Paraphrasing here. As Stanly Motts, the producer character in Wag the Dog, said sadly,: Just as you are starting to understand how to make a movie and how the industry works they lower the curtain on your career.
I am a movie director, damn it. Specifically a low budget movie director. Give me Bowfinger’s budget and I will give you a movie. That’s what I have done during my long career. Obviously not as much as I wish I had done, but that’s it. I put the money on the screen.
Anybody can make a big budget movie. That’s a snap. That’s easy. It’s making a movie with no money that’s the trick.
I don’t know how I became a low budget movie director. It’s a lot more fun to hose the screen with millions of dollars from people who don’t know dick about making movies, but to be a director I respect you’ve got to be Bowfinger.
Something I heard through my entire directing career went like this: He’s never made a big budget picture. Do you think he can handle this much money? Handle it? Fuck, I’ll roll in the dirt with it and deliver far more than anybody has any right to expect, dance with whatever devil I have to dance with, and put the money on the screen.
I came into directing up the rat lines. I came into directing after serving an apprenticeship as a writer, soundman, editor’s assistant, sound editor, editor, cameraman, production manager, and… fucking creator. A creator. The author of the picture, whatever the picture might happen to be.
Most people have no idea what a director is, or what he does. Take them on a film set and they might think the assistant director, the AD, the guy giving directions, is the director. Not even close. Peter Coyote was not the director, micro-managing the scene with impossible instructions to performers. Not even close. Or the guy telling the actor to pick up the salt shaker on such and such a line. The guy, now as frequently the woman, giving directions. Isn’t that person the director? Not even close.
The only real depiction of a real director I ever saw was Peter O’Toole in “The Stuntman”. The guy desperately trying to find his movie amid the clatter and noise on set, and in his head. Now, that was a director. That was Francis Copolla trying to find it, to figure it out while he went way over budget in the Philippine jungle with the suits back in the studio screaming at him and throwing scripts at the wall. A guy, increasingly a woman, who can see the big picture, who is so close to the big picture he can almost taste it while the chitchats climb on his ceiling and fall into his tea cups.
And who was it on set when the suit’s representative came to tell him that he was twenty pages behind or fifty pages behind who tore that number of pages out of his script and threw them in the trashcan, announcing, “There. Now I’m on budget.” Money? Fuck your money. I’m making a movie.
I was hired by Canal to get “Wiseguy” under control after the prima donna director of the pilot went so far over budget that they couldn’t do turn around. Zale, Alex Beaton said to me, you are going to bring in the same quality without going a penny over budget or a minute into overtime. And I said, “Sure, Alex. Whatever you say.”
We were shooting outside St. Paul’s hospital on Thurlow Street when a grip went charging past me, a hundred pounds of cable on his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging slap on the back and the sweat sprayed off his t-shirt. I watched him run with it. Run with it, not saunter along. The guy was charging. For me. Because I told him what I expected of the crew and they were all set on delivering.
I think Rob Young was the soundman. Or maybe it was Larry Sutton. No matter. I asked him, “Larry, this is not a slacking crew. This crew is humping it. So what the hell went wrong with the pilot?”
“They set up the camera three times and lit the set four times before they shot an inch of film,” Larry said, almost apologetically.
Well, you can’t do that on episodic television. Not unless you are the precious prima donna director in a sinecure of a position. Then you can do it. Then the studio will eat the overtime and you can keep working while you piss millions down the drain. But that’s not me. I come in on schedule and on budget.
Larry, or was it Rob, explained it to me while he quietly moved my coffee in the styrofoam cup away from his Nagra IV. (Yes, they were still recording on Nagra IV’s in those days.) I said the camera goes here on a fifty, and if I didn’t like the shot we’d shoot it anyway and I’d have to eat it in the editing room. I set a pace. We got the shot and we moved on.
I had a standard speech at the beginning of a shoot specifically for the script assistant. It went like this: Don’t talk to me about axis. I’m not going to discuss axis on my set. If you think I’ve got the axis wrong and the shots won’t cut together, you just make a note in your notes and we shoot the shot. If I’ve got the axis wrong, if we’re crossing the line and you think it will be a problem in the editing room, make a note on the script and keep it to yourself. I’m the director. I’m never wrong about the camera axis. But if you open up a discussion about eye lines or camera axis then the DOP is going to chime in with an opinion, and then the actors will have an opinion, and pretty soon I’ve got twenty minutes of my day and more down the rabbit hole of eye lines and camera axis, while not one of my crew members has ever cut one of my pictures. So they have no right to an opinion of camera axis. It’s my job as the director to choose the shots, cover the scenes, and make sure everything will cut together. Nobody is going to blame you if my shots don’t cut. Make the note and shut up about it. The whole thing about setting the pace is choosing the shots, lenses, eye lines, and then making sure the actors know where to look to match the action. Sometimes it may feel weird to them. That’s all between me and the actors. I’m not going to cover anything two ways, and we’re not coming back for a reshoot.
If you really think the editor is going to come back at you over eye line or axis issues, whisper to me that you’re putting “Shot under protest” on the script. Then get out of my way. We’re moving on.
A director is very vulnerable. His reputation is what gets him or her their next gig. All it takes is a dismissive sneer and comment at the wrap party of another show when their name comes up and it can cost them big time. Real money. I remember in the production office of “Danger Bay” listening to the production manager disparaging Phil Borsos as the director of “One Magic Christmas”. She had worked on “One Magic Christmas” and that gave her real authority when the producers of “Danger Bay” were listening to her. “Phil Borsos didn’t direct that picture,” she was saying. “Borsos was hiding in the production honey wagon shoveling coke up his nose. It was Frank Tidy, the DOP, who directed that picture.” And I had to intervene. “That’s not true,” I said.
“Were you there?” the production manager said.
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t there. And I don’t know what problems you had with Phil. No doubt he’s not an easy director for a production manager to work with. But if you look at his films, going back to Cooperage and Spar Tree and The Grey Fox, all the movies that preceded One Magic Christmas, you will see a visual connection through all the movies he made before he made that last picture. Phil was a visual stylist. I don’t care if he was snorting coke off a stripper’s belly while he was making “One Magic Christmas”. I don’t care if he never showed up on set. He made that picture. Don’t ask me how, but the proof is in the pictures. What’s more, while he was shooting that standard Hollywood action movie in Florida, and pissing off that Hollywood established producer, One Magic Christmas was dead. The powers of the industry had decided that Phil was too much trouble to work with. He was Hollywood Poison. His career was over. But Phil took the picture to Disney and performed CPR on it and showed his commitment to the movie that had been his dream for years, the movie he wanted to make so that he could join the ranks of directors like Frank Capra with It’s a Wonderful Life. Without Phil Borsos, One Magic Christmas would not exist. He brought it back from the dead through shear salesmanship and force of personality. So don’t tell people, especially a room full of producers, he didn’t direct it. It’s a Phil Borsos picture.
By the way, I was recently very gratified to hear one of the culture commenters on CBC radio this past Christmas talking about his admiration for One Magic Christmas. I know that movie had a lot of trouble finding its audience, but I personally loved it. It shows Phil Borsos maturing as a director with a real talent for working with actors. Such a tragedy that Phil died so young. He had more films to make, films I would really want to see. I always admired the man and felt that he should have had some of the attention that landed on me by default.
To say it again, a director is terribly vulnerable. All a director has is their reputation. That’s what gets them their next pay check. And their next chance to direct something significant, to practice their craft as a director.
I traveled to Seattle once, years ago, to take a meeting with a producer for PBS, the people who were making the very few television shows I’m interested in directing. At some point in the meeting, he said to me, “I hear you’re hard to work with.” and I knew exactly where that was coming from. It was coming from Nelvana in Toronto who were upset with me over giving them a hard time shooting The Edison Twins, of which I was one of the two startup directors. It had nothing to do with my directing. It had to do with them showing my work, and the work of my crew, to the Disney brass in the basement of their production offices because they wanted to save a few bucks by not renting a screening room at the lab. We had all been breaking our hearts trying to make a wonderful TV series and we were actually proud of our work, but they were going to screen it on a Siemens double system projector with too long a throw for the lens and wow and flutter on the sound track. The director of photography had come to me and begged me to do something about it, as had the sound man. Both said they wouldn’t attend the screening. I joined them in solidarity, and that cost me at least this one job that I knew about. The other startup director had more political sense than I ever had, and, I think, managed to keep the situation from costing him work and money.
I’m going to name names now. Well, one name at least. Because I’m dying and I’m never going to work again and I don’t give a fuck. Ken Jubenvill, that’s a name for you. Ken Jubenvill, you are an asshole. I thought you were a friend of mine. But an episodic director has no friends on an episodic set. It got back to me, you see. Of course it did. In a conversation with producers Ken said “Oh Zale. (dismissive shrug) Zale plays at being a director. ” What an asshole thing to say about me, Ken. And to producers yet. That may actually be the moment when the scales fell from my eyes and I started to admit to hating being a director in the fucking industry, while loving being a director in the real world. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. Yeah, right, Ken. As Ron Orieux said about you, you tiny, perfect, director. I let it ride. The next time I saw Ken I smiled at him and asked how his family was doing. Was he any closer to making his tiny, perfect movie. Probably not. Give me a moment to check in to Almighty Voice on the IMDB. That should tell me. Did Ken ever get to make his little movie….
And there you have it. A shipload of TV movies. An equal number of episodic shows. One hell of an impressive director’s show reel. Looks like you had one hell of a lot of fun, Ken. I could almost envy a show real like that one. But no. I don’t see your movie on the list. You never got to make it.
And now I feel shitty, because revealing this about Ken makes me as big an asshole as he is. But of course I knew this already. There’s something about the movie industry, the industry, not making movies, that brings out the asshole in anybody.
But I will tell you who I hate. (Whom I hate?) I hate those who punch down. I hate the First AD on Kung Fu the Legend Continues who called a certain woman “The set bicycle.” Thinking it would make me think less of her when all it did was make me think less of him.
And even he is not the biggest asshole to infest the television movie industry. To see that asshole, all I need is a mirror.
“So… you want to be a film director/producer in the movies!” Then you got to read this. The life and times of just what an inspired director had to go through in a lifetime of low budgets, mistrust, back stabbing and flaming egos. Way to go Zale! Now you got to write the book. Totally enjoyed the read. “So In the End, What Am I?”, soon to preview in a theatre near you.
Thanks for this comment, Doug. I had totally forgotten that you actually worked with Phil Borsos, and know whereof you speak.
And thanks for relocating this comment in it’s proper place, so that people can tell which article it is referring to. Hard to believe that you had a career so parallel to mine, going back forty-seven years to your role as music director on “Skip Tracer”, and of course before that as a rock and roll genius and symphonic score creator. You are one of the most interesting intellects I have ever worked with, and it’s a joy that you are still in my life.
Cheers, old friend.