Dennis Gassner

Dennis Gassner

AS: You were making short films on Super 8 or Super 16?
DG: Yes, Super 8. For the students with no money we did one-reelers. Three minutes of film every week. One-word subjects. The teacher was a French cinematographer. It was a very simple format because film can be so overwhelming. The point was, How do you tell a story in three minutes? You had to shoot 3 minutes, uncut, and tell a story.

AS: The teacher provided a one-word title?
DG: Correct. “Frenzy” was an interesting one. I thought, How do I convey that? I asked one of the local students if he knew of an orchard. He said his uncle had an orange farm. I asked, Do you happen to know if he has a bee swarm there? It turned out his uncle actually had one. Would he mind if I came up and filmed it? So I went out there with my camera. There were only a couple of cameras in the department. All fixed lenses. And I went up and met the owner and he said, Well, there are two ways you can do this. You can either wear a bee-keepers’s outfit or you can go in without the beekeeper’s outfit. I’d seen a swarm when I was a young boy. So I had a sense of it. He told me the bees aren’t going to bother you because they’re just circling the queen to make sure she’s happy. That’s what the movement is- to find a new nest. I said, That’s perfect. 

AS: No bee-keeper outfit?
DG: No. I walked all the way into the swarm and the bees came all over me. I walked into the center where it became totally black. Just bees all over me and the camera. And I slowly walked back out. So it was a track-in and a track-out. And that was my movie Frenzy.

So, what that school taught me to do was how to think. How to think about solving problems. I’ve been using this technique since. Production Design is all about thinking. And to me the bottom line is story. What is the story? What is the story in “Frenzy”? Tell the story. How do you tell a story in the most beautiful way you possibly can?

AS: Did you ever think of becoming a director?
DG: Being a production designer is being a director. I’m directing the visuals.

AS: What was your path from doing those 3 minute shorts to working on Hollywood movies?
DG: At Art Center I met a like-minded guy who had heard about a feature. He was at Art Center on the G.I. Bill. He’d been a helicopter gunner pilot in Nam. He came to me one day and said, I heard about a film that’s going to be starting soon and we’re going to work on it. And I said, Great, fantastic. What is it? He said it was called Apocalypse Now. And he figured out how to get on it. He took me along in his wake.

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About the Interviewer

Tom Lisowski is a production designer who has designed swamp mazes shot in China, crumbling cliffs in Utah, future arenas in South Central, dilapidated tenements and twisted laboratories under luxurious mansions... William Anthony is a Los Angeles-based commercial and editorial photographer specializing in portraiture, lifestyle and documentary imagery... Guest photographer Nelson Cragg is an award-winning cinematographer who shoots and directs television, feature films, and commercial projects. Contact ArtStars: tom@artstars.us