As I've mentioned before in this space, for a creative, as it relates to wish fulfillment, there are many roads to the promised land. No two success stories are the same. One never knows where a connection made today may lead in five years. We hold much of our fate in our own hands.
Darrin Dickerson can tell you a thing or two about steering one's destiny.
From sitting in a dark theater dreaming about making films to being on set making them with the great Steven Soderbergh, this is Darrin's journey.
This is the same story I'm sure you've heard before, maybe even your same story ... the story of how I always wanted to make movies.
Some of my earliest and most vivid memories are of my mom taking me and a few friends to the Alexandria Mall or the Don Theatre, just across the river from where I grew up in Pineville, La, to see Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Rocky. Close behind those memories are Simon & Simon on Thursday nights, Dukes of Hazzard on Friday nights, Magnum P.I., etc., etc. From the age of 6, I wanted to be in the business of making movies, acting, telling these stories and being these characters I was growing up with. I wrote letters to a few of the actors I admired, telling them how much I wanted to be on their show or somehow be a part of what they were doing. I'm sure each and every one of the interns or assistants who were reading their fan mail were ecstatic to receive my offer to help out. I never heard back from any of them ... however, someone from Gerald McRaney's camp did send me an autographed 8x10. That was cool.
Around the ages of 8-10, me and my buddies from the neighborhood started doing regular "stunt shows" in our backyard. We would advertise via posterboard and magic marker from the front yard. The shows usually involved us jumping our bikes over ramps made from scraps of wood we found in dad's shop, jumping out of the treehouse, jumping over (or sometimes) into the creek, staging elaborate fight scenes and the like, all for an audience perched in lawn chairs and along the brick wall around our patio ... granted, it was usually just our moms, but an audience nonetheless.
The stunt shows in the Dickerson backyard were about to go to the next level when my mom and dad purchased one of the first VCR and camera combo units. This was it!...Now I could make my own movie! At 10, we weren't concerned about a script (what's that?), nor did we understand what it took to make a movie (which is not necessarily a bad thing), we just wanted to be on the screen like Harrison Ford or Sylvester Stallone. We just wanted to ride fast, shoot guns, fight and we had a camera and a cameraman, or woman (mom).
I was ready to go, explaining to my mom that we just needed a couple of things, namely two toy machine guns from Pearsons, the neighborhood corner drug store, and a few supplies from the Ben Franklin's. This was my first realization of budgets, financing, and that it takes money to make a movie, when my mom says, "How are you going to buy those things?" Cue: Blank stare from me. Thus began my foray into producing and securing funds. I spent the next few days going door to door in my neighborhood asking for donations to make my movie. It was a simple plea for funds, and I was genuine and truthful. I told neighbors that I just needed a few dollars to buy toy machine guns and supplies for our movie, and in return they would get to watch it for free after we shot it. No contracts, no lawyers, just a simple agreement and money changing hands between friendly neighbors and a 10 year old.
That was the start of my journey in real filmmaking, and although that movie was never made, the guns were purchased and were put to good use in and around the neighborhood, including some of our later stunt shows (to which those good contributors were invited free of charge). Even though it didn't happen, this was my first "Aha" moment, my realization that it can be done, that you don't need Hollywood's permission to make a film, you can do it yourself.
My passion for making and being in films went by the wayside during Jr. High and High School, as I focused on other things that young boys do. That passion returned during my college years. I took a job as an Art Director with an ad agency right out of high school and worked there through college. This particular agency had it's own in-house film and video production department, complete with an old tube Beta cam, full edit suite (linear) and a grip truck. I began cross training into that department as a grip/electric and learning the ropes from producer Greg Mayo and a host of other freelance talent. I'd take the equipment on nights and weekends and shoot my own little mock commercials, promo pieces, etc., learning on the job and by trial and error on my own. I was officially bitten by the bug once again. I became obsessed with shooting. I loved it and wanted to be on set every chance I got.
One of the freelance crew I saw regularly on our commercial productions was a guy by the name of David Jensen. David is an instantly likable person, aside from being class clown of the set, he was generous with his knowledge and advice. I was a newbie, hungry for knowledge of this craft I so wanted to be a part of, and David was certainly someone to look up to. He was very professional, knew his stuff inside and out, but never missed an opportunity for a laugh. Always the actor, David would go in and out of character during the day, you never knew if it was David or a part he was about to be auditioning for. He was fun to be around and easy to learn from. I think that's another reason I was drawn to him, the fact that he was crew and also a working actor ... I loved that, that's what I wanted to do. It became my plan to better learn the process behind the camera and through that hopefully end up in front of it some.
At the agency, I was storyboarding and doing creative on a number of the spots, and eventually worked that as opportunity to direct a few projects. My seven-year stint at this agency proved invaluable for the knowledge I gained and, more so, for the friends I made. I also was fortunate enough to win quite a few Addy awards for the work I'd done, which helped lead to my next agency job.
It was during this time that I was trying to figure out what to do. I knew nobody in the business, I knew no one who had taken this route before. I came to the conclusion that I needed to go to film school to take it to the next level. After much research, I decided to submit to Florida State's Graduate film program. Using my graphic design background, I went to great lengths to put together a package that would stand out from the rest. I constructed a crate about the size of a briefcase which included the requested forms one would normally fill out, but in a handmade and personalized dossier folder, as well as my demo reel of the projects I'd done over the last couple of years in the form of a vhs tape jacketed like you'd find at the local Blockbuster (this was in the 90's). The package did it's job, as I got a call from someone in Florida State's offices telling me how awesome it was and it was a hit with everyone there. This person let me know (off the record) that I'd made it to the last cut, but had not made one of the final spots ... obviously it was not awesome enough :) When I asked why, the response was ... wait for it..."you just didn't have enough on-the-job experience." How ... wha ... wait...?? sigh.
I've always been pushed on by people telling me I couldn't do something, and this was no different. I took this personally, as a slight from the industry itself. I put a call in to the only person in the feature film business that I knew, David Jensen, and asked how could I possibly get on a set, work on a movie, anything that was "legit" (whatever that means). David was encouraging as always and said he would keep his ears open.
Literally just weeks later, I left the agency I'd started at for another as the lead Creative Director. As I wanted to pursue work on feature films, my agreement with the owner of this agency was that if I secured a short term job on a feature film, I could leave to work on it and still have my job when I returned (I'm not sure he took that seriously),...he agreed. After two weeks on the job, I got a call from David. He was working with a long time friend on an independent feature in Baton Rouge, about 2 hours south of where I lived. He invited me to come down and work with them for a couple of days and see how it went. He said he couldn't make any promises, but if his friend liked me maybe I could stay on for the rest of the show.
This director had done a few studio films, but was most famous for the Palme d'Or he'd won at Cannes for a little film called Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I'd heard the name Steven Soderbergh before, but could not have picked him out in a lineup to save my life. The film they were working on in Baton Rouge was called SCHIZOPOLIS, and it was a back to basics, barebones approach to indie filmmaking. I left a day before my scheduled start and stayed with a childhood friend now living in Baton Rouge (one of the guys who used to do the stunt shows with me).
The morning of my first day, I was a bit nervous, and made sure I was there a good 45 mins before my call time. Base camp was the offices of the producer, John Hardy (also a class act guy). Being almost an hour early, I found myself one of only a couple of people in the building. Someone directed me to the conference room to wait. There was one of the crew already there, dressed in all black, preparing for the day, he was an A.C. I assumed, as he worked in a changing bag meticulously loading the day's mags. He smiled and said, "hi". We made small talk as we waited for everyone else. A short time later my friend David bounded into the room, with his usual great attitude. He shook my hand and gave me a hug at the same time, as he always does, making you instantly feel he is genuinely happy to see you. "Hey man, how have you been, thanks so much for coming to help us" (knowing good and well he was helping me) "I see you've already met Steven." Uh, uh,...hey.
And thus was my introduction to Steven Soderbergh, a quiet, calm, collected, and unassuming man who you feel comfortable to be in the room with. From that very first encounter with him, he made me feel welcomed and important. He had a way of encouraging you by example, and the next few days working for him would just prove to solidify the dreams and path I'd chosen. This very first day in that conference room in Baton Rouge, LA was my "Aha" moment. It was the moment I realized a big Hollywood director was just a normal guy from Louisiana, just like me. It was the moment I realized I could do it, it could be done.
Part II of "A Kid Who Just Wanted To Make Movies and My Aha Moment in SCHIZOPOLIS" will run tomorrow.
Darrin Dickerson is a working Director/DP/Storyteller doing commercial, music video, and feature work through his production company Ghostwater Films since 1996.
Darrin is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below.