Not Necessarily Collaborative

One thing I would be told when somebody in the production, usually somebody with power, wanted a change that I, as the director, didn’t want was: Film is a collaborative medium.

That always annoyed me. So, more or less as a refutation and a joke, I made the following film. “The Reunion of Cyril and John”. For this short film, I acted both parts, did the sound recording, lighting, camera work, directing and editing.

https://youtu.be/wrypLSEd73o

I realize it would be severely limiting to try to make a full length feature film this way, but I think this is a proof in principle that it could be done. So there and take that all you producers trying to interfere with my artistic vision. Screw you.

Life is Full of Surprises

A few weeks back, this email arrived in my inbox:

Zale pretending to smoke the cursed pipe.
-photograph by Ruth Anderson

Mr. Dalen,
Hello there. I got your email address off of your website. I’ve been a die hard fan of Friday the 13th: The Series since I was just a little kid and it is still my favorite show. I must have watched every episode 100 times by now lol. “Pipe Dream” was always high on my list. I recently re-read the book by Alyse Wax that came out a few years ago. I really appreciated your contributions to the chapter on that episode. It’s always a thrill for me to learn something new about the series.
I was actually thinking about getting a replica made of the cursed pipe that was used in the episode. I understand that you made it yourself from plasticine. I’m not sure if you still have the original prop in your possession, but would you ever consider making one for a fan like myself? lol. I would be more than willing to pay for it. I know, it’s a strange request and I feel awkward even asking you. I just always thought it was one of the coolest looking props from the series and thought that it would really neat to have one just like it.

Anyways, let me know if this is anything that you would be interested in. Either way, I just want to say how much I appreciate your contribution to the series.
Thanks
A Fan from CT

Well, imagine that. Naturally I replied. I reply to all emails unless they are offensive or freaky.

I also went on a hunt for that accursed pipe, which turned up in a box I haven’t opened for at least thirty years. There was the glazed version of the slip cast I made from the original, and an unglazed cast that retained more of the details, and actually could become a functional pipe if a bit of tinfoil was put into the bowl and perforated with pin holes.

I thought about whether this relic of my days as a journeyman TV director had any value to me, and the answer was a rather emphatic no. But the thought that a fan of horror movies valued it was a source of delight. So I made a pine box, wrapped it in bubble wrap, and sent it off to my fan in CT. He sent me fifty bucks to cover postage and inconvenience. Good enough.

Cursed pipes in pine box for shipping.

If I’d put a bit more time and thought into that pine box, I supposed I could have made it convert into a display stand. But I just wanted to get it packaged and sent off. It’s so nice to be remembered. But how the heck did he find out about me.

“There was a book that was published about 5 years ago called ‘Curious Goods: Behind the Scenes of Friday the 13th: The Series’ by Alyse Wax. It goes into detail with every episode of the series and features interviews with the cast, crew, writers, directors. In the chapter about Pipe Dream, there’s a paragraph where you discussed how you came about creating the pipe. “

That’s amazing. I simply don’t understand fans, but I sure do appreciate them.

One last thing about that pipe: I’d asked the props department to come up with a pipe for the episode. They presented a small pipe that wouldn’t photograph well, being hidden in the actors hand when smoked. That led me to make the pipe we used out of Plasticine, designed to sit above the actor’s hand and be a demonic version of an old European gargoyle, complete with the implied antisemitism of the era. Purely for my own amusement I added a sexual quality to the pipe, something the audience would never get to see, something that until now only my fan in CT would ever know about. And now you, my readers, of course. It seemed to me that eroticism and demons often go together in our cultural history. Hence my demon pipe is crouched down holding his absurdly long penis.

Inderside of cursed pipe revealing testicals and penis base.
Demon pipe holding his penis.

Pro Tip for TV episodic directors: Don’t make enemies among the cast and crew of a series. They are there for every episode. You are only there for the one you’ve been hired to direct. It could be career suicide to criticize the work of the props department. A word from anybody who works the show into the producer’s ear could kill your chance of ever coming back.
Not that I think this ever happened to me, but that’s the thing. You never know.
I think I only directed one episode of Friday the 13th. Who knows why. Nice that it’s an episode that impressed my fan in CT. Maybe that justifies being a prima donna arrogant director.

The Dishonesty of Television

And the cowardice of TV actors.

I’m not going to name names in this piece. Well, maybe one name. He deserves it.

Years ago, back when I was a working journeyman director, I was talking to the guest star of a show I was shooting. He had a short career as an A list actor and a much longer career as a B list actor. He told me that he had been in so many movies where he was killed that he made a whole show real of himself being killed. Being shot. Stabbed. Electrocuted. Dying by fire. He had a second, separate show reel of himself killing somebody. Shooting them. Stabbing them. Throwing them out of a helicopter.

I liked him a lot. He’d done the circuit, by which I mean the path so many actors who “make it” go down. He may even have been the guy who described that path to me. It goes like this: A newcomer to the acting trade spends a long time being abused, humiliated, and treated like disposable furniture. Hundreds of auditions with no call backs. Hundreds of auditions with call backs but no part. Then one or two small parts where he/she is treated like crap. And finally the big break. Finally they are recognized for their talent and ability. Finally the TV ratings or the box office depend on their name on the credits. And that’s great for a while. But then they start to remember all the times they were treated like crap. The long hours and the constant stress starts to wear on them. Now it’s payback time. Now it’s their turn to make demands, to refuse to come out of the trailer if that asshole AD isn’t fired. Why can’t they have their own motor home? Their own personal assistant? Pretty soon everybody from the producer on down the list hates their guts. But they don’t really see it. Isn’t this what they deserve? Isn’t this how the star behaves. And there isn’t a show without me, so stop arguing and give me what I want.

Then finally the show ends, as all shows do sooner or later, not infrequently because of the star’s behavior. But that’s okay. They’ve put some money aside. They can enjoy a break. They are still a star. For a while. But after a year with no offers pouring in, they start calling their agent, the agent who made a fortune off them when they were working. Why the fuck can’t you get me a job? I need to work. And the agent who put up with them during the times they were being difficult? Now it’s payback time for him. You know why I can’t get you a job? It’s because everybody hates you. Do you know why everybody hates you? Because you are an asshole who can’t even get an agent in this town.

What? Are you saying you’re not my agent?

That’s exactly what I’m saying. Stop calling me. Go find yourself an agent dumb enough to take you on. You are what they call Hollywood poison. Now get the fuck out of my office.

So the former big shot star spends three, four, five years trying to outlive his reputation. They go to parties. They are nice to everybody. They are ever so humble. And finally, fucking finally, they get another break. Maybe Quentin puts them in one of his quirky moves. They are back on top. And oh boy, are they ever a joy to work with.

The actor who told me this story had been through this, maybe more than once. I really enjoyed working with him.

But here’s the point I’m getting to. The script we were shooting called for him to be surprised and threatened with a gun. He told me he had played this scene dozens of times, and had always wondered what his reaction would be if it happened to him in real life. Then it happened in real life. He said he never in a million years could have predicted his reaction, how he would play the scene in real life.

He said he heard a noise in his Malibu home, came down the stairs, and there was a guy holding a gun and screaming at him to get down on his knees. He went into immediate hyperventilation. He couldn’t get his breath. He was gasping for air. Terrified. He spent the next hour tied to a chair while the burglar ransacked his home, taking every thing of value and making sure he stayed terrified.

I was excited. That’s amazing, I told him. That’s how you should play the scene. Nobody has ever seen that on television. That’s an honest human reaction. That would be wonderful.

And of course he couldn’t do it. That would be stepping outside of the norms of television. That would be unexpected. The producers, and his audience, would hate that. That wasn’t… That didn’t align with the image. That wasn’t…manly. The audience would laugh. This wasn’t an episode of “Friends” we were shooting.

So he gave me what he was being paid to give me. Television. The television male.

I have spent a lot of time contemplating my career, and trying to figure out why I don’t like television. It finally occurred to me today. This is why. You can’t put honesty on TV. Now that I’ve had this epiphany, I can think of other situations where this was demonstrated to me.

At one point I couldn’t figure out why, every time I was delighted with what I shot, the producers were not delighted. And every time the producers were really happy with the show, I was, at best, muh. Not thrilled. Finally I figured it out. We weren’t trying to make the same thing. I wanted honesty. I wanted art. I wanted to make a show that was special. They wanted television. The two are not the same thing.

Not that wanting television is a bad thing. If that’s what you want. It just wasn’t what I wanted, and it wasn’t what I thought I was doing.

Another incident. I was working with Robert Conrad, preparing for a scene in which he reacts to the belief that his daughters have starved and frozen to death in the Alaskan winter wilderness. I wanted him to cry. To shed an honest tear. He wouldn’t do it.

“The last time I cried on camera my TV Q went down,” he told me. TV Q is a measure of an actor’s popularity with their audience, according to some kind of poll.

I loved Matt LeBlanc’s comment on this: “What’s the matter? Don’t you cry good.”

Robert Conrad, star of TV's 'The Wild, Wild West,' 'Hawaiian Eye ...

Robert Conrad, a memorable actor to work with. Searching for this picture I discovered that he died in February of this year. Damn. I am sorry about that.

Oh No, not Fil Fraser Too

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.

Goodbye Burt Reynolds

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.

 

So Long Bob Barclay. It was good to know you.

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.

He was a good man. I’m sorry he’s gone.

 

Goodbye Donnelly Rhodes.

“Zale, you have to understand something.  This isn’t art.  You don’t have to tell me how to act.”

This was the first thing Donnelly Rhodes said to me on my first day as the director of Danger Bay.  I assured him that I had no intention of telling him how to act, and we got to work.

For that entire show, I couldn’t make a decision on set without Donnelly questioning me, or suggesting something different.  If I said, “The camera goes here for the establishing shot.” he’d respond with “Zale, wouldn’t it be better to shoot the establishing shot from here.”

“Well, Donnelly, maybe that would be better.  But I’m the director and I want the establishing shot from right here.”

He drove me crazy.  I found out later he was doing what he called “Breaking in a new director.”  I think the game was to see if he could make me angry enough to punch him.  Donnelly loved a fight.

I don’t think we ever got to be close friends, but we did enjoy each other’s company and treated each other with mutual respect, after a time. On the second episode of Danger Bay I directed, the guest stars were two television series regulars from Toronto, Harvey Atkin and Eve Crawford. They happened to be quite tall. Donnelly was not. On the first day of shooting that second episode, Donnelly was required for publicity stills for the first hour of our morning. I set up a scene with the two guest stars, shooting as much of it as I could before Donnelly was scheduled to enter. When he did arrive on set, I told him the scene called for him to come out of a door at the Vancouver aquarium and walk down to a position between the two guest stars where he would deliver his lines.

Donnelly walked out the door and into the scene. Standing between the two guest stars, he looked like a midget. He held his hand over his head and started jumping up to it, like he was trying to be taller.

“Zale?” he whined.

I laughed and said, “Donnelly, it’s my revenge.”

We got along fine after that.

Donnelly had a reputation as a wildman and a jerk. Sometimes he lived up to it. I heard about one location shoot in a small, conservative, Ontario town. Donnelly brought up a couple of prostitutes from Toronto to hang out with him and the other actors.

“Oh, you’re with the movie they’re shooting,” one of the townspeople would say.  “What’s your role in the picture?”

“We’re just the fucks.” would be the abrupt answer. True, but rather shocking for the local residents.

When I lived in Gibsons Landing, Donnelly had a place around the bay from my place. We were both into boats. Except my boat at the time was a twenty-six foot sailboat that cost me nothing beyond the purchase price. His boat was huge, aluminum, diesel powered with twin thirsty engines, and breaking the bank. Like Donnelly it was bigger than life. We got to know each other, and I enjoyed some good times and good conversations.

I got the news today that he’s died at the age of eighty. I’m sorry he’s gone.

Solving Problems

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 per diem. 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 per diem 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 Doing the Impossible Can Be Fun

Someplace in the archives of Cannell Films is a rather incredible piece of footage.  I wish I had access to it, just to see if it is as good as I think it is.  I shot it.  Here’s the story.

Alex Beaton, the line producer in Vancouver for Cannell Films gave me a call.  They had moved their hit series, Wiseguy, to New Orleans for a season and managed to put it in the toilet.  Our actors and crews in Vancouver had made it a hit.  I don’t know what motivated the move to New Orleans.  Possibly it had something to do with introducing a new wise guy character.  In any event, the move hadn’t worked.  They wanted to shoot a new opening sequence back in Vancouver.  Could I story board it?

I’m not a story board artist, but I can get the idea across.  Alex handed me the script for the new intro and I set to work.  It was a narcotics bust.  The scene was to start with a helecopter approaching.  Then a shot of the doors of a swat team truck opening.  The swat team emerges and loads weapons.  The DA’s car roars up.  We see the decal on his door. The DA gets out and talks to the captain of the SWAT team, a few lines of dialogue.  Then the truck rams the doors to a warehouse.  The SWAT team enters and shoots a couple armed bad guys before arriving at a door at the back of the warehouse.  SWAT team members step in with a battering ram and takes out the door.  The DA and the swat team captain enter to find cocaine being bagged.  The DA presents a court order to the head criminal who spits on it contemptuously.  The DA collars him and wipes the spit off on his face and they drag him away.

After considering each shot described in the script, I ended up with twenty-two shots in the story board. The story board was sent to Stephen Cannell for approval, which it got, and then Alex asked me if I would shoot it.

Of course I said I’d be delighted.  Then Alex dropped the bombshell.  He could only give me two hours to shoot the scene, and that would be with the crew that had just finished the day of shooting with another show. Oh, and they couldn’t afford a helicopter.  We’d have to fake it with a bright light and a sound effect.

Twenty-two setups, which is what the story board called for, would normally be a full day of shooting.  To achieve it in two hours with an exhausted crew was just madness.  Naturally, I shrugged and said sure.  No problem.  Okay, I wasn’t quite that sanguine about it.  I protested.  I presented a reasonable argument for why it was impossible. But those were all the resources that Alex had. I gave it some thought and decided I could see a way to do it.

The solution was to combine all twenty two shots into one carefully choreographed shot.  We would begin with a Steadicam operator up on a ladder for the doors of the SWAT team truck bursting open.  He comes down the ladder and the shot settles into a close up of shotgun shells loading, then tilts up to see the helicopter whirling overhead taking us to the DA’s car arriving,  moving in to a close up of the DA decal on the side of the car and up onto the DA as he gets out, becoming a two shot as the DA and the SWAT team captain talk, then they step to one side as the SWAT team truck rams through the doors.  They follow into the warehouse and the camera swings to catch the guards getting shot then finds the door at the back  just as the guys with the ram break it down and we follow the DA and SWAT team captain into the room where the action plays out as one continuous shot.

Alex told me that I could have only one take.  I could see the impossibility of asking for two.  The reset would take hours. But one take was enough.  Damn but it was beautiful.  We shot a couple of cut aways just in case the pacing needed to be tightened up, but I didn’t think they’d be needed. The whole shot played, beginning to end, with every frame in the story board included and flowing from one to another.

I never heard much about that shot from anybody at Cannell films.  Maybe it wasn’t as impressive as I thought it was.  But I think it was amazing. .

Attempting the Impossible

It Sounds Good in Theory

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.