Coming Full Circle

This past year has seen a screening of my first feature film, “Skip Tracer”, made in 1976.  I’ve just been reminded of my work on the Saskatchewan Pavilion for Expo86, with Michael Walsh marking the 30 year anniversary of that great party.  I’ve been to Cremona, Italy, to reclaim my beloved violin a full decade after it was destroyed in China and three years after it was returned to Maurizio Tadioli, its maker, for repairs.  And now I’ve reconnected with Brian R.R. Hebb.  Coming full circle.

Brian R.R. Hebb and I met when we were both office juniors working for CBC in Toronto.  An office junior in the distribution department put the films into boxes and sent them out to stations.  After two months I got a promotion – to Film Assistant 2. That meant my job was to rewind the film through my fingers to feel for broken sprocket holes, repair them using a hot splicer, clean the film and put it into a can, so that the office junior could put the can into a box and send it out to the station.  The ladder to where I wanted to go seemed impossibly long.  Not only that, I was on the wrong side of the organization.  I wanted to be on set, making movies.  But I was on the distribution side, and promotions would take me up the ladder to programming.  I wanted to be a director.

Brian wanted to be a cameraman.  He was also on the wrong side of the organization to get where he wanted to go.  But we had initiative.  We rented a camera, bought a few hundred foot rolls of 16mm reversal film.  Brian did the camera work while I called the shots and we made a short film, a filler, about street cars.  I cut the film on CBC editing equipment after hours, added music from the cleared music library, and we sold the finished film to CBC for a couple of hundred dollars, which was enough to clear our costs with maybe a bit extra.  I was earning $49/week as a Film Assistant 2.  Every little bit helped.

After a few months at CBC, I got a call from Richard Leiterman asking if I wanted to jump ship and work for Allan King as an assistant editor to Arla Saare.  The salary would be  a hundred and fifty dollars a week, three times what I was getting at CBC.  I jumped.  I still feel guilty about this, because I had promised the man who hired me at CBC that I would stay for at least a year.  Sorry.

Outside of the CBC, my career path was spotty in the extreme, going from assistant editor to editor, buying a Nagra IV and becoming a sound man, all the time writing scripts and looking for a break and finally to director.  That was over the course of six years.  I heard that Brian also achieved his ambition, becoming one of the CBC staff cameramen, an amazing achievement.  Then I heard that he had left the CBC and become a freelance director of photography.  I remember thinking he had made a mistake.  Having made it within the mother corp, he was now jumping into my world.  I assumed he would find it as tough as I found it.

A lot of water went under the bridge. A couple of decades of ups and downs, employment and searching for work.  Surviving.

In 1990 when NBC hired me to direct my second Movie for TV, “On Thin Ice, the Tai Babalonia Story.” they wanted me to hire their choice of DOP (Director of Photography), some guy named Brian Hebb.  So there was a circle closing.  One of the scenes in the TV movie called for playback of something on a television set in a motel room.  I managed to get a video transfer of the short film we had made together twenty years earlier, and we used that on the TV in the scene.

Very recently I’ve reconnected with Brian.  He now lives in Victoria, a mere two hours by car from our home in Nanaimo.  Another circle closing.

How Does a Music Teacher Make a Living Anymore?

I think one answer is that they, like my friend J. Douglas Dodd, go above and beyond the standard music teacher gig and become a mentor.  They encourage.  They set up performances in local venues for their students.  They seek out opportunities for their students to exploit. They nurture talent.

Doug is very good at this.  He loves his students and they love him back.

Here’s one of Doug’s students, Lilu Scott, performing a song I wrote.

You can tell what Doug brings to the party.

This all came to mind for me because I did a Youtube search for spiccato bowing.  That confirmed my suspicion that anybody trying to learn to play an instrument can find as good instruction online as they are going to get from most music teachers. The big advantage of an instructional video is that you can repeat sections of it as often as you want without having somebody think you are a dummy.

Here’s an example of a video on spioccato bowing for the violin.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

And this video is only one of several on this subject, and only one of dozens on various other bowing techniques.  So, if you are trying to learn to play a violin,  great instruction is on line.

Of course, learning from Youtube videos requires that you be interested and self motivate.  It won’t give you what Doug Dodd gives his students.  But it’s a good start.

The Internet is now the number one source for instructional material.  Whether you want to install a new window, build a brick wall, or learn to chunk on the ukulele, the Internet has you covered.  Me likey.

A Voice Out of the Past

Expo86 was thirty years ago this summer. I know that not just because I can do the math, but because my only daughter was born that year and I try to keep track of how old she is. It was also the year my father died, which is a story I shall tell shortly.

Today I got an email from Michael Walsh, a Vancouver journalist I haven’t heard from in years. Here’s what he wrote:

Good morning, Zale Dalen,

Attached for your interest (and amusement) is a link to my 1986 review of your Expo 86 film “See You in Saskatchewan”.

In the Afterword to the posting, I offer a brief summary of your filmmaking career and current activities. A link to The Zale Dalen Website is included.

If I’ve made any errors, please let me know and I will make the appropriate corrections.

All the best . . .

Well, blow me down as Popeye would say. What a surprise. Here’s what I wrote back:

Dear Michael:

I’m flattered by the attention,but a bit embarrassed to be given credit for conceiving the Saskatchewan film for Expo86.

While I was the director and editor, and involved in the script to the extent that I totally rejected the first draft and instigated a search for a new approach, brilliantly delivered by Carol Bolt who added the homesickness conflict to the story, the initial concept of a live performer interacting with the screen was given to me from the first discussion by Tony Westman who was working as the producer for Harvard Creative Services through the architectural firm that designed the pavilion. Everything is more complicated in reality, eh.

I will take credit for the wedding scene with the biker, shot under protest from the sponsor’s representative on set, for which I received the only crew ovation of my career. That was created spontaneously in a chain of motivations beginning with lousy weather.

Regrettably, I must also take the blame for not getting Uncle Roy to put a thoughtful pause in his line, which would have sold the joke.

Roy: Everything changes.

Terry: Mom and dad haven’t changed. You haven’t changed, Uncle Roy.

Roy: The rock changes. (thoughtful pause, which I failed to ask for) The people stay the same.

Such things haunt me to this day.

Other than that, I’m impressed with your research. Good to hear from you and thanks again for keeping my public persona alive.

Warmest regards


This unexpected attention has triggered all kinds of thoughts and memories. Expo86 was a great project for me, and a great success.  In fact, if it had been a feature film instead of an Expo special project, I believe I’d be an A list director now.  It was that successful.  It was also a screamingly difficult project which I hope I managed to make look simple.

First of all was the concept. We were worried that a tiny living actor (in those days we called them, being female, actresses) could not compete with the huge glittering screen above her. We needn’t have worried. It turned out that humans are so much more interested in a living attractive woman than any artificial image that the only way she could get the audience to look at the screen was to direct their attention to it. Otherwise the eyeballs stayed glued to her.

To start with there was the script. Ken Mitchel had written the first version, which was the one I signed on to. I love Ken. He’s a great writer, and the writer of “The Hounds of Notre Dame”, my Saskatchewan feature. So we had a relationship. But Ken had given us an ending for the Expo movie that just didn’t work for me. His version ended in a tug of war. It was written very dramatically, and seemed powerful on the page. But I couldn’t find any reason to care which side one. Was it the old Saskatchewan versus modern Saskatchewan? No, it was just a tug of war at some nameless family reunion. A bunch of people pulling on a rope. I couldn’t see how I could make it work. (Now, oddly enough I think I can.)
So at my urging, the producer, Tony Westman, sent the project out for tender. Hey, writers, give us your approach to this. And Carol Bolt came through with the winning idea. The conflict was between our actor’s pride in doing her first job – telling us about her province – and her homesickness. That was a conflict I could get behind. Add Connie Calder’s “Wood River” to the mix and the emotional appeal was incredible.

Our other major worry was eyelines. Where do you have the actor on the screen look to give the impression they are looking at the living actress. Richard Leiterman, one of Canada’s greatest cameramen, and I made a special trip down to L.A. because we had heard that the Universal tour had a sequence where the guide interacted with a Hollywood icon on the screen. That turned out to be not so much of an interaction as a passing of the microphone. The tour guide handed us, the audience, over to Robert Cummings (If memory serves me.) who did a short segment before handing us back to the tour guide.
This brought up the concern that maybe they kept it simple because having a character on screen actually interact with a real live person wouldn’t work. This worry persisted right through to opening night.

When we got back from L.A., Richard and I went to the Saskatchewan pavilion, under construction on the Expo site.  I climbed up on the scaffolding that would hold the big screen.  Richard looked at me through his director’s finder to get some idea of where the actors should look to give the impression they were looking at somebody on the floor below me.

When I started working with the living actors to put the show together, that’s when the eyeline problem came home to roost. It turned out that putting our actor at the right spot for one side of the house would not work for the other side of the house. Every person in the audience saw a different eyeline for the actor on the screen. So I had to choreograph the actor to find the best compromise that would sell the connection between her and the actor on the screen to the majority of the audience. It was an exercise fraught with tension, but fortunately nobody that I know of complained about the illusion of connection failing.

The wedding scene that I alluded to in my response to Michael Walsh: Here’s how it went down. The script was calling for one of those idyllic weddings with beautiful people on a beautiful Saskatchewan landscape maybe with sheep wearing big bows present. But we’d been fighting the weather for the whole shoot. Saskatchewan was not looking good. It was looking overcast and gloomy. We had no latitude in the budget for delays. We had to shoot. And on the day of the wedding shoot, it was going to rain.
Okay, thought I, let’s rent a circus tent and put the wedding under cover. So we did. And then I got there and you couldn’t really tell there was a tent. It just looked weird. It didn’t look like it was raining, because the edge of the tent was above the frame line. So obviously we need to tell the audience that it is raining…
I open the scene on the patio, where we augmented the rain with a garden hose. The mother of the bride opens the door, and the camera tilts up to see her face as she makes one of those looks of disgust and holds her purse over her head against the rain before moving into the tent.

Now we have a wedding that is not going as planned. Let’s run with it. We had a gaffer working with us named Rodney Marrow. He looked like a biker sent by central casting. I asked him if he wanted to be in the movie. The representative of the sponsors objected, saying that the sponsors wouldn’t like it. I said we have scissors. If they really don’t like it we can cut it out.
So now the mother of the bride steps into the receiving line behind this big biker dude and taps him on the shoulder. “Rodney, your sister only gets married once in a lifetime. You could have worn some descent clothes.”
To which Rod replies “Mother, we’ve been through this a thousand times” before the camera moves on.
It was not what the sponsors expected of the movie, but I believe the audience could relate. It was the kind of thing that humanized our characters, and got a laugh. And it was the only ovation I’ve ever had from a crew. Though, come to think of it, maybe they were applauding Rod’s performance. Damn. Never thought of that before.

In 1986 my father was dying of lung cancer. I knew it was coming. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to say all the things I needed to say to him, in the moment, so I wrote everything in a letter. Then I took the letter and read it to him.

After I read the letter and we talked, my father came out to the kitchen and we sat drinking tea the way we always had in my family. I realized that my father was never going to see the Saskatchewan film. But I had been involved in the writing, the directing, the editing, and directing the live performance that went with the movie. I knew the show from shot to shot, line by line, music cue to music cue. So I performed it for my father at his kitchen table, from fade in to fade out.

When I was finished, my father said, “Now I’ve heard from a real artist.” I helped him up, and walked him back to his bed in the living room.

I wanted to stay with my father, because the end was near. But I had a wife and children back in Gibsons and who could tell how long my father would linger. I said goodbye and headed for home. When I got back to my home in Gibsons, after the ferry ride, there was a message on my answering machine. My mother called to say that my father was gone.

1986. A hell of a year for me.