Category: Film (page 1 of 2)

Saturday Night Scribes

A little film I made about a writing group I have been privileged to be a part of for a long time, the Saturday Night Scribes.

As well as a tribute to my writing group, this was an experiment to see what I could accomplish with a minimal investment of equipment (reflected most obviously, perhaps, in some of the audio quality). I used a cheap Boya M1 Lavalier mic ($20), along with a Shure SM58 which I already owned ($110), my smartphone camera (Samsung Galaxy S7), the cheapest pair of lights I could find ($180 at Henry’s), and relatively inexpensive filmmaking software (Filmora, $70).

If I continue this sort of thing, I’ll purchase better audio equipment (such as an H2N audio recorder and a shotgun mic) and better film-making software (the Wondershare Filmora software crashed on me with a couple of edits left to make… I thought I’d lost everything. Had to reinstall it twice to get it to launch the project again.)

The original idea was to create videos to help promote my upcoming book A Time and a Place. Maybe a silly idea considering the investment of time (the film took me an evening to shoot and about a day and a half to edit, though presumably I’d get faster with practice, especially with better software that doesn’t crash on me.)

But it was a lot of fun and I look forward to doing more of this sort of thing.

Again with the Ankle

I’ll shut up about my ankle soon, I promise.

In the meantime, if you want to read about how I broke it, go here.

If you want to read about the first couple of weeks with a busted ankle, check this out.

If you want to know the rest of the (sadly, increasingly dull) story, you’ve come to the right place.

I spent the first couple of weeks of my pseudo-convalescence trying to get a Medical Absence Form filled out. I wanted to know the surgeon’s official opinion on whether I could continue to work, and if so, how. My place of employment wanted to know too.

This is where somebody like Jackie Chan and me differ. Jackie Chan broke his foot on the set of Rumble in the Bronx. Like me, he was told to keep his weight off that foot for several weeks. Unlike me, he had a film to finish. So he simply returned to the set of Rumble in the Bronx, painted his cast to look like a sneaker, and got on with the job.

You won’t see a broken ankle slowing this guy down

I, on the other hand, had no interest in hobbling into work every day on a broken ankle. The last thing I wanted to do was re-injure it and make it worse. So I sat in my basement and pestered the surgeon’s office. I suggested emailing the Medical Absence Form to the office so that the surgeon could fill it out and they could email it back to me and I could forward it to work.

“We don’t have email,” a woman at the surgeon’s office told me.

“You don’t have email?” I couldn’t believe it. “How is that possible in 2017?”

“You’d have to ask the IT department.”

“What do you have an IT department for if you don’t have email?” I asked, though of course just because they don’t have email doesn’t mean they don’t have computers and other IT paraphernalia.

The woman I was talking to turned sullen, and it occurred to me that maybe I’d been rude. Which, apart from being uncalled for, probably wouldn’t help my cause any.

“How do I get you the form?” I asked.

“Drop it off,” she suggested.

“I have a broken ankle,” I reminded her. “I’m not exactly mobile.”

“Jackie Chan would drop it off,” she told me. “He’d paint his cast to look like a sneaker and run all the way here and drop it off and then run all the way home again.”

I could believe that.

She didn’t really say that, of course. What she actually said was, “Fax it.”

Which sounded like ancient technology to me, like something people did back in, say, the Twentieth Century. I couldn’t help but wonder if this reflected my surgeon’s approach toward medicine. Had he reset my broken tibia and fibula with ancient Roman bone levers? Had he cauterized my wounds with rusting iron tile cauteries? If I peeked, would I find leeches beneath my cast?

“Fax it is,” I agreed, with no real choice in the matter.

Fortunately, I was able to find a free fax service online, and a mere two weeks after my surgery I was informed that I could either stop work altogether, or work from home. Seeing as I had already been working from home since the Monday following the accident, I opted to keep working. Because I was working from home, it wasn’t even necessary to paint my cast to look like a sneaker.

My first follow-up appointment was scheduled roughly two weeks after the accident. My wife and I arrived at the Fracture Clinic twenty minutes early. To my surprise, they took me in for an X-ray right away, and as soon as they finished snapping photos of my broken bones they led me to an examination room. Within minutes a technician showed up and called up my X-Rays. Seconds later another technician cut off my cast. The place was a model of efficiency. During a brief lull, I snapped several pictures of the X-Rays with my phone. (Later, someone called me on my camera. What a crazy, mixed up world we live in.)

With the cast off, I admired my injured foot. It was one damned ugly appendage. It was so ugly it was beautiful. It was swollen, blistered, battered and bruised. Rows of stitches over the ankle on either side made it look like the work of Frankenstein (I mean the mad scientist, not his monster, for those of you who care about such distinctions). A massive red bruise marred the right side of my foot from the ankle almost to the toes. Another bruise covered the heel on the left side. Four ugly red blisters decorated the right side. Later, at home, both my daughters refused to look at my foot after an initial glimpse. (Naturally, I wanted to show it to everyone. Only herculean self-control has prevented me from posting pictures of it here.)

A slim, well-dressed man with curly black hair showed up and began riffling through a folder presumably containing information about me.

“So, what happened to you?” he asked me.

“Slipped on ice,” I told him.

“Who’s your doctor?”

“Dr. Ibrahim.”

“Oh, that guy,” he said.

I was confused. “Aren’t you him?”

“Yes,” he admitted, with a chuckle.

A comedian, I thought. Good. I’d been afraid he’d be aloof and impatient. I had several questions, some of which had already been answered, such as when would the cast come off (it just had), and what hardware had he placed in my foot (the X-ray clearly indicated nine screws, one plate, and zero screwdrivers).

He answered all my questions patiently, such as which bones were broken, how long I should keep my weight off that foot (four weeks), and when I should come back for another appointment (also four weeks).

Business was booming, so he left to see one of his other many patients, and a young woman in scrubs showed up. Her name was Francesca. I assumed she was a nurse, but she was actually a student training to become a medical technician. Student or not, her job was to pluck the twenty-seven staples out of either side of my leg that Dr. Ibrahim had thoughtfully inserted there.

“Does that hurt?” she asked, digging a particularly stubborn staple out of my ankle.

“No,” I lied, effectively giving her license to dig even deeper for the next one.

Another technician arrived with an enormous big black boot called an Air Cast, all rigid plastic and Velcro. It came with a thick white sock and something resembling a sock but much looser with a hole where the toes were supposed to be. “Use the loose one until the swelling goes down,” the technician told me.

As I write this, seven weeks since breaking my ankle, the swelling has yet to go down. I switched to the tighter sock eventually anyway (okay, the swelling did go down somewhat).

She also gave me a small rubber bulb with a spout on either end used to pump air into (or remove air from) the cast, to make the cast more comfortable (they don’t call it an Air Cast for nothing). I only ever did this a handful of times. Most of the time it seemed fine the way it was.

The Air Cast was a Godsend. Whoever invented it should receive the Nobel Prize. My foot felt Protected in that thing with a capital P. There was no chafing, allowing my blisters to heal properly. I could take it off whenever I wanted to, which I did when sitting for any period of time. After a while I began taking it off at night while sleeping, because if you think wearing socks while sleeping is ridiculous, try sleeping with an Air Cast. Although if I had to get up during the night, I made sure to put it back on, because apparently that’s when a lot of people re-injure themselves, thinking they can hop the few steps to the bathroom without their Air Cast, and then they trip or stumble and break their fragile ankle again and it’s right back to square one.

The next several weeks were a blur. Working from home kept me busy, and as I’ve mentioned before, I assumed most of the cooking chores while my wife took over chores requiring actual mobility, such as walking the dog and chauffeuring our daughters around.

Fast forward four weeks to my next follow-up appointment. Another quick, efficient visit. X-Rays and a short chat with Dr. Ibrahim. My foot was healing just fine. Dr. Ibrahim told me that I should start putting weight on it right away. This would allow me to return to work. I was to stop wearing the Air Cast at home, but continue wearing it outside, but spend the next week and a half gradually weaning myself entirely off both the crutches and the Air Cast.

At home, I took off the cast. I had a pretty pronounced limp but I had no trouble getting around. On Saturday, I took a shower without having to sit down for the first time in six weeks. Glorious! I put the cast back on and took a single crutch with me out to run a few errands, including groceries. I had no trouble walking around with only the cast. On Monday, I wore the cast to work, but took a crutch with me just in case. No problem. Tuesday, I left the crutch at home. Friday, I awoke to find that it had snowed, and there were patches of ice on the ground. I figured the air cast would be more dangerous than wearing a normal winter boot (no traction), so I went to work in normal boots with no cast. It was great wearing normal shoes around the Broadcast Centre.

I’ve now been back to work just over a week. Now that I’m putting weight on my foot, it throbs a bit just about all the time. As I mentioned earlier, it’s still slightly swollen. The bruises are gone, but the blisters have yet to fully heal. I have a fairly pronounced limp, especially after walking for a while. I’ve started physio, but haven’t gone enough to see any real impact.

The journey’s not over yet. Right now I feel like I’ll have a permanent limp and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to run again. Of course I’ll be able to, I tell myself; it just doesn’t feel like it right now. But I’m upright, and walking on two feet, and that’s good enough for now.

I remind myself that we’re just talking about a broken ankle here. To get a sense of perspective, take a look at Jackie Chan’s blooper reel. He’s broken his ankle at least twice and let’s not even get started on his many other crazy injuries.

And then there’s Evel Knievel. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Evel Knievel suffered 433 bone fractures performing 75 motorcycles jumps. He says he only broke 35 bones, but still. He spent a total of 34 months recovering in hospitals.

What’s a mere broken ankle compared to all that?

Barney’s Version

In March 2003, my radio drama colleagues and I recorded a play called Barney’s Version, based on Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s last book. The play was adapted for radio by Howard Wiseman, and directed by Greg Sinclair, or Gregory J. Sinclair, as he was always known in the credits. (Once, when one of Greg’s dramas went long and had to be cut for time, I suggested we save a second or two by cutting out the “ory J” in the credits.)

Barney's Version Cover Art

Matt Willcott, a year away from retirement but still giving it his all, performed sound effects. The glue in this massive production (and by CBC radio drama standards Barney’s Version was a definitely a massive production) was Associate Producer Colleen Woods.

There were many fine actors in this production, including Denis O’Conner (The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, and a veteran of over 300 radio plays for CBC/Radio Canada), Kathy Greenwood (Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and The Wind At My Back), acclaimed actor, director and critic David Gardner, and Wendy Crewson (The Santa Claus movies, in which she played Tim Allen’s ex-wife, and Air Force One, in which she played Harrison Ford’s wife), among others.

Greg had briefly considered fellow Canadian Richard Dreyfuss in the role of Barney, but ultimately decided on Saul Rubinek, who was also Canadian. Rubinek had enjoyed big parts in major Hollywood productions working alongside the likes of Nicholas Cage, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte and Christian Slater. He’d been working as an actor since he was a kid, on the stage, television, radio and film. He had also written, directed, and produced.

Saul Rubinek

Saul Rubinek

How do you get someone of Saul Rubinek’s stature to star in a Canadian radio play? Our casting director, Linda Grearson, put a call into his agent. Not only was Saul available, he was interested. This wouldn’t be his first gig for the CBC. He’d cut his teeth working on CBC Television productions. Saul lives in L.A. with his wife and two kids, so Greg flew him in.

I’d first heard of Saul Rubinek at school at Ryerson, when a teacher had screened a copy of a film about a Russian named Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko. In nineteen forty-five, three days after World War Two, Gouzenko defected to Canada along with one hundred and nine documents proving that the Russians were trying to steal atomic secrets. Gouzenko’s defection sparked the Cold War, as the West used the evidence of espionage to end their alliance with the Russians. Gouzenko, fearing for his life, was given a new identity and became known for wearing a sack on his head during public appearances. But he lived a middle-class life in the Toronto suburb of Clarkson and died of a heart attack in nineteen eighty-two at the age of sixty-three.

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Curiously, the film about Gouzenko, which was written by well-known Canadian journalist and writer Rick Salutin, doesn’t appear on Saul’s extensive filmography on IMDB. Nor is it mentioned in a Wikipedia article about Gouzenko. It’s no doubt buried in the CBC’s television archives, and may never see the light of day again.

Since seeing Saul’s portrayal of Gouzenko, I’d seen him in the films The Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood and The Family Man with Nicholas Cage. He was an accomplished, well-regarded character actor. Rick Salutin called him “very funny.” Greg Sinclair believed that Saul, along with fellow lead Wendy Crewson, were among the best in the business.

When I first learned that Saul Rubinek was going to star in one of our plays, I thought, okay, that’s cool. My next thought was, I wonder how much of a pain in the ass he’ll be. I was thinking that a guy like him might be a bit full of himself, and used to being coddled with craft services, limos, trailers and the like. We didn’t have stuff like that in the CBC Radio Drama department.

Saul showed up on the first day all business. Okay, what’s happening, what are we doing, what page are we on. Short (5’7”, the same height as Tom Cruise) and plump (not fat), with big bushy eyebrows, he looked more like an accountant than a leading man. He could convincingly play Eugene Levy’s brother.

He insisted on wearing headphones during the first scene. I was not happy to hear this. I wasn’t keen on actors wearing headphones. There was the problem of headphone leakage, limited mobility for the actors (the headphones weren’t wireless), and actors becoming too conscious of their voices. In my view, the actors needed to perform their scenes without worrying about what they sounded like. Also, there were a lot of scenes in this play, with many different setups. It would be a pain in the ass to have to run headphones for Saul in every different scene. I was afraid this might be just the tip of the iceberg, the first of many such demands.

I set up the headphones for him.

Immediately after asking for headphones, Saul asked for a table to set his script and other assorted paraphernalia on. I hauled out an old desk that we used as a sound effects prop. Saul set all his stuff on it. Matt pointed out that the table I had selected, which was on wheels, was missing a wheel. It was liable to tip over. Oh. No worries—I found three or four old books to prop it up. But when I lifted it up to shove the books under the problematic corner, the table promptly flipped over, tossing all Saul’s papers onto the floor in a jumbled mess.

I braced myself for an outburst. None came. Without saying a word, Saul leaned over and picked up all his papers without complaint while I finished stabilising the table.

This was a good sign.

We got through several scenes in a brusque, efficient manner, with Saul completely focussed on the task at hand.

For one scene he needed to be sitting, so I provided a chair for him. He sat down before the microphone. We’d gotten rid of the desk, so I thought maybe he might like a music stand to put his script on.

“Wanna stand?” I asked him, holding up a music stand in one hand.

“I’m sitting,” he said.

Greg, Matt and I laughed, thinking that he was joking.

Brandishing the music stand, I repeated, “No, do you wanna stand?”

“Can’t you just lower the mic?” he asked.

I realized that he wasn’t joking, that he had misunderstood.

I repeated as clearly as I could, “Would you like a stand?” but by then he was talking to Greg about some plot point, so I left the music stand in front of him and returned to the control room.

Shortly after that Saul began pestering me about being heard in the control room. Whenever we finished recording a scene, and my presence was required on the studio floor, I muted the microphones, effectively turning them off. You don’t want to have microphones on if you think you might have to handle or move them. Also, when I was on the floor I wanted to be able to speak to the actors and sound effects engineer candidly, without anyone in the control room hearing me. Several times early on Saul tried to talk to the director in the control room after I had muted the microphones, and when he was unsuccessful he didn’t get angry per se, but he was visibly irritated:

“Why can’t he hear me? Can’t you set something up, you know, some kind of permanent mic on the floor which just automatically switches on at the end of every scene so I can talk to the director?”

I told him, “Saul, that might be a good idea with you, but to tell you the truth, other actors, we just don’t want to hear what they have to say,” which earned a laugh from Greg, Matt, and Wendy, and even Saul laughed.

“I’ll tell you what,” I told him. “I’ll suggest it to the other engineers, but it probably won’t go over very well.”

“Why don’t you just build it with a switch so you can turn it off whenever you want?” Saul suggested. “And remember: if you create such a system, you must call it the “Rubinek” system.”

So he was obviously not without a sense of humour about the whole thing.

When I did bring it up to the other engineers in one of our bi-weekly meetings, one of my fellow Recording Engineers said (referring to Saul), “Get over yourself!”

Still, I tried to be much more diligent about leaving the mic on so Saul could be heard in the control room, and any time I had to turn it off, I warned Saul that we wouldn’t be able to hear him for a couple of minutes. I continued to set up headphones for him in every scene. By the third day of recording, I felt that Saul had adapted to the pace of radio drama recording. He’d warmed up considerably (or maybe I had warmed up to him). He was calmer, more relaxed.

There was an old grand piano in the studio. Between takes Saul would sit down and play. He always played the same piece, Gnossienne 1, by French composer Erik Satie.

I was impressed to hear Saul play this piece because I happened to love it. My sister Susan had played it when she was studying piano in High School, inspiring me to memorize it myself. Other than my immediate family, I didn’t know anyone else (other than CBC host and musician Tom Allen, maybe) who even knew of the piece, let alone knew how to play it. Impressing me even more, Rubinek had figured out how to play it by ear, and he played it well.

During another break, Saul told us about working with Clint Eastwood on the set of “Unforgiven.” Saul had a major role in that film as a journalist by the name of W.W. Beauchamp. He told us that Clint always did two takes of every scene: one take and a safety. To block the big fight scene at the end, Clint came in and said to everyone, okay, you figure it out, I’m going for a coffee. Then he went away, came back a couple of hours later and asked, “You got it all worked out?” And then shot the scene.

After getting the master shot and the safety in the can, the cast and crew spent three days shooting extra coverage of the scene, getting all the little cutaways and close ups.

“If you watch that scene,” Saul told us, “you’ll see just one person sitting, and that’s me, because I knew they would take three days to shoot the coverage and I didn’t want to be standing the whole time.”

Saul was just getting into directing himself at that time. He spent a lot of time with Clint learning about directing, and has since directed several television features. The impulse to direct was strong in him. He couldn’t resist the temptation to direct other actors during the recording of Barney’s Version.

“No you have to say, “the Twelve year old!” very aggressively, not mildly,” he instructed David Gardner, who played Barney’s lawyer, referring to Barney’s favourite scotch. Gardner, an accomplished director himself, didn’t appear to mind. It was obvious that Saul’s intent was to make the scene as effective as possible.

Another time Saul burst into the control room to tell Greg to tell an actor something he felt strongly she needed to know, presumably not telling her himself out of fear of offending her. Greg took this all in stride. In fact, the partnership between Saul and Greg was a potent one as they constantly challenged the limitations of the medium.

One obvious limitation of radio is that you can’t see what’s going on. For this reason you have to exercise considerable caution when conveying action in a radio play, especially when attempting traveling shots. A traveling shot is a shot in television, film or radio in which the camera/microphone follows characters on the move. Think Xander on his skateboard in the opening shot of the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, skating down the street and into his high school. Another famous example is the seven minute and forty-seven second long tracking shot that opens Robert Altman’s The Player. Imagine how confusing that shot would be without pictures.

Travelling shots can be tricky in any medium. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the pilot episode, regretted the time it took to set up and execute the travelling shot with Xander. He was used to film. In film, you can take more time to get a shot, unlike television with its stricter shooting schedules.

In radio, writers often write travelling shots accidentally. They don’t even realize they’ve done it until they get to that scene in the studio and the recording engineer exclaims, what the heck? This is a travelling shot! You do realize how difficult travelling shots are to convey on radio, don’t you? To which the writer responds, why are you surprised? Didn’t you read the script before getting here? To which the engineer grumbles, well, the director should have caught it, at which point the director jerks awake in his chair and asks, what scene are we on?

Travelling shots are tough to present on the radio because the listener can’t see what’s going on. If you fail to convey the fact that the characters are moving through the only two options available—dialogue and sound effects—then the listener won’t understand what’s going on and your production will suffer.

However, it can be done if you know what you’re doing. There was a scene in Barney’s Version in which Barney runs back and forth between his living room and his kitchen trying to remember the word for “colander.” When I first read this scene in the script, I immediately considered it a mistake and began contemplating how it might be re-written so that it wouldn’t be a travelling shot. I thought it would be tough to make the listener understand that Barney was moving back and forth between a living room and a kitchen.

Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Greg and Saul begged to differ. As I’ve mentioned before, we were blessed with a terrific studio in which multiple set ups were possible. Greg instructed me to set up a living room acoustic space directly adjacent to our built-in working kitchen. The kitchen acoustic was completely different than the living room acoustic—listening to dialogue spoken in one, you could not mistake it for the other. This was critical.

To make the travelling shot work, we set up two stereo microphones, one in front of Barney’s chair in the living room, and another covering the kitchen. We kept both microphones live, so that when Barney (Saul) moved from the kitchen to the living room and back again you could clearly hear the change in acoustic. Saul made lots of noise while moving back and forth so that the listener could clearly track his movements.

By this point in the show we had completely established the living room as a distinct acoustic environment, by (among other things) consistently using the same sound props (leather chair, glass of scotch, tape recorder). This, together with liberal use of obvious kitchen props (cutlery drawer, dishes etc), made it abundantly clear to the listener exactly where Barney was at all times.

When I wasn’t setting up neat tracking shots for Greg, he kept me and Matt Willcott busy lugging stuff around, couches, chairs, tables, from one set up to another. Matt and I hardly ever did this kind of thing. It was radio, after all. It wasn’t like anyone was going to see the furniture. In most radio plays, we just imagined the chairs and tables were there, unless we really needed to hear them somehow, and even then we just used a stool to double as a table or to create the squeak of a chair being drawn back. But Greg was going out of his way to make the actors—Saul in particular—comfortable. Many of our actors were experienced film and television actors who preferred to perform their actions with real props.

From time to time, as we lugged one piece of furniture or another, Matt would grumble, “Who’s gonna see the table on the radio?” That’s when he wasn’t saying, “Tippets and Richardsons: you tip it and I’ll rip it!” (Tippets and Richardsons being a well-known moving company in Toronto.)

“You know, I’m a recording engineer, not a mover,” I told Greg. “I’m supposed to be more of a white collar worker.”

Wendy Crewson overheard me. “Well, you’re an engineer, right? There’s all kinds of engineers. Sanitation engineers, for instance. Don’t they move things?”

“I think whether I’m a sanitation engineer or a recording engineer depends on the drama I’m recording,” I told her.

Later, I asked Wendy what it was like working with Harrison Ford.

“He’s a wonderful person,” she told me. “Not at all like he comes across in interviews. He’s a party boy, a lot of fun. He used to zoom up to my trailer on his motorcycle and bang on the trailer. Come on, let’s go! he would shout, and then with me on the back of his motorcycle, smoking a big doobie and thinking, if only they could see me now! we’d zoom off for Thai food.” Apparently Harrison loves Thai food.

Wendy Crewson

Wendy Crewson

When she told me that Harrison was a nice guy, I told her I’d ask Harrison the same thing about her.
“You know what I think he’d say? The exact same thing I said about him,” she said, and laughed, because really, what else are ya gonna say.

All of the actors in Barney’s Version were superb. This is not surprising. Casting Director Linda Grearson never let us down. We had no trouble attracting top-notch talent. Actors seemed to like making radio plays with us. The atmosphere in Studio 212 was always pleasant. And when you’re performing for radio you don’t even have to memorize your lines: you have the script right in front of you.

Two performances stand out. Kathy Greenwood was sincere and touching as Barney Panofsky’s ill-treated second wife. Kathy brought an endearing quality to the role that made Panofsky look like a fool for not loving her properly. And Saul as Barney Panofsky was a revelation to me. It wasn’t Method, I don’t think—when not in character, Saul was himself—but when he sat in Barney’s chair and drank Barney’s scotch and tried in vain to remember what a colander was called, Saul Rubinek inhabited Barney Panofsky. He didn’t just lift the words off the page. He strapped Saturn 5 rockets to them, achieved escape velocity, and placed them in orbit. As I recorded him, I tried to figure out how he was doing it.

For one thing, he knew the script cold. He may have memorized much of it. If not, he’d clearly gone over it many times. He was not one hundred percent married to the script. If he felt the need to change a line slightly to make it sound more natural, he changed it. Subtle changes here and there. He was not afraid to grunt and clear his throat and fart and burp and inject whatever other flourishes he felt were required to bring Barney Panofsky to life. Nobody objected.

I don’t expect I’ll ever fully understand the alchemy involved.

Saul’s work was illuminating in other ways, too. Looking back, I see that in a few short years I had become lazy, conservative, and rigid in my thinking. Saul was operating on a whole different level. His energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism challenged me to open my mind, to think bigger, to do better. His example has informed my work ever since, whatever form that work has taken.

Novels and Nephews

My nephew Ryley was doing what he loved best: writing and directing films. He was increasing his knowledge of filmmaking and making connections in the Ottawa film community. His films were crewed by fellow filmmakers and shot on location in and around Ottawa. He had several short films in post-production.

It all came crashing to a halt when he started feeling tired all the time and doctors discovered a growth on the mechanical valve in his heart. He’s had heart trouble since the day he was born. Since being admitted to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute in early October he’s received excellent care, but he’d much rather be out making films.

University of Ottawa Heart Institute.  (Photo by Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen)

University of Ottawa Heart Institute. (Photo by Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen)

About a month after he was admitted to the hospital I found myself in Ottawa attending a conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature (Can-Con). (It’s a lot more fun than it sounds.) It had been a rocky month for Ryley, including a stint in the Intensive Care Unit, but it looked like he was on the mend. He figured he’d be out of the hospital by Sunday, so I made plans to drop by his apartment Sunday morning, the last day of the conference.

I drove up in a rented car with Dr. Allan Weiss of York University. This was an excellent start to the conference. Allan and I had lots to talk about, such as what five SF films would you screen in an introductory course on speculative fiction? So many great films to choose from. I can’t remember which films Allan actually includes in his course, but I suggested the following:

Planet of the Apes (1968)
Gattaca
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Silent Running
Moon

None of which would make my nephew Ryley’s list. He prefers grittier fare, such as American History X, and most of Martin Scorcese’s films.

I dropped Allan off at his hotel Friday afternoon and checked into the Sheraton, where the conference was being held.

Several weeks earlier, I had emailed Dr. Robert Runte, Senior Editor of Five Rivers Publishing, looking for clarification regarding their submission window. I had a 110,000 word speculative fiction manuscript I was looking to submit. According to the Five Rivers website, the window looked to be several minutes long sometime in middle of a cold, dark night in January. I wanted to make sure I didn’t blink and miss it.

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Runte told me never mind the window, just send him the manuscript. He was also attending CanCon, and I was looking forward to meeting him.

When I told Ryley that I would be in town for a writer’s conference, and that I had written a novel, he wasn’t particularly impressed. He believes that books are a thing of the past. He knows that I made a short film many years ago, and has told me several times that I should give up my foolish dream of writing books and return to film making.

Ryley himself is a fine writer. He spends many hours writing scripts for his films. Often he will stay up all night writing. He’s good at dialogue. His scripts are visceral, kinetic, sometimes violent. They have strong linear narratives and memorable characters.

Back to the conference.

Dr. Runte had suggested I call him once I was settled in. I did so from the hotel lobby.

“Be right down,” he told me.

Two minutes later I found myself staring at a contract.

A fine start to a writer’s conference.

We spent a good hour talking about the publishing business and my book. This alone was worth the price of admission. Peoples’ eyes glaze over pretty quickly when I start talking about writing. Not Dr. Runte’s.

He told me that he’d given my manuscript along with two others to his assistant editor Kathryn Shalley. After reading all three, Kathryn recommended that Five Rivers take on mine. I don’t know what she actually said, but what Dr. Runte said she said was that she loved it.

I think that bears repeating: she said that she loved my book.

It’s entirely possible that Dr. Runte misunderstood her, and that Kathryn actually said she shoved my book, or loved my look, or was referring to something else entirely, but the important thing is that Dr. Runte heard “loved my book”, so he recommended to publisher Lorina Stephens that Five Rivers publish it.

I shall be eternally grateful to Kathryn Shalley.

“Don’t sign right away,” Dr. Runte advised. “Think about it first.”

I did think about it.

I also thought about my nephew Ryley languishing in a hospital room a fifteen minute drive away. They hadn’t let him out of the hospital after all. He’d developed an infection and a rash. As I considered Dr. Runte’s offer, Ryley was listening to doctors tell him that they would have to operate and that there was a ten percent chance that he would die and that he would almost certainly require an entirely new heart someday.

My novel, A Time and a Place, is about an uncle trying to save his nephew. The nephew’s name is Ridley. I wrote the first draft (and named the characters) long before Ryley was born. Like the uncle in my novel, I once turned into a seagull to try to save my nephew. No, wait, that didn’t happen. But the fact that I should be offered a publishing deal for a book about an uncle trying to save his nephew on a weekend that I would be visiting a nephew in serious trouble struck me as eerily coincidental.

Like the uncle in my novel, I was essentially powerless to help my nephew. I am not at all averse to attempting heart surgery but I expect Ryley would prefer that I not start with him. So I limited my support to texts and phone calls and a visit.

Ryley is a bit of a deep thinker. Our conversations quickly escalate from “Hey, how are you?” to “what do you think of free will?” Ryley believes that every choice we make is dictated by every action we’ve taken up until that point. I asked him how it could be otherwise. He told me that I was just like everyone else; that I didn’t understand. I told him that I understood perfectly, that he wasn’t the only one who ever thought about these sorts of things.

I suggested he consider a thought experiment. Someone has just popped into existence from nowhere and has to decide what to do, but they have no prior experience upon which to base their decision. Would that first decision not constitute free will?

Ryley wasn’t convinced. “It can’t happen. It’s impossible for someone to just pop into existence. So it doesn’t prove anything.”

I told him about a scene in my novel where the main character begins to question the existence of free will. He reasons that if someone from the future tells him that he’s going to drink a cup of coffee because they have seen him do so in his past, and it’s impossible to change that past, then they will have no choice but to drink that cup of coffee. If you can’t change the past in a universe that permits time travel, then everything must be predetermined.

Ryley’s eyes glazed over. I had made the mistake of talking about my writing.

I needed to make a decision myself. That decision would necessarily be predicated upon everything that had ever happened to me. It might or might not constitute an act of free will. It was whether to sign Dr. Runte’s contract and publish with Five Rivers, or hold out for one of the so-called Big Five (Penguin Random House, MacMillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster).

I read the Five Rivers contract late Saturday night. I liked it. Unfortunately, I knew next to nothing about contracts. According to Dr. Runte, it had been written by Margaret Atwood’s lawyer, one of the country’s finest entertainment lawyers.

I signed it.

But I didn’t give it to Dr. Runte right away.

I carried it with me as I attended panels and mingled. There were a lot of smart people around. I asked some of them for counsel. One told me to hold out for the Big Five. Everybody else congratulated me.

There were an inordinate number of doctors at the conference. Dr. Runte, Dr. Weiss, and several medical doctors, including Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes, with whom I’d worked on a CBC Radio play a few years back. This was the first time we’d actually met. I checked out two of her panels and we had a lovely chat afterwards. She asked if I’d considered self-publishing my novel, but did not appear opposed to the Five Rivers deal.

Melissa Yuan-Innis

Melissa Yuan-Innis

I spent a few moments chatting with David Hartwell, Senior Editor of Tor, a major SF publisher, but we didn’t talk about Five Rivers or my novel. Instead we talked about a high fantasy series I happened to be re-reading just then, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogy, a favourite series by a favourite author. Hartwell had rejected the series for Tor. The series had needed a lot of work, he told me. Luckily for Donaldson, Lester Del Rey of Ballantine Books picked it up and turned Donaldson’s single baroque epic into three separate, readable books.

The Covenant trilogy is about a leper, Thomas Covenant, who is destined to become the saviour of another world called The Land. Covenant becomes healthy in this alternate world, but he refuses to believe that The Land is real. This is a defense mechanism. Covenant fears that if he accepts the reality of The Land and his newfound health, and he’s translated back to reality, he won’t be equipped to deal with his leprosy anymore, and it will kill him.

Covenant wasn’t the only one struggling with reality. So was my nephew Ryley when I visited him on Sunday.

“What if you’re not real?” he suggested. “What if no one’s real but me?”

“I feel pretty real,” I told him.

Later, I wondered under what circumstances someone might believe that they were real when in fact they weren’t. A character in a book, perhaps.

I told him about the Covenant books, and Covenant’s struggle with reality. He wasn’t impressed. Books were a dying art, after all.

They were still worth publishing though, in my view.

Saturday afternoon, Dr. Runte and I discussed my book. He let me have it straight. I wasn’t likely to get rich and famous publishing with Five Rivers. I might only sell a couple of hundred copies. Much of the success of the book would be up to me. But I would get a team of talented people who would help me create as good a work of art as possible, and who would publish it with as much care and expertise as they could muster.

I attended a party that night. I chatted with several authors, including Ryan McFadden, whose novel Cursed: Black Swan was about to come out with Dragon Moon Press. He encouraged me to sign with Five Rivers. Moments later I found myself chatting with Barry King, who used to work with ChiZine, another independent Canadian publisher.

“I won’t tell you what to do,” Barry said, before proceeding to tell me what to do.

He pointed out that I had a publisher who loved my book and was keen to publish it. How often was that likely to happen? I might never have another chance. Barry himself had an unfinished novel in a desk drawer. I encouraged him to finish it. Someday, he said. Maybe.

I had never met Barry before, but I liked him instantly. Speaking to him, I realized that I needed to work with Dr. Runte on this book, and maybe the next one too.

That night I gave Dr. Runte the signed contract.

The day after that I visited Ryley in the hospital.

Ryley likes fine automobiles. He often includes them in his films. When I visited him, he wanted to know what car I was driving. It just so happened that I had rented a Cadillac for the weekend. Which one? Not much of a car aficionado, I couldn’t remember. When I went back outside to put some more money in the meter, I snapped a picture of it.

“Oh, it’s an SRX,” he told me, looking at the photo. “I used to own an SRX.”

What were the odds?

The Rental

The Rental

We talked a bit about my book. I told him I wasn’t looking to get rich and famous.

“Would you be offended if I told you something straight?” he asked me.

“Go for it,” I told him.

“You’re settling,” he accused me. “You need to be more ambitious.”

I used to want to be rich and famous, I told him. Now I have a different perspective. I have a roof over my head. Food in my belly. I’m surrounded by people I love who love me. There’s no empty feeling inside. Call that settling if you will, but I don’t need anything more.

Doesn’t mean I’m not going to bust my butt to sell as many copies of my book as I possibly can.

We spoke a bit about reality and free will. I told him that I was going to dedicate my book in part to him. He thought that was cool, having forgotten, perhaps, that I had no choice in the matter (no such thing as free will) and that I was merely a figment of his imagination anyway.

It was a good visit.

A month later, Ryley had heart surgery. It could have gone terribly wrong. It didn’t. The surgeon was able to clean out the clot and some other growth that was obstructing his mechanical valve. He’s recovering. Hopefully he will be out of the hospital soon and back to making films.

I wish I could end it there, but I can’t.

A week before Ryley’s surgery, I was told that Barry King died. I have no idea how or why. I had only met him once. Just long enough for him to talk me into signing with Five Rivers.

Joe`s Favourite Flicks

Friends who have checked out my list of Ten Films You Might Not Have Seen But Perhaps Ought To have questioned the absence of certain films they know I love but that aren`t on that list.

That`s because that list is a list of slightly more obscure films. A list of my absolute favourite films would consist of different films. Such a list would be much shorter, and might look something like this (in no particular order, because they are all equal in my mind):

Little Big Man (1970)

I first saw this movie when I was about eleven, and I`ve seen it many times since. Such is the power of this movie that even during the long years I didn`t really like Dustin Hoffman as an actor (it was probably his choice of roles I didn`t like) I continued to love him in this role. It`s an episodic tale, which is probably another reason I love the movie, skipping from tone to tone, story to story in a linear fashion.

I couldn`t find a proper trailer, but here`s a decent clip. The clip doesn`t give a proper sense of the scope and majesty of this movie, but it does reveal its occasional gravitas.

Life Is Beautiful (1997)

This is the only movie that has ever made me cry (though It`s a Wonderful Life sometimes makes me tear up, especially when I see it on the big screen). I laughed throughout Life is Beautiful, and when the credits rolled, I burst into tears right there in the theatre and sobbed like a baby for a full minute, much to my wife`s amazement. I have never cried before, during or after another movie in my life. In fact, I didn`t even think I had tear ducts until then. You will have to see the movie for yourself to understand why I cried, and perhaps even then you won`t understand, but the fact that it was capable of reducing me to such a state is but one of many reasons I love it.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

This is not a movie for people with short attention spans. There are long, slow scenes. But once you get into it, once you absorb the pace and feel of the movie, it`s terrific. Clint Eastwood is appealing as the kind of guy you wish you could be like, but it`s really Eli Wallach who walks away with this movie with his energetic performance.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

I caught this movie one morning back in the late eighties around Christmas time before working a late shift in Radio Master Control at the Jarvis Street CBC. What a gift! Sean Connery and Michael Caine together. With Christopher Plummer, no less. And John Huston directing. I`ve always been fascinated by John Huston, the charismatic asshole who also directed The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and picked on Ray Bradbury mercilessly during the making of Moby Dick. (It wasn`t the whale who was the dick during the making of that movie.)

Anyway, if you like adventure movies, I`m pretty sure you`ll love The Man Who Would Be King.

Excalibur (1981)

King Arthur, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table. What`s not to like? Especially if served up properly, as it is in this flick. Liam Neeson has an early role as a knight. Nicol Williamson delivers a slightly eccentric but brilliant performance as Merlin. And Nigel Terry, who my casting director friend Linda Grearson once met and cannot stop talking about whenever his name comes up, is a wonderful King Arthur. There has never been a better movie about King Arthur, at least that I have seen.

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