Behind the Scenes: Local Filmmaker Details His First Feature-Length Movie

Alex Zajicek is from and shot his first film — “Sorry, We’re Dead” — around the Bay Area.  (Photo courtesy of Alex Zajicek)

By Joe Porrello

Local filmmaker Alex Zajicek’s first feature-length film, “Sorry, We’re Dead,” will make its Bay Area premiere Saturday at the Roxie Theater as part of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.

The film was shot entirely locally, predominantly in the East Bay.

Visualizing familiar places gave Zajicek inspiration when writing scenes for the film. “Naturally, having grown up in the Richmond, El Sobrante, general kind of Contra Costa Country area, a lot of these locations came to mind,” he said.

The roots of “Sorry, We’re Dead” can be traced to short films Zajicek made before he was a teenager. Later, at De Anza High School, he spent lots of time drawing 2D animations before graduating in 2011.

Some of Zajicek’s animations are in “Sorry,” including stop-motion techniques. “I’m always excited to use some of these other storytelling tools in the filmmaking process,” he said.

He had never been big into watching movies himself. His friends studying film with him at the California College of the Arts could name all the actresses and actors in specific movies. “That was never me,” he said, adding that his interest in film is creatively based.

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In 2016, Zajicek set out to write another short film, but it turned into roughly 30 minutes of material, forming the foundation of “Sorry, We’re Dead.”

Working full-time in the Bay Area film industry post-graduation, he learned tricks of the trade that proved pivotal in making his own feature-length movie. Zajicek asked to see the budget from a local film he was on set for to get an idea of what kind of financing was required.

“I thought, this is a very independent project; I can see they cut a lot of smart corners,” he said. “But I still think we’re hitting a level of quality I would be proud of in my own movie.”

Key money-saving tips included spending nothing on scene locations and having filming gear donated or brought on set by crew members.

“I needed ways to cut corners any way I could because it was coming out of my own wallet,” he said.

After little luck applying to grants and contests for funding, Zajicek started saving as much as he could for the next four years in order to make the film.

“Sometimes 20% if it was a really good paycheck and I could afford it,” he said. “Sometimes zero percent when times were a little rougher.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, “Sorry, We’re Dead,” was initially planned to start shooting in early 2020, “which, of course, didn’t work out for us, or anybody else trying to make a movie at that time,” Zajicek said.

When the film did finally begin production, Zajicek employed cost-saving methods, including begging for permission to shoot at restaurants or using former places of employment like a lecture hall.

He said essentially the only money spent was on feeding and paying the cast and crew — most were old friends or colleagues who he trusted to do good work and who were willing to work for minimum wage during the 14-day shoot.

“I called up a lot of my favorite crew members that I’ve worked with over the years,” said Zajicek, who has been in the industry for about nine years. “Make it good vibes for everybody, do a good job, and call me out if I’m doing anything wrong.”

Despite the low pay, Zajicek said some of the cast and crew told him it was the most fun they’ve ever had working on a set. He said the only real stress was from trying to meet daily deadlines of shot takes without over analyzing specific scenes.

“The film industry can be pretty mentally taxing, so I tried not to contribute to that with my movie,” Zajicek said.

Even though he was the writer and director for “Sorry, We’re Dead,” he says he doesn’t put himself above everybody else. “I don’t even like the label of director — there’s just so much baggage with that title,” he said. “A lot of other people on set are equally important.”

With the help of his cast and crew, Zajicek completed the film after over five years.

The finished product of “Sorry, We’re Dead” revolves around an aspiring female film director who’s stuck at a dead-end job and eventually starts trying to dig herself out of a creative and emotional rut. But Zajicek says it’s much more than that.

“They tell you to have a good one-or-two-sentence elevator pitch to describe your movie. In my opinion, that is just antithetical to a good story of any kind,” he said. “If it can be described in a sentence, then chances are it’s not very interesting.”

More important than the narrative itself is the film’s meta and self-referential elements that make it unique by breaking the mold of commonly used techniques, according to Zajicek. As an example, he said the main character — given her prowess behind the camera — makes comments about how the movie is being shot around her.

“One of the things I hoped the movie would do is make people think about all of the other movies they watch,” Zajicek said.

He says movies today are too similar, only focusing on writing a story, not incorporating filmmaking elements and finding new ways to tell stories on screen. But Zajicek acknowledged that money motivates many directors and scriptwriters to stay within the lines of typical movies to guarantee paychecks. He believes modern films do not go into the mind of their creators. Instead, they end up being corporate products that aim to appease as many people as possible.

“I’ve made a lot of weird decisions that are not generally seen as the right decisions if you’re trying to make money, but I’d rather make an interesting piece of art,” he said. “I sure hope to make some money out of it someday, but that’s not what I set out to do.”

After his film initially premiered at the ETHOS Film Awards International Film Festival in Santa Monica, Zajicek is excited for the first Bay Area screening of, “Sorry, We’re Dead” at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.

“I’m honored to be one of the 30-odd features that were accepted and I can’t wait to show it to a more local crowd,” he said. “I’m definitely hoping we can pack that theater.”

In-person and virtual tickets to the 9 p.m. showing at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, as well as the film’s trailer, can both be found online. Tickets cost $17.

Later this month, “Sorry We’re Dead,” will be screened at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, also available for streaming. Zajicek said he would like to have physical copies of the film available for purchase and have it available via streaming services, but neither is easy.

In the meantime, he hopes to get more acceptances to the hundred-plus film festivals he has sent his movie to. He also wants to talk at local schools and libraries about the filmmaking process.

During editing of, “Sorry, We’re Dead,” Zajichek wrote two more feature length films. But he says it could again take years for him to make his next movie. It all depends on funding.

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