I just had a telephone conversation with Dr. Pai, my oncologist. I asked him just how seriously I should take this earth shaking diagnosis. His response: with the recent improvements in treatment you should have a year at the very least, and you could have, oh, five years or more.
At the moment I’m symptom free and feeling just fine. So it’s not time to ask for Medical Assistance in Dying. Not just yet.
I did a Google on the rules currently in place for getting MAID. The more I read, the more annoyed I got. There are procedures that must be followed, including deciding ten days in advance when you want to kick off.
I’ve always had a problem with authority. Having to ask a medical/government authority for permission to off myself just sticks in my craw.
I understand that we don’t want anybody planting gramma for the inheritance, but the rules shouldn’t apply to me. Damn it.
I expected my dominant emotion around this issue to be fear. I’m surprised that isn’t the case. My dominant emotion is gratitude at having had an opportunity to experience this amazing reality. We’ve seen such incredible changes in science and technology in my lifetime. Also social changes that have pretty much been for the better.
When I was a child, there was no women’s rights. A woman couldn’t get a credit card or open a bank account without her husband’s permission. There was no gay pride or gay rights. A black man couldn’t drink from the courthouse fountain, much less occupy the White House and give us eight scandal free years as a role model for all humanity. Sure, some things were more fun – riding in the back of the pickup truck. Drinking from the garden hose. But we also had duck and cover constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Okay, we still have that. Plus climate change and looming extinction. I’m just trying to say I’ve seen some great improvements. I hope I live to see a few more, and it sounds like I might.
Lately I’ve been posting obituaries and eulogies for people I’ve worked with, people I’ve known, friends in the film business who have died. All the time, thinking my turn is coming up
And now it’s here. I had a PET scan yesterday because my PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) level is high and has been climbing. It was supposed to drop after my prostate cancer treatment – hormone therapy, radiation therapy, and brachytherapy (the implanting of radioactive seeds in my prostate) – and it hasn’t. It’s been going up, which meant that the prostate cancer is active someplace. Hence the PET scan.
The PET scan involves the injection of a radioactive soup that will only stick to prostate cancer cells. That’s amazing. Unfortunately it revealed a whole bunch of cancer cells in my lymph nodes running from my groin up into my chest area. Worse, it revealed cancer in the bones of my hips.
I got the call from my oncologist this afternoon. He tried to put a positive spin on things, emphasizing the improvements to treatment that have been made recently. But I know what this really means.
The party is over. I am dying.
Damn, eh. Just when the world is getting really interesting.
That was written on Friday, September 27, 2019. I didn’t post it then because I wasn’t sure I was going to go public. But there’s been a lot of processing since then, a lot of hugging my wife and seeing friends break down in tears, and talking about what comes next. It’s now Wednesday, October 2. I have decided to let it all hang out. Why not. This is a process not everybody will get to go through. For many people, death will come as a big surprise – an accident, an embolism, a suddenly exploding heart. They will barely have time to think about it before they stop thinking about anything.
I have the privilege of contemplating my situation. This is not something I thought I would want to do. I liked what Woody Allen said about dying: “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But now that I’m into this, I’m finding it interesting, almost fun. It’s so intense. The emotions are so vivid, both in myself and in my friends. So I’m going to blog this. It doesn’t really matter to me whether anybody reads it. But if this is the last experience I’m going to have, blogging it will make me think about it. Hopefully honestly. Realistically. Maybe even bravely.
On Saturday I contacted my sisters to let them know what’s happening. They are so solid. They love me, and are very sad to hear the news. But they also understand and accept that this happens to everybody and will happen to them. As my older sister put it, “When the party is over, I don’t want to hang around.” So nobody is arguing with my decision to ask for Medical Aid in Dying.
I also started contacting old friends and former lovers. Here’s my letter to Bonni: “Hi Bonni: I wrote to you back in July but have had no response. I’m starting to feel like a stalker. I hope everything is okay with you. I mentioned in my last message that my PSA level (Prostate Specific Antigen) remained high and rising after my prostate cancer treatment. Not a good sign. Well, it gets worse. On Thursday last week I went to Vancouver for a PET scan. That involves being injected with radioactive soup that will bind only to prostate cancer cells, and the being slid into a big metal donut with flashing lights. Yesterday I got a call from my oncologist. Bad news. My cancer has metastasized into my lymph glands from my pelvis all the way up into my chest. That might have been treatable, but it has also gone into the bones of my pelvis. That means I’m a gonner. Terminal. Right now I feel fine. I’d never know I was dying if it weren’t for the doctors telling me about it. I may get a couple of good years before things get bad, and then they will get really bad. I don’t think I will hang around to see how bad things can get. So, Bonni. Sorry to be laying this on you, but I thought you would want to know. If you have anything you want to say to me, now would be a good time. Please write and tell me how things are in your life. Love Big David AKA Zale
I was relieved to get this immediate response:
” My Dearest Big David I am so sad to hear this ‘report’.I can really only ‘imagine’ how you are ‘feeling’. Actuarially speaking, I know I’m at that point in lifeWhere it really is Any Day NowNot just the kind of Carlos Casteneda thing with Death on your shoulder watching all the time. I am sorry I haven’t responded since your July email.Did I at least get right back to you to say ‘later’?I usually do before I put it on my ‘later’ list. lol But Life has been very full lately.Epiphanies, Lessons Learned, Red Flags, Principles and Priorities etc. etc.I am very grateful for the opportunities I’m having these days to at last be able to face some of these and make sense of them. This is one of those ‘short’ contacts with the promise to get back to you.But this promise is ‘sooner rather than later’.I have much I want to say and share with you. Right now, I’m just getting food ready for Lloyd’s visit this afternoon,And at the same time, dinner for my Japanese student later in the evening!Yes Busy. But it’s a good busy. Focussed and Calm I would say…:) Till later,Take careMuch Love to you Bonni
Since then I’ve had several exchanges with Bonni. My imminent departure has certainly stimulated our correspondence. I won’t post all of those message. Suffice it to say that it’s really good to get our feeling for each out out in the open. Bonni and I were lovers for some years when I was working in Toronto while living in Gibsons. I remember being serenely contented, being with Bonni and her daughter, who became like another daughter for me. That went away when we both realized there was no future in the relationship. I think Bonni started to resent the fact that I was committed to my wife and children back home. She and her daughter would never be my primary relationship. So things stopped being fun and we stopped sleeping together. But I will always love her, and have tried to keep in touch.
Dear Zale and Ruth,
We just learned of your serious cancer diagnosis Zale and were
shocked and saddened that this has been handed to you. Words kind
of fail us at this point. I cannot believe that a man larger than
Life and so generous with his Life and heart with everyone he
connects with has to endure such a serious diagnosis. I am so
Hugh and I both have been sending little bursts of Love and
care to you both ever since we got the news. We have you both in
our hearts big time.
I hope there is some treatment that can bring you some relief
Zale and if there is anything we can do for you both, please let
We are thinking of you and hope that our caring and
commitment to support you both through whatever this journey
involves, helps a little to ease stepping into such vulnerable,
Our Love and warm hugs to you both,
Anne and Hugh
so much for your kind words and thoughts.
I have been on what we call our “crying tour” since getting the
diagnosis. It’s been hard watching the sadness overwhelm our friends, and
I’m beginning to feel like a drama queen because this all feels unreal. I
have no symptoms at the moment and feel quite fine. Meanwhile, everybody
has their own problems they are dealing with, and most don’t need anything
additional from me.
example, Moira Carlson, the wife of my old friend Barry Carlson, got right back
to me when she got my email. But she had returned the day before from the
celebration of life for her older sister, a woman who was very health
conscious, kept her weight down, ate carefully, and died of a massive heart
attack. She was only two years older than Moira. So Moira gets home
from that to get my news. Not something she needed.
we went to see our friends Rod and Chao. They are two of the greatest
people I know, just amazing. They have an amazing family too. Their
daughter, Akela, was recently in Miami for a Judo competition. She then
flew to Beijing for a classical voice competition. She’s now in Edinburgh
studying medicine. Their younger daughter, Kipling, has been my fiddle buddy
since she was seven. She’s now twelve or thirteen, and a very
accomplished violinist, though she prefers playing classical and we don’t get
to fiddle together very often.
I gave my
news to Kipling’s mom and dad, Chao and Rod. They both looked
devastated. Rod immediately rushed out of the room and came back with a
three hundred dollar bottle of scotch, which he cracked the seal on and poured
me a shot, saying I should take the bottle home with me. I
declined. I will visit them and drink it with him, because it really is
exceptional scotch. Then Kipling, who had just awakened, came into the
kitchen. When she saw the looks on her parents faces she knew something
was going on, and she wanted to know. So I told her.
this point, I’ve never been really sure that Kipling liked me. She’s a
very reserved young lady, and I always felt I was pressuring her to play the
fiddle with me. But when she got my news she just broke down. She
came to me and hugged me, sobbing. When she calmed down, we got out our
fiddles and played “Calum’s Road” and “The Ookpik Waltz”
together. She is just amazing. She’s the only person I’ve ever met
who can learn a tune faster than I can.
Rod asked me if I wanted to go to Scotland with him. Of course I’d love to do that, but I’m reluctant to have him spend the money to take me, and I certainly can’t afford the trip. But then I realized that I want to give Kipling my violin. It’s a very special instrument, and was quite expensive. I told this to Rod and Chao and they said they want to buy it from me. I said it’s not for sale, but it makes me feel okay about accepting some scotch I could never afford, and a trip to Scotland. I want to play “Calum’s Road” on Calum’s Road.
Chao told me that Kipling ran in the Terry Fox Run on Monday. Here’s what she wore on her shirt: I’m running for Zale”
Yesterday I picked up a prescription from the cancer pharmacy. My oncologist wants me back on testosterone blockers. I hate that, because the side effects are subtle but nasty. But right now I have no symptoms, and I’d like to keep it that way.
I’m expecting a call from my oncologist and I’m tired of trying to organize my thoughts. If you have anything you want to say to me, now would be a good time. Assuming the comments still work.
While checking the spelling of names and creating links for the Burt Reynolds post, I learned that Fil Fraser also died last year. He was 85, so I will say that he had a good run. But damn it hurts that he’s not in my world any more.
I will never forget Fil coming to our home in Vancouver with the script for “The Hounds of Notre Dame”. He sat in a chair in my editing room while I sat in the kitchen and read the script. Then I went into my editing room and begged him to let me direct his movie.
I owe Eda Lishman for that introduction, and hence for the directing opportunity. I wasn’t kind to Eda during the shoot, or after. That is one of my regrets now. She was overloaded and dealing with impossible problems. I should have had more compassion for her.
A script that has some value to it is a very rare thing in the movie industry. I’ve only read one or two scripts that I felt passionate about in my entire career, not counting the ones I wrote and couldn’t find money to make. I was and still am passionate about most of those. “The Hounds of Notre Dame” was special. I lived and breathed for that movie until I got kicked out of the editing room.
Fil made a very public apology for that, on television yet. By then it was water under the bridge and I had lost any confidence in my ability to improve the movie beyond what was finally released. No apology was necessary. Fil had to make a decision between me and Tony Lower, the editor. I don’t think he made a bad choice and I owe Fil big time.
So many “war stories” came out of shooting “Hounds” that I don’t know where to start. Here’s one of my favorites I have already written about: The Twenty Thousand Dollar Box. Fil forgave me for that one. In fact, Fil was incredibly supportive while I struggled to make his movie come to life.
It didn’t start well. The cinematographer, Ron Orieux, had to figure out how to shoot realistic snow scenes without a dedicated special FX team, and we didn’t realize the problems that would entail. On our budget, a special FX team dedicated to this was out of the question so we were trying to make a blizzard using a snow blower and fans. The first attempt was a disaster. No, I don’t want to use that word. A disaster is when people die. We were just losing our credibility and possibly our careers.
What we ended up with on the screen was basically mud. Nothing. The snow between the camera and the actors soaked up all the light that was supposed to illuminate the actors. Fil was furious, both at our poor results and at what he saw as an inability to get organized and productive. “This is just plain amateur night.” he said. But he didn’t pull the plug on us, and Ron found the solution to the problem. We needed a screen just in front of the camera that snow could be sifted through, with a lot of lights on it. Then nothing between the camera and the actors who were hosed by the snow blower and snow tossed into the fans. It was a struggle to get a shot between the lumps the size of baseballs, but we managed it.
As we got organized we gained speed and the rushes started to look good. But one more incident really sticks in my mind, and makes me remember Fil Fraser with great affection. Two of the more experienced actors in the film, David Ferry and Frances Hyland, got together for dinner one evening and possibly drank too much wine. At two in the morning I got a phone call from Fances. We were to shoot a scene between her and Thomas Peacocke, who played Father Athol Murray, the next day. Frances had just discovered what she saw as a problem with the script. She told me that the scene, which was set in the church, could not be played there, that the church is a holy place and the scene was too worldly and mundane. I attempted to discuss this with her but she went into a rant about my lack of understanding. I hung up on her.
I thought about calling her back, because I knew that her next call would be to Fil. But no, I wasn’t going to call her. I desperately needed my sleep.
The next day we had a screening of our dailies, a rare occasion at that location with the film being processed in Vancouver and the cast and crew working in remote Wilcox. I was very worried about what Fil would think of the call from Frances. I needn’t have worried. Fil presented me with a leather shoulder bag of his that I had admired. Under those circumstances, that shoulder bag meant the world to me. I carried it and used it until it fell by the wayside at some point in my life, but I am still grateful for it. That was Fil Fraser.
Oh, and the scene. I changed it to a stairwell location between the church and the dining hall. Ruffled feathers were smoothed.
I can’t say I knew Burt Reynolds well. I can’t claim him as a friend. Norman Jewison kindly invited me to be an observer on his film, “Best Friends”, starring Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn. So I did at least get to meet him.
Photo by Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock (73763c) Burt Reynolds – 1979
At the time we were trying to find distribution for my movie, “The Hounds of Notre Dame”, and Fil Fraser, the producer, asked me to set up a screening specifically for Burt. I guess the idea was that Burt had a lot of pull and could get us some distributor attention. Or was he also venturing into distribution himself? I can’t quite remember the details. But I did manage, with some difficulty, to set up a special screening and I do know that Burt watched my movie.
I asked him what he thought. The last words Burt Reynolds said to me were “We’ll talk”.
In Hollywood, “We’ll talk.” means “We won’t talk.” So I’m guessing he didn’t like it, or didn’t see any audience potential. Or both. Whatever the case, we didn’t talk.
I’m totally okay with that. I watched the way the fans can crowd a celebrity like Burt Reynolds. Norman shot one street location, and as soon as Burt appeared he was surrounded by thirty or more fans, all holding out pieces of paper or autograph books. He spent several minutes signing autographs. He looked like royalty, and I suppose he was in that context. I can certainly understand why he would want to limit his engagement with anybody he didn’t know. It’s a necessary survival skill in his position.
Fans do not have any respect for celebrities. They feel they own them. They can get abusive if the star doesn’t give them the moments of attention they ask for. They will steal anything a celebrity touches. Norman Jewison lost his favorite cap during that shoot. Somebody stole it. And no, it wasn’t me. I have nothing but contempt for that kind of behavior.
My souvenir from that wonderful time in my life is a rock from Malibu Beach. I picked it up while walking with Norman Jewison, listening to him tell about making the deal to direct Jesus Christ Superstar after he brought musical to America from England. He wanted a gross deal from the studio, meaning he would get a percentage of the box office gross reciepts. At that time the studio was only giving net deals to directors, meaning they got a piece of the action after ever pencil and paperclip was charged against the box office returns. The studios were famous for creative accounting that left stars and directors with nothing at all. But the studio execs didn’t think music rights were worth much, so they were willing to give Norman a gross deal on the music.
I don’t know how much that turned out to be, but I do know that Norman was very happy with the deal. Think about it. A piece of the gross sales of the Jesus Christ Superstar album? I’d be happy with that too.
Anyway, I remember Burt Reynolds as a kind gentleman. I’m sorry he is gone.
I seem to be saying goodbye to people I knew or worked with lately. Just the other day it was Donnelly Rhodes, and today I got the sad news that Bob Barclay has died at the age of 87. Not a bad run, but still too young for my taste.
Bob was the man who got me into the Director’s Guild, back before there even were district councils. I had made my first feature, “Skip Tracer”, and Bob invited me to a guild meeting. It was an easy sell.
I loved Bob. He always had a smile and a positive attitude. I’ll never forget one phrase he gave me, when he had been experiencing hard times and nothing was working for him. About his financial situation he said, “I’m running on surface tension.” That phrase alone should make him immortal.
In the old days, I served with Bob on the National Executive. This included the time during which the guild was developing the district councils. Bob, Grace Gilroy, Lew Lehman, John Board, and others whose names don’t come so readily to mind would sit around the table in the Toronto board room and hammer out constitutional questions. Bob was a smoker. We all were back then. I was a smoker who was trying to quit. I had been smoking a large pack of DuMaurier King Size every single day, but had managed to stay off them for a couple of months before our meeting. Bob smoked the same brand, in the same package. At one point in the meeting the discussion became animated. I looked down and there was a lit cigarette between my fingers. I had no awareness of taking it out of Bob’s pack and lighting it, but the next day I was smoking a pack a day again. So Bob’s influence on me was not always positive.
Those days of turning the air blue at the executive meetings are, thankfully, long gone.
Things have changed a lot in the industry. So much has changed. It’s a different world. Back then, the networks had money. Television had not yet fragmented into hundreds of channels, the Internet was not competing for advertising dollars, and the networks could afford to spend money on episodic shows, MOW’s (Movies of the Week made for television), and flying directors across the country to direct them. If there is such a thing as the good old days, those were them for me. But I wouldn’t go back. The world is so much more connected and interesting now.
Sometime in the late seventies my first wife and producer, Laara Dalen, and I purchased a house in Gibsons Landing, a ten bedroom mansion on the beach that the owners had set up as a bed and breakfast, but were now abandoning. Bob came to Vancouver and visited us. He said he was on his way to visit his son, Ben Barclay, in Gibsons Landing, and he pulled a B&B brochure out of his pocket to show us where he was going to stay. It was our new house, though we hadn’t yet made the move. Marina House.
“I’m sorry, Bob, but you can’t pay to stay there.” I told him. “You’ll have to be our guest.”
If I were a believer in woo, such a coincidence would impress me. As it is, it’s just a happy memory of funny moment with Bob Barclay.
We were friends. I regret that I never saw anything he directed. I know he was committed to his work, and proud of it. But I only knew him as a DGC executive member, a friend, and an advisor. So my appreciation is limited. One thing I can say – I never heard a bad word said about Bob Barclay.
Back in the early nineties I was living in Gibsons Landing, with Marina House, my home, right on the water. Gibsons Landing was the location of the long running CBC series, “Beachcombers”.
I was asked by a CBC producer in Toronto why I hadn’t been hired to shoot more Beachcomber episodes. I shrugged and said I didn’t know. At the time, CBC was occasionally flying me to Toronto to direct for them there, paying my hotel and perdiem. They could have my services in Gibsons without that expense. Yet they were flying directors in from Toronto and putting them up in a hotel and paying THEM a perdiem while I was sitting on my front porch watching them direct in front of my house. It made no sense.
“You know, Zale,” the producer said. “If you want to plough a field, you don’t buy a racehorse.”
That was a flattering and disturbing observation. The implication was that I am an artist, and what the producers were looking for was a standard television hack. That has never been me. But even an artist has to pay his mortgage and feed his family.
I’m sure the CBC producers wouldn’t have seen it this way, but I suspect that their survival depended on making acceptable, but unremarkable, shows. A bureaucrat survivalist doesn’t want to be seen as a hot shot, innovative boy wonder. They want to produce stuff that isn’t bad, but also doesn’t really attract attention. After all, if you stick your head above the trenches, somebody could shoot you. Or, as the Chinese put it, it’s the tall nail that gets pounded down.
I enjoy solving problems. Sometimes I think producers would rather I didn’t, because I see problems that they don’t see or if they do see them, don’t care about. I’m sorry, but if I see a problem with the script I can’t see any choice but to solve it.
Take the case of the murder in an episode of Scene of the Crime, a Cannell production. We were shooting Vancouver for London England, which is puzzle enough given the cars on the wrong side of the road. We were creating London with a British phone booth, one rented car with a right hand drive, and very careful angles. But the method of murder the writer invented was to cut the brake line on the victim’s car so that he will crash and die. In London!
Leaving aside the fact that the car in question had mechanical brakes, my memories of London is that it is fairly flat. Maybe there are steep hills and frightening cliffs hidden someplace in the city, but I certainly don’t remember them. Cutting the brake lines seems like a questionable murder method. Wouldn’t the victim just pull over to the curb and grind along until his car stopped?
So I suggested that the car starts off on the top floor of one of those parking garages with many levels and a steep spiral exit ramp. That way, once the driver is committed to the ramp he’s lost all control. I could do the standard shots of his foot stamping on the brake pedal. We could add tire squeals as he takes the curves. And then, to finally do him in, how about there’s a big truck stopped at the exit gate and he can’t avoid smashing into it. I could see it all, shot by shot. This could work.
That’s when they told me that the car was a rental, and would have to be returned without so much as a scratch on it.
Okay, no problem. We do the standard shots, then a POV of approaching the truck. Then for a final shot of the sequence the car is actually stationary. We mount a sheet of glass between two century stands in front of the windshield. The actor rocks forward to the windshield, and we note the spot where his head lines up with the camera. Then he repeats the action at some speed and we hit the sheet of glass with a glue stick out of a trunion gun, right on that spot as his head arrives. The glass will shatter, and it will look like it was the victim’s head that shattered it.
Did it work? Brilliantly. In fact, watching the shot, it was easy to hallucinate blood on the shattering glass. Of course the downside of such success is that I cause producers stress, adding complications to their lives. I also suspect that I made few friends in the special effects department. People don’t like to be told how to do their job.
Sometimes the suits and the brass on a production come up with a brilliant idea, but since they have limited experience with actual shooting they can hand a director an impossible task.
Such was the case for me on The Edison Twins. The show had been going over budget, through no fault of anybody on the production end that I could identify. The scripts were just very ambitious. Each episode was given one day of prep and four days of shooting. Now the producers wanted to save some money by doing an episode in three days. How do you do that? Well, let’s get the writers to give us an episode that is all in one location so it can be “block shot”. This should mean that we save all the wrap time and moving time as we go from location to location. Sounds like a great idea, right.
So they hand me a script and tell me that this will be a three day shoot. There’s only one problem. The script calls for a highschool play, with everything taking place in the school auditorium. So far so good. Except we can’t jump from one scene to another and shoot efficiently, because the show starts with an empty auditorium and a bare stage then develops gradually until there is a complete set on stage, actors in costumes, and chairs in place for parents and audience to occupy. Every scene still has to be blocked and lit. Actors still need time to work out their performances and say their lines. Jumping from a scene near the end of the show to a scene near the beginning of the show and back again just can’t be done without at least an hour of set dressing and costume changes. The show has to be shot in sequence, and any efficiency gained by having just one location will be lost by the demands of continuity.
Halfway through day one we were already two days behind schedule on a three day shoot. This may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. By day three, which was supposed to wrap the episode, we still had at least two days of shooting left to do. The three day shoot turned into five.
That was my last shoot on “The Edison Twins”. They had to blame somebody, and the obvious choice was the director. No hard feelings. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. It was a great run, and I was sad to see it end.
And Then There Was The Cave of Mirrors
The Edison Twins was not the only episodic show with inexperienced visionaries making disastrous decisions. I’ll never forget the cave of mirrors on Kung Fu the Legend Continues. That sounded like such a good idea to the writers and the show runner. Wouldn’t it be great to have a cave of mirrors where the climactic kung fu battle happens. I mean, wouldn’t that be confusing if Caine couldn’t tell whether he was seeing the bad guy or a reflection of the bad guy. So at great expense, such a set was constructed. The cave of mirrors. Mirrors everywhere. Triangular mirrors built into pyramids of stalactites and stalagmites. It was beautiful.
The thing is, the camera only sees in two dimensions. It doesn’t have binocular vision. So a mirror doesn’t look like a mirror to the camera. It looks like a hole, the entrance into another space. And what is worse, when you put a film crew in a cave lined with mirrors at all different angles, it becomes very difficult to hide the crew from the audience. When you are watching the kung fu fight, it’s rather distracting to see a thousand versions of the camera crew reflected in all the mirrors.
That shoot was a nightmare. We ended up using dulling spray to turn most of the mirrors opaque, so that we could shoot without seeing the crew. I don’t think I ever saw the completed show, but I sure would like to.
I’m standing on the bridge of a Canadian destroyer. In front of me, behind me, and beneath my feet is an incredible machine. This is HMCS Saskatchewan, Mackenzie Class Canadian destroyer. She’s a sports car of a ship. Her lines are all rounded because she was designed to cruise through radioactivity, with a sprinkler system to wash off the fallout. So she’s beautiful. She is 366 feet of sleek war machine with a complement of 290 officers and crew. And she’s doing 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph), which is very fast for a boat.
Two sister ships, McKenzie and Yukon, are cruising on each side of Saskatchewan. We’re surging into a glorious tropical sunset. Porpoises are playing in our bow waves. Flying fish are coming out of the sea in schools of hundreds, their cellophane wings iridescent in the fading sunlight.
I’m on the bridge beside the captain. I turn to him and say, “Could you have them crisscross in front of us, sir?” And he does. The two ships beside us start to weave through the water ahead of us like some kind of incredible maritime dressage.
I’ve heard a film crew described as “the biggest toy train set in the world”. It doesn’t get any bigger than this. At least, it never did for me. And that was enough. I cherish that memory.
An then a Low Point
I was directing “Kung Fu, the Legend Continues” in Toronto, working with David Carradine, but this particular show also included David’s daughter, Calista. And the producers were not happy.
During prep the producers took me aside. She’s a terrible actor, they told me. She’s out of control, over acting, chewing the carpet, or words to that effect. You’ve got to pull her back.
And then I met Calista. We hit it off as friends immediately. Calista was all sexual energy and enthusiasm. She’s a natural flirt. The first AD had described her as “the set bicycle”, which was the end of my good relationship with that particular AD. This was an AD who wanted to do my job, who warned me to keep away from David Carradine and “let me handle him.” And now he was telling me to avoid Calista. This was not advice that fit my understanding of my job description.
So Calista and I went out for Japanese food. The restaurant we went to served saki in a rather large teapot, and I discovered that it really is possible to get drunk on saki. I told her things about my life one usually reserves for a trusted friend, and she decided that I am a trusted friend.
And then we worked on her scene. She was approaching Caine as her natural self, sexy, flirtatious. It was totally wrong for the scene. We talked about who her character was, a street person, a young woman who had every reason to be careful around men, a person intrigued by Caine, but wary. And to my relief she could take direction. In fact, she is a sports car of an actor, able to absorb an idea and internalize it, making it believable. She was good.
So, how is this a low point you ask? Well, we shot the scene. The next day on set the AD told me David was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. That was enough to get me nervous. And it got worse when I heard his voice. “Zale, you turned her lights out.” he said. He had played the scene with Calista and felt that Calista, the vibrant, alive daughter he knew and loved, just wasn’t there. He sounded like he was almost in tears. “You turned her lights out.” I stammered some words about being sorry he didn’t like her performance and…well, I’m sorry, David. I’m really sorry.
I still had an afternoon of shooting to get through. I felt like I was sleep walking through it. I felt like I’d been eviscerated, emotionally disemboweled. Here’s where imposter syndrome becomes reality. I had been so sure of myself, yet a man I loved and respected was telling me by implication that I was a horrible director. Here was the proof I should never have been allowed on a film set. It doesn’t get much worse than that.
And Then, Redemption – the happy ending.
Toward the end of the day I got a second phone call from David. He was calling to apologize. He’d seen the rushes. He understood how the scene played. He was very happy with Calista’s performance.
This is one of the reasons I loved David Carradine. I don’t know how many actors, no, not just an actor, a genuine star, would beat me up, and then call me later to say they were wrong. That’s just not the way it usually goes. David and I were straight with each other. I gave him a lot of respect, but never treated him like a celebrity. And he was always authentically human with me.
How can one possibly feel competent to direct a movie? When I thinks about what a director should be able to control to do an effective job – image, actor performance, editing rhythm, sound effects, music, and most of all audience reaction – the task seems impossible. One can only approach it with great humility and a certain amount of dread. When I started directing I usually felt like an imposter, a fraud, a victim of a thousand forces beyond my control. It took some time to get over that feeling.
That’s always been something that I find amusing. Everybody on set is pretty sure they can do a better job than the director is doing. Direction is the easiest skill set to belittle, or fail to recognize, or assign to somebody else on the crew.
I remember a production manager talking about a friend of mine, Phil Borsos, and sounding off about how Phil didn’t really direct “One Magic Christmas”. She claimed it was directed by the cinematographer, Frank Tidy, while Phil was hiding somewhere snorting coke. I took it upon myself to enlighten her. “I don’t care what Phil seemed to be doing on set, but if you look at his first film “Spar Tree”, a theatrical short, and his second film, “The Grey Fox”, there’s little room for doubt that he directed “One Magic Christmas”. His finger prints are all over that movie,” I told her. “Furthermore, I know that movie was dead. Unsupported by the standard funding sources. Phil did the work to bring it to life, finding funding, polishing the script. It was years of effort that nobody saw and few recognize. So please don’t tell me that Phil didn’t really direct that movie. That movie wouldn’t exist if Phil hadn’t directed it.
Very few people really understand what a director is doing, and only the best directors are actually doing it well. Because the hand of the director should be almost invisible. The director is a presence, a control figure. Peter O’Toole’s character in “The Stunt Man”, nailed it – searching for something he’s not quite able to identify, but ready to accept it when the writer brings it to him.
A professional film crew is like a performance sports car. You don’t want to go twitching the wheel this way and that, micromanaging to realize some incredibly precise vision of the product you are after. Subtle and gentle movements are what is required.
The same goes for actors. In Michael Green’s The Art of Coarse Acting he describes the only four directions a director should be allowed – faster, slower, louder or softer. I think directing can be more granular than that, but the idea that the director is a puppet master, pulling the strings of the actors and controlling every aspect of the performance, is just absurd.
There’s a film, the name of which I have forgotten, in which Peter Coyote plays a movie director. I don’t know whether it was intended as a parody, but it really illustrates this point. His version of a director is a micro-manager in the extreme, telling the actors when to pick up a prop and how to hold it, dictating looks and gestures. I’ve never met an actor who could hold such instructions in their head while delivering a performance. Such a director is only going to give themself a headache and an overwhelming feeling of frustration. And yet I’ve seen beginner directors trying to behave like this, delivering long lectures to the actors about how to play the scene. Wrong. Tell the actor what the scene is about, what is happening in the scene, and then trust that the actor is an artist who will play it. Only give a direction if something is drastically wrong. And then only give the simplest direction you can find to solve the problem.
The truth is, a good director controls very little and is at the mercy of innumerable forces totally beyond their control. A good director is the calm in the eye of the storm, reassuring, supporting, and offering advice only when asked or when obviously needed. Truffault, in Day for Night described directing as “dancing with the devil”. (To paraphrase: At the start I wanted to make a great movie. Now I just want to get the damn thing finished.) And it’s true. The director puts fears and worries aside and assumes they can come out of the process with something of quality. And then they hit the floor with a flexibility and willingness to go with the flow that allows all the other technicians and artists the space to deliver their best as well.
One of my mistakes as a beginning director was to think that I could reveal my doubts and misgivings to the crew, that they were friends of mine and would understand my position. Wrong. The crew wants to feel that somebody knows what they are doing and is in control. They don’t want to think that the director may be totally lost, thrashing around looking for artistic solutions to their problems. The director is supposed to have a vision of the movie they are making. And if that vision is cloudy or obscure at times, they better damn well keep that information as a personal secret. Standing in the middle of a set and muttering “I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do with this,” is not what the crew wants to hear. And yet, that’s often the position the director is in. Which led to the production still of Paul Lynch standing in the middle of an empty ice rink with a thought bubble over his head provided by the crew. It read “I know. I’ll wing it.”
Over the years, I got over my imposter syndrome. And as I acquired skills, my Dunning Kruger syndrome slowly turned into its corollary – that a competent person assumes what is easy for them is easy for everybody.* It took me years, and many hours on set, to get a handle on what I bring to directing. Essentially it is this: I have a talent for finding order in chaos. Give me a dance hall with two main characters and a couple of hundred extras, as I had in Watrous, Saskatchewan at the Rainbow Dance Land while directing the Saskatchewan film for Expo ’86, and in a few minutes I can organize a scene that flows and looks wonderful.
Do you remember the first time you drove a car in heavy city traffic? If you are like me, you were very tense, trying to be aware of every car in every direction. It’s only after driving in city traffic for a while that one calms down and only pays attention to the important stuff, like where you are going and is anything in the way. My first days on a film set were like that. I was trying to be aware of everything that everybody was doing, from the camera crew to the boom man to the craft services. It was only after a few hours or days on set that I could focus on the things that needed my attention, and let the completely competent technicians do their jobs without my monitoring. Then directing became…no, not easy. It will never be easy. But at least less stressful. Just as driving in a Chinese city during rush hour no longer gets my heart rate up.
*Totally aside from directing, I noticed the extreme corollary to the Dunning Kruger effect in myself when I tried to show a friend, a very accomplished musician, how to play the harmonica. I’ve been playing the harmonica since I was about six years old. Nothing could be easier for me. I always assumed it would be just as easy for anybody with some skill at music. So I was very surprised to see my friend struggling with something as simple as getting a single, clean and pure note. For me, that’s no problem at all.
I have always considered being on time and on budget to be the most important reason I should be hired to direct, second only to putting together a good show. If the logistics will allow it, and there are times when they won’t which I will get into in another post, I promise delivery on time and on budget. I mean, if there is only so much money, then going over schedule and over budget is irresponsible.
On a film set, especially for episodic television, every second counts. We are asked to deliver more setups in fewer shooting days as competition for eyeballs intensifies, advertising dollars get spread between more shows, and budgets shrink. Time must not be wasted.
I got into the habit of having a quiet conversation with the continuity person at the start of each shoot. I would explain that I understand axis. I’ve done enough editing to know when a shot will cut with another shot. So if the continuity person thinks I’m crossing the axis, they can quietly tell me about it, and mark it in their notes if they feel they need to do that to cover their butt, but I do not want a discussion. If you allow a discussion of axis, pretty soon you have the camera department weighing in, crew members sketching their idea of the existing shots, and the clock ticks on. I tell the continuity person that if I have crossed the axis, I will eat it. It’s on me. But we don’t discuss it.
That’s just one area where time can be wasted on set. It’s not even the most important. A certain amount of time is required for the crew to rest, eat, sleep, and otherwise have a life. That’s turnaround. You can’t shoot until four in the morning and ask the crew to start again at eight. Not allowed. When Canal was gearing up to make Wiseguy, the pilot not only blew its budget out of the water with spectacular special effects, it piled on so many overtime hours that the unions wouldn’t allow turnaround. Alex Beaton, the line producer, brought me in to do the next show. He told me he wanted the same quality of shots and performance, but on time and on schedule. Right. I’m supposed to produce comparable footage to what the prima donna pilot director delivered, but without the prima donna attitude toward time and money. Okay. I’ll take a run at it.
Needless to say, I was wired down tight for that shoot. Focused. Intense. I told the crew what was expected, and that I intended to deliver. So let’s do it. I had worked with that crew on other shows. They were with me. At one point as we worked toward our evening deadline, a gaffer ran past me with a huge coil of heavy cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back as he passed me, and got a spray of sweat. That man was humping. So I talked to the sound man. “This is a great crew. They are really working. What was the problem with the pilot that they went so far over budget and over schedule. Was it that the schedule was unrealistic?” He told me, “No. The problem was they would put the camera down in three different spots before they would take a shot.”
You can’t do that on an episodic budget. When I put the camera down, that’s where the shot is going to be taken from. If it’s a bad choice, I’ll eat it. But I’m not changing the camera position. Of course I hope it isn’t a bad choice. I hope I’ll have the perfect shot. But if the shot is less than perfect, I’ll make sure the editor can work with it anyway. There’s no time for indecision and changes.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to be quick and dirty. It does mean that I’m going to think ahead, plan my shots, and get the coverage I need to make the scenes work. I’m just not going to waste any time doing it.