong, I am still pissed about this over a half decade later, but our group went on to have more adventures and to make more films which can be seen at www.redlegfilms.com.
Lance Saint P.J. is a writer, filmmaker, and absurd human who resides in Chicago. A sound engineer for television and film by trade he has previously produced several national and local commercials, mixed cocktails for fun and profit, and consistently baked bread from scratch. Some of it has even been edible. He can be followed @LanceSaintPJ on twitter or Instagram.