He played Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies. He was also a guest star on an episode of Danger Bay which I directed. As a courtesy, I met him when he arrived at the Vancouver airport. He made it very clear that we were not going to be friends. He wasn’t happy to be doing a guest appearance in “Danger Bay” and I remember him saying something about only doing it to get a new television set.
I escorted Mr. Weathers to the registration desk of the Bayshore Inn and asked the desk clerk if she had a room for him. “It’s a suite, isn’t it,” he said, in a tone that implied it bloody well better be a suite.
“Is it a suite?” I asked, and was relieved to learn that it was.
The next morning on set, I watched him put a gold ring in his nose. This is not something that made me happy, and, as the director, I suppose I could have told him that this wasn’t in the style of the show. But I knew what he was doing. He was making a distinction between his character in this guest appearance and his character as the helicopter pilot in Magnum PI. And who was I to tell a black man what his culture was about. Also, this was still in the days when Donnelly Rhodes was doing what he called “Breaking in a new director.” I couldn’t make a decision without Donnelly raising an objection and suggesting an alternative, to the point where I was convinced he was trying to see if he could get me mad enough to hit him. He would have liked that. Nothing Donnelly liked better than a fight. He and Weathers we getting along gang busters, laughing and joking like old frat mates. I was intimidated and felt out gunned.
Thinking back on this I now realize that Carl Weathers gave me a gift. Until this happened I taken the role of director on episodic television with the same attitude I took to directing a feature, the assumption that the director is the authority on set and gets to call the shots when it comes to the everything the audience is going to see. I was comfortable with that. I expected my decisions to carry the authority of the director, and was happy to stand alone in that position. But this doesn’t work on episodic TV. I should have been on the phone to the line producer and requested his presence on set. I needed backup, but didn’t know it. So I ignored the ring in the nose and we shot the scenes.
When the brass saw the dailies, the shit really hit the fan. Every black father or mother in America was going to call the network to complain that their kid wants a ring in his nose like Carl Weathers has. Who is this Canadian director? What kind of idiot is he?
I had a three show contract on “Danger Bay”. The Disney brass wanted to cancel my next two shows. I’m pretty sure the only reason they didn’t was that the show had a tight budget and they didn’t want to pay me not to direct.
In the final scene of that episode, Donnelly Rhodes says goodbye to Carl Weathers and sends him back to his job in Africa, trying to control the trade in endangered species hides. I suggested that they should hug. That was too gay for Mr. Weathers. We settled on a manly handshake.
Carl Weathers and I did not become friends, but I do appreciate the contribution he made to my education as an episodic television director. It took a couple more hard lessons before I took this one to heart. Some might say I’m a slow learner and never did internalize this lesson until now, looking back at my career from the safety of retirement.
To any aspiring TV directors that might be reading this I will add this: Pay attention to the power and the money. Form relationships with the people who can give you work. Just being a good director isn’t enough.
Paraphrasing here. As Stanly Motts, the producer character in Wag the Dog, said sadly,: Just as you are starting to understand how to make a movie and how the industry works they lower the curtain on your career.
I am a movie director, damn it. Specifically a low budget movie director. Give me Bowfinger’s budget and I will give you a movie. That’s what I have done during my long career. Obviously not as much as I wish I had done, but that’s it. I put the money on the screen.
Anybody can make a big budget movie. That’s a snap. That’s easy. It’s making a movie with no money that’s the trick.
I don’t know how I became a low budget movie director. It’s a lot more fun to hose the screen with millions of dollars from people who don’t know dick about making movies, but to be a director I respect you’ve got to be Bowfinger.
Something I heard through my entire directing career went like this: He’s never made a big budget picture. Do you think he can handle this much money? Handle it? Fuck, I’ll roll in the dirt with it and deliver far more than anybody has any right to expect, dance with whatever devil I have to dance with, and put the money on the screen.
I came into directing up the rat lines. I came into directing after serving an apprenticeship as a writer, soundman, editor’s assistant, sound editor, editor, cameraman, production manager, and… fucking creator. A creator. The author of the picture, whatever the picture might happen to be.
Most people have no idea what a director is, or what he does. Take them on a film set and they might think the assistant director, the AD, the guy giving directions, is the director. Not even close. Peter Coyote was not the director, micro-managing the scene with impossible instructions to performers. Not even close. Or the guy telling the actor to pick up the salt shaker on such and such a line. The guy, now as frequently the woman, giving directions. Isn’t that person the director? Not even close.
The only real depiction of a real director I ever saw was Peter O’Toole in “The Stuntman”. The guy desperately trying to find his movie amid the clatter and noise on set, and in his head. Now, that was a director. That was Francis Copolla trying to find it, to figure it out while he went way over budget in the Philippine jungle with the suits back in the studio screaming at him and throwing scripts at the wall. A guy, increasingly a woman, who can see the big picture, who is so close to the big picture he can almost taste it while the chitchats climb on his ceiling and fall into his tea cups.
And who was it on set when the suit’s representative came to tell him that he was twenty pages behind or fifty pages behind who tore that number of pages out of his script and threw them in the trashcan, announcing, “There. Now I’m on budget.” Money? Fuck your money. I’m making a movie.
I was hired by Canal to get “Wiseguy” under control after the prima donna director of the pilot went so far over budget that they couldn’t do turn around. Zale, Alex Beaton said to me, you are going to bring in the same quality without going a penny over budget or a minute into overtime. And I said, “Sure, Alex. Whatever you say.”
We were shooting outside St. Paul’s hospital on Thurlow Street when a grip went charging past me, a hundred pounds of cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back and the sweat sprayed off his t-shirt. I watched him run with it. Run with it, not saunter along. The guy was charging. For me. Because I told him what I expected of the crew and they were all set on delivering.
I think Rob Young was the soundman. Or maybe it was Larry Sutton. No matter. I asked him, “Larry, this is not a slacking crew. This crew is humping it. So what the hell went wrong with the pilot?”
“They set up the camera three times and lit the set four times before they shot an inch of film,” Larry said, almost apologetically.
Well, you can’t do that on episodic television. Not unless you are the precious prima donna director in a sinecure of a position. Then you can do it. Then the studio will eat the overtime and you can keep working while you piss millions down the drain. But that’s not me. I come in on schedule and on budget.
Larry, or was it Rob, explained it to me while he quietly moved my coffee in the styrofoam cup away from his Nagra IV. (Yes, they were still recording on Nagra IV’s in those days.) I said the camera goes here on a fifty, and if I didn’t like the shot we’d shoot it anyway and I’d have to eat it in the editing room. I set a pace. We got the shot and we moved on.
I had a standard speech at the beginning of a shoot specifically for the script assistant. It went like this: Don’t talk to me about axis. I’m not going to discuss axis on my set. If you think I’ve got the axis wrong and the shots won’t cut together, you just make a note in your notes and we shoot the shot. If I’ve got the axis wrong, if we’re crossing the line and you think it will be a problem in the editing room, make a note on the script and keep it to yourself. I’m the director. I’m never wrong about the camera axis. But if you open up a discussion about eye lines or camera axis then the DOP is going to chime in with an opinion, and then the actors will have an opinion, and pretty soon I’ve got twenty minutes of my day and more down the rabbit hole of eye lines and camera axis, while not one of my crew members has ever cut one of my pictures. So they have no right to an opinion of camera axis. It’s my job as the director to choose the shots, cover the scenes, and make sure everything will cut together. Nobody is going to blame you if my shots don’t cut. Make the note and shut up about it. The whole thing about setting the pace is choosing the shots, lenses, eye lines, and then making sure the actors know where to look to match the action. Sometimes it may feel weird to them. That’s all between me and the actors. I’m not going to cover anything two ways, and we’re not coming back for a reshoot.
If you really think the editor is going to come back at you over eye line or axis issues, whisper to me that you’re putting “Shot under protest” on the script. Then get out of my way. We’re moving on.
A director is very vulnerable. His reputation is what gets him or her their next gig. All it takes is a dismissive sneer and comment at the wrap party of another show when their name comes up and it can cost them big time. Real money. I remember in the production office of “Danger Bay” listening to the production manager disparaging Phil Borsos as the director of “One Magic Christmas”. She had worked on “One Magic Christmas” and that gave her real authority when the producers of “Danger Bay” were listening to her. “Phil Borsos didn’t direct that picture,” she was saying. “Borsos was hiding in the production honey wagon shoveling coke up his nose. It was Frank Tidy, the DOP, who directed that picture.” And I had to intervene. “That’s not true,” I said.
“Were you there?” the production manager said.
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t there. And I don’t know what problems you had with Phil. No doubt he’s not an easy director for a production manager to work with. But if you look at his films, going back to Cooperage and Spar Tree and The Grey Fox, all the movies that preceded One Magic Christmas, you will see a visual connection through all the movies he made before he made that last picture. Phil was a visual stylist. I don’t care if he was snorting coke off a stripper’s belly while he was making “One Magic Christmas”. I don’t care if he never showed up on set. He made that picture. Don’t ask me how, but the proof is in the pictures. What’s more, while he was shooting that standard Hollywood action movie in Florida, and pissing off that Hollywood established producer, One Magic Christmas was dead. The powers of the industry had decided that Phil was too much trouble to work with. He was Hollywood Poison. His career was over. But Phil took the picture to Disney and performed CPR on it and showed his commitment to the movie that had been his dream for years, the movie he wanted to make so that he could join the ranks of directors like Frank Capra with It’s a Wonderful Life. Without Phil Borsos, One Magic Christmas would not exist. He brought it back from the dead through shear salesmanship and force of personality. So don’t tell people, especially a room full of producers, he didn’t direct it. It’s a Phil Borsos picture.
By the way, I was recently very gratified to hear one of the culture commenters on CBC radio this past Christmas talking about his admiration for One Magic Christmas. I know that movie had a lot of trouble finding its audience, but I personally loved it. It shows Phil Borsos maturing as a director with a real talent for working with actors. Such a tragedy that Phil died so young. He had more films to make, films I would really want to see. I always admired the man and felt that he should have had some of the attention that landed on me by default.
To say it again, a director is terribly vulnerable. All a director has is their reputation. That’s what gets them their next pay check. And their next chance to direct something significant, to practice their craft as a director.
I traveled to Seattle once, years ago, to take a meeting with a producer for PBS, the people who were making the very few television shows I’m interested in directing. At some point in the meeting, he said to me, “I hear you’re hard to work with.” and I knew exactly where that was coming from. It was coming from Nelvana in Toronto who were upset with me over giving them a hard time shooting The Edison Twins, of which I was one of the two startup directors. It had nothing to do with my directing. It had to do with them showing my work, and the work of my crew, to the Disney brass in the basement of their production offices because they wanted to save a few bucks by not renting a screening room at the lab. We had all been breaking our hearts trying to make a wonderful TV series and we were actually proud of our work, but they were going to screen it on a Siemens double system projector with too long a throw for the lens and wow and flutter on the sound track. The director of photography had come to me and begged me to do something about it, as had the sound man. Both said they wouldn’t attend the screening. I joined them in solidarity, and that cost me at least this one job that I knew about. The other startup director had more political sense than I ever had, and, I think, managed to keep the situation from costing him work and money.
I’m going to name names now. Well, one name at least. Because I’m dying and I’m never going to work again and I don’t give a fuck. Ken Jubenvill, that’s a name for you. Ken Jubenvill, you are an asshole. I thought you were a friend of mine. But an episodic director has no friends on an episodic set. It got back to me, you see. Of course it did. In a conversation with producers Ken said “Oh Zale. (dismissive shrug) Zale plays at being a director. ” What an asshole thing to say about me, Ken. And to producers yet. That may actually be the moment when the scales fell from my eyes and I started to admit to hating being a director in the fucking industry, while loving being a director in the real world. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. Yeah, right, Ken. As Ron Orieux said about you, you tiny, perfect, director. I let it ride. The next time I saw Ken I smiled at him and asked how his family was doing. Was he any closer to making his tiny, perfect movie. Probably not. Give me a moment to check in to Almighty Voice on the IMDB. That should tell me. Did Ken ever get to make his little movie….
And there you have it. A shipload of TV movies. An equal number of episodic shows. One hell of an impressive director’s show reel. Looks like you had one hell of a lot of fun, Ken. I could almost envy a show real like that one. But no. I don’t see your movie on the list. You never got to make it.
And now I feel shitty, because revealing this about Ken makes me as big an asshole as he is. But of course I knew this already. There’s something about the movie industry, the industry, not making movies, that brings out the asshole in anybody.
But I will tell you who I hate. (Whom I hate?) I hate those who punch down. I hate the First AD on Kung Fu the Legend Continues who called a certain woman “The set bicycle.” Thinking it would make me think less of her when all it did was make me think less of him.
And even he is not the biggest asshole to infest the television movie industry. To see that asshole, all I need is a mirror.
Recently I was contacted by Michael Rawley, a Toronto actor who received a kidney transplant in the year 2000. It was my good fortune to be able to document the lead up to the operation, and result.
I had pretty much forgotten this effort, but Michael’s request for a copy sent me on a search through dusty storage in subterranean caverns. I couldn’t find any of the original cassettes, or anything labeled as final version, but I did turn up a MiniDV cassette labeled “Transplant, rough mix”. Even more amazing, I dug out my now ancient Canon GL1 camera and found that it still works just fine, despite not being out of the case for at least ten years.
The next questions – do I still have the technology to capture video from a MiniDV cassette and turn it into a digital file? That took some time and effort to figure out. But in the end, success. Now my very first attempt at digital film making is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.
The gear I had to produce this was primitive in the extreme, a tiny amateur level camera with very limited control over focus and lighting, a ridiculously shaky tripod, and only a clip-on lavaliere microphone to capture the sound. Yet I’m still impressed with the quality. Although I never made a penny from the considerable time I spent making this documentary, and could never get anybody to broadcast it, the result convinced me that I loved the new technology.
Only a few years before I made this, something equivalent would have cost thousands of dollars and required at least a two man team. Making it was a taste of things to come. The finished film still brings a tear to my eye. It was a first step toward my eventual bankruptcy and flight to China.
Funny how things get started, and how they work out.
One last thing for anybody reading this: Please, for the love of mercy, make a comment. I’m pretty sure a few people are reading my personal website now, but I hardly ever get a comment. Even if you just say hello, please please please say something. Please let me know I’m not alone. I feel so very alone.
Just reminiscing as I turn 60 this year, remembering former colleagues and times.
Just wanted to reach out and tell you how thankful I was to have worked with you on that episode of Friday’s Curse. You may not recall, but it was a rather emotional episode involving my father played by Michael Constantine. I recall you being very skilled creating a space we’re I could reach places in my work I had never been. So thanks.
I am glad to hear that your cancer scare was nothing more than that. I wish you many years of following your artistic whims.
All the best, John LeMay
John: Such a delight to hear from you. Thanks so much for the kind words about my directing.
It may interest you to know that I was contacted some years ago by a fan who wanted to know if he could get a copy of that cursed pipe. I ended up giving the slip cast I made from the Plasticine mold to him for the cost of postage.
I was quite proud of that pipe. The one supplied by the props guys was much smaller, and would have disappeared into the actor’s hand. I ended up making the one we used out of Plasticine, just to get the visuals I wanted. No doubt that didn’t endear me to the props guys, but that’s the price you pay for being a demanding director I guess. Demanding, and I’m sure some would say, rather arrogant.
Turning 60. That’s amazing. You were such a kid when we shot that episode. A very earnest kid as I remember. You did a great job. Happy birthday, and many more
Thanks again for your kind words. Please feel free to check in again now and then. I always love to hear from the talented people I worked with. Warmest regards Zale
P.S. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to post your endorsement to my site. Let me know if that’s a problem for you.
And John’s back to me:
From John LeMan: I’m always amazed at the passion fans have have for that show. I did not know , or forgot that you created the “cursed object
That is one lucky fan!
My “real” dad was visiting the set while we were filming that episode. They made him an extra in the lab scenes. Another reason it will always hold a special meaning for me.
Feel free to use my endorsement of course… I meant every word and it’s from the heart.
Look forward to keeping in touch.
John LeMay would have no way of knowing this, but I have very mixed feelings about my work as a director. That episode was number 24 of season 1. The show ran for three seasons, and I have no idea where I blew it, or why I was never invited back. It’s great that John LeMay was happy with my work, but the producers, the people who could give me work in the future, were obviously not impressed. It’s evidence of the truth I was told after my one, and only, counseling session: “What you have told me is that your failure to get as much work as you would like is a result of failing to form relationships with the people who can give you work.”
Well, go figure, eh. It was so obvious. But I had to see a counselor to see it. I came out of the Simon Fraser University film workshop, learning about making movies by talking to fellow enthusiasts, all cameramen, sound technicians, editors. They are my people. I love working with actors and admire their abilities. But producers intimidate me. They play their cards close to their chests, remain emotionally distant, and hold power over me. I did my best to avoid them and just do a good job. If I have one piece of advice for an aspiring young director today it is this: Be friendly with everybody, because anybody can give you a boost or stab you in the back without even thinking about it, but form relationships with the people who can give you work.
Sometimes I remember pulling off an amazing directorial achievement, and I feel like, yes, maybe I have talent. Sometimes I remember the accolades from film festivals or viewers, and I feel good about my career. At other times I lie awake torturing myself over some incident, some time when I didn’t really live up to my standards, or acted in a way that I now regret, and I feel the full force of imposter syndrome. In my case, the feeling that I’m a fraud is perfectly justified. When I think about all the skills involved in directing a movie, the emotional intelligence required, the intuitive understanding of how the audience will react to an image, the artistic background that would support the title of director, it seems impossible that anybody could be really great at the job, especially me. Such arrogance, to step forward and claim to be a movie director. And yet I did that long before I had any credits to support my claim. It’s easy to see that being a tall, not terrible looking, white male was of great benefit to me. It’s a proven fact that such people are given far more authority and respect than they might actually deserve. The other aspect of my character is a strong element of Dunning Kruger Effect. I often have to laugh at my willingness to take on projects, from home renovation, wiring, dry wall finishing, and plumbing to artistic creations like that pipe for Friday the 13th. the Series, for which I have no experience or training. It amazes me how often an attitude of “well, how hard can it be” has brought me success that I don’t feel I deserve (see imposer syndrome above).
I don’t want, expect, or need a tombstone. But if I were to have one, I’ve always wanted it to read: “He was kind and generous, a sucker for every hard luck story.” But the truth is, the epithet I believe I deserve is: “Here lies Zale Dalen, where the Imposter Syndrome met the Dunning Kruger Effect.”
Given all of this, I don’t think John Le May could have had any idea how great an effect his generous letter would have on me, or the depth of gratitude I feel for him taking the time to write it.
This is something else I try to remember as a human being. We have no idea what is going on in somebody else’s life. They may be flying high, living the joy, totally happy with everything. Or they may be deep in depression and despair. In which case a short letter of sincere appreciation could save a life.
I’m currently pretty much okay. I’m not depressed, or wallowing in despair. Even so, a letter like the one from John LeMay has made me smile for days now. You didn’t know this, John. But, if you are reading this, now you do. Thank you.
I was almost famous once. Years ago. Even today I’m occasionally reminded of this. The very phrase sounds funny to me. I mean, one is either famous or unknown, not almost famous. That’s sound like being almost pregnant.
To be clear, I’ve never wanted to be famous. I’ve spent time with some very famous people, and it seemed fame is a huge hassle and occasionally a danger.
I was on the set of “Best Friends” when somebody stole Norman Jewison’s lucky hat, the one with pins from all his many previous films on it. That threw Norman and the entire cast and crew into a tail spin, an act of cruelty that only somebody impressed with fame would do. Some member of his crew found a picture of him wearing his lucky hat, and transformed it into a pin for him to put on the new hat they gave him. It was a nice, caring, creative gesture, but not the same as having his lucky hat with pins from all his past work.
Fans and idiots will steal anything a famous person has owned, or even touched. The latter is perhaps forgivable. Who cares when somebody pockets Natalie McMaster’s beer glass at the bar. But when somebody stole David Carradine’s white cowboy hat, it caused, at the very least, a moment of anxiety, a small frisson of emotional pain. Hats seem to be a favourite target of those impressed by fame.
And then there is the danger. I remember sitting in an outdoor restaurant with David Carradine and Bo Svenson when a stranger approached us. Bo was instantly on his feet to bark a warning at the stranger to back off, long before I had registered any threat. I commented that he was overreacting. Bo assured me that he wasn’t. Bo had much more experience of being famous and among the famous than I had. I suppose you could ask John Lennon whether being famous is dangerous. Oh, that’s right. You can’t. He’s dead. Shot by some nutter for no other reason than he was famous.
As the star of “Kung Fu”, David Carradine was once, in my presence, approached by a slightly drunken man in a bar. I ran interference. The guy wanted to know whether David could really do kung fu. I told him gently, in a tone of voice I hoped made him feel foolish, that David was an actor. The last thing I needed was for my star for the next day’s shooting to get into a bar fight.
No. Influence and money and even power have their place. I could never see any value in fame, other than it sometimes helps a person to get influence and money.
There have been moments when my almost fame has surprised me. Years ago I left a message on a girlfriend’s answering machine which included my name. When her room mate heard the recording she apparently responded with “Was that THE Zale Dalen”. Imagine that. In somebody’s mind I was “the Zale Dalen”.
Long after my phone had stopped ringing and my career was a fading memory, my daughter was working in a call center. One of her coworkers said “Hey, your dad had something to do with the film business. I’m trying to find a movie called “Terminal City Ricochet”. Do you think he’d know how to find it.” My daughter’s response: “He might. He directed it.” That made me feel good, but it was hardly fame.
At the First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo, a congregation my wife belongs to, one of the members went embarrassingly giddy on learning that I had directed “Skip Tracer”, my first feature length film. Forty some odd years on, she remembered the movie and sang its praises. I’m really glad she liked my first movie, and very surprised she remembered it. But the truth is, Having once been almost famous is somewhat embarrassing. I sometimes feel that my past movies, while mostly unknown and none big money makers, or even small money makers, follow me like a record of incarceration. They feel like such a small, almost accidental, achievement for all those years of trying.
I remember talking to a middle aged female actor in Los Angeles years ago. She had once been truly famous as one of the leads in a popular TV series. But that fame had gone away, and now she was truly forgotten. Fans no longer approached her in restaurants, asking for an autograph. She seemed bemused. And relieved.
And that was real fame, not my pale and shabby almost fame.
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.
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.
“Zale, you have to understand something. This isn’t art. You don’t have to tell me how to act.”
This was the first thing Donnelly Rhodes said to me on my first day as the director of Danger Bay. I assured him that I had no intention of telling him how to act, and we got to work.
For that entire show, I couldn’t make a decision on set without Donnelly questioning me, or suggesting something different. If I said, “The camera goes here for the establishing shot.” he’d respond with “Zale, wouldn’t it be better to shoot the establishing shot from here.”
“Well, Donnelly, maybe that would be better. But I’m the director and I want the establishing shot from right here.”
He drove me crazy. I found out later he was doing what he called “Breaking in a new director.” I think the game was to see if he could make me angry enough to punch him. Donnelly loved a fight.
I don’t think we ever got to be close friends, but we did enjoy each other’s company and treated each other with mutual respect, after a time. On the second episode of Danger Bay I directed, the guest stars were two television series regulars from Toronto, Harvey Atkin and Eve Crawford. They happened to be quite tall. Donnelly was not. On the first day of shooting that second episode, Donnelly was required for publicity stills for the first hour of our morning. I set up a scene with the two guest stars, shooting as much of it as I could before Donnelly was scheduled to enter. When he did arrive on set, I told him the scene called for him to come out of a door at the Vancouver aquarium and walk down to a position between the two guest stars where he would deliver his lines.
Donnelly walked out the door and into the scene. Standing between the two guest stars, he looked like a midget. He held his hand over his head and started jumping up to it, like he was trying to be taller.
“Zale?” he whined.
I laughed and said, “Donnelly, it’s my revenge.”
We got along fine after that.
Donnelly had a reputation as a wildman and a jerk. Sometimes he lived up to it. I heard about one location shoot in a small, conservative, Ontario town. Donnelly brought up a couple of prostitutes from Toronto to hang out with him and the other actors.
“Oh, you’re with the movie they’re shooting,” one of the townspeople would say. “What’s your role in the picture?”
“We’re just the fucks.” would be the abrupt answer. True, but rather shocking for the local residents.
When I lived in Gibsons Landing, Donnelly had a place around the bay from my place. We were both into boats. Except my boat at the time was a twenty-six foot sailboat that cost me nothing beyond the purchase price. His boat was huge, aluminum, diesel powered with twin thirsty engines, and breaking the bank. Like Donnelly it was bigger than life. We got to know each other, and I enjoyed some good times and good conversations.
I got the news today that he’s died at the age of eighty. I’m sorry he’s gone.
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.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved directing Kung Fu the Legend Continues. I loved working with David Carradine. I directed over a dozen of the shows over the years, and mostly it was great fun. But one thing was bothering me.
At the time I was a coxswain on the Coast Guard Auxiliary rescue boat out of Gibsons Landing, where we had our home. There were several coxswains for the “rubber duck” as we called the Zodiac rescue boat, and we took the job seriously, training on search patterns and boat handling. While I was in Toronto directing Kung Fu the Legend Continues, one of my fellow coxswains was killed in a bar fight. Apparently words led to a meeting in the parking lot, and a young man who had been studying karate kicked him in the head and killed him.
This was a tragedy in all directions. The man who died was a father of young children. The man who killed him will go through life knowing that a stupid bar fight resulted in the death of a man who should have been his friend. One life lost, one life ruined.
So there I was in Toronto, making a show that said you can punch and kick and hit a man all you want and you won’t do serious damage unless you shoot him or stab him. And my friend was dead. I told this to the executive producer, Michael Sloan, and suggested that we should do a show that presents the dangers of martial arts. Maybe one of Caine’s students kills somebody by accident, and Caine has to go to court to defend the idea of teaching martial arts.
They considered it. And they rejected it. They’d just done a courtroom drama, based on the classic “Twelve Angry Men” movie. They didn’t see another way to present the concept. So no. I didn’t press the issue.
At the time, Kung Fu the Legend Continues was getting 45 million viewers a week. The show was heavy on fantasy, spirit traveling, Chinese themed (though not very accurate) mysticism. It was comic book stuff, and I’m pretty sure that, given some authority, I would have put the show in the toilet in a couple of episodes. Just one of the many reasons why television directing and Zale Dalen was not a good fit. I can see that now.