16. April 2015 · Comments Off on Five Questions With “Skip Tracer” Director Zale R. Dalen – Part 1 · Categories: Feature Films, Five Questions with..., Ottawa · Tags: , , ,
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Photo of Zale R. Dalen by Tim Johnson

“When we made “Skip Tracer”, credit cards were a new thing. I could see how they were going to take over, making it easier and easier to spend money and go into debt. But they hadn’t really been developed yet”, Zale R. Dalen, writer/director/editor of the 1977 film “Skip Tracer” tells Ottawa Indie Fest during a recent interview.

“Skip Tracer” is a free-wheeling private detective story with the twist that the detective is a loan agency’s debt collector hunting down ‘skips’ who have stopped repaying their loans.

Set on the mean streets of Vancouver in the late 1970s, Zale provides insight into the making of his first feature film which screens at the ByTowne Cinema on April 21st as part the Lost Dominion Collective Screenings on-going series of film screenings.

Where did the idea for your film Skip Tracer come from?

“Skip Tracer” began as an idea for a B movie. I was trying to figure out why cop and crime drama was so popular. It seemed to me that the reason was that they are easy to write. If the basis of drama is conflict, a cop drama has a built in conflict. There is always a criminal about to do something, or having done something, and a cop who is trying to prevent the crime, or catch the criminal. You can mix in an infinite number of variations in situation and motive, but there is never a problem inventing the conflict. It seemed to me that a bill collector or skip tracer, the cop of the business world, had a similar built in conflict.

So “Skip Tracer” initially was going to be about a legendary skip, a guy who had never been found and whose bills had never been collected, a skip so elusive that some believed he didn’t really exist, and a skip tracer at the height of his career who wanted to nail this guy. I wrote about fifty pages of this story idea and it was all derivative Hollywood crap. I just hated it. So I threw those fifty pages away and started doing research.

Skip Tracer Compodite Photo 2

Poster and production still from “Skip Tracer”

I interviewed loan officers and skip tracers working at actual companies. What I discovered was that many loan companies do not pay their agents a living wage. The agent makes his money through a complicated formula of loans handed out versus loans that go delinquent and loans that can’t be collected. The bonuses were substantial, and the top agent, the Man of the Year, might be treated to an all expense paid vacation, a private office, a private parking spot, and high status. Competition is encouraged. It’s a system designed to motivate agents to take risk on questionable loans, and play hardball when it comes time to collect. Gradually the script became more about the way consumers are manipulated into buying beyond their means, and everybody in the system is manipulated to produce maximum effort while dehumanizing the “clients”.

Can you share with us some of the memories you have of working on Skip Tracer?

Oh so many memories. It was a tiny budget, $145,000 if I remember correctly. That was enough in those days to put something on the screen, but it didn’t allow for experiments or mistakes. It was my first major film and I didn’t know what I was doing, so I spent the shoot in terror of two things – not having enough story to make a movie out of and not having enough time and money to get it in the can.

I was coming from a background in writing, editing, and sound recording. My first experience on set reminded me of my first time driving in city traffic. If you remember that experience, it is sensory overload. You are trying to be aware of everything, all the traffic from every direction. And on set I was just buzzing with attention to everything that was happening. The night shoots felt like swimming through chaos. And then I’d look at the images in the rushes and they seemed so serene. Where was all that tension? After enough hours on set I learned to relax and only pay attention to what needed my attention. Suddenly being on set became like driving in city traffic after years of experience, no big deal. You know where to put your attention, and can relax about he stuff that doesn’t directly matter. Of course the things that did demand my attention still caused tension. Am I getting the performance? Does it sound real? Is there anything more I can add or ask for that will take the scene up one level? It’s easy to sleepwalk through directing, but I hope I have never done that.

Speaking of sounding real, there was one line in one of the office scenes where the receptionist tells Collins that a client is waiting for him. But her delivery just sounded really stiff to me. It occurred to me that she would not be imparting this information in an open office area in a normal voice. She would try to make it for his ears only. So I explained this to the actor and asked her to whisper. That was magic. Suddenly the line sounded real. It was tiny triumphs like this one that made being a director so much fun for me. I find I am always listening for the false sounding line, and trying to find a way to help the actor put that line in context to make it sound real.

Before directing Skip Tracer, you worked with documentary filmmaker Allan King. Did that experience have an influence on the shooting and story telling style for Skip Tracer?

Calling Allan King a documentary film maker is a bit misleading. He attained fame for Cinema Verite, a style of creating drama that set out certain premises and then asked the actors to improvise scenes and situations that advanced the theme. This meant there would be an incredibly high shooting ration. One movie I worked on, as an assistant editor, Allan put a group of teenagers in a house in the country with a cameraman and a sound man and told them to do whatever they wanted to do. A hundred and twenty-eight thousand feet of super sixteen film later the result was handed to Arla Saare, the editor, to make into a movie. I didn’t have anything like that budgetary freedom with Skip Tracer, and to try the same thing would have been a disaster.

What working with Allan King Associates did for me was introduce me to great technical artists like Bill Brane and Richard Leiterman. Richard taught me how to look at film, how to see whether the shadows were plugged, how to appreciate the texture of the image as well as the content. Arla taught me a lot about editing, where to cut, what kind of cut will work smoothly and what will be jarring. Just being around people like that, and having a chance to soak up their thoughts on what they were doing and why, was the best education I could have asked for.

I understand from a previous interview, you are quite proud of the way Skip Tracer predicted the way society has gone. Could further elaborate on that?

When we made “Skip Tracer”, credit cards were a new thing. I could see how they were going to take over, making it easier and easier to spend money and go into debt. But they hadn’t really been developed yet. We asked the theater to let people buy tickets to our World Premier with a credit card. But the ticket price was considered too little money to make it worth while so the theatre refused. Contrast that to what is happening now.

Computers were also just beginning to invade the financial world. The office computers in “Skip Tracer” are interesting in that the data base was backed up in the filing cabinet. (spoiler alert) So to wipe a file required removing it from the data base and from the filing cabinet.

“Skip Tracer” predated cell phones by a few years. I think I knew one producer who had a phone in his car, but there were no hand held phones yet. That’s not something I predicted, or could have predicted. Nor could I have imagined the Internet. But I think “Skip Tracer” did see the consumer society quite clearly – a world where credit is easy, debt is not terrifying, and material goods equal status.

What do you personally like about the film.

Now there’s a question. One scathing reviewer decided that the film’s message was that people should not have to pay back their debts. I think he missed the point completely. People should not be enticed to go into debt that they don’t really need. I like the way the film recognizes the levels of manipulation at work in our consumer world. We all love the instant gratification of being able to buy on credit. That’s hard to resist. But as the hippies used to say, that can result in a bad scene. In the final analysis, “Skip Tracer” is a pitch for the hippie drop out. If you find yourself in a bad scene, just leave it.

I think “Skip Tracer” is a first film. It is flawed in the way that many first films are flawed, mostly in not delivering thrills and chills and entertainment value. But it does have some intelligence to it. What I like most about the film is that it’s still being seen almost forty years after it was made. That is very gratifying.

Zale Dalen’s filmography in addition to “Skip Tracer” includes “Hounds of Notre Dame” (1980), “Terminal City Ricochet” (1990) and “Expect No Mercy” (1995). As well, he directed episodes of various TV series such as “Call of the Wild”, “Danger Bay”, “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues”, “21 Jump Street” and “The Beachcombers”.

Part 2 of Zale R. Dalen’s Interview continues here.

The Lost Dominion Screening Collective presents Skip Tracer at the ByTowne Cinema on April 21st at 9:15pm. Based on a new 4K scan of an archival print, this will be the best projection of the film since its 1977 debut, and Ottawa audiences will get to see it first.

To learn more about the Lost Dominion Screening Collective and future screenings and events check out their website and Lost Dominion’s Paul Gordon Interview about “Skip Tracer”.

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