A still from Dutch Elm Disease's 2022 film, Katinowit, with Matthew Ford and Kenneth Murray.. Image contributed by Ben Hecht of Dutch Elm Disease.
Stephen Bisaccia and Caitlyn Meindl have a ritual this time of year. They call friends, peers, fellow film dorks and actors that they know, assembling a cast and crew that can be nimble at the drop of a hat. They start scouting out locations in and around New Haven. They prepare to not sleep for the better part of 48 hours, building up a stamina they haven’t used for at least a year.
And then, on the cusp of the action they know will follow, they step into the unknown.
At the end of this month, they will be among hundreds of participants in New Haven’s 13th annual 48 Hour Film Project, a mad dash to make, edit, render and submit a film in a single weekend. The longest running timed film competition in the world, the 48 Hour Film Project (or as it is more colloquially known, simply "the 48") first came to New Haven in 2010, and has since bloomed into its second decade.
The event takes place July 28 through 30 in New Haven, with a Friday night kickoff at Armada Brewing and an August 5 film screening at the Bijou Theater in downtown Bridgeport. Registration and more information is available here.
“It’s a very supportive creative community in New Haven, in Connecticut, and that extends to film production,” said Trish Clark, who has been running the film festival’s New Haven chapter for all 13 years, on a recent episode of WNHH Community Radio’s “Arts Respond.” “My joy is seeing the creative community at the end. Seeing them just like, so happy to get to see it up on screen. Because sometimes, this is the only time some of these filmmakers are up on a big screen like that.”
Her enthusiasm for the project, which is often contagious, is also the story of its arrival in Connecticut. Twenty-three years ago, the event started in Washington D.C., from which it spread to over 150 towns and cities across the globe.
At some point in its early years, a friend of Clark’s participated in an iteration in Cleveland. He told her how much fun it had been—and suggested she bring it to Connecticut. When she reached out to the national project, a representative in D.C. suggested she bring it to Hartford.
That wasn’t how to do it in Connecticut, she told him in response. When she tells the story now, a listener can almost hear a guffaw at the edges of her voice.
“I responded, and I said ‘I think that’s a typo, and you meant New Haven,’” she said. “So that’s how it happened. That’s how I got the job doing this.”
She’s done it for over a decade—almost two-thirds of her daughter’s life—because she loves the unbound, unpredictable energy of it, and the relationships that bloom in its long-yet-short two days. The format works because of its unknowns: teams are never quite sure what (or sometimes who) they’re working with until they’re working with it.
On the Friday evening of the competition, they attend a kickoff event where they receive a film genre, character prop, and line of dialogue that must appear in the film.Then they have 48 hours to make magic.
In past years, that has resulted in everything from Westerns with a mortuary bent to podiatrist-centered musicals. They may be filmed on professional equipment, cell phone cameras and everything in between. From an initial nine teams that signed up in the summer of 2010, Clark has seen registration skyrocket, growing closer to 40 in the last two years. Now, she said, entrants range from elementary schoolers to senior citizens.
Teams are also a sort of unknown, she added: they may range from a solo filmmaker to four dozen people, including industry professionals who have worked in the field. Clark said that in 13 years, she’s seen groups from not just all over the state, but also New York and the New England region.
Ben Hecht, whose team Dutch Elm Disease has since gone on to win several 48 Hour awards and become a recognizable name at the event, tried out the project for the first time 11 years ago. He had attended one of Clark’s pre-48 events at a bar in downtown New Haven, and “I thought it would be a good idea to make a film with friends,” he remembered in a phone call Thursday afternoon.
He’s kept coming back because he loves the festival’s inherent challenge: it’s hard to make a professional film against the clock. It’s a blast, too, he said. And in New Haven, which is just one town over from the Hamden home where he grew up, it feels like a celebration of the place that raised him. Last year, his film Katinowit took home awards for best costumes (Karissa Vasil Amanda Ward), best music, and best shot of New Haven.
“Working in the constraints of a weekend, and with all the rules, kind of helps to create a focused, creative project,” he said Thursday, adding that he doesn’t know what to expect for this year, but is already excited. “At the end of the weekend, you come out having accomplished something, and sharing that with friends and newcomers to the project.”
So too for Bisaccia and Meindl, who both began competing several years ago when they were still students studying film at Quinnipiac University. Like Hecht, they stuck with it because they loved the format. Bisaccia, who is now a video producer for Wesleyan University, joined around 2010; Meindl came onboard a few years later.
In a phone call Thursday, she joked that it has become an annual part of their relationship that they look forward to. Each year marks a new opportunity to network, particularly during filmmaking and at the screening afterward. The final screening always doubles as a sort of thrilling date night.
“It forces you to be creative,” she said, adding that Clark is “the glue that holds it all together.” While she and Bisaccia have become fairly competitive in the past few years, they end the event most excited to meet fellow filmmakers, from whom they have found they can always learn something. For her, it’s also a welcome creative outlet as she pursues her studies in physical therapy.
“A lot of my favorite memories are associated with the premieres and the awards night,” Bisaccia said. ‘To be in a room with other people is really, really special.”
Thomas Breen for the New Haven Independent File Photo.
Over the 13 years, Clark has also grown to love the project for its spirit of collaboration and camaraderie. While over three dozen teams may be competing against each other, all of them come together for a screening of the films. In over a decade of running the competition, Clark has seen teams cheer each other on, network, and ask for filmmaking advice with the intention of collaborating.
“There’s no bashing of any kind,” she said. “It’s just support and love for everybody’s films. Everyone’s gone through the same gauntlet of having to do this in this short time frame.”
This year, that begins the evening of July 28 at Armada Brewing at 190 River St. in New Haven (“It’s a party!” Clark said). Teams, which must send at least one representative to the first night event, select their genre at random from a pinko board, with categories that can range from climate and political films to mockumentary to musical. It’s at that time they also receive directions around a character, prop, and line of dialogue.
Then, they’re off for a wild 48 hours. Clark is on the clock during that time too: the 48 Hour Film Project’s hotline goes directly to her cell phone. More than once, she’s spent hours helping a team through a hurdle as they race to finish a project. One week later, she and filmmakers gather to celebrate their work at a screening at the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport.
It doesn’t end there, she added. The winning film from New Haven’s competition goes on to Filmapalooza, where it is in the running for a $5,000 grand prize and a chance to screen at the Cannes International Film Festival. In 2015 and again in 2017, Boston-based filmmakers Wax Idiotical Films achieved that honor with their works.
“That’s the unique thing,” Clark said. “You never know what you’re gonna get. Sometimes an underlying theme—last year it was death—ends up popping up. But you don’t know what’s gonna happen when you’re doing a 48.”
For more from the WNHH Community Radio interview with Clark, check out the audio above.