Here’s the second of the three scary incidents that occurred during the shooting of Terminal City Ricochet. During a prison break to liberate our heroes, a huge guard in riot gear jumps up and orders them to halt. A second guard, in true trigger happy Terminal City Ricochet fashion, appears on a catwalk some distance above and behind the first guard and, supposedly aiming at our escaping heroes, shoots him in the back.
The special FX contingent of the crew came to me with the idea. If the first guard could be dressed in a down filled vest, the front of which was packed with explosive squibs, we could backlight the performer and have a beautiful shot of feathers and shrapnel hanging in the air. I was assured that this would be a spectacular image.
Since I’d be covering the scene in a wide shot, the guard with the exploding vest would have to push his own button to trigger the charge.
It happened that the night we shot this scene was blessed with a heavy Vancouver rain. That made everybody miserable, but with the water on the ground and in the air, glistening in the lights, the look was beautiful. We did one rehearsal with no exploding vest, then re-set for the real deal. The first guard stepped into the shot. “Halt.” Cue the second guard appearing behind him. We see the muzzle flash of his shotgun as he fires the blank. We hear a muffled thump sound as the squibs in the vest are triggered and the down filled vest bulges out a bit. But no flurry of feathers. No shrapnel and feathers backlit in the light. Our first guard falls down and our heroes rush out of the shot.
So what happened? My first thought was that the squibs had been placed in the vest to blow inward instead of out into the lights. That would mean my actor rook a full shot of explosives right over his heart. My god, we’ve killed the guy.
Fortunately that isn’t what had happened. Close, but not quite.
What had happened was that the rain had soaked the down filled vest, so that the filling became a solid mass instead of a nice fluffy bunch of feathers. The exploding squib had hit this mass of solidified feathers and bounced back into the chest of the actor. He described it as being akin to a Bruce Lee type hard punch to his chest. Such a punch well might have killed our actor, but fortunately he was a sturdy gentleman with a good padding of flesh over his ribs. So it didn’t kill him. It just hurt the way you might expect a very hard punch to the chest to hurt.
It never ceases to amaze me, the courage and dedication of aspiring actors, especially the stunt performers in SBE (Special Business Extra) categories. For that matter, it never ceases to amaze me, the shear gall of my own a commitment as a director. I seem to turn into a psycopath. “Are you ready to give me take two?” He was, and he did, of course after we reset with a dry vest and made sure he wouldn’t get punched again. Now that was a guy with cajones. It still must have taken something to push that button.
Once again, I would welcome a comment. You can make one by clicking on the link that is the last in the categories list at the bottom of this page, or on the link to comments in the shape of a statement bubble at the top right. And if you happen to be the brave soul who gave me take two, please check in and say hello to your fans. I’m definitely one of them.
I often ask myself what the point is of putting out this blog. Why expose myself to the incredible range of humanity? Why risk attracting a nutter who, for whatever reason, gets a hate on for me and decides to take me down a peg or two? Back when I did a brief stint as a public service advisor for MCI, we were explicitly forbidden from disclosing any personal information or our location. “If you think there isn’t somebody out there crazy enough to travel thousands of miles to bomb this location and kill you over some imaginary affront done to them by you or by this company, let me tell you that you are wrong. When the masses learn who you are and where you work, there will be somebody among them who is crazy enough to decide to travel thousands of miles just to kill you.,” was his speech during our training session. I disagreed with him, though I had to admit he swung a compelling argument. Just consider the case of John Lennon’s murder to see his point.
Still, I disagreed with him then, and do now. It’s my belief that humanity is full of incredible individuals, people who would like nothing more than to be your friend and make a connection to you. Exposing yourself, your religious beliefs, and your location on this planet is worth the risk. Though maybe not if you make a hobby out of denigrating religious fanatics or work for a huge corporation that has “Screw the customers,” as part of its mission statement.
This long preamble is just to introduce the topic of this post. Back when this blog was being written in China under the name www.themaninchina.com, I wrote a post about my bull whip making. That sparked a brief exchange with a fellow named Matt Galizia who shares my interest in that craft. After those friendly messages, I more or less forgot about him. Apparently that isn’t what happened on his end of the exchange. After I completed my last whip, and was very disappointed with the end result, I left that hobby behind, though I did make sure I left China with a kangaroo hide, in case I ever felt like taking it up again. But my last whip took weeks of effort to make. I just haven’t been inspired to try again. Apparently that’s not what happened with Matt.
I got something in the mail last week. Something so gob stoppingly impressive and beautiful that I’m still in recovery. Matt had created a personalized collector’s item whip, just for me. And while I let my whip making hobby slip into my past, Matt has followed his to become a professional level whip maker.
The whip arrived packaged with some spare falls, crackers, and information about the technical construction of the whip (The order of the bellies is 4,6,8,12 and finally the 16 strands that make up the outside of the whip), photographs, and information about making a Scobie hitch. That package alone must have taken a full day to put together.
I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to crack this whip. It is like a collector’s edition pistol, which loses much of its value if it is ever fired. I’ll have to mount it for display. I don’t have any doubt that it would swing accurately and demonstrate perfect balance. The curve as the handle flows into the thong and the perfectly smooth transitions of the bellies tells me that much. I don’t want to risk scuffing it or causing damage.
It is simply beautiful, and the more I inspect it, the more I appreciate it. I try to be critical, and perhaps you can see flaws that I don’t recognize. But from the handle to the keeper I can see nothing that is short of perfection.
So maybe this is why I take the trouble to reveal myself on the Internet. Without my effort to reach out, I never would have learned about Matt Galizia’s existence. Nor would I have this gorgeous whip as one of my prized possessions. This kind of response from a reader makes it all worth while.
Speaking of which, please take a minute to drop a comment on this, or any other, of my posts. You can find the link to add a comment at the top right hand corner of this page, or as the last item in the list of categories. I’d love to hear from you.
We had a couple of incidents shooting Terminal City Ricochet. The first one I’ll tell you about was my fault, and I hope I learned my lesson from it.
The scene called for our heroes to run security in a big old pimpmobile of a car. A guard with a pistol grip shotgun was to stand in front of the vehicle and fire at the windshield, which, being bullet proof, would only sustain a skid mark as damage.
I’ve had a lot of experience with wax bullets from back in my days playing with my Ruger Super Blackhawk 44 magnum with the fast draw club. I would hand load the wax bullets. They were easy enough to make. All it took was loading in a primer and black powder, then pressing the shell casing into nearly molten sealing wax. The result was a non-lethal projectile that would let me see how accurate my shot had been. So here’s my bright idea: I’ll just make a few 12 gauge wax bullets that can be fired at the car windshield, leaving the desired skid mark without penetrating the glass.
Of course we tested this concept on the prop car, and I was really satisfied with the result.
To do the actual shooting I wanted somebody I could trust with a shotgun. So I enlisted my brother, Ed (Bear) Scott, to play the part of the guard. Ed’s day job was as a prison guard. He carried a pistol grip shotgun most days when he was working in the yard. I knew I could trust him to land a shot on the windshield and get out of the way before he got run over.
Comes the day. Everything is all set. The shot goes off perfectly. No problem, until Ed comes on the walky-talky. “You might want to call for an ambulance,” he says calmly. “That bullet went right through.”
Well, holy shit. That doesn’t sound good. We all race for the car, where we find the actors laughing and pointing at the very obvious hole in the windshield. They were splattered with shards of glass, but fortunately nobody was hurt. They certainly could have been. They weren’t even wearing eye protection.
This was the beginning of my aversion to having a real gun on a movie set. It’s not necessary, as I demonstrated quite well using nothing but Final Cut Pro when shooting “Passion”. It’s now a trivial matter to add CGI flame and smoke to the muzzle of a gun that can only go click, completely incapable of sending out a projectile. The result is one hundred percent believable. Actually even better than what you might get with a real gun because you can adjust the look and level of the flash and smoke. But Terminal City Ricochet was shot in the pre-digital days, when adding CGI would have been completely beyond our squeaky tight budget. No longer, and no more. Never again.
That was one of three incidents I can think of where we had a safety issue on Terminal City Ricochet. At one point, my safety officer wrote a letter to his union complaining that I was ignoring safety concerns. That gave me no choice but to fire the man. This was about the time that a helicopter crash killed performers on the set of Twilight Zone the Movie, resulting in criminal charges against the director, John Landis. It was obvious that I, the director, would be in line to take any blame, and with a letter like the one from my safety officer on file, I would have no defense at all. Thinking back on this now, firing the safety officer did nothing to mitigate my legal exposure, but I think firing him for egregious stupidity was certainly justified. I replaced that safety officer with the head of the stunt man’s union, telling him that he had complete control of the set and that nothing would happen without his approval. He was to sign off on any scene involving a firearm, explosion, or anything else that could be dangerous. None of this would have protected me in the event of another incident, but at least it would give me an argument to make if something else went wrong.
Please stay tuned for two more safety issues on Terminal City Ricochet. It was a scary shoot.
And please, put your thoughts and comments into a comments thread for this post. You can find the link to post a comment at the top right of this page, or at the bottom as the last item on the category list. Comments really help to motivate me to continue writing this kind of material, and ease the feeling that I am screaming into the void. So please, do comment.
I once paid quite a bit of money to attend a workshop on how to be a successful director. I don’t remember what credentials the presenter held, but he managed to turn me off within five minutes of starting his presentation. His first piece of advice was that a director needs to establish dominance by firing somebody. It didn’t matter whom or why, just pick somebody more or less at random and fire them.
This is the dominance theory of film directing and it’s not for me. I’m ashamed to say I tried it out once on a CBC production in Toronto. I like a quiet, focused set. My hope was that, while the crew would not shape up to make me happy, they would shape up to keep the first AD safe from criticism. So I growled loudly at my first AD: “If you can’t get me quiet on this set, I’m going to get somebody in here who can.” Doing my best to sound angry and nasty.
And then I felt so bad about myself that I never tried being dominant again,
All I can say about this theory of directing is: Don’t be this guy, eh.
I walked out of that expensive workshop after a mere five minutes of listening to the jerk strut and preen his way around the stage. I demanded my money back with the excuse that my back was giving me trouble and I couldn’t stand to remain in the seat. I suppose I could have just told the organizers the truth, but there would have been consequences for that friend of mine who talked me into buying the ticket. Truth can be a dangerous thing to use indiscriminately.
I got my brother, Ed “Bear” Scott, to work with me on Terminal City Ricochet, despite my feelings about nepotism. Mostly I wanted him on set because his day job was as a prison guard. He handled a pistol grip shotgun every working day, and knew how to do so safely. Ed knows me. He knows that I’m a pussycat by nature. And this is what he told me about the crew: “They are terrified of you, you know.” Shaking his head in disbelief. “You’re kidding,” I told him. “No I’m not. They are totally terrified of you.” “What have I ever done to make them afraid of me,” I asked him. “That’s what I can’t figure out,” he said. “But they are.” “Must be just the title,” I said.
We had a lot of real guns on that set. Ed told me about a conversation he had with the props master. “You’re going to have an accidental discharge if you do that,” he told the guy. The response he got roughly translates as “Fuck off. I know what I’m doing.” And then five minutes later, KABOOOM. One of the pistol grip shotguns went off, to everybody’s surprise, especially the surprise of the props master who was holding it, fortunately pointed straight up in the air. Ed gave him a look, but didn’t say anything. He’d been in that position himself.
Terminal City Ricochet had a couple of incidents on set that resulted in me having to fire the safety officer, out of self defense, and replace him with the head of the stunt man’s association. More on that in my next post.
Paraphrasing here. As Stanly Motts, the producer character in Wag the Dog, said sadly,: Just as you are starting to understand how to make a movie and how the industry works they lower the curtain on your career.
I am a movie director, damn it. Specifically a low budget movie director. Give me Bowfinger’s budget and I will give you a movie. That’s what I have done during my long career. Obviously not as much as I wish I had done, but that’s it. I put the money on the screen.
Anybody can make a big budget movie. That’s a snap. That’s easy. It’s making a movie with no money that’s the trick.
I don’t know how I became a low budget movie director. It’s a lot more fun to hose the screen with millions of dollars from people who don’t know dick about making movies, but to be a director I respect you’ve got to be Bowfinger.
Something I heard through my entire directing career went like this: He’s never made a big budget picture. Do you think he can handle this much money? Handle it? Fuck, I’ll roll in the dirt with it and deliver far more than anybody has any right to expect, dance with whatever devil I have to dance with, and put the money on the screen.
I came into directing up the rat lines. I came into directing after serving an apprenticeship as a writer, soundman, editor’s assistant, sound editor, editor, cameraman, production manager, and… fucking creator. A creator. The author of the picture, whatever the picture might happen to be.
Most people have no idea what a director is, or what he does. Take them on a film set and they might think the assistant director, the AD, the guy giving directions, is the director. Not even close. Peter Coyote was not the director, micro-managing the scene with impossible instructions to performers. Not even close. Or the guy telling the actor to pick up the salt shaker on such and such a line. The guy, now as frequently the woman, giving directions. Isn’t that person the director? Not even close.
The only real depiction of a real director I ever saw was Peter O’Toole in “The Stuntman”. The guy desperately trying to find his movie amid the clatter and noise on set, and in his head. Now, that was a director. That was Francis Copolla trying to find it, to figure it out while he went way over budget in the Philippine jungle with the suits back in the studio screaming at him and throwing scripts at the wall. A guy, increasingly a woman, who can see the big picture, who is so close to the big picture he can almost taste it while the chitchats climb on his ceiling and fall into his tea cups.
And who was it on set when the suit’s representative came to tell him that he was twenty pages behind or fifty pages behind who tore that number of pages out of his script and threw them in the trashcan, announcing, “There. Now I’m on budget.” Money? Fuck your money. I’m making a movie.
I was hired by Canal to get “Wiseguy” under control after the prima donna director of the pilot went so far over budget that they couldn’t do turn around. Zale, Alex Beaton said to me, you are going to bring in the same quality without going a penny over budget or a minute into overtime. And I said, “Sure, Alex. Whatever you say.”
We were shooting outside St. Paul’s hospital on Thurlow Street when a grip went charging past me, a hundred pounds of cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back and the sweat sprayed off his t-shirt. I watched him run with it. Run with it, not saunter along. The guy was charging. For me. Because I told him what I expected of the crew and they were all set on delivering.
I think Rob Young was the soundman. Or maybe it was Larry Sutton. No matter. I asked him, “Larry, this is not a slacking crew. This crew is humping it. So what the hell went wrong with the pilot?”
“They set up the camera three times and lit the set four times before they shot an inch of film,” Larry said, almost apologetically.
Well, you can’t do that on episodic television. Not unless you are the precious prima donna director in a sinecure of a position. Then you can do it. Then the studio will eat the overtime and you can keep working while you piss millions down the drain. But that’s not me. I come in on schedule and on budget.
Larry, or was it Rob, explained it to me while he quietly moved my coffee in the styrofoam cup away from his Nagra IV. (Yes, they were still recording on Nagra IV’s in those days.) I said the camera goes here on a fifty, and if I didn’t like the shot we’d shoot it anyway and I’d have to eat it in the editing room. I set a pace. We got the shot and we moved on.
I had a standard speech at the beginning of a shoot specifically for the script assistant. It went like this: Don’t talk to me about axis. I’m not going to discuss axis on my set. If you think I’ve got the axis wrong and the shots won’t cut together, you just make a note in your notes and we shoot the shot. If I’ve got the axis wrong, if we’re crossing the line and you think it will be a problem in the editing room, make a note on the script and keep it to yourself. I’m the director. I’m never wrong about the camera axis. But if you open up a discussion about eye lines or camera axis then the DOP is going to chime in with an opinion, and then the actors will have an opinion, and pretty soon I’ve got twenty minutes of my day and more down the rabbit hole of eye lines and camera axis, while not one of my crew members has ever cut one of my pictures. So they have no right to an opinion of camera axis. It’s my job as the director to choose the shots, cover the scenes, and make sure everything will cut together. Nobody is going to blame you if my shots don’t cut. Make the note and shut up about it. The whole thing about setting the pace is choosing the shots, lenses, eye lines, and then making sure the actors know where to look to match the action. Sometimes it may feel weird to them. That’s all between me and the actors. I’m not going to cover anything two ways, and we’re not coming back for a reshoot.
If you really think the editor is going to come back at you over eye line or axis issues, whisper to me that you’re putting “Shot under protest” on the script. Then get out of my way. We’re moving on.
A director is very vulnerable. His reputation is what gets him or her their next gig. All it takes is a dismissive sneer and comment at the wrap party of another show when their name comes up and it can cost them big time. Real money. I remember in the production office of “Danger Bay” listening to the production manager disparaging Phil Borsos as the director of “One Magic Christmas”. She had worked on “One Magic Christmas” and that gave her real authority when the producers of “Danger Bay” were listening to her. “Phil Borsos didn’t direct that picture,” she was saying. “Borsos was hiding in the production honey wagon shoveling coke up his nose. It was Frank Tidy, the DOP, who directed that picture.” And I had to intervene. “That’s not true,” I said.
“Were you there?” the production manager said.
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t there. And I don’t know what problems you had with Phil. No doubt he’s not an easy director for a production manager to work with. But if you look at his films, going back to Cooperage and Spar Tree and The Grey Fox, all the movies that preceded One Magic Christmas, you will see a visual connection through all the movies he made before he made that last picture. Phil was a visual stylist. I don’t care if he was snorting coke off a stripper’s belly while he was making “One Magic Christmas”. I don’t care if he never showed up on set. He made that picture. Don’t ask me how, but the proof is in the pictures. What’s more, while he was shooting that standard Hollywood action movie in Florida, and pissing off that Hollywood established producer, One Magic Christmas was dead. The powers of the industry had decided that Phil was too much trouble to work with. He was Hollywood Poison. His career was over. But Phil took the picture to Disney and performed CPR on it and showed his commitment to the movie that had been his dream for years, the movie he wanted to make so that he could join the ranks of directors like Frank Capra with It’s a Wonderful Life. Without Phil Borsos, One Magic Christmas would not exist. He brought it back from the dead through shear salesmanship and force of personality. So don’t tell people, especially a room full of producers, he didn’t direct it. It’s a Phil Borsos picture.
By the way, I was recently very gratified to hear one of the culture commenters on CBC radio this past Christmas talking about his admiration for One Magic Christmas. I know that movie had a lot of trouble finding its audience, but I personally loved it. It shows Phil Borsos maturing as a director with a real talent for working with actors. Such a tragedy that Phil died so young. He had more films to make, films I would really want to see. I always admired the man and felt that he should have had some of the attention that landed on me by default.
To say it again, a director is terribly vulnerable. All a director has is their reputation. That’s what gets them their next pay check. And their next chance to direct something significant, to practice their craft as a director.
I traveled to Seattle once, years ago, to take a meeting with a producer for PBS, the people who were making the very few television shows I’m interested in directing. At some point in the meeting, he said to me, “I hear you’re hard to work with.” and I knew exactly where that was coming from. It was coming from Nelvana in Toronto who were upset with me over giving them a hard time shooting The Edison Twins, of which I was one of the two startup directors. It had nothing to do with my directing. It had to do with them showing my work, and the work of my crew, to the Disney brass in the basement of their production offices because they wanted to save a few bucks by not renting a screening room at the lab. We had all been breaking our hearts trying to make a wonderful TV series and we were actually proud of our work, but they were going to screen it on a Siemens double system projector with too long a throw for the lens and wow and flutter on the sound track. The director of photography had come to me and begged me to do something about it, as had the sound man. Both said they wouldn’t attend the screening. I joined them in solidarity, and that cost me at least this one job that I knew about. The other startup director had more political sense than I ever had, and, I think, managed to keep the situation from costing him work and money.
I’m going to name names now. Well, one name at least. Because I’m dying and I’m never going to work again and I don’t give a fuck. Ken Jubenvill, that’s a name for you. Ken Jubenvill, you are an asshole. I thought you were a friend of mine. But an episodic director has no friends on an episodic set. It got back to me, you see. Of course it did. In a conversation with producers Ken said “Oh Zale. (dismissive shrug) Zale plays at being a director. ” What an asshole thing to say about me, Ken. And to producers yet. That may actually be the moment when the scales fell from my eyes and I started to admit to hating being a director in the fucking industry, while loving being a director in the real world. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. Yeah, right, Ken. As Ron Orieux said about you, you tiny, perfect, director. I let it ride. The next time I saw Ken I smiled at him and asked how his family was doing. Was he any closer to making his tiny, perfect movie. Probably not. Give me a moment to check in to Almighty Voice on the IMDB. That should tell me. Did Ken ever get to make his little movie….
And there you have it. A shipload of TV movies. An equal number of episodic shows. One hell of an impressive director’s show reel. Looks like you had one hell of a lot of fun, Ken. I could almost envy a show real like that one. But no. I don’t see your movie on the list. You never got to make it.
And now I feel shitty, because revealing this about Ken makes me as big an asshole as he is. But of course I knew this already. There’s something about the movie industry, the industry, not making movies, that brings out the asshole in anybody.
But I will tell you who I hate. (Whom I hate?) I hate those who punch down. I hate the First AD on Kung Fu the Legend Continues who called a certain woman “The set bicycle.” Thinking it would make me think less of her when all it did was make me think less of him.
And even he is not the biggest asshole to infest the television movie industry. To see that asshole, all I need is a mirror.
I woke up this morning feeling like I had been kicked in the cajones. Men know that feeling. The dull, ache, nausea, but in my case not restricted to my testicles but radiating around to my lower back, seriously into both left and right groin, flowing down my quadriceps like setting cement until both legs felt rock hard and stiff.
The worst of it came only after I had gained my feet by assuming a pre-natal position, then dropping my legs off the edge of the bed to counter the weight of my body as I rolled into a sitting position, then reaching for the post (supporting the overhead beam) three feet from the edge of the bed and pulling myself up to stand. Gasp. Breathe. Ten minutes earlier I had asked Ruth to take one pill from my hydromorphone tablets and drop it into my mouth, then hold the water glass, half full, at my lips so that I could take a sip. I waited for the opioid to take some affect, but then I asked for a second.
Friday, February 17, 2023. It’s a process, not an event. I’m in the process of dying. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I can squeeze another year or two out of this life of mine. Can I hope for five years? Ten? I won’t know anything until my doctor’s appointment on the twenty-seventh of this month, ten days hence. Likely not even then. My doctor has a heavy accent, likely German, and he mumblers. He’s not a great communicator.
On this morning I had a commitment to drive Ruth to VIU, Vancouver Island University, to teach a class to visiting Japanese students. Remaining in bed was not an option, even if my bladder would have allowed it. I had to get up.
“Should I start your coffee water,” Ruth asked. I drink instant. Don’t judge. It’s what I like, and have liked ever since I read that it’s the coffee served in many five star hotels around the world, with the elite customers none the wiser. It’s just coffee.
“Yes please. I will be up.”
Ruth left the lights on so I wouldn’t go back to sleep and went upstairs to get her act together for her own struggle with consciousness. She hasn’t been feeling great herself for the past few days. Hopefully it’s just a cold. She had a Covid test last Monday, before joining me as support for my doctor’s appointment. Negative. So we know it isn’t that. I depend on her so much now. Depend on her both for physical and emotional support. This process ain’t easy. Not for anybody. Not for me, but perhaps even more so not for those who care about me, my family and close friends.
I have been dribbling out the following announcements for the past couple of weeks, ever since I came to a decision:
“In other news: Mark your calendar. May 15, 2023. Ruth and I had a talk the other night. Pending medical opinions, May 15 is the date I’ll request MAID, Medical Assistance in Dying. If these last few weeks are what my life is about, the party is over and I want out. That should give everybody time to get used to the idea, including me. Please keep the date under your hat, pending a formal announcement, pending conversations with my doctors, but the paperwork’s been done. It feels good to come to clarity.”
The first to get this news was my older sister, Catherine, eighteen months my senior. I told her first because we have discussed this eventuality extensively over the years. I could be confident that she would not play into the dramatics of the situation.
Her response: “I respect your decision but do hope you will wait until you get a more definite diagnosis from your Doctor. If this is what you fear it is and there is no chance of recovery okay I totally understand. There is really no way to soften this. It is a very final solution . I am the oldest of 5 and always hoped I would not outlive any of my siblings.️ (heart emogi, U.)”
The most recent recipient, yesterday, following the same message to my two boys and my daughter, went to my American friend, Danny, still living in China which is where I met him during our first year working in that country. I delayed giving Danny the news because I knew he wouldn’t want to hear it. “Hey David, just outside now. Gonna take me some time to digest the above. (Frowning emogi.) I’ll check in with you in a bit.”
Danny and I play Xiang Qi over zoom most weekends, making allowance for the time difference between here and China. A few years ago, I flew to Thailand while he would be there on business. Seventeen years of talking trash over Chinese chess should leave a hole to get over. People I hope will have a hard time letting me go with grace and maturity and courage, the strongest and most mature of them all being Ruth, my wife, my support, my love.
I’m back from driving Ruth to work now and walking the dog so he could have a pee before bringing him into the house. It’s a beautiful Nanaimo morning here. The scotch mist felt like putting my face over the vegetables in the super market as I let Enzo Lorenzo Barkinton Ferrari of the Manitoba Barkintons sniff the damp winter grass and empty his bladder.
Before we went in to the house we had a chance to introduce ourselves to Inge and her dignified, elderly and deaf, collie, Suki. Out for their daily morning walk past our home. Their passing always sets Enzo into a hysterical frenzy until I let him approach Suki for a peremptory butt sniff, which she ignores and he quickly catalogues as not of mating age. I do love this neighborhood.
And now I can feel the 18 mgs of hydromorphne starting to wear off. The drug has allowed me to type this much in relative comfort, but it’s time to take a break. I have a few things to do before the pain roars back. To be continued.
Why the pain? That’s the question… How did I get into this situation, counting my pills until I can get to talk to a doctor who holds power over my pain level. Well, when we first learned that my prostate cancer had metastasized into the bones of my pelvis and into lymph glands up into my neck, we assumed the worst and over-reacted. We went on our tour to Scotland. I gave away my Italian violin. I went into the palliative care program and settled down to wait for the inevitable.
After three, almost four, years of monthly attention from the cancer doctors and the support community, my cancer seemed to be under control. My PSA, Prostate Specific Antigen, number has been down into decimals, indicating no activity by the tumors. I’ve been taking the latest cancer drug, apalutamide trade named Erleada. I’ve lost my body hair and been returned to a prepubescent state. I was on a very low maintenance dose of hydromorphone, trade named Dilaudid. But I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I couldn’t tell whether my pain was a result of the cancer, or just the standard aches and pains of old age. So I asked the palliative care treatment doctor to wean me off the hydromorphone so we could see what would happen. I did not want to be on the opioids, with my brain wrapped in cotton baton.
Big mistake. I was free of the opioids for two or three months when the pain in my lower back started to build. I tried to call the palliative care doctor and had a terrible time getting a number for her. I left messages. She didn’t call me back. Finally her nurse called with the news that I’ve been discharged from palliative care. If I want back on the meds, I need to see my family doctor.
It usually takes at least a month to get an appointment with my family doctor. Fortunately, he’d had a cancellation and I got in to see him in less than a week. He gave me a very small prescription for the hydromorphone, set up an appointment for the end of this month, and sent me to get an xray of my lower back and left groin. This was still days before the pain crisis that sent me to emergency.
The next morning I hobbled in to the imaging center, endured the required positions on my back and side, then went home for a quiet weekend, only to go into full blown pain crisis Monday evening. Never have I ever ….. Screaming pain. Pain in my pelvis and lower back, radiating down into my legs and flashing up into my mid back and neck and shoulders. I called the 811 medical advice line and talked to a very nice nurse who told me to go to emergency at the hospital. We did that. They injected me with something, gave me something else to swallow, gave me a prescription for hydromorphone and something called gabapentine. The pain was more or less under control. That was when the emergency doctor looked at my back xray and I learned that I have a small compression fracture in my lumbar vertebrate. What the fuck? Where did that come from? Have my bones started to crumble for no reason. Up until now I’ve assumed that my bones are in good shape. I’ve had falls, but never any sign of a broken bone.
The drug prescription the hospital had given me was quickly evaporating. They had given me a prescription for hydromorphone and gabapentine, but a ridiculously small amount, not nearly enough to keep the pain under control until I see my doctor again at the end of the month. The gabapentine knocked me into zombie land, like a patient in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. The clinic where my doctor worked said he was unavailable until his booked appointment but gave me a telephone appointment with another doctor. So I was sitting there with my phone, waiting for the call, when my phone chirped. The doctor’s call had gone straight to voice mail without ringing.
This is Canada. I don’t pay for doctor’s appointments unless I miss one. The last time this had happened, my phone going straight to voice mail without ringing, my doctor tried to bill me thirty bucks for a missed appointment. I refused to pay, on the grounds that I hadn’t missed the appointment, and let the clinic know that I will only take face to face appointments from now on. The clinic is only five minutes from our home, after all. I’d rather sit in their waiting room than have them assume I’m missing appointments. When it happened this time I jumped in the car and drove to the clinic. Then found another doctor who could see me.
This doctor made it very clear that she wasn’t interested in my medical history. That was for my family doctor. She wrote out a prescription for hydromorphone and gavapentin. She made clear that this was the same prescription my doctor had given me, which meant that it was also inadequate to get me to the appointment date.
This time when I took the gavapentin it knocked me into convulsions. Each pill was four times the dose of the pills given to me by the hospital. It scared me. No way I’m taking that stuff, so I must depend on the hydromorphone. These are four mg. tablets with instructions to take one tablet three times a day. The effect wears off in about an hour. I’ve been told to keep the pain under control, to not let it get away on me, because it’s much harder to bring it back down that to keep it controlled. Obviously, one short acting tablet three times a day is not going to do this. By my calculations, I need fifteen tablets every day to get me through a day and a night with the pain under control. Fifty tablets, as the doctor prescribed, will last me three and a half days, not the ten remaining until my next appointment. I have six tablets left as I write this.
And now they have me looking like an addict seeing multiple doctors to try to scam more drugs to sell on the street. I resent this, but there’s not much I can do about it.
Yesterday, Ruth and I enjoyed a long zoom session with Panda, our “Chinese daughter”, with her Canadian husband and two beautiful children, Oliver, her boy, and Clover, the girl and recent arrival. I was hoping that my Chinese friend Lv Min could join that zoom session, but I missed her text and had to settle for a video call. Lv Min and her husband, Simon, were our students seventeen years ago. They now also have two beautiful boys, Lucas and Marcus, for whom I had the honour of suggesting a name. My heart swells with pride to think that they are still a part of my life.
Time line of events:
Thursday, November 3 In person visit with palliative care treatment doctor. At my request I was given a schedule to wean me off all pain medication with the intention of seeing how much of my pain was due to cancer and how much was due to normal old age.
Wednesday, January 11 First notice lower back pain and comment to Ruth.
Monday, January 16 appointment with chiropractor, gentle massage and plaster
Thursday, January 19 appointment with chiropractor, heat and gentle massage. Back pain getting worse.
Tuesday, January 24 appointment with chiropractor. Back pain worse yet.
Wednesday, January 25 attempt to call palliative care doctor. I’m not called back. Nurse calls to inform me that I have been discharged from palliative care program. If I want any drugs or support I must see my family doctor. This usually takes at least a month, but I luck out. My doctor has had a cancellation and I can get in to see him that day.
Wednesday, January 25 family doctor in person visit. I’m given prescription for 50 tablets of 4 mg. hydromorphone, told to get an x ray of my lower back and left groin.
Thursdy, January 26 I get in to get an xray of my lower back and left groin.
Monday, January 30 hospital emergency visit, pain crisis. Given injection in shoulder, two tablets of something, prescription for some hydromorphone and some gabapentin. Pain crisis brought under control.
Tuesday January 31, morning chiropractor visit. Lunch with Katherine and Roger. After lunch I realize I can’t find the prescription from the hospital. Panic. Search. Drive to hospital emergency and discover prescription lying in a puddle where Ruth had picked me up after my emergency visit. Whew.
Wednesday February 1 teeth cleaned.
Tuesday February 7, I call the clinic and ask for a doctor to call me back. Phone call from doctor goes straight to voice mail. I drive to clinic and wait for another doctor to become available. Given prescription for small number (50?) of tablets of 4mb. hydromorphone. Plus a preseciption of 30 tablets of gabapentin which can’t be fulfilled at Shoppers Drug because of system problem.. Follow up appointment set for Feb. 13.
Monday, February 13. Doctor followup appointment. Ruth accompanies me. Given prescription for 50 tabs of 4mg. hydromorphone. Replacement prescription for gabapentin issued. I take both prescriptions to London drugs, then drive Ruth to VIU for work. I return to pick up prescriptions, then go to Felder Machinery to buy a new table saw. Returning home I take one of the gabapentin tablets. Never again. Terrifying. Muscle spasms. Shakes.
It is now Monday, February 20. I have six of the 4mg. hydromorphone to last me until I hear from a doctor tomorrow, or go in to emergency at the hospital. While my pain level right now is about a two out of ten, I’m feeling scared.
End of time line.
I was greatly conflicted about the table saw purchase, and decide to sleep on it overnight and return it the next morning. The following morning I decided to keep it. It is a beautiful piece of equipment, amazing engineering with a system that locks the blade in a millisecond on contact with skin. If I’m going to get this pain under control and live past my announced date for requesting MAID, May 15, 2023, I will definitely want this saw. It gives me a glimmer of hope.
This saga of pain and suffering has become tedious and boring. Sorry about that. I’ve skipped the part about seeing a chiropractor, or battling constipation.
And my life still goes on. Maybe. It all depends on the pain control, eh. Dying is a process, not an event. I shall try to make it as good and easy as possible. One way or another, this cannot continue.
Stay tuned for updates as they happen.
UpdateFebruary 22. Evening.
Yesterday I was in panic mode, the first day following a long weekend and I was I was down to my last, my very last, few tablets of hydromorphone, the only chemical between me and another pain crisis, another visit to the emergency department at the hospital. I needed to see a doctor. The word “desperate” was shaping my mental reality. I don’t like being desperate. Desperate people make very bad decisions. Desperate people are not cool. Desperate people are the very opposite of cool. Desperate people rob banks, or pharmacies, or buy street drugs of unknown provenance, adding their name to the long list people who have died in the past year from the ongoing overdose crisis in this part of the world, a list that includes my daughter’s fiance who died a few years ago from this very crisis.
My first call to the clinic attempting to get an appointment with a doctor, the automatic answering machine voice informed me that the queue was full. Please call again later.
I tried again at noon, and got through to a real live human after only a twenty minute wait. This was a real live human who was willing to listen to my situation, sound sympathetic, and yes, invest some time into trying to solve my problem. While my doctor wasn’t available that day, the receptionist could squeeze me in to see him at noon today. This was cutting things too close for comfort. Frantically calculating my pill usage, I agreed that I’d have enough to make it until noon today. Okay. Success.
And even further success. A glance at Ruth’s schedule, posted in her office (brilliant woman) revealed that she was free to attend with me. I like that because as I mentioned, my doctor has an accent and, just maybe, my hearing is not what it used to be.
We woke up this morning to four more inches of wet snow. Since we’re only five minutes from the clinic, I assumed that we’d have plenty of time to free the car and be mobile by eleven forty-five. There was ice under the snow. The charging cable was frozen into the charging port. We hadn’t lifted the windshield wipers before turning in for the night last night, so of course the wipers were frozen down. You would think that with the urgency of my situation I would have allowed more time to get ready. You would think. But there you go. The little EV has great thawing ability. Despite tension and fear, we were on our way a mere five minutes behind schedule. Plenty of time for the drive. No problem finding parking a mere ten feet from the clinic door. No problem with masks or antiseptic gel. No problem anywhere.
The appointment itself was… pure wonderful. Dr. Olivier seemed a different person once I told him I’ve chosen a date for MAID. He gave me time. He calculated dosages. He accepted my requests without any argument. Unlike previous visits, he even seemed sympathetic. I think I even caught a smile.
We left his office comforted and I felt assured that my pain would be kept under control. Maybe I’ll even be able to postpone the May 15 death date by months, maybe even by years. Maybe the zoom celebration of life party can be postponed by the same amount.
Maybe I’ll get to live long enough to do a few things with my new table saw.
I took Ruth to lunch at the nearby sushi restaurant, our favourite, while we waited for the prescriptions to be prepared. Ruth dropped me and Enzo at our door before she went off to do some banking. He immediately went hysterical barking at the dog down the street and trying to pull my shoulder out of its socket.
Life seemed suddenly back to normal. I have no pain. Like Bill Hicks said, it’s just a ride. Ready for tomorrow, eh.
Thanks for reading. A comment would be welcome.
UpdateFebruary 22. Morning.
And I’m up. As instructed by my doctor, I had one each of the timed released tablets of hydromorphone (one 12 mg and one 6 mg to reach the required dosage) before bed last night and one each of each this morning before coming up for coffee and breakfast. One thing I noticed last night when I awoke to pee: in the past I would wake up with my legs and groin soaked in sweat. A most uncomfortable situation. Last night and this morning? Dry’z a Bone, as the wet weather working gear was labeled during my teen years. (No boner, sadly. But I will take whatever I can get now.) It’s something. Now I’m off to Google to find out whether hydromorphone would kill my puppy should he ever manage to get his teeth on a stray tablet. (No way would I ever get it out of his mouth should he get one. It would be game on, for sure. He’s not named Enzo Ferrari for nothing. ) And whether Noloxone would be an appropriate emergency treatment.
And again, thanks for reading. A comment would be welcome.
UpdateFebruary 24. Almost Noon.
Dag Nabbit. I missed Danny’s call last night. It’s 3:20am there and Danny and his beautiful girlfriend are out singing karaoke. Maybe he can call me when he’s home again. Really would like a game.
I’m awake and close to pain free. Wonderful. Woot woot.
Update February 27, 8:45pm
I have no idea why, but somehow the process of dying doesn’t seem to be as smooth as I hoped. It seems I can expect good days and bad days. Yesterday was not exactly a bad day, but not a good day either. Today was not a good day. I’m taking far more of the hydromorphone than I want to be taking, with diminishing returns. Google has made everything confusing. I don’t really know which account I am in, what my user name should be, or which email address it will accept with associated password.
I’m constantly being told that I’m logged out, but I have no idea which program I was logged in to.
I’m too tired to work this out right now, so I’m off to join Ruth at the widescreen TV.
I did my first editing on my first short film, Porn Maker to the World, at Simon Fraser University film workshop in about 1967, and got my first hint about how to approach it from a fellow student, Peter Bryant, who introduced me to cutting for the action. Editing is where the visual story is created. Editing actually makes the movie, and is as important, if not more important, than the writing and acting and even directing.
Some of the most famous directors, like David Lean [Lawrence of Arabia], came from editing. But there is a flip side to this. We used to talk disparagingly about an “editor’s film”. An editor working someplace like the National Film Board or on a series would beg and plead to be given their chance to direct. The result was, all too often, a finished product that flowed like melted butter, with every cut perfect, sliding unnoticed past the viewer. Very impressive. Sadly boring.
A good editor can make a good film out of next to nothing. At the same time, an insensitive editor can destroy the best directing, acting, and story. I’ve seen it happen. I remember being a crew member on one film in particular. We were all really impressed with the dailies, the raw film straight from the camera. Man alive, this is going to be a great movie. But by the time the editor got done with it we all looked at each other and asked, what happened to the story?
Have you heard about Eisenstein. He was a famous Russian film maker in the very beginning days of silent movies, back when most movies were shot like a play and nobody even knew about close ups. Eisenstein took a shot of an actor’s face, then intercut it with evocative images- a mother holding a baby, a man pointing a gun at the camera. The actor’s face never changed, because it was all one shot. Yet critics raved about the subtlety of his performance. That is the power of editing. The audience reads in emotions they expect to see. That’s a great lesson for directors, and for actors.
When I was getting started, editing was labour intensive, even painful. That first film, Porn Maker to the World, was shot on black and white reversal stock, processed at the university, and hung to dry under the theater stairs. I cut the original film by scraping off the emulsion on one side and gluing it together with a hot splicer. No workprint. I lost a frame any time I decided a cut needed to be changed and tried to put it back together.
Cranking a workprint, once I started working with workprints, with five tracks of perforated magnetic sound through a synchronizer was heavy work, especially when you made the big leap from working in sixteen millimeter to working in thirty five. That was always seen as getting into the big time.
A bigger problem was in judging how long a credit needed to be on the screen when all I had to go by was a grease pencil line on the workprint. But I’ve already talked about the difficulties with editing in the old days, back when I did the post about getting started and making “Granny’s Quilts”. The point is, I’m past that now. Now I’m in love with digital editing.
It’s probably obvious to my readers, but digital editing changed everything. Suddenly you could experiment as an editor. You can make fast cuts, save a version of what you’ve done. Go back to the previous version, and without taking the tape off the work print and reassembling it. The old rule of measuring by the nose went out the window.
Okay, that probably needs an explanation. One of the first master editors I worked with, as an assistant, was a man called Luke Bennett. Luke had started out airbrushing the sound cuts in the days when sound was recorded on optical stock and the cuts needed to be air brushed to stop them from popping. He told me that one of his mentors would pontificate about editing: “If it’s not a great shot but I need it to tell the story, I use a piece from the end of my nose to the tip of my baby finger. If it’s a good shot, I use a piece from the tip of my nose to my elbow. And if it’s a great shot, I use a piece as long as my arm. That’s what editing is, my boy, it’s measured by the nose.”
I loved editing back when we used actual film. But I love it even more now that we use computers and digital video. I cut our feature length romcom, “Passion“, on Final Cut Pro, an Apple product. And I loved it. The things I could do with that editing program, the ease of making mats and superimpossitions and laying on animated titles in colour… It was like handing me the keys to daddy’s Ferrari*, freedom from constraints, and freedom from the manual labour. I could be creative.
But I haven’t had Final Cut Pro since I burned out my Mac by running it on 240v in China without flipping the switch. And I’m not a major fan of Apple computers, so I’m not buying a Mac.
The last video editing I did was on an ancient laptop with Windows7 running Adobe Premier Pro, and I hated it. It seemed totally lacking in the intuitive controls that Final Cut Pro gave me, the ability to quickly and easily change the size of the frame for example. It’s possible that I just never learned to use it, but…. I managed to muddle through. It’s no wonder that FCP set the standard for computer editing, to the point where a program that can edit on a PC is marketed as a Final Cut Pro emulator.
Here’s the thing: Ruth bought me a new computer for Christmas. Now that I have it, with a great graphics card, 16 gigs of RAM and terabytes of storage, I’ve been investigating those Final Cut Pro emulators for Window and I think I’ve found a winner in Wondershare Filmora 11. And the good news is that I could buy a perpetual license, instead of a monthly or yearly subscription.
Now all I need is a project to edit. I have a head full of ideas. Stay tuned.
*No, my father didn’t have a Ferrari. He would have been embarrassed to be seen driving one. He was a Chevy guy. Driving a solidly middle class car was essential to his image.
I learned the basics of Chinese chess (Xianqi) while in China. Now I still play regularly with my friend Danny, an American living in Shenzhen. I also play almost daily against Chemist in the U.K., losing with disturbing consistency but still enjoying every game. Here’s where our latest board stands.
I find Chinese Chess much more interesting than International Chess. This board is particularly delightful. It’s Chemist’s move but he’s been sitting on his hands for several days now. Soon he will emerge with a counter to my threatened mate, and no doubt will defeat me yet again. But this position is just so much fun. His Pao (canon) on D8 is in position to take my Zhu (chariot), usually the most valuable piece, on F8, but he will know that doing so will give me a mate with my Ma (horse) saying check on C9 followed by mate with my Pao on B9.
I expect him to counter with his Shi (adviser) from F10 to E9 but from there it’s anybody’s guess. I await his response with ‘bated breath.
It’s getting late to wish you a Merry Christmas, but still on time to wish you all a Happy New Year.
We’ve had a great Christmas this year, full of warmth and affection and a certain acceptable amount of gluttony. I bought Ruth a rowing machine to replace our elliptical trainer that had finally burned out after years of keeping us fit. I started with five minutes on it and have been increasing by a minute a day. Yesterday I rowed for seven minutes and it left me with very sore quads and biceps, so I know it’s working. I have been far too inactive over the past year, and it takes very little to tell me I need regular exercise.
Ruth bought me a new laptop. I’m not sure how I will like Windows 11, and I am sure I’m in for at least a week of computer hell as I get used to the new machine. But my old laptop, running Windows 7, just can’t handle the video editing programs I want to use. I really miss Final Cut Pro and am frustrated by the learning curve of Adobe Premier Pro CS6. As a result, I skipped the refinements I would have given to to this video I made for the grand kids and just slapped it together to get it off in time.
There’s lots going on right now, mostly good, often frustrating. My quail egg hatching project has come a cropper with only four chicks hatched and none surviving after trying with two batches of eggs. I’ll try again in the Spring. The operation on my right hand, involving cutting off the arthritic bone on my right thumb and gluing on a tendon from my forearm, has been remarkably successful and I can now practice the violin again without immediate pain in my bow hand. Instead I have immediate pain in my right shoulder from the rotator cuff repair. I’m hopeful that the rowing machine may also address that problem.
I keep promising myself not to take on any new learning curves, but I’ve just purchased a new grinder and polisher and will shortly dive head first into knife making. The very last thing I need is a new hobby, but here I go again. There’s always something causing pain, much an unavoidable part of getting old but also self inflicted like running a finger into the band saw just before Christmas. It will heal, and hurt like hell until it does.
I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions, but I do intend to gain some consistency in my exercise, my music practice, and the projects I pursue, including more frequent updates to this personal website.
For you, my presumed reader, I wish the very best in 2023. Stay interested. Carpe the fuck out of each diem. Enjoy another ride around the sun on this amazing spinning globe. As my friend Danny in China would say, love ya tons.
Those of you who know me from “Skip Tracer” and my television work might find it strange that I’m a big fan of gentle movies and soppy romcoms, films like “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “Love Actually”, and my very favourite of all time, “Searching for Bobby Fischer”.
My wife, Ruth, and I have been binge watching Christmas movies. We’ve seen several we like, and even more that we’ve bailed on after a few minutes of bad acting, terrible dialogue, or plot tropes that are terminally lazy. I figure I could do better.
This is my elevator pitch to producers. It’s the first time I’ve felt inspired to write and direct a movie in about twenty years. With the recent re-release of “Skip Tracer” (1976) on BlueRay disk, and purchase for broadcast by Hollywood Suite for Amazon Prime, I think this just might be the time to try for a comeback.
There’s a pattern I developed during my working years. I would have an idea, spend a year writing and polishing the script and then another two or three years trying to interest either a producer or a money person in letting me make the film. Then, in frustration and despair, I would give up and stick the script at the back of my filing cabinet and get on with my life as a journeyman television director. That’s a pattern I’m not willing to fall into again. So this time, I intend to throw heart and soul into the script for its own sake, while investing minimal emotional energy in whether I get to make the movie. If luck happens to be with me and I find a path into production, wonderful. If not, well… I’m having a heck of a lot of fun developing this story line, and I’m sure writing the dialogue will also keep me entertained. So running this up the flagpole to see who salutes is a low risk enterprise. It’s fun to take my creative brain out of storage and see if it still works.
I should mention that I’m also blessed to have my brilliant wife contributing ideas. She’s a very knowledgeable fan of the genre, and is adding a lot of heart to the story already. So it’s a marital bonding experience. And that has a lot of value.
I think this poster mock-up suggests the story quite well. It was inspired by a picture my son, Casey, sent me in his paramedic uniform, looking ever so movie star.
It feels good to be energized by an inspiration again, after all this time. Whatever comes of it, I hope you all enjoy the holiday season — my favourite time of the year.