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.

Not Necessarily Collaborative

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

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

https://youtu.be/wrypLSEd73o

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

Life is Full of Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cursed pipes in pine box for shipping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dishonesty of Television

And the cowardice of TV actors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh No, not Fil Fraser Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solving Problems

Back in the early nineties I was living in Gibsons Landing, with Marina House, my home, right on the water.  Gibsons Landing was the location of the long running CBC series, “Beachcombers”.

I was asked by a CBC producer in Toronto why I hadn’t been hired to shoot more Beachcomber episodes.  I shrugged and said I didn’t know.  At the time, CBC was occasionally flying me to Toronto to direct for them there, paying my hotel and per diem. They could have my services in Gibsons without that expense.  Yet they were flying directors in from Toronto and putting them up in a hotel and paying THEM a per diem while I was sitting on my front porch watching them direct in front of my house.  It made no sense.

“You know, Zale,” the producer said.  “If you want to plough a field, you don’t buy a racehorse.”

That was a flattering and disturbing observation.  The implication was that I am an artist, and what the producers were looking for was a standard television hack.  That has never been me.  But even an artist has to pay his mortgage and feed his family.

I’m sure the CBC producers wouldn’t have seen it this way, but I suspect that their survival depended on making acceptable, but unremarkable, shows.  A bureaucrat survivalist doesn’t want to be seen as a hot shot, innovative boy wonder.  They want to produce stuff that isn’t bad, but also doesn’t really attract attention.  After all, if you stick your head above the trenches, somebody could shoot you.  Or, as the Chinese put it, it’s the tall nail that gets pounded down.

I enjoy solving problems. Sometimes I think producers would rather I didn’t, because I see problems that they don’t see or if they do see them, don’t care about. I’m sorry, but if I see a problem with the script I can’t see any choice but to solve it.

Take the case of the murder in an episode of Scene of the Crime, a Cannell production.  We were shooting Vancouver for London England, which is puzzle enough given the cars on the wrong side of the road. We were creating London with a British phone booth, one rented car with a right hand drive, and very careful angles. But the method of murder the writer invented was to cut the brake line on the victim’s car so that he will crash and die.  In London!

Leaving aside the fact that the car in question had mechanical brakes, my memories of London is that it is fairly flat.  Maybe there are steep hills and frightening cliffs hidden someplace in the city, but I certainly don’t remember them.  Cutting the brake lines seems like a questionable murder method.  Wouldn’t the victim just pull over to the curb and grind along until his car stopped?

So I suggested that the car starts off on the top floor of one of those parking garages with many levels and a steep spiral exit ramp.  That way, once the driver is committed to the ramp he’s lost all control. I could do the standard shots of his foot stamping on the brake pedal.  We could add tire squeals as he takes the curves.  And then, to finally do him in, how about there’s a big truck stopped at the exit gate and he can’t avoid smashing into it.  I could see it all, shot by shot.  This could work.

That’s when they told me that the car was a rental, and would have to be returned without so much as a scratch on it.

Okay, no problem. We do the standard shots, then a POV of approaching the truck.  Then for a final shot of the sequence the car is actually stationary. We mount a sheet of glass between two century stands in front of the windshield.  The actor rocks forward to the windshield, and we note the spot where his head lines up with the camera.  Then he repeats the action at some speed and we hit the sheet of glass with a glue stick out of a trunion gun, right on that spot as his head arrives.  The glass will shatter, and it will look like it was the victim’s head that shattered it.

Did it work?  Brilliantly.  In fact, watching the shot, it was easy to hallucinate blood on the shattering glass. Of course the downside of such success is that I cause producers stress, adding complications to their lives.  I also suspect that I made few friends in the special effects department.  People don’t like to be told how to do their job.

Sometimes Doing the Impossible Can Be Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attempting the Impossible

It Sounds Good in Theory

Sometimes the suits and the brass on a production come up with a brilliant idea, but since they have limited experience with actual shooting they can hand a director an impossible task.

Such was the case for me on The Edison Twins.  The show had been going over budget, through no fault of anybody on the production end that I could identify.  The scripts were just very ambitious.  Each episode was given one day of prep and four days of shooting. Now the producers wanted to save some money by doing an episode in three days.  How do you do that?  Well, let’s get the writers to give us an episode that is all in one location so it can be “block shot”.  This should mean that we save all the wrap time and moving time as we go from location to location.  Sounds like a great idea, right.

So they hand me a script and tell me that this will be a three day shoot.  There’s only one problem.  The script calls for a highschool play, with everything taking place in the school auditorium.  So far so good.  Except we can’t jump from one scene to another and shoot efficiently, because the show starts with an empty auditorium and a bare stage then develops gradually until there is a complete set on stage, actors in costumes, and chairs in place for parents and audience to occupy. Every scene still has to be blocked and lit.  Actors still need time to work out their performances and say their lines. Jumping from a scene near the end of the show to a scene near the beginning of the show and back again just can’t be done without at least an hour of set dressing and costume changes. The show has to be shot in sequence, and any efficiency gained by having just one location will be lost by the demands of continuity.

Halfway through day one we were already two days behind schedule on a three day shoot.  This may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. By day three, which was supposed to wrap the episode, we still had at least two days of shooting left to do. The three day shoot turned into five.

That was my last shoot on “The Edison Twins”.  They had to blame somebody, and the obvious choice was the director.  No hard feelings.  That’s just the way it goes sometimes. It was a great run, and I was sad to see it end.

And Then There Was The Cave of Mirrors

The Edison Twins was not the only episodic show with inexperienced visionaries making disastrous decisions.  I’ll never forget the cave of mirrors on Kung Fu the Legend Continues.  That sounded like such a good idea to the writers and the show runner.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a cave of mirrors where the climactic kung fu battle happens.  I mean, wouldn’t that be confusing if Caine couldn’t tell whether he was seeing the bad guy or a reflection of the bad guy.  So at great expense, such a set was constructed.  The cave of mirrors. Mirrors everywhere.  Triangular mirrors built into pyramids of stalactites and stalagmites.  It was beautiful.

The thing is, the camera only sees in two dimensions.  It doesn’t have binocular vision.  So a mirror doesn’t look like a mirror to the camera.  It looks like a hole, the entrance into another space. And what is worse, when you put a film crew in a cave lined with mirrors at all different angles, it becomes very difficult to hide the crew from the audience. When you are watching the kung fu fight, it’s rather distracting to see a thousand versions of the camera crew reflected in all the mirrors.

That shoot was a nightmare.  We ended up using dulling spray to turn most of the mirrors opaque, so that we could shoot without seeing the crew. I don’t think I ever saw the completed show, but I sure would like to.

High points and Low Points – The Fun of Being a Director

First, A High Point

Let me paint you a picture.

I’m standing on the bridge of a Canadian destroyer.  In front of me, behind me, and beneath my feet is an incredible machine.  This is HMCS Saskatchewan, Mackenzie Class Canadian destroyer.  She’s a sports car of a ship.  Her lines are all rounded because she was designed to cruise through radioactivity, with a sprinkler system to wash off the fallout.  So she’s beautiful.  She is 366 feet of sleek war machine with a complement of 290 officers and crew.  And she’s doing 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph), which is very fast for a boat.

Two sister ships, McKenzie and Yukon, are cruising on each side of Saskatchewan.  We’re surging into a glorious tropical sunset. Porpoises are playing in our bow waves.  Flying fish are coming out of the sea in schools of hundreds, their cellophane wings iridescent in the fading sunlight.

I’m on the bridge beside the captain.  I turn to him and say, “Could you have them crisscross in front of us, sir?” And he does. The two ships beside us start to weave through the water ahead of us like some kind of incredible maritime dressage.

I’ve heard a film crew described as “the biggest toy train set in the world”. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.  At least, it never did for me.  And that was enough. I cherish that memory.

An then a Low Point

I was directing “Kung Fu, the Legend Continues” in Toronto, working with David Carradine, but this particular show also included David’s daughter, Calista.  And the producers were not happy.

During prep the producers took me aside.  She’s a terrible actor, they told me.  She’s out of control, over acting, chewing the carpet, or words to that effect. You’ve got to pull her back.

And then I met Calista.  We hit it off as friends immediately.  Calista was all sexual energy and enthusiasm. She’s a natural flirt. The first AD had described her as “the set bicycle”, which was the end of my good relationship with that particular AD. This was an AD who wanted to do my job, who warned me to keep away from David Carradine and “let me handle him.” And now he was telling me to avoid Calista. This was not advice that fit my understanding of my job description.

So Calista and I went out for Japanese food.  The restaurant we went to served saki in a rather large teapot, and I discovered that it really is possible to get drunk on saki. I told her things about my life one usually reserves for a trusted friend, and she decided that I am a trusted friend.

And then we worked on her scene.  She was approaching Caine as her natural self, sexy, flirtatious.  It was totally wrong for the scene.  We talked about who her character was, a street person, a young woman who had every reason to be careful around men, a person intrigued by Caine, but wary. And to my relief she could take direction.  In fact, she is a sports car of an actor, able to absorb an idea and internalize it, making it believable.  She was good.

So, how is this a low point you ask?  Well, we shot the scene.  The next day on set the AD told me David was on the phone and wanted to talk to me.  That was enough to get me nervous.  And it got worse when I heard his voice.  “Zale, you turned her lights out.” he said.  He had played the scene with Calista and felt that Calista, the vibrant, alive daughter he knew and loved, just wasn’t there. He sounded like he was almost in tears. “You turned her lights out.” I stammered some words about being sorry he didn’t like her performance and…well, I’m sorry, David.  I’m really sorry.

I still had an afternoon of shooting to get through.  I felt like I was sleep walking through it.  I felt like I’d been eviscerated, emotionally disemboweled. Here’s where imposter syndrome becomes reality. I had been so sure of myself, yet  a man I loved and respected was telling me by implication that I was a horrible director.  Here was the proof I should never have been allowed on a film set. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

And Then, Redemption – the happy ending.

Toward the end of the day I got a second phone call from David.  He was calling to apologize.  He’d seen the rushes.  He understood how the scene played. He was very happy with Calista’s performance.

This is one of the reasons I loved David Carradine.  I don’t know how many actors, no, not just an actor, a genuine star, would beat me up, and then call me later to say they were wrong.  That’s just not the way it usually goes. David and I were straight with each other.  I gave him a lot of respect, but never treated him like a celebrity. And he was always authentically human with me.