By Kier-La Janisse | From Offscreen Vol. 18 | December 2014
When Zale Dalen received virtually unanimous critical praise for his 1977 debut feature Skip Tracer, it should have cemented the film’s status as an essential component of cinematic Canadiana. Instead the film went on to become something of a secret handshake in cult film circles – revered but consigned to obscurity. It had a brief VHS release under the title Deadly Business from Academy Home Entertainment in the early 80s, but has never been released on DVD outside of cost-prohibitive institutional use.
Dalen – who legally changed from birth name David Scott in 1971 – went through the Film Workshop at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, followed by a year in Toronto working as an assistant editor for documentarian Allan King. Moving back to BC, he set himself up as a sound man, working on a handful of BC films (including Jack Darcus’ Wolfpen Principle, covered elsewhere this issue) before directing his own short films and educationals with his wife-turned-producer Laara Dalen (birth name Rena Bishop). After getting 60% of the budget through the CFDC’s Special Investment category, the pair emerged with Skip Tracer, a key film of the tax shelter era and arguably one of the best Canadian films ever made.
The film follows a debt collector named John Collins (David Peterson in a brilliant performance) as he harasses and bullies his ‘clients’ with an eye on winning the “Man of the Year” award – an award he has already won several years in a row. A downbeat film set in a seedy ‘70s version of Vancouver where ubiquitous construction sites signal the oncoming wave of gentrification, the film falls between a noir and a western in tone – the latter especially fitting given that Dalen had abandoned an unproduced oater script to focus on Skip Tracer.
Despite a soaring personal debt crisis that has only increased since its debut, Skip Tracer remains one of the only films to posit a bill collector as its central protagonist, creating an interesting crossover with Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) – which also involves a novice being shown the ropes by vets who spout dry witticisms and live by a code. In Skip Tracer, Collins is harangued by a nerdy newbie named Brent (John Lazarus) to teach him some tricks that will help him meet his quota and thus avoid getting canned. Brent’s counterpart in Repo Man is Otto (Emilio Estevez) who admittedly takes to his new gig with more panache, presumably because his punk fatalism allows him to feel indifferent toward his clients and their predicament – a key personality trait in the bill collector biz.
John Collins is the embodiment of this indifference, however gilded with a tinge of sadism. He calls his clients from various places – phone booths, restaurants – which not only disguises the source of the calls, but also illustrates the lack of distinction between Collins’ private life and his mercenary job. He is never off the clock; at home he listens to fuzzy banter on his work CB the way others might watch TV to unwind. His goal to win the “Man of the Year” award can only be enabled by engaging in a fierce competition not only with his colleagues, but with any kind of ethics or compassion (shades of Mamet’s later Glengarry Glen Ross). The types of people who succeed at these jobs willingly cross the line of professionalism, highlighting the similarities between legal and illegal forms of intimidation.
In his appearance, delivery and manner, Collins is remarkably like a ‘70s incarnation of Albert Rosenfield, Miguel Ferrer’s character on Twin Peaks. And like Rosenfield, we’ll discover that Collins has a heart somewhere – but it’s buried beneath layers of dog-eat-dog hyperbole. His sadistic tendencies will dissipate as he is confronted with the consequences of his emotionally oblivious determination to win. As the film wears on, he finds himself in a crisis of confidence that will lead him to a destructive act against his employer.
When the film was first released, John Hofsess of the Montreal Gazette cited the film as “a damning expose of modern business practices” and counted the Dalens as the most original among a new crop of filmmakers (including David Cronenberg, Murray Markowitz and George Kaszender) who were going to change the landscape of our national cinema. Most critics seemed to agree with this assessment, the film earning raves in Variety, The Times of London as well as from audiences themselves.
Veteran critic and scholar Maurice Yacowar, however, took issue with aspects of the film. His review in Cinema Canada praised the film’s style and technical competence while referring to the morality of the film as “stupid.” He asserted that the film illogically villainized what would otherwise be seen as working class protagonists – admittedly Collins is far from a rich businessman, and even his boss appears fairly dishevelled and overworked. “This film requires us to sneer at the hero when he does his helpful job reasonably and well,” said Yacowar, “and to applaud him when he defrauds his company and gives his clients the chance to cheat.” I find this lack of empathy for the debtors to be surprising, but perhaps as a person still being chased for 20-year-old student loans I find the fantasy ending somewhat fulfilling in a way that someone with a stable job might not.
Dalen is still living the anti-establishment dream; after living and teaching in China for a decade under his real name, he recently returned to Vancouver Island where he is working on a number of creative projects – which will hopefully include further film work down the line. He generously participated in this interview via email, wherein he reflects on the life and legacy of Skip Tracer.
KJ: Do you now go by the name David Scott or Zale Dalen?
ZD: I legally changed my name to Zale Dalen from my birth name of David James Scott back in 1971 for both professional and personal reasons having a lot to do with the relationship with my father, David Henry Scott. I have been Zale Dalen longer than I was David Scott, but after my father died I wanted to go back to my birth name. That has turned out to be… impractical. If you google David Scott you get thousands of hits, none of which are me, though I suppose I’m down the list someplace. Google Zale Dalen and I’m top of the list. That, plus my filmography, has some value. So the short answer is that I go by Zale Dalen but some people call me David.
KJ: David Peterson was so great in the film, but as far as I can tell you never worked with him again, even though he did appear on some of the shows you worked on (but not the episodes you directed). Why is that?
ZD: Absolutely luck of the draw. I love David, had a great time working with him on Skip Tracer and would have really leaped at the chance to work with him again on anything. We just both never ended up on the same project.
At the time we were releasing Skip Tracer, I felt that David missed a great opportunity. We were invited to the New York Film Festival and the film got a lot of very positive attention, much of it a result of David’s performance. If he’d been there I’m pretty sure he would have found an agent in New York and become a much more familiar name than he is now. But he was touring Saskatchewan, performing in a coyote costume – with, I was told, exaggerated genitalia – with the Caravan Stage Company. The Caravan Stage Company performed in rural venues to small audiences. They traveled in gypsy style wagons pulled by Clydesdale work horses. I was not surprised that David would not abandon them for the glitter of fame in New York.
KJ: What about John Lazarus who played Brent, do you have any stories about him? He didn’t go on the act much.
ZD: John Lazarus and I have lost touch with each other, though I think he’s till part of the Vancouver theater scene. I heard him do theater criticism on CBC radio years ago and he was, hands down, the best theater critic I’ve ever heard. He was the kind of critic who gave information, not just an opinion, a critic who really knew who was involved in the production, where they were coming from, and their strengths and weaknesses. He is also a playwright. For my money, John Lazarus was as important to Skip Tracer as David Petersen. He struck the perfect tone of amoral ambition.
KJ: It is still one for the only films about a debt collector, despite how many people are in serious debt. Alex Cox’ Repo Man is the only other one I can think of. Why do you think that is?
ZD: No idea, other than that businessmen are generally not seen as heroes in popular culture and the occupation is not an attractive fantasy. No kid says he/she wants to be a bill collector when they grow up.
KJ: I read that your parents’ farm was threatened by your own student loans at some point. Was this experience the basis for the story?
ZD: Not at all. The story for Skip Tracer really started by me asking the question: Why are there so many cop movies and cop TV series? The answer seemed to be that the profession has a built in conflict. You have somebody who is going to commit a crime, or has committed a crime, and somebody else who is out to prevent that crime or capture them. You can have a million variations on motives, methods, character backgrounds, sequences of events, but there is that conflict built into the profession and that makes it easy to write. It’s hard to find a good, believable, conflict that isn’t fraught with problems. But with cop stories the writer can just invent around a conflict that requires little explanation, turn the crank on the script machine, and end up with something that looks like a familiar movie. I was looking for a profession that had a similar built in conflict, and the bill collector struck me as one possibility.
KJ: Did you do any research on skip tracerss at all, and did you find, like in the film, that a certain type of personality would excel at this job?
ZD: I started out with no research. Just a concept. My idea was that there was this super skip, this con man that had been so good at borrowing and skipping that he was a legend in the business and nobody could catch him. Skip tracers weren’t even sure he existed. Whenever they lost somebody they were chasing, they would chalk it up to this legendary super skip. And then I wanted to have the super skip tracer, a guy who had been himself a legend in the business, and he was going to cap his career by catching the super skip. It was kind of a “Catch Me If You Can” concept.
I wrote about fifty pages of that concept, and the script just went cold. It was derivative crap and I hated it. So I started talking to people in the business, gathering stories, and gradually a different kind of character emerged. I learned that many finance companies paid their employees very little as a salary. The men (this was before women were even considered as business people) made their money through a formula of loans paid out minus loans that had gone delinquent. This motivated the loan officers to make risky loans, and to make sure the money was paid back. It was all part of the consumer society, where borrowing was made easy but the whole system turned people into debtors for life with heavy consequences for default.
While the loan officer/skip tracer was expected to manipulate “clients” into taking loans they might have trouble paying back, he was manipulated in turn by the bonus system, the status of a private office if he was successful, the man of the year award with a huge bonus and a trip to the tropics if he was the top loan officer/collector.
After the film was released I had many former skip tracers tell me their stories, and I always groaned because the film could have been much more entertaining and not just a study of manipulative consumerism.
KJ: What is one of the stories you would have put in the film if you’d have heard it earlier?
ZD: I talked to one finance officer who told me that a man they had been harassing got so angry that he came into the office, grabbed the manager by the necktie, and used a big knife to cut the tie off just below the knot. After he stomped out, the manager took his file out of the cabinet and threw it in the waste basket. Another told me about trying to collect on a set of encyclopaedias that had been sold to somebody. He rang the door bell and the home owner dropped the whole set on his head from the window above. Just about broke his neck.
I’ve thought it would have been fun to sprinkle incidents like this into the script, not necessarily with the main character but with other characters who were seen around the office. Maybe with Sheldon. Perhaps this kind of thing could have lightened the tone, and added entertainment value. Hard to know, and hard to say whether that would have been good or bad.
KJ: The reviews on the film seemed to be unanimously positive at the time, and I read in an article that your wife Laara who had produced the film, expected to make the entire budget back from foreign television sales. Did this happen? What kind of life did the film have – did it live up to the expectations in that regard?
ZD: I’m told that Skip Tracer was the only west coast film ever made that returned ANY money to its investors. I don’t know if that is true, but we did pay out the private investors within weeks of taking the film to market. We got a German television sale at the Montreal Film Festival and that paid out the private backers. I don’t think the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now called Telefilm Canada) ever got all their money back, but they didn’t seem to expect to.
KJ: I was at a screening of the film in the UK last week and some folks there told me the film played on British TV a few years ago. Do you still get royalties from things like this, and how often do broadcasters come to you to license the film?
ZD: I haven’t seen any royalties from Skip Tracer for years. I had no idea it was being screened in the UK still. If it played on British Television I may actually see a royalty check once the money works its way through the DGC Collective Rights organization. That would be nice, though I’m sure it won’t be a large check. This is not something I worry about. I’m just amazed and delighted that the film is still getting any attention and interest.
KJ: One exception to the positive reviews was Maurice Yacowar in Cinema Canada 1 ; while he thought the film was an amazing technical and aesthetic achievement with great performances, he took issue with the morality of the film. He thought it unnecessarily villainized John Collins and the Skip Tracer profession and referred to it as “the last gasp of the flower children”. Do you remember this and what do you think of these comments?
ZD: I don’t remember that particular review, but it sounds like it was spot on. I always considered the film as a justification of the hippie dropout.
The review I remember was in one of the major Vancouver papers in response to our World Premiere at the Vancouver Film Festival. It wasn’t a solidly bad review, but the headline seemed like a perfect example of the Canadian reputation for eating our children. It read: “Audience Overreacts to Film Premiere”. Isn’t that priceless? In essence the review was saying: The audience loved the movie, but I thought it was just so-so.
KJ: Just to clarify, are you saying you agree in hindsight with Yacowar’s opinion that the film villainized skip tracers too much? He seemed to think that the film’s anti-establishment message was irresponsible.
ZD: I agree that the film had an anti-establishment tone, but I do not agree that it villainized the skip tracer. After all, the whole film is about Collins fighting with his conscience. It’s the system, the layers of manipulation that I saw, and still see, as evil. People manipulated to buy more than they can afford, loan officers manipulated into lending more than they should (think sub-prime mortgages and the problems they caused), management being manipulated into manipulating their workers. Take a look at how Walmart operates for classic illustration of how a system can dehumanize workers.
Collins did not defraud his company. He took a very minor symbolic revenge for the mistreatment he and his “clients” had suffered, for the death his company and his actions had inadvertently caused. The film did not “require” the audience to sneer at the hero. Hopefully it expected people to see him for what he was, and to empathize with his problems and understand the pressures he was under. So no, this reviewer understood the point of the film, but not its spirit.
KJ: On the complete opposite side from that was the Montreal Gazette 2 who wrote an article about how you were this very macho, cocky guy with “swaggering confidence” who wanted to make a fast-paced action movie, and that through the experience of making of the film, it instead became a “skewering analysis of the macho ethos” that had been “the guiding philosophy” of your own life. Do you recall the script or the tone changing dramatically while you were in the process of making the film?
ZD: I think the script changed during the writing process. It wasn’t a personal film. It was political and economic and social analysis. I did want to make something more of a crowd pleaser, more exciting. I remember being in the final editing process and going to see Rocky, which had just come out that year. At the end of Rocky the whole audience was on its feet, cheering and screaming. And I thought, well, that’s not going to happen with my movie. I wish it would, but that’s not what the audience will get. But then I made peace with what I had done. It isn’t action adventure romance. It’s serious analysis. I’m not calling it a failure because it didn’t deliver what Rocky delivered.
I’m quite proud of the way Skip Tracer predicted the way society has gone. Believe it or not, credit cards were quite new then. People were just getting used to them. I remember we wanted the theater to accept credit cards for the premier screening as part of our promotion. They wouldn’t do it. They felt that a ticket was too small an amount to be worth putting on a credit card.
KJ: The Gazette review was called “A Man, A Woman and a Movie” and made a lot of the husband-wife dynamic. The article implies that if Laara hadn’t decided to take up a career in the film business alongside you, that you would have split up. How did your relationship change as a result of working together?
ZD: How could anybody have made that kind of an assumption? I supported Laara in anything she wanted to do. When she was struggling to get back into law school, after failing first year, due almost entirely I believe to the sexism of the educational system back in those days, I supported and encouraged her. When it became obvious that she had hit a brick wall, I suggested she work with me. That meant giving up her dream of being a lawyer and entering the high risk world of movie making. That was a hard decision for her, but not one I insisted she make. We were a great team. She’s a brilliant manager and organizer, and a courageous money finder. I would not have had much of a career without her. But whether she had joined me in the business or not, she was central to my life and I don’t think we would have split up before we actually did, and that was after the children were grown and she had developed a career as a nurse. Laara and I were together for thirty-two years. It was a solid marriage. She’s way smarter than I am, the kind of woman who studies university-level physics and math for fun. She’s also a talented musician and artist. I will always love her and I still miss her.
KJ: Did you feel optimistic about the Canadian film scene when Skip Tracer was made, and did that change through the 1980s?
ZD: Hey, I was young. Sometimes I’m amazed at the nerve I had, just announcing that I was a film director and setting out to prove it. I had a lot of arrogance, a lot of confidence that I could create my own life. I tell people now that back in those days I was the enfant terrible of Canadian filmmaking. But there were four years between Skip Tracer and The Hounds of Notre Dame. That’s a long time without a pay check, though I was picking up some sponsored film work and struggling along.
I was writing scripts, most of which I feel very fortunate I never managed to finance, with one or two exceptions, such as my father’s life story, that broke my heart. So whatever optimism I started with was beaten out of me, and apparently beaten out of Canada. The Canadian Film Development Corporation realized that the pittance they had to spend could not compete with the Hollywood machine, not matter how much we film makers wanted to. Producers like Fil Fraser, who produced my film The Hounds of Notre Dame, got harsh lessons in the reality of getting money back from distribution. During the eighties, everybody gave up on a Canadian film industry. Everybody looked to America, and set their sights on becoming a service industry. We got work for our excellent crews, and for production managers and first AD’s. But the bargaining chip for that was that we gave up on our own stories and our own directors, and allowed the creative talent to come up and take advantage of the low Canadian dollar. We became hewers of wood and drawers of water. Except for a few brilliant directors, who somehow managed to find money for their movies and are still working today, it was over.
For a time I served on the Advisory Board of the CFDC. I begged them to continue and support the low budget special investment category, the category that let a lot of talented young film makers show their stuff. That category had a budget limit of a hundred and forty-five thousand dollars, but the CFDC would put up 60% of the money and private investors would put up 40% with a tax break and first position on any returns until they were paid back. It was a brilliant program, but the producers wanted to kill it. You can’t steal much money from a budget that size.
The CFDC had producers advising them who felt that movies couldn’t be made for less than millions. A few hundred thousand was not enough to interest those producers. So the special investment category got sabotaged with requirements such as it had to be a first time director. Think about that. The guy with no experience gets one shot, with not nearly enough money. And if he fails at that one shot, he’s out for the count.
I also begged the CFDC (now Telefilm) not to go into television. I could see what would happen. Going into television was admitting defeat as makers of movies. They wanted to look good, to get some return on their money, to find a more stable way to finance. Television made perfect sense. But it was the end of Canadian features, especially the low budget independent films like Skip Tracer.
I hope I don’t sound bitter about this. It’s just what happened. Economics of scale and market forces proved impossible to beat without a radically different approach. When I think about it though, I owe my entire career to the support I got from the CFDC and the Canada Council. It was government support that allowed me to become a director, and I’m grateful for it. Then we had our first child and I had to get serious about making a living and supporting a family. I started directing television myself.
KJ: Horror films and sex comedies are often blamed for the demise of the tax shelter era in Canada. Because some of these were very popular exports, and they could actually compete with American films, but as the story goes, the Canadian government was not keen on this being the image of Canadian film. Do you think this is accurate?
ZD: I think the Canadian government was happier with the more artsy films, but the more exploitive films were the ones that made money. So there was a conflict. I think those involved in providing government financing for the industry wanted the financial success, but no doubt there were forces at work trying to play safe and make touching human interest stories nobody wanted to see. There are a lot of people who think the government has no business financing anything they don’t like. They don’t see the industry as an industry. There are a lot of people who favor censorship, and the easiest way for the government to censor a film maker is to not provide financial support.
Censorship is another issue. Skip Tracer has one scene of full frontal nudity. It’s a wide shot in a bar with an exotic dancer on a platform. It’s not a sex shot. It’s not trying to incite lust. The woman seems pathetic and vulnerable, and the scene plays on the idea that an effective Skip Tracer can’t be afraid of being seen as a jerk. But the film reviewer in Ontario objected to that one shot, and said that unless it was cut out of the film, the movie could only be shown in sex houses, which would have been ridiculous. So our distributor asked for permission to cut out that shot. What could we say? The cut made our prints look like they’d been bicycled, even though they were pristine, and put a glitch in the sound track I had worked so hard to mix smoothly. And since the distributor was based in Ontario, where the censorship was required, he cut the shot out of every print. Naturally the shot was not put back when the prints went to other provinces, so Ontario managed to censor the movie, stupidly, for the whole of Canada. But we’d sold Skip Tracer to the CBC with a short theatrical release window. So very shortly it showed on national television uncut. I don’t know what the situation is today, but the blindly irrational censorship of those days was truly moronic.
KJ: Was discouragement with the Canadian film industry part of the reason you moved overseas for many years and embarked on an entirely different career as a teacher in China?
ZD: After twenty years of television work I found that I was not the enfant terrible any more. I was the old television hack. Gradually my clients lost their shows, or died, or got in trouble with the tax man, and suddenly I wasn’t getting the work I had been getting. There I was, living in Nanaimo and trying to be a film maker, which is a bit like living in the Sahara and trying to be a logger. That’s about the time I got a substantial residual check from my television work. I could have invested it, nurtured it, and retired. But I wasn’t ready to quit making movies.
Digital was coming in, and making movies suddenly didn’t require a crew of thirty or fifty people. But most of the early digital movies were making excuses for the technical look and quality, pretending to be documentary footage found in the woods or interview sessions with a psychiatrist. I looked at what digital could do, what it looked like, and thought, hey, I can make something with this that looks like a movie. So I organized the “Volksmovie Movement”, gathered some talent, provided the cash and we made a feature length romantic comedy called Passion. It looks like a movie. I’m really proud of it. Most people don’t like it, though a screening with a large audience produces laughs from beginning to end, and I’ve never managed to get a penny back from producing it. That’s a whole other story. Suffice it to say that is all part of why I ran away to China for nine years. Best decision I ever made.
KJ: Do you have plans to make films again now that you are back in Canada?
ZD: I do not have any specific plans to make movies right now. I’d be delighted to be offered an interesting script or project. Making the Saskatchewan film for Expo ’86 was a great adventure, for example. I’d be up for something like that again any time. Even television work would be attractive, though I don’t really have the heart to pursue it. There’s too much else going on in my life. It’s been a great ride, this life of mine, and it still seems to be generating moments of great excitement. I could tell war stories forever.
Corupe, Paul. “An Interview with Zale Dalen” at Canuxploitation.com