What I Say…

When asked about my history.

Back in the late seventies and early eighties of the previous century, I was the enfant terrible of Canadian film making, the hot young director, the man to watch. But after failing to find funding for two or three of my scripts, and with a desperate need to pay the mortgage and feed the family, I inveigled my way into directing episodic television.

That gave me a great, if sporadic, income and a comfortable, if anxiety inducing lifestyle. I had a few good years in which I made a six figure income. I made a bit more investing and flipping real estate. For a time I thought I might end my days a rich man. But then I bought a fifty foot sailboat I couldn’t afford and found myself with the biggest hole in my pocket you could imagine. My wealth did not grow.

At some point in the nineties we decided to sell our large house on the ocean in Gibsons, pay off the boat, and move to a more modest house in Nanaimo. That would have worked if the housing market hadn’t tanked. As is turned out the million dollars I was hoping for turned into half that. We could buy a house free and clear, but I was left with a mortgage on the boat, moorage fees, maintenance costs, and ever reducing work. When I did get a job, the money went into paying off the credit cards and buying bottom paint. The boat owned me, so I sold it. At a huge loss.

Toward the end of the century I received a rather large royalty payment for my television work. I was too young to retire. Digital film making was just coming into its own, and films like “The Blair Witch” managed to make a lot of money. But they had terrible technical quality, usually looking like the camera had been mounted on the head of a trained seal, and truly awful sound. They made excuses for this deficiency by framing their stories around things like home movies found in the woods, or interviews in a psychiatrist’s office. I looked at the prosumer technology, which in those days was mini-DV, and thought, wow. If this were treated seriously the product could look like a movie.

I took my royalty payment and bought 3 Canon mini-DV cameras, tripods, a small crane, and lots of cassettes. I joined forces with a local agent to find a cast, and I started the Volksmovie Movement (Since renamed and lying fallow as the Artisan Movie Movement). The premise was that film equipment is highly overpriced and the same results can be accomplished with things we could buy at a big box store. Work lights could be adapted with barn doors. A furnace filter makes a great diffusion screen. One of our actors welded up a really great little dolly adapted from a fridge dolly. I covered the hard costs. The actors provided the crew.

A side belief was that the skills of a film crew are not that difficult, that I could train a camera crew or grip crew in days at most. Most people can hold a microphone fish pole with minimal instruction. We set out to make a romantic comedy, with everybody doing everything, a collaborative venture. Everybody was involved in the script. Everybody was involved in all aspects of the shooting. We would shoot a scene. I would do a rough edit. Then we would meet to look at it and decide what should be shot next. It was glorious fun.

The end result was “Passion” and I’m very proud of it. It is rich with locations and characters. It looks like a movie. It has great moments. It got great audience response, provided it was shown to a large audience. My business plan was to show it at the film festivals, find a few television sales to return the cash investment, and do it again.

That’s where things went totally south. I had been to every Toronto Film Festival for the past twenty years. I was sure this movie was going to amaze them. I didn’t know that they would be flooded with amateur digital films.

A friend of mine who made fight videos lent his son his camera. His son made a short film of himself french kissing the family dog. He was invited to three film festivals. The organizers could afford to give him that much screen time, and knew they would be assured of a noisy enthusiastic teenage audience. Our film was feature length and competing with the latest “special” film from Hollywood that came to town with big name stars and a promotion budget.

What’s worse, our film played well to a large audience, where the laughs could stimulate more laughs. It doesn’t play well to a single audience. It’s in turns bright and silly, and dark. It’s about a middle aged stalker, a main character the audience is primed to view with disgust. Many people hated it.

We didn’t get a single festival invitation.

In desperation, I set up a private screening in Vancouver in a small art cinema. I hired a publicist in hopes of attracting some press. We had a good screening, with good audience response. But not a single journalist showed up. My publicist didn’t show up. I might as well have torn up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Seymour and Davie street for all the good I had done my movie.

This is when I went seriously crazy. With no returns from our first effort, I decided to throw my limited remaining funds, plus my credit cards, at our second movie, a sweet romantic movie about tree planters. This was ill advised to say the least. While Passion could find a script based on what was available, “Getting Screefed” was tightly scripted. It included special effects like a storm at night, constant rain, beautiful forest and landscape images. It really needed a large format film and a good special effects team. We soldiered on regardless.

I bought a generator, a Volkswagen van, a school bus, a child’s swimming pool for water storage, lots of tarps and hoses. We set up a tree planter camp, found a cast, and started filming.

Since once again this was a cooperative venture, and nobody was getting paid, there were logistical problems in getting the cast out into the bush for filming. All the fires had to be done as CGI, because of the fire hazard. The rain scenes had to be done with garden hoses supplied from our swimming pool up on the hill. I had an ultralight airplane motor to make wind effects. It was difficult.

And yet we shot some wonderful scenes. Enough to cut a good looking trailer. Just not enough to make a movie.

And as I got into the editing at the end of the summer I realized that every scene had problems, many of which could not be fixed by creative editing. The hope was to edit what we had shot and come back the next summer to complete the film. Then somebody trashed the Volkswagen van we had parked at the camp site, smashed the windshield and ripped out the wiring in a juvenile attempt to hot-wire the ignition. Somebody stole the generator out of the school bus. I realized that it didn’t matter, because I was at the end of my credit cards and couldn’t afford gas for the generator anyway. It was time to recognize reality and give up.

After thirty years of directing TV, I was no longer the hot young director. I was the old television hack. My main clients had lost their shows, or aged out of the business, or got in trouble with the IRS. My phone wasn’t wringing. My arrogant persona had made enemies over the years.

Trying to be a film maker in Nanaimo was like trying to be a lumberjack in the Sahara. I could move to some city where movies actually are made, like Los Angeles or New York, or Toronto or even Vancouver. I could go to parties and schmooze. Sooner or later somebody would give me a break and I’d be back directing episodic television and made for TV movies. But I had been there and done that. I didn’t have the heart to do it again.

Time to get out of Dodge. I took a one week introductory course in teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), put my name up at an Internet bulletin board, and I was away to China.

Best decision I ever made.

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