There’s a lot to miss about my career as a journeyman film director. Chief among them is the comradery of the crew members.
A recent post by Moira Carlson in her sketch a day series told me that skunk cabbage are also known as bog lantern. That’s fascinating. I love the smell of skunk cabbage and don’t find it at all objectionable. But then I like the smell of durian, and I’ve known people who became nauseous to the point of throwing up when confined with one.
On one of our location shoots I had the crew van stop in Chinatown in Vancouver so that I could buy a durian. When the camera crew discovered its smell, they decided to hide one in the grip truck as a prank. (an expensive prank, given the price of the darn things, and a waste of a great fruit). That caused complaints to travel up the chain of command, and reprimands to quickly slide back down. Film crews can be so much fun, eh. I do miss that.
Here’s the second of the three scary incidents that occurred during the shooting of Terminal City Ricochet. During a prison break to liberate our heroes, a huge guard in riot gear jumps up and orders them to halt. A second guard, in true trigger happy Terminal City Ricochet fashion, appears on a catwalk some distance above and behind the first guard and, supposedly aiming at our escaping heroes, shoots him in the back.
The special FX contingent of the crew came to me with the idea. If the first guard could be dressed in a down filled vest, the front of which was packed with explosive squibs, we could backlight the performer and have a beautiful shot of feathers and shrapnel and rain hanging in the air. I was assured that this would be a spectacular image.
Since I’d be covering the scene in a wide shot, the guard with the exploding vest would have to push his own button to trigger the charge.
It happened that the night we shot this scene was blessed with a heavy Vancouver rain. That made everybody miserable, but with the water on the ground and in the air, glistening in the lights, the look was beautiful. We did one rehearsal with no exploding vest, then re-set for the real deal. The first guard stepped into the shot. “Halt.” Cue the second guard appearing behind him. We see the muzzle flash of his shotgun as he fires the blank. We hear a muffled thump as the squibs in the vest are triggered and the down filled vest bulges out a bit. But no flurry of feathers. No shrapnel and feathers and rain gloriously backlit by film lights powerful enough to give us all headaches. Our first guard falls down and our heroes rush out of the shot. Ho hum.
So what happened? My first thought was that the squibs had been placed in the vest to blow inward instead of out into the lights. That would mean my actor took a full shot of explosives right over his heart. My god, we’ve killed the guy.
Fortunately that isn’t what had happened. Close, but not quite.
What had happened was that the rain had soaked the down filled vest, so that the filling became a solid mass instead of a nice fluffy bunch of feathers. The exploding squib had hit this mass of solidified feathers and bounced back onto the chest of the actor. He described it as being akin to the famous Bruce Lee three inch hard punch to his chest. Such a punch well might have killed our actor, but fortunately he was a sturdy gentleman with a good padding of flesh over his ribs. So it didn’t kill him. It just hurt the way you might expect a very hard punch to the chest to hurt.
It never ceases to amaze me, the courage and dedication of aspiring actors, especially the stunt performers in SBE (Special Business Extra) categories. For that matter, it never ceases to amaze me, the shear gall of my own a commitment as a director. I seem to turn into a psychopath. “Are you ready to give me take two?” He was, and he did, of course after we reset with a dry vest and made sure he wouldn’t get punched again. Now that was a guy with cajones. It still must have taken something to push that button.
Once again, I would welcome a comment. You can make one by clicking on the link that is the last in the categories list at the bottom of this page, or on the link to comments in the shape of a statement bubble at the top right. And if you happen to be the brave soul who gave me take two, please check in and say hello to your fans. I’m definitely one of them.
We had a couple of incidents shooting Terminal City Ricochet. The first one I’ll tell you about was my fault, and I hope I learned my lesson from it.
The scene called for our heroes to run security in a big old pimpmobile of a car. A guard with a pistol grip shotgun was to stand in front of the vehicle and fire at the windshield, which, being bullet proof, would only sustain a skid mark as damage.
I’ve had a lot of experience with wax bullets from back in my days playing with my Ruger Super Blackhawk 44 magnum with the fast draw club. I would hand load the wax bullets. They were easy enough to make. All it took was loading in a primer and black powder, then pressing the shell casing into nearly molten sealing wax. The result was a non-lethal projectile that would let me see how accurate my shot had been. So here’s my bright idea: I’ll just make a few 12 gauge wax bullets that can be fired at the car windshield, leaving the desired skid mark without penetrating the glass.
Of course we tested this concept on the prop car, and I was really satisfied with the result.
To do the actual shooting I wanted somebody I could trust with a shotgun. So I enlisted my brother, Ed (Bear) Scott, to play the part of the guard. Ed’s day job was as a prison guard. He carried a pistol grip shotgun most days when he was working in the yard. I knew I could trust him to land a shot on the windshield and get out of the way before he got run over.
Comes the day. Everything is all set. The shot goes off perfectly. No problem, until Ed comes on the walky-talky. “You might want to call for an ambulance,” he says calmly. “That bullet went right through.”
Well, holy shit. That doesn’t sound good. We all race for the car, where we find the actors laughing and pointing at the very obvious hole in the windshield. They were splattered with shards of glass, but fortunately nobody was hurt. They certainly could have been. They weren’t even wearing eye protection.
This was the beginning of my aversion to having a real gun on a movie set. It’s not necessary, as I demonstrated quite well using nothing but Final Cut Pro when shooting “Passion”. It’s now a trivial matter to add CGI flame and smoke to the muzzle of a gun that can only go click, completely incapable of sending out a projectile. The result is one hundred percent believable. Actually even better than what you might get with a real gun because you can adjust the look and level of the flash and smoke. But Terminal City Ricochet was shot in the pre-digital days, when adding CGI would have been completely beyond our squeaky tight budget. No longer, and no more. Never again.
That was one of three incidents I can think of where we had a safety issue on Terminal City Ricochet. At one point, my safety officer wrote a letter to his union complaining that I was ignoring safety concerns. That gave me no choice but to fire the man. This was about the time that a helicopter crash killed performers on the set of Twilight Zone the Movie, resulting in criminal charges against the director, John Landis. It was obvious that I, the director, would be in line to take any blame, and with a letter like the one from my safety officer on file, I would have no defense at all. Thinking back on this now, firing the safety officer did nothing to mitigate my legal exposure, but I think firing him for egregious stupidity was certainly justified. I replaced that safety officer with the head of the stunt man’s union, telling him that he had complete control of the set and that nothing would happen without his approval. He was to sign off on any scene involving a firearm, explosion, or anything else that could be dangerous. None of this would have protected me in the event of another incident, but at least it would give me an argument to make if something else went wrong.
Please stay tuned for two more safety issues on Terminal City Ricochet. It was a scary shoot.
And please, put your thoughts and comments into a comments thread for this post. You can find the link to post a comment at the top right of this page, or at the bottom as the last item on the category list. Comments really help to motivate me to continue writing this kind of material, and ease the feeling that I am screaming into the void. So please, do comment.
I once paid quite a bit of money to attend a workshop on how to be a successful director. I don’t remember what credentials the presenter held, but he managed to turn me off within five minutes of starting his presentation. His first piece of advice was that a director needs to establish dominance by firing somebody. It didn’t matter whom or why, just pick somebody more or less at random and fire them.
This is the dominance theory of film directing and it’s not for me. I’m ashamed to say I tried it out once on a CBC production in Toronto. I like a quiet, focused set. My hope was that, while the crew would not shape up to make me happy, they would shape up to keep the first AD safe from criticism. So I growled loudly at my first AD: “If you can’t get me quiet on this set, I’m going to get somebody in here who can.” Doing my best to sound angry and nasty.
And then I felt so bad about myself that I never tried being dominant again,
All I can say about this theory of directing is: Don’t be this guy, eh.
I walked out of that expensive workshop after a mere five minutes of listening to the jerk strut and preen his way around the stage. I demanded my money back with the excuse that my back was giving me trouble and I couldn’t stand to remain in the seat. I suppose I could have just told the organizers the truth, but there would have been consequences for that friend of mine who talked me into buying the ticket. Truth can be a dangerous thing to use indiscriminately.
I got my brother, Ed “Bear” Scott, to work with me on Terminal City Ricochet, despite my feelings about nepotism. Mostly I wanted him on set because his day job was as a prison guard. He handled a pistol grip shotgun every working day, and knew how to do so safely. Ed knows me. He knows that I’m a pussycat by nature. And this is what he told me about the crew: “They are terrified of you, you know.” Shaking his head in disbelief. “You’re kidding,” I told him. “No I’m not. They are totally terrified of you.” “What have I ever done to make them afraid of me,” I asked him. “That’s what I can’t figure out,” he said. “But they are.” “Must be just the title,” I said.
We had a lot of real guns on that set. Ed told me about a conversation he had with the props master. “You’re going to have an accidental discharge if you do that,” he told the guy. The response he got roughly translates as “Fuck off. I know what I’m doing.” And then five minutes later, KABOOOM. One of the pistol grip shotguns went off, to everybody’s surprise, especially the surprise of the props master who was holding it, fortunately pointed straight up in the air. Ed gave him a look, but didn’t say anything. He’d been in that position himself.
Terminal City Ricochet had a couple of incidents on set that resulted in me having to fire the safety officer, out of self defense, and replace him with the head of the stunt man’s association. More on that in my next post.
Paraphrasing here. As Stanly Motts, the producer character in Wag the Dog, said sadly,: Just as you are starting to understand how to make a movie and how the industry works they lower the curtain on your career.
I am a movie director, damn it. Specifically a low budget movie director. Give me Bowfinger’s budget and I will give you a movie. That’s what I have done during my long career. Obviously not as much as I wish I had done, but that’s it. I put the money on the screen.
Anybody can make a big budget movie. That’s a snap. That’s easy. It’s making a movie with no money that’s the trick.
I don’t know how I became a low budget movie director. It’s a lot more fun to hose the screen with millions of dollars from people who don’t know dick about making movies, but to be a director I respect you’ve got to be Bowfinger.
Something I heard through my entire directing career went like this: He’s never made a big budget picture. Do you think he can handle this much money? Handle it? Fuck, I’ll roll in the dirt with it and deliver far more than anybody has any right to expect, dance with whatever devil I have to dance with, and put the money on the screen.
I came into directing up the rat lines. I came into directing after serving an apprenticeship as a writer, soundman, editor’s assistant, sound editor, editor, cameraman, production manager, and… fucking creator. A creator. The author of the picture, whatever the picture might happen to be.
Most people have no idea what a director is, or what he does. Take them on a film set and they might think the assistant director, the AD, the guy giving directions, is the director. Not even close. Peter Coyote was not the director, micro-managing the scene with impossible instructions to performers. Not even close. Or the guy telling the actor to pick up the salt shaker on such and such a line. The guy, now as frequently the woman, giving directions. Isn’t that person the director? Not even close.
The only real depiction of a real director I ever saw was Peter O’Toole in “The Stuntman”. The guy desperately trying to find his movie amid the clatter and noise on set, and in his head. Now, that was a director. That was Francis Copolla trying to find it, to figure it out while he went way over budget in the Philippine jungle with the suits back in the studio screaming at him and throwing scripts at the wall. A guy, increasingly a woman, who can see the big picture, who is so close to the big picture he can almost taste it while the chitchats climb on his ceiling and fall into his tea cups.
And who was it on set when the suit’s representative came to tell him that he was twenty pages behind or fifty pages behind who tore that number of pages out of his script and threw them in the trashcan, announcing, “There. Now I’m on budget.” Money? Fuck your money. I’m making a movie.
I was hired by Canal to get “Wiseguy” under control after the prima donna director of the pilot went so far over budget that they couldn’t do turn around. Zale, Alex Beaton said to me, you are going to bring in the same quality without going a penny over budget or a minute into overtime. And I said, “Sure, Alex. Whatever you say.”
We were shooting outside St. Paul’s hospital on Thurlow Street when a grip went charging past me, a hundred pounds of cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back and the sweat sprayed off his t-shirt. I watched him run with it. Run with it, not saunter along. The guy was charging. For me. Because I told him what I expected of the crew and they were all set on delivering.
I think Rob Young was the soundman. Or maybe it was Larry Sutton. No matter. I asked him, “Larry, this is not a slacking crew. This crew is humping it. So what the hell went wrong with the pilot?”
“They set up the camera three times and lit the set four times before they shot an inch of film,” Larry said, almost apologetically.
Well, you can’t do that on episodic television. Not unless you are the precious prima donna director in a sinecure of a position. Then you can do it. Then the studio will eat the overtime and you can keep working while you piss millions down the drain. But that’s not me. I come in on schedule and on budget.
Larry, or was it Rob, explained it to me while he quietly moved my coffee in the styrofoam cup away from his Nagra IV. (Yes, they were still recording on Nagra IV’s in those days.) I said the camera goes here on a fifty, and if I didn’t like the shot we’d shoot it anyway and I’d have to eat it in the editing room. I set a pace. We got the shot and we moved on.
I had a standard speech at the beginning of a shoot specifically for the script assistant. It went like this: Don’t talk to me about axis. I’m not going to discuss axis on my set. If you think I’ve got the axis wrong and the shots won’t cut together, you just make a note in your notes and we shoot the shot. If I’ve got the axis wrong, if we’re crossing the line and you think it will be a problem in the editing room, make a note on the script and keep it to yourself. I’m the director. I’m never wrong about the camera axis. But if you open up a discussion about eye lines or camera axis then the DOP is going to chime in with an opinion, and then the actors will have an opinion, and pretty soon I’ve got twenty minutes of my day and more down the rabbit hole of eye lines and camera axis, while not one of my crew members has ever cut one of my pictures. So they have no right to an opinion of camera axis. It’s my job as the director to choose the shots, cover the scenes, and make sure everything will cut together. Nobody is going to blame you if my shots don’t cut. Make the note and shut up about it. The whole thing about setting the pace is choosing the shots, lenses, eye lines, and then making sure the actors know where to look to match the action. Sometimes it may feel weird to them. That’s all between me and the actors. I’m not going to cover anything two ways, and we’re not coming back for a reshoot.
If you really think the editor is going to come back at you over eye line or axis issues, whisper to me that you’re putting “Shot under protest” on the script. Then get out of my way. We’re moving on.
A director is very vulnerable. His reputation is what gets him or her their next gig. All it takes is a dismissive sneer and comment at the wrap party of another show when their name comes up and it can cost them big time. Real money. I remember in the production office of “Danger Bay” listening to the production manager disparaging Phil Borsos as the director of “One Magic Christmas”. She had worked on “One Magic Christmas” and that gave her real authority when the producers of “Danger Bay” were listening to her. “Phil Borsos didn’t direct that picture,” she was saying. “Borsos was hiding in the production honey wagon shoveling coke up his nose. It was Frank Tidy, the DOP, who directed that picture.” And I had to intervene. “That’s not true,” I said.
“Were you there?” the production manager said.
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t there. And I don’t know what problems you had with Phil. No doubt he’s not an easy director for a production manager to work with. But if you look at his films, going back to Cooperage and Spar Tree and The Grey Fox, all the movies that preceded One Magic Christmas, you will see a visual connection through all the movies he made before he made that last picture. Phil was a visual stylist. I don’t care if he was snorting coke off a stripper’s belly while he was making “One Magic Christmas”. I don’t care if he never showed up on set. He made that picture. Don’t ask me how, but the proof is in the pictures. What’s more, while he was shooting that standard Hollywood action movie in Florida, and pissing off that Hollywood established producer, One Magic Christmas was dead. The powers of the industry had decided that Phil was too much trouble to work with. He was Hollywood Poison. His career was over. But Phil took the picture to Disney and performed CPR on it and showed his commitment to the movie that had been his dream for years, the movie he wanted to make so that he could join the ranks of directors like Frank Capra with It’s a Wonderful Life. Without Phil Borsos, One Magic Christmas would not exist. He brought it back from the dead through shear salesmanship and force of personality. So don’t tell people, especially a room full of producers, he didn’t direct it. It’s a Phil Borsos picture.
By the way, I was recently very gratified to hear one of the culture commenters on CBC radio this past Christmas talking about his admiration for One Magic Christmas. I know that movie had a lot of trouble finding its audience, but I personally loved it. It shows Phil Borsos maturing as a director with a real talent for working with actors. Such a tragedy that Phil died so young. He had more films to make, films I would really want to see. I always admired the man and felt that he should have had some of the attention that landed on me by default.
To say it again, a director is terribly vulnerable. All a director has is their reputation. That’s what gets them their next pay check. And their next chance to direct something significant, to practice their craft as a director.
I traveled to Seattle once, years ago, to take a meeting with a producer for PBS, the people who were making the very few television shows I’m interested in directing. At some point in the meeting, he said to me, “I hear you’re hard to work with.” and I knew exactly where that was coming from. It was coming from Nelvana in Toronto who were upset with me over giving them a hard time shooting The Edison Twins, of which I was one of the two startup directors. It had nothing to do with my directing. It had to do with them showing my work, and the work of my crew, to the Disney brass in the basement of their production offices because they wanted to save a few bucks by not renting a screening room at the lab. We had all been breaking our hearts trying to make a wonderful TV series and we were actually proud of our work, but they were going to screen it on a Siemens double system projector with too long a throw for the lens and wow and flutter on the sound track. The director of photography had come to me and begged me to do something about it, as had the sound man. Both said they wouldn’t attend the screening. I joined them in solidarity, and that cost me at least this one job that I knew about. The other startup director had more political sense than I ever had, and, I think, managed to keep the situation from costing him work and money.
I’m going to name names now. Well, one name at least. Because I’m dying and I’m never going to work again and I don’t give a fuck. Ken Jubenvill, that’s a name for you. Ken Jubenvill, you are an asshole. I thought you were a friend of mine. But an episodic director has no friends on an episodic set. It got back to me, you see. Of course it did. In a conversation with producers Ken said “Oh Zale. (dismissive shrug) Zale plays at being a director. ” What an asshole thing to say about me, Ken. And to producers yet. That may actually be the moment when the scales fell from my eyes and I started to admit to hating being a director in the fucking industry, while loving being a director in the real world. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. Yeah, right, Ken. As Ron Orieux said about you, you tiny, perfect, director. I let it ride. The next time I saw Ken I smiled at him and asked how his family was doing. Was he any closer to making his tiny, perfect movie. Probably not. Give me a moment to check in to Almighty Voice on the IMDB. That should tell me. Did Ken ever get to make his little movie….
And there you have it. A shipload of TV movies. An equal number of episodic shows. One hell of an impressive director’s show reel. Looks like you had one hell of a lot of fun, Ken. I could almost envy a show real like that one. But no. I don’t see your movie on the list. You never got to make it.
And now I feel shitty, because revealing this about Ken makes me as big an asshole as he is. But of course I knew this already. There’s something about the movie industry, the industry, not making movies, that brings out the asshole in anybody.
But I will tell you who I hate. (Whom I hate?) I hate those who punch down. I hate the First AD on Kung Fu the Legend Continues who called a certain woman “The set bicycle.” Thinking it would make me think less of her when all it did was make me think less of him.
And even he is not the biggest asshole to infest the television movie industry. To see that asshole, all I need is a mirror.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.