The folklore of the film world is full of stories about “overnight sensations,” those folks whose first try at a film or video project lands them smack in the middle of the big time. It’s less often that we hear about people who quietly take one step at a time, carving out a career and making a name for themselves over a period of years.
One such independent film and videomaker is Gabriel Campisi. After years of making his own films and doing production work on other people’s projects, Campisi has seen his career really begin to take off in 1994. The key to this sudden professional acceleration is The Law, a project that Campisi shot on VHS in 1988 and edited four years later.
Campisi and the Early Years
Not unlike Steven Spielberg, Campisi started shooting his own 8mm short films in his teens. His animated film The Lost Creature took a full two years to complete. It won the 16-year-old Campisi several awards, including first place in the Chicago Photographic Society’s American Teenage Film Festival. He went on to make several other 8mm films before graduating from high school. “Telling stories this way is something that I’ve always been doing, and always wanted to do,” says Campisi.
After graduating from high school, Campisi decided he wanted to tackle a bigger project. He had some science fiction stories he wanted to shoot and assemble into a half-hour film. Doing such a long production on 8mm film would be complicated and expensive, so he bought a VHS camcorder. True to the kind of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” spirit of independent videomaking, Campisi grabbed a few friends and began shooting The Law.
The video opens with a helicopter crash in the Nevada mountains in winter. The local scenery blends very effectively with Campisi’s model work to make these opening shots successful. The action shifts to two men carrying an intricate box printed with strange alien characters. As the men bury the box in the snow, we notice a peculiar tattoo on the hand of the protagonist.
Suddenly, the two men are set upon by the archetypal bad guys of the UFO mythos: the Men In Black. True to their roles, these men are dressed in black trench coats, black hats, and black sunglasses, and they have alien, synthesized accents. They fire on the other two men, killing one. The other escapes.
Several years later, the Men In Black chase Fritz (the man who escaped) through Las Vegas. He hides at his friend Daisy’s home and reveals his membership in a secret society to her (remember the tattoo?). He later recovers the alien box and the powerful stone within, has a vision of an alien being, and kills the Men In Black who followed him.
Fritz returns to Daisy’s home, only to discover the Men In Black aren’t dead after all. There he encounters the Men, an alien space ship and a pair of two-foot tall animated robots with bad attitudes. The robots capture Fritz and disappear, but they failed in their mission: Daisy still has the stone.
“We shot The Law when I was 18, just for the fun of it,” says Campisi. “We didn’t even think we would show it to anyone when it was done.” For a film shot as a lark, The Law is a rich, layered effort, complete with all the effects one expects to see in a science fiction film.
The story grew from Campisi’s interest in UFOs–he claims to have seen one himself. The Law benefits from the other-worldly atmosphere of Las Vegas, Campisi’s hometown and a Mecca for UFO enthusiasts. “We shot on and off for about 6 months to a year,” says Campisi. “Since we were doing the video for ourselves, we just shot when we could. Nights and weekends and stuff, that’s when we’d get together.”
After all that work, Campisi just stacked the masters on a shelf. “We didn’t have the money to finish The Law,” says Campisi. “Post-production costs were outrageous, like $150/hour to edit.”
But Campisi didn’t stop working. The awards he’d won as a high school student had gotten him noticed by the Vegas production community. “I got invited to go to a meeting of PAVCA, the Professional Audio Visual Communicators Association, a local group in Vegas,” says Campisi.
Friends he made there helped him get work on local professional productions–commercials, industrials, music videos, and small features. Over the next three or four years, Campisi built himself an impressive resume, working as a production assistant, grip, and cameraman.
Finally, in 1992, Campisi went back to work on The Law. He bumped the piece up to 3/4-inch to add the special effects and do the editing. He used his contacts and friends in the business to help him out. “Pat Kerby of Kerby Brothers Productions let me use stuff in his editing suite when it wasn’t busy,” says Campisi.
The script called for different effects, like ray run fire, alien holograms, and transporter-type effects to be added in the post-production phase of the film. The four year wait gave Campisi the ability to use some technology he hadn’t anticipated when he first wrote The Law. “The original plan was to do traditional animation over still photos,” says Campisi. “Instead, I did the animations on an Amiga in Deluxe Paint IV. It came out better than I thought.”
Other special effects sequences relied on painstaking stop-motion techniques, no different than those done for King Kong sixty years ago. “Animating the robots was the most time consuming. Those guys were made out of scrap metal,” says Campisi. “I had looked for a video camera to do animation, but couldn’t find one. So I shot it stop motion on super 8 film and transferred it to 3/4. We didn’t really want to do the robots in film. They took a month to shoot.”
Live and Learn
For all its good intentions, no one will mistake The Law for a big budget Hollywood film. The actors were obviously not professionals, and the script is far from perfect. Campisi says there are shots he would do differently now than he did four years ago. Still, Campisi’s film does demonstrate ingenuity and ability. He tells a good story on a small budget and has a good grasp of film language.
The Law appeared at several exhibition festivals. It garnered Campisi some press clips in local magazines and even an article in a national UFO magazine. Though he feels the need to stress that it’s an early work, it has helped him make some major changes in his life.
“I worked for about four or five years doing grip work, work for hire on everybody’s productions, but I wanted to be in charge of my own thing. I think I put in my time,” says Campisi. “At first you feel like you’re in Heaven being on a real movie set, but after a while it’s all the same old thing. I have a lot of friends doing the Hollywood grip or technician thing, but that’s not what I want to do.”
Instead, Campisi started his own production company, Starlight Pictures. While his production company is currently producing commercials and music videos, that’s not the goal of the company. The goal is to move him into the Hollywood scene. Again, The Law is helping him do that.
“I got an agent after The Law,” says Campisi. “She’s in Beverly Hills. She took me on after she saw the film and saw some screenplays that we (Campisi’s Starlight partner and Fianc Anje Campo) wrote. This fall I’ll be doing the writing for an independent Western. It’s either going to be shot here in Las Vegas, or at the Universal back lot. It’s got a budget of about a million. I was hired to do the writing for that as a result of the producer seeing The Law.”
Campisi and Campo are shopping the script of a new film, Shadow Dance, around Hollywood. It too owes part of its existence to The Law. “Looking back on it people suggested that it should be re-written or re-done to improve on the story of The Law. So that’s always been in the back of my head. I decided to go ahead and write something,” says Campisi.
“One of the things that people enjoyed most in The Law was the Men In Black, the guys in the uniform. The Men In Black are very prominent in UFO folklore. They show up at your door after you’ve seen a UFO and tell you not to talk. That’s the biggest element we took out of The Law. It’s kind of a Fire in the Sky meets Mel Gibson. How would a person like Mel Gibson react to seeing a UFO and the Men In Black? There’s a lot of adventure, a lot of action,” says Campisi.
Even though Campisi found an agent, he’s not content to sit back and wait for the phone to ring. “No one’s ever going to do more for you than you’ll do yourself,” says Campisi. “An agent can’t drop everything for you; they have other clients. My agent’s always there. Anytime I need anything, I can call her and she helps me out. But probably the biggest way she has helped is when I talk to people about my project. Because I can say I’ve got an agent, there are more doors open to me. Also she’s there to help with the contracts. But all the promotion and all the contacts have been my work.”
One of Campisi’s promotional ideas has been to shoot a trailer for the Shadow Dance screenplay. “Hollywood is very closed. Any producer at any given time will have 50 screenplays on their desk. For them to read a script will take an hour or two. To see my preview takes a few minutes and the idea is to grab their attention and get them excited enough to read the screenplay,” says Campisi.
It’s surprising to see a man with such a diverse and detailed production background turn to writing to make his break in Hollywood. For Campisi, it seems the natural thing to do.
“It’s hard to explain,” says Campisi. “Ever since I started making movies, I’ve wanted to tell stories. Obviously, when I was younger, I wasn’t doing that much writing. Now I’m doing a lot of writing. It’s all the same to me–all a part of the process.
“I’d like to make a major movie but I can’t afford that right now. What’s right for me now, for this time, is to try to write the screenplay. Also, being able to write is one of the ways to set yourself apart from the other production guys,” says Campisi.
Campisi’s recent successes have left him hopeful for the future, and grateful for the little science fiction film that almost didn’t get finished.
“I’m not another Spielberg or Scorsese,” says Campisi. “I’d like to believe that I’m getting closer to that level, though. In the past year, a lot of things have happened in a short time and The Law helped out a lot. If you have something like that, you can show anyone what you’re capable of. There hasn’t been a negative response yet to The Law, not one.”
So take a lesson from Campisi. Go get that half-finished project off the shelf and finish it off. Who knows where it may lead?
Videomaker contributing editor Stephen Jacobs is a freelance video producer and English teacher.