When I was a child, my father would tell us a riddle. Or, since he would give us the answer, maybe it was a joke.
Riddle: Why is a mouse when it spins?
Answer: The higher the few.
Of course this strange grammar made no sense to us children. Why is not a question one can ask of a spinning mouse. My father claimed that this was a hilarious joke, and when we got it we would laugh for days. Of course that never happened.
Some years after my father died, I discovered that the spinning balls on a steam engine or steam tractor were colloquially called “the mouse”. They regulated the engine’s speed, and the higher their speed, the further out centrifugal force pulled them and the slower the engine turned. So the higher the mouse balls rose, the fewer revolutions of the engine, or, in the words of the joke, “the higher the few”.
It still wasn’t good grammar, but maybe that was part of the joke. Maybe. I don’t know, and my father is long gone now so I can’t ask him. It was so like my father to never give the joke away. Or maybe he never knew. Or maybe that isn’t the joke.
People seem passionate about social positions that have nothing to do with their own lives. A perfect example is a man beyond procreation age taking a passionate position against abortion. I suppose you could argue that a potential grandparent has an interest in whether his daughter bears a child, but that seems to be a thin argument to me. For myself, I don’t believe that any man has a right to an anti-abortion position of any kind. That is one hundred percent a women’s issue. They are the ones with the bodies that will be be affected. We don’t have a dog in that fight.
There is one social issue that I do feel entitled to sound off about, and that is Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAID. I have metastasized prostate cancer. I have registered for MAID.* In theory, a phone call to Dr. F_____ will trigger a sequence of events – organizing nursing assistance and procuring the necessary drugs – that will take about three days and result in a team showing up at a place of my choosing to kill me. Should it go that way, it will be a pleasant and painless death, very much like the one we just purchased for our beloved GouGou after almost sixteen years as a member of our family.
It’s been a long and hard battle to gain this right in Canada, and I’m grateful for it. I very much do have a dog in that fight. I have watched several cancer victims die. Horrible deaths. Death that we would not inflict on an animal. I really see no point in going through that disgusting and undignified process myself, reduced to utter dependence and kept alive by medical interventions far beyond the point when the party is over and it’s time to leave.
So I consider our current laws on medically assisted death a sign of social maturity. I’m grateful for the change from previous legislation, mostly because I am likely to benefit from it. Still, I don’t think we got it quite right.
This morning I learned that several states in the U.S. allow doctors to prescribe drugs fully intended to painlessly kill their patient, but are forbidden from administering those drugs themselves. Now that’s an idea that I like. There’s something wrong with doctors administering drugs intended to kill. From a comment she made to me (“As long as nobody calls me a murderer.” -Dr. F___) while discussing her agreement to terminate my life, I’m pretty sure that Dr. F____ is not completely comfortable with taking on that roll. I’m sincerely grateful that she is willing to do it for me. But her direct assistance is not at all necessary. Give me the means to go quietly, at my own time, and leave the rest up to me. That’s what I would really like.
What the hell is wrong with that?
*Before you leap to the assumption that my death is imminent, please calm down. My death may be years away, and it’s very likely that I will die of something else, like old age, before the cancer gets me. My oncologist tells me that the situation with prostate cancer reminds him of the early days in his career when he worked at a hospital treating AIDS patients. Back then, AIDS was a death sentence, a guaranteed terminal disease. Today, after decades of research, AIDS is a chronic disease that can’t be cured, but a person with HIV or even full blown AIDS may live for decades. So it is now with prostate cancer. I’m definitely in decline, but I look good on paper. My PSA, (Prostate Specific Antigen, an indication of tumor activity) level is decimals below one and it could be years before you can mourn or rejoice in my death.
Being left handed has had a profound affect on my comfort in social situations, an affect perhaps equal to starting school at the age of five instead of the usual six, which meant that I was constantly comparing my abilities to children often a year or more older than I was. Sometimes these influences worked in tandem. I’ve only recently come to understand them.
I started school a year or two after converting left handed writers to right handed went out of fashion. So I was allowed to use my natural, preferred hand to write with. I suppose this was considered a kindness, but like many well intentioned educational changes, it had unintended consequences for me. Desks were designed to be right handed. Such desks were entered on the left side. Support for the right arm was provided on the right side, which widened to form the writing surface. Each of my first school classes began with a search for a left handed desk for me to use. This, along with constant remarks on my left handedness, caused me to feel that I was somehow different from the other students, somehow unusual, somebody who didn’t really fit in.
This was brought home to me a few years ago. We had purchased a telephone desk that sat by the door. It had a seat and a seat on the right on the side, with the table for the telephone on the left, situated so that it was natural to pick up the receiver with the left hand, leaving the right hand free for writing notes. It was very awkward to pick up the receiver with the right hand so one could write with the left. I was sitting at this desk one day with the phone in my left hand, and began casually doodling with my rright hand on the note paper we kept beside the phone. I started writing cursive letters, and realized how easy it would have been to learn to write right handed since I can do most things easily with either hand. (Technically I am ambidextrous, not mixed-handed, since I do everything with my left hand unless I was trained to do it with my right: mixed-handed people use the right hand for some things and the left for others, whereas the ambidextrous can use both hands equally well for most tasks. I learned to roll a coin across my right knuckles because the script required me to teach this trick to a right handed actor. Now I can do that with some facility, but it would take hours of practice to learn to do it with my left hand.) The realization that I could easily have been converted to writing with my right hand hit me with an emotional rush, almost bringing me to tears. The thought that came to my mind was “And then I’d be normal”. Until that moment, I had no idea how abnormal being left handed made me feel. Explains a lot.
I suppose I should be grateful that the social prejudice against left handed people is pretty much a thing of the past. In the middle ages, when lefties were referred to with such pejoratives as “cack handed” (shit handed) or “sinister” and assumed to be allies of the devil, the unfortunate lefties were often driven from their villages by the taunts and slurs of the ignorant bastards they had to live with.
This caused my favourite, and most ironic, result. Left handers became the traveling minstrels and entertainers, moving from village to village performing and bringing the news. They are the ones who developed virtually all of the stringed instruments – violins, guitars, mandolins, lutes, and all the rest. Now, if you think about those instruments, the left hand does almost all of the heavy lifting, the fingering of notes, stretching to make chords and, in the case of fretless instruments, developing perfection of intonation and vibratto. It’s only after the performer has developed considerable sophistication that the right hand does more than strum or saw across the strings with a bow, easy tasks compared to what the left hand must learn.
Right handers naturally assume that all these instruments are right handed, since almost everything else in this world was designed for their use. But no. The stringed instruments are naturally left handed. Many left handed but essentially ambidextrous people have been convinced that they need to reverse the strings on a guitar or violin to learn to play it. Not true and so sad.
I play guitar, mandolin, banjo and violin the way they were designed to be played – left handed. It’s the right handed musicians who should be reversing the strings. The jokes on them, eh.
So, being left handed made me feel like a misfit, weirdo, oddball in school. But now that I’m an adult, how do I feel about it? Mostly I couldn’t care less. Aside from my wife wanting to sit on my right side at a dinner table, or taking care to seat me on a corner when we dine with others, it really isn’t an issue in my life. I once owned a left handed can opener, and had one heck of a time trying to figure out how to use it, just like my right handed friends. Since I’d never held a left handed bolt action rifle, I recently bought one out of curiosity, a left handed Savage 300 Winmag. Worst gun I’ve ever owned (for me). Kicks like a bastard, and the knob on the bolt tends to bash into the knuckle of my trigger finger if I’m not careful. I never resorted to handling a right handed bolt action rifle the way the sniper in “Saving Private Ryan” did, so such rifles never gave me any trouble.
Apparently being left handed is associated with creativity and a greater ability to visualize in three dimensions, which fits. Recent studies show more lefties in the arts, and among architects. Lefties also have %15 greater lifetime earnings than the right handed. But these are just statistical averages and don’t mean much at an individual level.
I’ve come to accept that there is no such thing as normal. If being left handed messed up my childhood, it hasn’t messed up my life. Being proud of being left handed is as silly as being proud of being white, or tall, just another accident of birth. I’m proud of accomplishments, not of things I had nothing to do with.
UPDATE: I am now ready to reconsider my theory that all stringed instruments are left handed, having recently become acquainted with the lyre harp, one of the earliest and simplest stringed instruments which probably predates the guitar and most certainly predates the violin.
The lyre harp in one of its simplest forms, with no resonator chamber.
The lyre harp is held by the left hand and the strings are plucked with the right. So in that case, the right hand is doing all the work and the left is doing nothing but holding the instrument.
I can see how the lute, guitar, mandolin, and eventually the violin could have evolved from this instrument, with the expectation that the right hand would pluck the strings. It might have been an afterthought that eventually gave the left hand more to do, to the extent that the left gradually assumed the more difficult role.
Well, it was a good theory. The jury is still out. Whatever the origin of the instruments, switching guitar strings for a left handed player still makes no sense at all.
Some time before the turn of the century, I was blessed with a rather large royalty payment for my television work, enough to settle my debts and give me some money to play with but not enough to buy me an early retirement. At any rate, I was in my fifties and not yet ready to retire. At the time, digital media was just coming available, bringing amateur film production closer to reality, but the resulting films generally had the camera mounted on the head of a poorly trained seal and sound quality that made the dialogue impossible to understand. Generally these productions made an excuse for the technical failings by pretending to be a college documentary found in the woods ( Remember the “Blaire Witch”) or footage from a security camera or a psychiatrist’s interviews.
My agent at the time had a client who was about to have a kidney transplant. He and his partner also happened to have a tiny miniDV camera with very limited controls. With that, and a flimsy tripod, I made a documentary on events leading up to the operation.
And I was hooked. I realized that with care and attention to the camera, focus, and shots plus good quality recording and a mix, this stuff could look like a movie. My first step toward bankruptcy.
That royalty money from the television work wasn’t enough to finance an industry style movie, which was just fine by me because I hate the way the industry makes movies. They are micro-managed in a style that originated with Frank Winslow Taylor and is absolutely antithetical to art. Television is a factory product. To a lesser extent, so are feature films. Money controls everything, from the script to the choices of locations, director, production personnel, and editing time. Every second on set is important. There is no room for experimentation, or for just trying things out. Not until a director gets to the A list, at which point things loosen up. But I never worked on a production that had time or money for re-shoots. Follow the script. Make a precise shot list. Get it right the first time or never work again. It’s a formula for formula film making and I chaffed under the restraints.
But here, with the availability of digital prosumer production gear, was a chance to make films completely outside of the industry. So I launched Volksmovie.com and set about revolutionizing film making. I teamed up with Beth Waldron, a local talent agent, and pitched the idea of a totally cooperative film production. I would provide the hard cash for equipment and MiniDV cassettes. Everybody else would do whatever they could to help make the movie, from manufacturing equipment to writing scenes. One of our actors was a welder. He turned a refrigerator dolly from Home Depot into a very serviceable camera dolly. Home Depot because our largest equipment supplier. We made diffusion filters out of furnace filters, and adapted work lights into set lights by adding barn doors.
I purchased three Canon GL1 miniDV cameras, three fluid head Manfroto tripods, a carbon fibre boom pole, a selection of mid range Audiotechnica microphones, and two Apple computers equipped with Final Cut Pro. I even purchased a light weight Cobra Crane.
It was very much a European style of film production, where a theme was chosen and threads explored. We had no completed script. We would shoot a scene. I would take a day or two to edit it. Then we would have a group screening and try to collectively figure out where the story was taking us. Artistically it was heaven. On the first shooting day, everybody stood around watching me put equipment together. After a week or two I could stand back while the van was unloaded and gear assembled. If an actor wasn’t in a scene, they might be operating a camera, or holding the boom pole. We had 64 shooting days, twice as many as I ever had on an industry production.
We kept track of everybody’s time, and the deal was that proceeds from the film would be split three ways, one third to pay back my capital investment, one third to be divided among the crew depending on time worked, and one third for the group to finance the next film. The problem was, there were no proceeds.
My business plan was extremely simple and obviously flawed: Make a zero budget film that looks good. Get invited to film festivals. Grab a couple of television sales that would more than recover the production costs. Rinse and repeat.
I had attended every Toronto Film Festival for about the past thirty years, ever since “Skip Tracer” was invited back in 1976. I felt certain that “Passion” would blow their minds. Two things I did not anticipate – an absolute tsunami of amateur short films, mostly made by teenagers, and the fact that we had achieved our objective. “Passion” looks like a movie. Right down to the poster.
But now back to the problem with my business plan: A video maker I knew who had found a niche making “So Ya Wanna Fight” videos, lent his son his production gear. The kid shot a five minute video of himself French kissing the family Rottweiler. And got invited to three film festivals as soon as he submitted.
“Passion” was invited nowhere. The festivals could afford to give five minutes of screen time to a teenager’s production that would bring in an enthusiastic audience. But “Passion” was a full length feature. As such, it was competing for screen time with the latest “special” film that comes to Toronto with name stars and a whole promotions team and budget.
“Passion” plays best to a live audience where the laughter is contagious. It would die on a VCR in an office while a festival organizer takes phone calls.
Having failed to find attention on the festival circuit, I decided to try another route. I rented the Pacific Cinemateque in Vancouver and set up a private screening, inviting film workshop students and industry members and, most importantly, opinion makers from the press. I hired a publicist to bring in those opinion makers.
We had a full house, with laughs all the way through the screening. But none of the opinion makers showed up. For that matter, my press agent didn’t show up. We got not one inch of copy in any paper. I realized that tearing up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Thurlow and Robson would have done just as much good for my movie.
So “Passion” worked well with a full audience, but nobody in the industry liked it. Maybe it’s a crappy film. Maybe I’m just a crappy director. I’ve given this possibility a lot of thought. Except I still love the movie, and there are others out there who love it too.
I can understand why “Passion” turns a lot of people off. At it’s heart, it’s about a stalker, Dwayne Fever, part owner of an antique store called Cabin Fever, a man obsessed with a younger woman, his business partner, who is already in a relationship. The thing is, I can forgive him for that. He’s very self aware, and doesn’t want to be obsessed. His wife is dying of terminal cancer, making him even more of a creep in the eyes of many people. But grief manifests in many unexpected ways. You haven’t lived if you’ve never been obsessed with somebody, and needed to control your behavior.
The actions and characters in “Passion” are absurd, but so is reality. Nothing can be more absurd than the human behavior we can read about every day. Just Google fetishes to see for yourself.
I can understand why many people who expect the normal romcom tropes would be turned off by “Passion”. Here’s one example. This is a letter I wrote in response a friend’s criticisms of the movie. I never sent it.
Dear _________: December 5, 2014
I was going through some old files the other day and came upon your remarks about my movie, “Passion” (dated March 27, 2002). I didn’t address them at the time, because I don’t really believe in defending my movies against criticism. People will think what they want, and I generally take their comments as just an indication of whether or not I have correctly predicted their reactions in order to give them a movie they enjoy. But one of your comments demands a response, late as it is.
“For me the incongruity is best encapsulated in the scene between Fever and his daughter Cloe when he remonstrates her for having sex in his car. Rather than taking issue with her morality, he is most concerned that she stay out of his car! His fatherly instincts are laughable.”
My friend, I think I understand and respect your concept of morality. But you should understand that I do not agree with it. I place no value on virginity or chastity before marriage. None at all. In fact, I believe that telling a girl to remain a virgin until she marries is foolish. It means that she will be marrying a stranger. In the case of my sister it resulted in her marrying a repressed homosexual.
I am a sex positive person. It is my belief that sex is a natural human activity and a source of great joy, but that this has been perverted by the demands of patriarchy which, in the past and still today, treats women as chattel.
The scene you found such a laughable example of poor parenting is actually my very favorite in the entire move. As he says to his daughter, “I know you are old enough to have sex.” His complaint about her having sex in his car is not about her having sex, it’s about his shear incredulity that she would come to his house, for which she obviously has a key, specifically to have sex in his car. His initial reaction to her having sex in his car is more one of surprise than anything else, and if she’d asked his permission in advance he quite probably would have given it.
You see, I feel that Dwayne Fever’s relationship with his daughter is a model for what a father’s relationship with a daughter should be. So far from seeing him as a bad parent, I see him as a role model.
I completely accept the fact that my daughter has sex with her boyfriend. I see no problem with this. I would much rather have her enjoying sex than being afraid of sex, or withholding sex through fear.
Our culture has had and still has a double standard about sex. Women are not supposed to want or enjoy it, and are only supposed to engage in sex for procreation. Men, on the other hand, are expected to “sow their wild oats” and get experience so that they can be lord and master in the marital relationship. I detest this aspect of our culture, and I’m very happy to see it changing. “Slut shaming”, now part of the lexicon, is an activity that belongs in the past.
My friend _______, I’m sorry if I sound like I am lecturing you. I really do appreciate the time you took to watch my movie, and your rather gentle response to it. I just couldn’t let your main criticism go unaddressed because it’s an issue that is very important to me.
Warmest regards and all the best for a very Merry Christmas
In writing this letter, I was very aware that my friend had grown up in a Dutch Calvinist culture, one in which the rooster is locked up on Sundays so he doesn’t do any “work”. I really can’t blame him for having values antithetical to mine.
So Dwane Fever’s creepy behavior is redeemed for me by his relationship with his daughter, by the self aware the way he tries to control his stalker behavior, and by the relationship his has with his dying wife, best illustrated in the scene where he is in heaven and confronted by her ghost, who at that point knows everything. Her lines, “So you thought you loved her. Don’t you get it. You don’t know the first thing about her. She doesn’t know where she was when Kennedy was shot. All that time you were looking into a mirror.” And his line after he acknowledges the truth of this, “You know you are the only woman I ever really loved.” To which she responds. “Of course I know that.” This is great, honest, relationship stuff.
There is a lot more than the social values I enjoy about the movie. One of our main actors, Tim Johnson, took on a key roll as a writer. Between us we created scenes that still make me laugh. Tim found us a lesbian advisor who helped shape the scenes between Fever’s female lawyer and her secretary. And Tim was capable of finding completely off the wall lines that somehow rang true.
For example, when his character, Bob, is caught trying on women’s clothing, he chases his girlfriend down the street crying “But I’m not gay. It empowers me.” And that line, written by Tim, always made me shake my head. Where did that come from? Well, recently I met a man who told me his first marriage had fallen apart. I asked him what happened and he said, with admirable candor, “I’m a heterosexual transvestite and my first wife couldn’t handle it.” Naturally I had to invite him and his second wife to dinner and show them my movie. I wanted to ask him about that line, did it have any validity? “Absolutely,” he responded. “My mother was a very dominant personality and a seamstress. Somehow women’s clothing and the fabrics they’re made from acquired an irresistible sexual frisson. I just had to wear them. They make me feel powerful”
My love for the “Passion” is not uncritical or unreserved. At times the performance wanders too far into Mr. Bean territory for my taste, and some of the acting is questionable. But overall, it gets at least an A for effort. And it deserves a place in movie history if only for the production method and technology used.
For me, the characters in “Passion” are absurd, but not repugnant. They are all human beings, some smarter and more enlightened than others, but all part of this amazingly absurd world we try to muddle our way through. Watch it it without judgement and you may find yourself appreciating it, if not loving it, as I do.
This is a question that is very hard to evaluate. I seem to have quite a few fans out there, both in the industry and in the greater audience. But I know there are many people who think my work sucks, and at least one Youtube troll who was very happy to tell me so.
On one metric I’m terribly deficient. A good movie director is a person who directs movies. I haven’t been on an industry film set for over twenty years. So maybe I was once a good director, but now I’m, at best, a has-been. A washed out old man reveling in past glories and successes while still tortured by the many moments that didn’t work out as I might wish.
So, in developing an evaluation, let me start with my deficiencies. I am a political idiot. I have never paid attention to power or money, or the people who control power and money, to the people who can give me work, or have influence with others to get me work. This is complemented by amazing arrogance. Just one example: On the day before our first shooting day on my second made for TV movie, “On Thin Ice, the Tai Babalonia Story”, the producer, Janet Faust, a highly experienced and quite brilliant woman, said, “I’ll ride to the set with you in the morning.” To which I said, “No you won’t. I ride to the set with my first AD. (Assistant Director, my main support on set.)” Can you imagine anything more stupid than that. Is my firsts AD ever going to give me a job? Hell no. I have worked with some truly supportive Assistant Directors, many of whom went on to have directing careers themselves. Including David Warrysmith, my AD on that picture. And that alone should tell you something. If any of them ever put my name up for a directing position, I didn’t hear about it.
Another painful example. On the last day of shooting my episode of “Wise Guy”, the star woke up to the fact that it wasn’t his scene. Maybe he finally got around to reading the script. It was a wedding banquet scene which culminated in Ray Sharkey garotting an enemy while the undercover cop, surrounded by twenty or thirty armed goombas, looks on helplessly. Kenny Wahl came to me just before we started shooting the scene to complain that his character was a cop. He had to do something. I explained that the whole point of the scene was that he couldn’t do anything. “You’re surrounded by armed goons, Ken. Anything you do is going to blow your cover and get you killed.” Kenny was insistent. Telling him I’d been prepping the show for two weeks and would really like it if he let me just follow the script made no impression on him. So I called Ray Sharky over and said, “Ken says he has to do something in this scene. What do you think.” Ray asked Kenny, “What do you want to do?” a good logical question. Ken said, “I have to at least stand up.” I said, “Ray, Ken wants to stand up. What would you do?” Ray said, “I’d push him back down.” I said, “Ken, you’re going to look like an idiot. Please just let us go with the script as written.” Stephen Canal, owner of the studio, happened to be visiting the set for that scene. Kenny went to him and complained, and Stephen came to me and, very respectfully, asked, “Zale, can you shoot it two ways.” Now, a director with half a political brain, would have said something like, “He’s got a good point, Stephen. I’ll shoot it his way.” Because Kenny Wall is going to be back as the star of the show for however many shows the series runs. I’m just the director du jour, canon fodder, and they don’t need me to come back ever. So, what did I do? I wasted the expensive crew time and shot it two ways, pissing off the crew who just wanted to get the scene shot and go home for the day. Which version did came out of post production? Kenny’s version of course. It looked fine. I never directed another episode of “Wiseguy”. I’m an idiot.
One final example. I was the startup director on “The Edison Twins” at Nelvana in Toronto. The crew, actors, and I had all been breaking our hearts to turn out a good show. We were all proud of our work. But the producers had been showing us our rushes in the studio basement on a double system Siemens projector. The DOP (Director of Photography) had been complaining that the forty foot throw was washing out the images and his work looked terrible. The soundman had been complaining that the projector was adding wow and flutter as well as drowning out the sound. Then we were told that the executives from Disney were coming up to Toronto to see what we’d done. The producers were planning on showing our work on that crappy makeshift projection system. Both the camera crew and sound crew came to me and begged me to do something. Both said they weren’t going to come to the screening. So I told the producers that I wasn’t coming to the screening unless they held it in a proper screening room at the lab. I presented this as an ultimatum, rather than a polite request and suggestion. Idiot. Maybe this explains why, at a job interview for PBS in Seattle, I was told “I hear you are hard to work with.” Ya think?
Soon enough this kind of behavior was thinning down my work assignments. I was starting to get hungry. When the school district in Gibsons, after some lobbying by a parents group, APEC (Association for the Preservation of English in Canada, as if English was a threatened language in Gibsons, B.C.) voted to end early French Immersion in the public school system and bring in late French immersion, for grade threes, we French immersion parents decided to send our kids to Quebec for a few months in a French language school. This would qualify us for something called Program Cadre, which by law meant that they would get French immersion anywhere in Canada. We organized a fund raiser, a silent auction, to help cover this expense. One of the items donated for the auction was an hour of personal counseling by a friend of ours, a professional counselor. I knew her regular rate was $60 per hour, and nobody was bidding. So I bid $30 and won the hour. I had asked her previously what kind of a counselor she was, whether a Freudian or a Jungian or whatever. She told me she didn’t follow any particular style. She simply listened to her clients and told them what they had told her, to help them get a different perspective on their problems. This sounded good to me. So when I went for my hour of counseling, I gave her a “core dump” on my life and career. When I was finished she said, “So…you have told me that your failure to get as much work as you would like is a result of failing to form relationships with people who could give you work.” Well, duh. That was damned obvious. I know that….. Of course… I know that. The thing is, I came at directing from the film workshop at Simon Fraser University. My friends there were film makers, cameramen, editors, soundmen, all of us funding our own projects and working on each other’s little films. They are my kind of people, and I love working with actors, especially amateur actors. And none of these people could ever give me work. I do not relate well to producers, suits, clients, or money people. Truth is, I have authority issues. Those people intimidate me, and I tend to avoid them when I can. I decided right then that I can be friends with anybody, and without becoming a sycophant or compromising my personality, if I pay attention. I read “How to Make Friends and Influence People” as a teenager. I know how to do it. But by then it was a little late to get started. My reputation was well established.
So this is my biggest failure as a director, my failure to direct. Does this mean I’m a bad director? Not at all.
I have moments in my body of work, going all the way back to my very earliest films, that stand up favorably against the giants of the field. I have directed scenes that look as good as anything the big names of the A list have done. There’s a lot of stuff in my filmography that I’m very proud of.
But this is enough for one post. Maybe next time I will talk about those moments of triumph, the times when I organized chaos into something emotionally powerful, the moments when I made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That’s much more fun to talk about than this has been.
I got an email from my wife today with “Are You Ears Burning” in the subject line, directing me to this post by Kenneth George Godwin.
I tried to post a comment in response, but there’s a glitch in his site. There was no sign of a captcha, but an error message said I hadn’t filled it out correctly. So I sent him this in a email instead:
Hi Kenneth George Godwin:
I tried to post the following comment on your post, but got an error message saying I did not enter the correct captcha. Couldn’t find a captcha anywhere. Anyway, here’s what I tried to post in the comments:
Don’t know who it is at the editing bench, identified as Dale Zalen, but they bear no resemblance to me, Zale Dalen. Not an uncommon mistake. (This has been corrected, and the picture replaced with one I provided.)
Aside from that, this was a very fair and generous article. For a time I was the West Coast advisor to the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and spent many meetings pleading with them to expand on the special investment program, under which “Skip Tracer” was made, and fighting off the industry types championing big budget American style production. I was also pleading with them not to go into supporting television production, a move they made because they couldn’t justify the money they were losing supporting feature films. The name change to Telefilm Canada marked the final defeat of that battle. I wrote a post some time ago on why I believe “Passion” is an underappreciated and historically important film, but that post seems to have disappeared from https://www.artisanmovies.com/ pages. I guess I’ll have to write it again. My main pitch is that it was the first prosumer digital production made completely outside of the movie industry that made no excuses for the technology and actually managed to look like a movie. (the fact that you reviewed it as just a movie kind of makes this point.) Plus I just like its social statements. Check into http://www.zaledalen.com/zaledalen/ in a week or so and I should have it up there. Thanks for the ink and attention.
It couldn’t have been better, for me at least. Well, okay. It could have been a hell of a lot better if my father hadn’t died. But we all have to go sometime. As my father said, “Dying can’t be so bad or everybody wouldn’t do it.”
That was 1986, the year of Expo in Vancouver, and I’d been hired to make the film for the Saskatchewan Pavilion. That was a year of work, starting with rejecting the script that had been commissioned and paid for and instigating a search for a new writer. There was already a concept in place – a big screen anamorphic 35mm. film with an actress under the huge screen interacting with the film. I wasn’t sure that was going to work, so the Director of Photography, Richard Leiterman, and I flew down to L.A. to take the Universal Studio tour because we’d heard that the tour included a section during which the tour guide interacted with a Hollywood celebrity. That didn’t tell us much. Our concept was for the actor under the screen to talk to the audience and talk to characters in the film. The Universal Tour sequence simply handed the Master of Ceremonies job to the Hollywood celebrity and stood down while he talked. Did that mean what we wanted to do wouldn’t work? It was something to worry about.
There was also the question of eyelines. If the characters in the film were going to believably talk to our actor, where should we have them look to make us believe they were talking to her. Richard stood in various audience positions while I stood on a ladder under the screen, still just a framework, and pretended to look at the actor. Things were getting scary. It turned out that the actors would have to look down toward the base of the camera tripod, but looking left, right, or center depended on where the audience was sitting. Compromise would be required.
The script writer search found Carol Bolt, a Toronto writer who gave us the conflict that was missing in the original script. The actor would be a “girl next door” from the prairies who had been hired as a living narrator to tell us about her province. While she was very happy to have the job, she was also desperately homesick and missing friends and family back home. At the end of the film she would apologize to the audience, run off stage and reappear on the film running toward her boyfriend.
I won’t say too much about the actual production, other than it was fraught with personality conflicts and technical problems. There were politics involved. I was from B.C. and Saskatchewan had its own film community. I was getting attitude from my AD, my assistant director, who had been laid on by the client, and it took me some time to realize that he had made a very competent tourism movie for Saskatchewan the year before, and felt that they owed him the director position on this one. Richard Leiterman was getting attitude from his camera operator, who had been the director of photography on that same tourism movie. While they both did a good job for us, the subtle vibes on location made for a less than wonderful shoot. On at least one occasion, words were spoken.
We had a tiny budget compared to what was being spent on the B.C. film. This meant a very limited shooting schedule, and weather wasn’t cooperating. Saskatchewan was supposed to look beautiful, and it looked downright gloomy. The client wanted the people of Saskatchewan to seem hip and very modern, emphasizing that computers had to feature prominently. I tried to explain that everybody had computers. They didn’t make much of an impression. And a computer in the tractor connected to the futures market, a system that was still in the beta development phase, would seem a bit silly. An Expo film is a difficult film to make. In essence it’s a tourism movie, but it had to be somehow more than that. It had to have size, and big scenes with hundreds of extras, like the two hundred plus dancers in Rainbow Danceland in Watrous, and the big country wedding. But what would make it work was actually simplicity, the love and connection between the characters on the screen – the mother and father, grandfather, first nations uncle, the school friends, particularly the boyfriend – and the homesick girl presenting her province to the audience. What I was really making was a twenty minute romcom, though the clients and sponsors didn’t know that.
The good news in all of this was that the film was produced by an old friend of mine, Tony Westman, and he generally gave me a free hand and supported my decisions. I’ll never know what he had to do to protect me from the politicians, the clients. There must have been something, because they freaked out several times when they saw my rushes.
So… I was involved in the script development, the choice of music, client meetings, casting, and of course shooting. Then came months of editing. In those days I had a complete editing room with an Intercine flatbed editing machine, benches, rewinds, split reels, and all the other gack that editing a large format film required. Finally we had a rough cut, and a sound mix, and then we had casting for the five actors who would perform under that big screen. We found one key actor to lead, learn the lines and moves, and train the four other young women who would take turns performing. With a performance every twenty minutes for a ten hour day, one actor simply couldn’t do the work alone.
There were surprises. We were all worried that a tiny figure of an actress under that big screen would not be able to compete with the movie images. During rehearsals and staging of the actors, we discovered that the opposite was true. The only time the audience would look at the screen was when the actor gestured and directed their attention to it.
All of this had the tension level of a big budget feature. There could be no last minute revisions. No trial runs. It had to work, or fail miserably, right off the hop. The producers advertised for Saskatchewan ex-patriots and packed in a full audience for the first screening, and the lights came back up to a standing ovation. One of the ushers came to me with double handfuls of kleenex, soaked in tears. We had a hit.
It ran with long lineups, every twenty minutes for the duration of Expo ’86, with the actors suffering through repetitive strain injuries from looking up at the screen.
Through all this, my father was dying. We knew it was coming. Lung cancer. That’s what a lifetime of unfiltered Sportsman cigarettes will do to you. The tobacco industry said it was his choice, but I remember him trying to quit when I was eight, when I was ten, when I was twelve. He didn’t manage to kick the habit until his diagnosis, and by then it was too late. “If you want the whole world to say I told you so, get yourself in my position” he told me. I desperately wanted him to see my work, work that had taken over my life from concept and script development through casting, shooting, editing, and casting and directing the live performances. But I realized that he was never going to make it to Expo to see it.
My mother phoned me to tell me that I’d better come to see my father, because she felt he didn’t have long. She had a sixth sense about that kind of thing. I was afraid that I would forget to say something that needed to be said when I actually saw him, so I sat down and spent a few hours writing him a letter, which I took with me and read to him when I went to see him.
In the letter I told him what he had meant to me, that he had been my hero and role model, the most important man in my life. I asked him whether there was anything he wanted taken care of discretely after he was gone, or anything he needed done. I recounted a couple of time when he had set a standard for integrity and compassion I’ve always tried to live up to. For example, there was a time during one of our trips when he was fishing in a shallow river. While my father fished, I caught a tiny frog and showed it to him. He told me that some people would use a frog like that as live bate to catch a fish, but that we weren’t the kind of people who could do that.
I asked him whether there was anything that shouldn’t be left unsaid between us, because now was the time to say it. The only thing he could come up with was to express regret that his grandchildren were growing up in a drug environment. That made me laugh. “Dad, you’re twenty years behind the times with that. Laara (my first wife) won’t even take an aspirin any more. We don’t do drugs. So you can put your mind at ease about that.”
He had been sleeping in a hospital bed in the living room, but felt well enough to come out to the kitchen for a cup of tea, a key part of our family culture. Knowing that he would never see my movie, I decided to perform it for him. I told him every image, every sound cue, where the music swelled up or faded away, every line of dialogue, every action, and the audience response. By then I knew it all, and I did my very best to let him see it in his mind’s eye.
When I was finished he said, “Now I’ve heard from a real artist.” I helped him up and walked back to his bed with him.
I wanted to stay, but I had a wife and new baby girl back in Gibsons, a ferry ride away. Who could say how long this could go on. When I got home there was a message on my answering machine from my mother. My father was gone.
Writing such personal stuff, I mean. What do I hope to achieve? (insert brooding photograph here)
I well remember Manny, a girl I knew in university, her fishnet stockings as we sat in by pool at Kanaka Creek Falls, her impish smile, the scars on her wrists. She had been held for a while in a mental hospital after a halfhearted suicide attempt, and she talked about how difficult it was to convince the doctors and staff that she was sane, how she needed to be totally phony, always cheerful and smiling, to be considered safe for release. She talked about the dangers of life among the other patients, and how the neurotics were the worst because they would latch on to her and tell her the most intimate details of their lives and thoughts, after which they would want to kill her. I asked her why this would be so. “It’s because knowing who they are gives a person power”, she told me. “Revealing themselves makes them vulnerable.”
I wonder where Manny is today. I wish I she would find me, though that would almost certainly disappoint us both.
If knowledge of my life, experiences and thoughts give power to strangers, as a neurotic would have it, why would I want to expose myself? It’s not like I expect people to understand me, or have any expectation of influencing them. In fact, I expect a very superficial understanding of who and what I am at best, and great ammunition for trolls at worst. What’s to be gained by “sticking my head above the trenches”? I am generally happy with who I am, or so I tell myself, and quite comfortable in my own skin, but I don’t have any deep wisdom or insights to offer. I’m a fool, and in so many ways a failure. Why reveal this to strangers, or even to friends and family. My revelations can never be concise enough, complete enough, or brave enough to have any value. WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING?
Worst of all, why is the subject of my writing so trivial. Is this world so uninteresting that I can only write about me. How incredibly boring.
I admire an honest and brave autobiography. “The Original Sin” by Anthony Quin comes to mind. An unvarnished portrait brave enough to reveal that Quin beat his wife on finding out that she wasn’t a virgin when they married. Even more impressive for shameless self revelation is the autobiography of Julia Philips, “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again”, replete with heavy drug use and hallucinations of insects crawling out of her vagina. My writing, so far, amounts to self aggrandizement and censors the behavior that I’m ashamed to have fully known by the world, my betrayals of friends who supported me, the drug use, the inappropriate sexual advances that amount (in today’s world) to abuse and predation .
I also seem to be incapable of creative invention of interesting characters. I’d have no problem doing a roman a clef based on thinly disguised people I have know, but weaving them into a cohesive story just seems like too much work. What happened to my ambition? Where did my work ethic go?
Of course, the above are all rhetorical questions. I know exactly, precisely, why I’m writing. First of all, I like to write. I want the practice. Writing is an exploration of my brain and can give surprising results. Every once in a while I produce a story, or a turn of phrase, that delights me. So this personal website, which some might call a blog, is really just a wank. I can no longer do that in physical reality. Maybe this writing is just a substitute for diminished mojo.
And then there’s the thing of trying to connect with you, my reader, if you are out there in cyberspace somewhere. I think I have a deep need to be known, to be admired, to be appreciated. I think I harbour the hope, deep down, that I can persuade you, my invisible and imaginary audience, to have thoughts about me. Whether admiration, amusement, or disgust hardly matters.
It’s a pathological hunger for attention. A need to jump up and down yelling, “I exist.”
Along those lines, please drop me a comment some times if one of my posts triggers a thought or a feeling. I live for your comments.
I’m in that demographic now. You know the one, the demographic where old friends are dying and funerals, now called “celebrations of life”, become a weekly event. And still we chug along, those of us who are left on the planet. I’ve known Barry Carlson since my university days. We played in a jug band, The Vacant Lot, in 1966, a long time before I picked up the fiddle, back when I was bending notes on the blues harp. My friend J. Douglas Dodd had a minor stroke some time back. It hasn’t left too much damage. He’s still the genius I’ve known and loved since he was the music director on my first feature film. But it has caused a problem with his vision, and that caused a problem with keeping his drivers license. I drive him wherever he needs to go now, and last week that was to Victoria for a follow up appointment on an eye operation.
Once we got that out of the way, we joined Moira and Barry Carlson for lunch in their beautiful home decorated with Moira’s amazing art. Barry and I had a rare chance to try out a fiddle jam. This piece is called “Banish Misfortune”, an appropriate title for two old geezers with cancer and a third with vision problems. It’s just the demographic were in now.
“Banish Misfortune” should rightfully played about 1.25 times this speed. The next time Barry and I get together to play it, I’ll have it up to that tempo. I’m not happy about the fumble in the A part. I am happy about the way I aced the double stops in the C part.
Unless you were born into Hollywood royalty, like one of the Carradines or Coppolas, getting a foot into the film industry is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, especially from a socially remote location in Canada. Back in 1969, the only path I could see was to do anything that would put me in contact with movie people, like working as a sound man or an assistant editor, and then doing anything else that I could call making a movie. That last part is far easier today, when an ambitious kid can make a short movie on his phone and edit it on his computer. But when I got started, making anything cost a ship load of money.
How much money? Well, for starters you needed a camera that cost thousands of dollars, but you could rent, and sound equipment costing slightly less which you could also rent but I had saved up to own. Close to three thousand bucks for a Nagra IV with crystal synch and a Sennheiser 804 microphone with wind cage and carrying handle – the basis of a documentary sound kit. Then you needed film to run through the camera. You couldn’t edit that film without expensive equipment, unless you had the dedication of Jack Darcus and were willing to shoot black and white reversal and edit the original with a magnifying glass and a pair of scissors.
Even at that, the film and processing was going to set you back hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. To give you some idea of the expense: Film stock, processing, and a work print would cost approximately one dollar per foot. Sixteen millimeter film had forty frames in a foot, running through the camera at 24 frames/second. So every couple of seconds of shooting, another dollar was going into the movie. You could count on, conservatively, a ten to one shooting ration though on a complicated documentary that might go up to a hundred to one or more. A ten to one ration meant each ten feet you ran through the camera and work printed, would result in one foot of finished film. This caused a great temptation to try to edit in the camera, which was a false economy and severely restricted the choices in editing.
For example, if you have a performer entering the scene through a door from another room, it gives the editor choices if you film them going from that room, opening the door, entering the other room, and closing the door behind them. Similarly, you want to overlap the action in the other room, starting with the door closed and having the performer enter and close the door behind them. That way the editor can chose where to cut to make the action flow smoothly.
This principle of overlapping should extend to every action. If somebody stands up from the table in the master shot, it might make sense to start with them sitting down, thinking about rising, then standing up. Your cut to a close shot might call for the actor starting sitting and then rising into the frame. It’s vitally important to give the editor choices of cutting points, and that inflates the shooting ratio.
Then, of course, there are the flubbed takes and pick ups on takes. Both of which call for overlapping action and dialogue.
And that’s just the shooting. After that you have the cost of post production, the sound transfer from quarter inch magnetic to sprocketted sixteen millimeter magnetic film stock that can be synchronized with the work print. You’ve all seen the clapper boards with the film name and scene number and take number on them. Those served a purpose. They allowed the film to be synchronized by matching the frame where the clapper board closed with the click of the “sticks.”
The sequence for starting a shot was for the Assistant Director the AD, to call “roll sound”. The soundman would then say “speed” when the tape had stopped bouncing the guide rollers. Then the cameraman would say “slate” or “mark it” and the camera assistant would waste no time announcing the scene and take number before loudly closing the clapper board. Of course that footage, that dollar or more of shooting, would be thrown away, which is why the slate was in position and ready to close by the time the cameraman said “mark it”. Nobody wasted any time when the camera was rolling, which could be quite disconcerting for the actors. It was why I always gave a second or two for things to settle before calling “action”. Some waste was necessary.
I don’t think I need to go any further into the process. You get the idea. Making any kind of a movie cost money. When I was working as an office junior at CBC in Toronto, Brian R.R. Hebb, another office junior, and I teamed up to make a “filler” in hopes of selling it to the CBC. Brian wanted to be a cameraman. I wanted to be a director, or at least make movies. So we kicked in our own money to buy a few 100 foot rolls of Kodak reversal stock, rented a camera, and set about making a little film to celebrate the vanishing streetcar. We shot some of the streetcars still operating in Toronto, shot a day at a streetcar museum close to town, added in some stolen stock footage of streetcars in the early days of Toronto, laid on some cleared music from the CBC’s music library, and I cut our little film after-hours in one of the CBC editing rooms on CBC editing equipment. I don’t remember how all the numbers worked out, but when we sold “The Short Train” to CBC we turned enough to pay our costs and pocket maybe a hundred dollars each. Since we were both earning $50/week at that time, that felt pretty good.
Cue Digression Cam: Years later I was hired to direct an MOW, a Movie of the Week, about Tai Babalonia and Randy Gardner, a figure skating pair who were headed to the Olympics when Randy pulled a groin muscle and they were out of contention. To my surprise and delight, the producers wanted to use Brian Hebb as the Director of Photography. He’d worked his way up to a cameraman position at CBC, an amazing achievement in it’s own right, after I’d left the mother corporation. Then he also left the CBC and was making a name for himself as a freelancer. So there we were, some twenty years after making our little filler. Me the director and Brian the Director of Photography. Both of us where we’d wanted to be way back when. There was a scene in “On Thin Ice” that called for a television to be playing in the background in a hotel room. I managed to get CBC archives to find our little film, and that’s what’s playing back on the TV in that scene. Full circle, eh.
That little filler was about as much as I could do without more money, and getting more money meant finding government support. The Canadian Film Development Corporation, later rebranded as Telefilm Canada, was catching flack for not spending any money out west, so they threw B.C. a bone with a short film program. It called for submitting a script and budget, so I wrote a half hour based on one of my father’s stories of working for the railroad in Northern Saskatchewan. I think that gave my first wife, who had become my producer, $7,500, with which, being extremely frugal, we figured we could make a television half hour, twenty-two minutes of finished film. We lucked out with the weather. It started snowing on our first shooting day, stopped and turned to rain on our seventh, and by the time we wrapped the snow was gone. The end result was a short film that looked gorgeous. I managed to sell “Gandy Dance” to the CBC.
I also found a distributor for “Gandy Dance”. He was based in Toronto and mostly handled educational films. I don’t think he managed to get any revenue out of our film, beyond what we got from the CBC sale. I was looking for an economic base, a foot in the door as a film maker. So I asked him to lend me three of his top earning educational films. From a film making point of view they were not very impressive, downright ugly even, but they did fit the parameters of educational rentals – they were designed for art classes with titles like “Working with Papier Mache” or “Working with Crayons”. They were no longer than twelve minutes running time, which meant that a teacher could show them to a class and still have time to have the students do some work inspired by the film. They were extremely simple – just one camera angle, hands entering frame to do the artwork, no editing, and one sound track of non-descript music. No sound mix. Obviously they were very cheaply made.
I thought maybe we could have a winner if I made an educational film that had instructional value, but also had some mood, some heart and soul. And that made me think of my grandmother and her quilt making. Granny was eighty-seven years old at the time. She had been making quilts since she was sixteen, and her first quilt, a log cabin pattern, was still in the family. I managed to borrow it from my cousin Alice, and it truly is an amazing quilt. Look at it and think red, and a pattern of red rectangles emerges. Think blue and a different pattern of blue rectangles comes out.
I gathered up maybe twenty other quilts from members of the family, hung them on the wall of our cabin, and shot clips of them. Crazy quilts. Dresden plate quilts. And the aforementioned Log Cabin Quilt, with Granny’s voice over comment “I guess I was ambitious in those days.” I had a wealth of visual material. Then I spent hours and hours interviewing Granny about how she made quilts.
A lot of what she told me hit the editing room floor. Granny had made thousands of quilts. A quilt a month in her final year. She had sent quilts to the starving Russians during the famine in the Stalin years. She made baby quilts for every child born in the family.
With the basis of a sound track in hand, I brought in Ron Orieux, the cameraman who had shot “Gandy Dance” for me and who would go on to shoot my first and second features, “Skip Tracer” and “The Hounds of Notre Dame”. That gave me almost everything I needed to make the movie, but I still brought in Gordon Fish, another freelance cameramen, for a few extra shots.
By this time I had purchased a 16mm/35mm sound transfer machine, so I could do my own transfers of the 1/4 inch magnetic to 16mm. sprocketted stock. I had also purchased a six gang synchronizer and a guillotine splicer, a viewer with a tiny screen, and a “squawk box” reader for the synchronizer. I put together an editing bench, with rewinds and split reels and bins to hold the film clips. It was all very expensive equipment, not the kinds of things you could buy at a garage sale. The guillotine splicer alone was hundreds of dollars. Big money in 1971.
I set about cutting the visuals and laying in Granny’s narration. I recorded my aunt Belle’s piano music to add to the sound track. Aunt Belle played ragtime, and old tunes like “Ke Ke Ke Katy”, Granny’s theme song. For transitions I recorded some “stingers” on our own piano, and transferred them at double speed because that seemed to make them sound better.
After a start at the painful process of editing picture and sound using the synchronizer and sqawk box, I found a well used Moviola editing machine I could afford. That completed my first editing room.
Editing took months. I was running out of money. But I snagged a Canada Council grant to get some finishing money, to pay for the sound mix, neg matching and answer print and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think the Canada Council grant came in at $3,500. That was inspiring to me. To think that I could work for hundreds of hours at the wage available at that time, or sit down and write a grant proposal in a few hours and have that huge sum of money come into my mail box a few months later. Well… it made me think about money differently.
Artistically, my main problem was that I wanted the film to bounce along. But when I tried to use shorter cuts, it ended up looking like a badly made commercial. I finally realized that the film had to be paced to suit the subject matter. This was an old lady making a quilt. It was a mistake to try to make it exciting. it just had to flow, and finding that flow took me a lot of time. But finally it was finished. And here it is:
Of course, making something to sell is only the first step. I took “Granny’s Quilts” to schools and was told that, much as they loved the film, they got all their movies for free from the National Film Board.
That was the beginning of my feud with the Board. If the government spent far more than any shoe maker would afford to spend to made shoes of exceptional quality and then gave them away for free, the shoe makers would be up in arms. But somehow, film makers were supposed to accept this situation and lavish praise on the National Film Board in hopes of getting a budget for the film subject du jour. It was discouraging. Obviously, my only hope lay south of the border.
I took a print of “Granny’s Quilts” down to a school in Seattle and immediately got a sale. I think in those days we were offering prints for a couple of hundred dollars, which gave us a slim profit margin. The really lucky break was that I learned about Landers Film Review, an American publication that went out to all the libraries and school districts in the country. After I submitted “Granny’s Quilts”, and got a glowing review, the requests for preview prints started coming in. We were soon getting two or three requests for preview prints a day, and for every three requests we made a sale. So my humble film about my granny kept us eating for a couple of years while I explored other possibilities. And that’s how a film career begins.
I can’t end this without acknowledging that, while I did the creative work and manual labor to make our films, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without my wife and partner, Laara Dalen. On days when I wasn’t bringing in any money, she always was working some job or other. She kept the groceries coming and the lights on. Those were lean times. I would take my grandfather’s Silver Pidgeon Baretta shotgun down to the nearby dairy farm and blow off both barrels at the pigeons that were eating all the grain. Laara cooked up a mean pigeon-a-dobo. We supplemented that meat source with the rabbits we raised, or with oolichans we scooped from the nearby Fraser River.
And when money came in to make something, Laara was the best producer and production manager I ever worked with. So my best advice to anybody who wants to become a film maker, starting from zero, is find yourself a supportive partner. Best case scenario, marry them.