So You Want to Be a Writer/Director, Eh?

DON PARIS RUE CLER CAFEAward-Winning Writer/Director/Producer Donald L. Vasicek (“The Sand Creek Massacre”)

Before you jump off in the deep end of the film world and opt to become a writer/director, you might want to put on the brakes and take a glance at yourself. Me, you ask? Why should I look at myself? Well, when did you first get the idea to become a writer/director? What is motivating you? Who were you at that time? Where were you? How were you feeling at the time? Why are you interested in becoming a writer/director? If you don’t like pain, you’d better answer these questions honestly.

The answers may make you aware of something very special that you might not be aware of at this moment. It may prove to be invaluable to you when someone tells you you’re crazy for trying to become a writer/director. You’ll have to draw on this when you need an additional $55,000 to finish shooting your film, for editing, or for a host of other things, and have no idea where you’re going to get it. When it’s dark and half the earth’s people are sleeping, you will require it to get yourself ready for shooting in the morning.

With seventeen telephone calls facing you after a sixteen hour day of shooting, it will help you find the time to get to them made before you begin shooting the next day. This special side of you will drive you through concrete walls, but you have to answer those questions up there in the second paragraph, or you aren’t going to get it done as a writer/director.

The first time I became mindful of this special side of me was a few years ago when a client and friend (I edited a book she wrote, helped her find a publisher and helped her get it published; one of my day jobs before I went into writing/filmmaking full time) called me and asked me to write, direct and produce a documentary film. This awareness kicked in at that twinkling even though I had no idea how to write, direct and produce a documentary film.

My wife and I had recently experienced, first hand, the subject matter of the film. My friend was in my zone, and she knew it. My friend reminded me that I had talked with her about writing and directing films and had expressed my desire for it to her. She said that she would finance the project, and part of that financing would be for me to learn how to write, direct and produce a documentary film. Then, she asked me to assign her, her job. Has your throat ever become so dry that you couldn’t swallow?

That was how my throat felt when she unloaded that bit of information on me. I took a swig of water, and notified her, her job would be to executive produce the film. She asked me what that meant. I explained to her that financing films is what executive producers do. I went on to tell her that executive producers also give input in the making of the film, actually, most any kind of input they choose to give. There was a long pause on her end of the line (I think she was making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat). I listened to my heart beating. It was a quiet sound, not really thumping, but something like, blimp, blimp, blimp. My mind swirled with excitement. After eleven years of wanting to write and direct a film, I was going to do it. Little did I realize how important this awareness would become in the upcoming months.

Between eating the sandwich -like sounds, my friend said she simply wanted to make sure the film showed the subject matter of the film in her heartfelt way. I felt a surge of something shoot through my body and mind. A single bolt electrified me at that instant as I recalled the emotional experience my wife and I had with the subject matter of the film. For legal reasons, I can only say that it related directly to the death of my wife’s nephew. He was a graphic artist, weightlifter and a handsome guy. At the end of his life, I had to pick him up in my arms, and carry him to our car to drive him to the hospital. I told my friend, okay, let’s do it.

The terror of becoming a writer/director and producer as well, hit me about an hour after we said goodbye. I stared at Bo who sat on my desk on top of my notebook. Bo was short for Bo Jangles. He was our black and white tomcat. He was a people cat, but he was pissed off because he was a human being in a past life and he wanted to be a human being in this life. He knew he was supposed to be a cat in this life in order to burn off the karma for being a jerk in more than one past lives, and he didn’t like it. So, he used me as his punching bag. Bo stepped on my computer keyboard. He looked at the computer monitor, then at me. His black, button-shaped eyes burrowed through me. I knew then what I had to do. I was terrified, but my wife’s nephew, Ron, came to mind again. A bolt of energy surged through my body.

After several months of researching writing, directing and producing documentary films, I acquired an understanding of the elements of the documentary. I learned about the myriad of components incorporated in making a documentary film. The terror had dissipated. I was anxious to get started.

I presented the budget of $170,000 for a 58-minute documentary film to my executive producer. “My,” she said, “that’s a lot of money for a film.” I watched her muse over it for a minute. My heart plunged into my left Reebok hiking boot. “How much do you need to start?” she asked. I told her $15,000 would get us through the first week of shooting. She wrote out a check for $15,000, handed it to me and said, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Well, we’re shooting at the University of Denver on Wednesday at nine a.m. Why don’t you come over and watch?”

With a crew of six (we shot the film on 16mm, so I needed a director of photography; he needed an assistant to load the massive-sized camera; a sound man; a light man; a grip; and a production assistant), a packed library of students, half of the DU faculty, two security officers and my executive producer, watched as we filmed a student lecture about the subject matter of the film. There was a film moment when what he was saying reached an emotional high, so high, that everyone there was near tears.

It was at that time that my director of photography whispered to me that he had run out of film and had to change it. My heart, about at my left kneecap during the shoot, dove for my left foot again. It landed there with a thump in the hiking boot. After the shoot, my executive producer expressed her pleasure over the experience. She mentioned the film moment and asked me if we got it on film. I told her the camera ran out of film at that time. She drilled me with those cobra eyes of hers, and said, “You should’ve planned for that.” I told her that you cannot plan for film moments, they just happen. She argued that I didn’t know what I was talking about and stormed off.

It was at that point that my heart tried to creep out of my boot, slip off and hide in some books in the religious book section of the library. I snatched it back. Even though anger frothed inside of me, (based on my life experience), I capped it. I wanted to go after her down the long hall that echoed with the clicking of her Gucci’s. I wanted to blow fire at her. Since I had retrieved my heart from the marble floor and stuffed it back in my chest, I made a decision at that point that I was not going to turn into an animal. This special awareness was streaking through me at that point and it re-centered me.

In order to get financing for the second week of the scheduled four week shoot, I had to meet with my executive producer. After considerable discussion about the schedule, the budget and reassuring her that her money was being well spent, she wrote a $7,000 check and handed it to me. The second week of shooting, we shot a series of interviews and b-roll which is what you shoot for background and fill-in during editing. The guy we were renting the 16mm camera from was hollering and screaming over the telephone at me for his $4,000, the amount he was charging us weekly to rent it; my DP’s car broke down and he wanted $800 to fix it; and my lighting guy wanted $75 for gas for his truck. These requests were made to me as we were setting up to shoot at the Colorado State University raptor center in Fort Collins.

At this point, I walked away from the phone, the DP and the lighting guy. I went to a large cage where a golden eagle sat on a tree branch. I watched him for a few minutes. I wanted to kill three people, but it wasn’t in me. I wanted to prepare my mind, as the director, to shoot what we had scheduled to shoot that day, and not have to deal with personal problems of the crew (part of a producer’s and I was also the doing the writer and the producer jobs), but my energy was waning, and it was only eight o’clock in the morning.

The majestic eagle blinked his black, penetrating eyes at me. I watched his eyes. He watched my eyes. And suddenly there in the middle of a brutal, March, wind-blown eagle pen clutch, this special awareness swelled inside of me like a boiling sea. Tears welled in my eyes. The eagle cocked his head at me. I smiled at him that I was all right. He looked away, then began preening himself.

Late Friday of the second week after shooting all day, I met with my executive producer for money for week number three shooting. She hadn’t appeared for the second week of shooting, said she was busy with her work. After going into another pitch for the money based on her questions and skepticism, she asked how much I needed to get the film into the can. I told her $148,000. A white sheet like color spread over her face.

I retrieved a glass of water and handed it to her. Pale, she emptied the glass. She told me she wanted to see what her higher powers would tell her about giving me the money over the weekend. Now, it was my turn for the water and the glass was empty. I said I had four week contracts with seven people including the telephone screamer who was renting us his camera. I told her I had bills to pay. I explained to her that I had to plan the shoot for the next week. She said she was sorry, but I would have to wait for her decision.

My executive producer called me on Monday morning. She told me her higher powers told her to not give me any more money. I asked her why, she said she didn’t want to put herself in jeopardy financially, and that she was pulling out. She hung up then.

I looked at Bo. He looked at me, like, well, it wasn’t my fault. I looked at him, like well, it was your fault. Suddenly, this special awareness surfaced in my conscious mind. It was Bo, I knew, I loved him. He knew my wife’s nephew. Actually, he was a special pal to Ron particularly during the last part of Ron’s 33 years of life. I was electrified again.

Even with this special awareness, I was having a hard time figuring out how I was going to get myself out of this mess. I discussed it with my business manager. She said she never took on a project that she didn’t finish. She said Ron would want us to finish this film so that others could benefit from it. She seared me with her blue/green eyes that sparkled with tears. She said, “Let’s finish what we started, okay?”

Well, let me tell you about this special awareness, it shot through me like a thousand bolts of lightning. I was lifted up on top of a mountain where I could see thousands of miles in every direction. My business manager was beside me, right there. I hugged her. Her body was warm and melded into me, and I was all right then.

I had to cut the shooting days. I had to cut the film from 58 minutes to 22 minutes and turn it into a classroom video on 16mm film. I had to ask the people I had contracts with to meet me half way. We had to come up with $27,000 of our own money to complete the film. We finished the film, but not without more obstacles. Actually, I was threatened with lawsuits that could’ve sent us into bankruptcy. The company that processed the film let dust collect on it. 200 VHS copies of the film ended up with dark where light should’ve been. But we managed to get a distributor. The film was distributed to schools, colleges and universities throughout the United States.

I would not have been unable to pull myself through this slough of pressure and stress without this special awareness. If you haven’t guessed by now what this special awareness is, it is possible that you should re-think your desire to become a writer/director. See paragraph 2 above. At least, do the question/answer bit I suggested. This special awareness is passion for the subject matter of the film you want to shoot. Without passion, writing and directing becomes a robotic expression of a human being. Passion and writing and directing are synonymous. Without one, you will be unable to have the other two. Without two, you will be unable to possess the other one. And without any one of the three, it might be best to keep your day job unless you do not mind making films that are colored gray.


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