One day in 1976, Jack Vacek wrote a letter to his folks back in Omaha:
"I'm making a movie in L.A. Sell the house and come on out. Love, Jack."
Vacek, a former baseball star in Nebraska, had come to Los Angeles several years earlier to go to college in the sunshine. While at USC he audited a couple of film courses.
These were not courses tracing the rise of the auteur or explaining how to operate hand-held cameras. They were night courses in which students wandered in, sat down on folding chairs and waited for someone to switch on a projector.
"All we did was watch movies," Vacek said recently over lunch at Nickodell, a Melrose Avenue eatery in the shadow of Paramount Studios.
"It was a mickey, an easy grade. But we saw some great movies--'Rashomon,' '400 Blows,' 'The Bicycle Thief.' I think what happened to me was that I went from looking at movies as, you know, 'That looks like fun up there acting and running around,' and began to see the power of the thing, to really respect it. It made me want to make one myself."
But Vacek had never even owned a Brownie camera.
After he left college, he got a job as a probation officer for Los Angeles County. The schedule allowed him to take a course in film editing at Los Angeles Community College.
"They gave us an old 'Gunsmoke' to cut up. A fight in the street of Dodge City, two guys with a knife and Matt Dillon with a gun. There were lots of camera angles, and you got to do all this nuts-and-bolts splicing. It was tough. You're so clumsy when you first start trying to edit film. But I learned a ton.
"One day at work, I heard about a guy who was buying old police cars at an auction. Somebody said he was making a movie. So I went down to Gardena to see him--his name was Toby Hallicki--and I told him I had heard he was going to make a movie and I wanted to work on it. I'm a pretty good talker, and I suppose I exaggerated my experience a bit, but he gave me a job as a cameraman.
"Hallicki was like the earliest movie makers, I think, and maybe I'm like that, too. You know, you come to Los Angeles and decide you want to make a movie, so you make one. That simple. We were flying blind, but we did it. The movie was called 'Gone in 60 Seconds.' It's about a car thief, and it has a 45-minute chase scene."
A 45-minute chase scene? That's half the movie.
"Yep," Vacek says. "Well, the more we looked at the film in the editing room, the more we realized that the chase stuff was the best. So we just kept putting more chase in. The great thing about working on something like that is that you learn to do it all. You use the cameras, help rewrite the script, do some of the lighter stunts. You even learn how to market a film. It was the greatest way to learn. You never look over your shoulder. You don't have time."
"Gone in 60 Seconds" went on to become a cult film with car-chase enthusiasts. And Jack Vacek went on to make his own movie.
"I think my folks thought I was out of my mind when they got the letter," he says.
That's an understatement, says Jack's mother, Lil.
"Oh my, yes, there wasn't anything like this in the family," she says. "It took us really by surprise. There were a lot of phone calls from L.A. to Omaha. But Jack always had a level head on his shoulders, so one day we said, 'OK, let's do it.' "
Lil and husband John sold their house and moved to Los Angeles. Their daughter, Karen, and her husband, Mick Brennan, also packed up and moved out.
"Our relatives back home thought we were crazy," Lil says. "We got out here and had no idea how much competition there would be. All of this was absolutely out of our realm. But my daughter was here with us and Jack was here, so we were all going to be together, and it would be sink or swim."
John Vacek, Jack's father, recalls: "We lived on a very slim margin. We paid ourselves minimal wages to make the movie, and we fixed all the food for the crew and fixed things when they broke and did it all. No one had time to hold down another job."
"We got up at 4 in the morning to make the sandwiches," Lil says.
By the time his parents arrived, Jack Vacek was living in a large rented house on Norton in the Wilshire District, which became their production office.
Jack says, "I wrote the script for the movie with my girlfriend, Trice Schubert, who is now my wife. You look at a few scripts and you figure out how to write one. I had never written a word of dialogue. But I do listen to how people talk.
"My father and I invested everything we had, and we got other relatives and friends to invest until we had the $200,000 we needed to shoot it."
At first the film was called "Smokey," the handle, or nickname, that CB radio operators have given to highway patrol officers.
"We had already cleared the title with our title search people when we heard about a movie called 'Smokey and the Bandit,' " Vacek recalls. "It had CB radios and highway patrolmen and chase scenes. It also had Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason, and it became clear they were going to open it nationwide and do a monster business. That kind of thing can really knock you for a loop, but it was too late to stop. We decided to change the title of our movie and keep going."
So the movie became "Double Nickels," CB jargon for the 55 m.p.h. speed limit.
In the film, a couple of cocky highway patrolmen, played by Jack Vacek and a friend, Ed Abrams, pull over a man for speeding. After he gets his ticket, the man asks if they're interested in a little moonlighting.
Soon the highway patrolmen are working almost full-time repossessing expensive cars. The movie is set in Los Angeles, where the streets are supposedly full of people who are buying the dream--and not making the payments.
These "repo men" don't walk up to the front door and ask for the keys. That would make for a very dull movie. They just take the cars when the delinquent owners aren't looking. They grab the cars at night, or they drive them away in the morning when the owners are in the shower. They grab them in front yards, at curbsides and in parking lots.
"The repo man--he represents a nightmare that any person who has ever lived on the edge can appreciate," Vacek says. "You know, 'Oh God, I wonder if they're gonna come and get my Mercedes.' "
In fact, the two cops-turned-repo-men do grab a Mercedes. In the scene are John and Lil Vacek--just ordinary folks in Omaha but movie actors in Los Angeles.
"We did that scene on a Sunday morning," Lil remembers. "I didn't even know I was going to be in it. Suddenly Jack walks up and says, 'Ma, we got this one line for you to say.' I thought, I can't do this. I'm shy when I get in front of an ordinary little camera."
In the scene, John explains, "Jack and Ed were pretending to be gardeners in front of our house so they could get close to the car. I drove up in the Mercedes and walked into the house. My line was, I had to ask Lil who the new gardeners were. She says, 'What new gardeners?' and she runs out on the front porch, and her mouth flies open because Jack and Ed have jumped into the car and taken off. They had repossessed it."
Jack Vacek laughs when he recalls having to direct his parents in a movie. "Everybody has seen his parents do a little acting around the house. You know they can do it! We set up that scene with my mother and father and shot it once and kept moving.
"But I don't want to make it sound so easy. I'd say about halfway through making a movie you begin to wonder if you can pull it off. You lose a lot of sleep. I just saw where Sidney Pollack said he never makes a movie that he doesn't think about halfwaythrough, 'Why am I doing this?' And there's a guy who turns out jewels like 'Out of Africa.'
"We all did a little bit of everything in 'Double Nickels,' " Vacek says. "I had learned to use the camera, so I did a lot of that, plus playing a major part. A guy named Ron Sawade walks up out of the blue one day, and it turns out he's good with a camera, too. But we didn't know anything about lighting. Then one day two guys from Omaha showed up, Tony and Tom Syslo. They had gone to my high school, but I didn't really know them. Turned out they knew a lot about cameras and lighting. "We shot most of the movie during the day because it's just easier and cheaper. But we had some key night scenes, and Tony and Tom took care of the lighting. Those scenes turned out great."
"Tom and I are self-taught," Tony Syslo says. "We did some short movies in Omaha. On the lighting for 'Double Nickels' we'd try something and say, 'Nah, that doesn't look right,' and try again until we got it right. 'Double Nickels' is your basic 10-reeler. A reel of 35-millimeter movie film is 1,000 feet. We shot about 60,000 feet and cut that down to the 10,000 you see in the movie."
Trice Schubert had a part in the movie, as did her sister, Heidi. Tony Syslo met Heidi on the set one day, and they later got married. Also appearing in the movie are Trice and Heidi's father, Del, their brother Norman and Norman's wife, Margee. When the script called for a bar scene, the crew headed for the Poopdeck, a Hermosa Beach establishment run by Bill Vacek, John's brother. Bill wound up with a part in the movie, too.
The most riveting scene in the movie is--not surprisingly--a car chase. But this chase doesn't happen on a freeway. It takes place on a series of steep steps in Silverlake. The highway patrolman played by Ed Abrams repossesses a Ford Pinto and plunges down more than 200 steps, chased by two incredulous police officers in a black-and-white cruiser.
"The cops were played by stunt men," Vacek says, "and it was very funny. You tell a stunt man, 'Hey, drive into that car over there at 60 miles per hour' and he doesn't think twice. But they wanted no part of driving down those steps. I finally said, 'OK, just drive down real slow.' So they did it."
The villains in the movie are two mobsters who are secretly running the repossession business and doing some loan-sharking as well. The two highway patrolmen try to extricate themselves, and the movie closes with a chase that runs through the middle of a county fair. There is a fireworks explosion, and the villains get their comeuppance.
The Vaceks began shooting "Double Nickels" in August, 1976, and finished in April, 1977.
So, as they say in the film biz, the movie was "in the can." But what next?
"We decided to go to Cannes and try to make some foreign sales," Vacek says, although he had no idea what he and Trice would do when they got there.
"It was crazy," Vacek says. "They were promoting the first 'Superman' movie. They were flying things through the air. We walk into town and realize we don't even have handbills to advertise the screening of our movie. We had to go to French printers to make up a stack of handbills. We stuck them under cars, we stuck them under the doors of every hotel room where someone could possibly be. Then we did the screenings. We sold the movie to people from Japan, Holland, Sweden and Indonesia. That was the first money we had coming back.
"When we came back we started with U.S. distribution. In those days you had sub-distributors who booked whole areas, say the South or the Midwest. You'd buy ads on a TV station and try to cover a whole market. Today independent pictures are hitting the cable and video markets. Video recorders have changed everything. So there are more markets now than there were three or four years ago. You can still crack the theaters, but you can also make a lot of money without worrying about hitting the theaters.
"We played a lot in the Northwest, the South and the Midwest. We never played L.A. or New York. The bread and butter was in foreign sales and the sale to TV and videocassettes."
"Double Nickels" shows twice a year on Channel 5 in Los Angeles. The Vaceks never know when it's going to be on, so they reflexively check the newspaper movie listings almost every day. When they see the movie scheduled, they call around to friends.
Vacek says the investors netted about $1 million from the movie.
Jack and his father used their profits to buy several small apartment houses in the Mid-Wilshire area. The income from those properties made it possible for Jack to buy a fixer-upper in Los Feliz and to spend three years working on it full-time.
But Jack Vacek is tired of driving nails and painting ceilings.
"I've got a dynamite script," he said as he finished his lunch at Nickodell, but he declined to go into details.
"Uh-uh. This idea is definitely worth stealing. But I can tell you I've got a real mean villain. I didn't think the villains in 'Double Nickels' were mean enough. We hope to start shooting in May. I gotta go. I'm going to look at some used police cars."