In Defense of “Passion”

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.

It’s a shame that the ownership of volksmovie.com was lost when the fan I handed it off to neglected to renew it. It was a very complete record of making “Passion”, equipment used, and scene development. The film has recently been appended to a release of my first feature film, “Skip Tracer” by Gold Ninja Video on Blue-ray so it is finally available to an audience.

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.

You wrote: 

“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

Zale

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.

Barry and “Banish Misfortune”

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.

I see improvement already.

Getting Started and Granny’s Quilts

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.

The Moviola editing machine. It had a tendency to eat the workprint, but at least it let me view the picture with one track of the sound. It was far superior to the squawk box and synchronizer. I ended up editing several tracks of sound, music and sound FX, and put out the money for a sound mix at the lab.

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:

This was Granny Scott’s last quilt. Shortly after we finished shooting, she went in for cataract surgery and she never made another quilt.

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.

Know-it-All Meddling Foreigner

I’ve always wanted to make a difference to this world. I also have a substantial ego that makes me think I can do something as significant as change China’s culture. Hence my campaign in China over a number of years to get the Chinese to wear bicycle helmets. Overall, I guess this is just another of my failures, though I can say that by the time we left China after nine years of teaching there, I was starting to see helmets on bicycle riders. Whether I had anything to do with that cultural shift is debatable.

Brain injuries in China are an invisible plague. A young person doing well in school, on the university track, doted on by their parents, slams their head into the pavement and ends up one of those shabby pathetic creatures sweeping up the litter every night after the market closes. Forgotten. Ignored.

For university students, bike helmets are just uncool. They are trying to fit in, and terrified of being ridiculed by other students. So it was an uphill battle. I bought a hundred or so helmets and gave lectures about the results of brain damage, then offered to give a helmet to any student who would sign a pledge to wear it. I don’t think many students took that pledge seriously. But they did love to get free stuff.

We had fun making a public service promo. I think we might even have managed to get it played on a local station.

I also talked to stony faced Chinese executives, presented my power point pitch, and even took a train to Guangzhou to meet the owner of a helmet manufacturing firm. All I got from that trip was two high end helmets, one for me and one for Ruth, which I had to pay for.

The big plan was to convince a helmet company to donate helmets to all the students, provided the university would make a rule that helmets must be worn on campus. If I’d managed to sell that idea to either side of the equation maybe it would have worked. I would have generated huge international attention for my university, Jiangnan Da Xue, already one of the top universities in China. But I couldn’t sell peanuts to monkeys (no racist metaphor intended, I love the Chinese people) so we left China without a major, culture shaking, achievement. I sure gave it a good try though.

Please obey that impulse to leave a comment. I live for your comments, and shouting into the void is unmotivating. Thanks a ton.

Another Blast from the Past

Recently I was contacted by Michael Rawley, a Toronto actor who received a kidney transplant in the year 2000. It was my good fortune to be able to document the lead up to the operation, and result.

I had pretty much forgotten this effort, but Michael’s request for a copy sent me on a search through dusty storage in subterranean caverns. I couldn’t find any of the original cassettes, or anything labeled as final version, but I did turn up a MiniDV cassette labeled “Transplant, rough mix”. Even more amazing, I dug out my now ancient Canon GL1 camera and found that it still works just fine, despite not being out of the case for at least ten years.

The next questions – do I still have the technology to capture video from a MiniDV cassette and turn it into a digital file? That took some time and effort to figure out. But in the end, success. Now my very first attempt at digital film making is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

Wendy’s Michael’s Kidney” my first digital documentary. I was hooked.

The gear I had to produce this was primitive in the extreme, a tiny amateur level camera with very limited control over focus and lighting, a ridiculously shaky tripod, and only a clip-on lavaliere microphone to capture the sound. Yet I’m still impressed with the quality. Although I never made a penny from the considerable time I spent making this documentary, and could never get anybody to broadcast it, the result convinced me that I loved the new technology.

Only a few years before I made this, something equivalent would have cost thousands of dollars and required at least a two man team. Making it was a taste of things to come. The finished film still brings a tear to my eye. It was a first step toward my eventual bankruptcy and flight to China.

Funny how things get started, and how they work out.

One last thing for anybody reading this: Please, for the love of mercy, make a comment. I’m pretty sure a few people are reading my personal website now, but I hardly ever get a comment. Even if you just say hello, please please please say something. Please let me know I’m not alone. I feel so very alone.

Contingency Plans

I’m still dealing with the fact that I am terminal. This condition comes with all kinds of thoughts and considerations, but mostly questions. I can tell that I’m in decline. That’s obvious. But how long do I have? And how will I know when my time is really running out? Exactly how terminal am I? After all, we are all terminal, eh.

The doctors are unbearably optimistic. It feels like they are in denial, or like they don’t want me to get upset and do something premature, like offing myself. But it seems obvious to me that a time will come when I will want to head for the exit door. When the party is over, I will to want to leave quietly, skipping the indignities and pain of a long and lingering circling of the drain.

I chose this image for circling the drain from a Google image search. Most of the images available showed the screen of the drain blocking larger chunks from going down. But this one conveys the real horror of the expression: There’s nothing to catch me when the inevitable happens and I’m sucked down into that black hole of oblivion.

I was quite annoyed when I read that, according to the rules of MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying), ten days notice is required before I could have a doctor’s help in doing myself in. You mean, I would have to pick a date ten days in advance of a visit from Dr. Kevorkian? Then I would have to lie around waiting for his arrival? This would be hard to take. I don’t want some bureaucrats dictating how and when I exit this planet. I just want them to get the fuck out of my way. So please, just give me the pills or the syringe and walk away.

And then, once the ten day cooling off period had passed, I would be required to sign my name to a consent form? What if I can’t do that? What if, during the ten days, I have slipped into an intermittent coma? What if I become a brain locked in an unresponsive body, unable to speak or move or hold a pen?

Yesterday I learned that my understanding was flawed. I was discussing my situation with the palliative care treatment doctor, Doctor Katherine King, a kindly maternal woman who checks in on me once a month and never gives me any argument about renewing my opioid prescription. I was explaining that my fear is of being blind sided by a sudden loss of capacity or cognitive ability which would prevent me from giving consent. I know that my situation can change overnight. A stroke. A fall. A further loss of function. And suddenly it’s obvious that my life is not worth living. At that point I want to just go. I don’t want to have to make an application and wait ten days, hoping that when the ten days are up I will still be able to give consent.

Dr. King, or maybe it was the angel who was on the conference call, Angela J. Lorenz RN BSN CHPCN(C)Palliative Care Coordinator, Island Health ((Angela, Such an appropriate name.) informed me that this isn’t the way it works. The ten days notice is from the point when I make an application to be on the program. Ten days after that there is no waiting period. I will be able to just call the doctor and exit, assuming the doctor will make a house call.

So it’s more like buying a gun with the intention of shooting myself and having to go through a waiting period before I can take possession. Once the waiting period is over and I have the gun, I can put it to my head and pull the trigger whenever I’m ready.

That’s a comfort. Now if I can just talk them into giving me the medication and leaving it with me, to use when and if… But this isn’t going to happen.

Of course, what I really want is to give my sister or my wife written instructions to send me off as soon as I’m unable to communicate. Then I could stop worrying about losing control. But this is not allowed under the present rules.

Hopefully this will change as the public becomes more accepting of our right to terminate and the damned Catholics stop raising objections. For now, ability to confirm consent is required up to the point just before the medication is given that will put this amazing body into park and turn off the ignition.

It’s another beautiful Fall day. The squirrel is back at the bird feeder that I hung on the clothes line. For now there’s still a lot to enjoy about being alive. I’m just making contingency plans, eh.

Update on the Documentary and My Life

After sitting on the footage for a month or more, I finally managed to pull a three minute promotional video out of what I shot in New Orleans.  Here it is:

I feel good about this promo, though I think I pulled it together by the skin of my teeth.  If the documentary goes any further, it will have to be with a crew, at least a camera/lighting person and a sound person.  I can’t continue to do this kind of thing totally on my own. The production values suffer too much.  So I shall see if my producer finds a budget.

On a personal note, I have now done eighteen of my twenty-three days of radiation therapy.  Five more to go, and then a wait until the general anesthetic and brachytherapy on November 24.  So far the treatments have been totally painless, though I may be experiencing a bit of GI track disturbance and I’m spending a lot of time sleeping.  All indications are that the grim reaper is being held at bay for the moment.

As the window washer said as he fell from the eighty-seventh floor, so far so good.

Taking Another Run at “Getting Screefed”

First let me give you the back story:

Around the turn of the century, I received a rather large royalty payment for my work on “Kung Fu the Legend Continues” in exchange for giving up world rights forever. It was enough to pay off my debts and leave me slightly solvent, but not enough to set me up for retirement. I could see that film was on it’s way out, so I decided to investigate digital production.

At the time, digital movies all seemed to be making excuses for the visual quality. They would pretend to be documentary footage left by college students in the woods (Remember “The Blaire Witch Project”?), or interviews by a psychiatrist. They generally were shot by amateurs with the camera on the head of a trained seal, and their sound quality was horrible. I looked at the technology and was amazed. If this were handled in a proper, professional style, it could actually look like a movie, I thought.

Also, I have never been happy working as an artist in the industrial management style used in television and low budget movies. The focus on schedules and efficiency is anti-art, and there’s never enough money to allow mistakes or experimentation. So I approached a casting director here and suggested we make a cooperative movie, with everybody involved doing whatever was required. We would start with an idea, a theme to explore, shoot a scene, edit that scene, then gather to discuss the scene and decide where to go next. I bought three Canon prosumer cameras and two Mac computers, a Cobra crane, some basic microphones and a carbon fiber boom pole. I absorbed the hard costs, and everybody contributed time.

That turned into one of the best artistic adventures of my life. We had a ball, and the result really does look like a movie. It looks great. Actors who otherwise couldn’t get their faces on the screen had many minutes of screen time. We fitted barn doors on work lights from Home Depot, and used furnace filters for diffusion. One of our cast, with welding skills, converted a fridge dolly into a very versatile camera dolly. We all had fun and I’m very proud of the finished picture, which we put out under the banner of the Volksmovie Group and called “Passion”.

Passion posterThe only problem was my business plan. I had attended every Toronto Film Festival for the past twenty years or so, and I was sure we would blow them away, find a distributor or get some television sales at least. But I hadn’t counted on the glut of digital films being submitted. A producer friend of mine lent his son a camera to make a five minute short of himself French kissing the family dog. He got invitations to three film festivals. The organizers could afford to give him the screen time, because they knew they would have a rowdy teenage audience and it was only for a few minutes. But a full length feature like ours was competing with the latest from Hollywood, with visiting stars to attract press coverage. We had none of that support. We didn’t get a single festival invitation.

In desperation, I set up a private screening at the Pacific Cinemateque in Vancouver. I hired a publicist. We had a great screening with a full audience. Laughs all the way through the picture. But not one opinion maker showed up, and we didn’t get one column inch of copy in the papers. I realized that I could have torn up a thousand dollar bill outside the theater for all the good I’d done my movie.

And then I went really crazy. Our ambition had been to get enough money back from making “Passion” to give everybody something for their time and have enough to do it again. I decided to do it again anyway, with even less money. I had a script that I loved, about tree planters, called “Getting Screefed”. I bought a school bus and a Volkswagen van, water hoses for making rain, a child’s swimming pool for a water reservoir, a generator, lots of tarps, and we assembled a great cast. We set up a tree planter camp in the bush and spent a glorious summer shooting scenes and cutting them together.

I quickly realized that trying to make this movie on miniDV was a mistake. It really needed spectacular images and great lighting. It had many rain scenes, and storm scenes at night, and it needed a dedicated special effects team. It really couldn’t be done on zero budget. The actors, who weren’t being paid even expenses, were hard to assemble and keep in the camp while we shot. We got maybe half the movie shot during that summer. What we shot looks great for performance, but there’s something not quite good enough about just about every scene. Either our special effects don’t cut it, or there’s some other problem.

We intended to edit during the winter of 2001/2002, and return to finish the movie in the Spring of 2002. But as I worked on the editing, the deficiencies of what we shot became more and more apparent. Then somebody vandalized the Volkswagen van we had left in the woods – threw a rock through the windshield and tore the wiring apart trying to hot wire it. Somebody else stole my generator from the school bus I had parked on a local farm. I realized it didn’t matter. I didn’t have money to put gas in the generator anyway.

I was living in Nanaimo, B.C., trying to be a movie maker. That’s a bit like living in the Sahara and trying to be a lumberjack. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, I was the Enfant Terrible of the Canadian film industry with two critically acclaimed feature films to my credit. But after thirty years of television work, to pay the mortgage and raise the kids, I was no longer the hot young artist. I was the old television hack. My previous clients had all aged out of the business, lost their shows, or run afoul of the IRS. I wasn’t getting any work. Nobody saw any reason to hire me.

I knew I could move to Toronto, or Los Angeles, or even Vancouver, hang out and go to industry events and parties, schmooze myself silly, and eventually, with my background and filmography, somebody would give me a job again. But I’d been there and done that. I didn’t have the heart to do it again.

My children were adults and didn’t need me any more. My first marriage was over. I declared bankruptcy and ran away to China. For nine years.

Now I’m back. Tim Johnson, one of the main characters in “Passion”, and I have been reviewing our work on “Getting Screefed”. Looking at the assembled scenes just breaks my heart. We came so close.  The performances are so good and the cast is young and beautiful, especially the women. I feel like if I had just been able to push a bit harder, go a bit close to the edge, put it all on the line, I might have been able to get the movie finished.  But I know this isn’t realistic.  I made the right decision. But now Tim wants to take another run at it, and the project deserves it. So I’m in. But not with no money this time. We are now looking at the script, which we still love, and considering crowd funding and other new methods of raising money.

I think this is something I just have to do.

Here’s the trailer for “Getting Screefed”, slightly reworked to support a crowd funding application.

Like I said, we came so close…

The Little Red Hen Wants a Rooster, Plus the Fiddle Workshop with Rodney Miller

I’m not sure why I find this so amusing.  Maybe because, at my age, anything requesting that I become intimate with it is kind of… sweet.

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit kinky.  Here’s a couple of videos of Rodney Miller demonstrating the two fiddle tunes he taught us at last week’s workshop, hosted by Joyce and John Beaton in Qualicum Beach.
First up is the Blue Jig.

Followed by Trip to Dingle.  I’m very fond of this simple tune.

 

 

It’s About Time I Updated

This is embarrassing.  My last past was December 26 of 2013.  My how time flies when you are having fun, and ignoring your blog.  I hereby resolve to do better.

So much to report.   First of all, here’s a little video that I’m very proud of making.  It’s charming, heart warming, surprising, and is being very well received.  If you love animals and people who treat them well, this is something you’ll enjoy:

My attempt to find an Internet distribution outlet for “Passion”, the Volksmovie we made before I went to China, has been disappointing.  I bought a subscription to Vimeo and the film is currently on line, but it’s only generated about thirty dollars in rentals over the course of a year, so I probably won’t pay for another year.  I’m sure another approach will be more fruitful, as soon as we find it.

I’m now also deeply involved in the creation of a web series called QUILTBAGS.  We’ve got nine episodes up now, and are putting up two every month.  The more it develops, the more interesting it gets and I highly recommend you check it out.

While on the subject of chickens, my friend Ingo gave me a pile of plywood trims from his renovation project.  They turned into two new chicken coops, some assembly required.

I didn't like the new coops until I added the brass.

 

The brass trim pieces came from the local Habitat for Humanity Restore, on sale for twenty five cents each.  I didn’t much like the looks of the new coops until the trim was added.  Now I’m proud of them.

It’s been a couple of creative years since my last post.  Much of that creativity has centred around the house and landscaping the yard.  The pond is now a fixture, with it’s magical electric river, foot bridge and tiny waterfall.

GouGou's favourite spot for watching the pedestrian overpass where a dog might think it could come into our yard.

 

This is what the back of the house looked like in 2013.

It's hard to remember how bad this all looked.

 

And this is what it looks like now.

Even this is not quite up to date. More facing has been added on the corner.

You can see the workshop, stage, and garden shed, all additions to the yard buildings once we got the ground raised a bit.

 

We tore down the old chimney, and Ruth used the bricks to make a nice little nook for the relocated small pond which sat beside the house.

This pool was beside the house, but it had to be moved.

 

But the big news is that we have just about completed the excavation of our full basement.  We have two of the four walls in place.

There's still more dirt to be removed, but we can walk to all four corners now.

 

Because we had to have someplace to put the dirt, we built a retaining wall and a driveway.

 

Eventually this will be where the motorhome lives.

This is all just a tiny sample of the activity around what I am now calling Frog Manor.  The koi which were only a three inches long when I bought them are now at least a foot long.  Grass has come back to our yard.

A more complete pictorial history of our renovation work and activities can be found on Ruth’s Flickr site.

That’s all I’ve got time for right now.  And there’s so much I’ve left out.  Like my piano.  I got one, and I’m slowly getting my Scott Joplin pieces back.  And the Oceanside Jammers fiddle group has become a big part of my week.

I’m going to try to post more regularly from now on.