Lesson Learned

While shooting “On Thin Ice, The Tai Babalonia story” I noticed that the producers were unhappy when I was happy, and happy when I was unhappy. It was a puzzle.

Then it hit me: They were making television. They were happy when the rushes looked like television whereas I was, yeah, okay, I guess so. Looks okay. Looks like standard television.

I was trying to make something that transcended television, something that went beyond what you would expect of television. When we achieved that I would be over the moon, whereas the producers were uh…yeah…I guess. That’s amazing. But is it what we want?

They were making television. I was making, and I can’t think of a less pretentious way to say it, art.

Circling the Drain, an update on my health

A couple of days ago Danny, my American friend and regular Xiang Qi opponent still living in China, told me that five years have past since I told him I had something less than a year to live because my prostate cancer has metastasized and found sublets in my lymph glands and bones. I guess I over reacted. But that’s what Dr. Google said was my future. I’m a little embarrassed to be still alive, but I suppose I can live with that. Everybody else seems to be happy that I’m still around.

Now that’s a terrifying picture, is it not?

Here again is the picture of my scan showing the metastasizes in my lymph glands and pelvis. I’m now expecting to last to my eighty-first year, but I don’t think I want to go much further. If indeed that far. Every time I go under the knife now, I secretly hope that something will mess up with the anesthetic and I won’t wake up. One of the problems I’m finding is that MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) requires a decision and a delay. That’s the real horror of slipping closer to that drain.

Clicking here will take you to the posts archived under the heading of “Cancer”. Scroll to the bottom of that collection of posts to get the back story on my journey. Enjoy. It’s been quite a ride.

Carl Weathers is Also Dead

He played Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies. He was also a guest star on an episode of Danger Bay which I directed. As a courtesy, I met him when he arrived at the Vancouver airport. He made it very clear that we were not going to be friends. He wasn’t happy to be doing a guest appearance in “Danger Bay” and I remember him saying something about only doing it to get a new television set.

I escorted Mr. Weathers to the registration desk of the Bayshore Inn and asked the desk clerk if she had a room for him. “It’s a suite, isn’t it,” he said, in a tone that implied it bloody well better be a suite.

“Is it a suite?” I asked, and was relieved to learn that it was.

The next morning on set, I watched him put a gold ring in his nose. This is not something that made me happy, and, as the director, I suppose I could have told him that this wasn’t in the style of the show. But I knew what he was doing. He was making a distinction between his character in this guest appearance and his character as the helicopter pilot in Magnum PI. And who was I to tell a black man what his culture was about. Also, this was still in the days when Donnelly Rhodes was doing what he called “Breaking in a new director.” I couldn’t make a decision without Donnelly raising an objection and suggesting an alternative, to the point where I was convinced he was trying to see if he could get me mad enough to hit him. He would have liked that. Nothing Donnelly liked better than a fight. He and Weathers we getting along gang busters, laughing and joking like old frat mates. I was intimidated and felt out gunned.

Thinking back on this I now realize that Carl Weathers gave me a gift. Until this happened I taken the role of director on episodic television with the same attitude I took to directing a feature, the assumption that the director is the authority on set and gets to call the shots when it comes to the everything the audience is going to see. I was comfortable with that. I expected my decisions to carry the authority of the director, and was happy to stand alone in that position. But this doesn’t work on episodic TV. I should have been on the phone to the line producer and requested his presence on set. I needed backup, but didn’t know it. So I ignored the ring in the nose and we shot the scenes.

When the brass saw the dailies, the shit really hit the fan. Every black father or mother in America was going to call the network to complain that their kid wants a ring in his nose like Carl Weathers has. Who is this Canadian director? What kind of idiot is he?

I had a three show contract on “Danger Bay”. The Disney brass wanted to cancel my next two shows. I’m pretty sure the only reason they didn’t was that the show had a tight budget and they didn’t want to pay me not to direct.

In the final scene of that episode, Donnelly Rhodes says goodbye to Carl Weathers and sends him back to his job in Africa, trying to control the trade in endangered species hides. I suggested that they should hug. That was too gay for Mr. Weathers. We settled on a manly handshake.

Carl Weathers and I did not become friends, but I do appreciate the contribution he made to my education as an episodic television director. It took a couple more hard lessons before I took this one to heart. Some might say I’m a slow learner and never did internalize this lesson until now, looking back at my career from the safety of retirement.

To any aspiring TV directors that might be reading this I will add this: Pay attention to the power and the money. Form relationships with the people who can give you work. Just being a good director isn’t enough.

Norman Jewison is Dead at 97.

But what a legacy he leaves behind. Norman directed a lot of fluff and schlock, starting with his breakthrough journeyman work on Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Doris Day as he moved from directing Canadian television to Hollywood in 1959. By the time I met him in 1982 he had a filmography full of important classics – “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Jesus Christ Super Star”, “Moon struck” and “In the Heat of the Night” to name just a few. His eclectic list of movie titles, with romantic comedy scattered in to social commentary, received 46 Academy Award nominations and won 12 Oscars.

A very much younger Zale Dalen with Norman on the set of “Best Friends”, staring Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn, romantic comedy fluff at its finest. In this photograph he’s showing me the difference between planning a television shoot and planning a feature film. According to Norman, what I was doing was television – laying out camera positions and blocking for the actors. A feature film director works in images, story boards, and planned transitions. I’m afraid I could never catch on to this approach. The images were in my head and the planning went from my head straight into the viewfinder thence into the camera. But sometimes I would adopt a combination derived from Norman’s kind lesson, but usually my planning involved camera positions and blocking, with sometimes lens notations thrown in.

Norman was very kind to me. I don’t think he was please when I told him I was leaving before his shoot was finished. I had to get back to Toronto to direct an episode of “For the Record” an anthology drama series for CBC television, an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up, not even to sit at the feet of the master.

Walking the beach at Malabu, just outside Norman’s home there, he told me about his deal with the major for “Jesus Christ Superstar”. He’d seen the stage version in London and purchased the rights to make the movie, but he wanted a gross deal. That would mean that he got a percentage of the returns from first dollar, before the studio subtracted their expenses and worked their accountant magic on the returns, famously charging every production for every pencil the studio used. A net returns deal meant that the director and the backers wouldn’t see a penny, even if the film made millions at the box office. But there was no way the studio would agree to a gross deal for above the line participants. It just wasn’t going to happen. At that time, however, the studio considered returns from record sales to be small change, not worth fighting over. So they compromised by giving Norman Jewison a gross deal on the record sales.
I had that album. So did many of my friends. A gross deal on the sale of “Jesus Christ Superstar” had to be worth millions. That alone made Norman a happy, and very wealthy, man.

For this Canadian boy who had never seen an A list director with an A list cast and crew at work, the shear luxury of the production was astonishing. I’d seen well stocked craft services snack tables, and eaten from gourmet quality craft services food trucks, but this was a whole different level. For example: one morning Norman announced to everybody, “Hey folks, we were all out late last night and we’re not really firing on all cylinders this morning. Let’s call it a day and come back refreshed tomorrow.” For me that was a shock. Any production I had ever worked was managed people schooled in Frank Taylor style time and motion efficiency expectations. Getting the shots in the can was everything. The schedule was always squeaky tight and taking a break that wasn’t absolutely necessary just didn’t fit in the shooting board. This was pure luxury.
And then there was the private nurse Burt Reynolds requested. She was bored stiff and spent her time handing out vitamins and supplements, but she was there at a good salary just because Burt, or somebody else, might need medical attention Again, pure luxury. It was another way of doing business at the top of the food chain.

I was also impressed by the efficiency with which Norman worked. He only shot what he needed to make the film, working calmly and smiling with quiet dignity even when tested by the oversized egos of his stars. I immediately lost any desire to hang out with those stars, or be their friend. I had arranged a special screening of “The Hounds of Notre Dame”, my second feature, for Burt Reynolds because I’d been told that he had his own distribution company. The day after the screening I asked him what he thought. “We’ll talk.” he said. I learned that in Hollywood “We’ll talk” means “We won’t talk.” I had already learned that “Trust me.” in Hollywood means “Fuck you.”

Goldie Hawn bit my head off, figuratively speaking, when I tried to introduce myself. I suppose I had chosen a bad time to approach her, but still… Not my kind of people.

Dead at 97, Norman Jewison had a good run. Still, he died too young.

I get mail: A Voice from the Past

Somebody named Gordon Cressy sent me an email message. The name meant nothing to me until he followed it up with a message and attachment of his book, entitled “Gordon Cressy tells Great Stories”

Gordon wrote:
The book is available on line at Amazon, Indigo etc. But too expensive. (I think it’s typical of Gordon to not ask me to spend any money to read his book. – ZD) Here is the book as it went to print. The movie idea is mentioned in the preface. In the first chapter you are mentioned by name. Hope you enjoy the stories.
Warm wishes,

I have taken the liberty of carving out a relevant excerpt from that book and present it here:

Selling Christmas Trees in Trinidad

Now that I was the general secretary (Of the YMCA in Trinidad when Gordon was just twenty years old -ZD) , I had to learn many new things, like balancing a budget. I learned very fast when it became clear that we were spending more money than we were bringing in. It certainly was not my salary, which was TT$10 per week. We could not raise the room rate or meal cost. It was suggested that we try to raise some money. Although I have spent a good part of the last thirty years in fundraising, back then I knew precious little.

I tried to remember what had worked growing up in Toronto. I remembered that our local church, St. Leonard’s, used to raise money selling Christmas trees. I went to the steering committee and suggested if we sold Christmas trees there would be no competition. One member asked if I had developed a business plan. Heck, I did not even know what a business plan was!

I have learned over the years that bold and exciting ideas excite. Several steering committee members had visited Canada at Christmastime and thought the idea just might work.

I got the go-ahead and contacted the YMCA in St. John, New Brunswick, which sourced 1,500 Scotch pine trees for us and put them on a cargo ship. The ship operators told us the trees would arrive on December 15, nice and fresh. Our boys at the Y went out and presold 1,200 trees. This story was gaining traction. There was a little article in the newspaper — my name was in it. I sent it home to my mom and dad. My mom shared it with her bridge club group!

Everything was going very smoothly until our trees did not arrive as promised on December 15. We did not make many long-distance calls in those days, but I sure did that day. I called the Y folks who said there had been a “small” fire on the ship. The trees had been put on another ship and were scheduled to arrive December 22. I remember saying, “Wow, that’s really close to Christmas.” They suggested we call the port authority in Bermuda and find out how the ship was progressing. We learned, to our horror, that there was a dockworkers’ strike in Bermuda, and now the trees would arrive in Barbados on December 22, but would not get to Trinidad until after Christmas! Things were going quickly from bad to worse, and the enthusiasm and support for this young Canadian volunteer was diminishing at a rapid rate.

My suggestion of changing the date of Christmas did not go down very well, especially with the clergy! One of the steering committee members, Steve Hanuman, knew the head of British West Indian Airways (now Caribbean Airlines) quite well. The next morning off we went to BWIA and suggested to them an innovative marketing opportunity in which they would give the YMCA a cargo plane. We would fly over to Grantley Adams Airport in Barbados, go down to the docks, take the trees off the ship, load them onto some trucks, drive out to the airport, and stuff those trees on the plane. We would then fly back to Piarco Airport in Trinidad, take the trees off the plane, load them on the trucks, drive down to the YMCA, and sell those trees. Lo and behold, they agreed! There was a headline in a Trinidad newspaper: “Christmas Tree Airlift to Raise Funds for YMCA!”

On December 22, steering committee members James Dube and Frank Mohan, my friend Bing Mandbodh and I, a couple of flight attendants, and the pilot, plus a few bottles of Old Oak Rum (a very fine Trinidadian rum), flew out in the early morning for Barbados. We got down to the dockside to discover that, it being a Sunday, the dockworkers were not working — but a few of the workers were hanging around. A few bottles of Trinidadian rum later they were working, and together we loaded the trees onto the trucks, drove to the airport, and stuffed those trees into every nook and cranny on the plane. Mr. Bal Soochit, a YMCA volunteer in Trinidad, donated the trucks both in Barbados and Trinidad.

We flew back to Trinidad in the late afternoon, took the trees off the plane, loaded them onto the trucks, and drove down to the YMCA in Port of Spain. There was a festive atmosphere when we arrived, with Christmas carols blasting on the radio. Trinidad’s TV station covered the arrival. We started selling right away. Families came by that night to buy trees, and for the next two days we sold trees nonstop. By Christmas Eve we had sold out! We were tired but very pleased. We turned a bad situation into a wonderful ending. People had their trees. The media loved the story, and we had raised about TT$7,000.

On Christmas Day, we were having lunch at the Y and I mentioned that it just would not be Christmas without a Christmas tree, to which one of our residents chimed in with the fact that Jesus was born under olive trees and not Christmas trees. On December 28, the Trinidad government banned the mass importation of trees, suggesting that people grow local trees.

That should have been the end of the story, but not quite. About thirty years ago, Douglas Bain, a middle-aged man from Trinidad, showed up at the University of Toronto, where I was working, and told me that I had taught him how to swim at the Y in Trinidad. Not only that, he mentioned that he helped sell those Christmas trees. He said he and his buddy had gotten tired of selling the trees and threw twenty of them over the back fence. Then they went down to the corner and sold them and made $200. Obviously, a little private entrepreneurial experience.

A decade ago, Stuart McLean of the popular Vinyl Café radio show on CBC, asked if he could tell the Christmas tree story on the radio. Not being one to shy away from publicity, I readily agreed. The story played across the country, and I got a few emails from old friends. On the following Monday, I got a long-distance call from a Zale Dalen in BC, who told me that he was a movie producer (A misunderstanding; I have never been a movie producer. Just a director. -ZD) and he thought this Christmas tree story would be a great feature film. Much like Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsled team — but in reverse. I was excited. I was already thinking of who would play the male lead. I rushed home to tell my wife, Joanne, about this upcoming blockbuster film. She looked at me a bit skeptically and said, “I am not sure this movie will ever be made.” Well, she was right, the movie never got made, but the story lingers on.

And of course with this the floodgates to my memory bank were opened and I clearly remember my interest in the story and my passionate effort to get it made into a movie.

I wrote back to Gordon thusly: Thank you so much for sending me this digital copy of your book, and for reminding me of my efforts to make the film about your Christmas tree fundraiser.  I knew that your name rang a distant bell in my brain, but until I started reading your book I just couldn’t place you.  Now you are firmly placed with a touch of sadness and very nearly tears.

I can’t remember why my wife and producer at the time, Laara Dalen, and I reluctantly decided to give up the Christmas tree story.  No doubt it had to do with an inability to gain any interest from the powers that be in Canada, or find any money. We must have disappointed you, and for this I am very sorry. I shall ask Laara if she can remember any of the details, but she most likely can’t.

You should know that, in retrospect, it feels like my film making career consisted of finding something that I thought would make a great film, putting my head down and running into a wall until I staggered back, bloody and heartbroken and finally gave up the project. I went through that process too many times to count. There was my father’s oral history from which I generated two complete drafts of a film script without finding any support.  There was the William Deverell novel, “Platinum Blues”, that I took to Los Angeles no fewer than three times, the first simply as his novel from which I learned that nobody in Hollywood would read a novel.  I returned to Canada and generated two full drafts of a film script that nobody would support. Each project ate up years of my life. Your Christmas Tree airlift to Trinidad was no exception.  If you were disappointed when the film didn’t happen, you can be sure that I was also disappointed.  It’s still a great story.

I’m not complaining.  I got to make one movie that was completely my own.  I know other filmmakers who never managed to do even that, despite throwing as many years of passionate effort into the attempt as I did. I was lucky.  I always managed to pay the mortgage and provide a Christmas for my children. For this I am very grateful.

Thank you again for mentioning me in your book, and for your kindness in sending me a copy that didn’t cost me. I find I have very limited discretionary cash these days, compared to my glory days as a film director. This time of year, money gets tight.

Have a great 2024.

Warmest regards


Now, permit me to tell you a story of my own. If you’ve been following my blog you know about the recent fundraiser screening of my first feature film, “Skip Tracer” at the Universalist Hall here in Nanaimo. If you haven’t seen it yet you can read all about it here:  http://www.zaledalen.com/zaledalen/

That trip down memory lane and the resulting nostalgia aroused in me a desire to take one more kick at the cat and make one more movie.  My first thought was to make a movie inspired by my son who now works as a paramedic. I have been thinking about a movie about paramedics ever since my son sent me a picture of himself in his paramedic uniform. I took that photograph and put together a mockup of a Christmas movie poster with the intention of seeing if I could find any interest among the producers and companies that make the Christmas movies every year.

Having found no interest in the Christmas Paramedic idea and following the screening of Skip Tracer for the Universalists, I thought I might forget the Christmas movie angle and just make a movie about paramedics.  Accordingly I wrote to my son, Casey the following:

Hey Casey: I’ve decided to make one last movie before I give it all up completely. I want to make a movie about paramedics. So I need your help to come up with a script. Please start thinking about scenes, events, structure. If you can give me those, I will write the script and raise the money. Please think about it. Make notes. Thanks. This will save my life, if you want to do that.

To which Casey replied:

Dad: That’s awesome. Sure I can make some notes. I’ve generally inundated these days. Love ya lots.

I wrote back:

Thanks Casey. Notes is all I need. Just notice things that happen and things that feel like they belong in a movie. Eventually we’ll get to talk about it. I’m sure your dance card is full, so don’t stress it. But think about the elements we get with a movie about paramedics. Attractive people in uniforms dealing with constant drama. There are a shit ton of movies about cops and doctors. I’ve never seen a movie about paramedics. Closest I can think of is “Rescue 8”, a series back in the sixties. But they were saving people from being trapped in caves and such. Not paramedics. Just seems like a concept lying in the street waiting for someone to pick it up. Drama up the yingyang. Love you tons.

And Casey immediately sent me this trailer for a recent Scorsese film I didn’t know existed.

To Casey: That was a disappointment. There I am again. A day late and a dollar short. Just proves that I’m on to something. You’ve already given me one scene for comic relief. Your golden Chinese buddha has to fit in the script someplace. 

That Scorsese movie is exactly what I don’t want to make. So predictable. So Hollywood, right down to starring Nicholas Cage.

If I watch movies like that I’ll start imitating them and become derivative. The thing that keeps people watching Skip Tracer 47 years after all the other Canadian movies made at the same time have been forgotten is that it wasn’t imitating anything from Hollywood. It came out of interviewing people who were doing that work. But maybe I’m out to lunch again.

Maybe I should just forget it and stop pestering you. Who needs another movie?

From Casey: Love it dad. Definitely meditate on that and see what comes to you! Go with your intuition ✨😌

And my reply: Good thinking. What comes to me is this: Even if I manage to make my own, completely original and non derivative movie, everyone will assume I was inspired by Scorsese’s movie and compare me to it and I’ll come up short because I won’t have had his budget and resources. So thanks by finding that for me, Casey. You saved me from making a fool of myself. I’m retired. The world is telling me to accept it. Love you kiddo.

And  some final words from Casey: This is a lot of words. (Translation by his father: Dad, I’m so busy. Please stop bothering me.) Love you dad. Sorry to be so distant. I’ve got a lot happening.

So, Gordon, that’s the backstory about where I was at when your book and my mention in it landed in my inbox. The paramedic movie is dead and I’m looking for a project.

It occurs to me that there is a whole new genre of movies now: streaming video films designed for Christmas.  Maybe, just maybe, I can go back to the Christmas tree airlift story.  It’s still a great story.  I don’t know why we had to abandon it way back in the day, but if I could find a producer and that producer could find the funds… Times have changed.  With streaming video projects designed for the Christmas season, there may now be money out there to make your tree airlift story.  Unfortunately I’m not the man to find the money.  But with your fundraising experience… If taking a crack at being a film producer intrigues you, you might think about a retirement project. Just for tun. If so, I know a retired director who loved that wonderful, inspiring story, and would be very interested in directing for you.  It’s still a great story. Think about it, eh.

Report on the Skip Tracer Fundraiser Screening

I’m late generating this report. For reasons. The fund raiser screening was scheduled for Friday, November 17. Then I learned that my surgery to repair a double inguinal hernia had finally, after a very long wait, been scheduled for the same day.

There was no way I was going to reschedule the screening, for which plans and publicity had already been finalized, nor was there any way I was going to postpone that surgery after month, maybe even years, of waiting for it. I was locked in for both. Accordingly I reported to the hospital at eight on that Friday morning and shortly after that was poisoned unconsciousness,

Doctor T_______, my surgeon, did a deep dive into my groin through my belly button to fix the bilateral hernia that was making me miserable. It was a laparoscopic operation, which means they poked three holes in my lower belly through which they could send in the camera crew and surgical instruments. I felt nothing until I woke up.

Since then I’ve been recovering, and letting everything, including this report on the screening, slide. And now I’m back.

So… how did it go, you ask. And the short answer is it was perfect. The screening was a fundraiser for the Unitarian homeless shelter in the basement of the Unitarian Hall. Which meant a good proportion of the audience was members of the congregation.

This photograph is from the Q&A session that followed the screening. This event wasn’t my idea. I get a bit embarrassed going on and on about a movie I made some forty seven years ago. That aside, I’ve been wallowing in the warm glow of the audience response for several weeks now. The whole event was simply wonderful, like old times, sitting with my producer and music director and answering audience questions about our movie. We’ve all aged, but the movie remains very watcheable and even more relevant than when it was produced, forty seven years ago, with it’s theme of predatory lending and manipulation, both of consumers and those who take advantage of them.

Big thanks to Marjorie Cullerne for the photo.

Unitarians tend to be an educated and intelligent group of Social Justice Warriors. Woke to an extreme. A perfect audience for “Skip Tracer”, which could hardly be described as an entertainment movie. They got it, right down to the fine points and nuances. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude toward all involved. Suzanne Andre suggested the event. She’s been a huge fan since the film’s release in 1976. My current wife, Ruth Anderson, took over the technical aspects and organized a great group of helper volunteers. The discussion after the screening included the film’s producer, Laara Dalen, the music director, J. Douglas Dodd, and me, Zale Dalen, the writer, director and editor. And of course those of the audience who could hang in for the discussion session asked perceptive and intelligent questions. I’m so grateful to everybody. We raised raised more than eight hundred dollars for the Unitarian homeless shelter. That left
me feeling like a hero.

After my general anesthetic that morning, it’s a wonder that the nostalgia didn’t do me in. Too bad in a way. Would have made a great exit. My sincere thanks to everybody for giving me this night.

It’s now two days short of a month since the surgery. Recovery has been amazingly fast and the scars are now almost invisible. Yeah medical science, eh. Thank you Tommy Douglas for making Canada such a great country for the indigent.

Skip Tracer Fundraiser Screening

for the Universalist Fellowship of Nanaimo.

Where: Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo
595 Townsite Road, Nanaimo

When: Tentatively scheduled for Friday, November 17
Time: TBA

Admission by donation (suggested $20) with all proceeds going to charities supported by the fellowship, such as the heavy weather shelter.

Special Guests: Laara Dalen, Producer of Skip Tracer, and J. Douglas Dodd, Music Director of Skip Tracer. Not to mention me, Zale R. Dalen, writer, director, editor of Skip Tracer.

MC for the evening evening: Suzanne Andre, my biggest fan, who will introduce the guests and the film. Q&A with the guests after the screening.

It was a surprise to find I have a super fan on my home turf. Suzanne Andre, a member of the Unitarian congregation, remembered my film from its first release back in 1976 and has very kind words for it and me. This fund raiser for the Unitarians was her idea and she is doing to heavy lifting to get it organized.

I’m not worthy.

One Thing I Miss

There’s a lot to miss about my career as a journeyman film director. Chief among them is the comradery of the crew members.

A recent post by Moira Carlson in her sketch a day series told me that skunk cabbage are also known as bog lantern. That’s fascinating.  I love the smell of skunk cabbage and don’t find it at all objectionable.  But then I like the smell of durian, and I’ve known people who became nauseous to the point of throwing up when confined with one.

On one of our location shoots I had the crew van stop in Chinatown in Vancouver so that I could buy a durian.  When the camera crew discovered its smell, they decided to hide one in the grip truck as a prank. (an expensive prank, given the price of the darn things, and a waste of a great fruit).  That caused complaints to travel up the chain of command, and reprimands to quickly slide back down. Film crews can be so much fun, eh. I do miss that.

Skip Tracer screened in LA

Is there no end to this man’s need for attention? Apparently not.

Last night the recently released and renovated Skip Tracer screened at a tiny boutique venue in Los Angeles and I was invited to introduce my movie and do a Q&A following the screening. What incredible fun. It could so easily have been a flagellation of my ego, but it wasn’t. People who weren’t even alive when my first feature was made enjoyed it, and expressed their enjoyment in hyperbolic terms. I was amazed.

It started, as so many things do these days, with an email:

Dear Zale,

Hi! My name is Robert Dayton. I am a former Vancouverite performer/artist/actor/writer/etc. Bret gave me your email.

I’ve been doing a fun screening series in LA called “Uh Oh Canadia!” at a microcinema called Whammy! It’s small, like only 30 seats but it’s my way of trying to turn LA on to amazing Canadian media.

I would absolutely love to screen Skip Tracer. It’s been my favourite Canadian movie for some time now.

What would it take to make that happen?

Warm regards,Robert

I let Robert know that all it would take to make that happen would be to purchase the newly released Blu-Ray disc from Gold Ninja Video and get it organized. And soon enough, that all happened.

Here’s Robert’s report on the screening:

Thanks again for being so generous with your time and the screening. It was great to see everyone get into the movie. I already loved Skip Tracer but seeing the new transfer made me love it more. It’s just a perfect movie. The Conversation is my favorite Coppola but I prefer Skip Tracer, it speaks to me.  I loved people’s questions and your answers, it was hard to end it!

This is my response: My pleasure, Robert. The venue, Whammy, is, as Robert described it, a small music store at 2514 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles. My kind of place. Small. Intimate. Obviously developing a loyal fan base. The reference to Coppola’s The Conversation came from my answer to an attendee’s question about my inspiration for Skip Tracer. I mentioned The Conversation, which came out just a couple of years before I got to make my movie and was a major influence on me stylistically. “The Conversation is my favorite movies,” she shot back. That should give you some idea of the audience the screening had attracted. I was in my element.

Passion was added to that Blu-Ray disc just because the was space for it. Now I’m hoping that Robert can arrange a similar screening of that movie at Whammy. Sooner or later I’m going to find some eyeballs for that movie and I don’t mind starting with a 30 seat venue. The campaign continues.

Simon Fraser University, the early years.

My father decided that I should become a doctor. When I was about eight years old he sat me down and gave me the pitch for this career choice. He was a professional salesman, and the pitch stuck with me like a prison sentence right into two years of pre-med at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., conveniently located close to where we lived in New Westminster. If you are interested in setting a child up for one doozy of a teenage identity crisis, this would probably still do the trick. I was sold. I bought in heart and soul.

I graduated high school in 1965 and enrolled at Simon Fraser University as a charter student. Student number 65300-7767, in the pre-med science program.

SFU opened in 1965. It was an “instant university” designed by Arthur Erickson in the shape of a key when seen from the air. Get it? The key to learning? It was very clean, and the students were mostly recent high school graduates, so there was no mature student culture to speak of. We didn’t know any different. It was up to us to create the culture. But to understand how and why I ended up there, we need to go back to the winter of 1958.

The Pitch (as delivered by my father.)

This world is incredibly and increasingly competitive. If you expects a great career, you better start thinking about it and preparing for it early. The clock is ticking. You should consider what you want from a career. Forget following your passion and living your dream. That kind of thing is fine for a hobby. When it comes to finding a career, you need to be a cold-hearted realist. It’s going to take the right education, at the right kind of school, and getting that education is where the competition starts.

The Choices: There are only three things a man wants from a career. You want money. Lots of money. Enough money to buy a good house, a good vehicle and a new one every year or so, restaurant meals on a regular basis, annual vacations, food and clothing, everything a happy family needs materially to remain happy, enough money to set your own children up in a good, middle class, lifestyle. Enough money that when it comes time to retire and take it easy you have saved enough to be comfortable in your final days.

That’s the first thing, and arguably the most important, thing you want from a career. But living just for money is not very satisfying. You want a career that gives you more than money. You want a career that gives you the respect of society, a career that tells the world you are a somebody.

And finally, you want a career that makes you feel of value. You are going to spend a lot of time preparing for your career, and working at your career. You want a career that feeds your soul. A career that makes you valuable. A career that makes you a somebody, so that when people hear what you are, what you do, they automatically respect you. You want to stand out from the crowd.

So, what can you do that gives you these three things – money, respect, and a feeling of being of valued.

We looked at possible or available careers. Some careers, like that of Red Adair who specialized in putting out oil well fires, or elite athletes, film or movie stars, famous actors or musicians, offered no clear path. My father had no idea how one developed a career of that kind. He really saw it as a sure way to starve unless the planets aligned and doors opened to invite you in. Let’s get real here. His vision only extended to careers that seemed possible, and for which there was an ordained path for entry. Remember, this was 1958. A career was something you trained for and entered consciously. So, I might consider being a laborer. That’s a time honored and honorable career choice. Such a career paid very little, gave you very little respect, and while there could be nobility in honest labor – somebody has to dig that ditch or tote that bail – it wasn’t going to give you much in the way of job satisfaction.

Then we considered the trades. I might want to become an electrician or a plumber. That gave a little more money, a little more respect, and skilled work could be satisfying. But really, not great on all three metrics.

Next we considered the professions. In 1956 there were only three professions – doctor, lawyer, and… nobody now can ever remember what the third profession was back then. Strangely, it was clergyman. Not even on the radar now.
My father had contempt for lawyers. Bunch of crooks with no morals. And while becoming a priest might be good in the eyes of god, it wasn’t a lot of fun. All those tea parties with aging donors, all those hospital visits. Constant pressure to create moving sermons.
But becoming a doctor? That was the thing. Check in to a hotel and it was “Welcome doctor. Will you be expecting any calls?” Or go to a restaurant and it was “Thank you for joining us, Doctor. We have an excellent table for you.” A doctor was treated like a Very Important Person everywhere he went.
As for money: “A doctor can earn as much as (incredulous voice) a thousand dollars a week.” Remember, this was 1958.

It seemed obvious that becoming a doctor was the clear winner as a career choice. It would give me a guarantee of a good income, fantastic earning potential, automatic respect of society, and what could be more worthwhile than dealing with life and death decisions helping people to live.

From that guided discussion on, I was absolutely convinced that I would become a doctor. Convinced to the point of asking for a Black’s Medical Dictionary for my seventeenth birthday. Well into my thirties I would wake up at night with the horrible feeling that it was too late. I had wasted my life.

Accordingly, I started at SFU in a science pre-med program. The year was 1965 and I was seventeen years old.

So What Went Wrong:

A long list of factors torpedoed my science major career choice – coffee, with which I poisoned myself by the gallon, playing a card game called hearts in the huge university cafeteria, no sex, a vague interest in science but no real aptitude for math, physics, chemistry, or even biology, but probably most of all it was the coffee. I would get to the university on time, settle down with five cups of coffee and four hands of Hearts, miss the first class and then fall asleep in the second. I was a terrible student.

My father was a conservative Canadian businessman. I was his clone. I found myself arguing social issues with people who were a couple of years older than me, far better read than me, and, if not smarter than me, at least far more sophisticated. It was embarrassing.
Our nightly after dinner family conversations around a bottomless pot of tea would have sounded very angry to anybody who didn’t know us. Our discussion style could only be described as forceful. When I took that discussion style to the SFU cafeteria, I sounded bossy and juvenile. When I took the discussions I had at Simon Fraser home, it convinced my father that I was being influenced in a bad direction. My father had never been to university, and felt his intellectual inferiority keenly. He was well read, but along the lines of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. He was anti-union, and generally anti-intellectual. Ill prepared to argue a conservative position in the university cafeteria, or argue a liberal position at home, I went off the rail. Who was I? What did I really think?

In a desperate attempt to get me back on track, my father sent me off to Europe to meet the English relatives and see something of the world. By that time I was mostly interested in exploring counter culture values and experimenting with drugs. I returned from Europe to announce that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I wanted to be a writer.

“Well, congratulations,” was my father’s response. “You have chosen the only career I can think of that is harder than selling life insurance.” Oh how right he was.

Looking back at the person I was in those days, I can see very little to feel proud about. I was insufferably arrogant. I was completely lacking in appreciation of the opportunities my father was encouraging me to explore. While I did admire him and appreciate him as a provider for the family, I knew I didn’t want to be like him. I was the poster boy for lost teenagers with a lot of white male privilege. Having decided that my interests were not in mathematics, chemistry, or physics, I wandered off into an English major. I took a semester as the review editor of the campus paper. I joined a jug band, The Vacant Lot, which threw occasional coin into my hat. I tried my hand at acting with a part in “Look Back in Anger’ and quickly realized that the legitimate stage was not my calling either. As my father so correctly suggested, the big problem with the arts is in making a living. The starving artist is the stereotype for a reason.

I had decided I wanted to become a writer simply because my big love was literature. The first hurdle was that writing is hard. It’s lonely. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t want to write. Though I’d be happy to express my thoughts on social matters, I was, as one professor described me, a “snotnose”. Nobody was interested in my opinions. And truth to tell, I had no interest in journalism. I was only interested in writing fiction, but I could see that writing a novel would take art least five years of hard, lonely effort with a very small chance of financial success. The short story market didn’t exist anymore. I had an abundance of confidence, a nearly complete lack of experience, a huge shortage of social skills, and a boatload of half developed skills at things like guitar and harmonica playing.

I wanted to be a writer. A very specific kind of writer, a writer of fiction. Where is the market for that kind of writing? The only steady market I could see was film and television. So I joined the Simon Fraser Film workshop to find out something about writing for film and television. And that’s where I started to find myself at last.

Simon Fraser University gave me a home while I sorted out my future. I spent a lot of time sleeping in the rotunda, or just hanging out in the basement of the theatre where the film workshop set up shop. I grew my hair long.

I quickly learned that I enjoyed the mechanics of film making, as it was in those days. I found I loved being in an editing room. I found that writing for film came easy to me. When writing for other forms of fiction, I would get caught up in, and lost in, the words, the rhythm of the words, the repetition and structure of and within sentences, whereas while writing for film I could just imaging what I would see on the screen and what I would hear as the movie played, and then just describe that as simply and as clearly as I could. Forget the words. What do I see on the screen? What do I hear from the sound track? Describe that in the simple format that was standard for a film script. Easy. Fill those pages, and estimate one minute of film time per page, and I was off and running.



It’s rained recently. The street is shiny black, with lights sparkling from windows, street lights, and passing cars.

MUSIC UP powerful, orchestral, suggesting impending excitement to come..

A battered old Dodge rattles into frame from behind the camera. On the trunk is a sticker that reads NUKE THE GAY WHALES

And we’re off. The story, whatever the story turns into, begins.

That took a lot of the agony out of the writing, the choosing of the words. But the rest of making a movie, the technical stuff, was, though at times tedious, comprehensible, simple, and fun. There were a variety of disciplines – camera, sound recording and editing, neg matching, and of course writing and hunting for money – and I got to sample them all and learn which I enjoyed. Best of all, there was money to be made. Not a lot, but enough to pay for an apartment and live a frugal lifestyle while doing work I enjoyed.

I found friends at the SFU Film Workshop. Doug White, Tony Westman, Peter Bryant, Brian Small, Jeremy Long, Stephen E. Miller, Ron Orieux and mentors, Tom Shandell, Stan Fox, Shiela Reljic, and later Luke Bennett, Doug McKay. As my friends found ways to scratch out a living there would often be spill over that would give me work for a day or a week or a month. Tom Shandell paid my rent for a couple of months while I hammered out a first draft of his script, Another Smith for Paradise. I got a few weeks work as an assistant editor to Luke Bennett on Sylvia Spring’s Madeleine is...By then I had a girlfriend and was, at last, getting steady sex. We announced to the families that we were going to get married. My girlfriend’s mom started planning a huge Catholic wedding. I couldn’t find work in Vancouver doing anything, including delivering pizzas. I decided to leave SFU for a while and hitch hike to Toronto, the center of Canadian film making.

I found entry level work at CBC in Toronto as an office junior. The office junior put the film into boxes and shipped it out to stations. After a couple of months I got a promotion to Film Assistant 2, which meant that I got the film back from the stations, ran it through my fingers to find and hot splice any broken sprocket holes so that the office junior could put it into a box and ship it out to stations.

After a few months at CBC I got a call from Richard Leiterman. Allan King was looking for an assistant editor for his next feature, Come on Children. I was making $50/week at CBC. and paying $45/week on flying lessons. Allan King Associates was offering $150/week. So of course I jumped ship. My girlfriend had followed me to Toronto and got a job working in a law office. We lived on her salary and banked mine, which gave me enough to buy a Nagra IV reel to reel tape recorder with crystal synch and a Sennheiser 804 microphone with a wind sock. We returned to the west coast and I set myself up as a location soundman. All the time I was writing scripts, hunting for sponsored films, gathering up film equipment to put together an editing studio, and generally doing whatever I could to scrape by.

I think I may have put in one more semester at SFU when we returned from Toronto, but by this point it was obvious that employment in the film industry did not depend on academic achievements. I did one more semester just to qualify for a student loan, then dropped out without a degree and set off to become a movie director. And that’s a whole ‘nuther story.

A few years ago I visited Simon Fraser University. It has aged well. Although thousands of students have walked its halls and sat in its lecture theaters, you would never know it. The choices of materials for the construction were brilliant, and the place might have been built the previous year. A visit to one of the campus washrooms told a different story. SFU is almost unchanged from what it was in 1965, but an old man was looking back art me from the washroom mirror. What else could I expect after forty plus years as a freelance film maker. Still it was a shock. Inside I too was largely unchanged, though my opinions had moderated. Sigh.