It's not a stretch to say Jeff Pryor is a born filmmaker. When he was 4 years old and at a restaurant with his family, he'd pretend his eyes were a camera.
"I'd slowly open my eyes and that'd be the fade up," the Brainerd filmmaker, 25, said in a recent interview at the Eclectic Cafe. "Then I'd look over at my sister and that'd be the 'cut to sister' and she's talking. And then I'd cut across to dad and he's talking, and then I'd close my eyes again and that'd be the fade out."
In a way, Pryor has been building toward his feature-length debut ever since that day. When he was 9, he videotaped his action figures. As a teen, he wanted to be a comic-book artist and incidentally taught himself the principles of storyboarding. When taking Dave Henschke's TV production class at Brainerd High School, he learned how to set up and frame a shot.
"Eventually it got to the point where I felt I had the knowledge to (make a film) but then it became, 'Where do I get the screenplay?'" said Pryor, who works by day at a radio station and a cable company. "So then I wrote a really crappy screenplay when I just got out of high school. ... You really have to come to the conclusion that you have to do everything yourself or it's not going to happen."
Cut to present day. Pryor's debut film, "Darkly Farewell" - shot on a digital video camera from his decidedly less crappy third screenplay - will premiere this weekend at his old high school. It was co-produced by Rachel Converse and stars Jesse Delaney and Lissa Waller.
Pryor shot the film from April 2004 through last October in Brainerd, Little Falls, St. Cloud, Duluth and the Twin Cities. But the unexpectedly long production schedule - Pryor had originally figured on a month of shooting - wasn't draining. The principle players became close friends.
"I was always happy to shoot whenever," said first-time actor Delaney, 23, a custodian for the Brainerd School District. "It didn't seem like work. Whenever we could fit our schedules together, we'd make it work. I had the funnest time with Lissa, Jeff and Rachel."
Waller, 26, now a theater student at the University of Vermont, had a different challenge than rookie Delaney. She had been in 27 plays - most of them in the Brainerd lakes area - and was accustomed to a style of acting where projection and exaggeration are necessary.
But with Pryor's direction, Waller's transition to the screen wasn't difficult.
"He was able to articulate to us in a tactful way what he wanted," said Waller, who graduated from Brainerd High School with Pryor in 1998. "He didn't make us feel stupid for asking questions if we weren't connecting. He's just so laid back. There's no control factor. It was strictly, 'We're all artists here.'"
Pryor's meticulous filmmaking style - he storyboarded every scene beforehand - isn't the only trait he shares with his idol, Alfred Hitchcock. Pryor is also a bit of a showman who likes to keep plot and character details under wraps until the figurative reel unspools for his audience.
When and where would you say "Darkly Farewell" takes place, Jeff?
"I wouldn't say."
Upon further prodding, he elaborated: "If I had a huge budget I would've set the thing in the '40s, but being that I didn't, we tried to keep the clothing and everything pretty timeless. There's not a T-shirt in the film. We shot specifically in places where you wouldn't see modern things. I think of it almost as an alternate world where it could be today but it's slightly different."
"Darkly Farewell" was, of course, a low-budget endeavor: Pryor estimates the budget at $10,000-$13,000, but he added that a lot of that was to buy equipment he can use again. He planned his spending carefully. When he finished the "Darkly Farewell" screenplay and prepared to move out of his parents' basement, he wasn't merely looking for his first apartment. He was scouting for a location.
"I went around looking specifically for the apartment I would use, and also live in," he said. "And (I planned to) outfit it with the furniture I would use for the film, and also use myself. I bought a car I'd use in the film, but also drive around in. I was just trying to fully utilize every dollar I spent."
If you go
What: "Darkly Farewell"
Starring: Jesse Delaney, Lissa Waller and Bill Musel
Written and directed by: Jeff Pryor
When: 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Where: Little Theatre, Brainerd High School
Clips of the Dispatch interview with "Darkly Farewell" director Jeff Pryor:
» No specific place or time .wav audio file
» Shooting in Bob Olsen's house .wav audio file
» I've always loved movies .wav audio file
The cast and crew worked for a cut of the film's profits; basically, they did it for the experience. Brainerd Mayor James Wallin and Councilman Bob Olson donated the use of their homes as shooting locations. And, other than Converse and casting director Bill Musel, Pryor didn't assemble a substantial crew. Pryor edited the film and scored it on his piano.
And, of course, he's doing the marketing, too. After this weekend's premiere, Pryor will prepare a DVD release of the film - complete with a cast and crew commentary - and then look into submitting "Darkly Farewell" to festivals.
Even though he has spent more time with the movie than he intended, "Darkly Farewell" has left Pryor energized to write more screenplays and perhaps shoot a short film before the year is over.
"Taking into account what I had to work with as far as funding, I honestly don't think I could've done anything better," Pryor said. "I'm not saying it was a perfect thing, but I don't think I could've gotten anything more out of what I had. From that standpoint, I'm absolutely satisfied with it."
JOHN HANSEN can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.