I became a filmmaker by happenstance
I became a filmmaker by happenstance, honestly. I didn’t go to film school. After graduating
from the University of Texas at Austin in 1963, I had to do two years of military service. That’s
a story for another day. After being honorably discharged, because I had a college degree, I
qualified for a job as a bureaucrat. For the first time in my life, I had a steady income. I bought a
brand new automatic VW bug for $1,600. I rented a clean affordable apartment in an old Queen
Anne house in San Antonio.
My brother, Rene Perez, and I took a night course in still photography at San Antonio
College. Carl Leib, the instructor, also taught at Lanier High School. At the first class he said, “I
cannot teach you how to become an artist. That you learn somewhere else. I will teach you how
to take a photograph and how to print it in a darkroom in the most efficient manner. Your photos
will be properly exposed, and you will have a print that contains the proper balance of black and
white.” Mr. Leib’s streamlined darkroom techniques became invaluable. The class shaped
Rene’s future, and the skill came in handy several times in my life.
I wanted to be a writer but didn’t feel I had a story I wanted to tell. Not yet, anyway.
Sadly, few people read, and cinema was the de facto literature for the masses. Films such as
Elmer Gantry, directed by Richard Brooks and starring Burt Lancaster, gave me hope; otherwise
most Hollywood movies were sterile romantic fantasies. I was attracted by the art house movies
of the 1960s, the French and British New Wave filmmakers, the masterpieces by Ingmar
Bergman, Jacques Cocteau and Federico Fellini.
In the “Underground Movies” of the middle 1960s, filmmakers such as Bruce Conner,
Stan Brackage, among many others, were exploring narrative structures, making drug-assisted
experiments, or fooling around with naked people. I thought I would like to try.
My friend, Bruce Willams, an artist and college instructor, was using a super-8 millimeter
movie camera at the time, making experiments with lights and shadows on non-moving objects.
He could shoot long takes comparatively inexpensively, with good quality. The alternative
format, 16mm, was expensive.
Bruce reminded me that a motion picture camera was the integration of two 19 th century
innovations, the sewing machine and the photographic plate, and the chemistry and physics of
still photography were the same as for motion picture photography, all obvious information I’d
never connected before.
Bruce was right about price and convenience of Super 8, but I wasn’t interested in
showing my films in the living room to friends. I went with the expensive option. I purchased a
used Bell & Howell Filmo 16mm camera for $125, found a restored school movie projector for
$45, mailed off for a Craig editing system for $115, and ordered a projection screen from the
Sears catalog for $15. I also acquired a classy antique wooden tripod for about $12. The tripod
had never been used so far as I could tell. The Bell & Howell Filmo looked quite handsome
mounted on the wooden tripod. I was starting my film journey with 1930s technology.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir, Filmmakers Journey