I Love Editing

I did my first editing on my first short film, Porn Maker to the World, at Simon Fraser University film workshop in about 1967, and got my first hint about how to approach it from a fellow student, Peter Bryant, who introduced me to cutting for the action. Editing is where the visual story is created. Editing actually makes the movie, and is as important, if not more important, than the writing and acting and even directing.

Some of the most famous directors, like David Lean [Lawrence of Arabia], came from editing. But there is a flip side to this. We used to talk disparagingly about an “editor’s film”. An editor working someplace like the National Film Board or on a series would beg and plead to be given their chance to direct. The result was, all too often, a finished product that flowed like melted butter, with every cut perfect, sliding unnoticed past the viewer. Very impressive. Sadly boring.

A good editor can make a good film out of next to nothing. At the same time, an insensitive editor can destroy the best directing, acting, and story. I’ve seen it happen. I remember being a crew member on one film in particular. We were all really impressed with the dailies, the raw film straight from the camera. Man alive, this is going to be a great movie. But by the time the editor got done with it we all looked at each other and asked, what happened to the story?

Have you heard about Eisenstein. He was a famous Russian film maker in the very beginning days of silent movies, back when most movies were shot like a play and nobody even knew about close ups. Eisenstein took a shot of an actor’s face, then intercut it with evocative images- a mother holding a baby, a man pointing a gun at the camera. The actor’s face never changed, because it was all one shot. Yet critics raved about the subtlety of his performance. That is the power of editing. The audience reads in emotions they expect to see. That’s a great lesson for directors, and for actors.

When I was getting started, editing was labour intensive, even painful. That first film, Porn Maker to the World, was shot on black and white reversal stock, processed at the university, and hung to dry under the theater stairs. I cut the original film by scraping off the emulsion on one side and gluing it together with a hot splicer. No workprint. I lost a frame any time I decided a cut needed to be changed and tried to put it back together.

Cranking a workprint, once I started working with workprints, with five tracks of perforated magnetic sound through a synchronizer was heavy work, especially when you made the big leap from working in sixteen millimeter to working in thirty five. That was always seen as getting into the big time.

A bigger problem was in judging how long a credit needed to be on the screen when all I had to go by was a grease pencil line on the workprint. But I’ve already talked about the difficulties with editing in the old days, back when I did the post about getting started and making “Granny’s Quilts”. The point is, I’m past that now. Now I’m in love with digital editing.

It’s probably obvious to my readers, but digital editing changed everything. Suddenly you could experiment as an editor. You can make fast cuts, save a version of what you’ve done. Go back to the previous version, and without taking the tape off the work print and reassembling it. The old rule of measuring by the nose went out the window.

Okay, that probably needs an explanation. One of the first master editors I worked with, as an assistant, was a man called Luke Bennett. Luke had started out airbrushing the sound cuts in the days when sound was recorded on optical stock and the cuts needed to be air brushed to stop them from popping. He told me that one of his mentors would pontificate about editing: “If it’s not a great shot but I need it to tell the story, I use a piece from the end of my nose to the tip of my baby finger. If it’s a good shot, I use a piece from the tip of my nose to my elbow. And if it’s a great shot, I use a piece as long as my arm. That’s what editing is, my boy, it’s measured by the nose.”

I loved editing back when we used actual film. But I love it even more now that we use computers and digital video. I cut our feature length romcom, “Passion“, on Final Cut Pro, an Apple product. And I loved it. The things I could do with that editing program, the ease of making mats and superimpossitions and laying on animated titles in colour… It was like handing me the keys to daddy’s Ferrari*, freedom from constraints, and freedom from the manual labour. I could be creative.

But I haven’t had Final Cut Pro since I burned out my Mac by running it on 240v in China without flipping the switch. And I’m not a major fan of Apple computers, so I’m not buying a Mac.

The last video editing I did was on an ancient laptop with Windows7 running Adobe Premier Pro, and I hated it. It seemed totally lacking in the intuitive controls that Final Cut Pro gave me, the ability to quickly and easily change the size of the frame for example. It’s possible that I just never learned to use it, but…. I managed to muddle through. It’s no wonder that FCP set the standard for computer editing, to the point where a program that can edit on a PC is marketed as a Final Cut Pro emulator.

Here’s the thing: Ruth bought me a new computer for Christmas. Now that I have it, with a great graphics card, 16 gigs of RAM and terabytes of storage, I’ve been investigating those Final Cut Pro emulators for Window and I think I’ve found a winner in Wondershare Filmora 11. And the good news is that I could buy a perpetual license, instead of a monthly or yearly subscription.

Now all I need is a project to edit. I have a head full of ideas. Stay tuned.

-30-

*No, my father didn’t have a Ferrari. He would have been embarrassed to be seen driving one. He was a Chevy guy. Driving a solidly middle class car was essential to his image.

I Love Christmas RomComs

Those of you who know me from “Skip Tracer” and my television work might find it strange that I’m a big fan of gentle movies and soppy romcoms, films like “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “Love Actually”, and my very favourite of all time, “Searching for Bobby Fischer”.

My wife, Ruth, and I have been binge watching Christmas movies.  We’ve seen several we like, and even more that we’ve bailed on after a few minutes of bad acting, terrible dialogue, or plot tropes that are terminally lazy. I figure I could do better.

This is my elevator pitch to producers.  It’s the first time I’ve felt inspired to write and direct a movie in about twenty years. With the recent re-release of “Skip Tracer” (1976) on BlueRay disk, and purchase for broadcast by Hollywood Suite for Amazon Prime, I think this just might be the time to try for a comeback.

There’s a pattern I developed during my working years. I would have an idea, spend a year writing and polishing the script and then another two or three years trying to interest either a producer or a money person in letting me make the film. Then, in frustration and despair, I would give up and stick the script at the back of my filing cabinet and get on with my life as a journeyman television director. That’s a pattern I’m not willing to fall into again. So this time, I intend to throw heart and soul into the script for its own sake, while investing minimal emotional energy in whether I get to make the movie. If luck happens to be with me and I find a path into production, wonderful. If not, well… I’m having a heck of a lot of fun developing this story line, and I’m sure writing the dialogue will also keep me entertained. So running this up the flagpole to see who salutes is a low risk enterprise. It’s fun to take my creative brain out of storage and see if it still works.

I should mention that I’m also blessed to have my brilliant wife contributing ideas. She’s a very knowledgeable fan of the genre, and is adding a lot of heart to the story already. So it’s a marital bonding experience. And that has a lot of value.

I think this poster mock-up suggests the story quite well. It was inspired by a picture my son, Casey, sent me in his paramedic uniform, looking ever so movie star.

It feels good to be energized by an inspiration again, after all this time. Whatever comes of it, I hope you all enjoy the holiday season — my favourite time of the year.

My Genius Recognized at Last*

Actually, “Skip Tracer” got lots of attention back in the day, marching from the Montreal Film Festival to Toronto, London, Sidney, Thessaloniki and Moscow with TV sales to the BBC and German television plus being pirated in South Africa, even garnering an Etrog (Now called a Canadian Film Award) golden statue for my bookshelf.

And now… Forty-seven years after my first wife and producer, Laara Dalen, scraped the funds together to make my first feature, it’s now available on Amazon Prime for a month, free of charge. Don’t miss this opportunity to watch a bit of Canadian film history return from the dead. It may be a zombie movie, but I’m told it’s getting a great audience response.

Also, thanks to the attention I got from Gold Ninja with the BlueRay limited edition release, and the Hollywood Suite broadcast license, I was contacted by David Voigt to be interviewed for his In The Seats podcast program. David was a great interviewer who asked interesting questions, and that made it easy for me to have fun and sound knowledgeable, almost like I was there. Please give it a listen and let me know what you think in the comments.

*of course this title is ironic. I don’t consider myself a genius, and if I did I sure as hell wouldn’t admit it. I got lucky, is all. But it is really validating to get attention after all these years. I’m sincerely grateful to Golden Ninja and Hollywood Suite for making this happen. It takes a bit of the sting out of being an old hasbeen. Now I’m going to sit back and wait for the telephone to start ringing again.**

**Also ironic. It ain’t gonna happen. My enemies have long memories.

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.

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.

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.

My Ears Are Burning

I got an email from my wife today with “Are You Ears Burning” in the subject line, directing me to this post by Kenneth George Godwin.

I tried to post a comment in response, but there’s a glitch in his site. There was no sign of a captcha, but an error message said I hadn’t filled it out correctly. So I sent him this in a email instead:

Hi Kenneth George Godwin:

I tried to post the following comment on your post, but got an error message saying I did not enter the correct captcha.  Couldn’t find a captcha anywhere.  Anyway, here’s what I tried to post in the comments:

Don’t know who it is at the editing bench, identified as Dale Zalen, but they bear no resemblance to me, Zale Dalen. Not an uncommon mistake. (This has been corrected, and the picture replaced with one I provided.)

Aside from that, this was a very fair and generous article. For a time I was the West Coast advisor to the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and spent many meetings pleading with them to expand on the special investment program, under which “Skip Tracer” was made, and fighting off the industry types championing big budget American style production. I was also pleading with them not to go into supporting television production, a move they made because they couldn’t justify the money they were losing  supporting feature films. The name change to Telefilm Canada marked the final defeat of that battle.
I wrote a post some time ago on why I believe “Passion” is an underappreciated and historically important film, but that post seems to have disappeared from https://www.artisanmovies.com/ pages.  I guess I’ll have to write it again. My main pitch is that it was the first prosumer digital production made completely outside of the movie industry that made no excuses for the technology and actually managed to look like a movie. (the fact that you reviewed it as just a movie kind of makes this point.) Plus I just like its social statements. Check into http://www.zaledalen.com/zaledalen/ in a week or so and I should have it up there.
Thanks for the ink and attention.

Zale Dalen

My Father’s Death Was Perfect

It couldn’t have been better, for me at least. Well, okay. It could have been a hell of a lot better if my father hadn’t died. But we all have to go sometime. As my father said, “Dying can’t be so bad or everybody wouldn’t do it.”

That was 1986, the year of Expo in Vancouver, and I’d been hired to make the film for the Saskatchewan Pavilion. That was a year of work, starting with rejecting the script that had been commissioned and paid for and instigating a search for a new writer. There was already a concept in place – a big screen anamorphic 35mm. film with an actress under the huge screen interacting with the film. I wasn’t sure that was going to work, so the Director of Photography, Richard Leiterman, and I flew down to L.A. to take the Universal Studio tour because we’d heard that the tour included a section during which the tour guide interacted with a Hollywood celebrity. That didn’t tell us much. Our concept was for the actor under the screen to talk to the audience and talk to characters in the film. The Universal Tour sequence simply handed the Master of Ceremonies job to the Hollywood celebrity and stood down while he talked. Did that mean what we wanted to do wouldn’t work? It was something to worry about.

There was also the question of eyelines. If the characters in the film were going to believably talk to our actor, where should we have them look to make us believe they were talking to her. Richard stood in various audience positions while I stood on a ladder under the screen, still just a framework, and pretended to look at the actor. Things were getting scary. It turned out that the actors would have to look down toward the base of the camera tripod, but looking left, right, or center depended on where the audience was sitting. Compromise would be required.

The script writer search found Carol Bolt, a Toronto writer who gave us the conflict that was missing in the original script. The actor would be a “girl next door” from the prairies who had been hired as a living narrator to tell us about her province. While she was very happy to have the job, she was also desperately homesick and missing friends and family back home. At the end of the film she would apologize to the audience, run off stage and reappear on the film running toward her boyfriend.

I won’t say too much about the actual production, other than it was fraught with personality conflicts and technical problems. There were politics involved. I was from B.C. and Saskatchewan had its own film community. I was getting attitude from my AD, my assistant director, who had been laid on by the client, and it took me some time to realize that he had made a very competent tourism movie for Saskatchewan the year before, and felt that they owed him the director position on this one. Richard Leiterman was getting attitude from his camera operator, who had been the director of photography on that same tourism movie. While they both did a good job for us, the subtle vibes on location made for a less than wonderful shoot. On at least one occasion, words were spoken.

We had a tiny budget compared to what was being spent on the B.C. film. This meant a very limited shooting schedule, and weather wasn’t cooperating. Saskatchewan was supposed to look beautiful, and it looked downright gloomy. The client wanted the people of Saskatchewan to seem hip and very modern, emphasizing that computers had to feature prominently. I tried to explain that everybody had computers. They didn’t make much of an impression. And a computer in the tractor connected to the futures market, a system that was still in the beta development phase, would seem a bit silly. An Expo film is a difficult film to make. In essence it’s a tourism movie, but it had to be somehow more than that. It had to have size, and big scenes with hundreds of extras, like the two hundred plus dancers in Rainbow Danceland in Watrous, and the big country wedding. But what would make it work was actually simplicity, the love and connection between the characters on the screen – the mother and father, grandfather, first nations uncle, the school friends, particularly the boyfriend – and the homesick girl presenting her province to the audience. What I was really making was a twenty minute romcom, though the clients and sponsors didn’t know that.

The good news in all of this was that the film was produced by an old friend of mine, Tony Westman, and he generally gave me a free hand and supported my decisions. I’ll never know what he had to do to protect me from the politicians, the clients. There must have been something, because they freaked out several times when they saw my rushes.

So… I was involved in the script development, the choice of music, client meetings, casting, and of course shooting. Then came months of editing. In those days I had a complete editing room with an Intercine flatbed editing machine, benches, rewinds, split reels, and all the other gack that editing a large format film required. Finally we had a rough cut, and a sound mix, and then we had casting for the five actors who would perform under that big screen. We found one key actor to lead, learn the lines and moves, and train the four other young women who would take turns performing. With a performance every twenty minutes for a ten hour day, one actor simply couldn’t do the work alone.

There were surprises. We were all worried that a tiny figure of an actress under that big screen would not be able to compete with the movie images. During rehearsals and staging of the actors, we discovered that the opposite was true. The only time the audience would look at the screen was when the actor gestured and directed their attention to it.

All of this had the tension level of a big budget feature. There could be no last minute revisions. No trial runs. It had to work, or fail miserably, right off the hop. The producers advertised for Saskatchewan ex-patriots and packed in a full audience for the first screening, and the lights came back up to a standing ovation. One of the ushers came to me with double handfuls of kleenex, soaked in tears. We had a hit.

It ran with long lineups, every twenty minutes for the duration of Expo ’86, with the actors suffering through repetitive strain injuries from looking up at the screen.

Through all this, my father was dying. We knew it was coming. Lung cancer. That’s what a lifetime of unfiltered Sportsman cigarettes will do to you. The tobacco industry said it was his choice, but I remember him trying to quit when I was eight, when I was ten, when I was twelve. He didn’t manage to kick the habit until his diagnosis, and by then it was too late. “If you want the whole world to say I told you so, get yourself in my position” he told me. I desperately wanted him to see my work, work that had taken over my life from concept and script development through casting, shooting, editing, and casting and directing the live performances. But I realized that he was never going to make it to Expo to see it.

My mother phoned me to tell me that I’d better come to see my father, because she felt he didn’t have long. She had a sixth sense about that kind of thing. I was afraid that I would forget to say something that needed to be said when I actually saw him, so I sat down and spent a few hours writing him a letter, which I took with me and read to him when I went to see him.

In the letter I told him what he had meant to me, that he had been my hero and role model, the most important man in my life. I asked him whether there was anything he wanted taken care of discretely after he was gone, or anything he needed done. I recounted a couple of time when he had set a standard for integrity and compassion I’ve always tried to live up to. For example, there was a time during one of our trips when he was fishing in a shallow river. While my father fished, I caught a tiny frog and showed it to him. He told me that some people would use a frog like that as live bate to catch a fish, but that we weren’t the kind of people who could do that.

I asked him whether there was anything that shouldn’t be left unsaid between us, because now was the time to say it. The only thing he could come up with was to express regret that his grandchildren were growing up in a drug environment. That made me laugh. “Dad, you’re twenty years behind the times with that. Laara (my first wife) won’t even take an aspirin any more. We don’t do drugs. So you can put your mind at ease about that.”

He had been sleeping in a hospital bed in the living room, but felt well enough to come out to the kitchen for a cup of tea, a key part of our family culture. Knowing that he would never see my movie, I decided to perform it for him. I told him every image, every sound cue, where the music swelled up or faded away, every line of dialogue, every action, and the audience response. By then I knew it all, and I did my very best to let him see it in his mind’s eye.

When I was finished he said, “Now I’ve heard from a real artist.” I helped him up and walked back to his bed with him.

I wanted to stay, but I had a wife and new baby girl back in Gibsons, a ferry ride away. Who could say how long this could go on. When I got home there was a message on my answering machine from my mother. My father was gone.

Sometimes I Have a Very Good Day

This landed in my email inbox today, asking me to approve a comment from Alex:

Hey Mr. Dalen, just dropping by to say that I recently watched “Passion” on the Gold Ninja release of “Skip Tracer”.

I’m not a film critic, or especially good writer, and I’m short on time at the moment, so all I have to say is that I had fun with “Skip Tracer”, but absolutely adored “Passion”. I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to view the film, and look forward to sharing it with others when I get the chance.

Thank you for these great films!

My idea of a great poster.

And of course I had to reply.

Alex: Thank you for taking the time to submit this comment. For years now I’ve had the feeling that “Passion” will eventually find its audience, which is not the audience that expects the normal tropes and sensibilities of mainstream romcoms. It’s very heartening to hear from a member of that audience, and your help in spreading the word is very appreciated. As I said in my defense of “Passion”, I believe “Passion” is not only of historical significance, being possibly the first prosumer digital feature that makes no excuses for the format, but also a socially radical film.
By the way,Tim Johnson, in reality a cis gendered family man and the actor who played Bob, the transvestite, wrote this line for his character:”But I’m not gay. It empowers me.”

I have always wondered about that line. How did it occur to Tim? Where the hell did it come from? Does it have any basis in reality? Well, fairly recently I asked a new friend why his first marriage ended in divorce and he answered, “I’m a heterosexual transvestite and my first wife couldn’t handle it.” So I invited him and his second wife to dinner to show them the movie and ask him about the line. He told me that it was spot on for him. His mother had been a very dominant personality and a seamstress, and somehow women’s clothing acquired a sexual frisson that he found irresistible. I told this to Tim and asked him how he came up with the line. He said,”I just thought it was funny.”
Thanks again. Your comment has made my day. And yes, please do spread the word.