My first film, Skidrow, was one of the earliest examples of what would later be called the West Coast School of filmmaking. It was followed by a number of other “West Coast” films—first, documentaries and then, later, dramatic films. Each had a distinctive flavour and feel; each reflected a strong personality and temperament. In reality, though, our “school” came about through a concurrence of events, most of which had to do with pure happenstance.
For us, in Vancouver, the biggest surprise of these films was perhaps that they happened at all. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, we never imagined that we would be making films in our own home town. Until the CBC opened its television station, CBUT, in 1954, most of us thought of filmmaking as taking place only in unapproachably glamorous Hollywood or at the NFB in Montreal—a very small studio, and already full up. Of my UBC contemporaries, only Daryl Duke actually got a job in film, at the National Film Board of Canada. But he had taken creative writing with Earle Birney, the distinguished Canadian poet, and thought of himself as a poet as well. George Robertson, another of Birney’s students, went on to take creative writing at Iowa University, got a job at the Board and then moved back to Vancouver as a radio producer.
My school chum (and later, brother-in-law) Rolph Blakstad was a certified artist. He won an Emily Carr scholarship to paint—an almost unimaginable career in Canada. He later put me straight on the matter of art. He was my first cinematographer when I became an independent producer, and he explained that he was the artist and I, as the producer, was the businessman—and that by being clear about this we would flourish. In any case, I never thought of myself as a creative person at all (and still don’t).
But Rolph was right in that I did have a certain knack for running things. And one of those things was the Vancouver Film Society. In 1946, a mad and passionate cinephile, Vernon van Sickle, had revived the Vancouver Film Society; his magnificently ambitious (foolhardy, really) program of 35mm foreign features—Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, Jean Vigo and the like at the Paradise Theatre once a month for the winter season, and a marvellous string of 16mm classics, including Greed, Potemkin, Storm Over Asia and many more—was the beginning of my education in film. My friend Stan Fox discovered the program, and insisted that I, too, get tickets, not just to the sound films but also for the silents.
With the near-collapse of the society in 1947 (because of its overly ambitious first year) and its rescue by Dorothy Burritt, a remarkable heroine of film culture in Canada, Stan and I took over as projectionists, music scorers and disc-spinners. In 1948, when Dorothy left Vancouver for Toronto, she encouraged Stan and me to rise from the ranks of worker/projectionists and join the film society’s board. With brilliant insight, Stan also assumed the role of program director and assigned me that of secretary-treasurer. I soon discovered that if you don’t call meetings (the secretary’s job) you don’t have to keep minutes and you can do as you like. I learned the value and virtues of bookkeeping much later, at a painful cost. But in truth, our board was remarkably indulgent, giving us their support and our heads; in return Stan and I ran the society well. By the 1950–51 season we had the use of a fine new theatre at the Vancouver General Hospital. We were packing in audiences and building a useful surplus.
Stan and I soon made the remarkable discovery that as film society programmers we could get films to “preview” for possible booking. We could not afford to book and preview 35mm films—the cost of screening facilities was prohibitive. But I got a cast-off 16mm sound projector from the NFB and we screened, over a few years, virtually the entire catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art. It was a priceless education in film, virtually unattainable anywhere at the time and hard to come by even today. In fact, what we grew up to think of as classics—the German expressionist and Russian silent films, the French and Italian pre- and post-war classics—are still not readily accessible.
The Vancouver Film Society also inspired Stan to begin making films, mobilizing the rest of our group as actors and crew. He bought and modified an RCAF gun-camera to run at sixteen frames a second—silent-film speed. He inherited an extraordinary processor and printer devised and built by Oscar Burritt, Dorothy’s husband, who later became the first tech wizard at the CBC when it went into television. The processor was simply an oil barrel cut in half lengthwise; one of the halves was used as a tub for developing fluid. Film was wrapped around a rig made of two wooden barrel ends stuck at either end of a steel rod, with stainless steel bits soldered onto stainless steel wires running between them. We could wrap a hundred feet of 16mm film around the wires in the dark and process film—original or prints. Oscar’s remarkably original and ingenious printer was simply a 16mm sprocketed synchronizer, with a rheostat-controlled viewing light that shone on the film as it was wound through. The faster one wound the film through the synchronizer, the brighter the light and greater the exposure; the slower one wound it, the dimmer the light. Exposure was thus automatically compensated, and once an exposure had been established by testing it was maintained. We processed hundred-foot samples of The Days of Wrath, Potemkin and other silent classics and hung them up to dry in Stan’s basement.
Stan also managed to scrounge short ends of reversal film printing stock from the local film lab for nothing. The stock was so slow that only a sunny beach at high noon would provide a bright enough light for adequate exposure. So that was where we made our first film, Glub. It was actually Stan, Rolph and Norman Newton’s film. I was just the stagehand and learned a lesson that lasted me a lifetime: I am lousy at taking or giving cues. I suffer from stage fright, and it has taken me half my career not to overcome but to manage it. The film was a parody of the surrealist films of Maya Deren and Boris Kaufman. It won an honourable mention at the Canadian Film Awards in 1950 and was quite funny.
For me, though, the making of the film had nothing to do with the beginning of a career. In fact, I had no idea what I was going to do for a living. As university came to an end, I took my philosophy professor’s advice, and my new wife, Phyllis, and I took off for the “Grand Tour” of Europe. Actually, I left before finishing UBC. But I did finish my education, visiting virtually every one-, two- and three-star objet d’art in every gallery, building and museum lying south of a line from Bruges to Vienna and down to Paestum in the boot of Italy. Phyllis and I stayed on another summer, did Greece, then headed north through Yugoslavia and Germany into Scandinavia.
Early June of 1954 found us in Copenhagen, where I picked up a telegram from Stan Fox. He said that he’d just got a job as an assistant editor at the CBC. They were opening up a television station in Vancouver and every damn fool in town was getting a job there. If I hurried back, even I might get one. You didn’t have to know anything! Phyllis and I hitchhiked back to London as fast as we could and got student tickets on a LOT Airlines DC4 for New York. We grabbed a Greyhound for an overnight ride to Toronto and arrived with about two dimes left in our pockets. The first went for a call to Norman Campbell and his wife, Elaine, Phyllis’s sister. Nobody home. They’d gone to Vancouver on holiday. The second dime got us to John Reeves, who had got work as a radio producer in Toronto. He was tied up preparing Harmony Harbour for broadcast that night. So he invited us to meet him at the studios at 11 p.m. (where we met the then unknown and very young Glenn Gould, who dropped in nightly to practise at the end of the broadcast day). John then took us home, put us up for the night and loaned us enough money for the four-day drive to Vancouver. In those days General Motors had a splendid scheme whereby you could drive a Chevy from their factory in Oshawa to a car lot in Vancouver for the price of gas. They even paid for the oil change.
We drove across the continent in three days, virtually non-stop—I knew I had to get there by Saturday night so I’d have Sunday to relearn how to thread a projector, splice and rewind film and qualify as an assistant editor. We made it. I turned up at Stan’s on Sunday to learn my trade in time for my appointment Monday morning at ten, which had been arranged from London, with the program director, Marce Munro.
“Sorry, Mr. Munro just left for Toronto. He’ll be back on Thursday.”
Welcome to the world of television. But I did get a job: two weeks’ work as an assistant film editor for the British Empire Games, which was the trial by fire for the launch of CBUT. Mobile trucks, our own and others sent out from Toronto, covered the events at Empire Stadium and the university. Signals were fed to the studio for kinescope recording—pointing a 16mm camera at the screen and shooting it. There was film coverage as well, but kinescopes were the heart of the matter. The rest of the world ran on 35mm gauge film. But the CBC, on the advice of Oscar Burritt, chose 16mm as a matter of economy. Later, Oscar’s choice would have a dramatic and largely unnoticed impact on the development of documentary filmmaking and particularly cinéma-vérité. At the time, though, the result was less focus, less grading of tones from black through grey to white, and of course bigger grain.
I have two enduring memories from the two-week run of those Games and my first paying job in film. One was the sound of Arla Saare pounding down the corridor from the editing room to the telecine room, seconds before the seven o’clock airtime for the nightly news of the Games, the film still damp from the processor, the glue on the splices just dry. We would throw the reel up on the telecine projector and thread it, then push the buttons to send the pictures out over the Vancouver lower mainland. Arla was our goddess—a formidable Finn, frighteningly severe, passionately devoted to film, work, good Scotch and poker. She was also intensely shy, with a tendency to stutter under stress, hence not awfully talkative, but a woman with a wonderful sense of humour. The corners of her eyes had an utterly captivating crinkle as she got to the heart of a good story. We were in awe of her. She had worked at the Film Board in the days of Grierson—this was a woman to be attended to. And we did attend: her discipline and her devotion to the art and practice of filmmaking provided a model that has stood me in good stead ever since.
The second vivid memory was a life lesson in my technical aptitude—or lack thereof. While the rest of the studio was wrapped up in the daily rush of the Games, I came for the evening and night shift; I helped Homer Powell put kinescope recordings on 1,200-foot reels, stow them in cans, label them and send them out for delivery to the world. Homer was a remarkably wise, reflective and gentle film editor from Hollywood. He was in Vancouver in 1954 thanks to the red scare, which chased some of America’s best and brightest north of the border. I was doubly in awe of Homer because he had actually worked in Hollywood, where filmmaking was a way of life, and because his reticence and wry humour were the opposite of the Hollywood stereotype. He eventually returned south, ending up in New York as supervising editor for the fabulously funny Barney Miller television show.
One lesson Homer gave me in how to manage catastrophe has been invaluable. It came during the single greatest moment of the games: the Bannister-Landy miracle mile. Roger Bannister, a Brit, had broken the unbreakable barrier of the four-minute mile. Shortly after that John Landy, an Aussie, had beaten his time. The two were to be matched at the Games. The world—or at least the British Commonwealth and Empire—was agog.
The start of the race was wrung with suspense—not just who would win, but how Landy’s blistered heel would affect the outcome—and one image branded its climax: Landy, leading into and down the home stretch, looking over his shoulder then—what?—stumbling?—losing stride, focus, nerve? Whatever it was, Bannister came flying by and won.
Great Britain and all of Australia were waiting to see it. The kinescopes came in fresh from the lab. V-bombers were revved up at the airport (or at least in my mind they were). Homer looked after the Brits; I had the Aussie package. I pulled out the first reel of film, slapped it onto split reels, cinched them up, thrust the reel onto the rewind, stuck the head of the film to the take-up reel and began to crank as fast as I could go. Just as I passed the halfway mark, the growing girth of the take-up began rapidly to exceed that of the unwinding side, and its leverage multiplied dramatically. The feeder reel whizzed around at tremendously increasing speed, flew off the rewind and spun yards and yards of film high in the air and across the room. And snapped! In many places! I was crushed.
To me that moment marked a significant dividing line; behind it lay the Depression and the years before the second World War; after it, a new world. According to all the stories I had been told as a kid growing up before the war, I should have been fired on the spot. But it was 1954, and despite my gift for absentmindedness and less than stellar technical skills, I did not get canned. Instead I stayed with the job until it and the Games came to an end. Then, in August and September 1954, I went back to driving a taxi, exactly what I had been doing before leaving on my Grand Tour.
I never drifted very far from CBUT, which was quickly developing into Vancouver’s creative centre. The studio was new and so was the medium. No one had yet learned to manage and diminish differences. So the people who worked there were allowed and even encouraged to speak in their own voices. On the West Coast, perhaps because air travel was still relatively expensive and infrequent, the rest of the world seemed very far away. No one was intimidated by New York or Europe. Distance protected us from the Second City syndrome, which the theatre critic Clive Barnes identified in Toronto: a parallel of the Second Critic syndrome, whereby the second critic on a paper feels the play he or she has to review must be inferior, because if it were not, the first critic would have been assigned. We weren’t close enough to any original source to feel like anyone’s second pick.
And so, after its trial by fire, CBUT flourished. Once a month Daryl Duke and Mario Prizek produced an enormously ambitious and accomplished musical show—Parade—with the ravishing Eleanor Collins and the amazing Don Francks. It was made in a dinky used-car showroom under an eleven-foot ceiling, with extravagant sets (by Doug Stiles) so crammed together that to get from one set-up to the next the cast and crew felt they were—and actually were—fighting their way across a battlefield or an obstacle course. No one watching the show would have guessed.
It was at about this time that Peter MacDonald, an able drama producer who had moved into management and was director of television for British Columbia, made a bold decision. He and Marce Munro determined, rightly, that if CBUT was to make a mark, it would have to be with film. But the government, in a decision that seemed to them entirely sensible, ruled that since the National Film Board was set up to make films and the CBC was to produce television and radio, each should stick to its field. At the CBC we could make film inserts for Country Calendar. We could distribute our programs across Canada on the bloody awful kinescopes (there being no national network in place). But we could not make our own film programs. Not even the NFB could do that. They were at the mercy of the CBC, which of course knew what was best for television.
Blissfully ignoring this decree, CBUT began to organize film production. Daryl and Mario stayed with Parade, though Daryl was later to make a film about Indians, as people of the First Nations were then called. The second flight of producers, Peter Elkington and Frank Goodship, stayed with news, sports and outside broadcasts. Gene Lawrence, Ron Kelly and I applied for jobs—actually, one job—in what might be called the third flight.
Right after the Commonwealth Games I had thought to apply as an assistant editor and was surprised when Marce now suggested I should apply as a production assistant, thus putting myself in line to become a producer or director. I was flattered, but feared I might be in over my head. I had never expected to become a producer or director. Also, the job would put in me in the production, not the film, department, where Stan was already established as an editor. The two areas were conflicting, not parallel, attractions—film versus television, editing versus production. And I was not all sure of my chances in competition with Gene and Ron: they were both artists and I didn’t really know what I was.
Sure enough, as we lined up at the urinals for relief after our interviews, Gene told me that Ron had got the job. But not to worry—there was a second production assistant slot opening up, he said. A month later, he got that one. I held on to my job driving taxi. But third time lucky; another opening came and I got it. We came in, one, two, three, at monthly intervals, and as I recall moved into producing and directing in the same order.
What an extraordinarily intense, exciting and demanding time it was as we learned the craft of television. Nothing in my experience has quite matched it. It was like being in on the invention of the wheel. We were young, and like children we felt that our freshly gained knowledge had just at that very moment, through us, been newly discovered for the world. For we still were the world.
We saw for the first time how moving images are actually put together—on film on a Movieola and in video on a television mixer; we discovered the difference. Moving pictures are constructed one shot at a time, from one point of view or another, and the action is repeated as many times as needed to get it right. Then the shots are edited together so that a single action is reconstructed, as it were, and seems to be taking place in its original sequence of time—or in a new one if one chooses. Because television takes pictures simultaneously from two, three, even four angles at once, action can be recorded spontaneously, as it happens.
We argued intensely about how to shoot television shows and we had strong views about film. Drama or feature films were out of the question. We were vehemently against what we took to be the National Film Board tradition. We thought of it as the difference between the school of John Grierson and that of Robert Flaherty: to our minds, the former was about social analysis and a burning desire—fuelled by the Great Depression and the Second World War—to change the world. The second school was about actual people caught up in the drama of real life and its conflicts, in stories far from the mundane mendacity of everyday life.
We gloried in the quiet, everyday heroism of Humphrey Jennings’s wartime films A Diary for Timothy and Fires Were Started. The aesthetic credo of Sequence, the dominant British film quarterly of the day, was our credo. We had only contempt for the NFB’s wartime propaganda newsreel, Carry On Canada, which we had come to think of as the beginning and end of the oeuvre of the Board. We were hardly aware of the emerging work of Tom Daly and the directors of NFB’s Unit B, among them Colin Low, Roman Kroiter and Wolf Koenig. For me, perhaps the strongest documentary I had seen was Lindsay Anderson’s Thursday’s Children. Its focus and style of exploration combined with its strength in directly dealing with children in difficulty, and offering them real, effective help, became the model for all my work; the “feel” of the film remains vivid in my mind though many of its images have faded.
Films like Thursday’s Children evoked memories of the turmoil and dispossession in my own early life. I had lived through my family’s loss of our rented home in the Depression. We moved into a single room with an alcove. A month or two later my father and mother separated. My sister and I were boarded out with changing caretakers for a couple of years until my working mother was finally able to afford a home for us. All this made an indelible mark on my view of the world and explains better than anything else why my first independent films felt so personal. Where Will They Go? was about hard-core displaced persons in an Austrian refugee camp. Rickshaw was about a son inheriting his father’s lowly and hopeless profession in Calcutta. And there was my very first film, Skidrow. What had happened to my family began with my father’s alcholism and our allied deprivations. This potent image drew me to Skid Road, as it was more properly known. The place remains as vivid as ever—the least changed part of town—though other drugs have replaced alcohol. If anything, Skidrow has sunk lower than before. It remains the bottom, the bin where the wrecks of Vancouver’s society are discarded. In my mind, as a child, that’s where you ended up if you did worse than badly.
I also knew the area from driving a cab. This was the district I headed for when business was slow and I needed a fare. Closing time for the beer parlours was 11:00 p.m. in those days. And the beer parlours all over town disgorged their clientele, many of them sodden and staggering, into the streets. Nowhere in town were they more concentrated than in Skidrow and especially in front of the Columbia Hotel. The problem was getting paid or, sometimes, escaping alive. I had one fare who quietly unzipped his fly, pulled out his penis and emptied his bladder on the front floor of the cab. When I pulled over to the curb, dragged him out and asked for my fare, he started to argue and refused to pay, turning his pockets out to show he had nothing in them. A passing policeman, thinking I was trying to “roll” the drunk fare for his money, stepped between us. But I did get my money. The fare took off his sodden left shoe and sock, pulled out a limp, well-soaked ten spot and handed it to me. And, despite my protests that I would lose money, having to take the cab back to home base for cleaning, the cop insisted I give full change and take no tip. Other incidents were less funny.
When I finally started thinking about making a film about Skidrow, the person who really introduced me to it was Ben Maartman. Another graduate of the inspiring Earle Birney’s creative writing class, Ben was already a well-published short story writer. He had also gone into social work and had acquired an extensive professional familiarity with Skidrow and its culture.
Ben took me on tour over some days and weeks. The geography was fairly simple, bounded as it was by Abbott and Gore Streets on the west and east, and by the waterfront and Pender Street on the north and south. Skidrow’s heart was the great anomaly of Victory Square. Research and expression are, in large part, about another set of boundaries—defining what is within the field of discourse: which characters, action, setting, feelings and experience are within it and which are not. Ben had a considerable circle of familiars in the district. The men were certainly not friends, with Ben or each other, in any dictionary sense of the word. The camaraderie of Skidrow regulars was a strong “group marker,” best expressed by actions rather than words. For the men who became the focus of our film, or so I discovered in our daily walkabouts, the centre of existence was a shared memory of how they got there.
And so I, the neophyte television producer, realizing that the only way out of producing Country Calendar, Burns’ Chuckwagon and the Seven O’Clock Show was to do a film instead, wrote a proposal. We would make a film about the forgotten men of Skidrow. Ben Maartman would write narration and prepare the interviews. And the men would speak on camera. I gave the proposal to Marce Munro and he said okay.
1. The name “Skidroad” comes from the track where logs were skidded down from the forest to the water, to be towed to sawmills, hewn into lumber and shipped round the world. It was a place of commerce and bars. As all of Vancouver (then called Gastown) was logged off and wealth accumulated, people moved out of Gastown and Skid Road to Hastings and Granville or Hastings and Main. And the name shifted in popular parlance from Skidroad to Skid Road to Skid Row to Skidrow. Skid Row was, as I recall, an Americanization and was thought to come from Seattle, Vancouver’s twin city to the south. Interestingly, when the film was first shown on television, the sharpest criticism in the local newspaper was of my supposed ignorance in using not the “real” name of the district but its American translation. I had hoped the program would spark a discussion of deprivation. In fact “Skidrow” was the name then used by its inhabitants, and who was I to tell them anything different?