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.

Why Passion is a Great (unrecognized) Movie

The Back Story

Close to the turn of the century, I got a rather hefty royalty check for my work on the TV series “Kung Fu, the Legend Continues”.  If I was a sensible person, I would have salted it away for my eventual retirement.  But digital media was just coming into its own and I wasn’t ready to retire.  I wanted to explore digital, zero budget, production.

After years of making television, I was really tired of the industrial approach to film making, a management style that is anti-art and anti-experimentation, a management style invented by Fredrick Winslow Taylor.  In conventional industrial film production, money rules the set.  Every second on set with the expensive crew must be productive. The script, by necessity, is guaranteed to work because it takes no chances. Actors are hired for their ability to say the lines, hit their marks, and not cause any problems. Setups per day are the mark of a good director, and a good director plays it safe.  There’s no money to recover from a mistake until you hit the A list.

At that time, digital productions generally had the camera mounted on the head of a trained seal, and stories made excuses for the quality of the image.  It pretended to be amateur footage found in the woods (remember the Blair Witch), or interviews with a psychiatrist.  But I looked at the quality of miniDV and thought, hey, this could be used to make something that looks like a movie.  If we take a serious approach to camera movement, focus, and sound quality, this stuff can look good.

So that’s what I set out to do.  I teamed up with a casting director, Beth Waldron, here in Nanaimo.  She found me a cast of local actors.  We got dispensation from ACTRA to do a zero budget cooperatively owned movie so that Gordon May could take a part. I bought three Canon GL1 mini DV cameras and two Mac computers with Final Cut Pro.  I bought a Cobra crane, fluid head tripods, a carbon fiber fishpole for the mic boom, and a basic microphone package.  I invited the everybody to own the movie, to participate in story development. We began with just a theme and idea – obsessive infatuation. We set up a basic situation – Dwayne Fever, part owner of Cabin Fever Antiques, has fallen in love with his business partner, Sharon.  His daughter, Zoey, is grossed out by what she views as geriatric lust.  Sharon is in a relationship with Bob. We started shooting scenes, usually just one scene per shooting day.

As we shot, I would edit.  We would gather to watch the scenes and talk about where the movie was going.  One of the actors, Tim Johnson, became a major writer. Gordon May’s character emerged as the obvious main character.  This movie was going to be about him.  Sixty-four shooting days later (far more than I have ever had on a mainstream television movie where thirty-one days was the most I ever got) we had a completed movie.  And my first objective was met.  It really does look like a movie.  The camera moves are clean and steady.  The story telling is clear and extremely quirky. The locations look incredible and would have cost a fortune in a conventional movie.  We had restaurant scenes, an extensive scene in Home Depot, a scene in a local shopping mall, waterfront scenes, and wonderful scenes in the actual antique store, Cabin Fever.  Shooting felt like magic.  If we needed something, it would just show up for us.  If it didn’t, we would change our approach and find something better. I was having a ball, and the whole adventure was the most creative and fun movie making of my career.

I cut a trailer.

A local graphic artist put together the poster. We had a world premier at the local theatre.  I dressed in a tux.  We had a great audience response.  Everybody who had contributed to making the movie was there to appreciate the end result.  It all felt good.

Then, following my business plan (sic), we sent “Passion” off to film festivals. I had attended the Toronto Film Festival every year for the previous twenty years, ever since my first feature, “Skip Tracer”, was invited way back in 1978.  I was sure that “Passion” would blow them away. Here was something that looked like a real romantic comedy, made in digital with no excuses. It hung together.  It was wonderful.

And that’s when the disappointment started. I hadn’t recognized that the festivals were being flooded with digital material.  Flooded.  A friend of mine lent his teenage son his professional gear.  The kid produced a five minute short of himself French kissing the family dog – and immediately got invited to three festivals.  They were only giving him five minutes of screen time, and they could count on an enthusiastic, boisterous teenage audience. “Passion” ran 110 minutes and looked like a movie.  So we were competing for screen time with the latest Hollywood big budget “special” movie they didn’t know what to do with, a movie that would come to town with big name stars and an entire promotions team. We didn’t get invited to anything. I’m pretty sure that “Passion” wasn’t given a screening with an audience (which it really needs) by the selection decision makers.  Most likely it played on a VCR while the busy festival staff took phone calls.

In desperation I decided that I had to get the movie some attention.  I set up a special screening at the Vancouver Cinematheque.  I hired a publicist.  In all, the event cost me about a thousand dollars. We attracted a full house, and had great audience response.  But… not one opinion maker showed up.  (Possibly smelling an embarrassing failure, my publicist didn’t show up either.) We didn’t generate one column inch of copy in any local paper.  I realized that I might as well have torn up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Robson and Thurlow for all the good the screening had done my movie. And I was tapped out.

I’ve had to face the fact that the movie industry and many of my friends do not like my movie. More than don’t like it.  Actively dislike it.  It’s not what they expected as a romantic comedy, and many of the ideas and character attributes turn them right off.  They don’t find it funny.

In one case at least, this is clear and the reason is obvious.  There’s a scene in “Passion” where the main character, Dwayne Fever, returns home from jogging to find his daughter and her boyfriend having sex in the back seat of his classic Mustang convertible. At first he thinks it might be a burglar, and the preamble to the scene is an homage to the scene in “Pulp Fiction” in which Bruce Willis chooses a weapon in the pawn shop.  When he discovers it’s his daughter and her boyfriend, he is initially outraged – not because they are having sex but because they are having sex in his car.  “Don’t you have an apartment?  Why my car?”
“It’s a classic”
The scene becomes a very touching connection between a loving father and a free thinking daughter.  It contains one of the harshest lines I’ve ever heard in a movie, when the father hugs his daughter and says, “I never thought I’d smell that smell on you.”
The daughter’s reaction shows that she takes sex for granted, something that she’s entitled to enjoy. And she cuts off any potential for hypocrisy with the question, “Did you ever get caught.” To which the father has to answer, “Once.  With your mother.”
So all in all I love this scene.  In it, mature and intelligent adults have a pro-sex loving conversation.  I find the idea of his daughter using her key to get into his house and have sex in his classic car absolutely hilarious.  But one of my friends felt that the scene showed “bad parenting”. What?  My idea of a beautiful father/daughter relationship is “bad parenting”. And then I have to consider the source.  My friend is quite religious, Dutch Calvinist, the people who lock the rooster up on Sundays because the bird is to do no work on the Sabbath.  I can understand him not accepting the idea that a father would have a relaxed attitude toward his daughter having sex, especially before marriage.  So this reaction to my movie is completely understandable.  I just disagree.

Other negative reactions to “Passion” are also quite understandable.  Many people find the very idea that a middle aged man is lusting after his young and attractive business partner downright creepy.  He is, in fact, the detested stalker. Add to this the fact that the man’s wife is in a hospice in the process of dying and he loses all sympathy. Ain’t nobody going to like this character.  Yet I do. Because he knows exactly what he is and what he is doing. He really does love his dying wife.  They have a history together. He knows that his infatuation with his business partner isn’t rational, but he can’t resist it. He’s a very unhappy man trying to cope with emotions that are out of control.

There’s something in “Passion” to offend or turn off just about anybody. Dwayne Fever is himself being stalked, by Iris, a much more serious nut case with a fetish for Japanese geisha clothing and an absolute commitment to her delusions. This character goes way over the top of anything you will find in reality, unless you read the newspapers and notice how many people kidnap or murder because of delusional passion. And Sharon’s boyfriend is a secret transvestite who insists “But I’m NOT gay.” and has the childlike simplicity of Mr. Bean even though he’s supposed to be writing his college thesis. These are not the usual cast of characters in your usual romantic comedy. These characters mix extremes. They are not designed for the audience to emotionally identify with them, but to reflect on what they say about humanity and the world.  That’s why I like them.

Then there’s the lesbian lawyer and her submissive receptionist, the hunk of a fireman who solves problems with a punch to the nose, the French waiter who dispenses romance advice.”Passion” is rich in these characters.  “Passion” throws up a melange of ordinary people, stupid behavior, and insane solutions to minor problems, the harsh realities of life and death, and the silly ways people deal with them.

So that’s the movie, and that’s why I love it.  The world just didn’t get it.

The Volksmovie Group and Movement

I came to regret coining the term “volksmovie”, because Volkswagen has associations with the word “volks” in the public mind pretty much sewn up.  I still love the concept.

“Passion” is a Volksmovie, a “peoples’ movie”.  It was produced outside of the system, outside of the establishment, by people who wanted to make a movie but didn’t have any money.  Well, okay, we had my money, not enough to cover craft services on an average TV episode.  I pitched the concept to the cast and crew, saying I would absorb the hard costs if they would put in sweat equity.  We kept track of everybody’s hours, with the intention of dividing any returns.  We all owned the movie, some more than others. Everybody contributed ideas, props, locations, and, most of all, time.

Professional film equipment is expensive. But really it’s nothing special.  A set of work lights from Home Depot can be fitted with barn doors and made into quite serviceable film lights. Add furnace filters for diffusion and a microphone stand with alligator clips to hold French flags and you start to have a lighting package. Add in some moving blankets and a few two by fours and you start to have a grip package.  None of it needs to be very expensive.

The rigid structure of a film crew may be necessary for industrial film production, but it doesn’t take long to teach a normally talented person how to hold a microphone boom or push a dolly.  On “Passion” everybody did a bit of everything.  Actors and crew were totally interchangeable. Best cast and crew I’ve every worked with.

One of our actors was a very good welder.  He converted a refrigerator dolly into a film dolly that worked as well as any dolly I’ve ridden on a conventional film set. We experimented with a homemade version of the Steadycam.  We avoided all of the bureaucracy and red tape that normal film production entails, so we had no official permission, no script or script breakdown, no schedule, no producer, no production manager, and nobody getting in the way of our creativity. You might not like the end result, but I have to tell you, the process was pure joy.

And sooner or later, somebody is going to make a Volksmovie that is big hit.  We missed that goal, but damn we gave it our best shot. I’m incredibly proud of what we did manage to accomplish. “Passion” was a subversive act, a radical departure from established movie making.  It’s not the first to take this approach, but it may be the first do do it in digital, and show what can be done with the new medium.

So That’s My Pitch

“Passion” may not qualify as “great art” but there’s a lot in the movie to think about, and to talk about.  It deserves more attention than it got. And beyond the content, the movie has important historical significance, as does the Volksmovie Group and movement. Some day in the future I still hope a film critic/film historian will recognize what we did, and bring it all to the attention of the world.

Until then, I’m happy to have had the ride. It’s been a slice.

 

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.