Getting Started and Granny’s Quilts

Unless you were born into Hollywood royalty, like one of the Carradines or Coppolas, getting a foot into the film industry is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, especially from a socially remote location in Canada. Back in 1969, the only path I could see was to do anything that would put me in contact with movie people, like working as a sound man or an assistant editor, and then doing anything else that I could call making a movie. That last part is far easier today, when an ambitious kid can make a short movie on his phone and edit it on his computer. But when I got started, making anything cost a ship load of money.

How much money? Well, for starters you needed a camera that cost thousands of dollars, but you could rent, and sound equipment costing slightly less which you could also rent but I had saved up to own. Close to three thousand bucks for a Nagra IV with crystal synch and a Sennheiser 804 microphone with wind cage and carrying handle – the basis of a documentary sound kit. Then you needed film to run through the camera. You couldn’t edit that film without expensive equipment, unless you had the dedication of Jack Darcus and were willing to shoot black and white reversal and edit the original with a magnifying glass and a pair of scissors.

Even at that, the film and processing was going to set you back hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. To give you some idea of the expense: Film stock, processing, and a work print would cost approximately one dollar per foot. Sixteen millimeter film had forty frames in a foot, running through the camera at 24 frames/second. So every couple of seconds of shooting, another dollar was going into the movie. You could count on, conservatively, a ten to one shooting ration though on a complicated documentary that might go up to a hundred to one or more. A ten to one ration meant each ten feet you ran through the camera and work printed, would result in one foot of finished film. This caused a great temptation to try to edit in the camera, which was a false economy and severely restricted the choices in editing.

For example, if you have a performer entering the scene through a door from another room, it gives the editor choices if you film them going from that room, opening the door, entering the other room, and closing the door behind them. Similarly, you want to overlap the action in the other room, starting with the door closed and having the performer enter and close the door behind them. That way the editor can chose where to cut to make the action flow smoothly.

This principle of overlapping should extend to every action. If somebody stands up from the table in the master shot, it might make sense to start with them sitting down, thinking about rising, then standing up. Your cut to a close shot might call for the actor starting sitting and then rising into the frame. It’s vitally important to give the editor choices of cutting points, and that inflates the shooting ratio.

Then, of course, there are the flubbed takes and pick ups on takes. Both of which call for overlapping action and dialogue.

And that’s just the shooting. After that you have the cost of post production, the sound transfer from quarter inch magnetic to sprocketted sixteen millimeter magnetic film stock that can be synchronized with the work print. You’ve all seen the clapper boards with the film name and scene number and take number on them. Those served a purpose. They allowed the film to be synchronized by matching the frame where the clapper board closed with the click of the “sticks.”

The sequence for starting a shot was for the Assistant Director the AD, to call “roll sound”. The soundman would then say “speed” when the tape had stopped bouncing the guide rollers. Then the cameraman would say “slate” or “mark it” and the camera assistant would waste no time announcing the scene and take number before loudly closing the clapper board. Of course that footage, that dollar or more of shooting, would be thrown away, which is why the slate was in position and ready to close by the time the cameraman said “mark it”. Nobody wasted any time when the camera was rolling, which could be quite disconcerting for the actors. It was why I always gave a second or two for things to settle before calling “action”. Some waste was necessary.

I don’t think I need to go any further into the process. You get the idea. Making any kind of a movie cost money. When I was working as an office junior at CBC in Toronto, Brian R.R. Hebb, another office junior, and I teamed up to make a “filler” in hopes of selling it to the CBC. Brian wanted to be a cameraman. I wanted to be a director, or at least make movies. So we kicked in our own money to buy a few 100 foot rolls of Kodak reversal stock, rented a camera, and set about making a little film to celebrate the vanishing streetcar. We shot some of the streetcars still operating in Toronto, shot a day at a streetcar museum close to town, added in some stolen stock footage of streetcars in the early days of Toronto, laid on some cleared music from the CBC’s music library, and I cut our little film after-hours in one of the CBC editing rooms on CBC editing equipment. I don’t remember how all the numbers worked out, but when we sold “The Short Train” to CBC we turned enough to pay our costs and pocket maybe a hundred dollars each. Since we were both earning $50/week at that time, that felt pretty good.

Cue Digression Cam: Years later I was hired to direct an MOW, a Movie of the Week, about Tai Babalonia and Randy Gardner, a figure skating pair who were headed to the Olympics when Randy pulled a groin muscle and they were out of contention. To my surprise and delight, the producers wanted to use Brian Hebb as the Director of Photography. He’d worked his way up to a cameraman position at CBC, an amazing achievement in it’s own right, after I’d left the mother corporation. Then he also left the CBC and was making a name for himself as a freelancer. So there we were, some twenty years after making our little filler. Me the director and Brian the Director of Photography. Both of us where we’d wanted to be way back when. There was a scene in “On Thin Ice” that called for a television to be playing in the background in a hotel room. I managed to get CBC archives to find our little film, and that’s what’s playing back on the TV in that scene. Full circle, eh.

That little filler was about as much as I could do without more money, and getting more money meant finding government support. The Canadian Film Development Corporation, later rebranded as Telefilm Canada, was catching flack for not spending any money out west, so they threw B.C. a bone with a short film program. It called for submitting a script and budget, so I wrote a half hour based on one of my father’s stories of working for the railroad in Northern Saskatchewan. I think that gave my first wife, who had become my producer, $7,500, with which, being extremely frugal, we figured we could make a television half hour, twenty-two minutes of finished film. We lucked out with the weather. It started snowing on our first shooting day, stopped and turned to rain on our seventh, and by the time we wrapped the snow was gone. The end result was a short film that looked gorgeous. I managed to sell “Gandy Dance” to the CBC.

I also found a distributor for “Gandy Dance”. He was based in Toronto and mostly handled educational films. I don’t think he managed to get any revenue out of our film, beyond what we got from the CBC sale. I was looking for an economic base, a foot in the door as a film maker. So I asked him to lend me three of his top earning educational films. From a film making point of view they were not very impressive, downright ugly even, but they did fit the parameters of educational rentals – they were designed for art classes with titles like “Working with Papier Mache” or “Working with Crayons”. They were no longer than twelve minutes running time, which meant that a teacher could show them to a class and still have time to have the students do some work inspired by the film. They were extremely simple – just one camera angle, hands entering frame to do the artwork, no editing, and one sound track of non-descript music. No sound mix. Obviously they were very cheaply made.

I thought maybe we could have a winner if I made an educational film that had instructional value, but also had some mood, some heart and soul. And that made me think of my grandmother and her quilt making. Granny was eighty-seven years old at the time. She had been making quilts since she was sixteen, and her first quilt, a log cabin pattern, was still in the family. I managed to borrow it from my cousin Alice, and it truly is an amazing quilt. Look at it and think red, and a pattern of red rectangles emerges. Think blue and a different pattern of blue rectangles comes out.

I gathered up maybe twenty other quilts from members of the family, hung them on the wall of our cabin, and shot clips of them. Crazy quilts. Dresden plate quilts. And the aforementioned Log Cabin Quilt, with Granny’s voice over comment “I guess I was ambitious in those days.” I had a wealth of visual material. Then I spent hours and hours interviewing Granny about how she made quilts.

A lot of what she told me hit the editing room floor. Granny had made thousands of quilts. A quilt a month in her final year. She had sent quilts to the starving Russians during the famine in the Stalin years. She made baby quilts for every child born in the family.

With the basis of a sound track in hand, I brought in Ron Orieux, the cameraman who had shot “Gandy Dance” for me and who would go on to shoot my first and second features, “Skip Tracer” and “The Hounds of Notre Dame”. That gave me almost everything I needed to make the movie, but I still brought in Gordon Fish, another freelance cameramen, for a few extra shots.

By this time I had purchased a 16mm/35mm sound transfer machine, so I could do my own transfers of the 1/4 inch magnetic to 16mm. sprocketted stock. I had also purchased a six gang synchronizer and a guillotine splicer, a viewer with a tiny screen, and a “squawk box” reader for the synchronizer. I put together an editing bench, with rewinds and split reels and bins to hold the film clips. It was all very expensive equipment, not the kinds of things you could buy at a garage sale. The guillotine splicer alone was hundreds of dollars. Big money in 1971.

I set about cutting the visuals and laying in Granny’s narration. I recorded my aunt Belle’s piano music to add to the sound track. Aunt Belle played ragtime, and old tunes like “Ke Ke Ke Katy”, Granny’s theme song. For transitions I recorded some “stingers” on our own piano, and transferred them at double speed because that seemed to make them sound better.

After a start at the painful process of editing picture and sound using the synchronizer and sqawk box, I found a well used Moviola editing machine I could afford. That completed my first editing room.

The Moviola editing machine. It had a tendency to eat the workprint, but at least it let me view the picture with one track of the sound. It was far superior to the squawk box and synchronizer. I ended up editing several tracks of sound, music and sound FX, and put out the money for a sound mix at the lab.

Editing took months. I was running out of money. But I snagged a Canada Council grant to get some finishing money, to pay for the sound mix, neg matching and answer print and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think the Canada Council grant came in at $3,500. That was inspiring to me. To think that I could work for hundreds of hours at the wage available at that time, or sit down and write a grant proposal in a few hours and have that huge sum of money come into my mail box a few months later. Well… it made me think about money differently.

Artistically, my main problem was that I wanted the film to bounce along. But when I tried to use shorter cuts, it ended up looking like a badly made commercial. I finally realized that the film had to be paced to suit the subject matter. This was an old lady making a quilt. It was a mistake to try to make it exciting. it just had to flow, and finding that flow took me a lot of time. But finally it was finished. And here it is:

This was Granny Scott’s last quilt. Shortly after we finished shooting, she went in for cataract surgery and she never made another quilt.

Of course, making something to sell is only the first step. I took “Granny’s Quilts” to schools and was told that, much as they loved the film, they got all their movies for free from the National Film Board.

That was the beginning of my feud with the Board. If the government spent far more than any shoe maker would afford to spend to made shoes of exceptional quality and then gave them away for free, the shoe makers would be up in arms. But somehow, film makers were supposed to accept this situation and lavish praise on the National Film Board in hopes of getting a budget for the film subject du jour. It was discouraging. Obviously, my only hope lay south of the border.

I took a print of “Granny’s Quilts” down to a school in Seattle and immediately got a sale. I think in those days we were offering prints for a couple of hundred dollars, which gave us a slim profit margin. The really lucky break was that I learned about Landers Film Review, an American publication that went out to all the libraries and school districts in the country. After I submitted “Granny’s Quilts”, and got a glowing review, the requests for preview prints started coming in. We were soon getting two or three requests for preview prints a day, and for every three requests we made a sale. So my humble film about my granny kept us eating for a couple of years while I explored other possibilities. And that’s how a film career begins.

I can’t end this without acknowledging that, while I did the creative work and manual labor to make our films, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without my wife and partner, Laara Dalen. On days when I wasn’t bringing in any money, she always was working some job or other. She kept the groceries coming and the lights on. Those were lean times. I would take my grandfather’s Silver Pidgeon Baretta shotgun down to the nearby dairy farm and blow off both barrels at the pigeons that were eating all the grain. Laara cooked up a mean pigeon-a-dobo. We supplemented that meat source with the rabbits we raised, or with oolichans we scooped from the nearby Fraser River.

And when money came in to make something, Laara was the best producer and production manager I ever worked with. So my best advice to anybody who wants to become a film maker, starting from zero, is find yourself a supportive partner. Best case scenario, marry them.

Another Blast from the Past

Recently I was contacted by Michael Rawley, a Toronto actor who received a kidney transplant in the year 2000. It was my good fortune to be able to document the lead up to the operation, and result.

I had pretty much forgotten this effort, but Michael’s request for a copy sent me on a search through dusty storage in subterranean caverns. I couldn’t find any of the original cassettes, or anything labeled as final version, but I did turn up a MiniDV cassette labeled “Transplant, rough mix”. Even more amazing, I dug out my now ancient Canon GL1 camera and found that it still works just fine, despite not being out of the case for at least ten years.

The next questions – do I still have the technology to capture video from a MiniDV cassette and turn it into a digital file? That took some time and effort to figure out. But in the end, success. Now my very first attempt at digital film making is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

Wendy’s Michael’s Kidney” my first digital documentary. I was hooked.

The gear I had to produce this was primitive in the extreme, a tiny amateur level camera with very limited control over focus and lighting, a ridiculously shaky tripod, and only a clip-on lavaliere microphone to capture the sound. Yet I’m still impressed with the quality. Although I never made a penny from the considerable time I spent making this documentary, and could never get anybody to broadcast it, the result convinced me that I loved the new technology.

Only a few years before I made this, something equivalent would have cost thousands of dollars and required at least a two man team. Making it was a taste of things to come. The finished film still brings a tear to my eye. It was a first step toward my eventual bankruptcy and flight to China.

Funny how things get started, and how they work out.

One last thing for anybody reading this: Please, for the love of mercy, make a comment. I’m pretty sure a few people are reading my personal website now, but I hardly ever get a comment. Even if you just say hello, please please please say something. Please let me know I’m not alone. I feel so very alone.

The Best Kind of Letter

Out of the blue, this arrived in my in box:

John D. LeMay as he looks now, some 34 years after I had the pleasure of working with him.

Hello there Zale,

Just reminiscing as I turn 60 this year, remembering former colleagues and times.

Just wanted to reach out and tell you how thankful I was to have worked with you on that episode of Friday’s Curse.
You may not recall, but it was a rather emotional episode involving my father played by Michael Constantine.
I recall you being very skilled creating a space we’re I could reach places in my work I had never been.
So thanks.

I am glad to hear that your cancer scare was nothing more than that. I wish you many years of following your artistic whims.

All the best,
John LeMay

My Reply:

John:
Such a delight to hear from you.  Thanks so much for the kind words about my directing.

It may interest you to know that I was contacted some years ago by a fan who wanted to know if he could get a copy of that cursed pipe.  I ended up giving the slip cast I made from the Plasticine mold to him for the cost of postage.

Zale pretending to smoke the cursed pipe.
I was quite proud of that pipe.  The one supplied by the props guys was much smaller, and would have disappeared into the actor’s hand.  I ended up making the one we used out of Plasticine, just to get the visuals I wanted.  No doubt that didn’t endear me to the props guys, but that’s the price you pay for being a demanding director I guess.  Demanding, and I’m sure some would say, rather arrogant.

Turning 60.  That’s amazing.  You were such a kid when we shot that episode.  A very earnest kid as I remember.  You did a great job. Happy birthday, and many more

Thanks again for your kind words.  Please feel free to check in again now and then.  I always love to hear from the talented people I worked with.
Warmest regards
Zale

P.S. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to post your endorsement to my site.  Let me know if that’s a problem for you.

And John’s back to me:

From John LeMan:
I’m always amazed at the passion fans have have for that show.
I did not know , or forgot that you created the “cursed object😱

That is one lucky fan!

Another memory…

My “real” dad was visiting the set while we were filming that episode.  They made him an extra in the lab scenes. Another reason it will always hold a special meaning for me.

Feel free to use my endorsement of course… I meant every word and it’s from the heart.

Look forward to keeping in touch.

John

John LeMay would have no way of knowing this, but I have very mixed feelings about my work as a director. That episode was number 24 of season 1. The show ran for three seasons, and I have no idea where I blew it, or why I was never invited back. It’s great that John LeMay was happy with my work, but the producers, the people who could give me work in the future, were obviously not impressed. It’s evidence of the truth I was told after my one, and only, counseling session: “What you have told me is that your failure to get as much work as you would like is a result of failing to form relationships with the people who can give you work.”

Well, go figure, eh. It was so obvious. But I had to see a counselor to see it. I came out of the Simon Fraser University film workshop, learning about making movies by talking to fellow enthusiasts, all cameramen, sound technicians, editors. They are my people. I love working with actors and admire their abilities. But producers intimidate me. They play their cards close to their chests, remain emotionally distant, and hold power over me. I did my best to avoid them and just do a good job. If I have one piece of advice for an aspiring young director today it is this: Be friendly with everybody, because anybody can give you a boost or stab you in the back without even thinking about it, but form relationships with the people who can give you work.

Sometimes I remember pulling off an amazing directorial achievement, and I feel like, yes, maybe I have talent. Sometimes I remember the accolades from film festivals or viewers, and I feel good about my career.
At other times I lie awake torturing myself over some incident, some time when I didn’t really live up to my standards, or acted in a way that I now regret, and I feel the full force of imposter syndrome. In my case, the feeling that I’m a fraud is perfectly justified. When I think about all the skills involved in directing a movie, the emotional intelligence required, the intuitive understanding of how the audience will react to an image, the artistic background that would support the title of director, it seems impossible that anybody could be really great at the job, especially me. Such arrogance, to step forward and claim to be a movie director. And yet I did that long before I had any credits to support my claim. It’s easy to see that being a tall, not terrible looking, white male was of great benefit to me. It’s a proven fact that such people are given far more authority and respect than they might actually deserve.
The other aspect of my character is a strong element of Dunning Kruger Effect. I often have to laugh at my willingness to take on projects, from home renovation, wiring, dry wall finishing, and plumbing to artistic creations like that pipe for Friday the 13th. the Series, for which I have no experience or training. It amazes me how often an attitude of “well, how hard can it be” has brought me success that I don’t feel I deserve (see imposer syndrome above).

I don’t want, expect, or need a tombstone. But if I were to have one, I’ve always wanted it to read: “He was kind and generous, a sucker for every hard luck story.” But the truth is, the epithet I believe I deserve is: “Here lies Zale Dalen, where the Imposter Syndrome met the Dunning Kruger Effect.”

Given all of this, I don’t think John Le May could have had any idea how great an effect his generous letter would have on me, or the depth of gratitude I feel for him taking the time to write it.

This is something else I try to remember as a human being. We have no idea what is going on in somebody else’s life. They may be flying high, living the joy, totally happy with everything. Or they may be deep in depression and despair. In which case a short letter of sincere appreciation could save a life.

I’m currently pretty much okay. I’m not depressed, or wallowing in despair. Even so, a letter like the one from John LeMay has made me smile for days now. You didn’t know this, John. But, if you are reading this, now you do. Thank you.

I’ll try to pay it forward.

Director’s Clubhouse

I accepted an invitation from the DGC national to attend the zoom meeting of the Director’s Clubhouse this week. I am not sure why I would do that, or whether I even have the right to still call myself a director, since I haven’t set foot on an actual movie set in, oh, probably twenty years. I attended anyway.

So, feeling like a fraud, I intended to sit quietly and just listen. Maybe ask a couple of questions, which I did. My first question was: How many shooting days are you allowed for a TV hour now. This question was on my mind because the last time I ran into Neil Fearnley he was directing something at the Billy Miner pub in Maple Ridge, I think for Hallmark. He to told me he had two shooting days to put a made for TV movie in the can. Shocking. That was a time before Netflix and Amazon Prime and all the streaming video we have now. Budgets were shrinking, along with shooting schedules, and the scramble for eyeballs was in full heat. I’m not proud, but I wouldn’t have accept that kind of work, and back in those days I’d have considered just about anything. I’m even more jaded now. Maybe Neil was pulling my leg. Two days to shoot a made for TV movie should be impossible, and I did the impossible a few times myself so I know.

Neil Fearnley directing.

It took a while to get a rough answer to this question from the assembled directors, but it turned out that nothing much has really changed. They are all concerned with the number of scenes or pages they are supposed to shoot in a day, and talked about negotiating to reduce the script size and cut non-essential scenes. But it seems that five or six days for a TV hour is more or less still standard. That’s plenty tight enough.

Of course it isn’t in my nature to just sit quietly and listen when people are talking about directing. One of the women directors mentioned that she has a boat and water show coming up, and that was my cue to jump in with unsolicited advice – mainly, don’t mount the camera on the boat since that takes away any sense of movement. This tip came from my unsuccessful bid to get a fishing industry directing gig that I lost to Ralph Thomas. That was a huge disappointment to me, since I was really into boating at the time and felt I’d be right for the show. But it turned out to be a blessing, because when it came my turn to get a boat movie, “Anything to Survive”, that involved tank work, I got to see the mistake that Ralph made. During his storm sequence he had the camera mounted on the boat, and aside from the actor falling about, that removed all sense of motion. I would be shooting in the wave tank at UBC, with the upper part of the boat gimbled to the bottom of the tank and the camera shooting from the walkway. Mounting the camera on a crane with the ability to move counter to the boat’s motion gave a terrifyingly realistic sense of how much tossing about the boat was doing and let us magnify the size of the three foot waves. Add in a couple of dump tanks and the storm got very real.

Speaking of women, it was interesting to see that at least half of the attendees at the director’s clubhouse were women. Times have changed. That’s a good thing. I now see women named as director on some very big movies, including action flicks.

One take away I got from the Clubhouse was that I don’t have much interest in getting back to being a journeyman director. Somebody mentioned directing an episode of “Viking”. While I’m sure an infusion of the directing fee for doing one of those shows would fluff up my bank account nicely, I don’t think I want to do one. Maybe I could get excited about directing an episode of something like “Better Call Saul” or “Sex Education”, but in general I don’t need the tension and hassle.

A second take away from the Clubhouse was that I can feel the joy and excitement that my fellow directors feel from simply exercising their craft. I share that feeling. It really is an incredible way to make a living. Being out of that game, it’s something I do really miss.

Anybody out there got a special feature or made for script for me to consider? Yeah, I could get excited about that. Anybody? (crickets)

Almost Famous

I was almost famous once. Years ago. Even today I’m occasionally reminded of this. The very phrase sounds funny to me. I mean, one is either famous or unknown, not almost famous. That’s sound like being almost pregnant.

To be clear, I’ve never wanted to be famous. I’ve spent time with some very famous people, and it seemed fame is a huge hassle and occasionally a danger.

I was on the set of “Best Friends” when somebody stole Norman Jewison’s lucky hat, the one with pins from all his many previous films on it. That threw Norman and the entire cast and crew into a tail spin, an act of cruelty that only somebody impressed with fame would do. Some member of his crew found a picture of him wearing his lucky hat, and transformed it into a pin for him to put on the new hat they gave him. It was a nice, caring, creative gesture, but not the same as having his lucky hat with pins from all his past work.

Fans and idiots will steal anything a famous person has owned, or even touched. The latter is perhaps forgivable. Who cares when somebody pockets Natalie McMaster’s beer glass at the bar. But when somebody stole David Carradine’s white cowboy hat, it caused, at the very least, a moment of anxiety, a small frisson of emotional pain. Hats seem to be a favourite target of those impressed by fame.

And then there is the danger. I remember sitting in an outdoor restaurant with David Carradine and Bo Svenson when a stranger approached us. Bo was instantly on his feet to bark a warning at the stranger to back off, long before I had registered any threat. I commented that he was overreacting. Bo assured me that he wasn’t. Bo had much more experience of being famous and among the famous than I had. I suppose you could ask John Lennon whether being famous is dangerous. Oh, that’s right. You can’t. He’s dead. Shot by some nutter for no other reason than he was famous.

As the star of “Kung Fu”, David Carradine was once, in my presence, approached by a slightly drunken man in a bar. I ran interference. The guy wanted to know whether David could really do kung fu. I told him gently, in a tone of voice I hoped made him feel foolish, that David was an actor. The last thing I needed was for my star for the next day’s shooting to get into a bar fight.

No. Influence and money and even power have their place. I could never see any value in fame, other than it sometimes helps a person to get influence and money.

There have been moments when my almost fame has surprised me. Years ago I left a message on a girlfriend’s answering machine which included my name. When her room mate heard the recording she apparently responded with “Was that THE Zale Dalen”. Imagine that. In somebody’s mind I was “the Zale Dalen”.

Long after my phone had stopped ringing and my career was a fading memory, my daughter was working in a call center. One of her coworkers said “Hey, your dad had something to do with the film business. I’m trying to find a movie called “Terminal City Ricochet”. Do you think he’d know how to find it.”
My daughter’s response: “He might. He directed it.” That made me feel good, but it was hardly fame.

At the First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo, a congregation my wife belongs to, one of the members went embarrassingly giddy on learning that I had directed “Skip Tracer”, my first feature length film. Forty some odd years on, she remembered the movie and sang its praises. I’m really glad she liked my first movie, and very surprised she remembered it. But the truth is, Having once been almost famous is somewhat embarrassing. I sometimes feel that my past movies, while mostly unknown and none big money makers, or even small money makers, follow me like a record of incarceration. They feel like such a small, almost accidental, achievement for all those years of trying.

I remember talking to a middle aged female actor in Los Angeles years ago. She had once been truly famous as one of the leads in a popular TV series. But that fame had gone away, and now she was truly forgotten. Fans no longer approached her in restaurants, asking for an autograph. She seemed bemused. And relieved.

And that was real fame, not my pale and shabby almost fame.

My Friend is Gone

My world is being hollowed out. Rob S. Buckham is dead.

I got the news last night while binge watching feel good movies on Netflix with my wife. It came in a note from Rob’s Australian girlfriend, Marion, still in Australia. I only got past the first lines: “Hi David. I am sending you this message to tell you the sad news that Rob passed away last week…” before I burst into tears and blurted out “Bastard died owing me fifteen hundred bucks.”

Wait. Wait. Wait. WAIT. Don’t get the wrong idea from that. That was a joke. I really don’t give a damn about that money, or the fact that Rob died owing it to me. When I’m in pain, I make a joke. And the news that Rob has died really broke me.

So it’s true, but also a joke. That debt was incurred maybe thirty years ago, well before the turn of the millennial century. I had quietly written it off decades ago, and neither of us ever mentioned it. I always wondered whether Rob remembered it, and had every intention of making good when his ship came in. Sadly, that ship was lost at sea.

Also, please understand that this is not an obituary or a eulogy. It’s a personal wail of loss, as much about me as it is about Rob. Please don’t read it like one of those post demise puff pieces that describe the deceased as ever so talented and kind and beloved by all. Rob deserves better than that. He was a complex person who lead a full life.

Rob and I hung out a lot through the ups and downs of our lives before I went to China. Both of us were recovering from the breakup of our marriages, and both of us were mostly broke. I owned a fifty foot sailboat in those days, but was on the verge of letting it go, along with everything else in my life as the flow of events built up to bankruptcy. Rob played not bad rhythm guitar. He once suggested that we form a singing duo, but we never found the time to work up a set and take it on the road.

Over the years I came to appreciate that Rob had what it takes to be a big time movie producer. He was incredibly stubborn. Tenacious. And for the past few years I’ve been of the opinion that he was possibly a little crazy. Heroically mad. Stubbornly optimistic. Relentlessly positive. Every conversation we had, and they were frequent, he would tell me about the movie deal he was putting together. I never doubted that it was real. He wasn’t a con man. He knew his stuff. Occasionally he would drop a name, or tell me he was talking to the star, or the director, or the financial group that would pull it all together. Just one more piece of the puzzle to lock down and he’d be in production. In China. No, in Czechoslovakia. No, it looks like we’ll be taking it to Taiwan. Always ever so close to closing the deal. But the next time we would talk, it was as if that conversation had never happened. Not that the deal was dead. But it was…a different deal. Or a new script. Another configuration of international players. Always positive. Always optimistic. Always very close to the big movie that kept moving away from him. In short, Rob was a movie producer. He was what a producer must be in order to succeed. I never rained on his parade, or questioned his chances. How could I in the face of such calm, relentless, determination.

He let me read one of the scripts once, which confirmed my opinion that our tastes were radically different. The script was a hot mess. We seldom agreed on the merits of a movie, seeming to approach them from completely different value systems.

As the years rolled by, my hopes for Rob grew dimmer and fainter. Frankly, I stopped believing. If Rob ever stopped believing, he never let it show. And in that, mad or not, he was heroic. A real international film producer. Just one who never quite managed to make his movie. Sadly, that’s not surprising. It’s almost an impossible thing to achieve and takes amazing luck. Most of all it takes persistence, which Rob had in full measure. Just not the luck.

I always wondered how Rob managed to survive and support his lifestyle, which, while not extravagant, was not inexpensive. Did he have an inheritance behind him? Family money? Or was he surviving on development deals and script development money, or occasional work coming up with budgets or production plans for other producers? I never asked. Rob played his cards close to his vest, and I never heard him say there was something he couldn’t afford. He paid his bills and kept up appearances. I didn’t pry.

In 2009 or so, Rob followed my lead and came to China to set up shop in Nantong and become a player in the Chinese movie industry. Soon he had connected with a young and ambitious female Chinese business partner. In 2010 he invited Ruth and me to stay in his rather luxurious apartment in Nantong and join him for a Christmas turkey dinner. He had purchased a large toaster oven, and somehow had arranged for a turkey to ride in a limousine all the way from Shanghai. Actually, I think he had two turkeys so that he could test out the oven on one of them before the main event. I had my Chinese drivers license by that time, so we rented a car and I braved the Chinese roads and traffic to Nantong.

-all photo credits Ruth Anderson
Here’s me picking up the rental car after hours. A little scary, but that’s how adventures start. I will never forget the drive through Nantong’s rush hour crush of e-bikes on that trip.
Here’s Rob’s second turkey. The first was just a test. The only other huo ji we ate in China, rather, tried to eat, was at a five star hotel in Weihai. It looked just like this, but was absolutely impossible to cut with a table knife, as if it was made from hard plastic. Typical of China, the chef had seen pictures, but had no idea how to cook the big bird.
Rob had no such problem and this turkey was as good as it looks.
It always surprised me that the Chinese, so fond of big family dinners, have yet to discover turkey. The only live turkey we saw in China was in a zoo.
And here’s Rob with, I think, his business partner, mixing a big bowl of cranberry sauce. This would be a feast with all the trimmings.
Guests included two of our former students, Simon and Lv Min, still cherished friends of mine eleven years later. They have made a life for themselves in Shanghai with their two beautiful boys, Lucas and Marcus. True to their nature, they pitched in to peel the potatoes.
And what Christmas party is complete without the Laowise (Ruth and my folksinging group name and a Chinese/English pun) Christmas carol performance. GouGou (Pronounced “gogo”, Chinese for DogDog. The Chinese name pets with double syllables, like WangWang or FeiFei) is more interested in the view.
And of course, a real turkey dinner requires a large pot of gravy.
The full Christmas meal deal. Damn but it was good.
I made the eggnog. Potent and delicious.
That’s a bottle opener, with traditional design front and back, one of Rob’s stocking stuffers.

That was my last and best memory of being with Rob in person. It was a great dinner, the only edible turkey we had in China.

After the test turkey and the feast, Rob was very tired of turkey, so Ruth and I got to take home a lot of turkey leftovers.

Rob and I had a few more meetings to do with film industry maneuvers, and then a falling out over an indiscreet comment I made to Marion, his Australian girlfriend. I did my best to make amends and apologize, but eventually sent him a very cheap costume jewelry “diamond” engagement ring, delivered by Marion who had become our friend too. She reported that it made him laugh, so I guess he got the message – I was sending the ring back. I settled in to wait for him to get over it. I think that took a couple of years, but eventually we were friends again.

I’ve made it sound like Rob never actually did anything as a movie producer. I looked him up on the IMDB this morning, and found only very thin credits, some as a gaffer, production manager, camera and electrical department, all dating back into the eighties. He had a key role in putting the deal together for one of my features, “Terminal City Ricochet”, but bailed on that production and is only credited as “additional crew”. So I really don’t know what he accomplished.

What I do know is that he never stopped trying, right up to the end. That’s what it takes to be a producer, and with a little more luck maybe I would have been flown to a production in some exotic location to take a minor position and get paid back the money he owed me. I kept hoping, more for him than for me. This said, don’t ever think that Rob was a loser. He was a man trying to climb an impossible mountain, and in the end it defeated him.

So, about that debt. Shortly before I left Canada for China, Rob got me involved as the cameraman/director/editor to make a presentation piece for a promoter who wanted to put together a TV series about golf. We were paid three thousand dollars, all the money Rob could wring from the guy, for quite a bit of work, and the deal was we would split it fifty-fifty. I shot it on miniDV and edited it on my Final Cut Pro system in my living room, with Rob supervising the edit and making me exceedingly grumpy in the process. When it came time for the money split, Rob asked me if he could take the whole amount. He seemed to need it more than I did. So I said he could owe me my share. I never needed it badly enough to ask him to pay me back.

Really, that turkey dinner in Nantong was payment enough.

I’m going to miss you, Rob, you crazy man. Sorry your dreams never came to fruition. Very glad I got to know you. You weren’t a quitter, that’s for sure. But I guess you’ve finally quit. I’m so sad about that. Heartbroken even.

Learning to Direct for Television

I got interested in film making at the Simon Frazer Film Workshop way back in about 1968. In those days I was working with other students who were interested in various technical aspects of film making, generally camera work, sound recording, or editing. My friends were not, primarily, actors. So I developed one particularly bad habit that almost scuppered my television directing career before it got properly started.

That habit – checking with the cameraman and sound man to ask if they got the shot or whether we needed to do it again. Sometimes this would devolve into an extended conversation about how the camera moved, what it saw and what it should have seen. Meanwhile the actors, who were the subject of this effort, were left standing around wondering whether their performance was what I wanted.

I had already made my first film, “Skip Tracer”, before this habit was addressed and corrected.

I think it might have been Donnelly Rhodes on “Danger Bay” who first set me straight. Or maybe it was the Nick Gillott,a producer on “Anything to Survive”. Or maybe it took a combination of people before I really wised up. In any event, sooner or later, somebody said to me something like this: You don’t have time for this. You need to set a pace and get things moving if you expect to get everything in the can by the end of the day. The technical guys are professionals. Believe me, if you say we are moving on before they are ready to move on, they will let you know. So the first person you talk to is the actor. If their performance was adequate, not necessarily award winning but adequate for what you are doing, then you need to tell them that they were wonderful. They need to feel good. Show any hesitation to praise them and they will demand another take. You don’t have time for that.

Cast and crew of Anything to Survive. I’m standing beside Matt Leblanc, upper left.

So what you say is: Great. That was perfect. We’ve got the master. Now we’re moving in for coverage and the camera goes here. And by that you must mean, the camera goes precisely there. Not let’s put the camera here and see how it looks. If you put the camera in a slightly wrong place, you wear it. Unless you have really fucked up, and the camera is totally in the wrong place for what you need, that’s where the camera goes.

That’s how you set a pace. That’s how you get the impossible number of shots in the can before the day is over.

I’m reminded of shooting an episode of “Wise Guy”. The pilot for that episodic show had gone so far into overtime, for so many days in a row, that the production couldn’t even afford turnaround. (turnaround, the length of time the cast and crew must be given before they can be called back to the set. It varies depending on the financial penalties incurred.) It was right off the rails.

Alex Beaton brought me in to shoot the episode after the pilot. Alex was a producer who gave me my first big break in television directing as a result of the writer’s strike shutting down the use of American directors. More about that in another post. But Alex said to me, in essence, Zale, we went way over budget on the pilot. I want you to deliver the same quality, but without an hour of overtime. Bring it in on schedule and on budget.

Thanks Alex. Same quality with a fraction of the time and money. What a challenge. I was committed to delivering just that.

At a certain point in the shoot, a gaffer ran past me with a couple of hundred pounds of cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back as he ran past, raising a spray of sweat. The man was humping it. So I said to Larry Sutton, the sound man and a friend of mine, what’s going on here. This is a great crew. They are working very hard. Why did you go so far over budget on the pilot.

Larry’s answer: the director of the pilot would put the camera down three or four times before he could decide on the shot.

Fucking pima donna. And I got to clean up the financial mess he left behind. You can’t do that on a television shoot. I brought my shows in on time and on budget. When I said that this is where the camera goes, that’s where it went. If I was wrong, I ate it and made up for it with the later shots. I didn’t work “quick and dirty”. But I did work fast, and focused. I also got myself a reputation as a hard director to work with, but that’s another story, eh.

It’s impossible for anybody who hasn’t been there to understand the pressure that’s on a film director on set. I realized at one point that this was the only time I felt truly alive. There is so much to be aware of, so much to want to control. It reminds me of the first time I drove a car in city traffic. I was freaking out. Trying to look in every direction at once. And then I relaxed. I started to only pay attention to what I needed to pay attention to. Where is my car was going? Do I need to stop? Everything else is unimportant.

I’ve always smiled to hear that somebody wants to be a director because they want control. That is laughable. There is no greater feeling of helplessness than being the one in charge of a thirty man crew on a film set with two hundred extras and five main actors. Think about it. There you are, and everything depends on decisions you are going to make. It is chaos. And I discovered that I have a talent for bringing order to chaos. Ah, that is to feel truly alive.

I would have anxiety nightmares. In those dreams, I’d be on set with a huge cast and thousands of extras and I hadn’t read the script. I had no idea what was going on or what I needed to do. Of course I never let this happen. I read the script.

Incidentally, I got very annoyed if somebody in the art department hadn’t read the script, and couldn’t see that the set had to reflect the needs of the script. Most cabin sets are built with no ceiling. But if the script calls for an actor to find a set of oars in the rafters, there better be rafters for them to find oars in. Grump.

Guns on Sets

The recent death on set of a Director of Cinematography and the injuring of a director by a “prop” gun, prompts this post. Something needs to be said.

This account says that the gun “misfired”. That’s not accurate. If a gun misfires, it doesn’t shoot. In this case, the gun discharged. It should not have happened.

I have had at least one accidental discharge of a firearm on a movie set. I’ve also had a firearm incident that could have had very serious consequences. These have resulted in my personal rule for guns on set – unless they are absolutely necessary for technical reasons, don’t allow them. It’s very easy now to generate very realistic CGI versions of muzzle smoke and bullet impacts. Possibly more difficult are automatic actions and shell ejection, and they may justify real, functional firearms where CGI budgets are limited. But then there are ways to make them safe.

The first rule should be that anybody who handles a functional firearm, actors as well as props people, should be trained to inspect it and make sure it is not loaded. It’s the first thing they teach in a firearm safety class. Never take anybody’s word that a gun is not loaded. Inspect it. Take out the magazine. Open the action. Make sure there’s nothing in the chamber. If Alec Baldwin had done this, there’d be a cinematographer alive today.

Not having somebody on set to initiate this training and enforce safety rules is egregious negligence on the part of a production.

My younger brother spent twenty five years as a prison guard, handling a pistol grip shotgun every day. He had an accidental discharge that, thankfully, only resulted in a huge pile of paper work. Here’s how it happened: He KNEW his gun was empty. He’d removed the shells himself. But he sat down for a break, and another guard sat down beside him. When the other guard left, he picked up the wrong gun. My brother stood up, picked up the other guard’s gun, pulled the trigger expecting to hear a click and BOOM. Simple as that. So in addition to the first rule of inspecting a gun that is handed to you, the second rule is inspect the gun if it’s been out of your hands. Even briefly.

I hired my brother to be a Special Business Extra on “Terminal City Ricochet” because I knew I could trust him with guns. We still had an accidental discharge. I don’t know the details, but my brother told me he warned the props guy that he was being unsafe, only to get a surly “I know what I’m doing.” response. Two minutes later and, again, BOOM. You don’t want to hear that on a film set. So make sure there are clear lines of authority. Encourage everybody to challenge situations that are questionable.

The most frightening moment on the set of that film was my fault. My actors were driving a car that was fictionally bullet proof. They were to run a barricade in that vehicle. A guard was to step out in front of them with a shotgun and shoot at the windshield. It was my brilliant idea to have a real shotgun fire a wax bullet at the windshield. Because of the slope of the windshield and the softness of the wax, I was confident that it would just leave a nice skid mark with no further damage. I personally tested that idea, firing several wax slugs at our hero car, and it seemed to work perfectly.
On the day I had my brother act as the guard, knowing he had the skill to fire accurately. Which he did. He waited until the last possible minute, fired, and dove out of the way. But when I called “cut”, he came on the walkie-talkie saying we might want to call an ambulance. The wax bullet had gone right through. The actors weren’t hit directly, but there was a lot of shards of glass flying around.

The most disturbing part of this story, for me, is that I hadn’t made sure the actors in the front seat of the car were even wearing safety glasses. Neither had the set safety officer. A good example of how a real gun on a set can cause a tragedy. I’m just hung with horseshoes the actors weren’t hurt.

Another very scary moment on that shoot: In another scene, a prison guard was to be shot in the back by “friendly fire” from another guard. The special FX team told me that putting him in a down vest with a squib behind the down would give me a beautiful shot of feathers flying through the air. Sounded good to me. Rig it, boys.
The guard who was to be shot had to push his own button to set off the squib. When he did so, his vest bulged out but there was no beautiful explosion of feathers. He just collapsed. Oh. My. God. What happened? Did they put the squib in backwards and kill the guy?
What had happened was we were shooting in heavy rain and the down vest was soaked with water. The feathers were no longer fluffy. They were a solid mat, and the squib’s impact was just just directed right back at the performer. It was like punching him very hard right over the heart. We were lucky it didn’t kill him.*

Bottom line: I if you are on a set with guns and explosives, train your people. Think things through. Accidents will still happen, but there’s really no excuse for the recent death on set. That one was pure negligence and somebody needs to be disciplined.

*I have to hand it to that performer. He had the cojones to do take two, and push his own button again.

What I Say…

When asked about my history.

Back in the late seventies and early eighties of the previous century, I was the enfant terrible of Canadian film making, the hot young director, the man to watch. But after failing to find funding for two or three of my scripts, and with a desperate need to pay the mortgage and feed the family, I inveigled my way into directing episodic television.

That gave me a great, if sporadic, income and a comfortable, if anxiety inducing lifestyle. I had a few good years in which I made a six figure income. I made a bit more investing and flipping real estate. For a time I thought I might end my days a rich man. But then I bought a fifty foot sailboat I couldn’t afford and found myself with the biggest hole in my pocket you could imagine. My wealth did not grow.

At some point in the nineties we decided to sell our large house on the ocean in Gibsons, pay off the boat, and move to a more modest house in Nanaimo. That would have worked if the housing market hadn’t tanked. As is turned out the million dollars I was hoping for turned into half that. We could buy a house free and clear, but I was left with a mortgage on the boat, moorage fees, maintenance costs, and ever reducing work. When I did get a job, the money went into paying off the credit cards and buying bottom paint. The boat owned me, so I sold it. At a huge loss.

Toward the end of the century I received a rather large royalty payment for my television work. I was too young to retire. Digital film making was just coming into its own, and films like “The Blair Witch” managed to make a lot of money. But they had terrible technical quality, usually looking like the camera had been mounted on the head of a trained seal, and truly awful sound. They made excuses for this deficiency by framing their stories around things like home movies found in the woods, or interviews in a psychiatrist’s office. I looked at the prosumer technology, which in those days was mini-DV, and thought, wow. If this were treated seriously the product could look like a movie.

I took my royalty payment and bought 3 Canon mini-DV cameras, tripods, a small crane, and lots of cassettes. I joined forces with a local agent to find a cast, and I started the Volksmovie Movement (Since renamed and lying fallow as the Artisan Movie Movement). The premise was that film equipment is highly overpriced and the same results can be accomplished with things we could buy at a big box store. Work lights could be adapted with barn doors. A furnace filter makes a great diffusion screen. One of our actors welded up a really great little dolly adapted from a fridge dolly. I covered the hard costs. The actors provided the crew.

A side belief was that the skills of a film crew are not that difficult, that I could train a camera crew or grip crew in days at most. Most people can hold a microphone fish pole with minimal instruction. We set out to make a romantic comedy, with everybody doing everything, a collaborative venture. Everybody was involved in the script. Everybody was involved in all aspects of the shooting. We would shoot a scene. I would do a rough edit. Then we would meet to look at it and decide what should be shot next. It was glorious fun.

The end result was “Passion” and I’m very proud of it. It is rich with locations and characters. It looks like a movie. It has great moments. It got great audience response, provided it was shown to a large audience. My business plan was to show it at the film festivals, find a few television sales to return the cash investment, and do it again.

That’s where things went totally south. I had been to every Toronto Film Festival for the past twenty years. I was sure this movie was going to amaze them. I didn’t know that they would be flooded with amateur digital films.

A friend of mine who made fight videos lent his son his camera. His son made a short film of himself french kissing the family dog. He was invited to three film festivals. The organizers could afford to give him that much screen time, and knew they would be assured of a noisy enthusiastic teenage audience. Our film was feature length and competing with the latest “special” film from Hollywood that came to town with big name stars and a promotion budget.

What’s worse, our film played well to a large audience, where the laughs could stimulate more laughs. It doesn’t play well to a single audience. It’s in turns bright and silly, and dark. It’s about a middle aged stalker, a main character the audience is primed to view with disgust. Many people hated it.

We didn’t get a single festival invitation.

In desperation, I set up a private screening in Vancouver in a small art cinema. I hired a publicist in hopes of attracting some press. We had a good screening, with good audience response. But not a single journalist showed up. My publicist didn’t show up. I might as well have torn up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Seymour and Davie street for all the good I had done my movie.

This is when I went seriously crazy. With no returns from our first effort, I decided to throw my limited remaining funds, plus my credit cards, at our second movie, a sweet romantic movie about tree planters. This was ill advised to say the least. While Passion could find a script based on what was available, “Getting Screefed” was tightly scripted. It included special effects like a storm at night, constant rain, beautiful forest and landscape images. It really needed a large format film and a good special effects team. We soldiered on regardless.

I bought a generator, a Volkswagen van, a school bus, a child’s swimming pool for water storage, lots of tarps and hoses. We set up a tree planter camp, found a cast, and started filming.

Since once again this was a cooperative venture, and nobody was getting paid, there were logistical problems in getting the cast out into the bush for filming. All the fires had to be done as CGI, because of the fire hazard. The rain scenes had to be done with garden hoses supplied from our swimming pool up on the hill. I had an ultralight airplane motor to make wind effects. It was difficult.

And yet we shot some wonderful scenes. Enough to cut a good looking trailer. Just not enough to make a movie.

And as I got into the editing at the end of the summer I realized that every scene had problems, many of which could not be fixed by creative editing. The hope was to edit what we had shot and come back the next summer to complete the film. Then somebody trashed the Volkswagen van we had parked at the camp site, smashed the windshield and ripped out the wiring in a juvenile attempt to hot-wire the ignition. Somebody stole the generator out of the school bus. I realized that it didn’t matter, because I was at the end of my credit cards and couldn’t afford gas for the generator anyway. It was time to recognize reality and give up.

After thirty years of directing TV, I was no longer the hot young director. I was the old television hack. My main clients had lost their shows, or aged out of the business, or got in trouble with the IRS. My phone wasn’t wringing. My arrogant persona had made enemies over the years.

Trying to be a film maker in Nanaimo was like trying to be a lumberjack in the Sahara. I could move to some city where movies actually are made, like Los Angeles or New York, or Toronto or even Vancouver. I could go to parties and schmooze. Sooner or later somebody would give me a break and I’d be back directing episodic television and made for TV movies. But I had been there and done that. I didn’t have the heart to do it again.

Time to get out of Dodge. I took a one week introductory course in teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), put my name up at an Internet bulletin board, and I was away to China.

Best decision I ever made.

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.