So Long Bob Barclay. It was good to know you.

I seem to be saying goodbye to people I knew or worked with lately.  Just the other day it was Donnelly Rhodes, and today I got the sad news that Bob Barclay has died at the age of 87.  Not a bad run, but still too young for my taste.

Bob was the man who got me into the Director’s Guild, back before there even were district councils. I had made my first feature, “Skip Tracer”, and Bob invited me to a guild meeting.  It was an easy sell.

I loved Bob.  He always had a smile and a positive attitude.  I’ll never forget one phrase he gave me, when he had been experiencing hard times and nothing was working for him. About his financial situation he said, “I’m running on surface tension.”  That phrase alone should make him immortal.

In the old days, I served with Bob on the National Executive.  This included the time during which the guild was developing the district councils.  Bob, Grace Gilroy, Lew Lehman, John Board, and others whose names don’t come so readily to mind would sit around the table in the Toronto board room and hammer out constitutional questions.  Bob was a smoker.  We all were back then. I was a smoker who was trying to quit.  I had been smoking a large pack of DuMaurier  King Size every single day, but had managed to stay off them for a couple of months before our meeting.  Bob smoked the same brand, in the same package.  At one point in the meeting the discussion became animated.  I looked down and there was a lit cigarette between my fingers.  I had no awareness of taking it out of Bob’s pack and lighting it, but the next day I was smoking a pack a day again.  So Bob’s influence on me was not always positive.

Those days of turning the air blue at the executive meetings are, thankfully, long gone.

Things have changed a lot in the industry. So much has changed. It’s a different world.  Back then, the networks had money.  Television had not yet fragmented into hundreds of channels, the Internet was not competing for advertising dollars, and the networks could afford to spend money on episodic shows, MOW’s (Movies of the Week made for television), and flying directors across the country to direct them.  If there is such a thing as the good old days, those were them for me. But I wouldn’t go back.  The world is so much more connected and interesting now.

Sometime in the late seventies my first wife and producer, Laara Dalen, and I purchased a house in Gibsons Landing, a ten bedroom mansion on the beach that the owners had set up as a bed and breakfast, but were now abandoning.  Bob came to Vancouver and visited us.  He said he was on his way to visit his son, Ben Barclay, in Gibsons Landing, and he pulled a B&B brochure out of his pocket to show us where he was going to stay. It was our new house, though we hadn’t yet made the move.  Marina House.

“I’m sorry, Bob, but you can’t pay to stay there.” I told him.  “You’ll have to be our guest.”

If I were a believer in woo, such a coincidence would impress me.  As it is, it’s just a happy memory of funny moment with Bob Barclay.

We were friends.  I regret that I never saw anything he directed.  I know he was committed to his work, and proud of it.  But I only knew him as a DGC executive member, a friend, and an advisor. So my appreciation is limited. One thing I can say – I never heard a bad word said about Bob Barclay.

He was a good man. I’m sorry he’s gone.

 

Goodbye Donnelly Rhodes.

“Zale, you have to understand something.  This isn’t art.  You don’t have to tell me how to act.”

This was the first thing Donnelly Rhodes said to me on my first day as the director of Danger Bay.  I assured him that I had no intention of telling him how to act, and we got to work.

For that entire show, I couldn’t make a decision on set without Donnelly questioning me, or suggesting something different.  If I said, “The camera goes here for the establishing shot.” he’d respond with “Zale, wouldn’t it be better to shoot the establishing shot from here.”

“Well, Donnelly, maybe that would be better.  But I’m the director and I want the establishing shot from right here.”

He drove me crazy.  I found out later he was doing what he called “Breaking in a new director.”  I think the game was to see if he could make me angry enough to punch him.  Donnelly loved a fight.

I don’t think we ever got to be close friends, but we did enjoy each other’s company and treated each other with mutual respect, after a time. On the second episode of Danger Bay I directed, the guest stars were two television series regulars from Toronto, Harvey Atkin and Eve Crawford. They happened to be quite tall. Donnelly was not. On the first day of shooting that second episode, Donnelly was required for publicity stills for the first hour of our morning. I set up a scene with the two guest stars, shooting as much of it as I could before Donnelly was scheduled to enter. When he did arrive on set, I told him the scene called for him to come out of a door at the Vancouver aquarium and walk down to a position between the two guest stars where he would deliver his lines.

Donnelly walked out the door and into the scene. Standing between the two guest stars, he looked like a midget. He held his hand over his head and started jumping up to it, like he was trying to be taller.

“Zale?” he whined.

I laughed and said, “Donnelly, it’s my revenge.”

We got along fine after that.

Donnelly had a reputation as a wildman and a jerk. Sometimes he lived up to it. I heard about one location shoot in a small, conservative, Ontario town. Donnelly brought up a couple of prostitutes from Toronto to hang out with him and the other actors.

“Oh, you’re with the movie they’re shooting,” one of the townspeople would say.  “What’s your role in the picture?”

“We’re just the fucks.” would be the abrupt answer. True, but rather shocking for the local residents.

When I lived in Gibsons Landing, Donnelly had a place around the bay from my place. We were both into boats. Except my boat at the time was a twenty-six foot sailboat that cost me nothing beyond the purchase price. His boat was huge, aluminum, diesel powered with twin thirsty engines, and breaking the bank. Like Donnelly it was bigger than life. We got to know each other, and I enjoyed some good times and good conversations.

I got the news today that he’s died at the age of eighty. I’m sorry he’s gone.

Solving Problems

Back in the early nineties I was living in Gibsons Landing, with Marina House, my home, right on the water.  Gibsons Landing was the location of the long running CBC series, “Beachcombers”.

I was asked by a CBC producer in Toronto why I hadn’t been hired to shoot more Beachcomber episodes.  I shrugged and said I didn’t know.  At the time, CBC was occasionally flying me to Toronto to direct for them there, paying my hotel and per diem. They could have my services in Gibsons without that expense.  Yet they were flying directors in from Toronto and putting them up in a hotel and paying THEM a per diem while I was sitting on my front porch watching them direct in front of my house.  It made no sense.

“You know, Zale,” the producer said.  “If you want to plough a field, you don’t buy a racehorse.”

That was a flattering and disturbing observation.  The implication was that I am an artist, and what the producers were looking for was a standard television hack.  That has never been me.  But even an artist has to pay his mortgage and feed his family.

I’m sure the CBC producers wouldn’t have seen it this way, but I suspect that their survival depended on making acceptable, but unremarkable, shows.  A bureaucrat survivalist doesn’t want to be seen as a hot shot, innovative boy wonder.  They want to produce stuff that isn’t bad, but also doesn’t really attract attention.  After all, if you stick your head above the trenches, somebody could shoot you.  Or, as the Chinese put it, it’s the tall nail that gets pounded down.

I enjoy solving problems. Sometimes I think producers would rather I didn’t, because I see problems that they don’t see or if they do see them, don’t care about. I’m sorry, but if I see a problem with the script I can’t see any choice but to solve it.

Take the case of the murder in an episode of Scene of the Crime, a Cannell production.  We were shooting Vancouver for London England, which is puzzle enough given the cars on the wrong side of the road. We were creating London with a British phone booth, one rented car with a right hand drive, and very careful angles. But the method of murder the writer invented was to cut the brake line on the victim’s car so that he will crash and die.  In London!

Leaving aside the fact that the car in question had mechanical brakes, my memories of London is that it is fairly flat.  Maybe there are steep hills and frightening cliffs hidden someplace in the city, but I certainly don’t remember them.  Cutting the brake lines seems like a questionable murder method.  Wouldn’t the victim just pull over to the curb and grind along until his car stopped?

So I suggested that the car starts off on the top floor of one of those parking garages with many levels and a steep spiral exit ramp.  That way, once the driver is committed to the ramp he’s lost all control. I could do the standard shots of his foot stamping on the brake pedal.  We could add tire squeals as he takes the curves.  And then, to finally do him in, how about there’s a big truck stopped at the exit gate and he can’t avoid smashing into it.  I could see it all, shot by shot.  This could work.

That’s when they told me that the car was a rental, and would have to be returned without so much as a scratch on it.

Okay, no problem. We do the standard shots, then a POV of approaching the truck.  Then for a final shot of the sequence the car is actually stationary. We mount a sheet of glass between two century stands in front of the windshield.  The actor rocks forward to the windshield, and we note the spot where his head lines up with the camera.  Then he repeats the action at some speed and we hit the sheet of glass with a glue stick out of a trunion gun, right on that spot as his head arrives.  The glass will shatter, and it will look like it was the victim’s head that shattered it.

Did it work?  Brilliantly.  In fact, watching the shot, it was easy to hallucinate blood on the shattering glass. Of course the downside of such success is that I cause producers stress, adding complications to their lives.  I also suspect that I made few friends in the special effects department.  People don’t like to be told how to do their job.

Sometimes Doing the Impossible Can Be Fun

Someplace in the archives of Cannell Films is a rather incredible piece of footage.  I wish I had access to it, just to see if it is as good as I think it is.  I shot it.  Here’s the story.

Alex Beaton, the line producer in Vancouver for Cannell Films gave me a call.  They had moved their hit series, Wiseguy, to New Orleans for a season and managed to put it in the toilet.  Our actors and crews in Vancouver had made it a hit.  I don’t know what motivated the move to New Orleans.  Possibly it had something to do with introducing a new wise guy character.  In any event, the move hadn’t worked.  They wanted to shoot a new opening sequence back in Vancouver.  Could I story board it?

I’m not a story board artist, but I can get the idea across.  Alex handed me the script for the new intro and I set to work.  It was a narcotics bust.  The scene was to start with a helecopter approaching.  Then a shot of the doors of a swat team truck opening.  The swat team emerges and loads weapons.  The DA’s car roars up.  We see the decal on his door. The DA gets out and talks to the captain of the SWAT team, a few lines of dialogue.  Then the truck rams the doors to a warehouse.  The SWAT team enters and shoots a couple armed bad guys before arriving at a door at the back of the warehouse.  SWAT team members step in with a battering ram and takes out the door.  The DA and the swat team captain enter to find cocaine being bagged.  The DA presents a court order to the head criminal who spits on it contemptuously.  The DA collars him and wipes the spit off on his face and they drag him away.

After considering each shot described in the script, I ended up with twenty-two shots in the story board. The story board was sent to Stephen Cannell for approval, which it got, and then Alex asked me if I would shoot it.

Of course I said I’d be delighted.  Then Alex dropped the bombshell.  He could only give me two hours to shoot the scene, and that would be with the crew that had just finished the day of shooting with another show. Oh, and they couldn’t afford a helicopter.  We’d have to fake it with a bright light and a sound effect.

Twenty-two setups, which is what the story board called for, would normally be a full day of shooting.  To achieve it in two hours with an exhausted crew was just madness.  Naturally, I shrugged and said sure.  No problem.  Okay, I wasn’t quite that sanguine about it.  I protested.  I presented a reasonable argument for why it was impossible. But those were all the resources that Alex had. I gave it some thought and decided I could see a way to do it.

The solution was to combine all twenty two shots into one carefully choreographed shot.  We would begin with a Steadicam operator up on a ladder for the doors of the SWAT team truck bursting open.  He comes down the ladder and the shot settles into a close up of shotgun shells loading, then tilts up to see the helicopter whirling overhead taking us to the DA’s car arriving,  moving in to a close up of the DA decal on the side of the car and up onto the DA as he gets out, becoming a two shot as the DA and the SWAT team captain talk, then they step to one side as the SWAT team truck rams through the doors.  They follow into the warehouse and the camera swings to catch the guards getting shot then finds the door at the back  just as the guys with the ram break it down and we follow the DA and SWAT team captain into the room where the action plays out as one continuous shot.

Alex told me that I could have only one take.  I could see the impossibility of asking for two.  The reset would take hours. But one take was enough.  Damn but it was beautiful.  We shot a couple of cut aways just in case the pacing needed to be tightened up, but I didn’t think they’d be needed. The whole shot played, beginning to end, with every frame in the story board included and flowing from one to another.

I never heard much about that shot from anybody at Cannell films.  Maybe it wasn’t as impressive as I thought it was.  But I think it was amazing. .

Attempting the Impossible

It Sounds Good in Theory

Sometimes the suits and the brass on a production come up with a brilliant idea, but since they have limited experience with actual shooting they can hand a director an impossible task.

Such was the case for me on The Edison Twins.  The show had been going over budget, through no fault of anybody on the production end that I could identify.  The scripts were just very ambitious.  Each episode was given one day of prep and four days of shooting. Now the producers wanted to save some money by doing an episode in three days.  How do you do that?  Well, let’s get the writers to give us an episode that is all in one location so it can be “block shot”.  This should mean that we save all the wrap time and moving time as we go from location to location.  Sounds like a great idea, right.

So they hand me a script and tell me that this will be a three day shoot.  There’s only one problem.  The script calls for a highschool play, with everything taking place in the school auditorium.  So far so good.  Except we can’t jump from one scene to another and shoot efficiently, because the show starts with an empty auditorium and a bare stage then develops gradually until there is a complete set on stage, actors in costumes, and chairs in place for parents and audience to occupy. Every scene still has to be blocked and lit.  Actors still need time to work out their performances and say their lines. Jumping from a scene near the end of the show to a scene near the beginning of the show and back again just can’t be done without at least an hour of set dressing and costume changes. The show has to be shot in sequence, and any efficiency gained by having just one location will be lost by the demands of continuity.

Halfway through day one we were already two days behind schedule on a three day shoot.  This may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. By day three, which was supposed to wrap the episode, we still had at least two days of shooting left to do. The three day shoot turned into five.

That was my last shoot on “The Edison Twins”.  They had to blame somebody, and the obvious choice was the director.  No hard feelings.  That’s just the way it goes sometimes. It was a great run, and I was sad to see it end.

And Then There Was The Cave of Mirrors

The Edison Twins was not the only episodic show with inexperienced visionaries making disastrous decisions.  I’ll never forget the cave of mirrors on Kung Fu the Legend Continues.  That sounded like such a good idea to the writers and the show runner.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a cave of mirrors where the climactic kung fu battle happens.  I mean, wouldn’t that be confusing if Caine couldn’t tell whether he was seeing the bad guy or a reflection of the bad guy.  So at great expense, such a set was constructed.  The cave of mirrors. Mirrors everywhere.  Triangular mirrors built into pyramids of stalactites and stalagmites.  It was beautiful.

The thing is, the camera only sees in two dimensions.  It doesn’t have binocular vision.  So a mirror doesn’t look like a mirror to the camera.  It looks like a hole, the entrance into another space. And what is worse, when you put a film crew in a cave lined with mirrors at all different angles, it becomes very difficult to hide the crew from the audience. When you are watching the kung fu fight, it’s rather distracting to see a thousand versions of the camera crew reflected in all the mirrors.

That shoot was a nightmare.  We ended up using dulling spray to turn most of the mirrors opaque, so that we could shoot without seeing the crew. I don’t think I ever saw the completed show, but I sure would like to.

High points and Low Points – The Fun of Being a Director

First, A High Point

Let me paint you a picture.

I’m standing on the bridge of a Canadian destroyer.  In front of me, behind me, and beneath my feet is an incredible machine.  This is HMCS Saskatchewan, Mackenzie Class Canadian destroyer.  She’s a sports car of a ship.  Her lines are all rounded because she was designed to cruise through radioactivity, with a sprinkler system to wash off the fallout.  So she’s beautiful.  She is 366 feet of sleek war machine with a complement of 290 officers and crew.  And she’s doing 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph), which is very fast for a boat.

Two sister ships, McKenzie and Yukon, are cruising on each side of Saskatchewan.  We’re surging into a glorious tropical sunset. Porpoises are playing in our bow waves.  Flying fish are coming out of the sea in schools of hundreds, their cellophane wings iridescent in the fading sunlight.

I’m on the bridge beside the captain.  I turn to him and say, “Could you have them crisscross in front of us, sir?” And he does. The two ships beside us start to weave through the water ahead of us like some kind of incredible maritime dressage.

I’ve heard a film crew described as “the biggest toy train set in the world”. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.  At least, it never did for me.  And that was enough. I cherish that memory.

An then a Low Point

I was directing “Kung Fu, the Legend Continues” in Toronto, working with David Carradine, but this particular show also included David’s daughter, Calista.  And the producers were not happy.

During prep the producers took me aside.  She’s a terrible actor, they told me.  She’s out of control, over acting, chewing the carpet, or words to that effect. You’ve got to pull her back.

And then I met Calista.  We hit it off as friends immediately.  Calista was all sexual energy and enthusiasm. She’s a natural flirt. The first AD had described her as “the set bicycle”, which was the end of my good relationship with that particular AD. This was an AD who wanted to do my job, who warned me to keep away from David Carradine and “let me handle him.” And now he was telling me to avoid Calista. This was not advice that fit my understanding of my job description.

So Calista and I went out for Japanese food.  The restaurant we went to served saki in a rather large teapot, and I discovered that it really is possible to get drunk on saki. I told her things about my life one usually reserves for a trusted friend, and she decided that I am a trusted friend.

And then we worked on her scene.  She was approaching Caine as her natural self, sexy, flirtatious.  It was totally wrong for the scene.  We talked about who her character was, a street person, a young woman who had every reason to be careful around men, a person intrigued by Caine, but wary. And to my relief she could take direction.  In fact, she is a sports car of an actor, able to absorb an idea and internalize it, making it believable.  She was good.

So, how is this a low point you ask?  Well, we shot the scene.  The next day on set the AD told me David was on the phone and wanted to talk to me.  That was enough to get me nervous.  And it got worse when I heard his voice.  “Zale, you turned her lights out.” he said.  He had played the scene with Calista and felt that Calista, the vibrant, alive daughter he knew and loved, just wasn’t there. He sounded like he was almost in tears. “You turned her lights out.” I stammered some words about being sorry he didn’t like her performance and…well, I’m sorry, David.  I’m really sorry.

I still had an afternoon of shooting to get through.  I felt like I was sleep walking through it.  I felt like I’d been eviscerated, emotionally disemboweled. Here’s where imposter syndrome becomes reality. I had been so sure of myself, yet  a man I loved and respected was telling me by implication that I was a horrible director.  Here was the proof I should never have been allowed on a film set. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

And Then, Redemption – the happy ending.

Toward the end of the day I got a second phone call from David.  He was calling to apologize.  He’d seen the rushes.  He understood how the scene played. He was very happy with Calista’s performance.

This is one of the reasons I loved David Carradine.  I don’t know how many actors, no, not just an actor, a genuine star, would beat me up, and then call me later to say they were wrong.  That’s just not the way it usually goes. David and I were straight with each other.  I gave him a lot of respect, but never treated him like a celebrity. And he was always authentically human with me.

 

 

 

Self Confidence

Zale Dalen – where the imposter syndrome meets the Dunning Kruger principle.

How can one possibly feel competent to direct a movie?  When I thinks about what a director should be able to control to do an effective job – image, actor performance, editing rhythm, sound effects, music, and most of all audience reaction – the task seems impossible.  One can only approach it with great humility and a certain amount of dread.  When I started directing I usually felt like an imposter, a fraud, a victim of a thousand forces beyond my control. It took some time to get over that feeling.

That’s always been something that I find amusing.  Everybody on set is pretty sure they can do a better job than the director is doing.  Direction is the easiest skill set to belittle, or fail to recognize, or assign to somebody else on the crew.

I remember a production manager talking about a friend of mine, Phil Borsos, and sounding off about how Phil didn’t really direct “One Magic Christmas”.  She claimed it was directed by the cinematographer, Frank Tidy, while Phil was hiding somewhere snorting coke.  I took it upon myself to enlighten her.  “I don’t care what Phil seemed to be doing on set, but if you look at his first film “Spar Tree”, a theatrical short, and his second film, “The Grey Fox”, there’s little room for doubt that he directed “One Magic Christmas”.  His finger prints are all over that movie,” I told her. “Furthermore, I know that movie was dead.  Unsupported by the standard funding sources.  Phil did the work to bring it to life, finding funding, polishing the script. It was years of effort that nobody saw and few recognize.  So please don’t tell me that Phil didn’t really direct that movie.  That movie wouldn’t exist if Phil hadn’t directed it.

Very few people really understand what a director is doing, and only the best directors are actually doing it well.  Because the hand of the director should be almost invisible.  The director is a presence, a control figure.  Peter O’Toole’s character in “The Stunt Man”, nailed it – searching for something he’s not quite able to identify, but ready to accept it when the writer brings it to him.

A professional film crew is like a performance sports car.  You don’t want to go twitching the wheel this way and that, micromanaging to realize some incredibly precise vision of the product you are after.  Subtle and gentle movements are what is required.

The same goes for actors.  In Michael Green’s The Art of Coarse Acting he describes the only four directions a director should be allowed – faster, slower, louder or softer.  I think directing can be more granular than that, but the idea that the director is a puppet master, pulling the strings of the actors and controlling every aspect of the performance, is just absurd.

There’s a film, the name of which I have forgotten, in which Peter Coyote plays a movie director.  I don’t know whether it was intended as a parody, but it really illustrates this point.  His version of a director is a micro-manager in the extreme, telling the actors when to pick up a prop and how to hold it, dictating looks and gestures. I’ve never met an actor who could hold such instructions in their head while delivering a performance. Such a director is only going to give themself a headache and an overwhelming feeling of frustration.  And yet I’ve seen beginner directors trying to behave like this, delivering long lectures to the actors about how to play the scene.  Wrong.  Tell the actor what the scene is about, what is happening in the scene, and then trust that the actor is an artist who will play it.  Only give a direction if something is drastically wrong.  And then only give the simplest direction you can find to solve the problem.

The truth is, a good director controls very little and is at the mercy of innumerable forces totally beyond their control.  A good director is the calm in the eye of the storm, reassuring, supporting, and offering advice only when asked or when obviously needed.  Truffault, in Day for Night described directing as “dancing with the devil”.  (To paraphrase: At the start I wanted to make a great movie.  Now I just want to get the damn thing finished.) And it’s true. The director puts fears and worries aside and assumes they can come out of the process with something of quality. And then they hit the floor with a flexibility and willingness to go with the flow that allows all the other technicians and artists the space to deliver their best as well.

One of my mistakes as a beginning director was to think that I could reveal my doubts and misgivings to the crew, that they were friends of mine and would understand my position.  Wrong.  The crew wants to feel that somebody knows what they are doing and is in control.  They don’t want to think that the director may be totally lost, thrashing around looking for artistic solutions to their problems.  The director is supposed to have a vision of the movie they are making.  And if that vision is cloudy or obscure at times, they better damn well keep that information as a personal secret. Standing in the middle of a set and muttering “I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do with this,” is not what the crew wants to hear.  And yet, that’s often the position the director is in.  Which led to the production still of Paul Lynch standing in the middle of an empty ice rink with a thought bubble over his head provided by the crew.  It read “I know.  I’ll wing it.”

Over the years, I got over my imposter syndrome.  And as I acquired skills, my Dunning Kruger syndrome slowly turned into its corollary – that a competent person assumes what is easy for them is easy for everybody.* It took me years, and many hours on set, to get a handle on what I bring to directing.  Essentially it is this: I have a talent for finding order in chaos.  Give me a dance hall with two main characters and a couple of hundred extras, as I had in Watrous, Saskatchewan at the Rainbow Dance Land while directing the Saskatchewan film for Expo ’86, and in a few minutes I can organize a scene that flows and looks wonderful.

Do you remember the first time you drove a car in heavy city traffic?  If you are like me, you were very tense, trying to be aware of every car in every direction.  It’s only after driving in city traffic for a while that one calms down and only pays attention to the important stuff, like where you are going and is anything in the way.  My first days on a film set were like that.  I was trying to be aware of everything that everybody was doing, from the camera crew to the boom man to the craft services.  It was only after a few hours or days on set that I could focus on the things that needed my attention, and let the completely competent technicians do their jobs without my monitoring. Then directing became…no, not easy.  It will never be easy.  But at least less stressful.  Just as driving in a Chinese city during rush hour no longer gets my heart rate up.

*Totally aside from directing, I noticed the extreme corollary to the Dunning Kruger effect in myself when I tried to show a friend, a very accomplished musician, how to play the harmonica.  I’ve been playing the harmonica since I was about six years old.  Nothing could be easier for me.  I always assumed it would be just as easy for anybody with some skill at music.  So I was very surprised to see my friend struggling with something as simple as getting a single, clean and pure note.  For me, that’s no problem at all.

On time and on budget

I have always considered being on time and on budget to be the most important reason I should be hired to direct, second only to putting together a good show.  If the logistics will allow it, and there are times when they won’t which I will get into in another post, I promise delivery on time and on budget. I mean, if there is only so much money, then going over schedule and over budget is irresponsible.

On a film set, especially for episodic television, every second counts.  We are asked to deliver more setups in fewer shooting days as competition for eyeballs intensifies, advertising dollars get spread between more shows, and budgets shrink. Time must not be wasted.

I got into the habit of having a quiet conversation with the continuity person at the start of each shoot.  I would explain that I understand axis.  I’ve done enough editing to know when a shot will cut with another shot.  So if the continuity person thinks I’m crossing the axis, they can quietly tell me about it, and mark it in their notes if they feel they need to do that to cover their butt, but I do not want a discussion. If you allow a discussion of axis, pretty soon you have the camera department weighing in, crew members sketching their idea of the existing shots, and the clock ticks on.  I tell the continuity person that if I have crossed the axis, I will eat it.  It’s on me.  But we don’t discuss it.

That’s just one area where time can be wasted on set.  It’s not even the most important.  A certain amount of time is required for the crew to rest, eat, sleep, and otherwise have a life.  That’s turnaround. You can’t shoot until four in the morning and ask the crew to start again at eight.  Not allowed. When Canal was gearing up to make Wiseguy, the pilot not only blew its budget out of the water with spectacular special effects, it piled on so many overtime hours that the unions wouldn’t allow turnaround.  Alex Beaton, the line producer, brought me in to do the next show.  He told me he wanted the same quality of shots and performance, but on time and on schedule.  Right.  I’m supposed to produce comparable footage to what  the prima donna pilot director delivered, but without the prima donna attitude toward time and money.  Okay.  I’ll take a run at it.

Needless to say, I was wired down tight for that shoot.  Focused.  Intense. I told the crew what was expected, and that I intended to deliver.  So let’s do it.  I had worked with that crew on other shows.  They were with me.  At one point as we worked toward our evening deadline, a gaffer ran past me with a huge coil of heavy cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back as he passed me, and got a spray of sweat.  That man was humping.  So I talked to the sound man.  “This is a great crew.  They are really working.  What was the problem with the pilot that they went so far over budget and over schedule.  Was it that the schedule was unrealistic?”  He told me, “No.  The problem was they would put the camera down in three different spots before they would take a shot.”

You can’t do that on an episodic budget.  When I put the camera down, that’s where the shot is going to be taken from.  If it’s a bad choice, I’ll eat it.  But I’m not changing the camera position.  Of course I hope it isn’t a bad choice.  I hope I’ll have  the perfect shot.  But if the shot is less than perfect, I’ll make sure the editor can work with it anyway.  There’s no time for indecision and changes.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to be quick and dirty.  It does mean that I’m going to think ahead, plan my shots, and get the coverage I need to make the scenes work.   I’m just not going to waste any time doing it.

More on time and budget in later posts.

My Epiphany about Television Directing

I was working on a made for TV movie called “On Thin Ice, The Tai Babalonia Story” in Toronto.  It was a very demanding shoot, and maybe in a future post I’ll talk about why.

On second thought, no time like the present.  It was a figure skating movie about Tai Babalonia and Randy Gardner, who had been skating partners since childhood.  Figure skating was their whole life. They made it to the Olympics, and then had to drop out because Randy suffered a groin injury and couldn’t compete.

Tai took it hard.  She wasn’t happy with the next phase of her career – skating in the Ice Capades. She spiraled into diet pills and alcohol until she crashed and burned, ultimately attempting suicide before ending up on my set as an advisor and standin skater, thanks to a Peoples Magazine article that brought her renewed attention.  Whew.

There were many things that made that shoot difficult.  First of all was the script.  Many scripts begin with the main characters as children, then time lapse to them as adults.  That’s standard.  This script began with the children and followed them in a smooth unbroken curve through adolescence, into teen years, and into adulthood.  This meant that we needed three actors to play each character, or six actors for the movie’s main characters.  They had to be believably the same people at different ages. To top it off, we needed a skating double for each of the main actors, none of whom could skate well enough to pretend to be Olympic material. So that meant we had to find twelve people to play the two main characters.  And to really add to the tension, the powers that be at the network, were withholding casting approval.  So we were two days before the shoot was to start and we didn’t have approval for our key actors, who would trigger the choices for the other ten key actors in the show.

Then there was the nature of the shoot, and the executives back in Hollywood who had, it seemed, no idea of how film is edited. The standin skaters, the real skaters, couldn’t start from a dead stop.  They would need at least a few steps toward the camera to get up to speed. Then, on a turn,we could cut from our actors to our stunt doubles. But the folks back in the screening room had seen the identity of the stunt doubles.  They couldn’t believe that the audience would accept them as the actors.  So they kept demanding wider and wider shots, as if that would solve the problem. They also kept demanding closer and closer closeups of the main actors. It felt like we were making an increasingly claustrophobic film about a wide open ice rink.

That was at a high point in my own career, and a high point in my arrogance. I had no conception of playing politics, or being aware of who gave me directing opportunities.  Case in point, the day before the first day of shooting, the (very experienced and competent) line producer, Janet Faust,  (from whom I learned a lot) told me that she would ride to set with me in the morning.  I said no.  I told her my ride to set was a time for me to get my head into the day’s work.  The only person who could ride with me was my AD.

At the time this seemed like a perfectly reasonable position to take.  But from my perspective today it was incredibly stupid. The AD was never going to give me a job. A relationship with the AD might be good for my ego and my work, but it was pointless compared to a relationship with a real network producer.  But there you go.  That was me back then. I hope Janet can forgive me.  She has been incredibly gracious, even though she has told me to my face that I’m a jerk.  I tend to agree.

So, what was this epiphany of which I spoke?  Well… I couldn’t understand why the producers were happy with the dailies when I was not at all impressed, but when I was happy, the producers were looking really worried.  It finally dawned on me that we were trying to make two different things.  They were trying to make television.  I was trying to make something better than television, something original and unique and powerful. So, when they were happy I was like, yeah, okay.  It’s television.  But when I was happy they were like, uh, wow.  I mean, it’s really something.  But is it what we want?  It doesn’t look like television.

Of course, like many epiphanies, this may be complete conjecture on my part. We really didn’t find time to talk about it. I could be just projecting. No doubt the producers were trying to make something that transcended television too, as proven by the dreamy skating scene Janet suggested as a cap to the movie. What I am one hundred percent sure about though is that the producer thought I was a jerk.  With good reason. I was giving the movie everything I had, but my emotional intelligence was, in retrospect, embarrassing.

Apologies to anybody I hurt.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.

Kung Fu the Legend Continues fail

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved directing Kung Fu the Legend Continues.  I loved working with David Carradine.  I directed over a dozen of the shows over the years, and mostly it was great fun.  But one thing was bothering me.

At the time I was a coxswain on the Coast Guard Auxiliary rescue boat out of Gibsons Landing, where we had our home.  There were several coxswains for the “rubber duck” as we called the Zodiac rescue boat, and we took the job seriously, training on search patterns and boat handling.  While I was in Toronto directing Kung Fu the Legend Continues, one of my fellow coxswains was killed in a bar fight.  Apparently words led to a meeting in the parking lot, and a young man who had been studying karate kicked him in the head and killed him.

This was a tragedy in all directions.  The man who died was a father of young children.  The man who killed him will go through life knowing that a stupid bar fight resulted in the death of a man who should have been his friend.  One life lost, one life ruined.

So there I was in Toronto, making a show that said you can punch and kick and hit a man all you want and you won’t do serious damage unless you shoot him or stab him.  And my friend was dead. I told this to the executive producer, Michael Sloan, and suggested that we should do a show that presents the dangers of martial arts.  Maybe one of Caine’s students kills somebody by accident, and Caine has to go to court to defend the idea of teaching martial arts.

They considered it.  And they rejected it.  They’d just done a courtroom drama, based on the classic “Twelve Angry Men” movie.  They didn’t see another way to present the concept.  So no.  I didn’t press the issue.

At the time, Kung Fu the Legend Continues was getting 45 million viewers a week.  The show was heavy on fantasy, spirit traveling, Chinese themed (though not very accurate) mysticism.  It was comic book stuff, and I’m pretty sure that, given some authority, I would have put the show in the toilet in a couple of episodes. Just one of the many reasons why television directing and Zale Dalen was not a good fit.  I can see that now.