It’s 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 — the kind with a rectangular torso and cylindrical head, frequently found in black-and-white science fiction films — 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 — zap! — evaporates it into thin air.
The man smiles, sighs, and goes back to typing.
Just another 15 seconds in the life of Rich Bernett.
“PROJECT 15” IS Bernett’s first feature-length film. Beginning on Jan. 1, 2005, the Fairfax-based director and editor shot 15 seconds of video for the next 364 days. The result defies classification: it’s 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, he’d 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 “clones” go behind his bar for some drinks — 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.
“I’d carry the camera around wherever I went. If something happened early on in the day and I filmed it, I’d put the camera away,” said Bernett.
The film is structured chronologically, with a title card announcing the month preceding that month’s footage. Each day is identified with a graphic at the bottom right corner of the screen. All of the segments are 15 seconds long. “In Final Cut Pro you can go frame-by-frame, and I made sure I was always at exactly 15 seconds,” he said. “Originally, I was going to do 30 seconds and then I sat down and did the math and realized I didn’t want a three-hour movie.”
That meant making some difficult decisions when the footage was better than expected. “Some of the footage I knew was going to easily be 15 seconds,” he said. “But when I would get done, it would be 30 seconds of awesome footage. But going back and watching it, if you didn’t know what the other 15 seconds of footage was, you can’t tell.”
BERNETT EDITED “Project 15” 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 “plots” full circle.
With that, a previously random collection of days and dates became attached to a threadbare storyline — even if the most reoccurring stories involve menacing robots, exploding film canisters and random appearances by different visages of Enterprise Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.
The finished product will premiere on Tuesday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse. Bernett will stand before an audience to present his film — by definition, a work of art, though the filmmaker laughs when asked if “Project 15” has any redeeming social value.
“I’m going to stand up there [and tell the audience that] I hope you don’t leave here learning anything. Come for a fun time,” 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 “The Snowy White Fist of Fury.” His most ambitious short was called “Go Home Robot,” in which an electrical worker is harassed by a robot — a reoccurring theme in Bernett’s work thanks to a life-long admiration for classic sci-fi films like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and for authors like Isaac Asimov.
“A lot of my influences are authors rather than movie makers. I don’t have any formal movie training,” he said.
The majority of the “Project 15” cast didn’t have much, either. They’re a menagerie of Bernett’s closest friends and family — from wife Carmen to former roommate Matt McDonald — and they ground the film in reality just when it appears to have veered off into “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” territory.
“You’re forced to film 15 seconds a day. Things could get pretty mundane to whoever’s creating this. Without really knowing it, it did come out as an autobiographical sort of thing,” said McDonald.
He said Bernett filmed during casual moments in their lives that allowed for some candid scenes.
“You’re in a very comfortable environment,” McDonald said.
“And most of the time when I was in front of the camera, I was inebriated anyway.”
MCDONALD IS THE KING of one of the film’s most memorable days: July 25.
“I’m an idiot. I just want to make that clear,” he said. “I 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.”
After McDonald moved out of Bernett’s 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.
“I didn’t put him in that situation to throw that thing off the roof,” said Bernett of those 15 fate-full seconds. “That was him thinking he was going to clear the wires.”
That’s one of the scenes that didn’t 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 that’s borderline disturbing. There are also animated segments that Bernett put into the film to cover a few days he was unable to document — mostly due to difficulty in gaining clearance after filming in a crowded bar. He’s also had to go back and re-edit some scenes for unintentional product placements.
One thing he won’t 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.
“I’m not a gun person. I think it’s just part of the stupid redneck character [I’m playing],” he said. “It’s somehow part of my ancestry, but I’m trying my hardest not to show that face in public. On film it comes out because it’s just me out there not thinking that there’s going to be an audience watching.”
“My 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 there’s enough footage in the movie that shows I’m not a buffoon and that I’m just having fun.”
BERNETT PLANS to take the “Project 15” wherever he can, including on festival circuits. He also has other film projects in the works, including a traditional scripted sci-fi feature. (“I’m trying to keep the cheese out,” he said.)
As for whether 2006 is playing out like 2005 did, Bernett admits that his life is a bit different when it isn’t being preserved in cinema:
“I wouldn’t have been dancing around with a machete and a [Captain] Picard mask if there isn’t a camera there to film.”