The Best Kind of Letter

Out of the blue, this arrived in my in box:

John D. LeMay as he looks now, some 34 years after I had the pleasure of working with him.

Hello there Zale,

Just reminiscing as I turn 60 this year, remembering former colleagues and times.

Just wanted to reach out and tell you how thankful I was to have worked with you on that episode of Friday’s Curse.
You may not recall, but it was a rather emotional episode involving my father played by Michael Constantine.
I recall you being very skilled creating a space we’re I could reach places in my work I had never been.
So thanks.

I am glad to hear that your cancer scare was nothing more than that. I wish you many years of following your artistic whims.

All the best,
John LeMay

My Reply:

John:
Such a delight to hear from you.  Thanks so much for the kind words about my directing.

It may interest you to know that I was contacted some years ago by a fan who wanted to know if he could get a copy of that cursed pipe.  I ended up giving the slip cast I made from the Plasticine mold to him for the cost of postage.

Zale pretending to smoke the cursed pipe.
I was quite proud of that pipe.  The one supplied by the props guys was much smaller, and would have disappeared into the actor’s hand.  I ended up making the one we used out of Plasticine, just to get the visuals I wanted.  No doubt that didn’t endear me to the props guys, but that’s the price you pay for being a demanding director I guess.  Demanding, and I’m sure some would say, rather arrogant.

Turning 60.  That’s amazing.  You were such a kid when we shot that episode.  A very earnest kid as I remember.  You did a great job. Happy birthday, and many more

Thanks again for your kind words.  Please feel free to check in again now and then.  I always love to hear from the talented people I worked with.
Warmest regards
Zale

P.S. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to post your endorsement to my site.  Let me know if that’s a problem for you.

And John’s back to me:

From John LeMan:
I’m always amazed at the passion fans have have for that show.
I did not know , or forgot that you created the “cursed object😱

That is one lucky fan!

Another memory…

My “real” dad was visiting the set while we were filming that episode.  They made him an extra in the lab scenes. Another reason it will always hold a special meaning for me.

Feel free to use my endorsement of course… I meant every word and it’s from the heart.

Look forward to keeping in touch.

John

John LeMay would have no way of knowing this, but I have very mixed feelings about my work as a director. That episode was number 24 of season 1. The show ran for three seasons, and I have no idea where I blew it, or why I was never invited back. It’s great that John LeMay was happy with my work, but the producers, the people who could give me work in the future, were obviously not impressed. It’s evidence of the truth I was told after my one, and only, counseling session: “What you have told me is that your failure to get as much work as you would like is a result of failing to form relationships with the people who can give you work.”

Well, go figure, eh. It was so obvious. But I had to see a counselor to see it. I came out of the Simon Fraser University film workshop, learning about making movies by talking to fellow enthusiasts, all cameramen, sound technicians, editors. They are my people. I love working with actors and admire their abilities. But producers intimidate me. They play their cards close to their chests, remain emotionally distant, and hold power over me. I did my best to avoid them and just do a good job. If I have one piece of advice for an aspiring young director today it is this: Be friendly with everybody, because anybody can give you a boost or stab you in the back without even thinking about it, but form relationships with the people who can give you work.

Sometimes I remember pulling off an amazing directorial achievement, and I feel like, yes, maybe I have talent. Sometimes I remember the accolades from film festivals or viewers, and I feel good about my career.
At other times I lie awake torturing myself over some incident, some time when I didn’t really live up to my standards, or acted in a way that I now regret, and I feel the full force of imposter syndrome. In my case, the feeling that I’m a fraud is perfectly justified. When I think about all the skills involved in directing a movie, the emotional intelligence required, the intuitive understanding of how the audience will react to an image, the artistic background that would support the title of director, it seems impossible that anybody could be really great at the job, especially me. Such arrogance, to step forward and claim to be a movie director. And yet I did that long before I had any credits to support my claim. It’s easy to see that being a tall, not terrible looking, white male was of great benefit to me. It’s a proven fact that such people are given far more authority and respect than they might actually deserve.
The other aspect of my character is a strong element of Dunning Kruger Effect. I often have to laugh at my willingness to take on projects, from home renovation, wiring, dry wall finishing, and plumbing to artistic creations like that pipe for Friday the 13th. the Series, for which I have no experience or training. It amazes me how often an attitude of “well, how hard can it be” has brought me success that I don’t feel I deserve (see imposer syndrome above).

I don’t want, expect, or need a tombstone. But if I were to have one, I’ve always wanted it to read: “He was kind and generous, a sucker for every hard luck story.” But the truth is, the epithet I believe I deserve is: “Here lies Zale Dalen, where the Imposter Syndrome met the Dunning Kruger Effect.”

Given all of this, I don’t think John Le May could have had any idea how great an effect his generous letter would have on me, or the depth of gratitude I feel for him taking the time to write it.

This is something else I try to remember as a human being. We have no idea what is going on in somebody else’s life. They may be flying high, living the joy, totally happy with everything. Or they may be deep in depression and despair. In which case a short letter of sincere appreciation could save a life.

I’m currently pretty much okay. I’m not depressed, or wallowing in despair. Even so, a letter like the one from John LeMay has made me smile for days now. You didn’t know this, John. But, if you are reading this, now you do. Thank you.

I’ll try to pay it forward.

A More Complete Explanation

I have touched on the Scotland trip in a previous post, if you care to search for it. Categorized as Music I’m involved in I think, or cancer. But I left out the important details, the why of why it happened. So this is the thing:

A few years ago, my PSA level was rising alarmingly. PSA stands for Prostate Specific Antigens and is a marker for prostate cancer. The PSA level is now a routine part of most blood tests for men. A rising PSA level is not good.

More tests followed, and eventually a biopsy of specific spots in my prostate. That resulted in a Gleason score, which I don’t remember and don’t really understand. All I know is that my Gleason score indicated a high likelihood of cancer.

The next test was a CAT scan of my whole body. I was told that it is very sensitive, and if the cancer has metastasized, i.e. escaped the prostate and invaded the rest of the body, the CAT scan will show it. I had to wait through a weekend for the results, and in the meantime I asked Dr. Google, who told me that the one year survival rate if the cancer has gone into the bones is forty five percent. The five year survival rate is one percent. Gives a person pause, eh.

The following week, with results in, I could breath a sigh of relief. The cancer had not gone into my bones. Treatment of the cancer in my prostate would probably stop it in its tracks, and give me decades more time to enjoy my life.

The doctors recommended three forms of attack – hormone therapy, radiation therapy, and brachytherapy. Prostate cancer feeds on testosterone, so the hormone therapy cuts off the supply. In the old days this was done simply by castration. Doctors don’t want to tell a patient that they are going to cut his balls off, so they call it a bilateral orchiectomy. Nowadays this is accomplished with drugs, specifically an injection of leuprolide acetate, commonly called lupron, into the abdominal cavity.
Radiation therapy, which I liken to sticking your ass in a microwave oven, simply focuses beams of microwaves from several directions at the prostate to kill the cancer cells. It is inconvenient, in that it involved traveling to a major city for the treatment every weekday for several weeks, but painless.
The brachytherapy involves planting radioactive seeds of iodine in the prostate. It requires a general anesthetic, but otherwise is not a big deal. I was given a card to show to the customs people if I ever want to leave the country or board a plane, explaining why I’m slightly radioactive.
Which is not to say that these three treatments, combined, are not a big deal. Testosterone is a very important male hormone. It affects everything, from energy level, mood and depression, to sex drive. The radiation therapy and brachytherapy did a good job of destroying the nerve that allows an erection. So, say good bye not only to sex, but to the sex drive too. That’s something I really miss.
I’m now taking four large pills daily each containing 240mg of Apalutamid (trade named Erleada). This is a new drug, not yet approved by the B.C. Medical plan, and would cost $4000/month if it weren’t supplied by big pharma “on compassionate grounds”, meaning, if I want to be cynical, that they need more test subjects. It’s a testosterone blocker, negating any action by whatever testosterone I have left. So far the only side effects seem to be that I’ve lost all my body hair and been returned to a pre-pubescent condition.

But what does all of this have to do with the Scotland trip? Sit back and relax, I’m getting to it.

Some time after I had all these treatments, my cancer seemed to be under control but the science marches on and a new kind of radiation scan was in development. My oncologist signed me up and sent me to Vancouver to be part of the trial, to get another radioactive injection and enjoy another slide into the big spinning doughnut for a PET scan. I was told that it would be a couple of weeks before I learned the results, but my oncologist phoned me after two days. He didn’t sound happy. The new test showed cancer in the bones of my pelvis, and in my lymph glands all the way up into my neck. To me this sounded like a death sentence.

This is a still from my PET scan looking at a cross section of my pelvis, in case you don’t want to take the time to watch the video. That bright yellow dot just to the right of the center is cancer. It’s in the bone of my pelvis, which is not a place I want to see it.

I told my wife, Ruth, about these results. We spent an evening cuddling and processing. That Sunday at the Unitarian fellowship, during a segment of their service called “Joys and Concerns” in which the congregation is encouraged to briefly share events in their lives, I made an announcement: “I’ve had some terrible news. Somebody very close to me, somebody I love, has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. (pause for effect) And unfortunately it’s me.”

Cue digression cam: I am not a member of the Unitarian Fellowship. In pre-pandemic days I would show up after the services for the potluck snacks and conversation. My wife is very involved with the group, and has served on their board of directors for the past few years. They have provided a great community for her on her arrival in this new town with me.
I am a radical atheist. The Unitarians are the closest thing to a church that I can stand to enter. They are very accepting of all religious and spiritual views, including atheists, and I’ve felt very welcomed there. Many in the congregation describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, or agnostic, or even atheist like me. In fact, one of my favourite members was the second woman to be ordained as a minister by the Lutheran church. On the day after her retirement, following decades of work in a hostel comforting the dying and their loved ones, she burned her clerical collar and announced that she didn’t believe any of it.
What Unitarians have in common is that they all want to be good people. They are very involved in social justice issues, inclusion, environmental issues like climate change, and every other progressive cause. They have sponsored a Syrian immigrant. They run a homeless shelter in the basement of the building they own. Their sermons never talk about sin, redemption, or salvation, but more about compassion, caring, forgiveness, and appreciation. I appreciate the support they have provided for my wife, and, inadvertently, for me.

To get on with this story, after the diagnosis, and my bombshell announcement at the Unitarian fellowship, Ruth and I commenced what we describe as our “crying tour”. We visited our closest friends to give them the news. Our second or third stop was to see Rod and Chao, an amazing couple we met at an Immigration Welcome Center appreciation dinner; Ruth and I had volunteered to help a Syrian family adapt to life in Nanaimo. By great good fortune, I happened to be seated beside Rod Szasz, only one of the most amazing people I have ever met, avid historian, mountain climber who has been to the base camp on Everest, local forest ranger and search and rescue volunteer, fluent in Japaneses, entrepreneurial businessman. His Chinese wife, Chao, is equally impressive. The two met in Japan, and their eldest daughter, Akela, is also fluent in Japanese. Shortly before she graduated from high school, she was flown down to Miami to compete in a judo competition, following which she flew to Beijing to compete in a classical voice competition. Since graduation she’s been studying medicine in Scotland. Their youngest daughter, Kipling, has been my fiddle buddy since she was a child.

And now, if you are still with me, we’re getting to the reason Ruth and I ended up in Scotland. Rod and Chao were in their kitchen when I gave them the news about my diagnosis and prognosis. Rod immediately rushed out of the room and came back with a bottle of expensive scotch, telling me to take the bottle home. “I’m taking you to Scotland,” he announced. He had a trip planned for just before Christmas to meet up with Akela.

I told Rod to keep the bottle and I would return to drink it with him, which turned out to be a mistake because he had another friend he felt he needed to share it with. And my initial reaction to the invitation to travel with him was that I couldn’t let him go to that expense.

Kipling, meanwhile, had been sleeping. She came into the kitchen all sleepy eyed, and immediately picked up the mood and the look on her parents faces. “What’s going on?” she asked. So I told her. Now, Kipling is a very reserved young lady. While I’ve spent a bit of time with her, and taken her with me to fiddle sessions in Qualicum Beach, I wasn’t even sure that she liked me, or whether she was just going along with the urging of her parents. But Kipling crumbled when she got my news. She came to me crying and climbed into my lap and hugged me, sobbing. When I got her calmed down, we got out our fiddles and played “Aspen Grove” together, and “Calum’s Road”. That’s when the idea of playing “Calum’s Road” on Calum’s Road entered my head, along with the thought that I would eventually give my wonderful, and expensive, Italian fiddle to Kipling, an acceptable trade for a trip to Scotland.

The next day, Kipling ran in the Terry Fox run for Cancer wearing a sign that read “I’m running for Zale”. Ruth and I made plans to go to Scotland. Ruth had decided to come along, and to pay her own way.

So off the four of us went, Rod and Kipling, me and Ruth. Rod took care of all the bookings, arranging the AirBnB accommodations, the car rentals, the navigation. We met up with Akela just as her exams were finished and set off for what we later called the cemetery and castle tour.

Kipling and I played “Over the Sea to Skye” on the Isle of Skye.

We played “Calum’s Road” on Calum’s Road.

We played “Hut on Staffin Island” in Staffin.

We played “Neil Gough’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife” in Doran Castle.

We played “Flowers of Edinburgh” in an Edinburgh cemetery.

I played “Da Shlockit Light” outside another ruined castle.

Rod began each day with an early morning run. He lead us through a wonderful selection of old cemeteries, which, on seeing endless tomb stones with the names of parents followed by six or eight children who died at various ages, left me wanting to slap an anti-vaxxer upside the head when I returned to Canada.

Along the way we met some beautiful people and had some interesting conversations.

All in all, it was the trip of a lifetime. I used to think that I didn’t want to see death coming. That I wanted to be walking in the park and foolishly left my protective garbage can lid at home when a meteorite slammed into my skull and killed me instantly. Or, failing that, to simply fall asleep and die quietly in the night, not realizing I was dead until the morning. But I wouldn’t have missed all of this for the world.

You are, no doubt, by now familiar with the Kubler-Ross formulated stages of dying. They begin with denial on receiving the dreaded news; this can’t be happening to me; I’m not really that sick; I feel fine. Then progress to anger; This isn’t fair; I don’t deserve this. And then bargaining; Okay, it’s not too late; I’ll clean up my life style and eat healthy, or accept Jesus or somebody else into my heart. Then the penultimate, depression; Why bother getting out of bed; I’m going to die anyway. And then finally acceptance. Death happens to everybody. It’s just my turn. I’ll just try to make the most of the time I have left.

I’ve always believed that the first four stages are a waste of emotional energy. Far better to simply vault over them to acceptance. Of course that is easier said than done when dealing with emotions. But that is what I do, as much as I can. If I have to die, experiencing the Scotland trip made it worth it. That and the loving support of my wife and friends.

Anticlimax: As you may have guessed, my reaction to the news that the cancer had metastasized into my bones turned out to be an overreaction. After a consultation with my oncologist, I’ve learned that, with advances in treatment, prostate cancer is quickly becoming a chronic disease, rather than a fatal one. He insists that I’m going to die eventually, but of something else, possibly old age. My PSA numbers, thanks to the apalutamide, are down into the low decimals, which means that the cancer is not active. I feel a bit foolish for making such a fuss. On the other hand, it’s been worth it just to experience the reaction from friends and family. I have spent most of my life feeling foolish, so I guess I can live with this.

Passing the Torch

A couple of years pre-pandemic, I was yearning for the good old days of my university life, back when coffee shops and folk music was the thing. I told my wife, Ruth, that I wanted to find a space and start up a coffee shop that could have open mike nights once a week. Ruth, ever the moderating influence on my enthusiasms, suggested that this would be a big time and money investment and might not be the fantasy I want to live. So we came up with an alternative.

Our first poster/announcement.

Wellington Community Hall is just a short block from our home. It’s a classic building, rich in heritage, and still in constant use for seniors dance classes and Brownie meetings. We came up with the idea of putting on an open mike night there once a month, just to find out whether I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the fantasy. Thus was the Stage Fright Cafe born.

The name was suggested by my friend Timothy Von Boetticher, a brilliant song writer and musician with a history of running open mike nights, plus a family of talented wife and children. Among my favourite people.

The hall reeks of history, but it’s a very stark environment for a coffee house. It did have a great sound system and plenty of small tables and chairs. I made red table clothes. We brought in our own lighting – my Chinese photography lights, a couple of work lights, electric tealights for the tables, and a rope light to add some colour. We decided not to use the stage. I wanted a more intimate relationship between the performers and the audience, so our performance area was set up in front of the stage at floor level, defined by two long tables where instruments cases could be left. The transformation was pure magic. But the best part was the support from friends and neighbours.

Two of our regulars in performance.

Dave Merchie, who was in charge of the hall at the time, volunteered to run the sound system. Kerwood and Jess, who had owned a restaurant in Vancouver before coming to Nanaimo, volunteered to take charge of the drinks and snack food. I explained to our first audience that they had returned to 1962, and the coffee would be ten cents a cup. The snack food was similarly low priced – banana bread with blue berries that I baked the night before the event, cookies baked by Ruth, fresh popcorn, a veggie platter, hotdogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Nothing costing more than a buck or two.

My famous blue berry and banana bread. An open mic night favourite.

These three wonderful people, Dave, Kerwood, Jess, plus Ruth and myself, became the operational crew. Ruth took charge of the performer list and the cash. The hall gave us a great deal, since we were contributing to their mandate of community involvement. So the rent was eighty bucks a night, but only if the donations at the door and the food money covered more than our expenses for food.

The next thing we needed was performers. The concept, as the name implies, was to provide a venue for amateurs, and my old friend J. Douglas Dodd had students in need of microphone and audience experience. I didn’t really appreciate how terrified some of his students were at the very thought of standing alone before strangers and performing, but it was delightful to see the change as they settled down and became more comfortable.

Nico Rhodes doing piano back up for one of Doug’s students.

We attracted a few pros from my pool of friends, most memorably Rick Scott and Nico Rhodes, Joelle Rabu, Timothy Von Boetticher himself (who used the occasions to try out new songs), the entire Von Boetticher family band, and Sue Averill who runs another open mike night with a different agenda. But most of the performers were seasoned amateurs who had played for years in their dens and living rooms without ever showing off what they could do. It was an eclectic mix, and amazing, joyful fun. We ended up with both regular audience members, and regular performers, with delightful surprises each session.

Tom and Jerry in performance, followed by Barry Farrell, one of our regulars.
Zale the MC. My job was to do stand up while performers prepared. I tell stories.

But… after a couple of years of setting up and breaking down and acting as the M.C., I was frankly getting tired. I think our regular audience, for whom I am eternally grateful, were also getting a bit tired. Many of Doug’s students aged out of classes, some moved on to professional training and careers. The pandemic gave me an excuse to shut the show down and take a break. I was not sure whether I would ever want to do it again. Been there done that, eh.

But the, last week, Hank Ketler, one of our regular and much admired performers, he of the mellow voice and competent guitar, called me to say that there was a new musician in town who wants to get involved in the scene here. He brought Linda Lavender (real name. Really!) over to meet me. She is just a delight, both in and as a singer song writer. So plans are in the works for another revival. It’s too early, with Omicron filling hospital beds and spreading, but I’m confident that the show will go on, eventually.

Linda Lavender with my kind of music. Give her a listen, eh.

I told Linda and Hank that I would support their efforts, but I don’t have it in me to be the main man any more. Too many other interests taking my time*. But they have agreed to take charge of the management. Ruth and I will set things up, at least for the first couple of shows. We’ll see how things go.

Linda and I are also talking about teaming up to rehearse her new songs and fine tune my fiddle backup. It’s exciting. All of this is exciting.

*So, what is it that is filling my spare time these days? What could be pulling me away from community involvement and public music? Well… here’s a short list of current projects. I’m going to take another run at making bodhran rims. I made two of the Irish drums before I went to China, but I didn’t manage to get the traditional steamed yew rims perfectly round, resulting in slack rawhide goatskin heads. Since returning home, I’ve taken two cracks at making good rims, with no real success. So that’s on my mind. Then there’s my plans to make a wooden pasta rolling machine. The shiny stainless one I bought on line is simply too small and inadequate. Next I’m going to make a fretless gourd banjo. I’ve got the gourd seeds in potting soil right now, and by the end of the summer I’m hoping to have a selection of gourds. But lately I’ve been killing myself down the Sketchup rabbit hole, staying up until five in the morning to learn that challenging CAD program, an effort that has my neck and shoulders in pain. Of course there’s still the fiddle group once a week in Qualicum Beach, Oceanside Jammers, and zoom sessions with my friend Dave Clement in Winnipeg every Monday to work up new Celtic tunes. I don’t lack for interests and excitement.

My young fiddle buddy, Kipling, in the center of the Ocean Side Jammers session. I think my next post may be about our Scotland trip. She’s now the owner of my wonderful Mauritzio Tadioli violin.

And there’s more, but that’s for my next installment.

The Name Thing (Why am I known as Zale Dalen)

I thought I had covered this in an ancient post, but if so I can’t find it. Today my friend Paul Stallion in Winnipeg wrote to say: “Tell me again (I’m pretty sure I’ve been told before), where did the genesis of your name come from?” So here’s the story:

I was christened David James Scott – David after my father, David Henry Scott, and James after my grandfather on my mother’s side, Lieutenant Commander James Lauden Bromfield, RN. All good and honourable names. In those days it was traditional to name babies to honour their living relatives.

I went through school and into university with the name David James Scott. Then I met my first wife, Rena Bishop. She told me that she had been christened Gwyneth Bishop, but her parents had become Kabalarians when she was twelve and had changed her name to Rena. Here’s a link to the Kabalarian website, which of course paints a flattering picture of their cult. I always found it interesting that they claim to be based on the Kabbalah, “an esoteric method, discipline, and school of thought in Jewish mysticism” which claims to predate religion, though the cult was founded in 1930. In any event, the present day Kabalarians believe a complicated system of numerology which posits that a person has a life path, determined by their date of birth, and some kind of mystical resonance with the numbers derived from their name. Each letter in a person’s name is given a number from 1 to 9, but starting over after the letter ‘i’ with 1 again, so that the letter ‘j’ would be counted as 1 and the letter ‘k’ would be counted as 2. Taken in total, but not exceeding 9, these number give a person’s name a numerical value which somehow resonates with a number derived from their birth date. They don’t care now the name is pronounced. It’s only the letters and the final number that counts. If this sounds like improbable nonsense to you, then you agree with me. Utter bollocks.

It’s not just a person’s birth date and name that matter to a Kabalarian. Every other number in their life matters – their street address, their license plate, the number assigned to the current year. It’s all considered and calculated. Life can get quite complicated. An 8 birth path going into a 9 year can be scary for them.

At any rate, I didn’t hear much about the Kabalarians after I met Rena. We dated, lived together, got engaged, and finally married in 1971. She didn’t talk much about the “Kabalarian philosophy”, other than the occasional mention that we were in such and such a year, or our address added up to such and such a number (which might mean that it would be prone to electrical problems or water damage). Rena was, and still is, a brilliant woman, the kind of person who studies university level physics for fun. I’m sure she recognized how silly the beliefs of her parents were, or at least would appear to skeptics like me.

Then, in 1972 or 1973, Rena’s father died. He had been the person in her life who told her how the world was glued together, and his death left a huge hole. She started taking courses at the Vancouver Kabalarian center, and spending money on their lessons. Soon she was deep down the cult rabbit hole. I remember one occasion when she went in to buy a license plate for our car. She didn’t like the number on the plate that was offered, so she asked for the next plate in line. That was refused. So she paid for the plate, walked out the door, dropped it in the nearest garbage can, then return to say that she had lost her license plate and paid again.

At this time I was having my own issues with my father, David Henry Scott. For several years, I identified as a hippie. With the rationalizing arrogance of youth, I felt that, given that society made it next to impossible to get around without my car, I should be allowed to park wherever I wanted. So I had a large parking ticket debt, so large that the police showed up to arrest David Scott for failure to pay. They could never find me, but they found my father fast enough. He wasn’t pleased.

Then he was bragging to his business associates that the family farm was free and clear. One of them checked and told him there was a lien on the property, a lien because of non-payment of his student loan. Of course, it wasn’t his student loan. It was mine. My father was furious. Such were the unintended consequences of giving me his name.

Rena came to me after one of her Kabalarian classes and told me that I would never be rich and famous with a name like David Scott. It just didn’t match my birth path. I needed to change my name.

I had two other reasons to consider changing my name. One, of course, was that my father was not happy with having the same name as he had given me. But the other was based on my belief that we are a combination of three things. We are what other people tell us we are; we are what we tell ourselves we are; and finally, we are what we actually are which is a combination in various proportions of all three determinants. All three of these elements that define us are unknowable. We are not fully aware of what other people are telling us we are, except for the broad strokes. There are so many assumptions people make and express about us that are invisible to our conscious mind. We are also not completely aware of what we are telling ourselves we are. Habits of thought maintained since childhood go unexamined, which is why psychiatrists and therapists can make a living. And we are not fully aware of what we actually are, which is a combination of all three of these factors. Nevertheless, I felt that, possibly, the best way to create a more positive, outgoing, adventurous, and enjoyable personality might be to change the label that I put on that personality, the label that I put on myself, my identity. I would rather be self created than created by the agendas of others, or even of reality. I didn’t expect to become totally self created, but I felt sure I could change the balance. So why not give it a go? (Zale Dalen – where the Dunning-Kruger Effect meets the Imposter Syndrome)

Rena presented me with a list, provided by the Kabalarians, with many rather ordinary names but often strangely spelled, like ‘Jon’, but also including stranger names, among them the name ‘Zale’. I felt that the name expressed something of my personality – distinctly different, slightly odd, unique and possibly intriguing -so David James Scott became became Zale Ralston Dalen. Rena Scott became Laara Dalen.

I hoped that my father would see this as an effort to repair the damage he’d done by giving me his name, but of course he didn’t. It took him years to process what he saw as disowning the family. The rest of the relatives were initially resistant to the name change, but with constant correction finally accepted it. I settled in to being Zale Ralston Dalen, and went about establishing a movie career.

Did this experiment in becoming self creative work as I hoped? Hard to say. Having a strange name came with its own problems, like people calling me Dale, or Zane. My first national publicity appeared in TV Guide when my name was listed as Dale Zalen. I heard from somebody putting my name forward as a director that one of the executives who would give final approval asked, “Can he speak English?” My name also gave me what I unintentionally asked for – a feeling of being cut off from my history and heritage. These problems seemed to fade as I became better known, but the feeling of being adrift came back with a vengeance when my father died.

My father died in 1986. By then we were on very good terms. I had spent weekends interviewing him and transcribing the tapes, which became an oral history of his very adventurous early life. I had long since paid off my student loans. The styles of the hippie movement had become either mainstream or comical. Everybody and his dog had an earring. A tattoo no longer indicated a complete social deviant. I had certificates from the New York Film Festival, The London Film Festival, Sidney Australia and Thesolonika. Such a degree of international acclaim had healed the wounds from my teen years, and my father actually cried when he saw my certificate from the Moscow Film Festival, “For peace and friendship among nations.” He didn’t understand that they would give that to anybody who denigrated capitalism.

Fast forward to the turn of the century. Laara and I had separated and were on our way to a divorce. My children were adults and didn’t need me any more. I’d gone bankrupt. I was about to run away to China to recover from the crash and burn that was my life. My name, Zale Dalen, had no heritage to it. Worse, it was slightly embarrassing. People who knew could recognize it as a Kabalarian name, and I wanted no truck with nor endorsement of that particular brand of nonsense.

So, despite having been Zale for more years than I was David, I went to China as David James Scott. That’s the name I was using when I met my present wife, Ruth Anderson. It didn’t hurt that the name David Scott had real value in China, where I was being hired because I am a white man and a native speaker.

I fully expected to keep my birth name for the rest of my life. But then, on returning to Canada, I Googled ‘David James Scott’ and found, or rather, failed to find, my name buried in thousands of results. Goggle ‘Zale Dalen’ and I’m at the top of the returns. That’s a hard brand to give up.

So now I have a slightly schizoid existence as both David Scott, to people who met me while I was in China, and Zale Dalen, to those who knew me before I left and after I returned. Actually, I’m even known to some as Da Dawei (Chinese for Big David), my Chinese name. That’s what Ruth calls me when she wants to catch my attention in a crowd. Apparently the percussive sound cuts through the noise and gets my attention.

As an aside, I felt that adopting a Chinese name was only fair and courteous, given that most Chinese take an English name as soon as they start to study our language. This has resulted in some very strange names, like Space Fish, Falcon, Chicken, and our Chinese best friend, Panda. If I’d known a single word of Chinese when I arrived in China I would have chosen Gao Dawei (Tall David) because Gao is a common Chinese family name while Da is not. No matter. Being Big David struck me as funny, like a gangster name, Mr. Big, and apparently strikes many Chinese the same way.

And that’s the broad strokes of a very long, detailed, and complicated story. I’ve tried to cut it to the bone, the salient points, but it really brings up many questions – why did I go bankrupt after quite a successful career, first as a movie technician and then as a director. Why did I become, as I recently posted, “Almost Famous”, and why did that all go away. But that’s nothing to do with the name thing.

Thanks for asking, Paul.

Director’s Clubhouse

I accepted an invitation from the DGC national to attend the zoom meeting of the Director’s Clubhouse this week. I am not sure why I would do that, or whether I even have the right to still call myself a director, since I haven’t set foot on an actual movie set in, oh, probably twenty years. I attended anyway.

So, feeling like a fraud, I intended to sit quietly and just listen. Maybe ask a couple of questions, which I did. My first question was: How many shooting days are you allowed for a TV hour now. This question was on my mind because the last time I ran into Neil Fearnley he was directing something at the Billy Miner pub in Maple Ridge, I think for Hallmark. He to told me he had two shooting days to put a made for TV movie in the can. Shocking. That was a time before Netflix and Amazon Prime and all the streaming video we have now. Budgets were shrinking, along with shooting schedules, and the scramble for eyeballs was in full heat. I’m not proud, but I wouldn’t have accept that kind of work, and back in those days I’d have considered just about anything. I’m even more jaded now. Maybe Neil was pulling my leg. Two days to shoot a made for TV movie should be impossible, and I did the impossible a few times myself so I know.

Neil Fearnley directing.

It took a while to get a rough answer to this question from the assembled directors, but it turned out that nothing much has really changed. They are all concerned with the number of scenes or pages they are supposed to shoot in a day, and talked about negotiating to reduce the script size and cut non-essential scenes. But it seems that five or six days for a TV hour is more or less still standard. That’s plenty tight enough.

Of course it isn’t in my nature to just sit quietly and listen when people are talking about directing. One of the women directors mentioned that she has a boat and water show coming up, and that was my cue to jump in with unsolicited advice – mainly, don’t mount the camera on the boat since that takes away any sense of movement. This tip came from my unsuccessful bid to get a fishing industry directing gig that I lost to Ralph Thomas. That was a huge disappointment to me, since I was really into boating at the time and felt I’d be right for the show. But it turned out to be a blessing, because when it came my turn to get a boat movie, “Anything to Survive”, that involved tank work, I got to see the mistake that Ralph made. During his storm sequence he had the camera mounted on the boat, and aside from the actor falling about, that removed all sense of motion. I would be shooting in the wave tank at UBC, with the upper part of the boat gimbled to the bottom of the tank and the camera shooting from the walkway. Mounting the camera on a crane with the ability to move counter to the boat’s motion gave a terrifyingly realistic sense of how much tossing about the boat was doing and let us magnify the size of the three foot waves. Add in a couple of dump tanks and the storm got very real.

Speaking of women, it was interesting to see that at least half of the attendees at the director’s clubhouse were women. Times have changed. That’s a good thing. I now see women named as director on some very big movies, including action flicks.

One take away I got from the Clubhouse was that I don’t have much interest in getting back to being a journeyman director. Somebody mentioned directing an episode of “Viking”. While I’m sure an infusion of the directing fee for doing one of those shows would fluff up my bank account nicely, I don’t think I want to do one. Maybe I could get excited about directing an episode of something like “Better Call Saul” or “Sex Education”, but in general I don’t need the tension and hassle.

A second take away from the Clubhouse was that I can feel the joy and excitement that my fellow directors feel from simply exercising their craft. I share that feeling. It really is an incredible way to make a living. Being out of that game, it’s something I do really miss.

Anybody out there got a special feature or made for script for me to consider? Yeah, I could get excited about that. Anybody? (crickets)

Almost Famous

I was almost famous once. Years ago. Even today I’m occasionally reminded of this. The very phrase sounds funny to me. I mean, one is either famous or unknown, not almost famous. That’s sound like being almost pregnant.

To be clear, I’ve never wanted to be famous. I’ve spent time with some very famous people, and it seemed fame is a huge hassle and occasionally a danger.

I was on the set of “Best Friends” when somebody stole Norman Jewison’s lucky hat, the one with pins from all his many previous films on it. That threw Norman and the entire cast and crew into a tail spin, an act of cruelty that only somebody impressed with fame would do. Some member of his crew found a picture of him wearing his lucky hat, and transformed it into a pin for him to put on the new hat they gave him. It was a nice, caring, creative gesture, but not the same as having his lucky hat with pins from all his past work.

Fans and idiots will steal anything a famous person has owned, or even touched. The latter is perhaps forgivable. Who cares when somebody pockets Natalie McMaster’s beer glass at the bar. But when somebody stole David Carradine’s white cowboy hat, it caused, at the very least, a moment of anxiety, a small frisson of emotional pain. Hats seem to be a favourite target of those impressed by fame.

And then there is the danger. I remember sitting in an outdoor restaurant with David Carradine and Bo Svenson when a stranger approached us. Bo was instantly on his feet to bark a warning at the stranger to back off, long before I had registered any threat. I commented that he was overreacting. Bo assured me that he wasn’t. Bo had much more experience of being famous and among the famous than I had. I suppose you could ask John Lennon whether being famous is dangerous. Oh, that’s right. You can’t. He’s dead. Shot by some nutter for no other reason than he was famous.

As the star of “Kung Fu”, David Carradine was once, in my presence, approached by a slightly drunken man in a bar. I ran interference. The guy wanted to know whether David could really do kung fu. I told him gently, in a tone of voice I hoped made him feel foolish, that David was an actor. The last thing I needed was for my star for the next day’s shooting to get into a bar fight.

No. Influence and money and even power have their place. I could never see any value in fame, other than it sometimes helps a person to get influence and money.

There have been moments when my almost fame has surprised me. Years ago I left a message on a girlfriend’s answering machine which included my name. When her room mate heard the recording she apparently responded with “Was that THE Zale Dalen”. Imagine that. In somebody’s mind I was “the Zale Dalen”.

Long after my phone had stopped ringing and my career was a fading memory, my daughter was working in a call center. One of her coworkers said “Hey, your dad had something to do with the film business. I’m trying to find a movie called “Terminal City Ricochet”. Do you think he’d know how to find it.”
My daughter’s response: “He might. He directed it.” That made me feel good, but it was hardly fame.

At the First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo, a congregation my wife belongs to, one of the members went embarrassingly giddy on learning that I had directed “Skip Tracer”, my first feature length film. Forty some odd years on, she remembered the movie and sang its praises. I’m really glad she liked my first movie, and very surprised she remembered it. But the truth is, Having once been almost famous is somewhat embarrassing. I sometimes feel that my past movies, while mostly unknown and none big money makers, or even small money makers, follow me like a record of incarceration. They feel like such a small, almost accidental, achievement for all those years of trying.

I remember talking to a middle aged female actor in Los Angeles years ago. She had once been truly famous as one of the leads in a popular TV series. But that fame had gone away, and now she was truly forgotten. Fans no longer approached her in restaurants, asking for an autograph. She seemed bemused. And relieved.

And that was real fame, not my pale and shabby almost fame.

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.