How I Became a Director

One day I got a call from a film company, and the producer asked me if I wanted to act in an industrial film for a chain of grocery stores. He knew I was a writer, and he asked me to quote him a fee to write the script. Since I was going to be acting in the video, I figured I might as well write the script, too. It would be easier for me to memorize. So I quoted him a price. Two days later, he called me back and said he got a lower quote from someone else. (It was twenty-five dollars less than my quote to write the script.) I asked who the writer was, and he said it was the director of the film who had never written a script. I asked the producer what he was paying the director, and he told me. So I responded, “I’ve never directed a film before. I’ll do it for twenty-five dollars less than the director’s quote.” That seemed fair to me. Since this was a low-budget film, the producer told the director, he found a director who offered to direct the film for less. And that is how I got to direct my first film. I figured it was time for me to direct a film. I always thought of myself as a writer and actor, and I had directed lots of stage productions, built and designed sets, and styled many photo shoots for photographers so directing a film was a logical next step for me.

This was in the 1970’s and there were many producers who shot sixteen millimeter films. Video was pretty new at the time and it didn’t look as good as film. So the director got to write his first film script, and I got to direct my first movie, and the producer saved fifty dollars of the film’s budget for his bottom line profit. This film wasn’t going to be “Gone with the Wind.” It was going to be a very low budget industrial film for a very small grocery store chain. The director wrote a nice script. I cast another actor to act in the film with me. I prepared well for the film. I had sixteen hours to shoot a twenty-two minute SAG industrial film. Since I hired an actor I worked with before, we got together the day before the shoot and ran lines like we did on other shoots. We didn’t have a teleprompter so we had to memorize the script. I was confident I could shoot the film in sixteen hours. The morning of the shoot, I met my camera man, sound man and two grips. We were going to shoot the film on a seamless sweep so we only had one lighting set-up. The producer arrived on the set and personally gave us our film stock. He was notoriously frugal. I was given three ten minute cans of sixteen millimeter film stock. He expected me to complete the film on time and on budget. My camera operator could only use a single frame of film to slate each take. We only had eight minutes of extra footage to slate and shoot any retakes if we made a mistake.

And so began my directorial debut. I was glad I was working with an actor who was a friend. We rehearsed each scene until it was perfect and in the exact time that was allotted to say the words. We shot each scene only once. We didn’t even have enough raw footage to shoot a single cut-away. Each line was read once. The day after the shoot I personally delivered the developed footage to the editor. He asked why each slate was only one frame. I told him our predicament. The producer booked him to edit the film. He gave the producer an estimate of three days, but the producer said he doubted it would take that long, and he was right. Needless to say, all the editor could do was cut the takes together, and that took less than six hours. So by working together, we created a film that came in under budget. The producer called me after the client saw the film and said the client loved the film. As I look back on this experience, I was put under a lot of pressure to deliver a good film. And maybe that is why that producer hired me. And it taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes you have to make something out of nothing. If he had not given me a chance, I might never have directed my first film.

JoBe Cerny

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