THE SUPER 8 DIARIES: VOL. I “The genesis of a preteen filmmaker”

June 25, 2011 § 4 Comments

This is a new series that I’ve added to the blog called “THE SUPER 8 DIARIES” where I’ll fondly reminisce about my adventures as a pre-teen making films of many genres.  It was a magical time for me during those formative years of Super 8 filmmaking and this is where I started to learn the craft of visual storytelling.  When I was eleven years old, my friend Matt Reeves received a windup 8mm silent camera from his grandpa and it’s the event that sparked our passion to become filmmakers.  We made up our first script as we went along and co-directed a secret agent film that we starred in called “The Revenge of Dr. Von Stolk.”  The film was full of action and we even had a stunt where a guy gets thrown off a second story balcony and lands on the street.  We crafted a dummy using pillows and clothes.

This was the first of many Super 8 films we made together under our “R & S Studios” banner and then separately with our circle of young filmmakers.

We only moved into sound recording when our parents bought us Super 8 cameras that recorded sound on the film.  Not only was our collective group of filmmakers the ultimate fans of the movies, but we were actually making them ourselves. We were influenced by the movies that we loved and would try to mimic those films in style of the movies that we produced — sci-fi adventures, spy films, and martial arts movies complete with choreographed fight scenes just like we had studied on the big and small screen.

We were lucky to be living in Los Angeles at the time and to have a local TV channel that would air these genres during Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Now remember, this was before cable television and access to 500 channels.  I recall fondly looking forward to the “Family Film Festival,” a weekend afternoon feature on KTLA 5 with host Tom Hatten screening a classic movie, often from the 40’s, 50’s or 60’s.  During breaks in the show, he would offer anecdotes about the film’s history or its actors, or even conduct brief interviews with a cast or crew member (a practice that originally predated American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies).  That’s primarily where these movies played in reruns and it exposed us to the classic movies.  This was also just around the advent of home video machines.  In those days to buy a movie on video was horribly expensive and rentals were just coming into existence.

As a younger kid growing up, I gravitated toward the comedies of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis and absurd extravaganzas like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,”  “The Great Race,” and the “Pink Panther” movies.  The local channels also showed their share of action films too.  I thrived on the spy/action/martial arts/heist film genre.  I remember seeing “The Man with the Golden Gun” in the movie theater by myself as a kid and loved the Bond franchise.  I was an avid reader of “Martial Arts Movies” and “Kung Fu” magazines and they gave updated stories on the making of the current action films and their stars.  I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris too and would see every martial arts film I could.  When I finally saw “Enter the Dragon” — I was hooked.  

It seemed like the spy/action-martial arts genre would be easier films to create than a comedy.  We even dabbled in the sci-fi genre with an epic patterned after “Planet of the Apes” meets “Star Wars” where we played astronauts who crash landed on a planet and were hunted by gorilla guards.  We used our neighborhood locations and even filmed a jungle scene between the next apartment building where the vegetation was overgrown.  We kept the shot tight on the vegetation and it was a perfect location for the jungle on our planet.

We were always thinking of how best to get production value from our lack of budget and resources.  I remember when I moved on to direct my own films, I wrote and directed “Appointment with Death,” and we filmed a fight scene in the parking lot of the All America Burger in Santa Monica (never asking if we could of course).  We set up the camera, I called “action” and David Liu (the other lead actor) and I walked from the restaurant to our car and we were attacked by two henchmen who worked for a crime boss who wanted us killed.  A fight ensued and we ended up on the ground allowing them to escape to their car. We stopped the camera, changed the angle, and had my friend’s mother get into their car.  She floored it out of the parking lot and sped down the street.  In the same shot, David and I ran to “our” car, climbed inside and we stopped the camera.  My mom got into the driver’s seat of our car, I set up a new angle and she drove it out of the parking lot in pursuit.  This was our first ever car chase on film and it gave our action tremendous production value.

We tried to edit as much as we could in the camera and luckily these scenes had no mistakes and needed no editing.  When played back the fight and car chase were seamless and with the magic of film, it looked like we were actually driving the cars.  To really sell it, I then shot the next scene inside from the backseat of our car of me in the passenger seat and being careful NOT to show who was driving.  We had to constantly think on our feet as young filmmakers who were not old enough to drive!

The titles of the film were very important too.  As most were martial arts films, I remember we had to have “DEATH” in every title.  Some of my early Super 8 films had titles like “Dictator of Death,” “Appointment with Death,”  “Two Days Till Death,” and then there was “The Last Silent Swordsman.” 

This was a martial arts film with Ninjas and sword fights that premiered at a teen Super 8 film festival in Los Angeles at the Nuart theater and garnered us a photo and article in the LA Times.  This was by far the biggest moment in our filmmaking careers to date.  The line for the first screening was around the block and the second screening was nearly full as well.

We had studied movies enough to know the importance of movie posters and advertising, so I created a poster and even a tag line for the film, “HE WAS THE ONLY MAN WHO COULD STOP THE EVIL.”  All movie posters need a tag line, right?

The LA Times article called us the “Beardless Wonders of Filmmaking” because our filmmaking idols Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese all had beards, but we didn’t have facial hair and weren’t even old enough to drive.  It was a magical time to have our films screen in front of hundreds of paying audience members and receive an article in the newspaper.  The festival coordinator had big plans to strike a 35mm print of our short films and tour the country with it.  Sadly that never happened.

Those were magical days when I started to make movies as a kid.  “The Last Silent Swordsman” would be my last martial arts film.  During my senior year of high school, I moved into making comedies first off with “Ironside: The Motion Picture.” It was a parody of the old 70s tv show “Ironside” about a wheelchair bound detective who hunts down the assassin who shot and disabled him.  Leave it to me to find some humor in that character!  

The next film after that was “The Party Crashers of ’65,” a period comedy with thirty speaking parts about the nasty world of high school politics in 1965.  I’ll talk more about those in the next post.

I try my best to keep my wide-eyed child alive inside and bring that same love of cinema to every project that I create.  Many of my childhood friends whom I made films with as a kid continued on and are still working in the film industry today.

Read Volume II of my new blog series “The Super 8 Diaries: My First Real Audience.

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