Thank you Atom Egoyan

It started with an email from Tom Charity, Film Centre Programmer & Rentals Manager Vancity Theatre

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 “Hi Zale, meet Sue Biely, who is coordinating National Canadian Film Day for Reel Canada in BC. The Directors Guild is one of our sponsors, and they have agreed a budget to bring you over for our show on the 19th.  I’m going to leave you and Sue to work out the details, but please keep me looped in and I’ll facilitate in any way I can.”

What?  Why? How could this happen?  Here I am, living in obscurity and thinking myself forgotten, yet somebody wants to fly me to Big Smoke for some reason.  Well, that certainly breaks up the tedium of my not at all tedious life.

And the reason, as it unfolded, was beyond flattering.  The focus of the evening was to be a retrospective of the films of Atom Egoyan, one of Canada’s best known and successful “not populist” film makers.  Two of his films were to be shown, The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica, as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The organizers had decided they wanted to show another Canadian film before the main features, and asked Atom to name his favourite Canadian movie.  And he named “Skip Tracer”, my first feature, shot in Vancouver in 1976.  I was gob smacked, as the British would say.  Blown away.

A flurry of emails and arrangements followed and on April 20 I found myself boarding a Harbour Air seaplane in Nanaimo Harbour for the beautiful twenty minute flight to Vancouver. Before leaving I went through the stack of boxes and junk in our basement and found what I believe to be the last two remaining original silk screened posters for Skip Tracer – one for Atom as a thank you for remembering my movie, and the other for Sue Biely, the organizer of the event as a thank you for being so…uh…organized. I also packed a framed ‘certificate of appreciation as a patron of the arts’, something I owed to my old friend Brian James Clayden for his support of my GoFundMe campaign to get back my violin.

Aside from these two items, I was traveling light.  I didn’t even take a razor with me, since I’d be returning the following day.

The screening of Skip Tracer was another surprise.  It was well attended.  More than that, Skip Tracer was treated as an important film, a film of historical significance, a relic of a lost era in Canadian film making.  I sat in front of the screen after the credits and did a question and answer session with the audience, slipping back into my old role as self important enfant terrible and promoter with nary a stumble, as if forty years hadn’t passed since the New York Film Festival of 1978. It was like visiting a past life. My only regret was that my first wife, Laara Dalen, who produced Skip Tracer, couldn’t be there with me to share the spotlight.  She was every bit as much responsible for the birth of the movie as I was.  It wouldn’t have happened without her.

After the Q and A session, I was approached by a man who looked very familiar.  It took me a minute to recognize Roger Huyghe, the grip on the Skip Tracer production team.  Death by nostalgia.

I found Atom Egoyan and the actor, Bruce Greenwood (from both The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica) in the bar of the Sutton Place. Bruce excused himself soon after I arrived, and I had the pleasure of chatting with Atom about China and his new film project, another difficult movie about the exploitation of Chinese sex workers during the San Francisco gold rush.

That, for me, was the high point of the whole adventure.  I admire Atom immensely, and not just because he is so kind to me and my movie.  He’s a survivor.  He makes difficult films that are not populist movies.  Films with integrity.  I frankly don’t know how he has managed to do it, since I couldn’t.  But I think the answer is that he has a single-minded passion for his art that I lacked, being too interested in sailboats and other life adventures.

The next morning, BJ joined me for breakfast, as did Roger Huyghe. We enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives.  All three of us have ridden the dragon of boom and bust housing prices, separations and divorces, wealth and poverty, good times and bad.  We endure. I felt loved.

Then I was off to catch the seaplane home.

I got back on Thursday afternoon, in time to make it to my regular fiddle session with the Oceanside Jammers in Qualicum Beach.  Another reality.  Already my day of fame and celebrity seemed like another world, another life.

Meet My Troll

After all these years, “Skip Tracer” is up on Youtube.  It’s not quite the original.  This is the version that some distributor decided to rename as “Deadly Business” (Just as a Hollywood major was attempting to buy my title.) and my original company logo has been removed.  But it’s mostly otherwise complete.

One should never read Youtube comments, but in this case they are generally very favorable.  Obviously my film made an impression, and has a tiny cult following, as revealed by comments such as this one:

MethaneMcGuiness2 years ago
Haven’t seen this flick in 30 years. Still a good one.

And

Jonathan Levine1 week ago
Wow – what a treat to find this here. I’ve got a tape – made from a CBC broadcast back in the day, probably – with audio almost too low to hear. I’ve been hoping for years that a new copy would surface. Skip Tracer really is an unknown gem.

And

flashtheoriginal2 years ago
I have rambled on about this movie for over 30 years since a one-off screening on BBC2 in England. Overjoyed to find this post, thank you so much. For those within the IMDB brotherhood (you know who you are) I have message boarded as a supplement to my original review. And now….,ENJOY !!!

Ah, so great to feel appreciated.  But then there’s my troll.

Jack Hunter1 year ago
+David Scott Anyone who borrows what they cannot pay back DESERVES what happens to them. If I offer to give you 10 million loan its up to YOU to say NO, because if you say YES, you dont get to cry about me chopping you up and selling your body parts to get back my money and interest. Poor people are scum.

Uh, okay.  And of course I should never engage with this mindset but I couldn’t resist.  You’ll have to go to Youtube to experience the exchange.  I’m not particularly proud of teasing him.  Suffice it to say that Jack Hunter, who apparently made his money writing books on how to get laid, revealed himself to be a true horror show of a human being and not somebody I want to discuss things with, not even for the fun of it.

For the record:

When I wrote “Skip Tracer” it was not my intention to say that people who borrow money should not have to pay it back.  That is such a shallow and, frankly, stupid take away from my movie.

“Skip Tracer” was an attempt to depict predatory capitalism, so well represented by people like Jack Hunter.  It was a study of manipulation.  The consumer is sold on a lifestyle where ownership of products equals status and identity.  The loan company exists to manipulate the gullible into taking out loans they can’t afford to repay to buy the lifestyle they are told they should want, but can’t achieve within the system.  The office manager is put under pressure to get those below him to produce.  They in turn put pressure on those they have seduced into taking loans to buy the things they don’t really need.

“Skip Tracer” is not saying that people shouldn’t have to repay what they borrow.  It’s saying that predatory lending practices, such as those perfected during the sub prime mortgage housing bubble, need to be regulated and controlled.  Capitalism is a system without love or empathy.  It needs regulation, or it needs people of conscience to walk away, just as John Collins walks away at the end of the movie.

Wellington Hall Open Mic Night success and repeat

The first Wellington Hall Open Mic Night was as much of a success as we could have possibly hoped.  Our performers ranged in age from eleven to eighty-six, and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite.  Of course Doug Dodd and Friends were excellent.  Rick Scott and Nico Rhodes really rocked the joint. Andrea Adams channeled Janis Joplin and blew everybody away. Jess and Kerwood ran the kitchen and kiosk in an uber-professional style. In all, just a fabulous evening of entertainment.

It was so good that we have to do it again.  So the next one is happening on Monday, April 3.  From the sound of things it’s going to be just as good, if not better because word of mouth is going to attract an even larger audience.

The Twenty Thousand Dollar Box

Here a war story for you from my time as a film director:

We were shooting “The Hounds of Notre Dame” in 1980, entirely on location in Wilcox, Saskatchewan with one day in Moosejaw and two days in a skating rink in Regina. To say it was a difficult shoot would be a great understatement.

For example, the script called for a blizzard at night.  I thought, no problem, we’ll just wait for a blizzard and shoot the scenes.  Hah.  You can’t stand up in a Saskatchewan blizzard, or see anything, let alone shoot a movie. The camera crew was having a hell of a time just keeping the camera warm enough to run film through it. I could go on, but that’s not this story.

We had a professional carpenter working in the art department.  I don’t know what his name was, but he was nicknamed “Machine Gun Kelly” because he loved his nail gun. Now, if I build something for a set, which I have done before I had a whole art department to work with, it will hold together just fine but it will also come apart with minimal effort.  If it isn’t structural, then as few nails as possible will do the trick. But that’s not how Machine Gun Kelly built stuff.  Whatever he built was built to be permanent.

Came the scene at the railways station.  A big wooden box has arrived from New Orleans, and Father Athol Murray plays a scene on the platform talking about the contents of the box with the station manager. So at call time we’re ready to shoot.  The box is on the platform.  Camera angle is chosen.  I was calling for a wide shot that showed the whole platform and the station manager’s office.  He would enter the scene from his office, walk to the box, and dialogue would happen.  I knew there was no way we would hold the shot past a couple of lines, but I wanted to catch those lines.

The sound man, Larry Sutton, came to me with a problem.  There was an overhanging roof above the platform and there was no way he could get a microphone in position to catch the opening dialogue. No problem said I (being the ex-soundman that I was, and proud of it thank you very much.)  I’m not seeing inside the box.  Let’s put your boom man inside the box for the wide shot.  Larry agreed that this would work.

So I called my AD and asked him, how long to take the top off the box.  He relayed the question to the art department, who said ten minutes.  Fine, I said.  Let’s get the top off the box.

What I didn’t know was that the box had been made by Machine Gun Kelly.  The ten minutes went by, then twenty, then half an hour.  We still hadn’t got our first shot of the day.  Actors and crew were standing around in forty below weather, and my lead, Thomas Peacocke, was wearing city shoes and no gloves as per the requirements of the wardrobe department. I was getting extremely antsy.

Now, a crack film crew is like a sports car.  You don’t want to go twitching the wheel, making decisions and then reversing them half an hour later.  But this was nuts.  I called the AD and said, listen, I can live with making this shot MOS (Mit Out Sound, a classic technical film term).  But my AD said give them a bit more time.  I’m wanting to teach them a lesson.  Really?  You’re teaching the crew a lesson on my filming time?  Really?  But the AD is running the set.  I’m not about to push him where he doesn’t want to be pushed.  So I fret and fume and time passes.  An hour passes.  An hour and a half passes.

What the hell is taking so long?

Well, they needed the top of the box to be intact for later shots.  They had to be careful when they took it off, because it could turn into a pile of splinters.  So they were working on it.  Carefully. And it was very well nailed together.

Two hours pass.  By this time we have blown out a morning of shooting.  My schedule has gone out the window.  I’m ready to choke somebody.  And finally, the top is off the box.  We can put the boom man inside it and start shooting.

And then we looked into the box.  There was no bottom on it.  We could have turned it over and been shooting in three minutes.

At the wrap party, the Art Director gave me a one inch block of wood from that box on a shoelace.  Every once in a while I come across it among my career souvenirs. As if I would ever need a reminder, but it always makes me smile.

I hope the crew learned whatever lesson the AD was trying to teach them.  I sure as hell learned mine, though it wasn’t going to be the last time I got caught out. In some ways, the next time was worse.

If you enjoyed this story, please give me some encouragement in the comments. I’ve got a million of ’em.

And thanks for reading.

Wellington Hall Open Mic Night

Here’s my latest attempt to bloom where I’m planted.  I’ve been organizing an open mic night at Wellington Hall in Nanaimo.And wonder of wonders, this wordpress is finally starting to add pictures again, after refusing to for months.  That’s great.

Hey, the open mic night is going to be great fun.  Come and perform.  Come and be an audience.  Come and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade banana bread with ice cream.  We’ll have a good time and if this seems to be appreciated, maybe we can make it a regular event.

We would start it a bit earlier, but that hall is infested with Brownies until 7:30.

And the winter drags on…

I spent new years day cleaning and organizing my workshop. My tiny workshop. When I started, I couldn’t walk to the work bench and if I got there the surface was so cluttered that doing anything was difficult. Now it is clear and tidy, with all tools available.

The second day of the new year I started on the new basement, moving everything that’s in storage from the end with the windows and sliding door to the very back, then setting up my tools on magnetic strips on the wall and again clearing the work bench space. What a sense of satisfaction I get from having a tidy and organized work space.

I would dearly love to show you pictures, but apparently my WordPress is still refusing to upload them.

I had the brachytherapy on schedule on January 24. That’s the operation where they implant radioactive iodine seeds in the prostate and allow them to eat your lower end innards, which apparently they have been doing. Side effects were supposed to peak in week three and four post op, then gradually get better. So now it seems I’m through the worst of it and starting to heal. If this is as bad as it gets, I sailed through all the treatment with only minor discomfort. On the 27th of this month I find out how successful the treatment has been. I’m feeling quite optimistic. Statistics say that 95% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are alive fifteen years later, provided it was caught before it left the prostate. Not bad odds. That would get me to 84, which isn’t a bad run.

No news on the Mary Bane documentary.  It’s in the hands of the producer, and until she finds some money it isn’t happening.  So I’m trying to keep active and live through the winter months.

Update on the Documentary and My Life

After sitting on the footage for a month or more, I finally managed to pull a three minute promotional video out of what I shot in New Orleans.  Here it is:

I feel good about this promo, though I think I pulled it together by the skin of my teeth.  If the documentary goes any further, it will have to be with a crew, at least a camera/lighting person and a sound person.  I can’t continue to do this kind of thing totally on my own. The production values suffer too much.  So I shall see if my producer finds a budget.

On a personal note, I have now done eighteen of my twenty-three days of radiation therapy.  Five more to go, and then a wait until the general anesthetic and brachytherapy on November 24.  So far the treatments have been totally painless, though I may be experiencing a bit of GI track disturbance and I’m spending a lot of time sleeping.  All indications are that the grim reaper is being held at bay for the moment.

As the window washer said as he fell from the eighty-seventh floor, so far so good.

My New Project and a New Mission

Sometimes a great project just falls in my lap. I have been hired by Barbara Guyton to make a documentary about her sister, Mary Banes.  This week we fly to New Orleans together to meet the subject and do preliminary research.  I’m excited.  This could be the most important film project of my career.  Here’s why:

Mary Banes turned 65 last weekend.  This alone is an achievement, for her and for the people who love and care for her.  Mary has cerebral palsy and is unable to move at all.  She requires constant care.  The only reason she is still alive is that her father loved her and cared for her, and after he died her sister took on the role of caregiver.  Note that I said “took on the role”, not took on the burden.  Because that’s the point of this documentary.  The public at large sees caring for somebody like Mary as a burden, but those who care for Mary and others like her see it as a privilege, something that gives meaning to their life.  The disabled are not a burden.  They are part of the fabric of our society, and they contribute in their own way.

Mary’s story is only part of this documentary. She graduated as valedictorian of a very special school, originally called, in less politically correct days, the Crippled Children’s School, now named to honour Anne Carlsen, a woman who was born with no arms and no legs yet earned a PHD and became the school’s first principal.

Mary went  on to earn a university degree.  She writes poetry. She contributes.

In the words of Mary’s sister and the film’s producer: “This film would celebrate Mary Bane’s extraordinarily brave life and will to live. Her story (and possibly the story of another younger brave Canadian man), both woven into aother story of the remarkable High School Mary attended in Jamestown, ND, formerly know as “The Crippled Children’s School”. Now expanded and thriving, it is known as the Anne Carlsen Center. It has recently spawned an Independent Living Center in Fargo, ND for handicapped young Adults who wish to move out of their parents’ home. This Living Center would be included in the documentary as a model for other cities to copy. Ann Carlson (born without arms or legs) was the Principal of “The Crippled Children’s School” while Mary lived there for her four years of High School. Mary was the Valedictorian of her graduating class. Later attending the University of South Florida, Mary was awarded her Bachelor’s degree. With that degree and her extensive poetry writing, Mary could possibly be the most accomplished graduate of the Carlson School.
This story only starts with Mary. This documentary is much bigger than that, and will most assuredly have universal appeal.”

So this documentary will be about Mary Banes, her caregivers, and the school she attended.  It will also be about other disabled people, such as my nephew, Ean Price.  Ean has a progressive nerve degeneration disease that has left him in a wheelchair.  He can no longer feed himself or swallow, and must be fed through a feeding tube.  But, like Stephen Hawking, the disease has not touched his brain.  He is an amazing young man with a very positive outlook on life.  He designed and markets an automated device that is attached to his wheelchair and, with the touch of a button, swings a tube around to his mouth so that he can aspirate himself without relying on his care givers.  He recently took first place in a disabled sailing race.  He is the poster boy for medical marijuana, and was flown to Amsterdam to judge the cannabis cup. He’s an independent businessman who took his care attendants to Trinidad for a holiday, and to Europe for a rock concert.

This is a huge project with a noble mission statement: to reframe the disabled in the eyes of the general public.  They are not a burden.  They are part of the fabric of society and they contribute.

I expect this project to be all consuming for a couple of years, but it sure is great to feel like I’m working on something important, something that could make a difference to people.

Coming Full Circle

This past year has seen a screening of my first feature film, “Skip Tracer”, made in 1976.  I’ve just been reminded of my work on the Saskatchewan Pavilion for Expo86, with Michael Walsh marking the 30 year anniversary of that great party.  I’ve been to Cremona, Italy, to reclaim my beloved violin a full decade after it was destroyed in China and three years after it was returned to Maurizio Tadioli, its maker, for repairs.  And now I’ve reconnected with Brian R.R. Hebb.  Coming full circle.

Brian R.R. Hebb and I met when we were both office juniors working for CBC in Toronto.  An office junior in the distribution department put the films into boxes and sent them out to stations.  After two months I got a promotion – to Film Assistant 2. That meant my job was to rewind the film through my fingers to feel for broken sprocket holes, repair them using a hot splicer, clean the film and put it into a can, so that the office junior could put the can into a box and send it out to the station.  The ladder to where I wanted to go seemed impossibly long.  Not only that, I was on the wrong side of the organization.  I wanted to be on set, making movies.  But I was on the distribution side, and promotions would take me up the ladder to programming.  I wanted to be a director.

Brian wanted to be a cameraman.  He was also on the wrong side of the organization to get where he wanted to go.  But we had initiative.  We rented a camera, bought a few hundred foot rolls of 16mm reversal film.  Brian did the camera work while I called the shots and we made a short film, a filler, about street cars.  I cut the film on CBC editing equipment after hours, added music from the cleared music library, and we sold the finished film to CBC for a couple of hundred dollars, which was enough to clear our costs with maybe a bit extra.  I was earning $49/week as a Film Assistant 2.  Every little bit helped.

After a few months at CBC, I got a call from Richard Leiterman asking if I wanted to jump ship and work for Allan King as an assistant editor to Arla Saare.  The salary would be  a hundred and fifty dollars a week, three times what I was getting at CBC.  I jumped.  I still feel guilty about this, because I had promised the man who hired me at CBC that I would stay for at least a year.  Sorry.

Outside of the CBC, my career path was spotty in the extreme, going from assistant editor to editor, buying a Nagra IV and becoming a sound man, all the time writing scripts and looking for a break and finally to director.  That was over the course of six years.  I heard that Brian also achieved his ambition, becoming one of the CBC staff cameramen, an amazing achievement.  Then I heard that he had left the CBC and become a freelance director of photography.  I remember thinking he had made a mistake.  Having made it within the mother corp, he was now jumping into my world.  I assumed he would find it as tough as I found it.

A lot of water went under the bridge. A couple of decades of ups and downs, employment and searching for work.  Surviving.

In 1990 when NBC hired me to direct my second Movie for TV, “On Thin Ice, the Tai Babalonia Story.” they wanted me to hire their choice of DOP (Director of Photography), some guy named Brian Hebb.  So there was a circle closing.  One of the scenes in the TV movie called for playback of something on a television set in a motel room.  I managed to get a video transfer of the short film we had made together twenty years earlier, and we used that on the TV in the scene.

Very recently I’ve reconnected with Brian.  He now lives in Victoria, a mere two hours by car from our home in Nanaimo.  Another circle closing.

How Does a Music Teacher Make a Living Anymore?

I think one answer is that they, like my friend J. Douglas Dodd, go above and beyond the standard music teacher gig and become a mentor.  They encourage.  They set up performances in local venues for their students.  They seek out opportunities for their students to exploit. They nurture talent.

Doug is very good at this.  He loves his students and they love him back.

Here’s one of Doug’s students, Lilu Scott, performing a song I wrote.

You can tell what Doug brings to the party.

This all came to mind for me because I did a Youtube search for spiccato bowing.  That confirmed my suspicion that anybody trying to learn to play an instrument can find as good instruction online as they are going to get from most music teachers. The big advantage of an instructional video is that you can repeat sections of it as often as you want without having somebody think you are a dummy.

Here’s an example of a video on spioccato bowing for the violin.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

And this video is only one of several on this subject, and only one of dozens on various other bowing techniques.  So, if you are trying to learn to play a violin,  great instruction is on line.

Of course, learning from Youtube videos requires that you be interested and self motivate.  It won’t give you what Doug Dodd gives his students.  But it’s a good start.

The Internet is now the number one source for instructional material.  Whether you want to install a new window, build a brick wall, or learn to chunk on the ukulele, the Internet has you covered.  Me likey.