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Interview: Zale Dalen

When Zale Dalen (real name: David Scott) burst on Vancouver's film scene in 1977 with his directorial debut Skip Tracer, he was already well versed in the industry. An alumni of the Simon Fraser University Film Workshop, Dalen also worked for documentarian Allan King and the CBC and handled sound for a variety of early West Coast features. Skip Tracer is one of the most unique Canadian films of the 1970s. Dalen's feature notably departs from the tales of luckless blue collar dreamers that seemed to dominate Canadian film at the time, instead taking viewers to the seamy Vancouver back alleys in an uncompromising look at systemic greed and poverty.

In addition to TV movies and episodic television for series including Kung Fu, the Legend Continues, 21 Jump Street, Beachcombers and The Edison Twins, Dalen continued to take on Canadian features including the award-winning The Hounds of Notre Dame, a slice-of-life hockey drama based on Saskatchewan legend Father Athol Murray, the Billy Blanks martial arts/virtual reality action fest Expect No Mercy and the dystopian punk satire Terminal City Ricochet before launching the Volksmovie movement, a down and dirty DIY approach to filmmaking that anticipated the DV boom by several years.

Currently a teacher at the Jiangnan University in Wuxi, China, Zale Dalen graciously conducted an e-mail interview with in March, 2012.

Canuxploitation: How did you get your start in filmmaking?

Zale Dalen: I initially wanted to be a writer, but I knew I would starve writing fiction and I wasn’t interested in journalism, despite a very short gig with the Vancouver Sun (they found out I was totally useless and fired me). Short stories had no market and novels took years to write and had a slim chance of returning any money. I was looking for the biggest market for fiction, and that looked like movies and television. So I joined the Simon Fraser University Film Workshop to find out something about writing for movies. Stan Fox and Tom Shandell were running the workshop, which had only been running for a semester before I discovered it. Peter Bryant was more or less the group leader, and other students included George Johnson, who is still a producer with the NFB in Vancouver was interested in editing, Bryan Small who disappeared into television work, Doug White who became a production manager, Tony Westman, now a very accomplished DOP and television director, Ron Oreaux, one of Vancouver’s best known cameramen, and Rick Patton. These people all became the core of my film connections in Vancouver. The film scene was small, but there was lots happening.

In those days it was more like a campus club than anything structured, which was great for me. All you had to do was show up with an idea and you could borrow a Bolex and take out some film. Black and White EF. It was processed on campus and hung to dry under the theatre stairs.

You worked for the CBC in Toronto around this time too, right?  

I got a gig as assistant editor to Luc Bennet on Silvia Spring’s Madeleine is... Luke was my first mentor, a great, passionate artist. But when Madeleine is... wrapped I couldn’t find film work in Vancouver, not even delivering pizzas. So I hitchhiked to Toronto and got two jobs, one with Douglas Leiterman and Beryl Fox working as an assistant on Here Come the Seventies and the other as a Film Assistant 2 in the distribution wing of the CBC. My fiancé at the time, Rena Bishop, and I worked for a bit more than a year in Toronto.

Beryl and I didn’t hit it off, so I quit that job after just two days and stuck with the CBC position. A Film Assistant 2 put cans of film into boxes and sent them out to stations. After a couple of months they gave me a promotion to Film Assistant 1, which meant I got to rewind the film after it came back from a station to check for broken sprocket holes, then put it in a can so the Film Assistant 2 could put in a box and send it out to stations. It looked like a long ladder to anything interesting.

While in Toronto, I looked up Richard Leiterman, then the most famous cameraman in Canada, and he became another major mentor for me. After a few months at CBC, Richard called and said that Allan King needed an assistant editor to work with his editor, Arla Saare. Was I interested? CBC was paying me about $50/week and I was spending about $45/week on flying lessons. Allan King was offering $200/week. Did I want the job? To this day I feel guilty about jumping ship on the CBC, because the executive who hired me had made me promise to stay for a year.

What was working with Allan King like?

My time at Allan King Associates was golden. Not only did I get to learn from people like Allan, Arla, Richard Leiterman and Bill Brane, I picked up all kinds of skills. In fact, I got my first sound recording experience there working on an NDP commercial. We lived on Rena’s salary and banked mine. By then I’d realized that, much as I love editing, I didn’t want to spend my life in an editing room trying to make somebody else’s footage look good--I wanted to get out onto sets.

Is that when you started working in sound?

Yes. Rena and I got married and decided to move back to B.C. I bought a Nagra IV and set myself up as a sound man. I was freelancing, working on whatever film would hire me. I did sound on Jack Darcus’s Woolpen Principle, Boon Collins’ Sally Fieldgood and Company, and Tom Drake’s The Keeper. I also picked up a bit of NFB work. I did a short gig teaching 8mm filmmaking in schools, thanks to Peter Bryant and my old friends from the film workshop.

Rena got a job at SFU and enrolled to improve her marks in order to reapply for law school. But when she just couldn’t get back in, I said, "Hey, why don’t you team up with me and be a film producer?" So that’s what she did. We started to make our own little films. The first was made via a West Coast grant from the CFDC, Gandy Dance, a dramatization of one of my father’s stories about working for the railway laying steel in Northern Saskatchewan. We sold Gandy Dance to the CBC for a few thousand dollars. Since it was a grant from the CFDC, we didn’t have to pay the money back to our investor.

What do you remember about The Keeper , one of the first horror films made in Vancouver?

Not much. I loved working with Christopher Lee, who impressed the hell out of me with his professionalism. Just as one example, his first day on a set he sat down in a chair that squeaked, and made a comment about having to sit still because the sound man would not be happy. That was amazing to me, an actor who was aware of sound.

The downside of working on those low budget films as a soundman was that the visuals were the star, and sound took a back seat. But there was zero budget for looping, and ADR hadn’t been invented yet. So every line of dialogue had to be clear and clean. That meant I had to really push and that didn’t make me popular with the AD or with the camera department. But think about it--visuals are important, but if the audience can’t hear the dialogue there’s no movie.

It was a great shoot, and I was really sad that it wasn’t more commercially successful. Tom Drake was a joy to work with, though I’m still mad at him for claiming the prop walking stick that I had put together for the movie. It had a glass eye built into the handle. I let him have it because I figured I could make another just like it, but then never got around to doing it.

I understand that you started to direct educational shorts around this time.

We were looking for anything that would give us an economic base, and educational films looked like one answer. I found a distributor for Gandy Dance, and I asked him to let me see his best selling educational films. They were, frankly, boring. I thought I could makes something with the same educational value, but with some mood and feeling, and I hit on the idea of making a film about my grandmother’s quilt making. That’s still the movie I am most proud of making. It’s now a family heirloom.

Trying to sell an educational film in Canada was frustrating. I’d take it to schools and libraries, and they’d tell me they liked it, but they got all their films for free from the NFB. Think about that--if the government made high-quality shoes at an inflated budget and then gave them away, shoe makers would be screaming. But we were supposed to love the NFB. Then I tried to sell Granny's Quilts to the NFB, but no deal. Shortly after that I took a trip to Seattle to sell a print to a library there. They told me about a publication that went out to every school and library in America that reviewed movies for free. After we got a glowing review, requests for preview prints started to come in, one or two a week. Granny's Quilts kept us eating for a few years.

"Zale Dalen" is a pseudonym, why did you chose to use one? Is there any special meaning behind it?

It’s a bit embarrassing now. I was christened David James Scott, after my father. I learned that my wife at the time had originally been named Gwyneth Bishop, but that was changed when she was 12 and her parents joined something called the Kabalarian Fraternal Organization, which is a Vancouver-based cult that believed that your name should “resonate” with your birth path through a rather complicated numerical formula.

After we were married, Rena’s dad died. He was always the guy who told her how the world was glued together, and because he’d been interested in Kabalarianism, she started to spend money on courses with them. She said I’d never be rich and famous with a name like David Scott. I had my own reasons for changing my name, having to do with my relationship with my father--I was a hippie and he was a conservative businessman. He wasn’t happy, especially when the government slapped a lien on the family farm because of my student loan, or the cops showed up at the door demanding payment for parking tickets. What can I say? I was always broke back then.

My other reason for changing my name had to do with wanting a more self-created identity rather than something that was laid on me by my birth and circumstances. So Rena Bishop became Laara Dalen and I became Zale Dalen. We were a great team. She was my best friend, constant companion, and an incredible producer. She was great at finding money and production details. She set up our company, took care of the books, and let me be the creative driver. I couldn’t have done anything of any significance without her.

Now that Rena/Laara and I are divorced and my father is dead, I would like to go back to my original name. I don’t like the connection to the Kabalarians, because I’m a skeptic. But it’s a hard name to drop. Zale Dalen is still my legal name, and it’s just too much expense and bother to change it back. Also, I hate to throw away that filmography.

So how did you make the leap to features?

In those days I was in love with Sergio Leone-style westerns, so I wrote a Canadian spaghetti western. I talked to Michael Spence, the head of the CFDC, at some film function in Vancouver, and asked him what it would take to get the CFDC interested. He said maybe if I had a good director, and recommended George McCowan. I’d never heard of him, but we sent him a letter and waited for a reply. No answer ever came. Then a movie came to town that he directed, Frogs. We went to see it, and were shocked at what a piece of crap it was. I sent George a letter: “Dear George McCowan. We Just saw Frogs. Please forget about our offer.” Then I got a reply back, from Diana A. Rana, McCowan's "amphibian adviser", saying George wasn’t interested in our movie.

Obviously, the western never happened and we ended up in debt, but I managed to sell the script for just enough to clear the debts and get us back to zero. I figured I was either in the game or out of it, so I sat down and wrote Skip Tracer. It took some conversations, but we applied for the Special Investment category and the CFDC came up with 60% of the budget. My wife, my producer, set out to find the private money, and within a week we were oversubscribed.

Can you tell me about your intentions with the script?

I had been thinking about cop shows and detective shows on television, and wondering why there were so many of them. It seemed to be because they were easy to write. There’s a built in conflict--either somebody is going to break the law, or has broken the law. Somebody else wants to stop him, or catch him. There are an infinite number of variations for motive and situation, but the central conflict, essential to all drama, is built in. So I was looking for something that had the same built in conflict, but wasn’t cops and robbers.

I thought about bill collectors, who are kind of the cops of the business world, and then about skip tracers, who are the detectives. So Skip Tracer started out as a B-movie. The original idea was what they called a "legendary skip," a guy who nobody could catch. And my skip tracer was going to try to catch him. I generated about 50 pages with that idea, and it was just derivative crap. I was so frustrated. So I started going to the actual people, interviewing credit agency people and skip tracers. That brought in a whole level of complexity and interest.

It turned out that many credit agencies didn’t pay their agents much more than minimum wage. They made their money on bonuses, which were calculated by the number of loans given out and the number delinquent. It was a system designed to manipulate the workers into taking risks, and trying to recover when the risk didn’t pay off. The consumer was being manipulated into borrowing beyond what they could pay back to buy things they didn’t really need, and the financial people were being manipulated with status and money to play hardball.

John Collins became my personification of this system. He sacrificed everything in his life for his career, status and money. And of course he’s losing, because the system won’t let a worker win. There’s one scene in the movie, when Collins has been evicted from his private office and moved back out into the open area, as punishment for falling behind the rest of the agents. On his new desk is a picture of his wife and kids, but we never see them in the movie. They aren’t in his life anymore. He takes the picture and puts it under his desk blotter. He’s a man who is hiding. He’s reduced his life to stark utilitarian functionality. In his apartment, the painting has been turned to the wall because he’s tired of looking at it. It’s a joyless existence and he’s just playing the game out of habit.

What types of films influenced you in writing and directing Skip Tracer?

Mostly Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, a film that blew my mind when I saw it. That was the biggest influence. I loved the starkness, the minimalist portrayal of the character, and the use of sound. I was knocked out by the way the director could direct my attention.

Everybody back then was trying to tell me that all Canadian directors came out of a documentary tradition. I couldn’t see it. I grew up on Hollywood films. That was my tradition.

What was it like on set?

It was all exhilarating and terrifying. I didn’t know what I was doing. Didn’t know whether I’d have enough film to make a movie out of. There was a lot of tension on the set. I had to fire my best friend, because he wanted beer at lunch and I knew it would slow down the crew for the afternoon and we couldn’t afford that.

Working with the actors was great. I’d set up a studio in a corner of the Tahmanous Theatre rehearsal space, and that was a great connection to creative people. Stevie Miller, who played the deadbeat in the industrial area who hides in the pipe was just a joy to work with. So was John Lazarus, who played the tagalong trying to learn the ropes. I loved every minute on set. In fact, I realized that I didn’t really feel alive unless I was on a movie set, or I had never felt alive like that before.

What was your favourite scene to shoot?

I guess the car repossession scene was the most thrilling to shoot. The way the window broke when Collins hit it--or rather refused to break with the first blow and then exploded with the second. The little bit of action with the pimp chasing him, and Collins doing the back roll over the hood of the car. Yeah. That was great to shoot.

I also loved shooting the moment when Collins sees the punk at the back of his car, and thinks maybe somebody has planted a bomb on him. I liked that scene because it had so much paranoia with so little reason and such simple shots.

One of the great things about Skip Tracer is the authentic locations that give a real flavour for the city--grimy back alleys and construction sites and low-income housing.

We had a hell of a time finding a house in the kind of neighborhood I wanted for Pettigrew. You know, one of those places where all the houses have lawns and you just know there are sparkles on the ceilings. We had people calling the cops on us, sure that we were some kind of scammers. I remember when our assistant came in with the news that he’d found a place. He said a woman was mowing her lawn wearing a T-shirt that said “Bitch” and he knew he’d found it.

Other than that we just showed up places and shot. I don’t think we even had to get permits, though maybe my wife took care of that stuff.

In your opinion, does John Collins redeem himself at the end of the film?

Redemption is an interesting word. I really liked the idea of him wiping all his “clients” from the company computer and dumping their files in the garbage. That was both revenge and restitution. I liked the idea of him walking away a free man, and finally realized that I’d simply made a film justifying the hippie drop-out. But I could never figure out where he went next. Now, I think Collins went back to his family. I think he tried to put his life back together in a very authentic and honest way, maybe taking an interest in humanity and trying to improve the world.

In those days, TV Guide would do a one line summary of television movies. I always thought the one they should do for Skip Tracer should read: “A bill collector quits his job.” That sums it all up.

What was the response to the film at the time?

For the world premiere, we wanted to get the theatre to sell tickets by credit card as part of the promotion of the film. That had never been done before. The theatre didn't think it was a good idea, and refused to play along. I laugh every time I buy a movie ticket now--I saw this coming!

The next day I think the headline of the Vancouver Sun review was “Partisan Crowd Over-reacts at Film Premiere.” Typical of a Canadian paper to print a headline like that. I mean, the audience gives it a standing ovation, and that’s the headline? But overall we had a great reaction. Skip Tracer played at the Montreal Film Festival, and we got our first sale – to German TV, and that paid out our private investors with one cheque. From Montreal we went to Toronto, then New York, which was an incredible experience. After New York we went to London, to the London Film Festival. Rena took the movie to Cannes, and the film went to Sydney, Australia, Moscow and Thessalonica. I ended up with a Genie Award, which in those days was called an Etrog and looked like the goofiest parody of the Oscar statue you can imagine, with a head shaped like testicles. I do love it. Plus a wall full of big impressive participation certificates. So, all in all I couldn’t ask for better.

While I'll always be proud of the thinking that went into making that script and movie, I've always considered it a bit of a failure. I remember being in the final stages of editing and going to a theatre to see Rocky. At the end of the movie, the whole audience was on its feet, yelling at the screen. And I thought, "Oh shit, there's no way my movie is going to do that." And it didn't. Like I said, I'm proud of it. But it sure would be nice to get that connection to an audience someday.

Have you been aware of renewed interest in the film?

I usually hear about it whenever there is a screening, and there have been a couple of those fairly recently. Frankly it surprises me, and puzzles me. But of course it’s very flattering. It was nothing like what I would like to have accomplished in my career, or what I think I was capable of accomplishing given a good script. But it’s nice that it isn’t forgotten completely.

Sometimes I feel a bit like the Canadian counterpart of Vittorio De Sica who directed The Bicycle Thief. Although it's very famous, not all that many people aside from film buffs have seen it. In fact it only grossed about $300,000--beating out Skip Tracer, but not by all that much.

Jim Westwell, who audited virtually all the CFDC productions made out West, told me once that Skip Tracer was the only one he ever worked on that returned its private investment. I was proud of that, too. Unfortunately right after we made Skip Tracer, Westwell went to our investors and talked them into another movie with a much larger budget. After getting their money back from Skip Tracer, they thought movies were a good bet. But they lost a ton of money and their board of directors forbade them ever to invest in movies again, including ours.

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