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Taking on Water: J. Miles Dale Is Swimming In The Deep End

Posted By Kevin Perry, Tuesday, January 23, 2018

PRO TIP: If you ever have the good fortune to meet J. Miles Dale, listen up! He’s that proverbial dinner party guest toward whom everyone swivels their chairs; the jovial bar patron regaling his cohorts well into the grey hours of last call; the quintessential on-set storyteller trading anecdotal advice and quotable wisdom from productions of yesteryear. Dale is an exuberant oral historian of Hollywood lore, eager to share his trove of Tinseltown treasures. Many of his quips begin with the same mantra: “There’s this saying …”


“There’s this saying: It’s Gandhi in the morning and Dukes of Hazzard after lunch.” By which he means, every production starts out as high art but then becomes a race to get something—anything—in the can. Dale delights in the idiosyncrasies of set life, and he has crystallized his experiences into a leather-bound volume of philosophies that sound a little something like this: “It takes a long time to develop a great reputation and a short time to lose it … The job can be half cheerleading, half babysitting … On a great day, I don’t have to do anything … Sometimes you just need to let the magic happen… Knowing when not to say anything is as critical as knowing when to say something.”

It’s no small task, maneuvering Dale’s avalanche of wit and wisdom into a coherent channel—like, say, a magazine feature. Your best bet is simply to find the shape of the conversation and let it fow.

 Producer J. Miles Dale on the set of Carrie with cast
member Chloe Grace Moretz

“My dad had two passions in life: one of them was music and the other was vintage cars,” explains Dale. “I ended up in the entertainment business and my brother ended up being a professional racecar driver. The symmetry of the whole thing is crazy and wonderful.” In the late 1960s, his father, Jimmy Dale, was the musical director for such variety show hits as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Andy Williams Show, and The Sony & Cher Comedy Hour. “The other musicians called us the chimps, my brother and I, because we would be seen hanging on my dad’s back while he was conducting a 60-piece orchestra.” That’s when entertainment began to seep into young Dale’s bloodstream, and the pulse never slowed.

Ever favoring street smarts over book learning, Dale stormed into TV producing, racking up credits on series like Top CopsFriday the 13th and RoboCop. He quickly transitioned into feature films, directing The Skulls III for no paycheck, ravenous for production experience on every level. “I directed really to make myself a better producer,” he recounts. “You know the director’s language, you know the toolkit, and you’re not dealing with it in a dilettantish way.”

Film sets were Dale’s empirical kingdom; they posed a constant source of fascination and experimentation. He began to tinker with the production formula, comparing it to life in a petri dish. “Every six months,” he tells me, “it’s like a whole new science project because the people, who are all generally talented smart people, are thrown in as a whole new organism. Much as the director has to be the leader of that, you’re a little bit the chemist.”

Having successfully synthesized his own brand of interpersonal chemistry, it was suddenly time to tear it to shreds. As an Executive Producer on the epic gothic horror series The Strain, Dale explored the chaos of a society in decay, plagued by vampires, corruption and a nuclear Armageddon accelerated by humanity in peril. “What that series showed was the thin veil of civility that really hangs over everything,” Dale remarks. “It falls apart very quickly.”

Fortunately the situation behind the camera was far more harmonious. The Strain teamed Dale with A-list writer/producer Carlton Cuse, who had nothing but glowing praise for his fellow EP. “He takes the time to get inside your head. I really appreciate how thoughtfully he focused on trying to understand my intentions as a showrunner. That’s the starting point.”

And it was a road that would soon diverge into innovative new filmmaking frontiers. When Dale was tapped to produce Guillermo del Toro’s buzzworthy new release, The Shape of Water, he had the daunting task of delivering a sci-f period masterpiece on a relatively tight budget. But just as he collected Hollywood anecdotes and inspiration throughout the early years of his career, Dale was also amassing an impressive arsenal of production resources. Like a magpie scrapping together the shiniest bits of movie magic, between seasons he utilized the sets and crew from The Strain to realize del Toro’s latest vision. The resulting alchemy elevated The Shape of Water from a mid-budget indie into blockbuster territory, and Cuse took note. “The real quality that separates the average producer from a great producer is imagination. Miles was incredibly creative about how he was going to deliver the most resources for Guillermo.”

Dale (right) reviews a take of The Shape of Water with writer/director
Guillermo Del Toro and cast member Sally Hawkins.

Dale compares the tactic to how Alfred Hitchcock created his magnum opus between seasons of a hit TV production, calling The Shape of Water “Guillermo’s Psycho.” But that’s where the similarities end. “[del Toro] came to me and said, ‘I’ve got an idea for a movie about a mute cleaning lady who works at a secret government facility and falls in love with a man-fish and tries to save him,’” recounts Dale. “So right there, I’m in. There’s nothing like it.” Asked how del Toro concocted such a wonderfully warped love story, Dale explains, “He was inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon and wanted the creature to get the girl, be together, run of, have an underwater condo, and he was actually disappointed that they didn’t get together. That was when he was 6. He had all that time to think about it and ask, ‘How would that work?’”

The answer: align yourself with a die- hard producer like J. Miles Dale. “I take what I call a blood oath with the director,” Dale vows. “I’m gonna do everything I can to get you everything you want for your movie, BUT when I say we really can’t do this thing, you gotta listen to me. It can’t be a one-way blood oath.”

“That’s beautiful,” replies Guillermo del Toro, after I share Dale’s account. “But at the end of the day, we all break the blood oath.” The director laughs good-naturedly before getting sincere about Dale, his longtime collaborator and friend. “What we do have for each other is enormous respect. You know? Neither of us has an agenda other than the movie. He’s not power playing; he’s not positioning himself. He’s certainly as honest as I’ve ever met as a producer. He’s been a great partner now for six years. I admire him and love him.”

The pledge between Dale and del Toro would be pushed to its breaking point as the grueling endeavor of Water took shape. The director recounts, “This one was a movie in which I was risking a lot. Not only in terms of the scope we wanted, but in terms of the ambitions artistically. This is a triple summersault with no net. I knew that every element needed to be perfect or the fable would not survive.” That’s why del Toro leaned so faithfully on his producer friend. “We had a very tense shoot. It was artistically very harmonious, but in terms of delivering the movie for the price, it was incredibly taxing. I think Miles made miracles.” Summoning his best biblical allegory, del Toro concludes, “He walked on water for this movie.”

Sandstorms halted production several times, and yet Dale shrugged them off as the price of del Toro’s passion. “He’s like the Rain Man of visualists.” His crew dug deeper to tackle the unique challenge of creating its Fishman romantic lead. His assessment: “If we don’t get the creature perfectly right, the whole movie fails.” But the greatest obstacle was looming right there in the film’s title. “The water in its various forms on that show was absolutely a challenge,” Dale admits. Summoning yet another Hollywood adage of what to avoid when planning a production, he quips, “They talk about [never working with] kids and dogs. I would add water to that list.”

In the face of overwhelming logistical adversity, J. Miles Dale focused on the pros rather than the staggering cons. “This is obviously going to be a thrilling challenge, not only production wise, but also selling the story,” he surmised. “It was either going to be something special or it would be ridiculed. You work hard to make sure it’s something special.” And the result? “An unabashed love story that’s not sentimental, but it’s really honest.” The producer/philosopher then concludes with a signature truism: “It’s easy to be smart when you’re ironic, but it’s harder when you’re earnest.”

Can this aw-shucks realism translate into awards season gold? “I’m Canadian, so I’m a little more modest,” Dale defects. “Recognition is nice; it’s not important. Adulation is probably unhealthy.” But Dale’s friend and The Strain showrunner, Cuse, was less apprehensive about the films Oscar odds. “Miles is really in the top ranks of producers and I would love to see him get recognized as such for Shape of Water. I really hope that happens.”

Regardless of the film’s awards fate, the life-changing production opportunity enlightened and evolved Dale’s already complex philosophies. “Like love, water finds its way. It will go wherever it can and it will find the shape of the space that it’s in. That’s what I do as a producer. You shape yourself to what the project needs and what the director needs.” Extrapolating further, Dale applies the film’s themes to life writ large. “You get up every day and you can choose to love or to fear. Love or hate. There’s no case to be made for anything other than love.”

Epiphanies fiicker across Dale’s expression like 16mm daydreams spooling back on themselves; lessons from the past echoing into the present and shaping his view of the future. As much as it’s been a breakthrough year for the stalwart producer, it’s also been rife with heartbreak. “My father just died in May.” He accepts my condolences, but embraces his dad’s eternal optimism. “He had a good, long, amazing life and did whatever he wanted. He had no regrets, so I won’t either.” One shining, cardinal rule that Miles learned from the elder Dale: “Do the thing that you love because even if you never really succeed, at least you’ll be chasing your passion.”

The light in his eyes shines proudly as the movie in his mind reaches a crescendo. “He taught me all that.” Roll credits.

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