You’ve probably seen more movies made by Bruce Van Dusen than any other director alive.
1977. New York City. Cool and crime-ridden, cheap and wild. Bruce Van Dusen shows up in town with a film degree and $150 to his name. He wants to make movies. So he does. The only ones anyone will pay him to make? Little ones. Thirty seconds long. Commercials. He has no idea what he’s doing and the money sucks. But he’s a director.
He quickly learns he has the two things he needs to succeed in the fickle world of commercial-making: a talent for telling short, emotional stories, and the hustle to fight for every job no matter how small. He still has no idea what he’s doing—not that anyone needs to know that. He just keeps making it up as he goes along.
He gets hired by a client on life support in the most depressing hospital in New York. Gets peed on by a lion. Abused by Charles Bronson. Explains peristalsis to a Tony winner. Makes a movie and goes to Sundance. Goes back to little movies when it bombs. Keeps hustling, shooting anything. Gets married, has kids. Pushes, shoves, survives. Gets divorced. Survives some more. Is an asshole, pays the price, finally learns when and how to be an asshole and becomes one of the industry’s stars.
Years go by and it’s not what he expected. It’s harder, weirder, and funnier. But it worked out. It worked out great, actually.
One Christmas, my folks bought my younger brother and me a super 8mm movie camera. Working it didn’t take a lot of skill. You loaded a film cartridge into the back, pointed the lens at what you wanted to shoot, and pulled a trigger. The cartridge let you shoot three minutes of film. When it was used up, you sent it off to Kodak. They mailed back the developed film a week later. I was always frothing at the mouth to see “the movie” I’d made. Once, I shot three minutes of our dog staring into the lens. Another time, it
was my little brother waving at me then getting bored and leaving to do something else. Great stuff.
After a couple of cartridges, I figured out that, if I wanted to make something that looked like an actual movie, I’d have to come up with some kind of story and add specific kinds of shots. Like close-ups and cutaways. I didn’t know what those were called, but, from watching tele- vision shows and comparing them to my sh*tty films, I figured out what they did.
I started making three-minute masterpieces about psychotically violent ten-year-olds settling scores. I’d put together a cast of six or seven of my pals. The sequence of shots was pretty simple. Cast stands around looking nonchalant. Then a bad person shows up and does something threatening. This was confirmed by the cast looking into the camera and imitating Munch’s The Scream. Then there’s an explosion. Bodies fly through the air. They land in such a way that their lifeless forms spell out T-H-E E-N-D. Amazing I didn’t already have a three-picture deal at Fox.
I set a lot of my films at John’s Pizzeria. I was a very good customer, so John let me use the place. An essential member of the cast was someone’s older brother who had a driver’s license. I’d tell him he could play the bad guy if he brought his folks’ car. All he had to do was pull up in front of the pizzeria, get out of the car, and look menacing. That sounds simple but can be hard for a self-conscious sixteen-year- old boy with eruptive skin issues. I had props to help with the threatening part: fake sticks of dynamite I’d
laid in for some Halloween event. I put them in the trunk of the kid’s car. All he had to do was pull them out and wave them around and you knew he was up to no f***ing good.
I get the first minute of the movie done pretty quick. Troupe of innocents milling around. Bad guy pulls up. Pops trunk, reveals dynamite. Troupe does the Munch faces. Now it’s time for the explosion.
I had an M-80 left over from July 4th. Who didn’t? I needed to make this explosion shot look big. Like it could kill seven or eight kids. My way of solving this was to try to make the M-80 itself look big. Using my limited understanding of optics, I figured I’d put it close to the lens. Really close. So I lay down on the parking lot asphalt, put the M-80 a foot in front of me, wedged it in place with some pebbles and sand, then placed the camera, and therefore my face because I was looking through the viewfinder, right over
the thing and lit the fuse. Platinum-level dumb. Which was obvious to everyone but me. The cast ran for cover, hiding behind cars or inside the pizzeria. I was out there on my stomach inches away from an explosive like some midget reenacting a defusal sequence in The Hurt Locker. Anyway, the thing exploded, and I got the shot. The only side effect was mild deafness in my left ear for the rest of my life.
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Bruce Van Dusen has had a more than four-decade long career as a successful director of commercials. Whether you wanted to or not, you’ve seen his work. Tons of it. His memoir about the ins and outs of his career and life, 60 STORIES ABOUT 30 SECONDS: How I Got Away with Becoming a Pretty Big Commercial Director without Losing My Soul (Or Maybe Just Part of It), will be published by Post Hill Press/Simon & Schuster on September 15, 2020. After graduating from Boston University’s School of Public Communication, Van Dusen moved to New York in hopes of making documentary films. A week before he ran out of money, he got hired to work on a commercial and discovered a business he never knew existed. Within two years, he was directing commercials. Over the next four decades, he became one of the industry’s busiest directors. His work with movie stars, athletes, politicians, child actors and semi-trained animals took him from New York to Los Angeles, Milan to Manila, Rio to Rome, and Miami to Montevideo.
His commercials have won many awards, but since all commercials win some kind of award, that’s not much of an accomplishment. He’s also directed three feature films and a documentary. The first film, Cold Feet, was a Sundance finalist, a critical failure, but a commercial success. The other films didn’t do so well. Proof that commercials were right where he belonged. Bruce Van Dusen was born in Detroit and lives in New York City.
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