HOW TO FLOG
A DEAD HORSE
“It never ceased to amaze me, until suddenly one day I felt beautiful and holy for having had the courage to hold on to my sanity after all I’d seen and been through, body and soul, in too loud a solitude, and slowly I came to the realization that my work was hurtling me headlong into an infinite field of omnipotence.” —Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude
Flying home to Vancouver in the Fall of 1974, I was semi-catatonic, road-fatigued, suffering lapsed Catholic guilt. I’d jumped ship from the band I’d toured with for four years and knew I had no future. For the next few weeks, I cleaned and cooked while Fiona spent her days at the casting agency to keep up the mortgage payments on our houseboat.
Late one afternoon, a middle-aged, salt and pepper-haired bohemian appeared on the dock. Fiona introduced us, and Keith Pepper pulled spices, an onion, papadoms, and a chicken from a leather satchel, and proceeded to the galley to concoct a delicious curry. He had charm, wit, a proper English accent and worked in movie art departments. I liked him.
Returning home from work one evening, Fiona asked if I would like to be George Segal’s stand-in. Yes, indeed. I’d seen George on screen at the Hollywood, my neighbourhood cinema where I often watched a double feature for 50 cents. George was one of my heroes.
A British /American co-production, Kosygin Is Coming [i] was produced under the Edy plan, an agreement which enabled American producers to access a portion of U.S. movie British box office revenue. It featured a multinational cast and crew (American, British and Canadian) with the Americans in charge: Stars (California Split, Sunshine), Producer (Against All Odds), and Director (Up in Smoke). The Brits came next: Art Director (Barry Lyndon), Cinematographer (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), Propsman (The Battle of Britain), Production Manager (Oliver, Where Eagles Dare ), First Assistant Director (The Great Gatsby), Key Grip (The Man Who Would be King), and Sound Mixer (The Boy Friend). Bringing up third, we Canucks performed the grunt work, except for Keith Pepper who, with his wit and talent, had been secured as the Assistant Art Director.
Everyone reverted to type: The Americans, fearlessly pompous, ignored everyone else; the Brits performed their jobs expertly, politely averting their gaze from American excesses (i.e. sex and drugs)—with the exception of Paddy, the Irish propsman, who, irritated with the American director and actors wanting to smoke the ‘prop’ Cuban cigars would dole out the smokes while muttering under his breath, “fukking ejits”. We Canadians were gratified to have our jobs, and thrilled to be able to observe these world-class technicians create ‘screen magic’ (especially the climax on the roof of the Hotel Vancouver), but the stories behind the camera were, to me, infinitely more interesting than the hoary drama acted out in front of it.[ii]
Standing-in is not onerous—boring sometimes yes, but not taxing. Camera crews need a human body in front of the camera upon which to set their lights and practice their moves, and as the stars need their beauty rest, an unemployed actor like me (same weight, height and colouring as George) is hired. I soon figured out that, by eavesdropping on the director, I could anticipate where George would be standing or moving, and reenact it for the camera team. I became part of the crew, and for 2½ months was allowed to study movie-making—and human folly—at close range.[iii]
Re-titled Russian Roulette, the resulting movie was as silly as its new title. As nature abhors a vacuum, Hollywood loves a cliché, and the Americans attempted to foist a nonsensical view of Canada’s RCMP (i.e. George Segal, an American actor playing a Mountie; Denholm Elliot, a British actor, playing his boss) upon movie-goers. I had not as yet read Pierre Berton’s Hollywood’s Canada, so I was unaware of our deplorable movie history with America, Yet, Kosygin gave me: my introduction to Richard Romanus (Mean Streets); George Segal’s disclosure of his movie star fear of random violence (an idea I’ve explored extensively); and the impetus to make Outtakes.
By the Spring 1976, my typewriter and I had left the houseboat and rented a bed in my friend Jim Walchuk’s basement. I got a job writing The Rolf Harris Show, a CTV variety series—more television mediocrity—overseen by an executive who hated “pipe-sucking writers”. Trying to find interesting ways of writing “Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, our special guest tonight is”, and coming up with cornball jokes (Mr. Harris’ stock-in-trade), was exactly like flogging a dead horse[iv]. Monty Python had just set the comedic benchmark, so I, working with inept TV directors and producers, felt like an egg-counting functionary of the German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany) .
On one long, rainy drive home from the BCTV studios in remote Burnaby, a movie gag popped into my head—a car drives into a parking lot, the driver’s door opens and the actor steps out into a mud puddle. It wasn’t terribly hilarious, but I sensed that I came up with more ‘goofs’ using the same character, I’d have a short film; and, if I shot the scenes to look like outtakes—as though the audience were watching rushes in a screening room—I’d have a narrative.
I knew nothing about film. Fiona suggested I talk to Phillip Borsos, whom I found in his 3rd floor walk-up office, on the edge of Gastown, over-looking the pigeon-shit-encrusted memorial in Victory Square. Borsos, a tall, gangly, young man in his early twenties with an uncle moustache and a mop of curly, brown hair, had already acquired world-weariness. He’d racked up debts producing Cooperage, a film short, but had started his own production and distribution companies, and convinced a exhibitor to run his barrel-factory movie in a downtown theatre. I told him I was looking for a producer, and he stared at me as though I’d farted. I showed him my 12 page script. He asked if I had a budget.
Knowing nothing about money side of movies, I returned a few days later with numbers on a page and a budget of $12,000, and Borsos (no fool he) encouraged me to find the investment.
1976 was the beginning of the so-called “Canadian film-boom”, a Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA) legislated by the Federal Government, providing a 100% tax write-off to those investing in ‘Canadian’ movie and TV productions. The legislation was new in 1976, so I assumed that the ‘investment dealers’ listed in the Yellow Pages would be eager to find investors for my short film. They must have thought I was insane. The broker’s fee on $12,000 would hardly make chump change;[v] I had never written or directed a film; nor was there any profit to be made in theatrical shorts. After two weeks of non-interest, I stopped.
In August of 1976, Borsos took a job at the Alpha Cine lab to pay down his Cooperage tab; and I was approached by head writers Tony Hudz and Alex Barris to write a new TV variety show to be produced independently in Vancouver. I had known Hudz during my early days with the Allmanac Singers, Barris I had seen on TV. ‘Celebrity Revue’ would be shot in Vancouver, a 2½ hour flight from Los Angeles, and financed using the CCA.[vi] The show was to be aired by independent stations in New York and Los Angeles and syndicated across North America. Edmonton-based producers Wendell Wilks and David Close had arranged contra deals with the Cave Theatre Restaurant where we taped the show, and with the Hotel Vancouver where the production staff was housed (old CBC offices) and our stars of yesterday and tomorrow were put up.
For the next four months, Barris, Hudz, Richard Ouzounian and I churned out 10 one-hour talk-variety show scripts each week. Tommy Banks, a genial host, talented pianist, arranger and band leader, was joined every five shows by a different celebrity co-host, in and out in 2½ days.
We wrote each morning and each afternoon Ouzounian and I pre-interviewed the guests to find conversation topics for that evening’s shows. Ouzounian, growing up in New York, had seen possibly every musical staged on Broadway in the 1960’s; so he questioned the New York, Broadway and Hollywood performers (Robert Alda, Karen Morrow, etc.) while I interviewed the comics (Jay Leno, Soupy Sales, Arte Johnson, etc.). During Happy Hour, we prepped Tommy in the bar at Hy’s Steakhouse, then crossed the street to the Cave to watch two shows being taped before a live nightclub audience. The writers’ day ended at 11:00 p.m., beginning again the next morning at 9:00. The moments that remain with me are:
Arthur Godfrey—candid about dying of lung cancer—being introduced and the audience asked to refrain from smoking. In the days when smoking in a nightclub was almost de rigueur, no one lit up during his shows. Godfrey was touched, and so were we.
Ouzounian re-writing the Catherine Deneuve Chanel commercial for Broadway performer Karen Morrow, who donned a blonde wig, and vamped to the camera, “Eess not eazsy being Cascherin Deneuuuve, especially when you’re Karwin Mowworw”.
Arte Johnson, as the old German, Professor Arthur Van Johnson, lecturing on comedy forms which are not funny. Watching Johnson inform the audience that “slapsstooks iz not funny” and demonstrating it by squirting seltzer down Soupy Sales’ pants, was pure comic joy.
Jackie Mason arriving 3 hours before show time, and wandering into the writers’ office to chat, asking Barris if he was the only Jewish writer on the show. Barris said, “I’m Greek, Healey here is sort of Irish…” Mason, glancing at Ouzounian, in his white shirt, tie, vest and short blonde hair, in the outer office typing, asked, “And dat vun, the vun who looks like a Nazi banker… vhat is he?”
Milton Berle dominating the long boardroom table. When he talked, he turned on his small tape recorder; when he stopped talking, he switched it off. He wore an overcoat indoors and I remembered reading that his mother had instilled in him a fear of drafts. At the meeting I attended, his Cuban cigar filled the room with smoke. When one of the staff stood up, walked the length of the room, and opened the window to let in fresh air, Berle commanded, “Close that.” The staff member shut the window and made the long walk back to his seat. On the day Berle left, he bought up all the Cuban cigars in the hotel Smoke Shop humidor.
Sally Kellerman arriving, and I helping cart her luggage to the Hotel. On our way to the Panorama Roof bar, making conversation, I said, “I thought you were great in Nashville.”
“I wasn’t in Nashville,” she snapped, and ignored me for the next two days.
Two months into production, the syndicators decided that Tommy Banks, though charming and talented, lacked sex appeal. Wilks and Close found a former TV journalist, a pretty young woman and quickly replaced him as host. Tommy, to his credit, remained loyal to his band by staying on as band leader, the band being the show’s engine.
We broke for Christmas, returning in January to discover that the New York and Los Angeles stations had cancelled the program. Barris, Hudz and Stanley Dorfman, the director, spent three feverish days in our mobile control room, relentlessly combing through 120 shows to compile a demo of our best moments. Wilks and Close rushed it to a TV buyers convention in San Francisco, but were unable to save it.
In retrospect, the business guys were, as usual, dumb. Tommy Banks was the show. By replacing him, they put the entire enterprise at risk.
Borsos, back in his office in mid February, agreed to produce Outtakes. “But,” he cautioned, “if you want to make it, you’ll have to borrow the first five thousand to put it in the can”.
I approached my bank manager—the same one who’d understood that houseboats could be mortgaged—who, after securing the four thousand remaining in my account from Celebrity Revue, okayed the loan.
I called Richard Romanus. I’d admired his acting on Kosygin and found him personable, witty and sharp. I sent him a copy of the script and called a week later. He agreed to do it, and instantly I felt queasy with excitement. He asked if I knew what his rate was. I hadn’t even thought about it, but felt even queasier. “$2,500 a day,” he said. I stopped breathing. $2,500 per day for 2 days was $5,000—all I had—leaving no money for film stock, coffee, donuts, equipment, the crew or other actors. Hearing silence from my end, he must have sensed the problem. “Tell you what,” he said. “Give me a thousand bucks and I’ll pay my own hotel and plane fare.”
A week later, Borsos informed me that a weather delay had put his shoot in conflict with mine. He had to bow out. I was disappointed and then, strangely, relieved. I pictured myself returning the loan to the bank, and phoning Romanus to tell him it was off.
“You should produce it,” he said.
Me? Was he joking? I didn’t know anything about producing. He shrugged and went back to work. I went out for a walk around the block, mulling it over. What was I afraid of? Doing it, or not doing it? Could I do it? Yes. Possibly. Why not try?
Pre-production was improbably easy. Dianne Neufeld, a TV producer and friend, volunteered to do continuity for the first time. John Holbrook, a camera assistant on Kosygin is Coming, keen on being a cinematographer, kept driving out to Stevenson to assess the dock location. Rob Young agreed to record sound. Borsos pointed me to Paul Tucker, a young energetic production manager and 1st A.D., newly arrived from England, who managed the production like a game-winning quarterback. A few of the crew asked me where the money was coming from. When I told them it was borrowed, no more was said. Crew people have a history of being bilked by producers at least once in their working lives, yet, treated fairly, they’re energetic, trustworthy and a joy to work with.[vii]
The script for Outtakes conveyed few funny lines, the only person who laughed while reading it was the special effects coordinator, John Thomas, so I knew I needed actors who could flesh out the dialogue, who were at their best ‘in the moment’.
I thought of Bill Reiter for the director. His characters were wonderfully pompous, confident and arrogant—running into him at an audition usually resulted in a comic melee. Mac Bradden, briefly bunking on my couch, read the script, and waited a day to be offered a role. Finally he said, “I could play the camera assistant.” He was right and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it. For the actor that Romanus roughs up, an actress friend suggested, “Check out Stephen Miller.” I didn’t know Stephen, and little about Tamahnous, the company he was a member of; but meeting at their rehearsal space to discuss it, I was dumbfounded. He seemed the perfect counterpoint to Romanus.
Richard flew in the day before shooting. In true Hollywood fashion, he brought his psychic, Joan Culpepper, a older woman who bestowed a tempered serenity to all she met. Later, walking along Georgia Street, Romanus asked me what format were we shooting in, 16mm? At the beginning, Borsos had suggested making the film in 35mm wide-screen. even though the equipment and stock were more expensive. He thought it would attract exhibitors—no one was making wide-screen shorts, so Richard was startled when I said 35mm Anamorphic.
Driving my lead actor to the location the next morning, Richard, confronted by the sight of 20 or more crew rushing about, huge Klieg lights being erected, cable and dolly track being laid, a Panavision camera being lifted on to a large dolly, a Winnebago maneuvering into position, and a car being towed from the parking lot, was impressed. I was terrified. “Oh, my god,” I thought, “they’re taking me seriously.”
An hour later, shooting the first closeup, which ran about 2½ minutes, all I was seeing was miles of 35mm stock speeding through the camera. This continued for the first five takes, Romanus and Reiter working hard to keep the dialogue fresh, finding their characters, establishing their relationship. Once I’d managed to forget the cost, I spent those two days trying not to laugh out loud and having the best time of my life.
The second day was just as joyous but, closing in on the final scene, I felt an impending letdown. The two days had been exhilarating, and I wanted to thank everyone, but how? Dinner?
We had $60 left. I told Tucker that if he could front a meal for cast and crew, I would repay him the next day. His said his card was maxxed-out but that he’d try. Minutes later, he returned, telling everyone to meet at Orestes, a local Greek restaurant. At Orestes, Dianne and I ran into the TV director with whom we had worked, sitting at a table for one. She talked about Outtakes and how much fun we’d had. He looked very sad, and I hoped that one day I wouldn’t be sitting in his seat. That evening, with cast and crew gathered around a large table in a semi-private room at Orestes, drinking wine, eating and laughing, we celebrated the creative instinct rum amok.
The next morning, euphorically lifted like an evangelist, I swooped down on my banker to ask for another 5 thousand dollars, using my car as collateral. I must have impressed him because he approved the loan—enough to pay back Tucker, put money down on my lab account, and pay for the titles. That Monday night, the crew watched silent rushes for 2 hours, laughing out loud, remembering the giggles we’d quelled during shooting.[viii] I was amazed at Holbrook’s camera moves, which gave the film fluidity, putting you right beside the characters.
As we began to edit, Stephen Miller’s character, not much on paper, came to life.[ix] Romanus and Reiter—improv provocateurs—were alive every second; all the actors had fleshed out their parts; and, listening to each other, made the characters come alive.
Optical houses in Vancouver were unable to create Anamophoric titles, so I decided to drive to Hollywood, have them shot there, and screen the rough-cut for Romanus. Cruising down Interstate 5, smoking a cigar in the pith helmet that Reiter wore in the film, I was too in love with my sense of omnipotence to realize how precarious my existence was.
The Chalmers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines ‘Hollywood’ as follows:
HOLLYWOOD, hol’i-wood, adj. of or belonging to Hollywood, a suburb of Los Angeles in California, a centre of the American cinema; typical of or resembling films made there, brash and romantic, presenting the image of an affluent or artificial society.
I’d read books and seen movies which attempted to show the real ‘Hollywood’ but, arriving out of the vast agricultural belt along the endless stretch of I-5, rolling over the San Gabriel mountains and down into an infinite horizon of palm trees and bungalows, I was gob-smacked. I’d seen these Technicolor dream fragments in countless movies; but to be enveloped in unbound vistas of American fantasy suburbias flowing seamlessly one into the next, wrapped in an ever-blue, sunny sky, was like entering an hallucinatory time-warp.
I took the ‘Hollywood’ exit off the freeway, drove to a rooftop bar at Sunset and Vine where the friend of a friend worked and, seated amid well-dressed, profluent Americans chatting over after-work drinks, gazed out, mesmerized, at the flat sprawl of Los Angeles.
Cruising in circles near Westwood, hoping to stay with Walchuk, I kept calling from phone booths. No answer. At 2:00 a.m., awake for 36 hours, I booked into an upscale hotel, with no idea of where I was. The next morning pulling back the drapes, I was shoved into a Hollywood dreamscape: sunshine, blue sky, palm trees far into the horizon and, immediately in front of me—close enough almost to touch—a huge shooting stage under an enormous sign on the roof peak, 20th Century Fox. I’d arrived, physically, and metaphorically.
Walchuk gave me the busman’s tour. At Marina Del Rey, I shared a hot tub with two young Jewish producers joylessly smoking big cigars, book-ending a young, nubile, bikinied blonde. Waiting to be seated at Nate & Al’s Deli on Rodeo Drive, I watched Doris Day slip stealthily to the front of the line. Everywhere in Beverly Hills, I noted an inexplicable, haunted expression on people’s faces, which months later someone identified as fear. In a dance club in Newport—with Mercedes, BMW’s and Rolls Royces jammed outside the front door—I was trapped, along with Walchuk and his friend Disco Larry, on a crowded, dimly-lit dance floor, radiant blonde heads bounding up and down like giant shooting stars in a tiny firmament.
That last evening in L.A. at Joe Allen, Romanus asked me, tentatively, why his cheque had bounced (a cross-border banking technicality). I didn’t know it had. He asked if I had enough money for the drive back and I said, “I’m fine, I’ve just had a cheque bounce.” Driving away the next morning, I was sorry to leave, entranced by this whimsical, tawdry never-land whose inhabitants seemed to be trying to crawl inside the fantasy. When I finally read Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, I understood the condition to be endemic, yet the reality of ‘Hollywood’, to me, was less grotesque, infinitely funnier, sad and human.
Editor Jana Fritsch guided me through post-production, and a few weeks later, I returned to L.A. with a finished print of Outtakes. I was eager to be ‘discovered’, and didn’t know that in Hollywood you could die of encouragement. I screened the picture in the old MGM executive building to raucous laughter from Romanus’ friends and relatives. Then, for the next 2 weeks, I ran through more of the bank’s money screening it[x] for Richard’s acquaintances who liked it but had no clout. He and I hung out at Joe Allen[xi]. One Friday, Richard called to invite me for Sunday brunch in Malibu where his girlfriend, Anthea Sylbert, shared a cottage with Marcia Nasitir, a United Artists executive.
On a sunny California Sunday morning on the front deck of a small beach house in Malibu Colony—the surf roaring in just feet away—I had another visceral moment inside the ‘Hollywood’ cliché. I, Romanus, Marcia, Anthea, and another Barry (a plastic surgeon wondering if he should become a producer), nibbled on smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagels and glanced at the Sunday New York Times. I sensed I was being assessed, which of course I was. I did not allude to my film—even I knew that would be gauche.
On Monday, Romanus called to tell me that I could screen Outtakes for Marcia. He had just been fired from Fist, the Sylvester Stallone / Norman Jewison picture (a UA movie)[xii] and was anxious to demonstrate to Marcia that he could act. That Tuesday morning, in an empty screening room at MGM, Marcia Nastir and her young male assistant barely chuckled as Outtakes played. Yet, sitting at the back, I heard guffawing in the projection booth just above me. Marcia offered to send the film to US’s shorts buyer in New York from where, weeks later, the print arrived back in Vancouver with a letter stating that the film was slow to start and, was too long to run with UA films.
For 3 weeks, I drove around gaping at Hollywood, never having seen in a movie what I was seeing, and wondered if I could nail it in a screenplay.
Meanwhile, Borsos, through his distribution company, premiered Outtakes at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and pushed his exhibitor to open it on theatre row. On a warm August Friday night, Outtakes opened for Marty Feldman’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste at the Coronet Theatre on Granville. Standing in line to buy a ticket for the 9:00 o’clock show, I heard the man in front ask a couple coming out from the 7:00 show, “how was it?”. “Not very good,” they said, “but the short was great.” As Borsos and I took seats in the back row in a packed house of 700 patrons, I felt butterflies. After the titles, Mac Bradden shouted out the scene number, clapped the clapperboard and left the frame. Bill Reiter (off-camera) said “Action!” and for the next 35 seconds, the motionless camera stared at a boat aground in a grassy field. Nothing happened, but during those 35 seconds there were 3 enormous laughs. As the film progressed, there was so much laughter half the laugh lines were lost. It didn’t matter. I knew it would bring people back.[xiii]
I was in debt that wet, grey Vancouver winter, without income, house-sitting a friend’s empty apartment in North Vancouver, obsessed about the faux fantasy-land I’d glimpsed. I longed to be seduced again by the sub-tropical lifestyle (the smell of swimming pool chorine in the early morning chill), and by Los Angelians who seemed Chekhovian[xiv]—to be in the middle of it all, writing it down.
Borsos, back in debt, was in post-production on Spartree, but ruminating 0n Bill Miner, an American stagecoach robber. He and I would split a piece of carrot cake at Honey’s, and talk of the films we would make. One of our more absurd ideas was to assemble 7 short films with a connecting narrative into a feature. Financing it one short at a time—having already completed 3—funding it another 4 and the unifying material (we thought) would be a snap. I wrote a script called “The Short Movie”, in which two old New York movie exhibitors argue about which short they’re going to run with a new feature. Not compelling, but one of the short ideas became The Night Before, The Morning After.
In the Spring, after writing TV variety for CBC[xv], and receiving money from the sale of the houseboat, instead of paying back the bank, my mother, the crew or the lab (whose bill was now considerable), in July of 1978, I packed my books and guitar and drove back to L.A.
I rented a cubbyhole in a 1930’s complex of office cottages on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vine. Out front, high on a pedestal, a large, continually revolving globe proclaimed Crossroads of the World. The landlord’s Canadian secretary viewed me suspiciously until I pointed out that I too was Canadian.
I stayed with Walchuk, driving into Hollywood each day to face the typewriter. I made notes; assembled scenes and characters, and read the Hollywood Reporter. I walked along Hollywood Boulevard, past the Hotel Roosevelt, Grauman’s Chinese theatre and the Scientology building, sad and neglected structures with a gaudiness—faded backdrops for the homeless youth arriving daily, trying to sustain their lives on the street.[xvi] Driving Santa Monica Boulevard, I passed through the vibrant ‘gay’ business area, but further east (near Chaplin’s studio), I could view two famous studios from the past, the Samuel Goldwyn and Paramount, reminders of the old Hollywood, besieged by an un-glamorous urban present—barbed wire and broken glass fixed atop the concrete fences. Back in my cubbyhole, I stared at the typewriter, searching for a narrative for what I was seeing.
Walchuk, handsome, charming and infectiously funny, had been adopted by a Beverly Hills clique led by a movie star’s ex-wife, and was often invited to party with ancient movie stars to which, of course, I longed to be invited. I wasn’t, and spent my evenings at rep cinemas and bookstores. Often I would walk into Westwood Village, adjacent to UCLA, noted for having America’s most first-run movie screens (17). Walking the six blocks past 3-storey apartment buildings, I could hear the pecking of typewriters and had no doubt that screenplays were being written. Were they about Hollywood? Were they any good?
I made notes about an actor and his arrival in Hollywood. The actor treats it as a game and is therefore dangerous, because he has nothing to lose. Hearing anecdotes about a paranoid movie star and, remembering Segal’s fear of random violence, I began writing scenes about a volatile leading man. I had two parallel stories. I introduced a low-rent agent to the actor and now I had three stories.
One blue-sky morning, stopped at the light at LaCienega & Santa Monica Blvd., I had a eureka moment—I saw the actor and the movie star in a standoff at the climax, the conflict I needed for the narrative. I worked feverishly (the money was running out) and, rumbling toward the final act, realized that I needed to find someone with clout to read it.
I made contact with a story editor at 20th Century Fox (was my first morning in Hollywood an omen?) and dropped off Outtakes for her to screen. Returning to her tiny office that afternoon, intimidated by the towering piles of screenplays on the desk, filing cabinets and floor, I listened politely to her criticisms of Outtakes which, I explained, was only an introduction; that I hoped she would consider reading my feature screenplay, a black comedy about modern day Hollywood. Gazing at me stoically, she paused and said. “Don’t you feel we have enough movies about Hollywood?”
I was gob-smacked. I had just spent 4 months in a cubbyhole, writing as hard as I could. I was in debt, at the end of all the cash I had in the world, and this woman—this salaried, studio person—instead of applauding Outtakes and offering to help me make my (very funny) Hollywood picture, had just informed me we have enough movies about Hollywood.
Dazed, I thanked her, walked out of her office, down the hall (I thought I could hear Zanuck’s ghost laughing), descended 3 flights of stairs, walked across the parking lot and got into my car. I sat there, numb. Then, realizing that this was what I was writing about, I started laughing.
On my last day, I closed my office, photocopied the screenplay (listening to the young copy clerk tell me he was going to be a producer), borrowed $30 for gas from my friend Lainie across the hall and got ready to leave.
Trying one last time, I turned up in the reception area at an agent’s office—a high-security zone with a small hole in the wall to the inner reception desk. I handed the script through to the receptionist who snatched it up and, hefting it in her hand, cried out, “half an hour too long, it’s half an hour too long.” She then turned to the last page, saw that it was 143 pages, and informed me that “no one in Hollywood reads scripts over 140 pages”. I wondered if I was dumb or if she was crazy. I asked her to read the first 3 pages in which there was a provocative moment. She did. “I’ll read it,” she said. I never heard from her again.
Two nights previously, I’d had a drunken, blubbery call from Borsos in Vancouver. He’d returned from shooting Nails in Cape Cod to discover his live-in girlfriend of 5 years gone. He was distraught. I suggested he fly to L.A. and drive back with me. He mumbled he’d think about it, and hung up.
Not hearing from him, I set off and, 24 hours later, drove into a brisk, sunny December Vancouver morning. I phoned Sandra, who ran his office, and who, the day before, had booked Borsos on a flight to L.A. She cancelled his ticket. Phil, prevented from boarding, phoned his office. I took the phone.
“I’m here, you arsehole,” I said.
“You’re the arsehole,” he replied.
I drove out to the airport, picked him up, we went to a bar and drank, continuing through the holidays, laughing, and cursing those who were holding us back. We came to the realization that if we pooled our resources—he his apartment, me my car—life might be a little easier. I moved into his garret, and slept on the couch beneath his ex-girlfriend’s cat.
Borsos was in love with movies. Growing up in Naramata, a small village on the eastern side of Lake Okanagan, once or twice a week he would zip down the hill on his bicycle to the local movie theatre to see the new picture—no matter what it was.
As a teen in Maple Ridge, Phil had heard the story of Bill Miner committing Canada’s first train robbery nearby in 1904. He wanted to make a movie of it and by late 1978, with few resources, he’d picked some of the locations, begun a conversation with actor Harry Dean Stanton, collected historical background on Miner, and was researching antique train stock.
While my hope was to find someone to produce Hollywood, Borsos hoped to finance and produce any form of the Bill Miner project. He was convinced he wouldn’t be allowed to direct it. I offered to write the screenplay. I would charge him no money, and he would keep food on the table. I didn’t know it, but the next two years of my life were determined.
Each day, beginning in January 1979, we walked the 19 blocks to his downtown office (usually in the rain). I pecked away on his IBM Selectric, while he attended to his distribution business, edited Nails, and wrote hundreds of letters seeking support for The Grey Fox project. At the Public Library, I researched the Miner robberies in the Vancouver Province 1904-1907 microfiche files. There wasn’t much, but what there was, was prime—verbatim conversations from the holdups, reportage of the posse chases and eventual capture.
In that long first draft, with input from Borsos, there were too many characters and locations for the financing that might be available, but essentially the story told itself: aging stagecoach robber—the American bandit who coined ‘hands up’—released after 20 years in San Quentin, heads north to BC, commits Canada’s first train robbery, attempts another robbery 18 months later, is caught, tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in the British Columbia Penitentiary. Convincing the Deputy Warden’s daughter that he has reformed, a year later, he escapes. The Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) didn’t like the script, but, we assumed, the Borsos name was now on a ‘to be watched’ list.
One day that Spring, a young courier poked her head through the office door, pointed at the photo of Bill Miner on the wall and announced, “My grandfather knew him.” Borsos and I stared at her, then carefully asked if her grandfather was still alive. When she said yes, we, containing our excitement, casually expressed an interest in meeting him. She made a phone call and on the following Saturday we drove out to Richmond where her granddad, in his 80’s, lived in a small bungalow. A sweet man, he had bought a small bottle of rye in honour of the occasion.
He had met Miner through his father, a rancher. Miner had liked him (he was probably around 6 years old), and at one point they had walked ten miles from his father’s ranch into Kamloops. Miner, for reasons the boy couldn’t fathom at the time, saw a $50 saddle in a store window and offered to buy it for him. $50 was a lot of money, and the boy felt somehow it wasn’t right and kept refusing. Miner, he remembered, had been disappointed. When the outlaw was eventually captured, the boy’s father surmised that buying the saddle was likely a cover for Miner to spend some of his robbery money. The old man also remembered watching Miner and two men near his father’s ranch house, shooting horseflies on the end of a log. Neither incident made it into The Grey Fox. What Borsos shot instead were two scenes with Farnsworth giving a boy an apple, and the boy giving Farnsworth an apple as he’s put on the train to the penitentiary—scenes which have Disneyesque[xvii] feel, not resembling the Bill Miner the old man had spoken of.
In January 1979, I applied for a Canada Council (CC) Grant to make a documentary short of Les Wedman, the Vancouver Sun film critic. The film, an idea from The Short Movie, seemed a useful way to generate money. Having turned down Outtakes (nominated for Best Theatrical Short), the CC awarded the project $10,000. Wedman, however, decided not to expose himself to us (no fool he), so I hurriedly submitted The Night Before The Morning After, the CC gave it the okay, and Borsos produced it, running the $10,000 through his bank to keep his overdraft healthy.
We shot The Night Before, The Morning After in 2 days in February 1979 with Andrew Gillies and Tina Romanus, but couldn’t afford to print the negative. There were clear images on the negative, we just didn’t know if they were cinematic. A month later, before taking a jaunt to Los Angeles, not yet able to afford an editor, we screened the footage silently, relieved that it looked like a real film.[xviii]
In Hollywood, sitting across from Harry Dean Stanton in a coffeeshop on Mulhulland Drive, I was aware of how much Stanton resembled Bill Miner, giving off a latent quirkiness that fit with what we knew about the outlaw. He also had a dry wit. Having observed that Mercedes sports coupes (450SL) in L.A. were driven mostly by young blonde women, I pointed to a blonde in one in the parking lot, and shared my observation. Glancing at her, Harry Dean said, “yeah, I wonder where they get them?”
We screened our shorts for Stanton. Richard Romanus had also been invited and he and Harry Dean swapped actors’ gossip. Watching Harry Dean watch Borsos, he seemed to be evaluating Phil, possibly wondering how real he might be. Borsos, however, wasn’t putting all his Bill Miners in one basket. Around that time, Sandra Gould opened the mail one morning to find a letter from Paul Newman turning down the project.
On a warm, rain-fresh Vancouver evening, Borsos and I sped up Arbutus Street with the sunroof down and all the windows open. The fragrance of cherry blossoms filled the car, adding to our expansive mood. After years of dreaming about the Miner project, Phil now had a screenplay and was about to meet someone with the talent and knowledge to art-direct his film. He was quiet, which meant he was either brooding or excited. I suspected he was excited—when he brooded his eyebrows converged.
Keith Pepper greeted us at the door of the small cottage, rented from friends in the mansion up the hill. Buried in the rain-drenched overgrowth, his abode sat at the bottom of the sloping lot, beyond which we could hear the hum of uphill traffic on Arbutus. The two-room hideaway was heated by an oil-fired cook store and filled with the clutter of Pepper’s life: sketches and watercolors of the B.C. landscape tacked up on the walls; photos and clippings from his acting career; and curios and, everywhere else, bric-a-brac from movie sets, junk and antique stores.
I could see that Pepper, in his artist’s lair, with his plumy English actor’s accent, impressed Borsos. Throughout his childhood, Phil’s father Julius, a high school art teacher, had talked to him endlessly of art, so Borsos seemed almost reverent in Pepper’s presence, even though his prospective art director had been imbibing. I had watched Pepper at work on two movies, and when I’d mentioned The Grey Fox, Keith had smiled knowingly. He’d worked in big American movie art departments (i.e. set dresser); or acted as co- or assistant art director on a Disney movie and Kosygin Is Coming, yet his only credit as sole art director had come on a low-budget horror film, featuring Christopher Lee.[xix]
Pepper offered us beers and, having read the script, expounded on life in British Columbia in the early Edwardian Age. He understood the immigrant’s hopes and fears—he was one—and related how immigrants from the British Isles and Europe, struggling to find new lives, were awestruck by the immense landscape, and sought comfort in those everyday items (clothing, utensils, songs) brought from their homelands. Pepper—describing what Borsos wasn’t able to articulate himself—talked of the look, the smell, the visual panorama of life in British Columbia at beginning of the 20th Century.
Borsos was buzzed now. It didn’t take much. Failing a course at the Banff Film School (a story he related happily after Cooperage and Spartree won awards), hadn’t stopped him. He would see 2 or 3 movies a week, absorbing everything about them (cinematography, production, marketing), once insisting I line up with him at noon to see the very first screening of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones. I’ve never liked lining up, or the Indiana Jones franchise (re-making 1930’s ‘B’ movies seems sophomoric), but Phil took it all in, constantly looking for the way to punch through.
Money, which Borsos was always sniffing for, was the key. One afternoon, he phoned the garret, cryptically asking me to come to the office. When I arrived, he introduced me to two men who looked like, and turned out to be, Quebec loggers named Bourassa, claiming to be distantly related to the then premier. I don’t know how he had met them, but Phil screened Spartree for them then we took them to a Chinese restaurant. The Bourassas, boasting about various start-ups that would make them rich (i.e. shipping fresh B.C. water by tanker to 3rd world countries), gave us the impression of being entrepreneurs loaded with cash, and potential movie angels, until Phil pulled out his credit card and one of the brothers asked to borrow money.
Weeks later, Borsos called the apartment to tell me that he was screening Spartree and Outtakes for a well-known Toronto journalist. I joined them, discouraged to note that the journalist, arranging a date on the phone with his boyfriend, wasn’t even watching the films.
Convinced that no one would let him direct his Bill Miner film, Phil, in the summer of ’79, decided to hire a name director, flying to London to meet with Jan Troll (The Emigrants) whose pictures he admired. Screening his films for Troll, along with Outtakes, the Swedish director surprised him by saying, “why do you need me, when you obviously have good directors in Canada?” On the way home, Phil took a side trip to Paris to see if it might be possible to shoot The Grey Fox ending there.
In August of 79, I was in London when Borsos called to ask me if I would co-produce The Grey Fox with him. He hadn’t as yet allowed himself to think that he would be allowed to direct it. I said yes.
That fall, I was invited to the first screening of Nails with the newly-composed score. The film began, without music, on a blacksmith on a forge in an Massachusetts historical village, hand-making each nail, Abruptly, the film cut to a modern nail factory. Over shots of the whirling, spinning, frenetic nail-making machines, Michael Conway Baker had composed a bombastic score for a small chamber group, which sounded to me much like the theme from Dragnet.
Our ‘executive producer’ now entered from stage left and right. Attracted to money and talent, possessing little of either, David Brady, always attired in a sports coat, slacks and tie, resembled Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) on speed. He was energetic and effusive, praising all he met, in hopes of preventing people from finding out how little he knew. He seemed to have no core to his being, nothing to moderate his intense desperation to be part of something. At our investor presentations (‘dog & pony’ shows), we would screen clips of Spartree. Cooperage and Outtakes, and David, with much hyperbole and no guile, would admit to the free-lunch brokers that “this was most amazing investor’s meeting he’d ever attended”.
Borsos was interested in Brady because David did know people,[xx] and David did connect Phil to three stockbrokers who were getting rich in a booming market.[xxi] The three brokers, having bought new cars, boats, booze and drugs, decided to buy a piece of Mercury Pictures, and Phil’s life changed. The formerly debt-ridden movie maker now had cash in hand, a new stereo, his credit card paid off and a larger overdraft at the bank, which led Borsos to accept Brady’s offer to raise the money for The Grey Fox. Imprudently, however, Phil made him the Executive Producer. Within days, Brady had rented the office next to Phil’s and moved in.
In November 1979, Borsos, offered an observer position by the CFDC on a film-boom movie, met the line producer for drinks and formed a mutual admiration society. Peter O’Brian had admired Cooperage and Spartree; while Borsos was impressed with O’Brian’s solid reputation with the CFDC. When O’Brian quit the film-boom picture shortly thereafter, he contacted Phil and started asking about The Grey Fox.
O’Brian flew back out to Vancouver in January ‘80, to see if Brady and the money guys were real. Buttressed by a private school education, O’Brian exuded a middle-class demeanour which reassured investors, studio heads and government bureaucrats. He excelled at paperwork and, fronted by an all-purpose smile, was out-going and pleasant. O’Brian had worked in various production departments, even producing some low-budget pictures. Currently, he was developing a hostage movie which he intended to produce that Fall, the same time Borsos wanted to shoot The Grey Fox. O’Brian suggested we make the two films together, suggesting shooting one in late summer and one immediately following. Assuming that financing on both could be secured—far from likely—shooting two films back to back would be an impossible slog. All of us, however, were desperate to make something, and agreed that both projects were worth pursuing.
On a chilly 1980 February morning, Borsos telephoned me in a whisper at the garret. He said he had just phoned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to find out if Nails had been nominated for an Oscar. It had, for Best Documentary Short.[xxii] He had then casually asked his secretary (in addition to Sandra he now employed a secretary) to call the Academy. On getting the news, the secretary was beside herself, and both women and Phil, or so I pictured, spent the morning jumping up and down. Abruptly, Borsos acquired cachet with everyone, but especially with the CFDC. He had been blessed—anointed—by the Academy, and the madness began[xxiii].
In late March, Borsos and I flew to Toronto for the Genie Awards—both Nails and The Night Before, The Morning After had been nominated—and early that week we met with O’Brian for breakfast. I was disturbed to discover that O’Brian still thought it possible to make both films that year. Privately, Phil and I had agreed that it would be difficult to make just one, and hoped that O’Brian, key to CFDC involvement, would work it out for himself. Like a dog gnawing on a bone, O’Brian kept worrying the question, should we or shouldn’t we? Fortunately, intelligence prevailed, and gradually he focused his attention on The Grey Fox, which is, no doubt, what Phil knew would happen.
When the Globe & Mail requested a photo of Borsos for a story on his Oscar nomination, O’Brian directed us to a photographer in a back alley off Yonge Street. Borsos sat on a stool and the photographer stared at him through his lens. He then took Phil to the washroom, powdered his nose then quickly ran off a roll of black & white, from which came the perennial Borsos head shot, still used 35 years later. The Globe ran the story under the header of a Phil quote, “If I can see one moment, I can make the film work”. When shooting the picture, away from the Borsos-induced chaos on set, O’Brian and I retained our sanity by amusing ourselves at Phil’s expense; O’Brian once reminding me of the quote and joking, “No Phil, you need to see many moments to make the film work.” Oddly enough, that comment summed up Phil’s Achilles heel.
In April of 1980, Borsos arranged to have the BC Film Office fly him, Brady and me on the government jet to Cranbrook, be chauffeured by car to Fort Steele, a recreated turn-of-the-century town (which Borsos had already photographed), jet us to Kamloops, where we changed to a prop plane, touching down at the Woodward’s ranch, to say howdy to the cowboys, propping our way back to Kamloops, and finally jetting home. Accessing the government jet was Phil’s way of reminding everyone that he was ready to direct his picture.
In April, we rented a large Point Grey house from an art professor who was off to Italy. The house served as our base (and O’Brian’s hotel), paid for by The Grey Fox production. Cosseted now with his support team, Phil bore down on his epic.
He and I had hired Les Wedman to represent The Grey Fox at the Cannes Film Festival which Wedman would be covering as the Sun film critic. O’Brian flew out from Toronto to suggest that we not have Wedman represent the film at Cannes (I don’t remember the reason he gave), and he and I met with Wedman. Affably, O’Brian proceeded to explain ‘our situation’, which I hadn’t understood but which I could see was making Wedman uncomfortable. He got up and left. I was confused and asked O’Brian, “Did we just fire him?” O’Brian nodded, and I understood why he had a degree in Communications.
O’Brian then hired a Toronto PR flack to sketch out some ideas for the brochure to send to Cannes. Two days later, he, Borsos and I drove out to the airport to receive the package which came by express courier (why movies cost a lot of money). Opening it, we found sheets of pencil-sketched, Hollywood cowboy motifs, utilizing every cowboy movie cliché, completely at odds with what Borsos and Pepper envisioned. Dropping off O’Brian at the house, Phil and I drove to the office and, using the original photos of Miner and the posse, and a brief synopsis, created The Grey Fox brochure, Borsos coming up with the cut line, “In 1901, after 20 years in San Quentin, Bill Miner was released into the 20th Century.”
Having a brochure at Cannes and an ad in Variety (a photo of Bill Miner’s face) resulted in a single phone call from a Hollywood distributor who opened the conversation with “So who is this Grey Fox anyway?” To which Phil inadvertently replied, “well, he’s one of you, an American bandit.”
As the process coalesced, Borsos worked on his ‘persona’. Arthur Miller once observed that everyone in life is acting, some more than others. During the spring of 1979, my ex-band-mate, John Owen told me that Borsos had spotted him and his wife through the window of a French bistro, gone in and started chatting at them. “He was doing your act,” Owen remembered, meaning that Phil had been trying out parts of my personality, working out which traits, if any, might help him create ‘Phillip Borsos’. He was in awe of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick[xxiv]. Spielberg and Kubrick, however, understood narrative. Phil was unable to articulate what he wanted from a story idea, and had little idea of how to string incidents and character into a narrative, but understood the big effect. He also didn’t, it seemed to me, have anything to say.
I once had a disagreement with Phil and Eugene Beck, a TV commercial director friend (who’d recommended Frank Tidy as cinematographer and Wayne Robson as Shorty). Both Borsos and Beck had insisted that commercials could be art. I later heard Milton Glaser quote Horace, “art was something which delights and informs”, but added that, “advertising persuades”. It has never been possible, I believe, to say anything profound about the human condition while selling soap, yet Borsos had no qualms about commercial work. At his memorial, I was surprised when a commercial producer told me that Phil had found shooting TV ads depressing, and had once told a client that they wouldn’t hire him because he was too edgy, which, ironically, got him the job. Phil’s success as a commercial director came because he understood how to produce the big effect (i.e. his B.C. Ministry of Forests fire prevention commercial).
The big effect was what he wanted. While Jack Darcus and I were writing the 3rd draft, Borsos insisted on including a scene with Horses Going Over A Cliff. Asked why—there no horses going over cliffs in the real Bill Miner story—he could give no reason, but could visualize the effect it would have on an audience (was he re-imagining Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid?).
In the late Spring of 1980, O’Brian brought in John Hunter to write the next draft. Hunter was, in his own mind, a writer’s writer, writing on a portable typewriter, sitting in his imitation Eames chair. Hunter had started in advertising, but slipped into movies with a screenplay for a low-budget CFDC-financed feature made in the early 1970’s. Hunter knew, and shared a movie simpatico with O’Brian, as well as CFDC approval, having built a reputation as a ‘polish’ writer on financially-successful Canadian movies such as Prom Night, and eagerly fashioned his award-winning Grey Fox ‘western’ screenplay, replete wily cowboy dialogue.[xxv]
Before Hunter arrived, the script had gone through three other writers (four including me), one of whom had obliged Borsos by writing in the Horses Going Over A Cliff scene. Borsos was determined to have it, so the scene was left in, dangling, until Hunter connected it to a plot.
Astonishingly, the Oscar nomination, having created an aura around Borsos, allowed him, with no dramatic experience, to direct actors. No one questioned his ability to do this, because the momentum was all on his side. That summer, he and I made casting trips to Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto—Phil insisting that he see every actor in the country. We might have missed a few, but we encountered many, many male actors, to each of whom I asked: What have you done lately, can you ride a horse; can you fire a gun? The actors would glance at Borsos silently watching them and say yes. Tom Heaton had responded, “I can roll a cigarette at a gallop”, and Phil astutely cast him as Miner’s brother-in-law, in a dinner scene requiring neither gun nor horse.
Years later, in a newspaper clipping, I noted that Richard Farnsworth had said that Borsos had left him alone. I took that to mean that Phil didn’t know what to say to him, Farnsworth was not his first choice. A few weeks before preproduction, the actor he’d hoped for, Harry Dean Stanton, called Phil to tell him he’d decided to take a role in One From the Heart by Francis Ford Coppola (another Borsos hero), shooting at the same time. Hunter and O’Brian flew with Borsos to L.A. but failed to prevent Harry Dean from leaving us, and Mr. Coppola, having stolen our actor, opened his casting department to us.
Back from Hollywood, Hunter showed me an 8×10 of Farnsworth who vaguely resembled Bill Miner. That night, we screened Comes a Horseman, and although Farnsworth’s performance suggested he could carry the movie, he wouldn’t have the quirkiness of Harry Dean. On the drive home, Borsos, wanting to nail it down, asked me if I thought Farnsworth would work, and I told him yes, and that audiences would probably like his laconic presence, an advantage Harry Dean might not have.
In late July 1980, prep on The Grey Fox began. O’Brian brought John Board out from Toronto as 1st assistant director, and each morning, John led Phil to his meetings, starting at the house with a storyboard artist. The storyboards, elaborate visual references of the train robbery sequences, allowed Phil to control the dramatic effect of these scenes. During shooting, however, hemmed in by money constraints, he filmed the hold-ups in single long dolly shots which worked much better.[xxvi] I always remember those storyboards when I read in various film publications and academic monographs about the Borsos ‘vision’.
John Board, much underrated as a creative force[xxvii], spent his afternoons in the production office telephoning all over North America to find period rail cars and engines that might still be functioning, and coordinating their transport to B.C.. The cars weren’t antique enough, so Phil insisted that the art department put wooden siding over the metal. As it happened, we shared train stock, and costs, with Harry Tracy, Train Robber, a movie shooting in B.C. that fall. Sitting in on a cost meeting, I watched Paul Tucker, our production manager, and Al Simmons, their production manager, haggle over expense. Tucker—energetic, loyal to Borsos—explained that Phil insisted the train cars look authentic. Simmons, who wasn’t keen on the expense, pointed out to Tucker that his director wasn’t shooting the train, just the guy who gets off it. I doubt if the wooden siding was used (no time or money), but no one commented on the authenticity of the railcars.
The robberies were committed at night, so it wasn’t necessary, as O’Brian later pointed out, to go deep into the B.C. wilderness to film them in the dark. Finding a dark section of track near the city, we could have avoided taking the crew away from their beds. Much of what drove Borsos, however—and allowed him eventually to punch through—was his insistence on playing the game at a level higher than anyone expected (even if it seemed insane or too expensive).
It’s difficult making a film with little or no money, even though it’s usually the only way to get the art past the money guys. Phil had the extraordinary idea that money bought art; money enabled the film artist to create his or her vision, an idea that ignores those innovative movie moments when filmmakers find cost-free ways past the problems.[xxviii] Many ascendant films have been shot for little (or no) money, and too many tedious, bloated movies, costing astronomical amounts—with too little art—have been foisted upon the public. As a director, if you tie yourself to money, you let thugs drive your vision.
By 1980, the 100% tax write-off method of financing movies, used by predatory promoters (metamorphosing into producers), was considered a failure. These ‘producers’ had finagled investors to put their money into a slew of overly-budgeted, badly written-acted-directed pictures which went straight to video then vanished. O’Brian understood that the law was about to change, and that The Grey Fox might be anyone’s last chance to utilize the CCA. Our lawyer, Chalmers Adams, wrote up our prospectus[xxix], and we left it in the hands of David Brady—our executive producer—and our brokers. This was in August, shooting beginning in September.
In the meantime, the brokers who had invested in Phil’s company, and were still making scads of money, and weary of all their new cars, houses, boats, drugs and booze, wanted to hang out with their very own Oscar nominee. Borsos occasionally felt obliged to see them, and was astonished to find himself one afternoon roaring around English Bay on a powerboat, powdering his nose while Deep Throat played on the VCR.
The Stock Issue Offering (at $3,450,000), supposed to close just before we started shooting, didn’t—Mr. Brady and the brokers were asleep. Not all units were sold; so all monies would be returned to investors. If we wanted to shoot the picture, we’d have to start again with a new Issue. Returning to Vancouver (the non-closing occurred in Toronto) to shut the picture down, O’Brian decided with Borsos to start shooting anyway—which, 36 years later, still seems to me audacious and courageous.
O’Brian then informed me that he and Borsos wanted Pepper fired—a new art director was flying out from Toronto as we spoke. For days, I’d heard rumblings from O’Brian, the most scathing being that Pepper wanted to build Borsos a model of Fort Steele. O’Brian had sneeringly repeated this information to me, suggesting Pepper had ‘lost it’; and told me that when he’d phoned Pepper at home in the evening, he sounded as though he’d been drinking (what a scandal!) I realized I was expected to wield the hatchet, and assumed that O’Brian and Borsos knew what they were doing. Late in the afternoon, I took Keith for beers at a tavern up the street, and delivered the news. I felt as though I had stabbed him. There wasn’t much to say and, in an acute state of angst, embarrassment and confusion, he abruptly left the bar emotionally and psychologically whacked.
Two and half years later when the picture was released to acclaim, I spoke with David Willson, the assistant art director on The Grey Fox, who’d worked closely with Keith, and who told me, “Pepper didn’t need to leave the picture.” Willson (subsequently a successful production designer and producer) would have known if Pepper was screwing up. Why then, was Pepper fired? And why did he suggest that he build Borsos a model of Fort Steele? He was not a stupid man, nor an untalented one. Looking at the finished film, the viewer really has no geographical fix on the town, nor was the cinematic use of it terribly imaginative. Did Pepper’s suggestion of building a model play into Phil’s insecurities? Given what Pepper had brought to the picture already, one wonders what O’Brian and Borsos could have been thinking (especially adding the cost of a new art director).
As we began shooting, I would see either O’Brian or Hunter, occasionally both, standing beside Borsos on set. They reminded me of ‘smiling Iagos’, conferring with Phil, keeping an eye on the shooting. The only scene in the movie not written by Hunter or directly from source (i.e. The Vancouver Province 1904-07), was the Miner-Shorty on the tracks scene. Hunter told me later that he and O’Brian hadn’t been on set when it was shot, and was dismissive of the fact that the two actors had ad-libbed it. Why then did Borsos shoot it? He must have felt a need to. The scene seemed self-conscious to me but, with the Shortly-Miner relationship so central to the picture, shooting it must have come from Phil’s instinct to flesh out Hunter’s screenplay.
In September, we’d begun shooting on a small train line, and at oyster beds, near Burlington, Washington. After filming for a week in the lower Fraser Valley, the crew boarded a work train to travel up the Canyon to shoot the train robberies and record the infamous Horses Going Over A Cliff scene.
O’Brian and I drove up the Trans Canada from Vancouver to meet the unit near Lillooet. By the time we got there, the Horses Going Over A Cliff scene had been completed. A horse had been hit by the train and had to be put down. The crew, housed in dingy, boxlike, worker’s dorms on flatbed railcars, were being fed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, and were about to mutiny. While O’Brian was dealing with the union agent to undo train company malfeasance, I was at a pay phone, beside the Trans Canada highway in the middle of nowhere, being yelled at by Hollywood agents.
The unit then flew to Cranbrook for shooting in Fort Steele. A few days later, Pure Escape, a James Garner movie in production in Lethbridge, Alberta, shut down, the unit scrambling to get out of town, leaving huge debts behind. This news arrived in Cranbrook, and the local merchants began wondering whether to keep extending us credit. Did we or didn’t we have the money? We didn’t, but didn’t tell them that; we kept shooting.
Movies evolve through a complex series of interrelated actions. Move one element and others change. When Farnsworth was cast, John Ireland (the faded star cast as Jack Budd—Miner’s old pal) abruptly decided not to do the picture. Was it because we didn’t cast him as Bill Miner? Our casting director, Claire Walker, having once done Dabney Coleman a favour, was able to cast him as Budd, but when the Issue didn’t close, we were unable to get Dabney’s $30,000 fee to his agent in advance. Low-rent agents love to yell on the phone, and Agent Ron gleefully accused me of ‘defaulting’. Claire persuaded Agent Ron to let Dabney do the picture if we got the money to him before the Dabber got on the plane. Farnsworth’s agent (‘Greenie’, formerly Romanus’s agent) yelled at me because Farnsworth, noting Frank Tidy’s stunning cinematography, now wanted a piece of the picture, which Greenie hadn’t negotiated.
Meanwhile, O’Brian kept stoking the brokers’ guilt to induce them to provide enough cash to keep shooting. Two days before Dabney was to start, one of the brokers supplied a $30,000 bank draft which I was fly to LA on the Sunday night, bringing Dabney back on the Monday for shooting on the Tuesday.
I’d noticed a young man on set with a trim moustache and slicked black hair, who seemed to be following the unit. A pilot, he was about to fly his own plane back to Vancouver. As I had to catch a L.A. flight from there, I found myself in his six-seater, single prop, along with Peter O’Brian, David Brady and two others. We flew out of Cranbrook, at 12,000 feet just above the Rocky mountains. Someone lit a joint, and we all took a puff (except the pilot), and gazed wondrously at the majestic, moonlit, snow-capped mountains just below us.
I arrived in Los Angeles Sunday afternoon in 80° F sunshine, wearing my only suit—tweed. I’d assumed I’d be there just overnight. I had little cash, but carried an American Express credit card belonging to one of the brokers. I checked in at the Holiday Inn in Beverly Hills (recommended by John Owen as cheap, clean and convenient) and called Agent Ron to let him know I’d arrived. Oddly enough, he asked where I was staying.
The next morning I walked to the agency a few blocks away. I found Agent Ron in his large office, in a corner of which a young man sat at a tiny desk, hunched over a telephone, ensuring others were on the line before Agent Ron picked up. I handed Agent Ron the bank draft. He examined it thoroughly, pretending not to have seen one before. He then phoned his bank manager to find out if a $30,000 Canadian bank draft was considered legal tender, had it couriered to the bank, and then phoned Dabney.
As I listened to Agent Ron’s end of the conversation, I began to realize that Dabney had no intention of leaving L.A. Finally, Agent Ron hung up. “Dabney,” he said, “just doesn’t feel right about it.” I was dumbfounded. I didn’t ask why. Probably I should have. Possibly, they expected me to start shouting. I didn’t. If I had been a real producer, I might have yelled to get their attention, but I was too stupefied. What was going on?
I wondered what to do next. Agent Ron had our bank draft, so I asked for his client list which I telephoned to O’Brian and Hunter who were on the mobile phone in the camera truck in an alpine meadow, watching Borsos shoot the Miner-meets-Kate scene. I asked them for names, and to courier scripts to me immediately. I bought a copy of the Academy Players (a voluminous catalogue of Hollywood actors), and spent two days going through it, making lists of potential Dabney replacements, and waiting for the phone to ring. I ate all my meals at the hotel, which I signed for. I remained in the air-conditioned hotel in my tweed suit, staring out the window at sun-drenched L.A., cursing everyone responsible for my being there, but most especially the executive producer. I reached a low point when Romanus’ ex-wife came by with a young director who set up a projector to screen the fairy tale student film they’d just shot.
When the scripts arrived, Agent Ron contacted the two actors approved by the smiling Iagos. By Thursday, the hotel manager had begun wondering why the name on the credit card didn’t match the one in the hotel register. I spent an hour in his office explaining my situation. He stared at me skeptically, but had little hope to see the bill settled other than to let me stay on.
Agent Ron then let me know his two actors weren’t interested. I retrieved the bank draft, and contacted two other agents who represented faded Hollywood stars. By Sunday morning when last one had said no, I knew something was out of whack. All the agents had agreed that $30,000 for a week was good money. What was amiss? I phoned O’Brian who contacted Claire Walker who cast a Canadian actor, and who represented, to me, most of the sad ‘acting’ in the movie.
Much later, in a moment of insight, I understood why Dabney and the other actors wanted no part of our movie. I was staying at the wrong hotel. Literal Hollywood is a town in which everything depends on appearance. A goofy Canadian in a tweed suit in 80° weather, staying at the Holiday Inn—not taking the actors or agents for expensive lunches—clearly wasn’t a real producer. For them, immediately sussing out which hotel you were at was imperative. Staying at the Holiday Inn—and not the Beverly Wilshire—indicated that your movie was probably half-arsed, which might affect the actor’s comfort zone, or reputation. Yet again, another example of how those who toil in the ‘Hollywood’ movie trade are not the sharpest tools in the shed (possibly not even in the shed).
I flew back to Cranbrook for the remainder of the “Kamloops” scenes which, when completed, allowed us to vacate the town. After shooting for another week around Vancouver, the picture wrapped, leaving Borsos and a second-unit crew to roam the countryside, grabbing beauty shots.
The Grey Fox wrap party was joyless. I’d expected a gathering like Outtakes, but booked into a large nightclub with the crew awkwardly dressed up, the food mundane; the band pedestrian, and camaraderie fragmented (dissensions still persistent among some crew) I found it depressing, especially the line of men and women waiting outside the women’s washroom to powder their noses. Also bizarre were the number of exclusive and separate, production department wrap parties (office staff, the second unit, etc.) which followed. In early December, I took refuge in the house, my involvement on The Grey Fox pretty much over, my friends, Owen and Yazzolino, arriving on the doorstep on December 8th, just after I heard the news of John Lennon’s assassination. The music had died.
O’Brian had Chalmers issue a new prospectus, and worked hard to close it. Our benevolent creditors (the hotel manager from Cranbrook, the Panavision rep, etc.) waited patiently in the hall outside the Mercury office, and all smiled with visible relief when finally presented with cheques. In order to close the issue, however, the above-the-line personnel (Borsos, O’Brian, Brady, Hunter and myself) had to take down our salaries in units. So instead of a paying off Outtakes and taking a trip to Ireland, I now owned 9 units in The Grey Fox.
Phil had the editing suite installed down the hall from the Mercury office for Ray Hall, who had edited two of Phil’s award-winning shorts. Editing as we began shooting. Hall becoming quite demented trying to assemble the first interior train sequence, a conversation between Miner and a travelling salesman. Matching medium closeups and closeups on the two actors on a moving train as the dappled sunlight constantly shifted, while trying to snip out the best performance moments, would have tried any editor. Hall left and his editing partner, Frank Irvine, took over. Having worked at CBC-TV Drama, Frank was keen to get his hands on a feature, and when I stopped by the edit room, he would run a newly cut sequence on the Steenbeck.
One day, I found him glum. He was having difficulty with the trial sequence. After he ran it, I asked him why he hadn’t used the mug shots. He looked at me strangely, then rummaged through the shot list and footage. A day later he ran the sequence again—now including the shots of Miner, Shorty and Louis being photographed by Kate. Kate was the movie version of Mary Spencer, one of the few women photographers in North America at the time, who’d photographed Miner’s capture in Kamloops in 1906, the very photos which had inspired Phil to make the movie.
By the end of May ’81, viewing the footage over and over, Borsos decided to add a scene. We flew in Farnsworth and Tidy for the day, hired a skeleton crew, and shot Bill Miner, startled, enthralled and inspired, seeing his first movie, The Great Train Robbery.[xxx] To avoid being on set, O’Brian and I hid out in a downtown movie theatre, at a showing of Prom Night.
By August 1981, Borsos had a ‘fine’ cut which O’Brian, Hunter and I viewed. The first two thirds of the movie were slow and awkward; but after the last robbery, Borsos took us inside Miner’s head: Chieftains music over Miner, Shorty, and Louis escaping through the B.C. wilderness, inter-cut with shots from The Great Train Robbery, finally with Miner standing by a tree at night over a sleeping Shorty and Louie, visualizing his coming capture. I was surprised and touched. O’Brian and Hunter, however, weren’t smiling, and over the next year, with more trimming of scenes, that sequence was shortened and the full effect lost.
Later that year, O’Brian found someone to buy our shares and, flush with cash, I paid off Outtakes, four years after shooting it. Needless to say, the crew and lab were both stunned. So was I.
As of this writing, it’s been 36 years since we shot The Grey Fox.
Released 1983, it created a mild buzz in the industry, at theatres in Toronto, Vancouver and L.A., and (along with his Oscar nomination) lifted Borsos into that rarified group of ‘coming’ Hollywood film directors. He acquired an agent at a powerful Hollywood agency, and was offered screenplays to direct.[xxxi] The Grey Fox had a limited release and moderate success in America. In Canada, it won seven Genie Awards and put O’Brian and Borsos at the top of the bankable list of Canadian moviemakers. It was reviewed by Pauline Kael. It made the top ten list of Canadian movies for a few years. There was a VHS video made, and, apparently, a bootleg DVD is available on the internet.
Over time, I’ve been invited to Grey Fox screenings. Watching it I find painful. For all its slickness, to me the movie is messy, incomplete and dishonest. When I suggest that, beyond its technical achievements (cinematography, sound, editing, etc.) and 3 good performances, it’s not a great movie, the reaction is immediate and vociferous. I’m accused of being cynical.[xxxii]
Why do others think it’s a great movie? And why do they feel that, by being critical (‘rigorously discriminating’), I’m pissing on their parade? I’m not saying The Grey Fox is a bad movie; I want to understand why it isn’t a great one—why it doesn’t nail you to your seat. It was a worthy effort. The indignation comes, I suspect, from those who believe that they will never again have the opportunity to be part of something with as much impact; or work with someone as dynamic as Borsos.
It’s easy to love Frank Tidy’s cinematography[xxxiii] and the film’s ‘look’ which came from Phil and Keith Pepper. Of all those on the production—including Borsos—Pepper was the most knowledgeable about the early emigrants, and the effect the endlessly stunning—and harsh—landscape had upon them. All the technical tasks (grip, gaffer, sound, editor, etc.) were expertly performed. The star, Farnsworth, had presence (you don’t spend 40 years watching stars in front of the camera without learning about presence), but I was never touched by his Miner. Farnsworth’s screen persona was, I suspect, the opposite to what Stanton (full of desperate cunning) might have delivered. Farnsworth charms us, and makes us chuckle, but that’s all.[xxxiv]
During its making, I was baffled when actors would tell me what a good director Phil was. He was not easy in their presence, cagey, rarely speaking with them. Borsos had only begun to understand about casting (Robson and Heaton). Most directors cast to type, but smart directors are lazy, casting actors who have an unusual fix on the role,[xxxv] then letting them get on with it, hoping that the juxtaposition of unusual performances will transmit kinetic energy to the screen. Good directors watch and listen to ensure that the actors remain within the boundaries of believability. It also helps if the director has been a performer (i.e. Mike Nichols with The Graduate).
I had suggested that Borsos take an acting class prior to shooting, but he wasn’t keen, so his first real experience of directing actors was on the set of a four million dollar movie. He didn’t know how to reassure, inspire, or simply talk to Jackie Burroughs, the leading lady, so she was directed (off-set) by John Hunter. Given her erratic performance as Kate—fussy, fidgety, clichéd (one critic described it as “controlled hysteria”)—one wonders what was Hunter telling her, or whom Ms. Burroughs thought she was portraying. Every scene featuring Ms. Burroughs is permeated with actress anxiety, as she drifts ambivalently into scenes, a parody of an independent woman. Borsos was leery of sentimentality, yet shot the romantic montage according to Hunter’s simplistic script, which seems to suggest that seniors, even a century ago, had movie sex. What we don’t get is a realistic enactment of Miner’s relationship with women.
Wayne Robson contributes the only centered performance with his portrayal of Shorty Dunn. Robson inhabits Dunn’s hapless character with confidence and glee, like an actor finding the role of a lifetime. His was not the real Dunn (who was, apparently, vicious), but Robson’s Shorty has vulnerability, humour and pathos. The moment before the final robbery when Shorty realizes that ‘George Edwards’ (Farnsworth) is the famous stagecoach robber Bill Miner, and states in awe, embarrassment and respect as he says, “You’re Bill Miner, ain’t ya?” is, for me, the only touching moment in the movie. Everything leads to that moment.
Tom Heaton, in a very brief scene, is relentless as Bill Miner’s brother-in-law, but other actors appear uncertain of what to do, or how to do it. Some furnished what O’Brian referred to as “briefcase jobs” (fly in, say the lines, fly out). An audience doesn’t make an emotional commitment to camera shots or effects, but only to the vulnerability of a character created by an actor. At their core, the greatest films have transcendent performances. I don’t know if Phil understood this; but he understood that whatever Farnsworth was doing, he couldn’t help him make it better, and left him alone. Borsos might have, with experience, come into his own as a director but the tsunami of over-praise from the Canadian film media after The Grey Fox release stunted his growth.
The Grey Fox is messy because it’s schizophrenic. We started out to make a film with an original vision, and ended with a flawed movie. Borsos’ original dark vision with Harry Dean Stanton as Miner, Pepper’s art direction, and the Chieftains music was cluttered with a clichéd romance (complete with insipid montage), Horses (needlessly) Going Over A Cliff, a flighty actress, inaccurate costuming, a missing ending, an elderly ‘sexy’ leading man, and an intrusive and derivative score by Michael C. Baker.
From a thematic point of view, The Grey Fox is dishonest. Did Borsos know this? Hamstrung by his unease with actors, and his lack of narrative understanding (i.e. the two scenes with Farnsworth, the boy and the apple), he might have believed that what he was shooting was true-to-life. He had initially, I believe, a strong sense of the film he wanted to make. His casting of Harry Dean, and considering Jan Troll to direct, indicates that. So what happened? Hunter’s script, by replicating the elements of a Hollywood western, with Farnsworth repeating the laconic cowboy role (Cooper, Stewart, Wayne et al), under a trite score, only reinforced Phil’s Hollywood approach to the Miner story. No doubt he believed he was making the film he had set out to (who among us is not self-deluded) but, having spent much of his young life watching Hollywood movies, he could accept the movie version of Bill Miner, and still believe he was still making his film.
The movie omits that part of Miner’s story that best describes him. After Miner was sentenced to life imprisonment, he set about doing what he did best—surviving. Observing that the deputy warden’s daughter was deeply religious, Miner convinced her over the course of a year that she’d turned him back to God. She then used her influence to allow him to grow his hair (to cover his eczema), and arranged to have him transferred to the brickyard (for the fresh air). The long hair gave him an un-convict-like appearance while the outside brickyard provided an easy escape route. His fellow escapees were caught but not him.
Yet The Grey Fox ends with Farnsworth in prison garb rushing in slow motion through marshland to a rowboat and rowing away under a graphic suggesting that Miner met up with his true love in Europe.
Horse-pucky. Nothing we found in the historical material indicated that Miner ever left North America. Borsos wanted to believe Miner had been spotted in Europe (hence the trip to Paris), but we found no documented proof. What Sandra Gould did find was the transcript of an interview with Miner in prison in Georgia in 1913. He’d attempted to rob a train, was caught, escaped, was snared a last time, and quoted in an interview as saying, “I’m getting too old for this line of work” and “I’ve never been able to do the work planned by other heads”. Remember Miner and two men shooting at horseflies on the end of a log? Would a man like that have been curious enough to travel to Europe? Miner was a loner, having spent half of his 67 years in prison. Would a man subdued by 33 years in prison have attracted an independent woman?
It’s also why the capture scene looks like an ad for Canadian tourism. One of the few photos by Mary Spencer was of the eight Northwest Mounted Policemen who captured Miner, Shorty and Louis. In that photo, only one wears a uniform, the others wear suits, vests, ties and boots, and one, a pair of corduroy jodhpurs—all clothing well lived in. In The Grey Fox, however, the Mounties wear spotless brown uniforms (as though cast in a production of Rose Marie). Borsos had insisted on recreating that original photo—it’s why we used it on the brochure—but the costumes no longer mattered because we were now making a movie.
The saddest deviation is the Michael Conway Baker music. Borsos believed that the overwrought music for Nails had been instrumental in his Oscar nomination. No doubt he was right. He wanted Baker to partially score The Grey Fox to provide musical irony for the Horses Going Over A Cliff (á la Kubrick, the Blue Danube Waltz in 2001), and for the romantic montage[xxxvi] (á la Spielberg). Later, Michael Conway B. went to some length in a magazine article to explain how difficult it had been to add a music track to Farnsworth’s singing.
Why did he bother? When Phil shot Farnsworth in a bathtub singing ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike’, he’d had the sense to let the camera run and Farnsworth (whose sly wit on screen always surprised me) sang the whole song, taking long pauses after each verse before swooping into another verse). Watching this scene at rushes, the crew laughed itself silly, Farnsworth adding a vulnerable side to Miner we hadn’t seen. Yet, in the movie, the M. Conway Baker strings barge in immediately with a cloying arrangement of ‘Sweet Betsy’ over the romantic montage (Miner arriving at Kate’s house, Kate chopping vegetables, playing the phonograph, Miner gazing at the pictures on her mantel, the couple dancing in twilight on the bandstand, and finally waking in bed together)[xxxvii].
Did Borsos really want a hackneyed romance in his film? Farnsworth’s singing on the soundtrack, over shots of Kate and Miner being awkward with each other; might have been startling and affecting; and a wise and knowledgeable film composer might have recommended using that as source music. Was Borsos unaware of the originality of what he had—of who Bill Miner really was—yet unable to get beyond formulaic movie-making? The romantic montage, and the last shot, remind me of Gore Vidal’s adage that all Hollywood movies end with a wedding.
It’s pertinent to note that Ralph Rosenblum, Woody Allen’s original editor (and author of When the Shooting Stops the Cutting Begins)—retained by Borsos and O’Brian for two days to consult on editing late in post-production—had recommended using all the Chieftains music we could.
Phil had the force to complete the project, but lacked the maturity to understand that he had stopped following his instincts. Left unfettered, those instincts might have given us a more pertinent—and real—Bill Miner. Yet, when the movie was released, the Canadian movie industry cheered loudly. Thanks to Tidy, Pepper and Borsos, The Grey Fox did look splendid; and, in many of the scenes, the viewer can glimpse the film that might have been.
The picture brought Vancouver film technicians and production personnel to the forefront of their professions. They’d established a camaraderie, and were now in ‘first’ positions on a feature, working hard—and joyously—to get it made. Watching Toronto film critics step off a small plane into the vastness of the Woodward’s ranch, one of our teamsters shouted out, “Welcome to God’s Country”, and I could hear the pride in his voice.
Beckett was right: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Why didn’t we fail better?
There are two parts to making a great film: one, just getting it make (director Ted Kotcheff observed that you should get an Oscar just for making the movie); and two, ensuring that it adheres to its own integrity. For that you need an obsessive director, with an understanding of narrative, actors, and theme.
In January of 1981, O’Brian and I signed an option agreement for Hollywood on behalf of Mercury Pictures. Later that Fall, contacted by a Hollywood agent who had seen Outtakes running on Z-Channel, I sent him the Hollywood screenplay and booked a flight. When I asked his response to the script, he said, “you don’t like Hollywood, do you?” I thought maybe he didn’t get it. It was, after all, a black comedy, a form Hollywood seems unable to comprehend. He lost interest; we lost touch; years later he turned up as an executive at Disney.
On Good Friday, 1981, sitting with Borsos in the sun on the front porch, he brought up Father Christmas. a kid’s book about Santa’s mundane routine. He liked the title but not the story, so when he started writing on a piece of paper, I assumed he was jotting down ideas. Not at all. He was estimating the world-wide grosses of his Christmas movie.[xxxviii] Even I was impressed (as I’m sure he intended) and, fueled by this fantasy of riches, I began to create story and screenplay: little girl’s cab-driver father is accidentally killed by a bank robber dressed as Santa Claus who kidnaps her. Fate throws them together with a kindly old gent, Gideon, who has arrived in New York with his new invention, a time machine. The Santa Claus bandit steals the time machine and kidnaps the little girl, ending up at a family Christmas in early 20th Century America. Gideon finds his way to the little girl and, with the time machine, they escape the bank robber, to arrive at the North Pole where she meets Santa.
Yes, the story was too complicated and wonky, but I liked:
- That it was about a child (Christmas is about children);
- That many of the characters in the movie wore Santa suits—making a point about society’s knee-jerk commercialization of Christmas;
- That it was a movie about giving—as all well-made Xmas movies are,
- That it had a time machine, which added to the fantasy aspect, and
- That we got to see Santa’s underground ice cavern at the North Pole.
I worked on the script for most of 1981. One dark winter day in January 1982, in the Mercury office, Borsos and I had our moment of parting. The option he and O’Brian had taken on Hollywood was about to expire, so our conversation began with the question of whether they were going to renew it. He revealed that they had been shopping it around to sell. I had been under the impression that they were seeking financing to produce it and that I would be in line to direct it. Yet, it seemed to me they were selling it to turn a profit (presumably to help pay for The Grey Fox), and we had heated words.
In March 1982, I moved to Toronto. Borsos and O’Brian, unable to arouse interest in Hollywood, relinquished the option. I finished my last draft of ‘Father Christmas’ in the spring of 1982 and spent the next 2 years trying to find financing for a project I’d written and wanted to direct.
Borsos continued to work out of his Vancouver office. I would see him occasionally when he came to Toronto for post-production. The trust was broken so we didn’t talk much, and I saw him infrequently after that, but I would hear Borsos stories from O’Brian.
Both he and O’Brian had pushed to make the Christmas movie. They brought in Thomas Meehan, a Hollywood writer, to re-work the script, got Disney involved, and re-titled it One Magic Christmas (OMC). In December 1984, just as they were about to shoot, an exploitation picture called Santa Claus Massacre was released, which created a backlash, and sparked an outbreak of paranoia at the Mickey Mouse corp., executives excising anything from the OMC script that didn’t treat Christmas—and Santa—reverently. Borsos told me that Disney had ordered that no one could be dressed as Santa except the real one. Were they taking irony pills?
Meeting with O’Brian one afternoon in the lobby of Magdar studios, where OMC was being shot, we watched, amazed, as Borsos exited one sound stage, strode through the lobby, entering another, followed intently by a young man and woman, writing his instructions down. It felt as though O’Brian and I had given birth to a myth.
Obsessed about OMC cost overruns, Disney sent a production manager to Toronto with full budget authority. Borsos had brought out his brother Jeremy and John Thomas from Vancouver to build an elaborate Santa’s Workshop set, allowing himself 3 days to shoot the sequence. The picture was already over schedule and budget, so the Disney P.M. cut the workshop sequence to one day. Phil pleaded with him, plaintively, “I can’t shoot it in one day.” The P.M. smiled encouragingly and said, “Well, shoot what you can.” Borsos shot it in a day.
In the late summer of 1985, I was invited to a preview screening of OMC, and took my partner Cordelia along. Running into John Hunter, we watched the movie then went back to my apartment where we each hurriedly downed two scotches. I’d been stunned by the new version—changing the protagonist from a modern child, cynical about Christmas, to that of a depressed housewife who sees Santa Claus and comes to believe in Christmas. Borsos seemed to be giving the audience the Christmas sentimentality he assumed they craved—Borsos á la Frank Capra. My reaction to OMC (I haven’t watched it since) was that it wasn’t a movie about giving, it was a movie about getting—perfect for the 1980’s.
While writing the 1st draft, I’d discovered that Phil had never seen Miracle On 34th Street. We screened the movie on a VCR (new in those days) owned by an old man in a small apartment on Broadway on a hot summer afternoon. The old man, (and we) were teary at the end, and it’s easy to infer the influence George Seaton’s Miracle On 34th Street, and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life had on Borsos. When OMC was released, I was surprised to hear Phil, interviewed on the radio, suggest that his movie was Capraesque and that if you didn’t like it, there was possibly something wrong with you.
‘Willing suspension of disbelief’—the willingness to believe that the reader or viewer extends to the author or director to place them in the story—is what makes any work (movie, book, etc.) of fiction work. In my view, Borsos and Meehan stretched this to the breaking point by attempting to change the child’s point of view (POV) to an adult POV, combine elements of It’s A Wonderful Life (an angel) and Miracle On 34th Street (a cynical adult woman), and have the woman see Santa at the end. To understand why this feels awkward, try to imagine James Stewart or Maureen O’Hara seeing Santa. Those original movies were about Christmas as metaphor; yet OMC is expressed literally, which is why, I believe, many of the critics (i.e. Gene Siskel) and audiences found the movie depressing. Where was the magic of One Magic Christmas?
We all hoped Borsos might emerge as a major creative force, yet none of the movies he made subsequent to The Grey Fox (The Mean Season, One Magic Christmas, Bethune, and The Adventures of Yellow Dog[xxxix]), demonstrated an innate ability to direct actors[xl], an understanding of narrative or metaphor, or creative growth.
Our human need to create myth is overwhelming. We see human lives as meaningless unless some iconic use can be made of them. Many who worked with Phil are convinced that The Grey Fox is a great movie, that he was a great filmmaker, and that his death is an immense loss. His death was an immense loss: for his family and friends.
I saw him only once after the Bethune debacle. Changed by his ‘success’, there was a sobriety, a wariness to his demeanour, like a battle-tempered soldier. It would have taken an extraordinary amount of faith, tenacity, sharpness of wit and courage for him to realize his mistakes, reconfigure his ‘creative juices’ and go on to make something worthwhile.
Saddened by his passing I am grateful to have known him as long as I did.
By early 1984, I’d made two critically-approved shorts, but was no closer to making a feature. After arriving in Toronto in 1982, I’d worked with John Board on prepping a film version of an original script entitled Catch The Ox. John had begun to assemble a package of pre-sales, based on a tentative casting of Richard Romanus, Sara Botsford, Patrick McGoohan and a certain narcissistic Scots comedian in lead roles. When the Scots comedian suddenly and unapologetically dropped out, we were unable regain our momentum.
O’Brian had approached me again about the Hollywood script. He was still keen to make it, yet wanted to change the locale and era of the film from Los Angeles to Toronto during the “film-boom” era. He disliked what the ‘boom’ had wrought and, I suspected, wanted to be avenged.
Knowing now that no American producer would make a black comedy about Hollywood, I agreed to the changes, and added characters and a plot to accommodate a “film boom” story. O’Brian took an option on the project, contingent on my directing it, and applied for Telefilm development funding. When the reader’s report came back negative, it was clear that they had missed the point entirely, the reader even suggesting that I show the movie industry in a more glamourous light.
In November 1984, O’Brian renewed the option. Later that month, after I’d informed him that I’d been hired to direct a low-budget picture shooting immediately, he informed me that, as I was no longer available to direct Hollywood, our agreement was now void. I was mystified. How could he know I wasn’t available if he didn’t have a start date?
Meanwhile, the low-budget movie, I discovered, was financed by a license from the Playboy channel, even though its producer had had the wit to admire Outtakes. I wanted badly to direct a feature, and the script, not well-written, had a farce structure I thought I could improve on. Yet I made the mistake of ignoring the gratuitous and embarrassing female nudity, and failed to understand my role. I was a director for hire, expected to leave creative decisions to the two feckless producers who became hostile first day of production and remained so for all 12 shooting days, squashing any initiative I took to insert character, wit or comedy.
On the last shooting day, alone in the early evening, as I plotted out a tracking shot for a party scene in a penthouse apartment (which an hour later would be peopled by actors and extras), the props woman, doing her final check, came up to me and asked, “Are the ashtrays empty or full?”
I was so battered by twelve days of producer imbecility, that her question confused me. I didn’t know the answer.. Almost stuttering, I replied, “Ah, I’m… not sure. We… we should… we’ll have to… ask… someone.”
It took me a moment to realize that I was that someone. I gave it some thought and said, with as much authority as I could muster, “The ashtrays should be empty.”
In the end, the producers won. The movie is un-watch-able (except by sexually dysfunctional males). I did meet Cordelia Strube[xli] and was re-united with Mac Bradden and Claire Walker,[xlii] but making it taught me fundamental lessons about directing (which, ironically, I haven’t had the opportunity since to utilize):
- never compromise on casting—no matter what the producer says, even if his actress ex-wife dislikes the actor you’ve picked to play the lead;
- never think that you are talented enough to overcome a bad script;
- do not imagine that you can shoot a feature film comedy in 12 days and have it engage an audience, unless the actors are in sync, the crew moves at the speed of light and the producer understands the delicacy of what you are trying to achieve (in other words, highly unlikely);
- never, ever, never, if you can avoid it, agree to make a picture with the emphasis on female nude body parts;
- do not be timid. If you must tell the producer(s) to fuck off, you must; and lastly and most importantly,
- understand that: there are two kinds of people in the movie business: those who know how to make pictures, and those who know how to get pictures made. Rarely are they the same individual; and in the movie business—going on the evidence—the latter must be treated as the enemy.
O’Brian, of course, did not go into production on Hollywood while I was directing the Playboy flick. A year later, I received a note from O’Brian’s assistant, asking me to consider working on my ‘Hollywood’ script with a new director, referred to in documentation as a “script consultant” (to avoid, I suspect, having to pay him Director’s Guild rates). Nothing happened immediately, of course, O’Brian going off with Hunter to produce another movie.[xliii]
I decided to stick with the project, and spent time with the “script consultant” in 1986, accompanied him to the stereo store to shop for new Hi-Fi speakers, and listened to him list all the classic movies he admired (Citizen Kane et al); yet whenever I asked him how he saw our movie, he would offer, “it should be like an Evelyn Waugh novel.”
I completed a draft without his input. Surprisingly, everyone seemed to like it, and I was hired to do a ‘polish’. I handed in the next draft (written in 2 weeks), and was told, “everyone loves it, but feels I could go further with it”. I had no idea what they meant, and suspected they didn’t either, so I gave it more ‘polish’, turned it in and waited. Three days later O’Brian called, telling me that he thought that I’d gone as far as I could with it. The “script consultant” then called to tell me I’d gone as far as I could; and then my agent (who also represented the “script consultant”) called to tell me that I’d gone as far as I could with it. The repeated replies indicated to me that I was being kissed off.
Weeks later a screenplay arrived with three names on the title page: the “script consultant’s”, a writer of whom I’d never heard, and mine. The writing was stupendously inept, the comedy odiously juvenile, the dialogue plugged with exposition, and the characters’ behaviour insensible—resembling an Evelyn Waugh novel if Waugh had been beaten senseless. I called O’Brian who informed me—to my astonishment—that he’d retained the “script consultant” and his partner to write another draft. When the new draft arrived a few weeks later, it was more of the same. I notified O’Brian’s office that I would be using a pseudonym (“Sebastian Dexter”) in the credits. Inexplicably, this set off a panic at Independent Pictures and O’Brian’s assistant pleaded with my agent to ask me not jeopardize “the success of the project”. Was she taking irony pills?
For the next draft, O’Brian brought in John Hunter. Hunter’s draft had improved structure but the characters remained insensible—a case of laughing at, not laughing with. There being nothing I could do, I let it go. Months of silence ensued. Then O’Brian phoned to ask me to work with a new “script consultant” who turned out to be a director I knew from the West Coast, and who displayed little interest in the project, being much more eager to show me the plaster of Paris body casts he’d made of a young woman in his hotel room. Nothing ensued.
In mid 1987 O’Brian, appearing confident of accessing Telefilm money, bought the rights, and scheduled shooting for year’s end (snow was required). Hearing nothing, I assumed that the picture was a no-go.
In January 1988, O’Brian and his assistant invited me for breakfast at a fluorescent-lit diner near his office, informing me that Telefilm had backed out, but that other financing might be available. His assistant gave me 3 pages of character analysis and plot-point notes, along with a list of casting suggestions (36 possibilities for the Michael Bates character alone), and it was at this moment that I—finally connecting the dots—understood.
O’Brian, incapable of differentiating between a script filled with cliché and one filled with originality, wanted only to impose “events” and “plot” on the narrative—he had no understanding of theme, narrative or, more importantly, comedy; his character analysis, referenced from the Syd Field book, Screenplay, was sophomoric. He knew how to get pictures made, but had no idea how to make one; and consequently had no vision, no sense of what my script was about, or how to proceed, and was desperately trying to pretend that his balls were still in the air. There was no talk of money, so I put the notes in a file and forgot about them.
Over the next 12 years, O’Brian called twice over passings—in 1994, Paul Tucker, production manager of Outtakes and The Grey Fox, died in a plane crash; a year later in 1995, Phillip Borsos lost to cancer.
In 1999, O’Brian contacted me again and, to my discomfort, over beers hinted of resurrecting the picture with himself as director. Then in May of 2002, he called to let me know that the project was a ‘go’ with him as director (much to my surprise), and sent me yet another version of the script.
Late one night, I picked up Hollywood North (a title with no metaphor or wit) and began to read. As I turned the pages, my old queasiness returned. The script illustrated the difference between plot and narrative—plot created by the writer, narrative by the characters. Hollywood North was crammed with plot, action, ‘events’ and sex, but:
- The protagonist was a producer who had little at stake—none of the characters really had anything at stake;
- there was no explanation for the erratic and paranoid behaviour of Michael Bates, the paranoid movie star character;
- the explosive talent of the ‘actor’, whose intensity has to terrify the Michael Bates character to trigger the denouement, had been removed, and his part much reduced;
- truly gratuitous sex had been added;
- much of the dialogue was “who asked”; and
- sadly, the characters remained, without exception, two-dimensional, their behaviour inexplicable and unsympathetic.
The movie went into production in 2002 with Matthew Modine in the leading role and O’Brian directing. Some actors seemed cast by name—Alan Bates and John Neville were cast as Michael Baytes and Henry Neville.
Having read the shooting script, I dreaded seeing the movie until I realized I didn’t have to see it. That revelation brought immense relief, and to this day, aside from having viewed the trailer silently (I can’t bear bad dialogue) on the internet, I have not seen it. The comedy ‘acting’ in the trailer, however, bore out my worst fears, and I took note of the press reviews. A few critics half-heartedly tried to put a positive spin on the movie but most of the major newspapers, to my reading, found Hollywood North an example of what it thought it was satirizing.
Looking back over my brilliant movie career, aside from Outtakes and The Night Before, the Morning After, I realize it’s given me little joy. Mostly it’s been one witless aggravation after another.
I wasn’t expecting my career to have a happy ending. Happiness, a form of sentimentality, exists only in Hollywood movies. And endings, well, nothing in the universe ends because everything is cyclical, and actions (especially stupid ones) are repeated infinitely.
However, sometimes the circle closes in a way that can salve a sore soul.
In 2011, attempting to find laughter in these aggravations, I heard the voice of a young woman in my head, telling me her story. Each morning, I rushed to my desk, eager to see what would happen next. The more I set her thoughts down, the more they came rushing out, and, by the Fall of 2014, The Sex Life of the Amoeba, a comic novel, my first, had been published.
The novel felt as though it had written itself, but I knew that it had come from those witless aggravations, fragments of pain, joy and frustration, the raw material for Sarah Fielding’s story.
Years ago, viewing the Tonight Show, I watched Johnny Carson read out the answers from a primary grade school test in which the teacher had asked her children to complete a famous quote. One of the answers has remained embedded in my mind, and would, it seems to me, serve well as a caution for those who toil in the movie industry: “Don’t count your chickens until… they bite your lips off.”
And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus; he just doesn’t work for Disney.
[i] Kosygin Is Coming was based on a novel by Tom Ardies, a local newspaperman, who hung around the production after writing the initial screenplay. As always happened in those days, the producer decided to bring in an American screenwriter and Tom was sent to the airport to pick up Stanley Mann. If I remember the story correctly, Mann asked him if the original writer was still involved with the movie and Tom replied, “yes, he’s driving you to the hotel.”
[ii] One rainy day, the support crew (make-up, etc.) spent most of the day in the crew bus. In the morning we listened to Bill Couch, the American stunt man regale us with stories of stars he’d doubled for; in the afternoon, the British stunt man Alf Joint did the same. Meanwhile, the cook from the catering wagon kept showing everyone Polaroids of him standing next to John Wayne.
[iii] Fellow stand-in, Ivor Harries, an ex-pat from Britain, who also put in many stand-in days on the picture, was always neatly attired with a tie, tweed jacket and trim white moustache. As a young man, he’d been first cast in a play by Gerald DuMaurier in the 1930’s, but later emigrated to Canada where he picked up acting or other work. I ran into him a few years later in an English pub on Denman Street and Ivor, having had a few pints, confided to me the secret of success—“become so good that the establishment brings inside because you’re too dangerous to leave outside.”
[iv] Meeting with guest Stompin’ Tom Connors, I suggested that I write some jokes about the stompin’ board. Tom lasered me with a look of dumb hostility and said, “we don’t joke about the stompin’ board”.
[v] A producer, lecturing at a film school, was asked why, instead of making one / 10 million dollar picture, Hollywood didn’t make ten / 1 million dollars pictures. “Because,” he said, “you can’t steal a million dollars from a million dollar picture.”
[vi] Two months after shooting started, Barris convinced Wilks to hire Bob Jarvis, a former CBC producer as a production supervisor, and Jarvis worked out a detailed cost budget, which revealed that the shows which the producers were selling to investors for $20,000 per episode actually cost $21,000 to produce.
[vii] It was only much later that I discovered that my stills photographer, Stephen Shames, hired on the recommendation of my friend Yazzolino, was a well-known and successful American documentary photographer who had hung out with and photographed the Black Panthers, published in a book in the 70’s by a small press—Spiro Agnew had convinced a large publisher not to publish it—and which was republished in 2006.
[viii] The original 18 minute, wide-screen theatrical short resides on the internet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeDYinDn1O0
[ix] Years later, Stephen Miller, auditioning for an American movie shooting in British Columbia (The Journey of Nattie Gann) entered the room and the director jumped up and shouted, “It’s him!” Surprised, Stephen assumed he looked like was what the director was visualizing. The director’s “it’s him”, however, was an involuntary exclamation from having seen Stephen many times in Outtakes on Z-Channel in Los Angeles. Stephen did get the role.
[x] One of the screening rooms had been used for a scene in The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’ last unfinished picture with Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston. The room was tiny and I wondered how they got Orson, a camera and crew to fit.
[xi] One night we ‘hung out’ with Frederick Forest who had just returned from the Philippines after shooting Apocalypse Now and who related stories of movie chaos and confusion with FF Coppola in the Philippines.
[xii] How could you fire one of the most terrifying and funniest film actors in America? What was Jewison, the producers, UA or even Stallone thinking? Shouldn’t an actor be eligible for an Oscar just for acting opposite Stallone.
[xiii] When The Last Remake of Beau Geste closed after a few weeks, the exhibitor, replacing it with a serious French Foreign Legion picture with Gene Hackman, kept Outtakes on.
[xiv] I suppose, when you think of it, everyone is Chekhovian.
[xv] Produced by the “they won’t understand it in the prairies” producer, I was hired as the writer for “The Raes” after he’d picked all the guests and songs. With no budget and little time available for comedy, I was expected to write scintillating between-songs patter and some funny sketches for the husband / wife singing stars. I came up with a concept that allowed them to shoot backstage (no sets to build), using only one other performer (low cast costs), and which gave the show narrative. When I arrived on the first day, a week before taping, the producer and the director showed me to my office which had a desk but no typewriter. After fruitlessly waiting for two days, I stole one from Drama.
[xvi] One morning, across the street from Crossroads of the World, I noticed a van parked in the middle of the empty paved block. When I came out a few hours later, a young man was sitting at a full set of drums beside the van, in the hot sun, banging away. He stayed for about a week and then he too disappeared.
[xvii] In the summer of 1979 I had watched Keith Pepper co-art direct a Disney film (even with Google I’ve been unable to find the title). Starring Doug McClure, the TV movie was about a small plane crashing in the wilderness with a pilot and a boy, who meet a Heron. One Saturday afternoon, accompanying Keith to the location, a pristine bit of wilderness on the edge of a lake near Vancouver, I was fascinated to watch him age a newly-built log cabin to look as though it had been sitting, abandoned, for decades.
[xviii] I was pleasantly surprised in 1980 when the film won Best Director and Best Dramatic Short at the Yorkton International Film Festival.
[xix] Christopher Lee was picked up at the airport by David Hiscox who lived on a tug and drove an old black Cadillac which normally carried logging chains on rear floor (likely in the trunk for the occasion) and driven Mr. Lee back into the city, up a back alley to the rear of a storefront which contained the movie’s production office and its ‘Mad Scientist’s set’. Lee, who’d been cast as the Mad Scientist, was by this time wondering what sort of idiocy he was confronting. He was introduced to Keith whose proper English accent seemed to calm him. As Keith showed him the set, Lee took him aside and quietly asked, “tell me, is this an amateur outfit?”
[xx] One evening, Phil and I were introduced by David to Eduardo Visconti, brother of film director Luchino Visconti, and his wife, and spent an enjoyable evening in their apartment overlooking Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park. After watching his wife leave the apartment numerous times to check on dinner, I realized that not only did Visconti own all four flats on that floor but probably the building as well.
[xxi] A broker friend from that period told me that she and her associates regularly went up to Panorama Room at the top of the Hotel Vancouver and, as a game, would order as much Dom Peringnon as they could to attempt to deplete the Hotel’s cellar.
[xxii] Phil’s theory was that having the “little green man” (the National Film Board logo) at the front of your movie made the Academy members—because the NFB was so highly respected—sit up and take notice, which is why he had angled to have the NFB fund it in the first place. Undoubtedly, he was right.
[xxiii] Although the brokers had been bought into Borsos’ company after he made Nails, they felt entitled to soak up some of the glory and flew to L.A. with Phil. Not invited to the Oscar ceremony, they rented rooms at the Beverly Hilton and watched the Awards on TV from behind a large pile of nose powder.
[xxiv] (Frederic Raphael’s book, Eyes Wide Open, detailing his writing experience with Kubrick, shows how complex Kubrick was.
[xxv] Hunter used to joke that the great Canadian film was all about a woman who lives by herself in the country, experiencing a relentlessly hard existence until one day she’s washing the dishes, looks out the window, sees an owl and it ruins her life.
[xxvi] In the dolly shots, the scenes are almost in ‘real’ time, so that Borsos was unconsciously anticipating the real-time, single shot style used by Alfonso Cuarón the director of The Children of Men.
[xxvii] Working with John Board a few years later, trying to mount a film I had written, and getting the usual inane responses to the script, John responded to one rejection with, “it’s no use asking what the thing is, when the thing is itself”.
[xxviii] Orson Welles, shooting his film of Othello in Morocco, shot the senate scene in a steam bath because the costumes hadn’t arrived from Rome.
[xxix] Chalmers Adams had created the original template prospectus for the Securities Commission, and had himself produced two notable movies.
[xxx] I had suggested that Owen—with his background of playing for the silent movies at the Colonial Theatre—would be perfect as the piano player. Borsos agreed but asked Owen to shave off his moustache.
[xxxi] In 1984, TGF was invited to the Sydney Film Festival and Phil cashed in his first class airline ticket to buy economy tickets so that he could take Beret, his wife. A few days before he flew there, his agent told him he been asked to take a meeting with Sylvester Stallone, which would mean delaying his departure so that he wouldn’t be in Melbourne when The Grey Fox was screened. Everyone advised him that taking “the meeting with Stallone” was far more important. So he caved, and found himself waiting in a boardroom in Stallone’s office. When Rambo finally entered he said, “I liked your movie.” That was pretty much it, and Borsos never did direct “Sly” in anything. When he finally got to Melbourne, a day or so later, he was persona non grata for not having attended his own screening.
[xxxii] George Bernard Shaw: “The power of acute observation is frequently referred to as cynicism by those who don’t have it.”
[xxxiii] Canadian films up to that point were generally poorly lit and shot. In 1985, My American Cousin was released (also produced by O’Brian) and the media press in Canada gave it the same sort of rave as TGF, so I went along to my neighbourhood theatre to see it, it being set in the Okanagan in which I had come of age. The cinematography by Richard Leiterman was vibrant, resembling the Technicolor process of the period in which it was set. The rest of the movie, however, featured a weak script, amateur acting and hazy directing. Why was the response by the media so vociferously complimentary?
[xxxiv] The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael commented perceptively: “Farnsworth is a superb camera subject, with a lulling sexual presence, and he and Jackie Burroughs, who plays a red-headed suffragette, do some highly photogenic flirting. The movie was like Wisconsin Death Trip with a romantic bandit at its centre. Robbery here was the only honorable profession for a man with Bill Miner’s courtliness and sense of style. Borsos appears to have a dandy’s approach to crime and social injustice, but he’s an inspired image-maker and the film manages to be an art Western without making you hate it. Based on a script by John Hunter that stays fairly close to the historical accounts and leaves a lot of gaps—we never find out how Miner, who’s been in prison most of his life, became a civilized, sensitive man and a lover who admired a flamboyant, free-thinking woman.”
[xxxv] Dustin Hoffman was too old and nowhere near the type (i.e. all-American á la Robert Redford) sought for the lead in The Graduate. Only when they shot his audition was his understanding of the character, and his talent, apparent.
[xxxvi] The ‘montage’ is loved by movie producers for the same reason that TV producers are enamoured with the ‘medley’—they’re hedging their bets, someone has to love one of the songs / scenes.
[xxxvii] In the end, a producer’s agent named Jeff Dowd was hired by United Artists to find a hook to sell the movie and came up with Farnsworth as a sexy figure, a notion that was very 80’s, and no doubt would have astonished the real Bill Miner. Jeff Dowd later turned up again in my life in the late ‘80’s, applying his professional ‘Hollywood’ eye to the screenplay of a project I was trying to mount, sounding unsurprisingly like a Telefilm reader.
[xxxviii] He was unconsciously, I think, following Kubrick or Spielberg’s lead, changing genres every picture.
[xxxix] When The Adventures of Yellow Dog (which Phil wrote and directed) came out, I remember standing in a Cineplex lobby staring up at the trailer on a TV suspended from the ceiling. The trailer seemed to go on for 10 minutes although it couldn’t have been any longer than 3. What stunned me was that I seemed to be watching every dog movie cliché ever shot, so I didn’t venture to see the entire movie until a few years later. I don’t think I even watched it to the end.
[xl] I was struck by how wooden the performance of the boy in the Borsos dog movie was; and astonished to find out from O’Brian that originally they had cast another actor as the lead whom they had fired after a week. Either the first actor was really good (and terrified Phil) or he was even worse than the wooden one, which raises the question, how could professional moviemakers cast actors that un-engaging?
[xli] I had seen a quirky performance on a tape of Cordelia Strube and had the casting director invite her to audition for the role of a ditsy blonde in well-structured but badly-written script. Cordelia came in with a character who was convinced that she was intelligent. All the other actresses trying for the role played dumb.
[xlii] This turkey also has the distinction of being the only movie shot in Honest Ed’s Department store.
[xliii] John and the Missus, written, directed and starring Gordon Pinsent, produced by the smiling Iagos.