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Interview: Zale Dalen

You followed up Skip Tracer in 1980 with a movie called The Hounds of Notre Dame about a boarding school in the 1940s.

The Hounds of Notre Dame shoot was the most incredible six weeks of my life, for a number of reasons. It was my first icy Saskatchewan winter (I cracked up a rental car before we started shooting) and my first son was born while I was on set. That was all part of my emotional state while working on the film; everything seemed to be more intense, more vivid, more graphic. I loved the script for The Hounds of Notre Dame and I had full creative control, within the limits of the budget. But it was an incredibly difficult shoot physically.

Because of the winter weather?

Yes. The script called for the entire movie to take place on one busy mid-winter day in 1940 that included a blizzard. I thought, well, a blizzard is likely during our shooting period. Let’s just wait for it to happen and shoot it. The problem with that is you can’t stand up in a blizzard, let alone shoot anything in it.

Another problem was creating realistic artificial snow at night. The first few scenes we shot and sent to the lab had Fil Fraser, the producer, convinced he’d made a mistake hiring me and Ron Oreaux, the DOP. The problem with snow is that it blocks the light, so you can’t see the subject, and if you don’t have any light on the snow, you can’t see the snow either. So what we got back was mud. Ron's solution was to screen snow just in front of the camera, lightly, and put lots of light on it, then hit the actors with snow at a distance and light them. Of course we weren’t working with a full Hollywood FX team, and the only thing we had to throw snow at the actors was a snow blower, so sometimes the snow was coming down in baseball size chunks. It was a crazy shoot. I even had to fill in driving a Model A Ford truck when we lost our driver captain to frostbite. And by the end, half the crew was sick. I had some kind of pneumonia. I told the doctor to just get me through the next few shooting days. Whatever drugs it took.

It must have been tricky trying to keep the snowfall looking consistent, since the film is supposed to take place in one 24-hour period.

We did one scene where a new boy comes to school. He’s dumped on the main street, and then mobbed as the class changes and kids stream out of all the buildings. But on the day we were going to shoot, we had no extras, for whatever reason--we were at the mercy of the school. So I shot the beginning and end of the scene, and planned on shooting the middle when the extras were available. When we were ready a week or so later, all the snow was gone, so we brought in snow from behind the skating rink with a front-end loader to spread it just exactly where it was needed. Off camera was bare as a bone. It was really gratifying when that scene cut together and looked continuous. A close thing.

Then there were our two days in the hockey arena. We had free extras, volunteers from the town who had come out to watch the movie being shot. Naturally that is pretty boring after the first five minutes, so besides having a heck of a time keeping anachronistic glasses and jackets out of the shots we kept losing the audience for the hockey game. As always, time was of the essence. But our wardrobe had been delayed for some reason. I insisted we had to shoot, even if the goalie didn't have the proper pads (that resulted in the wardrobe mistress crying in the changing room). We set a record for setups in one day--127. 20 to 30 per day was usually considered a good pace. I remember hitting the hotel after the shoot and getting the staff to unlock the hot tub and just lying there totally wasted.

What else do you remember about working on the film?

We had a guy in the art department we called “Machine Gun Kelly” because he was a regular carpenter, not a set builder, and he loved his nail gun. An experienced set builder will build something so you can usually take it apart with your bare hands--it’s not meant to be structural or permanent. But if Machine Gun Kelly built it, it was built to last.

The scene called for a large wooden packing crate that had been delivered to the train station. The station master and Father Murray were to come out of the office and stand over the box and do dialogue. The soundman said it was impossible--because of the overhanging roof, there was just no place to put the boom man or the microphone. Being the smart former soundman that I was, I said "well, what about putting your boom man inside the box?"  But the box had been put together by Machine Gun Kelly and they had to take the top off carefully, because it would be needed for the closer shots. Half an hour goes by. More. In the end it blew out a whole morning just to take the top off that damn box... and guess what we saw when we finally got the top off and looked into the box? The station platform. There was no fucking bottom on the box. They could have just turned it upside down and we’d have been shooting in five minutes or less! I still have a piece of that box on a shoestring. I keep it to remind myself not to make smart suggestions unless I really know the implications.

Like a lot of Canadian directors, you went into television in the 1980s after the tax shelters collapsed.

I left the world of feature films and art movies to make a living, pay the mortgage, support my family. I just couldn't do that making my own feature films. Among a lot of other TV shows I directed, I did about 12 episodes of Kung Fu: the Legend Continues, which was pulling in something like 45 million viewers a week at the time. It seemed to me that the more embarrassed I was about my work, the more people got to see it.

There must have been some good things about working on it, though.

Kung Fu: the Legend Continues was fun to direct and to play with a whole professional film crew, but it sucked as a process. There was no time to explore anything, no money or time for mistakes. Television is a manufacturing process. It's ruled by accountants and production managers and assistant directors, with every minute on set a desperate fight to get something that resembles the script into the can with something that represents coverage and performance. As an art form it is pure horror.

The thing with Kung Fu: the Legend Continues was that the scripts got progressively more outrageous. Marvel Comics plots. Crazy shit. But it was all supposed to be played real. And the producers were mostly in L.A. writing outdoor scenes that were impossible in Toronto in winter. I remember one scene in a cemetery set downtown and the Styrofoam wings on the stone angel were flapping in the freezing wind. I loved working on the show, but in the end I came to hate the politics.

Do you have any stories about David Carradine?

No really wild stories. David was a great actor, and I loved working with him. He was also a drunk like I’d never seen before; I never saw him sober. He’d start the day with a water glass of vodka. That was for breakfast. But he never let me down.

I remember David gave me the worst morning of my career when one of his daughters, Calista, was hired to play a homeless street person. Before the shoot, the producers came to me and said that they hated Callista's performance, that they'd only hired her because David threw his weight around. Well, I worked with Callista, and I really liked her. She's a good actor. She follows directions. We talked about the scene--Callista, who is a very sensual, very sexual person, had been playing the scenes with David as if she were in love with Caine, or really coming on to him in a seductive way. I talked about the vulnerability the character should feel, and she changed her whole approach.

So after we shot the scene, I got a phone call from David. He was almost crying, but mostly furiously angry, saying “You turned her lights out, Zale. You turned her lights out.” There wasn't much I could say, but I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. Later that same day I got another phone call from David to apologize. He'd seen the rushes. He realized that Calista's performance was probably the best thing she'd done in the show, and he was calling to tell me that. I really have to hand it to David. Not many stars would have made that call. The first call, yes. But not the second.

Around that time you made a quirky political punk rock farce called Terminal City Ricochet that still remains mostly unseen. How did that one happen?

John Conti, the producer, and Rob Buckham put the deal together and then Rob got elbowed off the show. I didn’t work well with John. He was under the influence of a punk rock guru in Vancouver who seemed to want to make a political statement for the 15 punk rockers who would dig it. I wanted to make a film that mainstream viewers could relate to.

The opening scene nicely sums up the disconnect between us--the guy who comes out with the shotgun and tells the guy pissing on the political sign to fuck off is [sports mogul] Nelson Skalbania. He was a friend of mine, and a bit of a legend in Vancouver. But the punks hated him. I got him the part to give the film some publicity, but they threw it away and didn’t even get any press out. Idiots.

You did have one notable name, though--Jello Biafra plays one of the secondary characters.

That’s totally John’s doing, and I do credit him with that. It was a great choice, and probably the aspect that gives the film cult status today.

Even though you didn't write the film, it has some thematic connections with your earlier work, especially in the way big business and politicians manipulate people.

I loved the script that I signed on to direct, just loved it. But during prep I’d come in and find that scenes had been rewritten by John’s political guru, and were absolutely unplayable. So there was a lot of tension during prep. I don’t know what kind of movie we’d have ended up with if I’d actually had control, but it wouldn’t be what you can see today. The director’s cut was a joke--John just wanted to take over, and my cut never really happened.

Any memories stand out in the making of Terminal City Ricochet ?

Lots of memories but mostly of near disasters. It was an FX heavy shoot, with lots of guns and explosives. We had one scene where the main characters run a roadblock in a car that is supposed to have bulletproof windows. I had this idea that a wax bullet from a riot shotgun would make a nice mark on the windshield without doing any real damage. We tested this out and it looked great. I had my brother on the set. He's a prison guard and handles a riot shotgun every day, so I knew I could trust him not to get crazy with it. So we do the shot. Then my brother is on the walkie talkie saying we might need an ambulance--the wax bullet went right through the windshield. Yikes!

Another scene called for a prison guard to confront our fleeing heroes, only to be shot in the back by another trigger happy guard. The FX guys told me that a down vest would look great if it had a squib that blew feathers into the air. So we set it up. It was a rainy night, pouring rain, miserable working conditions but the image was going to look great. The stunt man/extra had to push his own button to fire the squib. So we shoot the shot and I hear a muffled thump and the down vest bulges out a bit and our man falls down. No feathers in the air. I'm thinking, "Holy crap, they put the squib in backwards and we've killed the guy."

Our stunt guy gets back on his feet and he's a bit unsteady, but he's not dead. He said it was like getting a fist to the chest really hard. What had happened was the down vest got soaked with water, and all the feathers packed together. So instead of blowing out like they were supposed to, they absorbed all the energy of the explosion and sent it right back at the actor. I have to hand it to the guy. We did a second take, and he pushed the button again.

Terminal City Ricochet didn't get much of a home video release until  Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label released it a few years ago on DVD.

Well, John had been in an accident just before the shoot started and he walked around wearing a neck brace, trying to get a big settlement from the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. At one point in the proceedings, they showed me his testimony to back up the claim and he was basically saying that the accident prevented him from supervising me sufficiently, and that was the cause of his failure to successfully release the movie. Truth is, he didn't have a clue what he was doing.

Expect No Mercy was a film that was more in line with your TV directing work--a martial arts story that you were basically a hired gun on.

That was a fun shoot. Again the script was all over the place, and I never really knew where the story was going. Our agreement was that I would direct the drama, and the producer/star Jalal Merhi would direct the fight scenes. That worked pretty well, though I was always surprised at the number of fights that would pop up out of nowhere. I think there was some rule that a fight had to happen with some nameless bad guy henchman every minute or so.

I really enjoyed working with Jalal and Billy Blanks. I remember one scene where they were supposed to be in a car involved in a tense chase, and they were talking like they were bored watching a football game or something. Zero energy. I took them out behind one of our locations, another church, and had them shout the lines. That wasn't easy for them. Neither of them are used to shouting. But they did it, and the energy came up incredibly in the scene.

I have admiration and respect for Jalal Mehri. He is a great friend, and a real gentleman. People need to understand that he makes movies for third-world buyers at the American Film Market. He knows what the buyers are looking for, things Canadians would never think are important, like putting in big old Cadillacs and specific action sequences.

You made a DV film several years ago called Passion. What happened with that?

After years of directing television I was very sick of the process. So when I got a sizeable royalty check, instead of doing the sensible thing with it and setting myself up for retirement, I decided to go digital and see if I could make something that looked like a movie. I gathered a great group of creative people and we set out on our own revolution called the "Volksmovie Movement." We had a website with all kinds of tips like how to use industrial work lights and furnace filters from Home Depot for lighting, how to convert a fridge dolly into a working film dolly, that kind of thing. We decided that the way to make a movie was to start with an idea, shoot a scene, edit the scene, see where the scene seemed to suggest we go, then develop another scene and keep going. I had more shooting days on Passion than I've had on any film in my career--65 in all. And it was all magic.  

We called it "a seriously funny film," and the intention was to explore attitudes towards love and sexuality and poke some gentle fun at the craziness that both engender. I feel like we were maybe two or three years ahead of our time.

Did you have difficulty getting it in front of audiences?

We had a world premiere screening in Nanaimo and just a whale of a time. Then I arranged a screening in Vancouver at the Cinematheque. By the time the dust cleared, I'd blown through about $1,000 in expenses. I didn't manage to get one single newspaper reviewer to attend, not one single opinion maker. I might as well have stood on the corner of Davie and Richards and torn up hundred dollar bills for all the good the screening did me.

All we wanted was to make some money back so we could continue and make another film; to bring back enough money to be self-sustaining. But it just didn't work as a business model. Something 110minutes long that looked like a feature, but without Tom Hanks or the promotional budget behind it. Nobody would give us the screen time.

And a lot of people didn't like our movie. It was very gay friendly and sex friendly, but not in the standard exploitation way. It offended family values. It also offended a lot of people who think older men shouldn't lust after younger women. People I really respect didn't like my movie, and told me so. But on the other hand, when we did put audiences together I did hear consistent laughter in the theatre. The film has an audience, at least as much of an audience as the low end of Hollywood, if I could only get it to that audience. We're still trying.

How do you look back on your film career today?

My film career has left me with many memories, many intense moments, a lot of wins and some very serious fails. It was an intense lifestyle, and I miss it just a little bit. The thing is, being a freelance film director turned me into a money junkie. I'd get a gig, and fluff up the bank account and know I could feed the kids and pay the mortgage for a few months. And then the money would melt away, and I'd be getting the yemmies.

One of the great injustices is that a first-time director gets the smallest budget and can't afford to make a mistake of any kind. There's no way to learn your craft. A writer can create his first novel with a quill pen and a stack of paper. A film director needs a huge stack of money, which brings all kinds of pressure, and if the first film isn't fantastic there will never be a second. An A-list director gets so much money to play with, he could make the movie on the craft services budget if things really got tough.

There's one memory that always makes me smile. Somebody once described making a movie as having the biggest toy train set in the world. So dig this: I'm on the bridge of the HMCS Saskatchewan, standing beside the captain. Close by our port and starboard sides are two Canadian destroyers, each 366 feet long and only 42 feet wide--basically beautiful sea-going sports cars. We are steaming full speed, close to 30 knots, which is very fast for any ship, through waters just North of the equator. There is a gorgeous tropical sunset straight ahead of us. Schools of flying fish with wings like iridescent cellophane are coming off the tops of waves and glittering through the sunlight for a hundred yards or more. Dolphins are playing in the bow waves. I'm in the centre ship, and this incredible beauty is all around me. And I turn to the captain and I say, ”Could you have them criss-cross in front of us, sir?” And he does. Those two beautiful ships start to criss-cross in front of us for the camera. You can't get a bigger toy train set than that!

You said you miss the lifestyle -- Ever feel like you want to make another film?

I sometimes think I'd like to make another feature-length movie. I make small digital stuff all the time. We recently made a little promo for a bike helmet initiative in China that was fun--I wrote the script, did the camera work, did the editing on my computer. Our young friend Panda held the boom. My wife and our young Chinese friends acted. And that was it. No crew. No producer. No “circus”.

I've also started making a documentary about attitudes toward infant male circumcision. I'm shooting it on my Sony still camera. If and when it ever gets finished, it will go up on YouTube I suppose.

But another feature will either require a great script and story, or some serious inspiration if I'm going to produce an idea of my own. I don't think there's much chance of anybody offering me any other kind of directing gig now. And I'd only accept it if I liked the script and it wasn't going to take over my life.

For the first time in my entire life I'm not stressed about making a living, which is funny because I make less in a month now than they paid me as per diem for two weeks work in the old Kung Fu days. The hyper-adrenaline rush of making a movie in the traditional way, with a full crew and production guarantor and producers and managers... I've been there and done that. Got more than the T-shirt. Enough is enough.


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