Monday, September 3, 2007
Some Days the Magic Works... (Part 2)
Around 1971-72, I had an idea for a Native American film, a dramatic short meant to join King Screen's group of educational films intended to introduce other cultures and ways of thinking to middle-class, mostly white schoolkids. The core plot was this: a tribal elder, a grandfather figure raised in the old ways, hauls his urban grandson, a clueless teen rebel, off to the wilderness to discover and possibly embrace his Indian heritage.
Though a couple of other people appeared at the beginning of the story, it was really a two-character plot, starting in the city (Seattle) and then moving out to the Olympic Rain Forest on Washington's Olympic Peninsula and then finally to the actual Pacific coast. The script I wrote, titled Our Totem Is the Raven, would lead to a 20-plus minute work if all went well during filming.
Casting was the primary concern. The teenager could probably be found at some local school, but who could credibly play the grandfather?
Shortly before writing the script, I had seen a wonderful actor named Chief Dan George featured in Arthur Penn's movie Little Big Man (starring then young Dustin Hoffman). Remember the magical, twinkle-in-his-eye delivery of that tribal chief with the flowing white mane of hair when he says things like "My heart soars" and "Some days the magic works, some days it doesn't"? Well, that was Chief Dan George, whom I assumed was a newly discovered Hollywood star, because he was also appearing memorably about then in Clint Eastwood's excellent film The Outlaw Josey Wales.
I thought to myself, Now, that's the actor we need... But of course I also figured we had no chance of hiring him. So where could we find our man?
Then one night not long after, Chief Dan appeared on the Johnny Carson Show and revealed that he actually lived near Vancouver, B.C.--he was a chief of one of the Coast Salish tribes up there--only 150-some miles from us in Seattle! I decided that trying to reach him was now imperative; chances of his saying yes were likely slim to none, but it was worth a shot just to find out, if nothing else, how much the services of a major actor would cost us.
Through Vancouver friends, we were able to learn that his agent/manager was a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting System right there in Vancouver (where, it turned out, Dan routinely appeared in television productions). We reached the manager, he agreed to look at the script to see if it was suitable for Dan, and off it went. I paced the halls of King Screen and gnawed my fingernails waiting to hear back.
Then the word came: Dan actually liked the script, and he was available during March, just a month or two ahead. Moreover, the manager informed us, Dan's beloved wife had recently died, and he needed to be working to take his mind away from grieving...
I gulped and went to work, now as line producer, organizing things for a two-week shoot in Seattle and out on the Peninsula, near Kalaloch. The King Screen director assigned was named Paul Preuss (who later went on to a solid career as science fiction novelist). We found some native carvers and got special Northwest Coast tribal props made--a raven-topped staff, a salmon sort-of-plaque, and a special wood-carving knife with shaped handle. We searched the Greater Seattle area and found a surly, slightly chubby 14-year-old Native American teen to play the grandson, then rehearsed him a lot since he was not an actor. We also squeezed in a preliminary whirlwind visit north to Vancouver, but only for Paul and I to get acquainted briefly with our 70-year-old lead.
Then Chief Dan arrived in Seattle. What a wonderful, kindly gentleman he was too! Not as bubbly or cheerful as the roles he'd played had made us imagine, but of course he was still grieving too. (And as we soon learned, drinking somewhat more than he normally would...)
No need to revisit the entire film shoot, but after some rough first days getting the grandson up to speed and comfortable with Dan as we were shooting the early urban scenes, we headed out to the Pacific coast. And then came the Olympic Rain Forest's spring rains! Not just light showers but water "pissing down" (as the Brits say). For several days, we had nothing to do but sit at the lodge playing cards and waiting for the sun to shine again. It quickly became the main task for Paul and me to keep Dan busy and surrounded by cheerful people. The whole crew of eight or so wrapped the grand old man in a blanket of friendship, becoming his students, listening to his stories and his quietly offered wisdom (some of those thoughts can be found in My Heart Soars and two other books that appeared over his name later in the Seventies)... and working to keep him from drinking too.
When the rain let up, it became a classic rugged shoot: fewer days available (meaning longer hours), lots of scenes filmed along forest trails, in icy-cold streams, on the rocky beach, and so on, as the grandfather talked and showed his reluctant protege what was what. I particularly remember the sequence where Dan had to stand waist deep in a river to catch a salmon with his bare hands. Washington's rivers are cold all year but truly frigid in the early, glacial-melt springtime. To protect Dan we had him encased from the waist down in a black wet suit; we then shot carefully to hide it. And to prove that we were "with" him, literally, both the director and I stood in the freezing water as well for several hours! (Yes, we had on wet suits too.)
The last quarter of the film has the grandson finally catching his own salmon a few hungry days later (using his shirt as a net), which grandfather then shows him how to cook on an alder-woven grill over an open fire on the ocean beach. He bids a ceremonious thanks to the fish for sharing its flesh, they eat, the exhausted teen nods off, and grandfather--in the smoke from the fire--then seems to wade out into the ocean and disappear.
When grandson awakens next morning, he is alone. The implication is that he must find his own way in the world--back to the city, or never returning to it, who can say? (Since I haven't seen this script or film in 30 years, my memory is a bit hazy about the ending.)
At any rate, Chief Dan George went back north, and we went to work on post production. It was a breeze! Excellent visuals; a great, firm-but-loving performance by grandfather Dan, and okay work by the kid; footage that came together well in the editing room. Our Totem Is the Raven was soon a fait accompli.
Copies of it sold fairly well, and in fact are still to be found three decades later in collections around the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere) devoted to Native Americans on film. Chief Dan lived another ten years, a much-honored "First Nations" leader, and he continued to act, mostly in television (including a role in the major series Centennial), right up until his death.
And I moved on to a new life as freelance writer trying to sell feature scripts, and when that didn't work out, reluctantly settled in as a writer-producer in television advertising. But that's another story.
(Here's the amazing P.S.: right after writing all of the above yesterday, I Googled the Raven title for fun and actually found a copy being sold at auction! Which I immediately bought. Now if I can just find a 16mm. projector...)