I visited Jay Kelley in his DreamWelder Productions studio in Brentwood, MO, and immediately got an earful of great advice for filmmakers. This guy clearly has been around the block and knows his stuff.
“The film that got me was Star Wars. I walked out of that movie and I was a filmmaker.” Jay got his start in public access television, which cable companies funded in cities all over the country in return for their cables being placed in different municipalities. Jay and his best buddy, fellow filmmaker Wyatt Weed, were trained in how to use a camera and audio equipment, how to be a floor director, how to direct actors on set…. “Our supervisor at the old American Cable, Rich Bizan, was a task master, but you learned. That’s where Wyatt and I lived, and later on I ended up running a satellite station before I was 21 years old.”
Then Jay went to Webster University in St. Louis, MO. While it was an excellent school, His freshman skills were already so advanced he was asked to be a TA after only two weeks. He realized that schools in the Midwest were not going to build him into the filmmaker he wanted to be. Jay made a short comedy film called “The Control Room” in order to apply to California Institute for the Arts — and he was accepted. “I’d give anything to go back at my age now and redo that experience. I should have taken better advantage of that opportunity. The resources and talent there were frightening — our acting teachers were people like Patrick Stewart and Ed Harris.”
He was out in LA for eight years, working and making a living in the film industry. “But there came a point where I began to realize that while I could find my way in, I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell.” So he moved back to St. Louis and worked in his parents’ advertising company, making movies in his free time. He made more local contacts, made more films, and eventually moved back into doing film production full time — that was in 2000.
Since then his company, DreamWelder Productions, has done client work for hair salons, dental offices, hospitals, even the St Louis Symphony, and pursued their own storytelling work on the side. Jay also teaches filmmaking, and has a lot to share on that subject.
“I always say that beginning filmmakers have facial surgery when starting out: their ears are sewn shut and their mouths are locked permanently open. They get lock jaw in regards to their vision and find it almost impossible to change at the advice of their crew and/or mentors. Sadly I was no different. Experience teaches you to make better use of your team and to not hold on so desperately to your story. Good directors make sure they’re the dumbest guy on the set. You have to let your people make it better than you would ever have imagined.”
“Directors have two jobs: their actors and bringing their vision to the script.” But, he goes on, a lot of directors don’t understand that they are in a collaborative art. “Here’s the funny part: in the middle of all this art is the war — the war of making a movie. A movie is a war: you’ve got supply issues, weather issues, personnel issues…. There’s a beautiful time alone in your room with nothing but a computer, unencumbered, coming up with your dream. After that it’s all compromise: how much will you give up to get what you want?”
“Spielberg said, ‘there’s the movie you write, there’s the movie you shoot, and there’s the movie you get. And they are never the same thing.’ Good filmmakers make peace with what they have, not what they want. Take Jaws — Spielberg spent every day thinking he was going to be fired. The [mechanical] shark broke, it never worked. But he had to get the footage. So he handed a camera to a diver and said, just swim around it. That POV footage combined with John Williams’ music made him The director. ‘If I had gotten Jaws the way I wanted, I would not be here today.’”
Jay also has strong opinions about how to choose your story. “Hollywood only wants to make films that they already know audiences will pay to go see. That’s why you see things being remade — they already know it’s liked. A producer might want to do focus groups, understand what’s popular — that’s a business perspective.”
“But a director? They should not be concerned with what the audience wants. They should tell the story that they are most passionate about, that they want to see the most. Good, well executed movies will always find an audience sooner or later.”