Sundance 2015 Interview: Bruce McDonald, Chloe Rose, and Robert Patrick on HELLIONS' Bad Moon Rising
Bruce McDonald is the last filmmaker one can accuse of repeating himself. For the past 20+ years since his Sundance debut, Highway 61, the renegade cowboy director has stayed busy and thoroughly fresh with each new contribution to the Canadian cinematic landscape. Though Bruce has dabbled in many genres, he continuously proves himself as an enemy of the generic with singular visions, united in their abilities to transcend tropes and expectation.
Hellions marks McDonald's second entry since his slow-burner, Pontypool, in the genre popularly referred to as horror. But just one look at Hellions' Infrared images is enough to clarify that, at 55 years old, Bruce is as uninterested as ever in playing it safe. Just ask his wife, who, upon hearing of his new foray into the world of horrific anxieties concerning teen pregnancy, was more than a little skeptical of her husband's fleshing out a less than optimistic look at 'the miracle of life'.
The result is a nightmarish odyssey into the interior world of a vulnerable teenager with the audacity to champion vibe over plot. The result will not please everyone, but at the very least, fans should be pleased that Bruce's refusal to stop taking chances is as ardent as ever. For my money, the results are fascinating. Hellions begs countless questions and, at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, McDonald and his brave stars, Chloe Rose and Robert Patrick, were good enough to answer a few of mine.
One of the most fascinating things I find about your career is that all your films are so different. Your taste is so eclectic. How do you go about selecting your screenplays?
Bruce McDonald: Well, we're always developing stuff. Often, it takes a long time. It's pretty random in terms of the line up of what goes first and second. There's no real plan other than curiosity about certain things you want to do like... It would be great to do a chick movie or adventure movie or road movie or a horror movie. Like anybody, I'm generally pretty eclectic in my taste, I think.
How did you come across the script for Hellions?
BM: I was actually meeting with Frank, who's our producer over there, about another project. We developed a crime movie set in Havana. Timing wasn't working out for that and he said, "Would you want to read this?" I read the script just out of the blue. Didn't know the writer at all, but remembering the script it was like, "Oh!" The writing is really snappy." I like the idea that it was a female protagonist, and that it was Halloween and there were lots of sequences. There wasn't a lot of chit chatter.
Those are the 3 things that appeal to me about the script. Because I do also a lot of television and as much as I love it, it is about people talking. When I see something that isn't just about people talking, I get extremely excited.
Chloe, how did you get introduced to Bruce and the project?
Chloe Rose: I used to babysit for Bruce way back in the day. My mom and Bruce have been friends for years. I've known him for awhile. Auditioning for him was super nerve-wracking for me. I just had an audition like everyone else and I was super nervous. Once he came to my high school to do a chat and he told me that he kept his mouth shut for a really long time because he didn't want to skew the casting process, saying he knew me, until the producers and everyone else had made a decision. Then he stepped up and said, "Okay, I got to tell you I've known Chloe since she was 7."
BM: Yeah, I knew little Chloe when she was a little peanut. That's why I said nothing to the producers... we saw everybody and they were like, "Well we love Chloe." Just to have that history with her was amazing. To just go into this because there was just instant trust. I was like her uncle, her uncle Bruce. There was no learning curve, there was no like, "Are you a weirdo?" Or, "Am I a weirdo?"
Robert, how did you fall into the production?
Robert Patrick: It was sent to me and I read it and all of my people were saying nice things about Bruce as a director. That got me interested and I thought the story was really compelling and interesting; teenage pregnancy, what that must be like for a young girl to find that out. I could see that there would be the possibility of a nightmare sequence. I see it as some anxiety driven dilemma for a girl that would feel very, very isolated in that moment when she found out that she was pregnant.
I love the way that the sheriff represented a moral conscience for the audience. She reaches out to the one thing that she thinks is safe and I appear and help her through the story as it would be in a dream, you know the local sheriff guy. I like that. I like being someone of virtue. It was heroic. I would come in and help a young lady out in a dilemma, in a serious situation.
I thought it was really cool and then once I met Bruce, we started collaborating. He's a very confident director and I mean that, since he's willing to collaborate and listen to all our ideas. He's not insecure about anything. He understands the creative process, which anybody could have a great idea, therefore, you should at least listen. That's a wonderful experience to work with someone like that. It doesn't always happen. I would say something to Bruce and he would honor it and that's very unusual. When I saw the film finished, I was like, "Man, he really did listen to what I had to say." He listened to Chloe. He respected us and that's great.
One of my favorite aspects of Hellions is just how genuinely eerie the tone is. It's a really creepy film. What films, horror or otherwise, get under your skin?
BM: I think the creepiest for me is The Tenant by Roman Polanski. I don't know if you'd call it a horror film, but there's something creepy and disturbing and I guess it's about a guy losing his mind and seeing strange things through the window and doing unusual things. To me, that's a super creepy movie. I guess ... I've seen fewer horror films than you might imagine, but I don't know, Rosemary's Baby... I love Polanski. To me, he's got this really great sense of place and he enjoys his female characters.
It didn't occur to me during the screening, but there's a bit of connection to REPULSION.
BM: Yeah because it's about a woman in an apartment, losing her mind in a certain way. The Shining is creepy... I think what all of these have in common is they're about people losing their mind. Which to me is what I'm afraid of rather than monsters.
Chloe, you had to go to some unusually dark places for a horror film...
CR: Absolutely. It was an exhausting process. Those days were long and cold. It was quite the experience but rewarding at the end of the day. The whole process for me was actually more grounded that I'd ever been on set. Bruce gave me his space and time to really make this story. Regardless if it's happening to Dora or not, true and honest, it's happening to her. She's experiencing it regardless if it's real or not. When you know you nail it they call cut and your eyes are glazed over with that feeling... it just made me fall in love with this job even more.
I believe it was your cinematographer who brought the idea of shooting in Infrared. Reading the script, how were you feeling about the material visually?
BM: When I first read it, I was like, "Wow this is all set at night." I was curious to see photographs and different things that were at night. Oddly, there weren't that many films that I could find that were outside at night. I'm sure they're there...
Not that I considered this an inspiration, but while I was watching the film, I often thought of Kenneth Anger's RABBIT'S MOON, which is a very surreal and eerie short that's illuminated by this very blue moon.
BM: Oh wow yeah. Cool. I don't know that film but I'll check it out... I love looking through magazines when I'm getting ready to do a movie. It's my favorite thing. I just like flipping through magazines and finding little pictures. It's a funny thing because the style is often a function of the budget and the time that you have. Because you're always going, "Well we could go classic and Kubrickian kind of thing or we could go Rachel Getting Married and more just loose... Then I guess we just decided on more of stillness and wide frames... because you could shoot-in in a completely different way - a very intimate, close up thing could be really exciting too.
RP: Bruce has the balls to do real risky things. There's some beautiful cinematography and when he was saying we're going to shoot an infrared, I was going, "How's that going to work? Explain that process to me," but when you have confidence in somebody and faith in somebody you'll take a leap of faith. We're in the woods and you're going to go in your house, you're going to hear your wife calling. It's going to compel you to go in there. "Okay. All right, Bruce." He's got some wild ideas.
CR: Yeah, he's got a serious imagination
Bruce, how did your wife feel about the film? All this fun with fetuses and such?
BM: She was a little dubious at first, but she saw it just before we came here and she ran up and gave me a big kiss. She loved it... She wasn't pregnant at the time.
Would you say the kids enjoyed their time on set?
BM: They had a fucking blast. It was so fun to have that weird kid energy and ... It was a small crew and the only challenge was it's a bit cold sometimes, but other than that, it was a real treat. It was one of those shoots that's really fun and just good people. I would call them names like "Doctor Evil is on set today!" and we go, "Doctor Evil's here, yeah!"
I think it was our last day of shooting when our girl, Dora, is in the hospital and her mom goes nuts on her with a knife and little Peter's sitting there, smiling with blood going on his face. That was a very pleasant day for me. I just thought that was just so hilarious and awesome and Chloe's mom who happened to be on the set that day and she was just like, "Oh my God I can't watch this." Then little Peter was just like, "Really?! I get to shoot blood on my face?" I go, "Yeah Peter." He goes, "I love you, man."
CR: Yeah. My mom was not happy with that...
Chloe's Mom: It's really hard to watch. I had to leave the room. I scurried down the hall to the other room... just even watching on the screen, it's really hard to watch.
Can you talk a bit about your incredibly eerie soundtrack? The reverb-drenched children's taunting...
BM: We brought in this kids choir called the Saint Michael's Choir and Todor Kobakov did the arrangements, he conducted it and it was about, I don't know, about 30 of these kids. They're the Hellions choir. We had them for about 3 to 4 hours and got them to do solos and chants and different things. I was like, "Wow this sounds really cool." Then he just found a way to layer it in, but it was all written out as score sheets and these kids were kids that could read music. That just gave it this totally fresh ... Did you find it creepy?
Oh yeah. I almost found it creepy in the same way that Christmas choirs used to really get under my skin. It's eerie, and that's an element of horror missing from the lion's share of horror films.
RP: When a film's over produced, it's too glossy it loses something. This film was not just a horror film. Our film is an acid trip! It's horrifying, but it isn't necessarily a horror film.
It's a bad acid trip.
RP: It's a fucked up film.