Complicit

You might wonder how powerful people get away with doing disgusting things, particularly things like sexually harassing less powerful people. Why don’t more people who know about their actions blow the whistle on them?

Harvey Weinstein, currently in prison until at least November 9, 2039. One of the few living with the consequences of sexual misconduct. Why is it so hard to nail these guys?

There’s an easy answer. Nobody wants to get involved. It’s an ugly, murky business, often characterized by only he said/she said evidence. And powerful people are powerful for a reason. They control who gets to work, earns a living, and has a career.

Shortly before the end of the last century I directed a couple of episodic TV shows on the west coast. Like most episodic shows, the budget was squeaky tight and the shooting schedule meant that the director’s shot list had to be scraped to the bone. Bringing the show in on time and on budget was the usual struggle against time and circumstances. This particular series helped the directors out by providing a second unit camera crew to pick up shots the director simply didn’t have time to set up. In this case the second unit camera was operated by a very attractive young woman. She was doing great work, and I was grateful for it.

“You’re saving my life here,” I told her. “I don’t know how I could get this show in the can without you.”

And then she was fired.

I heard that the producer said she was incompetent. That didn’t make any sense to me, but maybe there was something she shot that the producer didn’t like, or decided was a waste of money. Producers can be hard to please.

I heard from the camera crew that the producer had hit on her. She had turned him down flat. And then she was fired. That would explain a lot.

Some weeks later I got a phone call from the producer. She had gone to the union and lodged a complaint against him. “She’s saying that the great Zale Dalen told her that her work was saving his life,” he told me, his voice an audible sneer when he said my name.

The implication, of course, was that he wanted me to deny telling her that her work was valuable. A lot of emotions were running through my body and tightening my breathing at this point. Chief among them was that I didn’t like this guy. Possibly there was a bit of pride in his sarcastic suggestion that my name carried weight in the industry. Also there was a slight annoyance at the woman for dragging me into this situation. By this point in my career I had learn that pissing off a producer, even a low level West Coast episodic producer, could be career suicide.

Case in point: I went to an interview with a PBS producer in Seattle. He told me: “I hear you are hard to work with.” and I knew exactly where that had come from – a producer I worked with in Toronto, almost on the other side of the continent. The movie industry is a small club. Producer talk, and don’t mind exercising their power and influence by killing a job prospect for a director.

I remember sitting in a sushi bar with George Lazenby. He told me that Albert R. (Cubby) Broccoli wanted him to do another James Bond movie after starring in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and he had refused because “the producer made me feel mindless”. Cubby Broccoli told him he would never make another movie, and pretty much made it stick. “After the Bond argument nobody would touch me,” George told me. “Harry Saltzman had always said, ‘If you don’t do another Bond you’ll wind up doing spaghetti westerns in Italy. But I couldn’t even get one of those. My agent couldn’t believe it. But the word was out – I was ‘difficult’.”

Being difficult is the kiss of death for a director, unless you direct a huge money maker. Then being difficult is not only expected, it’s essential. A director is expected to have a vision and fight for it. But even so, one must be aware of power and influence. Phil Borsos had a good run after making “The Grey Fox”, but his career did a steep dive into the toilet after he pissed off the producer of “The Mean Season”, David Foster, a man with a list of major credits as long as your leg and an entrenched member of the Hollywood industry elite.

So, what could I do? I certainly wasn’t going to deny that I said what I said. I told the producer, listen, this isn’t my business. I don’t know what went on and I wasn’t there. But what I saw of her work looked good. If anybody asks me, I’ll say so.

I later heard that the young camera person settled, i.e. was bought off. And, predictably, she became known as “difficult”. Though I managed to hire her for one small project, I don’t think she got a lot of work after that. Another reason why I don’t like the film business. It’s full of assholes who trash careers out of spite.

Strangely enough, I also didn’t get any work from that producer after that.

It’s really encouraging that the “casting couch” has been sent to the landfill and abusers like Harvey Weinstein are getting what they deserve. But it’s still an industry that lives on gossip, word of mouth, and reputation. Becoming known as difficult is the kiss of death, and that will never change.

What will also never change is that there will always be ambitious young women, and men, willing to not “be difficult” when a career advance is dangled in front of them. So that confuses the situation. And such compliance is fraught with danger and disappointment. “Did you hear about the Polish actress?” a disgusting Hollywood joke that manages to be both sexist and racist (plus a reflection of the bitterness writers often feel as their work is butchered by producers and directors). “She fucked the writer.”

Damn but it’s an ugly business. Makes me sincerely glad my phone stopped ringing years ago.

Who Am I?

For that matter, who are you? Someplace back in my distant past, possibly during my teen years, I came up with a theory about my identity. It goes like this: I am a combination of three things – what other people tell me I am, what I tell myself I am, and what I really am.

Each of these are unknowable. I can’t know completely what other people are telling me I am. So much of it goes into my subconscious unnoticed. So much of it is a result of the culture I was born into. So much remains unexamined no matter how much I navel gaze or submerge myself in introspection. So much is open to interpretation. It was only fairly recently that I discovered that being left handed caused the world to tell me that I’m an oddball, that I don’t fit in, that I’m a weirdo. This became part of who I am through constant comments about my left handedness, through the pause on the first day of school while the teacher searched for a left handed desk I could use. Of course this is all trivial. Still, it became part of my identity, of who I am.

Similarly, who I tell myself I am can never be completely known. I am constantly revising my description of myself, usually when I make a discovery that is at odds with what I tell myself I am. For example, I tell myself that I am an honest person. Yet I am constantly reminded of occasions when I was less than honest, or when I tried to avoid having others see the truth of what I am. Lately this has taken the form of not wanting my wife to catch me taking a late night chunk of chocolate. Doing so while pretending to watch my weight is dishonest. Again, trivial. But still an indication of a tendency to be dishonest.

Finally there is what I actually am, which is an amalgam of these three things, what other tell me I am, what I tell myself I am, and what I really am. All of which is so tangled together that it is impossible to know what I really am. I continually surprise myself, or how I will actually act in any real situation. Will I be the man I would like to be, a paragon of virtue and courage. Or would I be the sniveling coward or succumb to temptation. I never know until the situation happens to me.

Digression:

I remember, years ago, discussing a scene with a very well known and accomplished character actor. I think it was Ed Nelson in an episode of J.J. Starbuck. In the scene he would play, he would be threatened with a gun. He had been in so many movies in which he was killed that he actually made of show reel of clips – being thrown out of an airplane, thrown off a building, shot with a hand gun, shot with a machine gun, hanged, burned alive, drowned. He also made a show reel of him committing homicide in as many and various ways. He told me that he had always wondered what he would actually do in a real life situation facing a man with a gun.

One day he found out. He was in his Malibu bedroom when he heard a noise from the ground floor. He came down the stairs to suddenly find himself facing a burglar pointing a gun at his head. He told me that he would never have guessed how he would really react in that situation. He had always assumed he would be movie hero cool, perhaps coming up with a James Bond quip. What he actually did, he said, was to go into immediate hyperventilation. He lost all control of his body. He couldn’t catch his breath. He was helpless. The robber pushed him into a chair and tied him up, then proceeded to collect anything in his home that had resale value.

I was delighted to hear this story from my actor, and asked him to play the scene exactly that way. That’s television that nobody has seen before. But of course the actor couldn’t do it. It was just too far from his TV and movie persona. Too far from what the audience would expect or accept.

End of Digression

So there you have it. Three things that make up an identity: what you are told you are, what you tell yourself you are, and what you really are. All unknowable. It’s what makes self discovery so endlessly intriguing.

This theory of identity lead me to a governing principle of my life. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “You are what you pretend to be, so you better be careful what you pretend to be.” Very early in my life I decided that I wanted to change the composition of what I am, to reduce the percentage that came from what people tell me I am, and increase the percentage of what I tell myself I am.

I wanted to be more self-created, less a product of my environment and culture and more a person who is really a self made man.

I was telling people that I am a movie director a long time before I had managed to direct anything at all, let alone anything of significance. I kept this up long enough that the world started to agree with me. If you Google my name today you might learn that I am a Canadian movie director. It’s amazing. Now it’s not just me telling people that I’m a movie director. The world is also telling me that I’m a movie director.

Is this a proof of concept? It seems that way. But of course if I hadn’t had the directing success that I’ve had, admittedly far more limited that I would have hoped, saying that I’m a movie director would just make me delusional. Maybe it takes a touch of madness to create yourself. I think I can lay claim to that too.

The Big Dipper

The big dipper is the only constellation I can recognize. Okay, sometimes I think I recognize Orion’s Belt. But the Big Dipper is unmistakable.

It was my father who showed me the Big Dipper. We were walking on the family farm on a warm summer evening and I had my son, a toddler at the time, on my shoulders. It was a clear night and the Big Dipper was very obvious. Dad talked about how you would learn to recognize it even when only part of it was visible. I’m sure he was thinking of the big sky in Saskatchewan of his childhood.

Since then there have been several occasions when I was anxious or under stress or depressed. And somehow the Big Dipper would show up in the sky.

I remember one occasion when I was alone at the wheel of a rather large ship, the Wawanesa, an old wooden fish packer and former rum runner with half the ribs removed to lighten it for races against the coast guard patrols. It was the end of the fishing season and the crew were celebrating and not much help with navigation. Standing at the four foot tall wooden wheel with the chain link to the rudder, I was feeling the stress and responsibility of piloting down from Prince Rupert through the inside passage. And there was the Big Dipper. It felt like my father was with me, a great comfort. Foolish, but there you have it.

To be clear, I am the last person to harbour woo beliefs. But confirmation bias is hard to avoid, eh.

Karma or What Goes Around Comes Around

Karma is hard to disbelieve. It seems so obviously true. Of all the irrational mystical, religious, and superstitious beliefs, it’s the one most susceptible confirmation bias. Karma loves to arrive with a good dose of irony. Karma seems to have a sense of humour. Karma begs us to be smug. Like believing that bad people will go to hell and good people go to heaven, karma is comforting. A belief in karma is hard to shake. Nevertheless, I don’t believe. At least not on the rational level. On the emotional level, that’s another issue entirely.

Take the situation with my sisters second, or was it her third, husband. Let’s call him Joe because that was his name. He was abusive toward my sister, and was sexually molesting their daughter, according to my mother who had an instinct for such things. My father tried to intervene during an incident with my sister. Joe knocked my father down and kicked him in the small of his back, right above the kidneys.

My father never had another comfortable night in a bed, but spent his nights in a Lazyboy chair. At least he did until the cancer gave him access to morphine. And then he died.

Joe walked about town with a bible under his arm, proudly proclaiming that he was born again. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. And then he also died – of a kidney infection that caused him excruciating pain in exactly the spot on his back where he had kicked my father.

Here’s the thing: HE DIED ON MY MOTHER’S BIRTHDAY.

Now that is karma writ large. How could I not believe in karma with an example like that in my own life.

And yet I stubbornly refuse to believe. It’s just a wonderful coincidence. And that’s all.

Crazy Characters – John Board

I recall Sasha Fox’s mother telling me about how people behaved during the war, meaning during WWII. How there was a general devil may care attitude toward life and behavior, how a man she was walking with stepped into a pond without bothering to take off his shoes or roll up his pants, in a demonstration of how little he gave a fuck about anything. That is an attitude toward life that I admire, applaud, and to a certain extent, try to emulate. Because, really, when we come right down to it, how much does anything matter. Not giving a fuck can be a super power. Such an attitude can get you out of a jam, as it did for Don Scagel when the beer was dripping off the headliner of the VW and the cop was approaching. Such an attitude can also be wildly entertaining for bystanders, if not for those directly affected.

John Board was the first AD on “The Grey Fox” and, I think, wore several hats during that production. After the wrap on the final day of shooting, he took the cast and crew out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. When it came time to pay the tab, John presented the waiter with a thousand dollar bill. The waiter looked at it in shock, likely having never seen one before.

“I can’t take that,” he stammered.

“Well if I can’t spend it,” John responded, “What the fuck good is it,” as he crumpled up the bill and threw it across the room full of diners, causing a mad scramble by the waiter to retrieve it.

John Board promoting homeopathic remedies while undergoing bee sting therapy for cancer.

John was my first A.D. on “The Hounds of Notre Dame”, my second feature film. As an assistant director he was amazingly supportive, very high energy, full of opinions and helpful ideas. We became very close after working together on that film, and I often stayed at his home in Toronto when I was in that city. I ended up writing a script based on his recollections of his father’s final days, but like so many of the movies I tried to get off the ground we failed to find any support for that project.

John definitely had his moments of not giving a fuck. Sadly, in the end, it was just about the only thing I admired about him. He was a firm believer in astrology, and no matter what logical arguments I presented to him, he could not be moved in his belief. He also was firm believer in homeopathy and put together a selection of “remedies” he marketed as the “The Hollywood Survival Kit”. Again, no appeal to logic could shake his belief and promotion of that dangerous fraudulent nonsense. He’s gone now, and I suppose I should be more generous toward his memory. But all I felt when he died was relief. The bullshit was finally going to stop.

Weirdo Oddball Lefty Me (with update)

Being left handed has had a profound affect on my comfort in social situations, an affect perhaps equal to starting school at the age of five instead of the usual six, which meant that I was constantly comparing my abilities to children often a year or more older than I was. Sometimes these influences worked in tandem. I’ve only recently come to understand them.

Decidedly right handed elementary school desk.

I started school a year or two after converting left handed writers to right handed went out of fashion. So I was allowed to use my natural, preferred hand to write with. I suppose this was considered a kindness, but like many well intentioned educational changes, it had unintended consequences for me. Desks were designed to be right handed. Such desks were entered on the left side. Support for the right arm was provided on the right side, which widened to form the writing surface. Each of my first school classes began with a search for a left handed desk for me to use. This, along with constant remarks on my left handedness, caused me to feel that I was somehow different from the other students, somehow unusual, somebody who didn’t really fit in.

A telephone desk, right handed as most things in this world are.

This was brought home to me a few years ago. We had purchased a telephone desk that sat by the door. It had a seat and a seat on the right on the side, with the table for the telephone on the left, situated so that it was natural to pick up the receiver with the left hand, leaving the right hand free for writing notes. It was very awkward to pick up the receiver with the right hand so one could write with the left. I was sitting at this desk one day with the phone in my left hand, and began casually doodling with my rright hand on the note paper we kept beside the phone. I started writing cursive letters, and realized how easy it would have been to learn to write right handed since I can do most things easily with either hand. (Technically I am ambidextrous, not mixed-handed, since I do everything with my left hand unless I was trained to do it with my right: mixed-handed people use the right hand for some things and the left for others, whereas the ambidextrous can use both hands equally well for most tasks. I learned to roll a coin across my right knuckles because the script required me to teach this trick to a right handed actor. Now I can do that with some facility, but it would take hours of practice to learn to do it with my left hand.) The realization that I could easily have been converted to writing with my right hand hit me with an emotional rush, almost bringing me to tears. The thought that came to my mind was “And then I’d be normal”. Until that moment, I had no idea how abnormal being left handed made me feel. Explains a lot.

I suppose I should be grateful that the social prejudice against left handed people is pretty much a thing of the past. In the middle ages, when lefties were referred to with such pejoratives as “cack handed” (shit handed) or “sinister” and assumed to be allies of the devil, the unfortunate lefties were often driven from their villages by the taunts and slurs of the ignorant bastards they had to live with.

This caused my favourite, and most ironic, result. Left handers became the traveling minstrels and entertainers, moving from village to village performing and bringing the news. They are the ones who developed virtually all of the stringed instruments – violins, guitars, mandolins, lutes, and all the rest. Now, if you think about those instruments, the left hand does almost all of the heavy lifting, the fingering of notes, stretching to make chords and, in the case of fretless instruments, developing perfection of intonation and vibratto. It’s only after the performer has developed considerable sophistication that the right hand does more than strum or saw across the strings with a bow, easy tasks compared to what the left hand must learn.

Right handers naturally assume that all these instruments are right handed, since almost everything else in this world was designed for their use. But no. The stringed instruments are naturally left handed. Many left handed but essentially ambidextrous people have been convinced that they need to reverse the strings on a guitar or violin to learn to play it. Not true and so sad.

Zale on the fiddle.

I play guitar, mandolin, banjo and violin the way they were designed to be played – left handed. It’s the right handed musicians who should be reversing the strings. The jokes on them, eh.

So, being left handed made me feel like a misfit, weirdo, oddball in school. But now that I’m an adult, how do I feel about it? Mostly I couldn’t care less. Aside from my wife wanting to sit on my right side at a dinner table, or taking care to seat me on a corner when we dine with others, it really isn’t an issue in my life. I once owned a left handed can opener, and had one heck of a time trying to figure out how to use it, just like my right handed friends. Since I’d never held a left handed bolt action rifle, I recently bought one out of curiosity, a left handed Savage 300 Winmag. Worst gun I’ve ever owned (for me). Kicks like a bastard, and the knob on the bolt tends to bash into the knuckle of my trigger finger if I’m not careful. I never resorted to handling a right handed bolt action rifle the way the sniper in “Saving Private Ryan” did, so such rifles never gave me any trouble.

Apparently being left handed is associated with creativity and a greater ability to visualize in three dimensions, which fits. Recent studies show more lefties in the arts, and among architects. Lefties also have %15 greater lifetime earnings than the right handed. But these are just statistical averages and don’t mean much at an individual level.

I’ve come to accept that there is no such thing as normal. If being left handed messed up my childhood, it hasn’t messed up my life. Being proud of being left handed is as silly as being proud of being white, or tall, just another accident of birth. I’m proud of accomplishments, not of things I had nothing to do with.

UPDATE: I am now ready to reconsider my theory that all stringed instruments are left handed, having recently become acquainted with the lyre harp, one of the earliest and simplest stringed instruments which probably predates the guitar and most certainly predates the violin.

The lyre harp in one of its simplest forms, with no resonator chamber.

The lyre harp is held by the left hand and the strings are plucked with the right. So in that case, the right hand is doing all the work and the left is doing nothing but holding the instrument.

I can see how the lute, guitar, mandolin, and eventually the violin could have evolved from this instrument, with the expectation that the right hand would pluck the strings. It might have been an afterthought that eventually gave the left hand more to do, to the extent that the left gradually assumed the more difficult role.

Well, it was a good theory. The jury is still out. Whatever the origin of the instruments, switching guitar strings for a left handed player still makes no sense at all.

“Skip Tracer” and “Passion” available on Blu-ray

And on the same disk, along with comments and an interview with me. Now that’s exciting (that the Blu-ray is available, not the interview with me. I don’t mean that an interview with me is exciting.)

Skip Tracer was my first feature, made in 1976. Somehow it seems to have survived in the cultural consciousness.
Passion was made near the turn of the millennium, totally outside of the conventional movie industry or production structure (Like a return to the days of Antonioni) The antithesis of your factory made film.

What’s even more exciting is that I checked how many users this, my personal site, has (for the first time) and the answer surprised me. One thousand seven hundred and seventy-six!!! That is amazing, considering how few comments I get for any post, which is normally zero. Are you all just bots? Are you checking out my posts and just lurking? Or does nobody actually read what I write, which has always been my assumption.

Whatever the case, if you are reading this and happen to have a Blue-ray player (I don’t, but maybe I should get one.) please think about going to Gold Ninja Video and buying the “Skip Tracer” disc. You’ll find the Skip Tracer/Passion disc here. It’s a bargain for just $20. It’s also a limited edition of 800 and I know for a fact that there are already more than 400 sold, so good luck grabbing one.

And while you are there, take a look at some of the other Exclusive, Rare and Collectable Limited Edition Blu-rays on offer a Gold Ninja Video. There are a lot of interesting titles I’ve never heard of.

And if you do buy a disc (Skip Tracer/Passion or otherwise), please let me know in the comments whether your main reason was to see “Skip Tracer” or “Passion” or one of the other discs on offer at Gold Ninja.

In Defense of “Passion”

Some time before the turn of the century, I was blessed with a rather large royalty payment for my television work, enough to settle my debts and give me some money to play with but not enough to buy me an early retirement. At any rate, I was in my fifties and not yet ready to retire. At the time, digital media was just coming available, bringing amateur film production closer to reality, but the resulting films generally had the camera mounted on the head of a poorly trained seal and sound quality that made the dialogue impossible to understand. Generally these productions made an excuse for the technical failings by pretending to be a college documentary found in the woods ( Remember the “Blaire Witch”) or footage from a security camera or a psychiatrist’s interviews.

My agent at the time had a client who was about to have a kidney transplant. He and his partner also happened to have a tiny miniDV camera with very limited controls. With that, and a flimsy tripod, I made a documentary on events leading up to the operation.

And I was hooked. I realized that with care and attention to the camera, focus, and shots plus good quality recording and a mix, this stuff could look like a movie. My first step toward bankruptcy.

That royalty money from the television work wasn’t enough to finance an industry style movie, which was just fine by me because I hate the way the industry makes movies. They are micro-managed in a style that originated with Frank Winslow Taylor and is absolutely antithetical to art. Television is a factory product. To a lesser extent, so are feature films. Money controls everything, from the script to the choices of locations, director, production personnel, and editing time. Every second on set is important. There is no room for experimentation, or for just trying things out. Not until a director gets to the A list, at which point things loosen up. But I never worked on a production that had time or money for re-shoots. Follow the script. Make a precise shot list. Get it right the first time or never work again. It’s a formula for formula film making and I chaffed under the restraints.

But here, with the availability of digital prosumer production gear, was a chance to make films completely outside of the industry. So I launched Volksmovie.com and set about revolutionizing film making. I teamed up with Beth Waldron, a local talent agent, and pitched the idea of a totally cooperative film production. I would provide the hard cash for equipment and MiniDV cassettes. Everybody else would do whatever they could to help make the movie, from manufacturing equipment to writing scenes. One of our actors was a welder. He turned a refrigerator dolly from Home Depot into a very serviceable camera dolly. Home Depot because our largest equipment supplier. We made diffusion filters out of furnace filters, and adapted work lights into set lights by adding barn doors.

I purchased three Canon GL1 miniDV cameras, three fluid head Manfroto tripods, a carbon fibre boom pole, a selection of mid range Audiotechnica microphones, and two Apple computers equipped with Final Cut Pro. I even purchased a light weight Cobra Crane.

It was very much a European style of film production, where a theme was chosen and threads explored. We had no completed script. We would shoot a scene. I would take a day or two to edit it. Then we would have a group screening and try to collectively figure out where the story was taking us. Artistically it was heaven. On the first shooting day, everybody stood around watching me put equipment together. After a week or two I could stand back while the van was unloaded and gear assembled. If an actor wasn’t in a scene, they might be operating a camera, or holding the boom pole. We had 64 shooting days, twice as many as I ever had on an industry production.

We kept track of everybody’s time, and the deal was that proceeds from the film would be split three ways, one third to pay back my capital investment, one third to be divided among the crew depending on time worked, and one third for the group to finance the next film. The problem was, there were no proceeds.

My business plan was extremely simple and obviously flawed: Make a zero budget film that looks good. Get invited to film festivals. Grab a couple of television sales that would more than recover the production costs. Rinse and repeat.

I had attended every Toronto Film Festival for about the past thirty years, ever since “Skip Tracer” was invited back in 1976. I felt certain that “Passion” would blow their minds. Two things I did not anticipate – an absolute tsunami of amateur short films, mostly made by teenagers, and the fact that we had achieved our objective. “Passion” looks like a movie. Right down to the poster.

It’s a shame that the ownership of volksmovie.com was lost when the fan I handed it off to neglected to renew it. It was a very complete record of making “Passion”, equipment used, and scene development. The film has recently been appended to a release of my first feature film, “Skip Tracer” by Gold Ninja Video on Blue-ray so it is finally available to an audience.

But now back to the problem with my business plan: A video maker I knew who had found a niche making “So Ya Wanna Fight” videos, lent his son his production gear. The kid shot a five minute video of himself French kissing the family Rottweiler. And got invited to three film festivals as soon as he submitted.

“Passion” was invited nowhere. The festivals could afford to give five minutes of screen time to a teenager’s production that would bring in an enthusiastic audience. But “Passion” was a full length feature. As such, it was competing for screen time with the latest “special” film that comes to Toronto with name stars and a whole promotions team and budget.

“Passion” plays best to a live audience where the laughter is contagious. It would die on a VCR in an office while a festival organizer takes phone calls.

Having failed to find attention on the festival circuit, I decided to try another route. I rented the Pacific Cinemateque in Vancouver and set up a private screening, inviting film workshop students and industry members and, most importantly, opinion makers from the press. I hired a publicist to bring in those opinion makers.

We had a full house, with laughs all the way through the screening. But none of the opinion makers showed up. For that matter, my press agent didn’t show up. We got not one inch of copy in any paper. I realized that tearing up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Thurlow and Robson would have done just as much good for my movie.

So “Passion” worked well with a full audience, but nobody in the industry liked it. Maybe it’s a crappy film. Maybe I’m just a crappy director. I’ve given this possibility a lot of thought. Except I still love the movie, and there are others out there who love it too.

I can understand why “Passion” turns a lot of people off. At it’s heart, it’s about a stalker, Dwayne Fever, part owner of an antique store called Cabin Fever, a man obsessed with a younger woman, his business partner, who is already in a relationship. The thing is, I can forgive him for that. He’s very self aware, and doesn’t want to be obsessed. His wife is dying of terminal cancer, making him even more of a creep in the eyes of many people. But grief manifests in many unexpected ways. You haven’t lived if you’ve never been obsessed with somebody, and needed to control your behavior.

The actions and characters in “Passion” are absurd, but so is reality. Nothing can be more absurd than the human behavior we can read about every day. Just Google fetishes to see for yourself.

I can understand why many people who expect the normal romcom tropes would be turned off by “Passion”. Here’s one example. This is a letter I wrote in response a friend’s criticisms of the movie. I never sent it.

Dear _________:                                                                                                                  December 5, 2014

I was going through some old files the other day and came upon your remarks about my movie, “Passion” (dated March 27, 2002).  I didn’t address them at the time, because I don’t really believe in defending my movies against criticism.  People will think what they want, and I generally take their comments as just an indication of whether or not I have correctly predicted their reactions in order to give them a movie they enjoy.  But one of your comments demands a response, late as it is.

You wrote: 

“For me the incongruity is best encapsulated in the scene between Fever and his daughter Cloe when he remonstrates her for having sex in his car.  Rather than taking issue with her morality, he is most concerned that she stay out of his car!  His fatherly instincts are laughable.”

My friend, I think I understand and respect your concept of morality.  But you should understand that I do not agree with it.  I place no value on virginity or chastity before marriage. None at all.  In fact, I believe that telling a girl to remain a virgin until she marries is foolish.  It means that she will be marrying a stranger.  In the case of my sister it resulted in her marrying a repressed homosexual.

I am a sex positive person.  It is my belief that sex is a natural human activity and a source of great joy, but that this has been perverted by the demands of patriarchy which, in the past and still today, treats women as chattel. 

The scene you found such a laughable example of poor parenting is actually my very favorite in the entire move.  As he says to his daughter, “I know you are old enough to have sex.”  His complaint about her having sex in his car is not about her having sex, it’s about his shear incredulity that she would come to his house, for which she obviously has a key, specifically to have sex in his car.  His initial reaction to her having sex in his car is more one of surprise than anything else, and if she’d asked his permission in advance he quite probably would have given it.

You see, I feel that Dwayne Fever’s relationship with his daughter is a model for what a father’s relationship with a daughter should be.  So far from seeing him as a bad parent, I see him as a role model.

I completely accept the fact that my daughter has sex with her boyfriend.  I see no problem with this.  I would much rather have her enjoying sex than being afraid of sex, or withholding sex through fear. 

Our culture has had and still has a double standard about sex.  Women are not supposed to want or enjoy it, and are only supposed to engage in sex for procreation.  Men, on the other hand, are expected to “sow their wild oats” and get experience so that they can be lord and master in the marital relationship.  I detest this aspect of our culture, and I’m very happy to see it changing.  “Slut shaming”, now part of the lexicon, is an activity that belongs in the past.

My friend _______, I’m sorry if I sound like I am lecturing you.  I really do appreciate the time you took to watch my movie, and your rather gentle response to it.  I just couldn’t let your main criticism go unaddressed because it’s an issue that is very important to me.

Warmest regards and all the best for a very Merry Christmas

Zale

In writing this letter, I was very aware that my friend had grown up in a Dutch Calvinist culture, one in which the rooster is locked up on Sundays so he doesn’t do any “work”. I really can’t blame him for having values antithetical to mine.

So Dwane Fever’s creepy behavior is redeemed for me by his relationship with his daughter, by the self aware the way he tries to control his stalker behavior, and by the relationship his has with his dying wife, best illustrated in the scene where he is in heaven and confronted by her ghost, who at that point knows everything. Her lines, “So you thought you loved her. Don’t you get it. You don’t know the first thing about her. She doesn’t know where she was when Kennedy was shot. All that time you were looking into a mirror.” And his line after he acknowledges the truth of this, “You know you are the only woman I ever really loved.” To which she responds. “Of course I know that.” This is great, honest, relationship stuff.

There is a lot more than the social values I enjoy about the movie. One of our main actors, Tim Johnson, took on a key roll as a writer. Between us we created scenes that still make me laugh. Tim found us a lesbian advisor who helped shape the scenes between Fever’s female lawyer and her secretary. And Tim was capable of finding completely off the wall lines that somehow rang true.

For example, when his character, Bob, is caught trying on women’s clothing, he chases his girlfriend down the street crying “But I’m not gay. It empowers me.” And that line, written by Tim, always made me shake my head. Where did that come from? Well, recently I met a man who told me his first marriage had fallen apart. I asked him what happened and he said, with admirable candor, “I’m a heterosexual transvestite and my first wife couldn’t handle it.” Naturally I had to invite him and his second wife to dinner and show them my movie. I wanted to ask him about that line, did it have any validity? “Absolutely,” he responded. “My mother was a very dominant personality and a seamstress. Somehow women’s clothing and the fabrics they’re made from acquired an irresistible sexual frisson. I just had to wear them. They make me feel powerful”

My love for the “Passion” is not uncritical or unreserved. At times the performance wanders too far into Mr. Bean territory for my taste, and some of the acting is questionable. But overall, it gets at least an A for effort. And it deserves a place in movie history if only for the production method and technology used.

For me, the characters in “Passion” are absurd, but not repugnant. They are all human beings, some smarter and more enlightened than others, but all part of this amazingly absurd world we try to muddle our way through. Watch it it without judgement and you may find yourself appreciating it, if not loving it, as I do.

Am I a Good Movie Director?

This is a question that is very hard to evaluate. I seem to have quite a few fans out there, both in the industry and in the greater audience. But I know there are many people who think my work sucks, and at least one Youtube troll who was very happy to tell me so.

On one metric I’m terribly deficient. A good movie director is a person who directs movies. I haven’t been on an industry film set for over twenty years. So maybe I was once a good director, but now I’m, at best, a has-been. A washed out old man reveling in past glories and successes while still tortured by the many moments that didn’t work out as I might wish.

So, in developing an evaluation, let me start with my deficiencies. I am a political idiot. I have never paid attention to power or money, or the people who control power and money, to the people who can give me work, or have influence with others to get me work. This is complemented by amazing arrogance. Just one example: On the day before our first shooting day on my second made for TV movie, “On Thin Ice, the Tai Babalonia Story”, the producer, Janet Faust, a highly experienced and quite brilliant woman, said, “I’ll ride to the set with you in the morning.” To which I said, “No you won’t. I ride to the set with my first AD. (Assistant Director, my main support on set.)” Can you imagine anything more stupid than that. Is my firsts AD ever going to give me a job? Hell no. I have worked with some truly supportive Assistant Directors, many of whom went on to have directing careers themselves. Including David Warrysmith, my AD on that picture. And that alone should tell you something. If any of them ever put my name up for a directing position, I didn’t hear about it.

Kenny Wahl in “Wiseguy – Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. Not happy with his director.

Another painful example. On the last day of shooting my episode of “Wise Guy”, the star woke up to the fact that it wasn’t his scene. Maybe he finally got around to reading the script. It was a wedding banquet scene which culminated in Ray Sharkey garotting an enemy while the undercover cop, surrounded by twenty or thirty armed goombas, looks on helplessly. Kenny Wahl came to me just before we started shooting the scene to complain that his character was a cop. He had to do something. I explained that the whole point of the scene was that he couldn’t do anything. “You’re surrounded by armed goons, Ken. Anything you do is going to blow your cover and get you killed.” Kenny was insistent. Telling him I’d been prepping the show for two weeks and would really like it if he let me just follow the script made no impression on him. So I called Ray Sharky over and said, “Ken says he has to do something in this scene. What do you think.”
Ray asked Kenny, “What do you want to do?” a good logical question.
Ken said, “I have to at least stand up.”
I said, “Ray, Ken wants to stand up. What would you do?”
Ray said, “I’d push him back down.”
I said, “Ken, you’re going to look like an idiot. Please just let us go with the script as written.”
Stephen Canal, owner of the studio, happened to be visiting the set for that scene. Kenny went to him and complained, and Stephen came to me and, very respectfully, asked, “Zale, can you shoot it two ways.”
Now, a director with half a political brain, would have said something like, “He’s got a good point, Stephen. I’ll shoot it his way.” Because Kenny Wall is going to be back as the star of the show for however many shows the series runs. I’m just the director du jour, canon fodder, and they don’t need me to come back ever.
So, what did I do? I wasted the expensive crew time and shot it two ways, pissing off the crew who just wanted to get the scene shot and go home for the day.
Which version did came out of post production? Kenny’s version of course. It looked fine. I never directed another episode of “Wiseguy”. I’m an idiot.

One final example. I was the startup director on “The Edison Twins” at Nelvana in Toronto. The crew, actors, and I had all been breaking our hearts to turn out a good show. We were all proud of our work. But the producers had been showing us our rushes in the studio basement on a double system Siemens projector. The DOP (Director of Photography) had been complaining that the forty foot throw was washing out the images and his work looked terrible. The soundman had been complaining that the projector was adding wow and flutter as well as drowning out the sound. Then we were told that the executives from Disney were coming up to Toronto to see what we’d done. The producers were planning on showing our work on that crappy makeshift projection system. Both the camera crew and sound crew came to me and begged me to do something. Both said they weren’t going to come to the screening.
So I told the producers that I wasn’t coming to the screening unless they held it in a proper screening room at the lab. I presented this as an ultimatum, rather than a polite request and suggestion. Idiot.
Maybe this explains why, at a job interview for PBS in Seattle, I was told “I hear you are hard to work with.” Ya think?

Soon enough this kind of behavior was thinning down my work assignments. I was starting to get hungry. When the school district in Gibsons, after some lobbying by a parents group, APEC (Association for the Preservation of English in Canada, as if English was a threatened language in Gibsons, B.C.) voted to end early French Immersion in the public school system and bring in late French immersion, for grade threes, we French immersion parents decided to send our kids to Quebec for a few months in a French language school. This would qualify us for something called Program Cadre, which by law meant that they would get French immersion anywhere in Canada. We organized a fund raiser, a silent auction, to help cover this expense. One of the items donated for the auction was an hour of personal counseling by a friend of ours, a professional counselor. I knew her regular rate was $60 per hour, and nobody was bidding. So I bid $30 and won the hour.
I had asked her previously what kind of a counselor she was, whether a Freudian or a Jungian or whatever. She told me she didn’t follow any particular style. She simply listened to her clients and told them what they had told her, to help them get a different perspective on their problems. This sounded good to me. So when I went for my hour of counseling, I gave her a “core dump” on my life and career. When I was finished she said, “So…you have told me that your failure to get as much work as you would like is a result of failing to form relationships with people who could give you work.” Well, duh. That was damned obvious. I know that….. Of course… I know that.
The thing is, I came at directing from the film workshop at Simon Fraser University. My friends there were film makers, cameramen, editors, soundmen, all of us funding our own projects and working on each other’s little films. They are my kind of people, and I love working with actors, especially amateur actors. And none of these people could ever give me work. I do not relate well to producers, suits, clients, or money people. Truth is, I have authority issues. Those people intimidate me, and I tend to avoid them when I can.
I decided right then that I can be friends with anybody, and without becoming a sycophant or compromising my personality, if I pay attention. I read “How to Make Friends and Influence People” as a teenager. I know how to do it. But by then it was a little late to get started. My reputation was well established.

So this is my biggest failure as a director, my failure to direct. Does this mean I’m a bad director? Not at all.

I have moments in my body of work, going all the way back to my very earliest films, that stand up favorably against the giants of the field. I have directed scenes that look as good as anything the big names of the A list have done. There’s a lot of stuff in my filmography that I’m very proud of.

But this is enough for one post. Maybe next time I will talk about those moments of triumph, the times when I organized chaos into something emotionally powerful, the moments when I made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That’s much more fun to talk about than this has been.

Crazy Characters – Don Scagel

This, hopefully, is the first in a series. I got to thinking about Don Scagel. There’s a lot to write about with the guy, but one story comes to mind.

Back in the days of my youth, drinking and driving was more common than it is now. It’s hard to remember the joyfully irresponsible behavior that people got into, myself included, before so many of my friends started riding bicycles of necessity. MAD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, was just gaining traction. The new seat belt law was freshly on the books, resisted by many and a hard sell to much of the public.

Don and his buddies were out for a night of whooping it up. Beer was flowing because it was a mobile party. Don was at the wheel of a Volkswagen bug, with one good ol’ boy riding shotgun and three more zoomers in the back seat. One of the guys in the back seat thought it would be funny to give Don’s beer a good shake before handing it to him. The result was predictable. Don popped the tab and the can exploded all over him.

Beer was dripping from the headliner when Don pulled into a traffic check. Surprise. Don rolled down his window and with a big goofy grin on his face and a sheepish laugh said to the approaching officer: “Oh damn, officer. Ya got me. I’m not wearing my seat belt.”

“Ah ah.” says the cop, whipping out his ticket book. He hands Don a warning ticket, because they weren’t yet playing hardball over that issue. Don clicks his seat belt, nods to the cop, and drives on.

I don’t want you to think I’m condoning drinking and driving. I’m not. But I have to admire the craziness of life in those days. Consequences be damned.