My father decided that I should become a doctor. When I was about eight years old he sat me down and gave me the pitch for this career choice. He was a professional salesman, and the pitch stuck with me like a prison sentence right into two years of pre-med at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., conveniently located close to where we lived in New Westminster. If you are interested in setting a child up for one doozy of a teenage identity crisis, this would probably still do the trick. I was sold. I bought in heart and soul.
I graduated high school in 1965 and enrolled at Simon Fraser University as a charter student. Student number 65300-7767, in the pre-med science program.
The Pitch (as delivered by my father.)
This world is incredibly and increasingly competitive. If you expects a great career, you better start thinking about it and preparing for it early. The clock is ticking. You should consider what you want from a career. Forget following your passion and living your dream. That kind of thing is fine for a hobby. When it comes to finding a career, you need to be a cold-hearted realist. It’s going to take the right education, at the right kind of school, and getting that education is where the competition starts.
The Choices: There are only three things a man wants from a career. You want money. Lots of money. Enough money to buy a good house, a good vehicle and a new one every year or so, restaurant meals on a regular basis, annual vacations, food and clothing, everything a happy family needs materially to remain happy, enough money to set your own children up in a good, middle class, lifestyle. Enough money that when it comes time to retire and take it easy you have saved enough to be comfortable in your final days.
That’s the first thing, and arguably the most important, thing you want from a career. But living just for money is not very satisfying. You want a career that gives you more than money. You want a career that gives you the respect of society, a career that tells the world you are a somebody.
And finally, you want a career that makes you feel of value. You are going to spend a lot of time preparing for your career, and working at your career. You want a career that feeds your soul. A career that makes you valuable. A career that makes you a somebody, so that when people hear what you are, what you do, they automatically respect you. You want to stand out from the crowd.
So, what can you do that gives you these three things – money, respect, and a feeling of being of valued.
We looked at possible or available careers. Some careers, like that of Red Adair who specialized in putting out oil well fires, or elite athletes, film or movie stars, famous actors or musicians, offered no clear path. My father had no idea how one developed a career of that kind. He really saw it as a sure way to starve unless the planets aligned and doors opened to invite you in. Let’s get real here. His vision only extended to careers that seemed possible, and for which there was an ordained path for entry. Remember, this was 1958. A career was something you trained for and entered consciously. So, I might consider being a laborer. That’s a time honored and honorable career choice. Such a career paid very little, gave you very little respect, and while there could be nobility in honest labor – somebody has to dig that ditch or tote that bail – it wasn’t going to give you much in the way of job satisfaction.
Then we considered the trades. I might want to become an electrician or a plumber. That gave a little more money, a little more respect, and skilled work could be satisfying. But really, not great on all three metrics.
Next we considered the professions. In 1956 there were only three professions – doctor, lawyer, and… nobody now can ever remember what the third profession was back then. Strangely, it was clergyman. Not even on the radar now.
My father had contempt for lawyers. Bunch of crooks with no morals. And while becoming a priest might be good in the eyes of god, it wasn’t a lot of fun. All those tea parties with aging donors, all those hospital visits. Constant pressure to create moving sermons.
But becoming a doctor? That was the thing. Check in to a hotel and it was “Welcome doctor. Will you be expecting any calls?” Or go to a restaurant and it was “Thank you for joining us, Doctor. We have an excellent table for you.” A doctor was treated like a Very Important Person everywhere he went.
As for money: “A doctor can earn as much as (incredulous voice) a thousand dollars a week.” Remember, this was 1958.
It seemed obvious that becoming a doctor was the clear winner as a career choice. It would give me a guarantee of a good income, fantastic earning potential, automatic respect of society, and what could be more worthwhile than dealing with life and death decisions helping people to live.
From that guided discussion on, I was absolutely convinced that I would become a doctor. Convinced to the point of asking for a Black’s Medical Dictionary for my seventeenth birthday. Well into my thirties I would wake up at night with the horrible feeling that it was too late. I had wasted my life.
Accordingly, I started at SFU in a science pre-med program. The year was 1965 and I was seventeen years old.
So What Went Wrong:
A long list of factors torpedoed my science major career choice – coffee, with which I poisoned myself by the gallon, playing a card game called hearts in the huge university cafeteria, no sex, a vague interest in science but no real aptitude for math, physics, chemistry, or even biology, but probably most of all it was the coffee. I would get to the university on time, settle down with five cups of coffee and four hands of Hearts, miss the first class and then fall asleep in the second. I was a terrible student.
My father was a conservative Canadian businessman. I was his clone. I found myself arguing social issues with people who were a couple of years older than me, far better read than me, and, if not smarter than me, at least far more sophisticated. It was embarrassing.
Our nightly after dinner family conversations around a bottomless pot of tea would have sounded very angry to anybody who didn’t know us. Our discussion style could only be described as forceful. When I took that discussion style to the SFU cafeteria, I sounded bossy and juvenile. When I took the discussions I had at Simon Fraser home, it convinced my father that I was being influenced in a bad direction. My father had never been to university, and felt his intellectual inferiority keenly. He was well read, but along the lines of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. He was anti-union, and generally anti-intellectual. Ill prepared to argue a conservative position in the university cafeteria, or argue a liberal position at home, I went off the rail. Who was I? What did I really think?
In a desperate attempt to get me back on track, my father sent me off to Europe to meet the English relatives and see something of the world. By that time I was mostly interested in exploring counter culture values and experimenting with drugs. I returned from Europe to announce that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I wanted to be a writer.
“Well, congratulations,” was my father’s response. “You have chosen the only career I can think of that is harder than selling life insurance.” Oh how right he was.
Looking back at the person I was in those days, I can see very little to feel proud about. I was insufferably arrogant. I was completely lacking in appreciation of the opportunities my father was encouraging me to explore. While I did admire him and appreciate him as a provider for the family, I knew I didn’t want to be like him. I was the poster boy for lost teenagers with a lot of white male privilege. Having decided that my interests were not in mathematics, chemistry, or physics, I wandered off into an English major. I took a semester as the review editor of the campus paper. I joined a jug band, The Vacant Lot, which threw occasional coin into my hat. I tried my hand at acting with a part in “Look Back in Anger’ and quickly realized that the legitimate stage was not my calling either. As my father so correctly suggested, the big problem with the arts is in making a living. The starving artist is the stereotype for a reason.
I had decided I wanted to become a writer simply because my big love was literature. The first hurdle was that writing is hard. It’s lonely. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t want to write. Though I’d be happy to express my thoughts on social matters, I was, as one professor described me, a “snotnose”. Nobody was interested in my opinions. And truth to tell, I had no interest in journalism. I was only interested in writing fiction, but I could see that writing a novel would take art least five years of hard, lonely effort with a very small chance of financial success. The short story market didn’t exist anymore. I had an abundance of confidence, a nearly complete lack of experience, a huge shortage of social skills, and a boatload of half developed skills at things like guitar and harmonica playing.
I wanted to be a writer. A very specific kind of writer, a writer of fiction. Where is the market for that kind of writing? The only steady market I could see was film and television. So I joined the Simon Fraser Film workshop to find out something about writing for film and television. And that’s where I started to find myself at last.
Simon Fraser University gave me a home while I sorted out my future. I spent a lot of time sleeping in the rotunda, or just hanging out in the basement of the theatre where the film workshop set up shop. I grew my hair long.
I quickly learned that I enjoyed the mechanics of film making, as it was in those days. I found I loved being in an editing room. I found that writing for film came easy to me. When writing for other forms of fiction, I would get caught up in, and lost in, the words, the rhythm of the words, the repetition and structure of and within sentences, whereas while writing for film I could just imaging what I would see on the screen and what I would hear as the movie played, and then just describe that as simply and as clearly as I could. Forget the words. What do I see on the screen? What do I hear from the sound track? Describe that in the simple format that was standard for a film script. Easy. Fill those pages, and estimate one minute of film time per page, and I was off and running.
EXT. LONELY CITY STREET. NIGHT
It’s rained recently. The street is shiny black, with lights sparkling from windows, street lights, and passing cars.
MUSIC UP powerful, orchestral, suggesting impending excitement to come..
A battered old Dodge rattles into frame from behind the camera. On the trunk is a sticker that reads NUKE THE GAY WHALES
And we’re off. The story, whatever the story turns into, begins.
That took a lot of the agony out of the writing, the choosing of the words. But the rest of making a movie, the technical stuff, was, though at times tedious, comprehensible, simple, and fun. There were a variety of disciplines – camera, sound recording and editing, neg matching, and of course writing and hunting for money – and I got to sample them all and learn which I enjoyed. Best of all, there was money to be made. Not a lot, but enough to pay for an apartment and live a frugal lifestyle while doing work I enjoyed.
I found friends at the SFU Film Workshop. Doug White, Tony Westman, Peter Bryant, Brian Small, Jeremy Long, Stephen E. Miller, Ron Orieux and mentors, Tom Shandell, Stan Fox, Shiela Reljic, and later Luke Bennett, Doug McKay. As my friends found ways to scratch out a living there would often be spill over that would give me work for a day or a week or a month. Tom Shandell paid my rent for a couple of months while I hammered out a first draft of his script, Another Smith for Paradise. I got a few weeks work as an assistant editor to Luke Bennett on Sylvia Spring’s Madeleine is...By then I had a girlfriend and was, at last, getting steady sex. We announced to the families that we were going to get married. My girlfriend’s mom started planning a huge Catholic wedding. I couldn’t find work in Vancouver doing anything, including delivering pizzas. I decided to leave SFU for a while and hitch hike to Toronto, the center of Canadian film making.
I found entry level work at CBC in Toronto as an office junior. The office junior put the film into boxes and shipped it out to stations. After a couple of months I got a promotion to Film Assistant 2, which meant that I got the film back from the stations, ran it through my fingers to find and hot splice any broken sprocket holes so that the office junior could put it into a box and ship it out to stations.
After a few months at CBC I got a call from Richard Leiterman. Allan King was looking for an assistant editor for his next feature, Come on Children. I was making $50/week at CBC. and paying $45/week on flying lessons. Allan King Associates was offering $150/week. So of course I jumped ship. My girlfriend had followed me to Toronto and got a job working in a law office. We lived on her salary and banked mine, which gave me enough to buy a Nagra IV reel to reel tape recorder with crystal synch and a Sennheiser 804 microphone with a wind sock. We returned to the west coast and I set myself up as a location soundman. All the time I was writing scripts, hunting for sponsored films, gathering up film equipment to put together an editing studio, and generally doing whatever I could to scrape by.
I think I may have put in one more semester at SFU when we returned from Toronto, but by this point it was obvious that employment in the film industry did not depend on academic achievements. I did one more semester just to qualify for a student loan, then dropped out without a degree and set off to become a movie director. And that’s a whole ‘nuther story.
A few years ago I visited Simon Fraser University. It has aged well. Although thousands of students have walked its halls and sat in its lecture theaters, you would never know it. The choices of materials for the construction were brilliant, and the place might have been built the previous year. A visit to one of the campus washrooms told a different story. SFU is almost unchanged from what it was in 1965, but an old man was looking back art me from the washroom mirror. What else could I expect after forty plus years as a freelance film maker. Still it was a shock. Inside I too was largely unchanged, though my opinions had moderated. Sigh.