My Father’s Death Was Perfect

It couldn’t have been better, for me at least. Well, okay. It could have been a hell of a lot better if my father hadn’t died. But we all have to go sometime. As my father said, “Dying can’t be so bad or everybody wouldn’t do it.”

That was 1986, the year of Expo in Vancouver, and I’d been hired to make the film for the Saskatchewan Pavilion. That was a year of work, starting with rejecting the script that had been commissioned and paid for and instigating a search for a new writer. There was already a concept in place – a big screen anamorphic 35mm. film with an actress under the huge screen interacting with the film. I wasn’t sure that was going to work, so the Director of Photography, Richard Leiterman, and I flew down to L.A. to take the Universal Studio tour because we’d heard that the tour included a section during which the tour guide interacted with a Hollywood celebrity. That didn’t tell us much. Our concept was for the actor under the screen to talk to the audience and talk to characters in the film. The Universal Tour sequence simply handed the Master of Ceremonies job to the Hollywood celebrity and stood down while he talked. Did that mean what we wanted to do wouldn’t work? It was something to worry about.

There was also the question of eyelines. If the characters in the film were going to believably talk to our actor, where should we have them look to make us believe they were talking to her. Richard stood in various audience positions while I stood on a ladder under the screen, still just a framework, and pretended to look at the actor. Things were getting scary. It turned out that the actors would have to look down toward the base of the camera tripod, but looking left, right, or center depended on where the audience was sitting. Compromise would be required.

The script writer search found Carol Bolt, a Toronto writer who gave us the conflict that was missing in the original script. The actor would be a “girl next door” from the prairies who had been hired as a living narrator to tell us about her province. While she was very happy to have the job, she was also desperately homesick and missing friends and family back home. At the end of the film she would apologize to the audience, run off stage and reappear on the film running toward her boyfriend.

I won’t say too much about the actual production, other than it was fraught with personality conflicts and technical problems. There were politics involved. I was from B.C. and Saskatchewan had its own film community. I was getting attitude from my AD, my assistant director, who had been laid on by the client, and it took me some time to realize that he had made a very competent tourism movie for Saskatchewan the year before, and felt that they owed him the director position on this one. Richard Leiterman was getting attitude from his camera operator, who had been the director of photography on that same tourism movie. While they both did a good job for us, the subtle vibes on location made for a less than wonderful shoot. On at least one occasion, words were spoken.

We had a tiny budget compared to what was being spent on the B.C. film. This meant a very limited shooting schedule, and weather wasn’t cooperating. Saskatchewan was supposed to look beautiful, and it looked downright gloomy. The client wanted the people of Saskatchewan to seem hip and very modern, emphasizing that computers had to feature prominently. I tried to explain that everybody had computers. They didn’t make much of an impression. And a computer in the tractor connected to the futures market, a system that was still in the beta development phase, would seem a bit silly. An Expo film is a difficult film to make. In essence it’s a tourism movie, but it had to be somehow more than that. It had to have size, and big scenes with hundreds of extras, like the two hundred plus dancers in Rainbow Danceland in Watrous, and the big country wedding. But what would make it work was actually simplicity, the love and connection between the characters on the screen – the mother and father, grandfather, first nations uncle, the school friends, particularly the boyfriend – and the homesick girl presenting her province to the audience. What I was really making was a twenty minute romcom, though the clients and sponsors didn’t know that.

The good news in all of this was that the film was produced by an old friend of mine, Tony Westman, and he generally gave me a free hand and supported my decisions. I’ll never know what he had to do to protect me from the politicians, the clients. There must have been something, because they freaked out several times when they saw my rushes.

So… I was involved in the script development, the choice of music, client meetings, casting, and of course shooting. Then came months of editing. In those days I had a complete editing room with an Intercine flatbed editing machine, benches, rewinds, split reels, and all the other gack that editing a large format film required. Finally we had a rough cut, and a sound mix, and then we had casting for the five actors who would perform under that big screen. We found one key actor to lead, learn the lines and moves, and train the four other young women who would take turns performing. With a performance every twenty minutes for a ten hour day, one actor simply couldn’t do the work alone.

There were surprises. We were all worried that a tiny figure of an actress under that big screen would not be able to compete with the movie images. During rehearsals and staging of the actors, we discovered that the opposite was true. The only time the audience would look at the screen was when the actor gestured and directed their attention to it.

All of this had the tension level of a big budget feature. There could be no last minute revisions. No trial runs. It had to work, or fail miserably, right off the hop. The producers advertised for Saskatchewan ex-patriots and packed in a full audience for the first screening, and the lights came back up to a standing ovation. One of the ushers came to me with double handfuls of kleenex, soaked in tears. We had a hit.

It ran with long lineups, every twenty minutes for the duration of Expo ’86, with the actors suffering through repetitive strain injuries from looking up at the screen.

Through all this, my father was dying. We knew it was coming. Lung cancer. That’s what a lifetime of unfiltered Sportsman cigarettes will do to you. The tobacco industry said it was his choice, but I remember him trying to quit when I was eight, when I was ten, when I was twelve. He didn’t manage to kick the habit until his diagnosis, and by then it was too late. “If you want the whole world to say I told you so, get yourself in my position” he told me. I desperately wanted him to see my work, work that had taken over my life from concept and script development through casting, shooting, editing, and casting and directing the live performances. But I realized that he was never going to make it to Expo to see it.

My mother phoned me to tell me that I’d better come to see my father, because she felt he didn’t have long. She had a sixth sense about that kind of thing. I was afraid that I would forget to say something that needed to be said when I actually saw him, so I sat down and spent a few hours writing him a letter, which I took with me and read to him when I went to see him.

In the letter I told him what he had meant to me, that he had been my hero and role model, the most important man in my life. I asked him whether there was anything he wanted taken care of discretely after he was gone, or anything he needed done. I recounted a couple of time when he had set a standard for integrity and compassion I’ve always tried to live up to. For example, there was a time during one of our trips when he was fishing in a shallow river. While my father fished, I caught a tiny frog and showed it to him. He told me that some people would use a frog like that as live bate to catch a fish, but that we weren’t the kind of people who could do that.

I asked him whether there was anything that shouldn’t be left unsaid between us, because now was the time to say it. The only thing he could come up with was to express regret that his grandchildren were growing up in a drug environment. That made me laugh. “Dad, you’re twenty years behind the times with that. Laara (my first wife) won’t even take an aspirin any more. We don’t do drugs. So you can put your mind at ease about that.”

He had been sleeping in a hospital bed in the living room, but felt well enough to come out to the kitchen for a cup of tea, a key part of our family culture. Knowing that he would never see my movie, I decided to perform it for him. I told him every image, every sound cue, where the music swelled up or faded away, every line of dialogue, every action, and the audience response. By then I knew it all, and I did my very best to let him see it in his mind’s eye.

When I was finished he said, “Now I’ve heard from a real artist.” I helped him up and walked back to his bed with him.

I wanted to stay, but I had a wife and new baby girl back in Gibsons, a ferry ride away. Who could say how long this could go on. When I got home there was a message on my answering machine from my mother. My father was gone.

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