Goodbye Donnelly Rhodes.

“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.

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.

 

 

 

Kung Fu the Legend Continues fail

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.

Thank you Atom Egoyan

It started with an email from Tom Charity, Film Centre Programmer & Rentals Manager Vancity Theatre

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 “Hi Zale, meet Sue Biely, who is coordinating National Canadian Film Day for Reel Canada in BC. The Directors Guild is one of our sponsors, and they have agreed a budget to bring you over for our show on the 19th.  I’m going to leave you and Sue to work out the details, but please keep me looped in and I’ll facilitate in any way I can.”

What?  Why? How could this happen?  Here I am, living in obscurity and thinking myself forgotten, yet somebody wants to fly me to Big Smoke for some reason.  Well, that certainly breaks up the tedium of my not at all tedious life.

And the reason, as it unfolded, was beyond flattering.  The focus of the evening was to be a retrospective of the films of Atom Egoyan, one of Canada’s best known and successful “not populist” film makers.  Two of his films were to be shown, The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica, as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The organizers had decided they wanted to show another Canadian film before the main features, and asked Atom to name his favourite Canadian movie.  And he named “Skip Tracer”, my first feature, shot in Vancouver in 1976.  I was gob smacked, as the British would say.  Blown away.

A flurry of emails and arrangements followed and on April 20 I found myself boarding a Harbour Air seaplane in Nanaimo Harbour for the beautiful twenty minute flight to Vancouver. Before leaving I went through the stack of boxes and junk in our basement and found what I believe to be the last two remaining original silk screened posters for Skip Tracer – one for Atom as a thank you for remembering my movie, and the other for Sue Biely, the organizer of the event as a thank you for being so…uh…organized. I also packed a framed ‘certificate of appreciation as a patron of the arts’, something I owed to my old friend Brian James Clayden for his support of my GoFundMe campaign to get back my violin.

Aside from these two items, I was traveling light.  I didn’t even take a razor with me, since I’d be returning the following day.

The screening of Skip Tracer was another surprise.  It was well attended.  More than that, Skip Tracer was treated as an important film, a film of historical significance, a relic of a lost era in Canadian film making.  I sat in front of the screen after the credits and did a question and answer session with the audience, slipping back into my old role as self important enfant terrible and promoter with nary a stumble, as if forty years hadn’t passed since the New York Film Festival of 1978. It was like visiting a past life. My only regret was that my first wife, Laara Dalen, who produced Skip Tracer, couldn’t be there with me to share the spotlight.  She was every bit as much responsible for the birth of the movie as I was.  It wouldn’t have happened without her.

After the Q and A session, I was approached by a man who looked very familiar.  It took me a minute to recognize Roger Huyghe, the grip on the Skip Tracer production team.  Death by nostalgia.

I found Atom Egoyan and the actor, Bruce Greenwood (from both The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica) in the bar of the Sutton Place. Bruce excused himself soon after I arrived, and I had the pleasure of chatting with Atom about China and his new film project, another difficult movie about the exploitation of Chinese sex workers during the San Francisco gold rush.

That, for me, was the high point of the whole adventure.  I admire Atom immensely, and not just because he is so kind to me and my movie.  He’s a survivor.  He makes difficult films that are not populist movies.  Films with integrity.  I frankly don’t know how he has managed to do it, since I couldn’t.  But I think the answer is that he has a single-minded passion for his art that I lacked, being too interested in sailboats and other life adventures.

The next morning, BJ joined me for breakfast, as did Roger Huyghe. We enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives.  All three of us have ridden the dragon of boom and bust housing prices, separations and divorces, wealth and poverty, good times and bad.  We endure. I felt loved.

Then I was off to catch the seaplane home.

I got back on Thursday afternoon, in time to make it to my regular fiddle session with the Oceanside Jammers in Qualicum Beach.  Another reality.  Already my day of fame and celebrity seemed like another world, another life.

RIP Phyllis

It’s taken me a year to catch up with the news that my friend Phyllis Diller has died.  Some friend I am.  And no, we didn’t keep in touch.  But she was still a friend, and I’m so sorry she is no longer with us.

I worked with the delightful Ms Diller many years ago on a comedy pilot shot in Victoria.  She was a delight, a babe, a grand lady.  We had fun playing touch football with her wig at the rap party.  I sold her a joke.

Phyllis Diller as i remember her.  Thanks for the memories, and the cheque.Wanna hear the joke I sold her?  Okay.  But you have to imagine this coming from the mouth of Phyllis Diller:  “I was Apple Queen. (long pause) The year of the blight.”

Now isn’t that a Phillis Diller joke.  She apparently thought so and sent me a cheque for it.  I didn’t expect that.  I never cashed it.  Much more fun to have the cheque on my wall than the money.

So how much is a joke worth?  Three bucks.

Most people don’t know that Ms Diller was a concert pianist.  A multi-talented performer.  Damn but I’m sorry she’s gone.  But then she made it to 95, and that’s a good run.