A littering Russian sailor. A maleficent wiener. A baby with gastrointestinal superpowers.
Sounds like the beginning of a doozy of a joke, right? For one family in Bluffton, it was the core of a creative brainstorm that led to an award-winning film.
Budding filmmaker Grace Lavery took home a slew of trophies by taking these three wild concepts and crafting cinematic magic in 48 hours.
That’s not a typo. Lavery and her father, Dave, wrote, filmed and edited a seven-minute movie over the course of two days this summer.
Their film, “The Big Vacation,” was the audience choice winner and the runner-up for best overall film in Savannah 48-Hour Film Festival.
“It’s pure insanity, but it’s an unbelievable creative challenge and so rewarding to tackle this as a family,” said the elder Lavery, who has tackled this Herculean dare four times over the past 13 years, each time coming away with honors. This is the third entry that became a family affair, but this year was different.
“The Big Vacation” is the directorial debut for Grace, a junior at the Savannah College of Art and Design film school.
“To see your daughter shine and get to witness her vision and help bring that to life, it’s just special beyond words,” said the proud father. Lavery is a celebrated videographer and owner of Timeline Productions. He has produced and directed national TV commercials, indie films, countless projects for Lowcountry companies, and is currently a go-to creative dynamo for both Golf Channel and Gulfstream.
But to see his daughter onstage as an award winner at the festival was an otherworldly dream.
“We built her an editing suite in her bedroom when she was 9. She has always been creative, but to see her make this happen, it was an amazing two days for our family,” Lavery said.
Think of being at the starting line of a reality TV show competition like “The Amazing Race.” Only here, 18 directors gathered in mid-July in Savannah to pick from a selection of genres (the Laverys picked “Vacation”). Then they are given a line of dialog (“Where are you going?”), a prop (note pad) and a character name and occupation (Georgette Crosley, hairdresser) that must be in their film. From that moment, they have 48 hours to craft their film.
“Two of the directors dropped out. You turn your film in one second late, and you’re disqualified,” Lavery said.
Grace immediately went to work on the plot and the characters while Dave gathered equipment and scouted shoot locations.
Her idea: A duo of Russian cargo ship sailors throw a rancid hot dog overboard. The frankfurter washes up on the beach and is immediately ingested by a hungry baby. Chaos ensues, as the child’s gas explosion vaporizes nearby beachcombers. The baby morphs into a giant. Its mom and her friend escape and scramble to save humanity from the superpower sweetie pie.
“It’s pure evil genius. The weirdest ideas are the most fun to pull off, so we got after it,” Lavery said.
First, the casting. Lavery’s granddaughter, Miley, won the role as the Pamper-wearing bambino with a deadly tummy ache. Lavery family matriarch, Missy, played Georgette Crosley. Grace played the babysitter. Grace’s friends were all crucial to the plot – Jessica Lubbers as the baby’s mom, Katie Benenati as the wrong-place-wrong-time beachgoer and Daniel Escobar as a NASA scientist with world-saving advice (and a hardcore crush on the babysitter).
The Lavery boys, Dave Sr. and Dave Jr., also got on screen, playing the bad-accent Soviet mariners. Senior doubled up as a hillbilly that falls victim to the rampaging infant.
With props in hand, it was off to film location shoots at Folly Field Beach on Hilton Head Island; and Old Miller Road, Style It Salon and Bluffton Self Help in Bluffton.
“Luckily this was before all the rain, so we got a sunny beach day. But it was scrambling from there, filming drone shots, a number of green screen setups to make Miley huge,” Lavery said. “It was hell, but the best kind of hell doing it with my family and friends, and just seeing Grace pull all this together.”
Then it was back to the Lavery house to film the green screen scenes and digitally create Miley the Giant, the cargo ship setting and the NASA laboratory.
Many a director has complained about the challenges of working with infant divas, but Miley was the consummate professional.
“She hit all her marks, she was all in on this. She smiled, looked like she was pooping. She just has incredible range as an actress,” Lavery jokingly said of his granddaughter. “We had to wake her up to do a couple of pivotal green screen shots and we trashed the green screen, but it was so worth it.”
Without giving too much plot away, Miley especially nailed plot-turning closeups with her holding a hillbilly minifigure and a miniature bottle of hot sauce.
Lavery said that editing this masterpiece together was a frenzied labor of love.
“You’re up against the clock, it’s absolute hell but in the best possible way. We’re laughing, we’re chugging coffee, trying to stay awake, but the end result is this cool project and all the memories that we’ll be laughing about for years to come.”
This is Lavery’s fourth overall award-winning entry in the festival. He won in 2009 working with his film industry friends, a buddy film called “A Man About a Dog.” The next two victories came with family-done films. In 2014, they won in the family category with “Say Yes,” an award sweep for best picture, director, editing, score and screenplay. They followed up in 2015 with a horror flick, “Waking Autumn,” which won second runner-up for best picture.
“Creating has always been my passion. The wackier, the funnier, the better. So to make this happen with my family and to see Grace earn the spotlight, it’s just the ultimate kind of win,” Lavery said.
Movie fans are never satiated. Like Miley the giant baby, they’re always hungry for the next big thing. Could a family fourth edition follow-up be in the cards for next year?
“Dude, we’re all just recovering from these two days of madness. And Grace and Miley might be too big time for us by next year,” joked Lavery, who said he savors the chance to create a little Hollywood magic in his own backyard. “It was so fun doing this in Bluffton and getting so many touches of family in the film. Never say never, but we’re all going to focus on sleep now.”
View the film online by searching “The Big Vacation” on YouTube.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.