ItÕs May 2, 2005, and a man in a black T-shirt is typing on a laptop while seated at a wooden dining table. His eyes suddenly leave the screen and lock onto a small robot Ñ the kind with a rectangular torso and cylindrical head, frequently found in black-and-white science fiction films Ñ which stands a few feet away on the table top, broadcasting electronic beeps and motorized sounds to his annoyance.
The man slowly reaches under the table and raises a Flash Gordon-style toy laser gun. He points it at the robot, closes his right eye and aims. A yellow beam of light launches from the barrel of the gun, surrounds the mechanized intruder, and Ñ zap! Ñ evaporates it into thin air.
The man smiles, sighs and goes back to typing.
Just another 15 seconds in the life of Rich Bernett.
ÒPROJECT 15Ó IS BernettÕs first feature-length film. Beginning Jan. 1, 2005, the Fairfax-based director and editor shot 15 seconds of video for the next 364 days. The result defies classification: itÕs got autobiographical documentary, horror and fantasy, sketch comedy, animated shorts, with special effects and ingenious editing that add deeper levels of absurdity to what is already quite absurd.
"Something with no plot ... it's hard to fit that into any classification," said Jean Card, a friend helping Bernett to publicize the film.
The project began when Bernett, 29, needed a good excuse to utilize some of the high-end video equipment he had. So through January 2005, heÕd film every day. Some of the days featured the kind of comedic vignettes that he and his friends would sometimes tape around his home. Others were more experimental, like on Jan. 17 when Bernett and two of his ÒclonesÓ go behind his bar for some drinks Ñ and then interact with each other.
In February, he shared the footage with some friends, who encouraged him to continue the video diary for the rest of the year.
ÒIÕd carry the camera around wherever I went. If something happened early on in the day and I filmed it, IÕd put the camera away,Ó said Bernett.
The film is structured chronologically, with a title card announcing the month preceding that monthÕs footage. Each day is identified with a graphic at the bottom right corner of the screen. All of the segments are 15 seconds long. ÒIn Final Cut Pro you can go frame-by-frame, and I made sure I was always at exactly 15 seconds,Ó he said. ÒOriginally, I was going to do 30 seconds and then I sat down and did the math and realized I didnÕt want a three-hour movie.Ó
That meant making some difficult decisions when the footage was better than expected. ÒSome of the footage I knew was going to easily be 15 seconds,Ó he said. ÒBut when I would get done, it would be 30 seconds of awesome footage. But going back and watching it, if you didnÕt know what the other 15 seconds of footage was, you canÕt tell.Ó
BERNETT EDITED ÒProject 15Ó to flow from one day to the next with musical cues, which Bernett wrote and recorded, and inventive editing. Halfway through the production, he saw a few days that could actually be linked together. As the year went on, Bernett filmed specific scenes to bring some of the ÒplotsÓ full circle.
With that, a previously random collection of days and dates became attached to a threadbare story line Ñ even if the most recurring stories involve menacing robots, exploding film canisters and random appearances by different visages of Enterprise Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.
The finished product will premiere Tuesday, June 13, at 7:30 p.m., at the Arlington Cinema ÔNÕ Drafthouse. Bernett will stand before an audience to present his film Ñ by definition, a work of art, though the filmmaker laughs when asked if ÒProject 15Ó has any redeeming social value.
ÒIÕm going to stand up there [and tell the audience that] I hope you donÕt leave here learning anything. Come for a fun time,Ó he said.
BERNETT GREW UP in Vienna, attending Madison High School before moving on to earn his bachelor of arts in graphic design at George Mason University. He took a job during school as a part-time video editor, and fell in love with using that media. Bernett worked in production with The Connection Newspapers before leaving to start his own video editing and production company: Valley Road Studios LLC in Sterling.
His previous filmmaking experience involved short VHS experiments with friends with names like ÒThe Snowy White Fist of Fury.Ó His most ambitious short was called ÒGo Home Robot,Ó in which an electrical worker is harassed by a robot Ñ a recurring theme in BernettÕs work thanks to a life-long admiration for classic sci-fi films like ÒThe Day the Earth Stood StillÓ and for authors like Isaac Asimov.
ÒA lot of my influences are authors rather than movie makers. I donÕt have any formal movie training,Ó he said.
The majority of the ÒProject 15Ó cast didnÕt have much, either. TheyÕre a menagerie of BernettÕs closest friends and family Ñ from wife, Carmen, to former roommate Matt McDonald Ñ and they ground the film in reality just when it appears to have veered off into ÒMonty PythonÕs Flying CircusÓ territory.
ÒYouÕre forced to film 15 seconds a day. Things could get pretty mundane to whoeverÕs creating this. Without really knowing it, it did come out as an autobiographical sort of thing,Ó said McDonald.
He said Bernett filmed during casual moments in their lives that allowed for some candid scenes.
ÒYouÕre in a very comfortable environment,Ó McDonald said.
ÒAnd most of the time when I was in front of the camera, I was inebriated anyway.Ó
MCDONALD IS THE KING of one of the filmÕs most memorable days: July 25.
ÒIÕm an idiot. I just want to make that clear,Ó he said. ÒI had this stupid idea to build some platforms on the roof [of our house] to set up some drums and amps so we could jam out on the roof.Ó
After McDonald moved out of BernettÕs house, he decided to remove them by launching a platform down to the ground. Instead, McDonald tossed it into the phone wires connected to the house and nearly tumbled down himself.
ÒI didnÕt put him in that situation to throw that thing off the roof,Ó said Bernett of those 15 fateful seconds. ÒThat was him thinking he was going to clear the wires.Ó
ThatÕs one of the scenes that didnÕt involve any post-production wizardry from Bernett, who applied every visual trick and special effect he could develop into the film. Scenes are peppered with explosions, double-images and some image-warping thatÕs borderline disturbing. There are also animated segments that Bernett put into the film to cover a few days he was unable to document Ñ mostly due to difficulty in gaining clearance after filming in a crowded bar. HeÕs also had to go back and re-edit some scenes for unintentional product placements.
One thing he wonÕt edit is his own performance, no matter how over-the-top it might appear. Take the April 4 segment, in which Bernett shoots fluorescent bulbs with a B.B. gun.
ÒIÕm not a gun person. I think itÕs just part of the stupid redneck character [IÕm playing],Ó he said. ÒItÕs somehow part of my ancestry, but IÕm trying my hardest not to show that face in public. On film it comes out because itÕs just me out there not thinking that thereÕs going to be an audience watching.Ó
ÒMy biggest worry is that my persona, for lack of a better word, in the movie is going to affect my image as a business owner. But I think thereÕs enough footage in the movie that shows IÕm not a buffoon and that IÕm just having fun.Ó
BERNETT PLANS to take the ÒProject 15Ó wherever he can, including on festival circuits. He also has other film projects in the works, including a traditional scripted sci-fi feature. ÒIÕm trying to keep the cheese out,Ó he said.
As for whether 2006 is playing out like 2005 did, Bernett admits that his life is a bit different when it isnÕt being preserved in cinema: ÒI wouldnÕt have been dancing around with a machete and a [Capt.] Picard mask if there isnÕt a camera there to film.Ó