Student Trio Creates Film in 72 Hours for Adrenaline Film Project

From left, Alazar Aklilu, Emily Dhue and Joshua Palmer stand together looking at the camera

From left, Alazar Aklilu, Emily Dhue and Joshua Palmer spent 72 hours with very little sleep as part of the Adrenaline Film Project. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The challenge: write, cast, shoot, edit and screen a film in just 72 hours, in a team of three.

It’s called the Adrenaline Film Project, and it’s part of this weekend’s Virginia Film Festival – although the actual competition wrapped up on Oct. 21.

That’s when a team of three University of Virginia students – second-year media studies major Emily Dhue, second-year English major Alazar Aklilu and third-year American studies and philosophy major Joshua Palmer – won the Mentor Award for their work in the competition, which has been testing young filmmakers for 14 years. The award recognized the trio’s ability to take critiques from the three mentors assisting the teams and use it to their advantage.

Their film, “The Cell Master,” will be screened Sunday at 11 a.m. the Violet Crown in downtown Charlottesville as part of the film festival, along with the films of the project’s other entrants.

This year, the mentors were Jeff Wadlow, who co-founded the Adrenaline Film Project and directed “Kick Ass 2”; Ben Haslup, a three-time alumnus of the competition who produces specials on National Geographic and The Discovery Channel; and Han West, a UVA alumnus who produced “Lemon” and “Oh Lucy!” They worked with all of the teams throughout this process, giving critiques and advice whenever a group found itself struggling.

The Cell Master 2017 Adrenaline Film Project from Emily Dhue on Vimeo.

“Part of the reason we got the Mentor Award was that they saw us taking in every word they said,” Dhue said. “We had this shot where we needed the actor to hit a table and a vase to fall with him catching it at the last second. It sounds really simple, but in that moment, with the time schedule we were on, it wasn’t going to go smoothly. We called up one of the mentors and he showed us how he would do it, and it was like, ‘Wow, these are the tricks they use on real film sets and in Hollywood.’ It was amazing.”

While Dhue and Aklilu had some experience in film, Palmer had only become interested in filmmaking over the summer and provided a fresh pair of eyes for the team – and pushed them to take risks.

“Because they had experience and I didn’t,” said Palmer, “I would be super idealistic about stuff and they would check me. I feel so blessed having this opportunity – I learned how to think about film, write, shoot, edit, and then I had Hollywood guys telling me what to do.”

The Adrenaline Film Project attempts to simulate the Hollywood filmmaking process – albeit with much less time. Once given a genre of film they had to use, the teams have very little time to write the script, get it approved by the mentors and begin casting. As a result, the team only got about six hours of sleep over the course of 72 hours.

“I thought it was enlightening,” Aklilu said. “It’s easy get caught up in your artistic creative process and not finish anything. A time crunch was good. Our idea wasn’t revolutionary or anything, but we got to get really creative with the shots.”

Assigned the genre “heist,” the team had some difficulties in the beginning when their original idea was shot down by the mentors. 

“I had this crazy idea about Taco Bell,” Palmer said, “where a college student would realize they didn’t get his order right, but Taco Bell closed. So he breaks into Taco Bell to make his own taco. Emily and Alazar said no.”

“We came out of that room shocked,” Dhue said, “but also awakened. We threw the whole first idea out. … It wasn’t good.”

“It was cool because that’s how it works in Hollywood,” Aklilu said. “You pitch ideas and they say whether they like it or not.”

In the end, the team decided on a film that, in the words of Palmer, took an ordinary situation to the extreme. In their film, “The Cell Master,” audiences get to see what happens when a man who desperately wants a new video game watches the last game being sold to someone else.

Despite the stress of those 72 hours, Dhue, Aklilu and Palmer are glad they participated and recommend the Adrenaline Film Project to all aspiring filmmakers.

“I’d say my favorite part was working with the mentors,” Dhue said. “I’ve been on film sets before, but I still had so much to learn. It’s easy to doubt what you want to do. This is great for anyone who really wants to be in the film industry. It’s a friendly reminder, this is what you want to do.”