From Pontypool to the Metaverse in 98 minutes: A Conversation with Bruce McDonald
So, a mighty piece of genre entertainment is opening tomorrow in Toronto. Pontypool. This talkative apocalyptic nightmare in small town Ontario deserves some love in the face of the marketing juggernaut of Watchmen hitting crescendo to the point of blocking out all else. Both films feature the fabulous character actor Stephen McHattie (although Pontypool has the good sense to actually use him!) and both land in Toronto this week (with further Pontypool expansion over the ensuing weeks). At ScreenAnarchy, we have been following this 'semiotic infection' film (don't use the Z word, some websites get mighty testy on this) since its filming earlier in the 2008, nursing it (and viewing it often) on its journey to the multiplex because, hey, this makes us happy. Pontypool is one of several smart and entertaining pieces of genre film, one could call it a mini-renaissance of sorts coming from Canadian filmmakers, not seen since David Cronenberg and Bob Clark in the late 1970s, early 1980s. And this also makes us happy. So there is much happiness around these parts.
McDonald, probably best known for his rock ' road trilogy, Roadkill, Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo, with the latter of the three building a steady cult audience. This is very likely to happen with his latest film as well; So, sporting his usual Stetson and trench coat Bruce was kind enough to sit down at a pub on College St. with me back in October for a beer and a scotch (no bourbon though) and we talked a little Pontypool. This was shortly after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The conversation ranged from Neil Stephenson to Svengali and with its Canadian multiplex premiere this weekend, it is finally transcribed. You can find the abridged version after the Jump.
Kurt: Pontypool works on a number of levels. On the pure, ‘what is going to happen, is this really happening or is the town simply fucking with this confrontational big city DJ’ Did you and Tony draw the line on how far to go with the semiotics/linguists and still keep this a genre movie? On the pure, ‘what is going to happen, is this really happening or is the town simply fucking with this guy’ vs. the semiotics.
Bruce: We’re still learning how to talk about it. You want to encourage interpretation. Invite the perceptions that people have with the film and include those things. Giving you definitive exactly what it is. I’m not so sure. The Movie works on a number of levels. The language is actually the living thing and we just sort of carry it along.
You shot the film chronologically in order, correct?
Talk to any director or actor in the world and they will tell you. If I had my way we’d shoot everything in chronological order. But logistics and economy generally prevent this. Some people try. Wim Wenders has done it a couple of times. Our producer mentioned that The Graduate was shot that way, because Mike Nichols is from theater. But it depends on size. If you are a giant unit it becomes impossible, if you keep returning to the same Donut shop 5 times over six week, then you are thinking, “Why don’t we just do it all here today.”
But doing a One Room movie, essentially…
That gave us the license to do something I’ve always wanted to do. Small parameters, a small sandbox gives you different kinds of freedoms, like shooting in chronological order. It is the gift of a low budget! The downside is that you don’t have much time, and of course don’t have much money, but this other path opens up, which has never been available to you on a bigger project. Did it help me? Yea, any time you do it it helps, not only for the actors, but you discover something in one scene and now you can naturally build on that.
And you shot this with the new Digital “Red” Camera, did that further streamline things and open up opportunities?
It allowed us to shoot a lot more than we would normally have done using film stock. We were shooting about twice as much on any given day. Long takes. It was quicker to shoot a 4 minute take than it was to break it up. We’d just let it roll. I think it allowed the actors to have a bit of a safety net. It’s an actors piece, so we thought we’d have to allow a situation where as free as possible. That meant if they wanted to do another take, then let them do another take. Rather than saying we used up our film allotment for that day. Miroslaw [Baszak], our DOP, was suspicious, well, not really suspicious, but if we had our choice, we’d take the look of 35mm and it is more user friendly than digital. Digital gear comes with a big monitor and a bunch of cables and another couple of guys, and the focusing is critical, digital is much more sharp and unforgiving. The same focus setting may be slightly off. Everything is so fuckin’ crisp. So digital requires you to have a lot more attention on the focus situation, the make-up, because it shows everything.
And there are lots of close-ups of Stephen McHattie. At one point, I heard mention that the entire film was to be shot entirely in close-up on McHattie's weathered face.
That would be the Derek Jarman version of the film. Or the Warhol version. The big part of the reason the film was made in the first place was because of the original design of the movie was some people in a radio station - we were commissioned by CBC radio to be a radio play.
Like War of the Worlds?
Yes, exactly. That’s how it began, the CBC, and I read that and I thought. I’m always looking for opportunities to shoot differently. And I thought, this isn’t so bad, I’d get the actors paid for by CBC radio, and we’d get to shoot the performance. This is how it sort of started. Just do it, right? When that notion arrived that the possibility of making this for $5000 or $500, whatever. That got the ball rolling, and then people just started getting involved. Like Stone Soup. People were looking over at what we were doing, and then someone volunteered Stephen McHattie and he might do me a favor. I knew him from the TV show Emily of New Moon. And this thing in Montreal called Killer Wave. We thought he was one of the best actors out there. Then he stepped up and did me a favor. And before you know it, we had a bit of a budget.
And you were entirely privately funded on Pontypool, correct?
Even in the tax shelter years, well I guess things would have been completely privately funded back then in the 70s. Shivers and Rabid. But that would have been 30 years ago. I was amazed with these guys. Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody. Next thing you know we had money. No interference. It was like hey here’s some money, but it went in a very businesslike way.
Like in the late 70’s there is some really good Canadian Genre cinema peaking out these days. Guys like Andrew Currie and Vincenzo Natali. Pontypool fits in there nicely. Smart genre stuff.
Like Splice! I know Vincenzo very well. He did the first storyboards for Yummy Fur. We had a shared love of this type of project. Horror, Fantasy, Nightmare Film. Like Blindness. Actually, for the longest time Don Mckellar was going to direct that. He brought it to me, and then I think, because where the money was going to come from, we needed an international guy, so they picked whoever that guy was, Fernando Millieres. Look at Don’s work. Last Night was apocalyptic. Don and I have always shared a love for Zombies and Horror and that sort of thing.
Any chance of your old highschool super-8 Zombie film, Our Glorious Dead, popping up on the Pontypool DVD?
I’d love to take that - I think I’ve got it lying around somewhere - I’d love to give it a full soundtrack, some Foley.
There is a ridiculous amount of Zombie or Zombie-like films being made at the moment. And they go in all directions, like Vampire movies, but this one goes way back to a classic tell-don’t-show style, Carnival of Souls, Alien, etc., implicit not explicit…
When Tony and I were sitting around with Miraslaw talking about the style of the movie, we did consciously think. Let’s just press ‘reset’ and go back to a classic shooting style. Especially after The Tracey Fragments, which was split screen crazy. Very expressionistic. Let’s just play super-classic. The films were referencing, Carnival of Souls, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that one, it was not so fresh in my mind. I had a Martin Scorsese documentary on Val Lewton, the RKO director, and he made these really beautiful films, you didn’t see to much, it was all in shadows and sound, I was inspired by Lewton, it was more a validation of the tradition of these movies which reach way back and whether it was kind of Polanski-think, you know, The Tenant, I don’t know if you could call it a horror movie, but yea, we went it with the conscious choice of hear-don’t-see. We had some conversations involving maybe we should see more outside, and maybe we should see more. But no, no, it is all about You Don’t See. And that will make it pretty scary for people Understanding it was Welles’ War of the Worlds or Alien or even Rear Window. I was out in Edmonton and the guys from Anvil. You ever see that. Anvil: The Story of Anvil, the documentary? FUCKING FANTASTIC. These two heavy metal guys are like 50 something and still trying to make it.
These guys are out in Edmonton, and I’m a big fan of that movie, and these guys came out to see Pontypool and they were all like, "That was just like Rear Window". One Room, you don’t see the murder…
[Bruce stops for a minute to take a call from Hugh Dillon regarding the potential Hard Core Logo sequel]
Did you go with McHattie over one of your regular actors (Don McKellar, Hugh Dillon, Callum-Keith Rennie) because of his great voice? I mean, now that Don LaFontain has passed on. McHattie should step up to the job saying, “In A World Where…”
I wanted a guy with a bit more age. I didn’t think of McHattie voice when I thought of him. Everyone who sees the movie comments on McHattie’s voice, whether or not he did a lot of voice over work or radio. He said, not really. He’s just always been working as a theatre, TV or movie actor. A History of Violence, 300, The Fountain, Watchmen. He is a go-to guy for these big US productions. They need ‘Svengali on Mars’, they go to McHattie. He holds his own with any actor in the world.
He doesn’t often get front and center roles…
I don’t know everything about his career, but I believe the last time he had the main role in a film was JAMES DEAN the TV movie , but big shoes to fill, if you are doing James Dean, which he made when he was in his early twenties. He worked with Corman on a bunch of stuff. He had a lot of intensity and that got a lot of attention for him.
There is some criticism of the movie on the Dr. Mendez character. I got the sense that he was there as an excuse to play with exposition devices. He sort of Jumps into the movie. He’s the guy in those older movies that gives all the information to the audience.
It is an odd tonal shift in the movie. Up to that point it pretty serious stuff. But we wanted crazy, unstable, hyper guy to come in and deliver, “I know what it is!” It is an old time movie device. And we felt it was time there to play that card.
How much of the humor was intentional, and how much was, as audience react, unintentional? The movie squeezes horror and laughter together and often.
It was intentional. Tony is a pretty funny guy. And the intention was always to play it for real - for keeps - and not play up the comedy. We knew a number of scenes were ludicrous or insane, or the Theatre Troupe? Yes there was going to be funny stuff planted in there, but we also wanted to keep a lid on it and not play it for campiness. Mendez some people find him great, he is their favorite character, and others think he is too funny or too comic.
Perhaps a near breaking point for suspension of disbelief?
The film at that point needed a push for hyper-energy.
There seemed to be a real effort to replace the violence in the movie with language ideas. It will make an interesting challenge to audiences. The zombie-type flick has always been a place for doing parable. Romero’s films have the racial and consumerism and conformity readings. Where you guys bring it right out front with Pontypool.
Yea, the best zombie movies have always played with those ideas. I think 28 Days… was great because they kind of refreshed the Zombie. Or they were in a way, new kinds of creatures. If they had a metaphor, I’m not exactly sure…
Which brings us to Tony’s original book. It was more of a collection of stories and even a POV from the infected.
Pontypool Changes Everything. The script he made bears little resemblance to the actual book. Yes, Mendez is in there and the small town, and the language virus, there are a number of elements that are from the book, but Tony has been working on the other script for like 10 years. Without getting into a long thing, we got the book and we developed it. And it is such an unusual book because it was more like a collection of almost like short stories, so do we pick one story over the other and find a narrative spine in it. But the last incarnation we had a script that we were basically happy but everybody we talked to said, wow it is like you have two movies in there, because of the third act that was completely different than the rest of story, a rehab thing. So when this came up, we were like, huh, this could be one, and take the other script and split it into two. And now you have a nice little trilogy: The first one is 'What’s Happening', the second one is 'This is Happening', and the Third one is 'What do we Do Now?' It has really nice movement. It is not that we thought of it because we did the first one, but really because we had almost all of the work done already, most of it was written, but now it is like shaping it.
Different characters within this ‘world’?
Yea, the next one would be across town, you might hear Grant Mazzy on the radio, you might see Laura-Anne at the donut shop or getting a burger, and then at the very end the narratives would kind of dovetail. If this clicks with people and does some kind of business, then that will give us permission or give people confidence to invest some money into these two projects and make it go wild. Still on the same idea, which is pretty scary. That is the intent. We are working our way now to just sort of finish those scripts. When this movie comes out in March, we’ve got these other two. The other two films are like regular movies, there are more scenes and action and suspense, and all that kind of stuff. We are really excited because we have put so much time with this and this idea and the play of things. Tony has done a really great job and it has taken him a lot of time. Sometimes you are so inside things, that having others, outside of things, point out, that this act is another movie and maybe that should be…
Let’s talk about the after the credits scene, the cookie.
That used to be end of the movie, but before the credits. And people thought, what? What? Too much confusion. There is a tradition now where you have something at the end of the credits where you have an outtake, or hint of a sequel. The existence for it is sort of buried in there, well the title of the book sort of suggests it, Pontypool Changes Everything, and one of the things I’ve always love about the notion of this, is that the virus could effect something as abstract as the English language, it can leap into reality itself. Change the fabric of how reality is perceived.
Which ties into the copy of Snow Crash which is sitting on a table in one scene.
My editor and I had talked about Snow Crash at some point and then another guy on set mentioned it, and then I said, fuck we should just drop that in there. Because there is a lot of really nice little parallels and it is a nice little nugget for people who know the book and it might lead them to the movie, so I just thought it was a nice salute to a really smart and entertaining book and that it shares this virus-babble. And I like how they have leaked into this other reality. I loved that idea. There are a couple lines of dialogue where the Dr. says that. We don’t play it up too much. The second film will roll those ideas out a little further and see it demonstrated within the movie a little more. And the third one has a more full-on reality has changed. And then Tony has a nice little landing spot for the whole thing.