I often think fondly of my old pal Don Wilder. Years ago, when I was a young actor, I worked shoulder to shoulder with Don on a series in Toronto. He was the Director of Photography, from Seasons 2 through 5, and spent much of the first year he living at my house. Moxy was a pup, and chewed every pair of shoes he’d brought. he spent that last few weeks of the shoot wearing his rubber boots. That was Don.
Don was the consummate DOP. He lived and breathed the film set, and although he was no spring chicken, his enthusiasm for film-making imbued a vigour in him that was contagious. He started every day in Port Credit by brewing the strongest coffee I’d ever tasted and chomping at the bit to get to set. He’d race to the massive Caddy that he had driven out from Vancouver, and then—big band music blaring—drive it at a snail’s pace into the city. It’s not that he wasn’t in a hurry, he just didn’t drive fast. It was as if he was savouring the anticipation of shooting. And maybe even timing his arrival so that he was metering first light, setting up his shots with the sun.
He was quirky and talented and brash; he was funny and fun, and not afraid of a fight. He would let you know what he thought, good or bad. And he was supremely talented. He had a long lineage in documentary and drama—he had shot everywhere and in all conditions and loved to share it. I could fill a book with stories he regaled us with and add a few more from our experiences together on set, but this post is about his past—and how I came to know it better.
I was reminded today of one of Don’s tales, one that he would mete out in pieces now and then when something on our set reminded him.
It had to do with a wild shoot that he had been on in the Yukon territories, working on a National Film Board documentary. I couldn’t remember the name, but he would often talk about how they had done fly-overs deep into the bush, dropping food caches and 12V batteries to run the cameras. He had all kinds of stories about how tough the shoot was, how beautiful the country was and how interesting the subject.
So when I learned that the NFB was releasing its docs to the web, I visited the site and did a search on Don’s name. I was rewarded with the beautiful film Nahanni. He shot it on 35mm, in an area of the Yukon that few ever see. His doc probably part of the inspiration for Pierre Elliot Trudeau to visit and subsequently protect the Nahanni river by declaring it a national park. It is a fitting legacy of rugged beauty, not unlike Don himself.