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, wardrobe,camera work, directing and editing.

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. Sorry to present as arrogant, but collaboration ends at the title “director”.

Life is Full of Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cursed pipes in pine box for shipping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dishonesty of Television

And the cowardice of TV actors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh No, not Fil Fraser Too

While checking the spelling of names and creating links for the Burt Reynolds post, I learned that Fil Fraser also died last year. He was 85, so I will say that he had a good run.  But damn it hurts that he’s not in my world any more.

I will never forget Fil coming to our home in Vancouver with the script for “The Hounds of Notre Dame”.  He sat in a chair in my editing room while I sat in the kitchen and read the script.  Then I went into my editing room and begged him to let me direct his movie.

I owe Eda Lishman for that introduction, and hence for the directing opportunity.  I wasn’t kind to Eda during the shoot, or after.  That is one of my regrets now. She was overloaded and dealing with impossible problems. I should have had more compassion for her.

A script that has some value to it is a very rare thing in the movie industry.  I’ve only read one or two scripts that I felt passionate about in my entire career, not counting the ones I wrote and couldn’t find money to make. I was and still am passionate about most of those. “The Hounds of Notre Dame” was special. I lived and breathed for that movie until I got kicked out of the editing room.

Fil made a very public apology for that, on television yet. By then it was water under the bridge and I had lost any confidence in my ability to improve the movie beyond what was finally released. No apology was necessary. Fil had to make a decision between me and Tony Lower, the editor. I don’t think he made a bad choice and I owe Fil big time.

So many “war stories” came out of shooting “Hounds” that I don’t know where to start. Here’s one of my favorites I have already written about: The Twenty Thousand Dollar Box. Fil forgave me for that one. In fact, Fil was incredibly supportive while I struggled to make his movie come to life.

It didn’t start well. The cinematographer, Ron Orieux, had to figure out how to shoot realistic snow scenes without a dedicated special FX team, and we didn’t realize the problems that would entail. On our budget, a special FX team dedicated to this was out of the question so we were trying to make a blizzard using a snow blower and fans.   The first attempt was a disaster.  No, I don’t want to use that word.  A disaster is when people die.  We were just losing our credibility and possibly our careers.

What we ended up with on the screen was basically mud.  Nothing. The snow between the camera and the actors soaked up all the light that was supposed to illuminate the actors. Fil was furious, both at our poor results and at what he saw as an inability to get organized and productive. “This is just plain amateur night.” he said.  But he didn’t pull the plug on us, and Ron found the solution to the problem. We needed a screen just in front of the camera that snow could be sifted through, with a lot of lights on it.  Then nothing between the camera and the actors who were hosed by the snow blower and snow tossed into the fans.  It was a struggle to get a shot between the lumps the size of baseballs, but we managed it.

As we got organized we gained speed and the rushes started to look good.  But one more incident really sticks in my mind, and makes me remember Fil Fraser with great affection.  Two of the more experienced actors in the film, David Ferry and Frances Hyland, got together for dinner one evening and possibly drank too much wine.  At two in the morning I got a phone call from Fances.  We were to shoot a scene between her and Thomas Peacocke, who played Father Athol Murray, the next day. Frances had just discovered what she saw as a problem with the script.  She told me that the scene, which was set in the church, could not be played there, that the church is a holy place and the scene was too worldly and mundane. I attempted to discuss this with her but she went into a rant about my lack of understanding.  I hung up on her.

I thought about calling her back, because I knew that her next call would be to Fil.  But no, I wasn’t going to call her. I desperately needed my sleep.

The next day we had a screening of our dailies, a rare occasion at that location with the film being processed in Vancouver and the cast and crew working in remote Wilcox.  I was very worried about what Fil would think of the call from Frances. I needn’t have worried.  Fil presented me with a leather shoulder bag of his that I had admired. Under those circumstances, that shoulder bag meant the world to me.  I carried it and used it until it fell by the wayside at some point in my life, but I am still grateful for it. That was Fil Fraser.

Oh, and the scene.  I changed it to a stairwell location between the church and the dining hall. Ruffled feathers were smoothed.

Goodbye Burt Reynolds

I can’t say I knew Burt Reynolds well. I can’t claim him as a friend. Norman Jewison kindly invited me to be an observer on his film, “Best Friends”, starring Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn. So I did at least get to meet him.

Photo by Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock (73763c)
Burt Reynolds – 1979

At the time we were trying to find distribution for my movie, “The Hounds of Notre Dame”, and Fil Fraser, the producer, asked me to set up a screening specifically for Burt.  I guess the idea was that Burt had a lot of pull and could get us some distributor attention.  Or was he also venturing into distribution himself?  I can’t quite remember the details.  But I did manage, with some difficulty, to set up a special screening and I do know that Burt watched my movie.

I asked him what he thought.  The last words Burt Reynolds said to me were “We’ll talk”.

In Hollywood, “We’ll talk.” means “We won’t talk.”  So I’m guessing he didn’t like it, or didn’t see any audience potential.  Or both.  Whatever the case, we didn’t talk.

I’m totally okay with that.  I watched the way the fans can crowd a celebrity like Burt Reynolds. Norman shot one street location, and as soon as Burt appeared he was surrounded by thirty or more fans, all holding out pieces of paper or autograph books.  He spent several minutes signing autographs.  He looked like royalty, and I suppose he was in that context. I can certainly understand why he would want to limit his engagement with anybody he didn’t know.  It’s a necessary survival skill in his position.

Fans do not have any respect for celebrities.  They feel they own them.  They can get abusive if the star doesn’t give them the moments of attention they ask for. They will steal anything a celebrity touches. Norman Jewison lost his favorite cap during that shoot.  Somebody stole it. And no, it wasn’t me.  I have nothing but contempt for that kind of behavior.

My souvenir from that wonderful time in my life is a rock from Malibu Beach. I picked it up while walking with Norman Jewison, listening to him tell about making the deal to direct Jesus Christ Superstar after he brought musical to America from England.  He wanted a gross deal from the studio, meaning he would get a percentage of the box office gross reciepts.  At that time the studio was only giving net deals to directors, meaning they got a piece of the action after ever pencil and paperclip was charged against the box office returns. The studios were famous for creative accounting that left stars and directors with nothing at all. But the studio execs didn’t think music rights were worth much, so they were willing to give Norman a gross deal on the music.
I don’t know how much that turned out to be, but I do know that Norman was very happy with the deal.  Think about it.  A piece of the gross sales of the Jesus Christ Superstar album?  I’d be happy with that too.

Anyway, I remember Burt Reynolds as a kind gentleman.  I’m sorry he is gone.

 

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

I seem to be saying goodbye to people I knew or worked with lately.  Just the other day it was Donnelly Rhodes, and today I got the sad news that Bob Barclay has died at the age of 87.  Not a bad run, but still too young for my taste.

Bob was the man who got me into the Director’s Guild, back before there even were district councils. I had made my first feature, “Skip Tracer”, and Bob invited me to a guild meeting.  It was an easy sell.

I loved Bob.  He always had a smile and a positive attitude.  I’ll never forget one phrase he gave me, when he had been experiencing hard times and nothing was working for him. About his financial situation he said, “I’m running on surface tension.”  That phrase alone should make him immortal.

In the old days, I served with Bob on the National Executive.  This included the time during which the guild was developing the district councils.  Bob, Grace Gilroy, Lew Lehman, John Board, and others whose names don’t come so readily to mind would sit around the table in the Toronto board room and hammer out constitutional questions.  Bob was a smoker.  We all were back then. I was a smoker who was trying to quit.  I had been smoking a large pack of DuMaurier  King Size every single day, but had managed to stay off them for a couple of months before our meeting.  Bob smoked the same brand, in the same package.  At one point in the meeting the discussion became animated.  I looked down and there was a lit cigarette between my fingers.  I had no awareness of taking it out of Bob’s pack and lighting it, but the next day I was smoking a pack a day again.  So Bob’s influence on me was not always positive.

Those days of turning the air blue at the executive meetings are, thankfully, long gone.

Things have changed a lot in the industry. So much has changed. It’s a different world.  Back then, the networks had money.  Television had not yet fragmented into hundreds of channels, the Internet was not competing for advertising dollars, and the networks could afford to spend money on episodic shows, MOW’s (Movies of the Week made for television), and flying directors across the country to direct them.  If there is such a thing as the good old days, those were them for me. But I wouldn’t go back.  The world is so much more connected and interesting now.

Sometime in the late seventies my first wife and producer, Laara Dalen, and I purchased a house in Gibsons Landing, a ten bedroom mansion on the beach that the owners had set up as a bed and breakfast, but were now abandoning.  Bob came to Vancouver and visited us.  He said he was on his way to visit his son, Ben Barclay, in Gibsons Landing, and he pulled a B&B brochure out of his pocket to show us where he was going to stay. It was our new house, though we hadn’t yet made the move.  Marina House.

“I’m sorry, Bob, but you can’t pay to stay there.” I told him.  “You’ll have to be our guest.”

If I were a believer in woo, such a coincidence would impress me.  As it is, it’s just a happy memory of funny moment with Bob Barclay.

We were friends.  I regret that I never saw anything he directed.  I know he was committed to his work, and proud of it.  But I only knew him as a DGC executive member, a friend, and an advisor. So my appreciation is limited. One thing I can say – I never heard a bad word said about Bob Barclay.

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