Film: Playing a Burning Piano
Jesse goes inside the 48 Hour Film Project
I sat down at a piano doused with kerosene and gasoline and began to play.
It was September, on a hillside by a pond. The piano was a spinet, one of those squat pianos that look like an upright has been squished from above. Justin Marshburn, who moves pianos for a living, carefully set fire to the casing and backed away. Nine others looked on, four of them armed not with fire extinguishers but with cameras. We were all there to help Ryan Persaud of Sweat Transfer produce “Better Than Me,” his submission for this year’s 48 Hour Film Project.
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Leading up to the burn I was scared. As someone worried about dying a stupid death, I am fundamentally risk-averse. It occurred to me that a snapping piano wire could find one of my legs and cause a lethal injury. Spoiler: it didn’t.
The 48 Hour Film Project began between two filmmakers in 2001 and has ballooned into the largest short film contest in the world. More than 50,000 films have been submitted over the last two decades and 126 cities hosted local projects this year. Directors and writers gather on a Friday night before 7:00 PM to learn the “required elements” of that year’s project: mandatory props, characters, and lines of dialog. They draw their genre out of a hat, then scramble to write, cast, shoot, score, and edit. At 7:00 PM Sunday, they turn in their movie.
Attend a screening of the 48 Hour Film Project in your city, and you are going to get a mixed bag. There will be seasoned filmmakers testing their own expertise, but the Project is also an entry point for folks who have never made a movie. Personally, as an audience member I enjoy the cringiest gaffes as much as the tightest edits. Discovering how each team incorporates required elements is an added bonus. This year it was a tinfoil prop, the line “I have got great news,” and the character Anthony/Antonia Caldwell, meteorologist.
Quality is interesting from where the audience sits, but focusing on that alone misses the point of this annual event. Making a film together forms and deepens artistic partnerships. Sweetly, the Project’s website states, “taking part in the 48 helps people find friends, collaborators, jobs and even girlfriends & boyfriends! There are even some 48HFP married couples out there!”
City producer Will Fisher has led Charlotte’s 48 Hour Film Project since 2016, and spoke passionately at the screening this year. His is a philosophy of leadership. He believes when folks like Ryan Persaud participate in the Project, they are guiding their teams of people into new skills, new working relationships, and perhaps even a new direction in their life. There were 11 people in our team; between 28 teams submitting films this year Fisher’s vision makes sense. While participants may not find their life partner on set, I can attest that this experiment builds community.
In 2011, Persaud was in the audience at the first performance I did as part of a hip hop trio at a second story bar called the Wine Up in NoDa ( it’s since been transformed by Salud Cerveceria). We have been orbital acquaintances since, the sort of friends who are always happy to see each other around town but never get deeper than a hug and a quick catchup.
It was at one such chance meeting in September at Starlight on 22nd that Ryan recruited me for this project. It was his second year participating, and he was excited. He’s been making music in Charlotte since 2003, but last year’s 48 Hour Film Project entry was the first film he ever made. “I would not call myself a filmmaker, but I do like making films,” he told me later. “I’ve always told myself that music was just a stepping stone to get to that.”
But when I went to join the team on set, Ryan was not in unfamiliar territory. The equipment was modest, but professional. There were gimbals, light meters and softboxes, a boom mic, “quiet on set.” The group took the shoot seriously, but the day itself was dreamlike in its ease. Ryan’s was the only face familiar to me, and I realized many of these folks had never met each other before.
We worked with a lighthearted and determined focus, and as everyone realized things were going smoothly it became a thrill. Folks who had never done this before were pumped to take directions. Folks who had done this before lots, like director of photography Krizia Torres, were pumped that we were staying on schedule. Creative turning points in the process were collaborative, decisive, and frankly fun. By the end of the afternoon we trusted each other, and there was still enough light to film the visual centerpiece of Ryan’s movie.
Dusk was settling in as I banged out a meditative rhythm, leftovers from when I played more seriously in school. Flames licked around the corners of the piano, and began to eat their way inside. The varnish sizzled and the strings popped, the instrument slouching out of tune as I played. I noodled and fiddled and hammered up and down the keyboard. The fear I felt before I sat down had melted away with the lacquer on the wood. In its place was a joyful sense of duty to the group I had joined that day. I had come to haul equipment, hold a boom mic, or run to grab lunch if necessary. Instead, I was coming away with a core memory. The fire began to roar, warming my knees and fingertips. That’s when the production manager called it for safety reasons.
I could have gone on until the hairs on my fingers were singed, but that was a wrap. It was just getting good.
If you are interested in participating in the Charlotte 48 Hour Film Project next year, add yourself to their email list for information and updates.
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“It was just getting good”—!