Chicago Sun-Times, October 3, 2003
Filmmaking on the fly
by Delia O'Hara
Chicago seems to have a boundless appetite for improvisational theater, and FuzzyCo, a local production company, has cooked up a complex improv treat, the Neutrino Project 30,000, an hourlong film that is created while it's being shown.
The Neutrino Project 30,000 -- the name reflects the far-reaching ambitions of its developers -- expands on an idea developed by a New York production company called Neutrino. (There's also a Neutrino Project Seattle.)
"It's amazing to movie and improv people. We can make a movie in less time than it takes to watch it," says Shaun Himmerick, director of the current run and half of FuzzyCo's leadership.
FuzzyCo has been working on its version of Neutrino for about a year, and this weekend the Neutrino Project 30,000 opened for an eight-week run at the Three Penny Cinema in Lincoln Park.
Here's how it works. Audience members supply the idea for the day's movie and contribute some of the props for each film -- hats or umbrellas, for example -- so there can be no doubt of fakery.
Someone in the audience calls out a concept, such as "hemoglobin" or "surfing." The audience approves the concept. Three crews consisting of a videographer, a runner and two to four actors run out the door to begin taping, on the street and in businesses that have already agreed to participate, while a fourth crew remains behind to explain the whole procedure to the audience.
When the runner from the first crew (in a carefully structured production schedule) comes back with the first minutes of tape, the fourth crew leaves to begin filming. At the end, all the crews assemble to tie the four different story lines together in a grand finale. Meanwhile, the film runs without interruption, with new scenes coming in from the crews in the field. It is improv on the hoof.
By necessity, the stories are all contemporary, set in Chicago neighborhoods. Actors only play characters in their own age ranges.
"You have to deal with the world as it is and be realistic in that. It's a huge challenge to an improv actor," Himmerick says. "It's exciting seeing a movie created live in front of you. People see the runners coming in with the next tape as a scene is ending, and they wonder, 'Will it make it?' People cheer for the tapes."
And, he says, "It's often very funny."
In one production, a crew lost track of its car and wove that fact into the tale. Not knowing that, another crew devised a story line around a group of car thieves, which made for a serendipitous segue.
Himmerick says things like that happen all the time. "The casts call it magic."
The other half of FuzzyCo is Australian Fuzzy Gerdes. He and Himmerick met in an improv group at Purdue University in 1993, went their separate ways, and joined up again in Chicago four years ago. They perform an ever-changing two-man show together called Bare and field a variety of acts and shows.
The two financed Neutrino Project 30,000 largely by themselves and are beginning to edge into the black, Himmerick says.
"People love it because they feel they are part of the show," he says. "They love the immediacy -- what you can create off the top of your head. The more interesting that is, the smarter you look, and the audience gets to be part of that."