Once a Teacher…

I got a letter from a former student today. Landon has been corresponding with me since Ruth and I returned to Canada.

Here’s my response to his latest communication, reorganized with names for clarity.

Landon: Hi David,It’s been three years since last time I wrote to you.

Zale: How wonderful to hear from you, and to hear that you are still working at improving your English. The truth is, your English is already very good and the things that confuse you are mostly English idioms and phrases that I use in an unconventional way.

Landon: I have to say the time is flying so fast, especially during past two years with COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t travel frequently, we were busy for working, we were even asked to work for home when there were COVID-19 test positive cases occurred around my area. It’s like I don’t have much memories during past two years. As one of my colleagues said “year 2019 suddenly jumped to 2021”. And now it’s 2022 already, I wish you can have an enjoyable year in the new year.

Zale: Yes, time is flying very fast.  I also find it hard to believe that it is 2022 already.  Actually, I find it hard to believe that 1984 is no longer in the distant future, or that I am now considered elderly.  In mind, heart and spirit I feel like a man in his thirties, and it’s rather disturbing to find myself with all the physical limitations of advancing age. I’m fortunate that Ruth has done such a great job of documenting most of our time in China, and our lives during spring and summer vacations.  Without those photographs that great stretch of time would be just a blur. https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/ is where you will find her most recent pictures.  But going into her albums is truly amazing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/albums

Landon: My son got started primary school from Sep, 2021. He behaves just well at school. He is cooperative to teachers’ guidance, and consciously get homework done every day. But meanwhile, he is not willing to do what we, family members, told him to do, even though the thing is really good for his study. It’s like a common problem in China that a child listens to teachers, while opposes to families. The problem is there, but we still manage to improve the situation from time to time.

Zale: This is good to hear.  But please keep in mind that a child needs a childhood.  If he is paying attention to his teachers and doing his homework, that should be enough.  After that, I think you should just expose him to as many different activities and ideas as you can and see what sparks his interests.  Have you taught him to play xiang qi? Can you find any magic tricks online to teach him, especially tricks that show a scientific principle.  Does he have an interest in music, not just listening to it but also making music. Does he like fishing? Does he like to make things? There is so much instructional material online that any interest he has can find help to go deeper.  Maybe he’d like to build a robot.  Or a rocket.  Does he know the names of all the birds in your area, or all the different trees, or the different food crops? Does he know how to cook?  Does he know how to sew?  Can he type with all his fingers on a QWERTY keyboard? (If not there are great typing games and apps available to help him build up speed and accuracy.) Whatever he shows an interest in, encourage him.  Even if all he wants to do is play computer games, encourage and support him. There are people today making a good living playing computer games, or commenting on computer games. You have an interest in English.  Maybe challenge your son to keep up with you, talk to him in English, see if he can teach you any English vocabulary. The things he learns in school – mostly how to sit quietly, be obedient, and repeat what the teacher tells him – are not nearly as important as the things he will learn by following his own interests.

Landon: I occasionally logged on Facebook yesterday(because you know the website is blocked in China unless using proxy), and just noticed what you said on Facebook that your friend has passed away. And I am sorry for hearing that. I then read your whole blog for missing your friend. I could feel the friendship of you two, the memory you have for your friend, even though you two had many disagreements before. I hope you could recover from sorrow soon.

Zale: My father talked about reaching an age when he seemed to be going to a funeral every few days.  I’m now at that age myself, and must simply accept it as a natural part of life.  Over the Christmas holidays, my friend, Bernie, in Australia died.  My cousin Billy, my childhood hero, died. You know about my friend Rob.  One of Ruth’s friends and associates died of a brain tumor. Worst of all, my daughter in law is very likely to die of terminal cancer, although there is still hope. (we attended her fairy tale wedding just two years ago and you can see the pictures in one of Ruth’s albums https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadiandragon/albums/72157710271821806 ).  You can read her story here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-lennea-get-uncovered-treatment?
Are you familiar with the stages of grief first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in “On Death and Dying”.  The stages are:

  • denial.
  • anger.
  • bargaining.
  • depression.
  • acceptance.

Most people have to work through these stages in order to accept reality.  For example, when given bad news from a doctor about terminal cancer, the first instinct is to deny that it’s true, possibly seek a second opinion, refuse to deal with it.  The next step is to be bitter and angry, possibly lashing out at doctors and family.  Then comes bargaining – if I just change my diet and start exercising, this will go away.  But when it doesn’t go away, the next step is depression, horrible, deep depression that makes it hard to see any joy in life.  And finally there is acceptance – this is natural; this happens to everybody; I’m going to live every second until the end and enjoy what is left of my time on earth.
It has always seemed to me that the first four stages are a complete waste of emotional energy.  I much prefer to jump straight to acceptance.  And that”s how I deal with things like my friend Rob dying.  Yes, I miss him.  It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.  But that’s life. That’s reality.  There’s still a lot of joy in my world.  So, while I feel sad, it isn’t a sorrow I must recover from.

Landon: For my English study, it’s quite a long term task.

Zale: Ha ha.  It’s a lifetime task, even for a native speaker.  Ruth and I are still learning English.  It is endlessly fascinating, and there is no way I will ever know all of the words in the English language. I still encounter words I have never heard before.  Usually I just guess at the meaning and read on.  That is the best way to build a vocabulary.  It’s only when I can’t imagine a meaning that I bother to look a word up. But usually, the context will give you the meaning.  Of course this runs the risk of looking foolish if I try to use a word but don’t understand it.  For example, many native speakers think that “penultimate” means the very best, the top, the final, as in “It was the penultimate achievement of his life.”  In fact, it comes from the same root as “pen” meaning “almost” as used in words like “peninsula”, almost an island.  So the penultimate achievement is the one before the final achievement.

Landon: I never said I gave it up, but I was never determined to devote time to study it (maybe there is no much need from my current working), and consequently I never saw any much progress of it. But recently, it seems I spent a bit more time to touch it. For example, I install an app called Radio Singapore(I once studied there) to listen the English channel, and another app called CNA(its an app from Singapore mainly focusing Asia News and the worlds as well) to read English news. 

Zale: I applaud you for this.  The best and easiest things to learn are learned simply for the fun and joy of learning. So many people seem to be dull creatures with no real interest in anything but entertainment provided by others.   

Landon: Overlly I feel that for those four parts of English – listening, speaking, reading, writing, I need to improve listening with the highest priority, and reading with secondly priority. The rest, speaking, and writing, I will set them aside(maybe for future to improve, ^_^).
I sort the four items above mainly out of the frequency I use them. I listen the News from radio, and I often fail to understand during the listening because of unfamiliar words or fast speaking speed. The situation of reading English News is a little bit better. Because I can refer dict for new words while reading, and repeat to read for better understanding, it’s low efficiency though. I’m always surprised that there are so many new words when reading different topics of News. 

Zale: And when you have a passion for learning something, breaking it down into sections, setting priorities,  and organizing your study is a great way to improve,

Landon: I have some parts that I don’t understand from what you writing, could you just explain a little bit more if you have time:
1: From your facebook, “News of his death kicked the crap out of my Christmas this year”
I think it says the News made you had a sad time during Christmas, right?  But I don’t understand “kicked the crap out of …”, even after I refereed dict for the word “crap”.

Zale: Okay.  This is a vulgarism, the more impolite version of which is “kicked the shit out of…: As in “If he does that again I’m going to kick the shit out of him.” meaning I am going to do serious damage to him. News of my friend’s death was a severe shock that brought me to tears.  It cast a shadow over my entire Christmas as I struggled to accept the loss, i.e. it kicked the crap out of my Christmas.

2: From your blog:  “Occasionally he would drop a name, or tell me he was talking to the star, or the director, or the financial group that would pull it all together. Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production”
“Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production”, does that mean like every thing is ready except a last problem? But what is the exact mean of “lock down” here?

Zale: You understood perfectly. Yes exactly.  When he was putting a deal together there were hundreds of elements that needed to be decided, i.e. locked down, starting with the script, the director, the cast, the location, etc. and most importantly, the financing.  Very often there would be a vital part to this that would make everything fall into place.  Often getting the interest of a major star would be that vital part, or the interest of a wealthy investor, or a “green light” from Netflix. So you see, you really did understand what I wrote.  This is a perfect illustration of my belief that running to the dictionary every time you don’t understand something is usually  not necessary, and, in the case of idiom like “locked down” often not helpful.

Landon: 3: From your blog: “And what Christmas party is complete without the Laowise (Ruth and my folksinging group name and a Chinese/English pun) Christmas carol performance.” 
Here, why I think it should be “And what Christmas party is not complete without the Laowise …”. I feel a little puzzled. Because only with Laowise, the Christmas could be perfect and completed.

Zale: No.  For your version to work you would need to leave off the word “what”.  “And a Christmas party is not complete without the Laowise…”  Adding the word “what” asks the question, “Is a Christmas party complete without the Laowise…”So you see, once again you understood my meaning completely.  It was just an unfamiliar structure that you found confusing.

Landon: 4: From your blog: “He had a key role in putting the deal together for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”, but bailed on that production and is only credited as “additional crew”. So I really don’t know what he accomplished.”
I can only figure out it does say “He had no accomplishment”, the rest I don’t understand at all.

Zale: To rephrase this I would write: I know he played an essential role in the early stages of the financing for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”.  But he left that production early after a dispute with one of the other producers. Other than that accomplishment, I don’t know what else he managed to achieve.
 
Landon: Currently the main issue for me is vocabulary. If I had gained larger vocabulary, I think I could have a faster understanding while listening, and a low frequency of referring dict while reading, thus improve the efficiency of reading. And I will devote more on vocabulary.

Zale: Again let me stress that the best way to build vocabulary, and certainly the most fun way, is simply to practice voracious reading, especially classical writers like Charles Dickens, or more contemporary writers such as George Orwell. Just read.  Guess at the meaning of words.  Only go to the dictionary when you really feel that you don’t understand.  I have a huge vocabulary, compared to many native speakers, and I don’t think I went to the dictionary ten times during all my years as a student.  But I read everything I could get my hands on.Now quite often I think of a word I use and I’m not sure I understand what it means completely, so I will go to a dictionary.  It’s much easier now that a dictionary is as close as Google.  Almost always, I find that my understanding of the word is correct.Once again the Internet has made finding material to read easy.  For example, I’m now rereading a book by George Orwell that I read probably fifty years ago.  When I recommended it to somebody online, I discovered that it is available for free here: https://libcom.org/files/wiganpier.pdf

Landon: Again I wish you have all thing the best in this new year.

Zale: Thank you, Landon.  And again it’s great to hear from you, and to learn that you have become a family man of some substance.  I hope you have a happy, joyful, and prosperous time in the new year and years to come. Please feel free to write to me and tell me more about your life, family, work, and interests in China.  You might even include some pictures.

Warmest regards
Your old English teacher, David (Zale, Da Dawei)

Christmas Day 2021

We’ve been binging on Netflix with feel good Christmas romcoms.  So far we’ve watched and enjoyed “Lilly and Dash”, “California Christmas” and it’s sequel, “Home for Christmas” a Norwegian series that is quite engaging, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” about Dickens writing “A Christmas Carol”, just excellent, Ruth’s favourite, “Christmas in the Wild” about a vet who moves to a baby elephant rescue in Africa, and my favourite, “Operation Christmas” about the air force base in Guam and their Christmas distribution.  So, for a complete change of pace last night, we watched a couple of episodes of “Connected”, a science show with a very animated host.  Great fun.  Highly recommend it.

The view from my office window. Makes me feel all warm and cozy.

Our chickens are not happy with this white Christmas, rather unusual for this part of the world.  The snow is still falling, six inches deep now, and the chickens are quite comical as they try to navigate it.  I’m only going out to put a fresh suet cake in the bird feeder you can see hanging on our clothes line.

We are just getting ready to put the 火鸡 (fire chicken = turkey) in the oven.
I hope you all have a great Christmas full of joy and good cheer.  All the best in 2022.

My Friend is Gone

My world is being hollowed out. Rob S. Buckham is dead.

I got the news last night while binge watching feel good movies on Netflix with my wife. It came in a note from Rob’s Australian girlfriend, Marion, still in Australia. I only got past the first lines: “Hi David. I am sending you this message to tell you the sad news that Rob passed away last week…” before I burst into tears and blurted out “Bastard died owing me fifteen hundred bucks.”

Wait. Wait. Wait. WAIT. Don’t get the wrong idea from that. That was a joke. I really don’t give a damn about that money, or the fact that Rob died owing it to me. When I’m in pain, I make a joke. And the news that Rob has died really broke me.

So it’s true, but also a joke. That debt was incurred maybe thirty years ago, well before the turn of the millennial century. I had quietly written it off decades ago, and neither of us ever mentioned it. I always wondered whether Rob remembered it, and had every intention of making good when his ship came in. Sadly, that ship was lost at sea.

Also, please understand that this is not an obituary or a eulogy. It’s a personal wail of loss, as much about me as it is about Rob. Please don’t read it like one of those post demise puff pieces that describe the deceased as ever so talented and kind and beloved by all. Rob deserves better than that. He was a complex person who lead a full life.

Rob and I hung out a lot through the ups and downs of our lives before I went to China. Both of us were recovering from the breakup of our marriages, and both of us were mostly broke. I owned a fifty foot sailboat in those days, but was on the verge of letting it go, along with everything else in my life as the flow of events built up to bankruptcy. Rob played not bad rhythm guitar. He once suggested that we form a singing duo, but we never found the time to work up a set and take it on the road.

Over the years I came to appreciate that Rob had what it takes to be a big time movie producer. He was incredibly stubborn. Tenacious. And for the past few years I’ve been of the opinion that he was possibly a little crazy. Heroically mad. Stubbornly optimistic. Relentlessly positive. Every conversation we had, and they were frequent, he would tell me about the movie deal he was putting together. I never doubted that it was real. He wasn’t a con man. He knew his stuff. Occasionally he would drop a name, or tell me he was talking to the star, or the director, or the financial group that would pull it all together. Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production. In China. No, in Czechoslovakia. No, it looks like we’ll be taking it to Taiwan. Always ever so close to closing the deal. But the next time we would talk, it was as if that conversation had never happened. Not that the deal was dead. But it was…a different deal. Or a new script. Another configuration of international players. Always positive. Always optimistic. Always very close to the big movie that kept moving away from him. In short, Rob was a movie producer. He was what a producer must be in order to succeed. I never rained on his parade, or questioned his chances. How could I in the face of such calm, relentless, determination.

He let me read one of the scripts once, which confirmed my opinion that our tastes were radically different. The script was a hot mess. We seldom agreed on the merits of a movie, seeming to approach them from completely different value systems.

As the years rolled by, my hopes for Rob grew dimmer and fainter. Frankly, I stopped believing. If Rob ever stopped believing, he never let it show. And in that, mad or not, he was heroic. A real international film producer. Just one who never quite managed to make his movie. Sadly, that’s not surprising. It’s almost an impossible thing to achieve and takes amazing luck. Most of all it takes persistence, which Rob had in full measure. Just not the luck.

I always wondered how Rob managed to survive and support his lifestyle, which, while not extravagant, was not inexpensive. Did he have an inheritance behind him? Family money? Or was he surviving on development deals and script development money, or occasional work coming up with budgets or production plans for other producers? I never asked. Rob played his cards close to his vest, and I never heard him say there was something he couldn’t afford. He paid his bills and kept up appearances. I didn’t pry.

In 2009 or so, Rob followed my lead and came to China to set up shop in Nantong and become a player in the Chinese movie industry. Soon he had connected with a young and ambitious female Chinese business partner. In 2010 he invited Ruth and me to stay in his rather luxurious apartment in Nantong and join him for a Christmas turkey dinner. He had purchased a large toaster oven, and somehow had arranged for a turkey to ride in a limousine all the way from Shanghai. Actually, I think he had two turkeys so that he could test out the oven on one of them before the main event. I had my Chinese drivers license by that time, so we rented a car and I braved the Chinese roads and traffic to Nantong.

-all photo credits Ruth Anderson
Here’s me picking up the rental car after hours. A little scary, but that’s how adventures start. I will never forget the drive through Nantong’s rush hour crush of e-bikes on that trip.
Here’s Rob’s second turkey. The first was just a test. The only other huo ji we ate in China, rather, tried to eat, was at a five star hotel in Weihai. It looked just like this, but was absolutely impossible to cut with a table knife, as if it was made from hard plastic. Typical of China, the chef had seen pictures, but had no idea how to cook the big bird.
Rob had no such problem and this turkey was as good as it looks.
It always surprised me that the Chinese, so fond of big family dinners, have yet to discover turkey. The only live turkey we saw in China was in a zoo.
And here’s Rob with, I think, his business partner, mixing a big bowl of cranberry sauce. This would be a feast with all the trimmings.
Guests included two of our former students, Simon and Lv Min, still cherished friends of mine eleven years later. They have made a life for themselves in Shanghai with their two beautiful boys, Lucas and Marcus. True to their nature, they pitched in to peel the potatoes.
And what Christmas party is complete without the Laowise (Ruth and my folksinging group name and a Chinese/English pun) Christmas carol performance. GouGou (Pronounced “gogo”, Chinese for DogDog. The Chinese name pets with double syllables, like WangWang or FeiFei) is more interested in the view.
And of course, a real turkey dinner requires a large pot of gravy.
The full Christmas meal deal. Damn but it was good.
I made the eggnog. Potent and delicious.
That’s a bottle opener, with traditional design front and back, one of Rob’s stocking stuffers.

That was my last and best memory of being with Rob in person. It was a great dinner, the only edible turkey we had in China.

After the test turkey and the feast, Rob was very tired of turkey, so Ruth and I got to take home a lot of turkey leftovers.

Rob and I had a few more meetings to do with film industry maneuvers, and then a falling out over an indiscreet comment I made to Marion, his Australian girlfriend. I did my best to make amends and apologize, but eventually sent him a very cheap costume jewelry “diamond” engagement ring, delivered by Marion who had become our friend too. She reported that it made him laugh, so I guess he got the message – I was sending the ring back. I settled in to wait for him to get over it. I think that took a couple of years, but eventually we were friends again.

I’ve made it sound like Rob never actually did anything as a movie producer. I looked him up on the IMDB this morning, and found only very thin credits, some as a gaffer, production manager, camera and electrical department, all dating back into the eighties. He had a key role in putting the deal together for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”, but bailed on that production and is only credited as “additional crew”. So I really don’t know what he accomplished.

What I do know is that he never stopped trying, right up to the end. That’s what it takes to be a producer, and with a little more luck maybe I would have been flown to a production in some exotic location to take a minor position and get paid back the money he owed me. I kept hoping, more for him than for me. This said, don’t ever think that Rob was a loser. He was a man trying to climb an impossible mountain, and in the end it defeated him.

So, about that debt. Shortly before I left Canada for China, Rob got me involved as the cameraman/director/editor to make a presentation piece for a promoter who wanted to put together a TV series about golf. We were paid three thousand dollars, all the money Rob could wring from the guy, for quite a bit of work, and the deal was we would split it fifty-fifty. I shot it on miniDV and edited it on my Final Cut Pro system in my living room, with Rob supervising the edit and making me exceedingly grumpy in the process. When it came time for the money split, Rob asked me if he could take the whole amount. He seemed to need it more than I did. So I said he could owe me my share. I never needed it badly enough to ask him to pay me back.

Really, that turkey dinner in Nantong was payment enough.

I’m going to miss you, Rob, you crazy man. Sorry your dreams never came to fruition. Very glad I got to know you. You weren’t a quitter, that’s for sure. But I guess you’ve finally quit. I’m so sad about that. Heartbroken even.

Learning to Direct for Television

I got interested in film making at the Simon Frazer Film Workshop way back in about 1968. In those days I was working with other students who were interested in various technical aspects of film making, generally camera work, sound recording, or editing. My friends were not, primarily, actors. So I developed one particularly bad habit that almost scuppered my television directing career before it got properly started.

That habit – checking with the cameraman and sound man to ask if they got the shot or whether we needed to do it again. Sometimes this would devolve into an extended conversation about how the camera moved, what it saw and what it should have seen. Meanwhile the actors, who were the subject of this effort, were left standing around wondering whether their performance was what I wanted.

I had already made my first film, “Skip Tracer”, before this habit was addressed and corrected.

I think it might have been Donnelly Rhodes on “Danger Bay” who first set me straight. Or maybe it was the Nick Gillott,a producer on “Anything to Survive”. Or maybe it took a combination of people before I really wised up. In any event, sooner or later, somebody said to me something like this: You don’t have time for this. You need to set a pace and get things moving if you expect to get everything in the can by the end of the day. The technical guys are professionals. Believe me, if you say we are moving on before they are ready to move on, they will let you know. So the first person you talk to is the actor. If their performance was adequate, not necessarily award winning but adequate for what you are doing, then you need to tell them that they were wonderful. They need to feel good. Show any hesitation to praise them and they will demand another take. You don’t have time for that.

Cast and crew of Anything to Survive. I’m standing beside Matt Leblanc, upper left.

So what you say is: Great. That was perfect. We’ve got the master. Now we’re moving in for coverage and the camera goes here. And by that you must mean, the camera goes precisely there. Not let’s put the camera here and see how it looks. If you put the camera in a slightly wrong place, you wear it. Unless you have really fucked up, and the camera is totally in the wrong place for what you need, that’s where the camera goes.

That’s how you set a pace. That’s how you get the impossible number of shots in the can before the day is over.

I’m reminded of shooting an episode of “Wise Guy”. The pilot for that episodic show had gone so far into overtime, for so many days in a row, that the production couldn’t even afford turnaround. (turnaround, the length of time the cast and crew must be given before they can be called back to the set. It varies depending on the financial penalties incurred.) It was right off the rails.

Alex Beaton brought me in to shoot the episode after the pilot. Alex was a producer who gave me my first big break in television directing as a result of the writer’s strike shutting down the use of American directors. More about that in another post. But Alex said to me, in essence, Zale, we went way over budget on the pilot. I want you to deliver the same quality, but without an hour of overtime. Bring it in on schedule and on budget.

Thanks Alex. Same quality with a fraction of the time and money. What a challenge. I was committed to delivering just that.

At a certain point in the shoot, a gaffer ran past me with a couple of hundred pounds of cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back as he ran past, raising a spray of sweat. The man was humping it. So I said to Larry Sutton, the sound man and a friend of mine, what’s going on here. This is a great crew. They are working very hard. Why did you go so far over budget on the pilot.

Larry’s answer: the director of the pilot would put the camera down three or four times before he could decide on the shot.

Fucking pima donna. And I got to clean up the financial mess he left behind. You can’t do that on a television shoot. I brought my shows in on time and on budget. When I said that this is where the camera goes, that’s where it went. If I was wrong, I ate it and made up for it with the later shots. I didn’t work “quick and dirty”. But I did work fast, and focused. I also got myself a reputation as a hard director to work with, but that’s another story, eh.

It’s impossible for anybody who hasn’t been there to understand the pressure that’s on a film director on set. I realized at one point that this was the only time I felt truly alive. There is so much to be aware of, so much to want to control. It reminds me of the first time I drove a car in city traffic. I was freaking out. Trying to look in every direction at once. And then I relaxed. I started to only pay attention to what I needed to pay attention to. Where is my car was going? Do I need to stop? Everything else is unimportant.

I’ve always smiled to hear that somebody wants to be a director because they want control. That is laughable. There is no greater feeling of helplessness than being the one in charge of a thirty man crew on a film set with two hundred extras and five main actors. Think about it. There you are, and everything depends on decisions you are going to make. It is chaos. And I discovered that I have a talent for bringing order to chaos. Ah, that is to feel truly alive.

I would have anxiety nightmares. In those dreams, I’d be on set with a huge cast and thousands of extras and I hadn’t read the script. I had no idea what was going on or what I needed to do. Of course I never let this happen. I read the script.

Incidentally, I got very annoyed if somebody in the art department hadn’t read the script, and couldn’t see that the set had to reflect the needs of the script. Most cabin sets are built with no ceiling. But if the script calls for an actor to find a set of oars in the rafters, there better be rafters for them to find oars in. Grump.

Guns on Sets

The recent death on set of a Director of Cinematography and the injuring of a director by a “prop” gun, prompts this post. Something needs to be said.

This account says that the gun “misfired”. That’s not accurate. If a gun misfires, it doesn’t shoot. In this case, the gun discharged. It should not have happened.

I have had at least one accidental discharge of a firearm on a movie set. I’ve also had a firearm incident that could have had very serious consequences. These have resulted in my personal rule for guns on set – unless they are absolutely necessary for technical reasons, don’t allow them. It’s very easy now to generate very realistic CGI versions of muzzle smoke and bullet impacts. Possibly more difficult are automatic actions and shell ejection, and they may justify real, functional firearms where CGI budgets are limited. But then there are ways to make them safe.

The first rule should be that anybody who handles a functional firearm, actors as well as props people, should be trained to inspect it and make sure it is not loaded. It’s the first thing they teach in a firearm safety class. Never take anybody’s word that a gun is not loaded. Inspect it. Take out the magazine. Open the action. Make sure there’s nothing in the chamber. If Alec Baldwin had done this, there’d be a cinematographer alive today.

Not having somebody on set to initiate this training and enforce safety rules is egregious negligence on the part of a production.

My younger brother spent twenty five years as a prison guard, handling a pistol grip shotgun every day. He had an accidental discharge that, thankfully, only resulted in a huge pile of paper work. Here’s how it happened: He KNEW his gun was empty. He’d removed the shells himself. But he sat down for a break, and another guard sat down beside him. When the other guard left, he picked up the wrong gun. My brother stood up, picked up the other guard’s gun, pulled the trigger expecting to hear a click and BOOM. Simple as that. So in addition to the first rule of inspecting a gun that is handed to you, the second rule is inspect the gun if it’s been out of your hands. Even briefly.

I hired my brother to be a Special Business Extra on “Terminal City Ricochet” because I knew I could trust him with guns. We still had an accidental discharge. I don’t know the details, but my brother told me he warned the props guy that he was being unsafe, only to get a surly “I know what I’m doing.” response. Two minutes later and, again, BOOM. You don’t want to hear that on a film set. So make sure there are clear lines of authority. Encourage everybody to challenge situations that are questionable.

The most frightening moment on the set of that film was my fault. My actors were driving a car that was fictionally bullet proof. They were to run a barricade in that vehicle. A guard was to step out in front of them with a shotgun and shoot at the windshield. It was my brilliant idea to have a real shotgun fire a wax bullet at the windshield. Because of the slope of the windshield and the softness of the wax, I was confident that it would just leave a nice skid mark with no further damage. I personally tested that idea, firing several wax slugs at our hero car, and it seemed to work perfectly.
On the day I had my brother act as the guard, knowing he had the skill to fire accurately. Which he did. He waited until the last possible minute, fired, and dove out of the way. But when I called “cut”, he came on the walkie-talkie saying we might want to call an ambulance. The wax bullet had gone right through. The actors weren’t hit directly, but there was a lot of shards of glass flying around.

The most disturbing part of this story, for me, is that I hadn’t made sure the actors in the front seat of the car were even wearing safety glasses. Neither had the set safety officer. A good example of how a real gun on a set can cause a tragedy. I’m just hung with horseshoes the actors weren’t hurt.

Another very scary moment on that shoot: In another scene, a prison guard was to be shot in the back by “friendly fire” from another guard. The special FX team told me that putting him in a down vest with a squib behind the down would give me a beautiful shot of feathers flying through the air. Sounded good to me. Rig it, boys.
The guard who was to be shot had to push his own button to set off the squib. When he did so, his vest bulged out but there was no beautiful explosion of feathers. He just collapsed. Oh. My. God. What happened? Did they put the squib in backwards and kill the guy?
What had happened was we were shooting in heavy rain and the down vest was soaked with water. The feathers were no longer fluffy. They were a solid mat, and the squib’s impact was just just directed right back at the performer. It was like punching him very hard right over the heart. We were lucky it didn’t kill him.*

Bottom line: I if you are on a set with guns and explosives, train your people. Think things through. Accidents will still happen, but there’s really no excuse for the recent death on set. That one was pure negligence and somebody needs to be disciplined.

*I have to hand it to that performer. He had the cojones to do take two, and push his own button again.

What I Say…

When asked about my history.

Back in the late seventies and early eighties of the previous century, I was the enfant terrible of Canadian film making, the hot young director, the man to watch. But after failing to find funding for two or three of my scripts, and with a desperate need to pay the mortgage and feed the family, I inveigled my way into directing episodic television.

That gave me a great, if sporadic, income and a comfortable, if anxiety inducing lifestyle. I had a few good years in which I made a six figure income. I made a bit more investing and flipping real estate. For a time I thought I might end my days a rich man. But then I bought a fifty foot sailboat I couldn’t afford and found myself with the biggest hole in my pocket you could imagine. My wealth did not grow.

At some point in the nineties we decided to sell our large house on the ocean in Gibsons, pay off the boat, and move to a more modest house in Nanaimo. That would have worked if the housing market hadn’t tanked. As is turned out the million dollars I was hoping for turned into half that. We could buy a house free and clear, but I was left with a mortgage on the boat, moorage fees, maintenance costs, and ever reducing work. When I did get a job, the money went into paying off the credit cards and buying bottom paint. The boat owned me, so I sold it. At a huge loss.

Toward the end of the century I received a rather large royalty payment for my television work. I was too young to retire. Digital film making was just coming into its own, and films like “The Blair Witch” managed to make a lot of money. But they had terrible technical quality, usually looking like the camera had been mounted on the head of a trained seal, and truly awful sound. They made excuses for this deficiency by framing their stories around things like home movies found in the woods, or interviews in a psychiatrist’s office. I looked at the prosumer technology, which in those days was mini-DV, and thought, wow. If this were treated seriously the product could look like a movie.

I took my royalty payment and bought 3 Canon mini-DV cameras, tripods, a small crane, and lots of cassettes. I joined forces with a local agent to find a cast, and I started the Volksmovie Movement (Since renamed and lying fallow as the Artisan Movie Movement). The premise was that film equipment is highly overpriced and the same results can be accomplished with things we could buy at a big box store. Work lights could be adapted with barn doors. A furnace filter makes a great diffusion screen. One of our actors welded up a really great little dolly adapted from a fridge dolly. I covered the hard costs. The actors provided the crew.

A side belief was that the skills of a film crew are not that difficult, that I could train a camera crew or grip crew in days at most. Most people can hold a microphone fish pole with minimal instruction. We set out to make a romantic comedy, with everybody doing everything, a collaborative venture. Everybody was involved in the script. Everybody was involved in all aspects of the shooting. We would shoot a scene. I would do a rough edit. Then we would meet to look at it and decide what should be shot next. It was glorious fun.

The end result was “Passion” and I’m very proud of it. It is rich with locations and characters. It looks like a movie. It has great moments. It got great audience response, provided it was shown to a large audience. My business plan was to show it at the film festivals, find a few television sales to return the cash investment, and do it again.

That’s where things went totally south. I had been to every Toronto Film Festival for the past twenty years. I was sure this movie was going to amaze them. I didn’t know that they would be flooded with amateur digital films.

A friend of mine who made fight videos lent his son his camera. His son made a short film of himself french kissing the family dog. He was invited to three film festivals. The organizers could afford to give him that much screen time, and knew they would be assured of a noisy enthusiastic teenage audience. Our film was feature length and competing with the latest “special” film from Hollywood that came to town with big name stars and a promotion budget.

What’s worse, our film played well to a large audience, where the laughs could stimulate more laughs. It doesn’t play well to a single audience. It’s in turns bright and silly, and dark. It’s about a middle aged stalker, a main character the audience is primed to view with disgust. Many people hated it.

We didn’t get a single festival invitation.

In desperation, I set up a private screening in Vancouver in a small art cinema. I hired a publicist in hopes of attracting some press. We had a good screening, with good audience response. But not a single journalist showed up. My publicist didn’t show up. I might as well have torn up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Seymour and Davie street for all the good I had done my movie.

This is when I went seriously crazy. With no returns from our first effort, I decided to throw my limited remaining funds, plus my credit cards, at our second movie, a sweet romantic movie about tree planters. This was ill advised to say the least. While Passion could find a script based on what was available, “Getting Screefed” was tightly scripted. It included special effects like a storm at night, constant rain, beautiful forest and landscape images. It really needed a large format film and a good special effects team. We soldiered on regardless.

I bought a generator, a Volkswagen van, a school bus, a child’s swimming pool for water storage, lots of tarps and hoses. We set up a tree planter camp, found a cast, and started filming.

Since once again this was a cooperative venture, and nobody was getting paid, there were logistical problems in getting the cast out into the bush for filming. All the fires had to be done as CGI, because of the fire hazard. The rain scenes had to be done with garden hoses supplied from our swimming pool up on the hill. I had an ultralight airplane motor to make wind effects. It was difficult.

And yet we shot some wonderful scenes. Enough to cut a good looking trailer. Just not enough to make a movie.

And as I got into the editing at the end of the summer I realized that every scene had problems, many of which could not be fixed by creative editing. The hope was to edit what we had shot and come back the next summer to complete the film. Then somebody trashed the Volkswagen van we had parked at the camp site, smashed the windshield and ripped out the wiring in a juvenile attempt to hot-wire the ignition. Somebody stole the generator out of the school bus. I realized that it didn’t matter, because I was at the end of my credit cards and couldn’t afford gas for the generator anyway. It was time to recognize reality and give up.

After thirty years of directing TV, I was no longer the hot young director. I was the old television hack. My main clients had lost their shows, or aged out of the business, or got in trouble with the IRS. My phone wasn’t wringing. My arrogant persona had made enemies over the years.

Trying to be a film maker in Nanaimo was like trying to be a lumberjack in the Sahara. I could move to some city where movies actually are made, like Los Angeles or New York, or Toronto or even Vancouver. I could go to parties and schmooze. Sooner or later somebody would give me a break and I’d be back directing episodic television and made for TV movies. But I had been there and done that. I didn’t have the heart to do it again.

Time to get out of Dodge. I took a one week introductory course in teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), put my name up at an Internet bulletin board, and I was away to China.

Best decision I ever made.

A Relapse (again) and Vaccination Day

Okay, whatever laid me low in early February has not vacated this body for more salubrious climes. Once again it hurts to take a deep breath. Once again there’s something in my chest and throat that is troubling.

I slept until noon today. There was barely enough milk left for a cup of coffee. In a little over an hour I will drive to Beban Park for a needle into my upper arm and a shot of vaccine.

We are still trying to get the pulleys to work correctly to raise and lower our huge flat screen TV. A third iteration will happen this evening.

That’s enough for now.

Nostalgia Ain’t What it Use to Be

I have always disliked nostalgia. Going back into the past has seldom been pleasant for me, because it was always accompanied by a feeling of loss, of time that can’t be recaptured. But recently I had a completely different experience of nostalgia.

I couldn’t sleep. Three in the morning and I was lying in bed wide awake, wondering if I should get up and make a coffee and maybe do something. Then the memories started coming. They were short, vivid, detailed, and totally random. They ranged from fishing in the little creek when I was six years old, carrying the little trout home in my pockets, cleaning them and watching my mother fry them up for my breakfast to taking a standing ovation in Alice Tulley Hall after the screening of “Skip Tracer” at the New York Film Festival. Sometimes they connected into a chain – meeting my first wife, greeting her in Toronto after her nightmare drive across the country with her mother and sisters, having to convince her to marry me after she’d had three days of her mother trying to convince her not to, honeymoon in Niagara Falls with the bed that wouldn’t stop vibrating, driving back to Maple Ridge after we were married, and harvesting a grouse for dinner on the way with my sling shot., meeting her grandmother in Saskatchewan and going to the farm to buy Sally Squink, our wiener piglet, Sally in the motel room after breaking out of her crate, her tiny hooves clicking on the tile floor, Sally weaning herself on yellow plumbs, grown up Sally plowing a furrow through my aunt’s lawn. Flip to running across the street in London to the Japanese restaurant to get a cup of hot saki because it was so bitterly cold. Flip to being parked and knocked off the road by an oncoming truck while leaning over the front seat to get my sound gear together on the back seat, resulting in bending the steering wheel with my back while my wife got a concussion, followed by the ambulance ride. Flip to scenes from China, from Guangzhou, from Vietnam, from Thailand, from Australia, classrooms and students, tours of ancient villages. And back to teen years again at university. Playing chess at the Club Voltaire in Frankfurt, exploring the castle in Koenigstein, feeding the gophers while hitching to Toronto, the long lonely drive to L.A. on my hunt for work…. It just went on and on. For hours.

But this time the nostalgia wasn’t painful. It was more like watching a corny old feel good movie with lots of plot turns and high drama. It was like flipping through pages of my life. It was comforting. What an incredible ride it has been. I’m still sad that it’s over, but there’s nothing in there that I regret. Not even the moments of emotional pain that, at the time, made suicide seem an attractive alternative.

I thought about writing it all down. Writing my autobiography. And then I thought why? Who would want to read it? Why would I want them to read it?

Fuck off. This was my life. You can’t have it.

Not Necessarily Collaborative

One thing I would be told when somebody in the production, usually somebody with power, wanted a change that I, as the director, didn’t want was: Film is a collaborative medium.

That always annoyed me. So, more or less as a refutation and a joke, I made the following film. “The Reunion of Cyril and John”. For this short film, I acted both parts, did the sound recording, lighting, camera work, directing and editing.

https://youtu.be/wrypLSEd73o

I realize it would be severely limiting to try to make a full length feature film this way, but I think this is a proof in principle that it could be done. So there and take that all you producers trying to interfere with my artistic vision. Screw you.

Not Dying Yet

Just planning ahead. Please register for my celebration of life party. It may not happen for a couple of years yet, but let’s all be ready.

I really hope to see you then and there. It’s going to be one hell of a party. As people register, I’ll start developing the program and lining up the performances. At the moment I’m planning on about three days of party, to allow friends from time zones in China and Australia a chance to drop in to say hello….uh…goodbye.