Back in the early nineties I was living in Gibsons Landing, with Marina House, my home, right on the water. Gibsons Landing was the location of the long running CBC series, “Beachcombers”.
I was asked by a CBC producer in Toronto why I hadn’t been hired to shoot more Beachcomber episodes. I shrugged and said I didn’t know. At the time, CBC was occasionally flying me to Toronto to direct for them there, paying my hotel and per diem. They could have my services in Gibsons without that expense. Yet they were flying directors in from Toronto and putting them up in a hotel and paying THEM a per diem while I was sitting on my front porch watching them direct in front of my house. It made no sense.
“You know, Zale,” the producer said. “If you want to plough a field, you don’t buy a racehorse.”
That was a flattering and disturbing observation. The implication was that I am an artist, and what the producers were looking for was a standard television hack. That has never been me. But even an artist has to pay his mortgage and feed his family.
I’m sure the CBC producers wouldn’t have seen it this way, but I suspect that their survival depended on making acceptable, but unremarkable, shows. A bureaucrat survivalist doesn’t want to be seen as a hot shot, innovative boy wonder. They want to produce stuff that isn’t bad, but also doesn’t really attract attention. After all, if you stick your head above the trenches, somebody could shoot you. Or, as the Chinese put it, it’s the tall nail that gets pounded down.
I enjoy solving problems. Sometimes I think producers would rather I didn’t, because I see problems that they don’t see or if they do see them, don’t care about. I’m sorry, but if I see a problem with the script I can’t see any choice but to solve it.
Take the case of the murder in an episode of Scene of the Crime, a Cannell production. We were shooting Vancouver for London England, which is puzzle enough given the cars on the wrong side of the road. We were creating London with a British phone booth, one rented car with a right hand drive, and very careful angles. But the method of murder the writer invented was to cut the brake line on the victim’s car so that he will crash and die. In London!
Leaving aside the fact that the car in question had mechanical brakes, my memories of London is that it is fairly flat. Maybe there are steep hills and frightening cliffs hidden someplace in the city, but I certainly don’t remember them. Cutting the brake lines seems like a questionable murder method. Wouldn’t the victim just pull over to the curb and grind along until his car stopped?
So I suggested that the car starts off on the top floor of one of those parking garages with many levels and a steep spiral exit ramp. That way, once the driver is committed to the ramp he’s lost all control. I could do the standard shots of his foot stamping on the brake pedal. We could add tire squeals as he takes the curves. And then, to finally do him in, how about there’s a big truck stopped at the exit gate and he can’t avoid smashing into it. I could see it all, shot by shot. This could work.
That’s when they told me that the car was a rental, and would have to be returned without so much as a scratch on it.
Okay, no problem. We do the standard shots, then a POV of approaching the truck. Then for a final shot of the sequence the car is actually stationary. We mount a sheet of glass between two century stands in front of the windshield. The actor rocks forward to the windshield, and we note the spot where his head lines up with the camera. Then he repeats the action at some speed and we hit the sheet of glass with a glue stick out of a trunion gun, right on that spot as his head arrives. The glass will shatter, and it will look like it was the victim’s head that shattered it.
Did it work? Brilliantly. In fact, watching the shot, it was easy to hallucinate blood on the shattering glass. Of course the downside of such success is that I cause producers stress, adding complications to their lives. I also suspect that I made few friends in the special effects department. People don’t like to be told how to do their job.