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.