It seems like these days anyone with a camcorder can call themselves a filmmaker. Technology has become so manageable and affordable that a novice can shoot some pretty-looking footage on their camera or phone. But there’s more to films than making them look good. A successful movie requires months of preparation. A director needs good social skills to get along with their crew. The actors have to be believable, and the editing must be tight. Then the whole thing has to be marketed and sold to help pay for the next one.
So calling yourself a filmmaker is one thing. Making a film that will stand the test of time is another. At the moment, James Island resident Gretchen Dzedzej (pronounced “Zedzay”) is working hard to make such a film, and she has all the skills to get it right. She’s a 49-year-old artist, photographer, videographer, and business owner who excels at motivating others to help her complete her projects — unless she’s dealing with her own flesh and blood.
Her first film, the 8-minute Lucky Strikes, was shot last October for the National Film Challenge. Entrants had three days to write, film, and edit a short. Fortunately Dzedzej and her friend Trisha Wallis had a good idea. Unfortunately, they didn’t know any professional actors who could work with them on such short notice.
“The bad thing is, I cast my son,” says Dzedzej. He got the lead of unemployed young man Mark Shapiro, who receives a box of matches. When he strikes a match he gets a wish — and wishes he hadn’t.
The fledgling filmmaker learned a valuable lesson. “A mother should never direct her son in a movie. Michael didn’t feel like acting, and by the end he was ready to kill one of us.”
Nevertheless, Dzedzej was still excited when the film was screened at the Terrace with other entrants. She’d made a movie while other competitors had thrown in the towel or run out of time. However, as the lights went down and Lucky Strikes began, she shrank back in her seat, mortified. “It’s a crappy movie, so I was embarrassed to show it. But the other actors were good, and I was encouraged because people liked it. They thought my son was funny, and it was a great little story.”
Dzedzej knew that if she could entertain an audience with a hastily shot short, then she could make a much bigger impact with a carefully developed project. This year she’s been working on her first feature film, with experienced actors this time, called My Doggone Destiny. She can explain the simple concept — a day when everything seems to go wrong — to a stranger, and they’ll instantly relate. Consequently, the writer/director is learning which ideas click with her potential audience.
When she’s not filming commercials and wedding videos to build up her reel, Dzedzej runs Renaissance Painting, a company that specializes in faux painting and murals. She’s also president of the Southeastern Filmmakers Charleston chapter, meeting every month to network and train with fellow filmies.
“I used to tell artists that the way you feel about art is how you look at life,” Dzedzej says. She’s begun to look at life as a videographer, noticing filmable scenes and images on the street. The difference between her and her peers is that she makes the extra effort to grab her camera and film those scenes. She’s just now beginning to call herself a filmmaker. “If I don’t,” she says, “I’ll never become one.”
With a growing crew, an increasing collection of equipment, and infectious enthusiasm, it looks like Dzedzej is becoming one already.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.