Last month the four Fingerhut siblings–Benjamin, Geoffrey, David, and Astrid–made their first feature together. That wasn’t the original plan.

Benjamin, who took a few film classes at Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers, had made a few short films, including a mock commercial for Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a satire about a conflicted guy working at an ad agency who coined the phrase “my bad.” In March he heard about the 72 Hour Feature Project–conceived and coordinated by Kristie Alshaibi and screening this week at the Film Center–and he and his twin brother, Geoffrey, sent in a proposal just before the April 4 deadline. Two weeks later they learned that the judges had accepted 12 of the 50 entries, including theirs.

The feature had to be at least 70 minutes long, and the brothers had proposed a trio of comic short stories about characters with obsessions. “Amy” is about a celebrity-obsessed dog walker with illusions of being discovered at the corner of Clark and Roscoe. “Gerry” focuses on an advertising copywriter morbidly obsessed with his parents’ death. “Heath” concerns a driver’s ed instructor who escapes his mundane routine by becoming a champion ketchup drinker. The title Benjamin came up with for the feature was Down Into Happiness, from a song by the local Irish band the Muck Brothers.

According to the contest rules, the feature had to be shot and edited within 72 hours. Benjamin–who lives in Lincoln Square and whose day job is telecommuting as a typesetter for his father’s publishing house, St. Augustine’s Press–intended to direct one story and had lined up two more directors to handle the others. Both unexpectedly dropped out, and he turned to Geoffrey and Astrid.

Geoffrey had a BA in film from Columbia College and had helped Benjamin make his earlier films, including one in which their father plays a bum who takes $50 to get kicked in the testicles. Geoffrey had already signed on as a cameraman, but he agreed to direct the “Gerry” segment too.

Astrid, a project manager for the University of Chicago’s Networking Services and Information Technologies, had directed plays as an undergrad at DePauw University and leaped at the chance to script and direct the “Amy” segment. She immediately cast her beagle in a nonbarking role.

“The 72-hour deadline, strangely, made a feature doable,” says Benjamin. “We would only need to rent equipment for three days and only had to feed people for three days.”

Of course he still needed to find all those people to feed. He had to shoot all three segments over a weekend and thought the tight deadline might attract people up for a dare. It did. He soon had enough Columbia College alumni to put together three full crews. And he had more family members. Geoffrey’s wife, Erin, became one of three producers. His brother David, a grad student in clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, agreed to be an extra. And the Fingerhut parents signed on as caterers, driving in from South Bend with way too much food–chicken and pasta wraps, zucchini and sausage lasagna, potato salad, raspberry coffee cake.

Shooting of all three stories started at 10 AM on Friday, May 30. Astrid cheerfully admits that at times she had no idea what she was doing. “Beyond ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ which everyone knows,” she says, “I didn’t know what was expected.” And she had no time to learn. When she’d directed a production at DePauw her cast had eight weeks of rehearsal. For “Amy” she could manage only two run-throughs.

Benjamin had borrowed Geoffrey’s Edgewater dining room as a set for “Heath.” Seventy or so drained ketchup bottles lay soaking in the bathtub–he wanted the labels off so the bottles would look generic. The five needed for this scene had already been refilled with a palatable facsimile of ketchup made of applesauce, chocolate syrup, and red food coloring.

“Cell phones off and action,” Benjamin ordered, and his star, Steve Ratcliff, began chugging the contents of a ketchup bottle. Someone held Geoffrey’s elderly dog’s mouth shut–earlier her panting had been picked up by the microphone. Later an upstairs neighbor sneezed loudly. That ended up in the final cut.

The next day Benjamin’s crew moved to a classroom at Senn High School, which had been turned into the employees’ lounge at the driver’s education company. During the scene a coworker asks Heath and another employee if they’d fuck a female squirrel in the ass for $50,000. A production assistant hurried out into the hall to quiet the kids who’d come to school for Saturday morning detention. Later the crew had to revise a scene in the parking lot where Heath deals with a wacky series of clients because the camera rig attached to the car didn’t work out.

They shot the last scene of the segment on Sunday afternoon in the Welles Park gazebo. A banner proclaimed World Champion Ketchup-Drinking Contest, and Benjamin had to explain to a few passersby who wanted to enter the contest that it was a film set. A guy on a bike stopped to make a phone call, telling someone that it looked like a ketchup commercial was being filmed. Erin’s twin brother, her sister, her sister’s husband, and David, accompanied by his dog, played cheering onlookers.

That night Benjamin, Erin, and her coproducer, Gabby Goodstein, crowded into the bedroom of their editor, Eddy Mirko, where he had his desktop computer set up. Benjamin kept spotting shots he wanted to cut. Mirko cracked his knuckles between typing in edits on his keyboard. At one point the Macintosh froze. Mirko gasped. But it rebooted, and nothing was lost.

All three crews made their deadline. When Geoffrey dropped off the finished film at the post office on Monday morning, the receipt read 9:46 AM.

Later Benjamin saw the final cut and discovered that the sound was missing from a scene in which Heath hammers a nail into a wall. Other entrants in the 72 Hour Feature Project showed signs of rushed editing too. In one the action stops and a note appears that says “missing scene.” In another a scene begins with the director shouting “Action”; another has a scene that ends with the director yelling “And cut.” The directors of yet another film ended their list of thank-yous in the credits with “and everybody else we can’t remember because we are too fucking tired.”

The results of the 72 Hour Feature Project will be screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting Friday, June 20. Down Into Happiness premieres at 8:15 PM Thursday, June 26. See Section Two for more info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.