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.




Self Confidence

Zale Dalen – where the imposter syndrome meets the Dunning Kruger principle.

How can one possibly feel competent to direct a movie?  When I thinks about what a director should be able to control to do an effective job – image, actor performance, editing rhythm, sound effects, music, and most of all audience reaction – the task seems impossible.  One can only approach it with great humility and a certain amount of dread.  When I started directing I usually felt like an imposter, a fraud, a victim of a thousand forces beyond my control. It took some time to get over that feeling.

That’s always been something that I find amusing.  Everybody on set is pretty sure they can do a better job than the director is doing.  Direction is the easiest skill set to belittle, or fail to recognize, or assign to somebody else on the crew.

I remember a production manager talking about a friend of mine, Phil Borsos, and sounding off about how Phil didn’t really direct “One Magic Christmas”.  She claimed it was directed by the cinematographer, Frank Tidy, while Phil was hiding somewhere snorting coke.  I took it upon myself to enlighten her.  “I don’t care what Phil seemed to be doing on set, but if you look at his first film “Spar Tree”, a theatrical short, and his second film, “The Grey Fox”, there’s little room for doubt that he directed “One Magic Christmas”.  His finger prints are all over that movie,” I told her. “Furthermore, I know that movie was dead.  Unsupported by the standard funding sources.  Phil did the work to bring it to life, finding funding, polishing the script. It was years of effort that nobody saw and few recognize.  So please don’t tell me that Phil didn’t really direct that movie.  That movie wouldn’t exist if Phil hadn’t directed it.

Very few people really understand what a director is doing, and only the best directors are actually doing it well.  Because the hand of the director should be almost invisible.  The director is a presence, a control figure.  Peter O’Toole’s character in “The Stunt Man”, nailed it – searching for something he’s not quite able to identify, but ready to accept it when the writer brings it to him.

A professional film crew is like a performance sports car.  You don’t want to go twitching the wheel this way and that, micromanaging to realize some incredibly precise vision of the product you are after.  Subtle and gentle movements are what is required.

The same goes for actors.  In Michael Green’s The Art of Coarse Acting he describes the only four directions a director should be allowed – faster, slower, louder or softer.  I think directing can be more granular than that, but the idea that the director is a puppet master, pulling the strings of the actors and controlling every aspect of the performance, is just absurd.

There’s a film, the name of which I have forgotten, in which Peter Coyote plays a movie director.  I don’t know whether it was intended as a parody, but it really illustrates this point.  His version of a director is a micro-manager in the extreme, telling the actors when to pick up a prop and how to hold it, dictating looks and gestures. I’ve never met an actor who could hold such instructions in their head while delivering a performance. Such a director is only going to give themself a headache and an overwhelming feeling of frustration.  And yet I’ve seen beginner directors trying to behave like this, delivering long lectures to the actors about how to play the scene.  Wrong.  Tell the actor what the scene is about, what is happening in the scene, and then trust that the actor is an artist who will play it.  Only give a direction if something is drastically wrong.  And then only give the simplest direction you can find to solve the problem.

The truth is, a good director controls very little and is at the mercy of innumerable forces totally beyond their control.  A good director is the calm in the eye of the storm, reassuring, supporting, and offering advice only when asked or when obviously needed.  Truffault, in Day for Night described directing as “dancing with the devil”.  (To paraphrase: At the start I wanted to make a great movie.  Now I just want to get the damn thing finished.) And it’s true. The director puts fears and worries aside and assumes they can come out of the process with something of quality. And then they hit the floor with a flexibility and willingness to go with the flow that allows all the other technicians and artists the space to deliver their best as well.

One of my mistakes as a beginning director was to think that I could reveal my doubts and misgivings to the crew, that they were friends of mine and would understand my position.  Wrong.  The crew wants to feel that somebody knows what they are doing and is in control.  They don’t want to think that the director may be totally lost, thrashing around looking for artistic solutions to their problems.  The director is supposed to have a vision of the movie they are making.  And if that vision is cloudy or obscure at times, they better damn well keep that information as a personal secret. Standing in the middle of a set and muttering “I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do with this,” is not what the crew wants to hear.  And yet, that’s often the position the director is in.  Which led to the production still of Paul Lynch standing in the middle of an empty ice rink with a thought bubble over his head provided by the crew.  It read “I know.  I’ll wing it.”

Over the years, I got over my imposter syndrome.  And as I acquired skills, my Dunning Kruger syndrome slowly turned into its corollary – that a competent person assumes what is easy for them is easy for everybody.* It took me years, and many hours on set, to get a handle on what I bring to directing.  Essentially it is this: I have a talent for finding order in chaos.  Give me a dance hall with two main characters and a couple of hundred extras, as I had in Watrous, Saskatchewan at the Rainbow Dance Land while directing the Saskatchewan film for Expo ’86, and in a few minutes I can organize a scene that flows and looks wonderful.

Do you remember the first time you drove a car in heavy city traffic?  If you are like me, you were very tense, trying to be aware of every car in every direction.  It’s only after driving in city traffic for a while that one calms down and only pays attention to the important stuff, like where you are going and is anything in the way.  My first days on a film set were like that.  I was trying to be aware of everything that everybody was doing, from the camera crew to the boom man to the craft services.  It was only after a few hours or days on set that I could focus on the things that needed my attention, and let the completely competent technicians do their jobs without my monitoring. Then directing became…no, not easy.  It will never be easy.  But at least less stressful.  Just as driving in a Chinese city during rush hour no longer gets my heart rate up.

*Totally aside from directing, I noticed the extreme corollary to the Dunning Kruger effect in myself when I tried to show a friend, a very accomplished musician, how to play the harmonica.  I’ve been playing the harmonica since I was about six years old.  Nothing could be easier for me.  I always assumed it would be just as easy for anybody with some skill at music.  So I was very surprised to see my friend struggling with something as simple as getting a single, clean and pure note.  For me, that’s no problem at all.

On time and on budget

I have always considered being on time and on budget to be the most important reason I should be hired to direct, second only to putting together a good show.  If the logistics will allow it, and there are times when they won’t which I will get into in another post, I promise delivery on time and on budget. I mean, if there is only so much money, then going over schedule and over budget is irresponsible.

On a film set, especially for episodic television, every second counts.  We are asked to deliver more setups in fewer shooting days as competition for eyeballs intensifies, advertising dollars get spread between more shows, and budgets shrink. Time must not be wasted.

I got into the habit of having a quiet conversation with the continuity person at the start of each shoot.  I would explain that I understand axis.  I’ve done enough editing to know when a shot will cut with another shot.  So if the continuity person thinks I’m crossing the axis, they can quietly tell me about it, and mark it in their notes if they feel they need to do that to cover their butt, but I do not want a discussion. If you allow a discussion of axis, pretty soon you have the camera department weighing in, crew members sketching their idea of the existing shots, and the clock ticks on.  I tell the continuity person that if I have crossed the axis, I will eat it.  It’s on me.  But we don’t discuss it.

That’s just one area where time can be wasted on set.  It’s not even the most important.  A certain amount of time is required for the crew to rest, eat, sleep, and otherwise have a life.  That’s turnaround. You can’t shoot until four in the morning and ask the crew to start again at eight.  Not allowed. When Canal was gearing up to make Wiseguy, the pilot not only blew its budget out of the water with spectacular special effects, it piled on so many overtime hours that the unions wouldn’t allow turnaround.  Alex Beaton, the line producer, brought me in to do the next show.  He told me he wanted the same quality of shots and performance, but on time and on schedule.  Right.  I’m supposed to produce comparable footage to what  the prima donna pilot director delivered, but without the prima donna attitude toward time and money.  Okay.  I’ll take a run at it.

Needless to say, I was wired down tight for that shoot.  Focused.  Intense. I told the crew what was expected, and that I intended to deliver.  So let’s do it.  I had worked with that crew on other shows.  They were with me.  At one point as we worked toward our evening deadline, a gaffer ran past me with a huge coil of heavy cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back as he passed me, and got a spray of sweat.  That man was humping.  So I talked to the sound man.  “This is a great crew.  They are really working.  What was the problem with the pilot that they went so far over budget and over schedule.  Was it that the schedule was unrealistic?”  He told me, “No.  The problem was they would put the camera down in three different spots before they would take a shot.”

You can’t do that on an episodic budget.  When I put the camera down, that’s where the shot is going to be taken from.  If it’s a bad choice, I’ll eat it.  But I’m not changing the camera position.  Of course I hope it isn’t a bad choice.  I hope I’ll have  the perfect shot.  But if the shot is less than perfect, I’ll make sure the editor can work with it anyway.  There’s no time for indecision and changes.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to be quick and dirty.  It does mean that I’m going to think ahead, plan my shots, and get the coverage I need to make the scenes work.   I’m just not going to waste any time doing it.

More on time and budget in later posts.

A Voice Out of the Past

Expo86 was thirty years ago this summer. I know that not just because I can do the math, but because my only daughter was born that year and I try to keep track of how old she is. It was also the year my father died, which is a story I shall tell shortly.

Today I got an email from Michael Walsh, a Vancouver journalist I haven’t heard from in years. Here’s what he wrote:

Good morning, Zale Dalen,

Attached for your interest (and amusement) is a link to my 1986 review of your Expo 86 film “See You in Saskatchewan”.

In the Afterword to the posting, I offer a brief summary of your filmmaking career and current activities. A link to The Zale Dalen Website is included.

If I’ve made any errors, please let me know and I will make the appropriate corrections.

All the best . . .

Well, blow me down as Popeye would say. What a surprise. Here’s what I wrote back:

Dear Michael:

I’m flattered by the attention,but a bit embarrassed to be given credit for conceiving the Saskatchewan film for Expo86.

While I was the director and editor, and involved in the script to the extent that I totally rejected the first draft and instigated a search for a new approach, brilliantly delivered by Carol Bolt who added the homesickness conflict to the story, the initial concept of a live performer interacting with the screen was given to me from the first discussion by Tony Westman who was working as the producer for Harvard Creative Services through the architectural firm that designed the pavilion. Everything is more complicated in reality, eh.

I will take credit for the wedding scene with the biker, shot under protest from the sponsor’s representative on set, for which I received the only crew ovation of my career. That was created spontaneously in a chain of motivations beginning with lousy weather.

Regrettably, I must also take the blame for not getting Uncle Roy to put a thoughtful pause in his line, which would have sold the joke.

Roy: Everything changes.

Terry: Mom and dad haven’t changed. You haven’t changed, Uncle Roy.

Roy: The rock changes. (thoughtful pause, which I failed to ask for) The people stay the same.

Such things haunt me to this day.

Other than that, I’m impressed with your research. Good to hear from you and thanks again for keeping my public persona alive.

Warmest regards


This unexpected attention has triggered all kinds of thoughts and memories. Expo86 was a great project for me, and a great success.  In fact, if it had been a feature film instead of an Expo special project, I believe I’d be an A list director now.  It was that successful.  It was also a screamingly difficult project which I hope I managed to make look simple.

First of all was the concept. We were worried that a tiny living actor (in those days we called them, being female, actresses) could not compete with the huge glittering screen above her. We needn’t have worried. It turned out that humans are so much more interested in a living attractive woman than any artificial image that the only way she could get the audience to look at the screen was to direct their attention to it. Otherwise the eyeballs stayed glued to her.

To start with there was the script. Ken Mitchel had written the first version, which was the one I signed on to. I love Ken. He’s a great writer, and the writer of “The Hounds of Notre Dame”, my Saskatchewan feature. So we had a relationship. But Ken had given us an ending for the Expo movie that just didn’t work for me. His version ended in a tug of war. It was written very dramatically, and seemed powerful on the page. But I couldn’t find any reason to care which side one. Was it the old Saskatchewan versus modern Saskatchewan? No, it was just a tug of war at some nameless family reunion. A bunch of people pulling on a rope. I couldn’t see how I could make it work. (Now, oddly enough I think I can.)
So at my urging, the producer, Tony Westman, sent the project out for tender. Hey, writers, give us your approach to this. And Carol Bolt came through with the winning idea. The conflict was between our actor’s pride in doing her first job – telling us about her province – and her homesickness. That was a conflict I could get behind. Add Connie Calder’s “Wood River” to the mix and the emotional appeal was incredible.

Our other major worry was eyelines. Where do you have the actor on the screen look to give the impression they are looking at the living actress. Richard Leiterman, one of Canada’s greatest cameramen, and I made a special trip down to L.A. because we had heard that the Universal tour had a sequence where the guide interacted with a Hollywood icon on the screen. That turned out to be not so much of an interaction as a passing of the microphone. The tour guide handed us, the audience, over to Robert Cummings (If memory serves me.) who did a short segment before handing us back to the tour guide.
This brought up the concern that maybe they kept it simple because having a character on screen actually interact with a real live person wouldn’t work. This worry persisted right through to opening night.

When we got back from L.A., Richard and I went to the Saskatchewan pavilion, under construction on the Expo site.  I climbed up on the scaffolding that would hold the big screen.  Richard looked at me through his director’s finder to get some idea of where the actors should look to give the impression they were looking at somebody on the floor below me.

When I started working with the living actors to put the show together, that’s when the eyeline problem came home to roost. It turned out that putting our actor at the right spot for one side of the house would not work for the other side of the house. Every person in the audience saw a different eyeline for the actor on the screen. So I had to choreograph the actor to find the best compromise that would sell the connection between her and the actor on the screen to the majority of the audience. It was an exercise fraught with tension, but fortunately nobody that I know of complained about the illusion of connection failing.

The wedding scene that I alluded to in my response to Michael Walsh: Here’s how it went down. The script was calling for one of those idyllic weddings with beautiful people on a beautiful Saskatchewan landscape maybe with sheep wearing big bows present. But we’d been fighting the weather for the whole shoot. Saskatchewan was not looking good. It was looking overcast and gloomy. We had no latitude in the budget for delays. We had to shoot. And on the day of the wedding shoot, it was going to rain.
Okay, thought I, let’s rent a circus tent and put the wedding under cover. So we did. And then I got there and you couldn’t really tell there was a tent. It just looked weird. It didn’t look like it was raining, because the edge of the tent was above the frame line. So obviously we need to tell the audience that it is raining…
I open the scene on the patio, where we augmented the rain with a garden hose. The mother of the bride opens the door, and the camera tilts up to see her face as she makes one of those looks of disgust and holds her purse over her head against the rain before moving into the tent.

Now we have a wedding that is not going as planned. Let’s run with it. We had a gaffer working with us named Rodney Marrow. He looked like a biker sent by central casting. I asked him if he wanted to be in the movie. The representative of the sponsors objected, saying that the sponsors wouldn’t like it. I said we have scissors. If they really don’t like it we can cut it out.
So now the mother of the bride steps into the receiving line behind this big biker dude and taps him on the shoulder. “Rodney, your sister only gets married once in a lifetime. You could have worn some descent clothes.”
To which Rod replies “Mother, we’ve been through this a thousand times” before the camera moves on.
It was not what the sponsors expected of the movie, but I believe the audience could relate. It was the kind of thing that humanized our characters, and got a laugh. And it was the only ovation I’ve ever had from a crew. Though, come to think of it, maybe they were applauding Rod’s performance. Damn. Never thought of that before.

In 1986 my father was dying of lung cancer. I knew it was coming. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to say all the things I needed to say to him, in the moment, so I wrote everything in a letter. Then I took the letter and read it to him.

After I read the letter and we talked, my father came out to the kitchen and we sat drinking tea the way we always had in my family. I realized that my father was never going to see the Saskatchewan film. But I had been involved in the writing, the directing, the editing, and directing the live performance that went with the movie. I knew the show from shot to shot, line by line, music cue to music cue. So I performed it for my father at his kitchen table, from fade in to fade out.

When I was finished, my father said, “Now I’ve heard from a real artist.” I helped him up, and walked him back to his bed in the living room.

I wanted to stay with my father, because the end was near. But I had a wife and children back in Gibsons and who could tell how long my father would linger. I said goodbye and headed for home. When I got back to my home in Gibsons, after the ferry ride, there was a message on my answering machine. My mother called to say that my father was gone.

1986. A hell of a year for me.