The Executioner: By the Neck By David Cairns
Designing for del Toro By Eric Skillman
These tributes first appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Brick, a literary journal based in Toronto. They are posted here by permission of the authors. The photographs appear courtesy of Colleen Murphy.
After we decided to get married, Allan said, “Colleen, I’ve got our honeymoon all mapped out. We’ll drive to Chicago, stay in a cheap hotel, visit art galleries, hear the Chicago Symphony, go see Frank Lloyd Wright’s house, then drive across the northern states and down to Salt Lake City just to see the salt and see the city, then drive back up and through Oregon into Canada, see my sister in Vancouver, maybe see if I can direct a television episode or two, then drive all the way back across Canada and we can listen to all the Beethoven symphonies four or five times on the tape player in the car. What do you think?” I told him I thought it was great as long as we split the driving and listened to country music 50 percent of the time. I had to hand it to him: the man didn’t hesitate, he just said, “Well, that’s only fair.”
We head over the border and everything’s going grand until we get close to Chicago and Allan spies a sign that says “U.S. Steel.” “Oh boy,” he says, “I have to see this . . . ,” and turns the car onto a road where a sign says “Property of U.S. Steel—Do Not Enter,” and I say, “Allan, that sign said do not enter,” and he says, “I never saw a sign.” So we’re driving along a deserted road looking up at these huge decayed mills left over from the recent collapse of U.S. Steel (this was 1987), and Allan’s getting very excited. He stops the car, pulls out his camera, and starts taking shots and going on about how these magnificently disintegrating structures signal the end of the industrial revolution, the dying days of the twentieth century. Then he jumps back into the car and peels off, saying, “This is fascinating; I must see everything,” and that’s when four police cruisers suddenly surround our car. The police get out and even aim their guns, and Allan turns to me and whispers, “I want you to remember this for next time. When police stop you, don’t sit in the car. Jump out and face them on equal ground.” So we jump out and they lower their guns and a big guy says, “Who are you?” and Allan says, “Allan King.”
“Let’s see some ID.” And Allan hands his driver’s license over. The cop sniffs it. “You Canadian?”
“Why are you in the USA?”
“We’re on our honeymoon, sir.” All the police turn to me and I can tell they don’t believe Allan for one second, so like a goof I hold up my ring hand and Allan holds up his ring hand and the rings are both exactly the same and we realize almost at once that the cops probably think we bought them at a crappy souvenir shop at the border. Then another police officer turns to Allan and barks, “What do you do?”
“I’m an independent filmmaker.”
“Yeah? Who do you work for?”
“I work for myself.”
“Yeah? Who’s your boss?”
“I’m an independent filmmaker?”
“Yeah? You take any photographs just now?”
And Allan says yes and they say why and he says for my personal interest and then they tell him to hand over the camera because they have to confiscate the film. Allan very, very slowly opens his camera and very, very slowly takes out the film, saying, “I thought America was a democracy, but I guess I was wrong because the last time I was treated like this was when I was in Yugoslavia in the fifties.” The police get all patriotic and hangdog and apologetic, but they take his film anyway and tell us to leave. As we pull away, Allan turns to me and says he has more film in the dash and we could probably sneak back and take a few shots, and I say, “Allan King, it’s not like I just want to moo around in a heart-shaped bathtub in a cheap hotel in Nebraska for two weeks, but I want this to be a regular honeymoon.” And he says, “Colleen Murphy, this is going to be a regular honeymoon, but it’s also going to be an adventure.” And he was right.
For twenty-four years it was great adventure; it was a great adventure because Allan was a gentleman. When he became fearful or angry, he didn’t raise his fists—he opened his arms. He didn’t raise his voice, he talked . . . and talked and talked.
Allan’s life was an adventure because he was not afraid of the world.
You know you’ve done something right when half the speakers at your memorial service are less than half your age. Allan King died at the age of seventy-nine [in 2009], but it seemed as though a great number of the people who got up to speak about him at his memorial were under forty. I was struck by the impact one man could have on communities past, present, and future. I already knew the impact he’d had on me.
I first met Allan King when I was ten years old. He was directing me in a few episodes of Road to Avonlea, and my memory of him seems to revolve around a lack of presence. He was almost invisible. He let himself disappear. I often thought in later years, after I fell in love with his legendary body of work, that it was a shame I didn’t get to know him back then. But more recently I’ve thought that maybe I did.
He was trusting. He never gave direction. He never once raised his voice. These are qualities that a child actor, used to booming voices and micromanaging, deeply values. Most directors stormed on set, made themselves known, demonstrated their control, their vision, and defined the set with their character. Allan didn’t. It was as though we were all functioning on our own and his role was to watch us respectfully from the corner. I remember Michael York once guest-starred in an episode, and he turned to my ten-year-old self after a take and said, “How am I doing? This guy is giving me no idea.” I remember thinking, Don’t you know? When I was working with Allan, I seemed to get into a rhythm of trusting my instincts, paying attention, being rigorous with my work, assessing it, and trying to make it better. He gave even a ten-year-old that freedom, responsibility, and respect. When another more vocal, controlling director would inevitably replace him on a subsequent episode, those skills had to be put away again until Allan came back. He taught me a lot by saying nothing at all.
I didn’t hear the name Allan King again for about fifteen years. I saw that the Toronto film festival was doing a retrospective on his documentaries, and I was flummoxed. Huh? The episodic-TV guy made documentaries? Good for him!
I have always been embarrassed by my lack of film knowledge. I do my best to see as many films as I can—but mostly it’s so I don’t get caught in awkward conversations where I reveal myself as a complete moron. Sometimes I wonder whether I even like the medium that much. The retrospective that year of Allan’s work made me passionate enough about his work to become an expert on at least one filmmaker. In a few days I saw most of his films and was left breathless, overwhelmed, and in awe of the silent man I knew from the set. His films made me ask questions I’d never asked myself—about how we can connect to one another, how far we are capable of reaching out to other people. So much has been written about his films—about his pioneering of vérité, his interest in community, etc. What I came away with above all, particularly from his later films, was a passionate curiosity about how we can make compassion practical—how we can transform it from an emotion into something that actually reaches someone. Can you be a healing force for an adolescent’s pain and anger? Can you be of use to someone when they are losing their memory in unpredictable pieces? Can you help someone as they go through the process of dying? These are daunting questions to ask ourselves. But as his wife, Colleen, said at his memorial service, “He wasn’t afraid of the world.”
He came to every Q&A of the retrospective and had a dialogue with the audience. He didn’t just answer their questions, he created a conversation. He was fair. He was uncompromising. And when they were offensive, he was honest with them. After being asked by an angry audience member what he thought of a belligerent question, Allan said simply, “I don’t engage with it.” And then he explained calmly and rationally why. That week I discovered that “that nice guy who was really quiet and directed boring television” was my favorite filmmaker in the world and a pretty great guy.
When I saw him at the end of the week and I said, buffoonishly, “I didn’t know you made documentaries!” he smiled kindly and said, “Yeah. I do.” He sat and talked with me and graciously let me ask every question he’d probably been asked a thousand times.
[In 2009], I was part of a film laboratory, developing my first documentary project. Allan came in as one of the guests. He had clearly spent thoughtful time with our proposals and brought with him many ideas and questions and a lot of encouragement. He was brilliant and articulate, as always. He also seemed a bit tired. And sometimes forgetful.
In Allan’s film Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, we witness the staff at Baycrest hospital gently supporting the patients as they lose their memories. Their compassion is heartbreaking, awe-inspiring, and overwhelmingly practical.
At one point during his visit, Allan read us the thoughts he had typed out on our various films. He began by reading his notes on my project. Then he put them down, reshuffled his papers, picked them up again, and proceeded to repeat the same reading. It was one of those moments when a room of people holds their breath, not knowing what to do. When he paused and looked up, I gently handed him another project that he hadn’t read yet and asked him if he wanted to read it instead. It was a strange moment for me. In situations like that, I usually watch helplessly, mortified and angry at my own inaction. Allan picked up the new document and began reading without noticing the awkwardness. My breath caught in my throat. I thought, I learned how to do this from you. I learned how to take care of you in this moment because your films have taught me practical lessons about how to make myself useful in situations like this one.
So much can be said about him. He changed documentary, he changed Canadian film. He was unfailingly generous with younger filmmakers and a champion of the community. He is also the only filmmaker I’ve ever met who openly prided himself on letting people do their jobs and staying out of their way. Filmmaking seems to be a profession dominated by people who love being the captain, the visionary, the master manipulator. He invented a way of being within that profession that is lonely, generally unrewarded, and heroic.
One of the hardest things about being an artist is that you cannot ever measure the impact your work has had, either for an individual or a community. Even if people are affected by it, does it change them? Does it alter their habitual responses? Picking up that paper for Allan was the only real proof I’ve ever had that that is possible. I wish I could tell him how grateful I am.
Our first contact was over Skidrow, his superb 1956 documentary of Vancouver’s troubled downtown streets. I was producing and directing Close-Up at the CBC, for which I acquired Skidrow, setting off a relationship with Allan King that was to burgeon into one of the most fruitful, provocative, and stimulating of my long broadcasting career. For a couple of years, starting in 1968, we shared offices in a rented house on Hazelton Avenue, which was then on the threshold of becoming one of the toniest addresses in central Toronto. And one of the things we laughed about for years afterward—laughter colored by more than a touch of bitter regret—was that we allowed a “financially sophisticated” friend to talk us out of buying that house for a quarter of a million dollars (the mortgage would have been a huge burden for us then), when it was about to multiply something like fivefold in value.
Earlier, in 1965, Allan King Associates was operating successfully out of London, England. That summer I went off to Paris on a fishing trip for This Hour Has Seven Days, looking for celebrity interviews (Alec Guinness, Orson Welles) and supported by a first-rate crew out of the AKA offices in London. These people were supremely confident in their own taste and skills but at the same time respectful of the journeying Canadian performer-journalists like myself, who often engaged the AKA crews and directors for shoots in the United Kingdom and on the Continent. It was a very productive summer, and I remember being aware of the invisible presence of Allan and his blend of high standards and appetite for risk, manifest among the stimulating group he sent over to Paris with me, among them Bill Brayne on camera and Gwen Gillie (now Iveson) as production supervisor.
Out of those years of collaboration with Allan King float up myriad nourishing memories, one of which I would like to share.
Although the CBC had made it pretty clear that I was persona non grata after canceling This Hour Has Seven Days in the spring of 1966, and I was feeling too bruised and tender to want to be anywhere near the place, there was some unfinished business. As executive producer of the monthly feature Document, I had accepted Allan King’s proposal for a long-form cinema verité documentary about Warrendale, a radically permissive residential school for emotionally disturbed children. The film was in postproduction at Allan’s London production house when the Seven Days brouhaha ended, and Allan said he expected to have a fairly advanced cut early in the autumn. He had asked me to voice the narration as well, and because I had been involved from the start and was convinced that it would be a very important film, I was reluctant to walk away from it.
I spoke privately with the new head of public affairs television, and we agreed that I would complete my duties as executive producer (and narrator) for this one project, quietly and without pay. He would smooth things over with the management. And so I was able to play my small role through to the end, formally accepting the finished film on behalf of the CBC, my absolutely final appearance as a CBC television producer. In December I went to London for a week or ten days to sit through the final stages of the fine cut with Allan and his editor, Peter Moseley, and to polish the narration into its final form.
The film was pure experience, and we were doing everything we could to keep the narration to the minimum; as long as the viewer was not lost or confused, it would be better to let what happened on the screen tell the story. Almost every day, Moseley would show us a bit of reediting he had done that allowed a scene to work without the narration that had been drafted for it. And then there came that magical morning when Allan said he thought, now, that we could eliminate the narration altogether—would I mind that very much?
A documentary film with no narration? I mean, how are you supposed to know who’s who and what’s going on?
But it was clear that he was right. And we were so pleased with ourselves that we knocked off early and went out for lunch and a good bottle of wine.
Ironically, the CBC was so frightened of Warrendale, particularly the repeated use of the word fuck (it was, after all, a house full of distressed kids, mostly adolescents), that they refused to broadcast it, even after it began to circle the world, garnering international awards. TVO, to its credit, has now shown this great work a few times, but it still has never been shown by the broadcaster who commissioned and paid for it.
Warrendale remains a major and canonical element of the superb legacy of this most extraordinary filmmaker. And that moment—when Allan King perceived that we should reduce the narration to zero—is still for me one of the most vivid cutting-room memories of all.