Profiles

Remembering Tom

Legendary NFB producer Tom Daly mentored Rubbo, playing a crucial role in the development of personal-doc filmmaking.

Photo by Lois Siegel

It was a bitterly cold morning in 1965 and yet the sun shone brightly. Not knowing Montreal winters, having just stumbled across the continent from warm California, I was as not prepared for my hand to freeze to the door of the NFB, even as the sun promised warmth.

Detaching myself somehow, I entered a lobby with Oscars and other chunks of prize metal in glass cases all around, and headed for the man in a vaguely military uniform at an island desk. I asked this commissionaire if I could see Tom Daly, explaining that I’d written to Tom, sent him one of only two copies of my thesis film from Stanford, and in many months, had heard nothing back. At least, I had to get the film back.

The old soldier was jolly and helpful. Tom had surely got it, surely not lost it, and would surely see me. He made a call to an office on the other side of the wintry inner courtyard which no one ever used, visible through the glass staircase behind him, to Tom’s secretary in the office that I’d later come to know so well.

His face fell slightly. Tom was tied up and would be all morning. Could I perhaps? …He must have felt how far I’d come, how worried I was about my rare copy as I blurted out, “You see, we all loved Tom’s films in our classes, Lonely Boy, City of Gold, Back-breaking Leaf, all films he produced. All of us wanted to get here. But I thought maybe I had a better chance, being Commonwealth and they being Americans. And so I sent it, hoping…”

“Look, Mr. Rubbo,” he said. “They tell me Tom’s in a screening in Theatre Five, just past the cafeteria. Why don’t you go up there? Just sort of slip in and wait till the lights go up. That way you can catch him before his next appointment.”

I was shocked by this informality but, having made such a song and dance, felt I must take up the offer. Following directions, I launched into the square of cream-coloured corridors of the hospital-like building. From open doors to editing rooms, movieolas whirred, whilst on linoleum halls, people with coffees passed each other, paused and chatted, a parade of morning conviviality.

I passed the doors to the cafeteria, saw the glassed displays of bagels and fruit bowls, and at tables, the clots of arty-looking types, discussing Bergman’s The Silence.

Round the corner were several solid-looking doors, one of which said Theatre Five. I hesitated. Should I really go in? So far no one had treated me as suspicious; indeed there had been several smiles from the corridor parade, as if I almost belonged.

I pulled on the heavy door to Theatre Five, only to find it was one of two. Beyond was another to push. It was really heavy—for soundproofing, I later realized. So, it was not until I got that second door half open that I realized something was wrong.

Queasiness overtook me, not because of the line of five or six heads in the front rows silhouetted against the screen, but the sound track. What was my narrative voice doing on the screen? Why were my images so painfully “Bolexed” and then edited, flickering up there? Why had The True Source of Knowledge, my pretentious little work on student activism at Stanford University, arrived in Theatre Five?

I wanted to flee but felt that to retreat would draw even more attention to the opened door, so I slunk in and hid behind the heavy varnished mixing console at the back.

The film was about halfway through and now seemed interminable. Why had I sent this rubbish to the great, the legendary Tom Daly, who must surely be one of the five silhouettes? Why had I included Prince William of Gloucester in the film? He was a fellow classmate, it’s true, but he’d had nothing to do with radical student life—my supposed topic—and all to do with interesting the TV broadcaster back home, which it didn’t do anyway.

It was agonizing as the scratchy black and white footage passed by, although it did get somewhat better toward the end with my re-creation of the “free speech” demonstrations at Berkeley and Mario Savio’s fiery oration, the famous words about putting ourselves in the wheels of the machine.

The lights came up. Still hidden, I waited for I know not what. I think it was Guy Glover who turned to the tall David Niven–like man next to him and broke the silence. There’d been no clapping, of course.

“Tom, where’d you get this?” Daly was airily vague. “Oh, some young fellow in California sent it to me, months ago.” “Well, it’s very good, isn’t it,” said someone else, perhaps John Kemeny, perhaps Roman Kroitor.

Glover nodded. “It’s got that youthful quality, that energy we’re looking for. I mean, it’s rough.”

“We should certainly get back to him,” said another.

“That’s just the point,” said Tom, with a slight swallow I would come to know well. “I’ve lost his address—indeed, his name, everything.”

A chorus of groans followed, or so I like to remember. “Tom, how could you?” Tom shrugged and I felt it was the time to appear. I coughed and five heads turned in surprise. “I’m, er, the filmmaker,” I said to general astonishment.

Glover laughed and accused Tom, “You old dog,” as if Daly had arranged this surprise, while the others sent congratulations my way, swivelling round in their seats. Tom, to my recollection, just smiled, neither denying nor admitting he’d planned my appearance— which, of course he had not.

Thirty-five years later, when Tom had long retired and I was back in Australia, I rang him up, reminded him of that, our first meeting, and asked him if I remembered it correctly, knowing that sometimes when you tell a story many times, as I’d done, it gets better with every telling. “That’s pretty much how I remember it too, Mike,” Tom said.

That first morning, they took me back to the cafeteria, now filling with the early lunchers, and asked me what I would like, both in terms of lunch and the future. I explained that I had to do an internship to complete my Stanford MA, and was hoping to do it with them. Faces fell. “We don’t do internships and if we started with you, we’d never hear the end of it. But would you consider a job?”

“A paid job?” I trembled. “Yes, not a highly paid one but a junior director or some such thing.”

Four years later, after having directed a series of small rather timorous films for the NFB, some with Tom as producer, I felt I had not lived up to the potential I’d shown that morning. Tom called me into that neat office of his and started with one of his Chinese parables, which he so loved. This morning it was about how what might seem like a setback might really be a way forward, as he wondered kindly if the NFB was really the place for me.

I had begun to wonder the same thing, so aware that I’d disappointed them all. “Let me have one more try,” I blurted out. “I want to do something about Vietnam.” It was 1968 and while the war was raging, foster children were being brought to Canada from Vietnam. I felt strongly about the war and was doing activist things.

“Tom, I promise that if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll be gone, back to Australia, that is.” “Would you need to go to Vietnam?” he asked. “Yes, I think I would.”

This was a big stretch of our NFB mandate but Tom, wanting me to have this final chance, helped the project through the programme committee. Soon, he had me on my way to Vietnam to meet and film the wonderful Canadian woman who ran the foster-child programme from there.

I fell into a mad, intoxicating world, far more urgent and exciting than what I’d come to film. I was spending my days with street urchins rather than adoptees, and underground draft-dodging American journalists—one the son of John Steinbeck—all this rather than hanging out with do-gooding Canadians. I knew that this was what I had to cover.

Then began long Telexes back to Tom, reporting all I was seeing and feeling. “Could you expand the idea?” he asked. “And what do you want to do?” He naturally wanted to know—quite calmly, I noted. Tom was always calm.

I wrote more, feverishly, catching the colour, the madness, the paradoxes, the small island of peace I’d found in the midst of war. I told him about bullets flying over the Coconut Monk’s haven, the house of the shoeshine boys, the cemetery where people lived on top of graves, all of this hoping to seduce Tom to let me tell my story.

Quite soon, it worked. Tom could see what I was seeing, that I was in historic times. “Do what seems right” was his clearance to change course. So started the personal journey of a lost observer.

Mike Rubbo filming Sad Song of Yellow Skin (1970). It was produced for the NFB by Tom Daly. Courtesy National Film Board of Canada.

There remain some bits of the foster parent plan in Sad Song of Yellow Skin. But what mostly comes across is the Daly-given freedom to find the story with the camera rolling and tell it as a personal story.

That was the best and maybe the worst of the NFB way of working in those days, and one which I may have nudged along. Films were not planned or scripted; they were lived with the camera rolling, and Tom’s studio within the NFB was the main exponent of this personal cinema—to the frustration and fury of other sections at the Board.

Looking back, I think it would not have hurt our purity to plan more, and when I later became a teacher, I was no Tom Daly. I used to drill into my students my notorious checklist of necessities for a good doc, a list I use today with no loss of spontaneity.

I have a theory as to why this lack of planning never worried Tom very much. He’d started out at the NFB as an editor of captured war footage for John Grierson back in the early ’40s. Doing that, he’d come to discover that he could make a good film out of anything; that, indeed, the best films were often “found” in the footage way beyond any intention of the cameraman. Perhaps it became a sort of badge of honour to take the sow’s ear and silk-purse it.

That may be how he was thinking, that something could be made of footage from this modern war zone, as he green-lit my adventure, checking with no one else, I suspect. On the other hand, his judgment was possibly more refined and nuanced than I ever knew.

In any case, he was on good ground with that film, which became Sad Song of Yellow Skin, and so was I. My one regret now is that we did not keep the 40 hours of rushes. They would have been an incredible archive.

The film was edited first by Torben Schioler and then finished by me. Each week we’d have a screening for Tom in that same Theatre Five where it had all started. At this stage, rather than in pre-production, the analytical Daly really kicked in. He would take notes, pages and pages, and then afterward run through those jottings, point by point, with us, noting what worked for him and what didn’t.

He never insisted on changes. He just made suggestions. That was the famous Daly way. I now laugh at the dynamic, which we developed. Right there in the theatre, I’d indignantly reply that, for example, moving the shoeshine boy’s outburst to later in the cut would not work because… Tom would not argue the point; he’d just smile and go on.

Later, I’d be fuming to Torben or myself about how wrong the man was. But then, as I calmed down, I’d say, “Now, if we were to do what Tom suggests, which of course we are not going to do, what would that mean for what follows after?”

From speculating, came the doing, and by the next screening, we’d often have made the suggested changes and forgotten who was their author. It was Tom’s way never to say, “So, I was right, eh?” He would let us take the credit for his suggestions.

Tom went out on a longer limb for that film than I even knew. He was not one to pass on the pressures he was under. Sad Song of Yellow Skin was one of the first documentary films made with a personal voice. Some people at the Board considered it very novel and others, self-indulgent.

With Sad Song, the filmmaker became a character in the story. This had not been my intention at all and was really a function of being out of my depth, of trying to make sense of what I saw and felt and feeling the need to tell something of that process, or so it seemed.

For my sins, I’m credited with starting Mike Moore down this slippery self-reflexive slope, now so common. It was a style that Tom would never have used himself, but he so much enjoyed helping us be ourselves filmically that he never made an issue of it and I carried it on in film after film, all produced by him.

We paid a price. Although Sad Song won prizes all over, including a BAFTA Flaherty award and the Canadian Etrog (now Genie), the CBC would not broadcast it for a long time because of that personal voice.

Film and life often overlap and that never seemed to bother Tom. When later, as a result of the film, Claire Culhane, the antiwar grandmother, and I went into serious Vietnam activism, he backed me up.

Claire and I camped on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for two bitterly cold weeks, December 1970, in tiny igloo tents, not moving till Pierre Trudeau came down to talk to us about Canada’s involvement in the war. In 1972, Sad Song was also projected by U.S. antiwar people on the outside walls of the Miami Convention Centre, as Nixon’s Republican show went on inside.

Tom followed all these adventures kindly, helpfully, whilst never being passionately politically partisan himself, at least not in my view.

I miss him so much, the gracious Toronto aristocrat.

Mike Rubbo studied anthropology at Sydney University in the early 1960s and, having won a Fulbright scholarship, did a master’s at Stanford University. He then moved to Montreal, where he worked at the NFB, making many prize-winning documentaries. He returned to Australia in 1996 as head of documentaries at ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). After leaving ABC management, he went back to being a documentary freelancer, making Much Ado About Something, which explores the contentious idea that Christopher Marlowe was the hidden hand behind Shakespeare, in 2001. More recently, Mike has been a cycling activist, posting short films on YouTube and creating a bike-propaganda art site and a blog on cycling of the stately sort. He lives at Avoca Beach with his wife, Katerina, and daughter, Ellen.

View all articles by Mike Rubbo »