Bruce McDonald Talks
Pontypool is one of those weird words you roll around your mouth like a jawbreaker while you try to recall the proper way to describe it. Itis also the apropos title for Canadian film icon Bruce McDonald’s most recent avant-garde celluloid offering. McDonald is best known for his seminal works Hard Core Logo, Highway 61, andDance Me Outside. He is better known to the viewing public for his television work onDegrassi: The Next Generation, Emily of New Moon, Queer as Folk, Lonesome Dove, and This is Wonderland.
Stopping in Calgary during his cross-country promotional tour, Beatroute had the opportunity to talk to the famed impresario Bruce McDonald about his foray into the horror genre. McDonald receives visitors outside a theatre balcony sitting regally in a winged leather chair, weathered straw Stetson atop his head, wearing cowboy boots, jeans, and a patterned shirt opened to mid chest. He is disarmingly intelligent, likable, and seems to have no sense of his own importance-“Did I talk too much?” he asks with concern after the interview. Like his films he is clever, approachable, and larger than life.
When I press McDonald on his dual success both on the small and large screen he replies, “Television pays the bills and has allowed me to fund my film projects like Pontypool. I also met Stephen [McHattie, star of Pontypool] through our work on television so it has its advantages.” In terms of the pitfalls of filmmaking in Canada, “Filmmaking in Canada means finding niches-you can’t film Die Hard here-you have to be patient with the time demanded to find funding, chase a star… I always just want to get filming. I optioned the book last century-1998 I think-and now the film is finally opening.”
This time out McDonald takes on the horror genre by way of a zombie film with an intellectual twist. McDonald reminds me that Canada has long been a hotbed of ground breaking horror film from Shivers, to Prom Night,Horror Train, and Black Christmas. Based on fellow Canuck Tony Burgess’s novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, Pontypool is equal if not better than previous efforts, and that is no small laud. In the film, the titular Ontario town, somewhere along the 401, is the ground zero of a deadly virus spread by the English language that only a linguist of Chomsky’s stature could properly explain. Confused? Don’t worry, when the zombies finally show up the motivation to learn what a bilabial voiced fricative will be in ready supply. McDonald lets the story unfold without the usual pedantic expository that mars the horror genre, “I hate when a film stops and explains exactly what is happening. It is disappointing and ruins the flow of the story.”
Says McDonald, “when we were filming we didn’t call the monsters zombies since they weren’t eating brains or groaning and I still don’t want to mislead zombie fans into thinking it is an orthodox zombie film. We called the monsters conversationalists and they are sort of an extreme of those people you try to avoid on street corners talking away.”
Words are also the stock and trade of down-but-not-quite-out shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), the film’s protagonist, who has been exiled, for unknown sins, to talk radio purgatory in a small town station. It is the kind of place where they use air time to announce kid’s birthdays. The station is located in the basement of an old church, suitably creepy and with just enough anachronistic elements to make the claustrophobic hour and a half almost cozy. When Mazzy and his two woman production team begin to get reports of strange happenings things get creepy and scary very fast. McDonald understands that horror is best realized by tension and isolation and uses the graphic stuff sparingly and as a payoff rather than plot fodder. When the “conversationalists” do appear they don’t disappoint.
Mazzy, when not quoting Roland Barth, is prone to proselytizing on the absurdity of Pontypool life. The first few minutes of screen time consists of an oscillating voice wave while Mazzy relays an incredibly creepy story about the disappearance of a local cat named Honey. McHattie has a velvety diesel engine of a voice that not only makes the character believable but makes the audience hyperaware of the plot-predicated power of the spoken word. McDonald observes, “Many actors make huge income off of voice work and when I asked McHattie if he thought about it he told me he was too busy”.
For those who enjoy the technical nuances of film, Pontypool is not only masterful with its use of sound, special effects, and make-up, but is filmed with the revolutionary high speed digital Red One camera. The result is 60 frames per second and a luxurious 11.4 mega pixel resolution that seems to bathe in darker darks -always important in horror films-and complement the tuning-fork-perfect sound with a stunning visual acuity. Just when you start to get accustomed to the hip format, McDonald employs an in memoriam montage using black and white photographic tableaux that really sends chills up your spine.
Reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood, CBC approached McDonald about a follow-up radio play version of Pontypool. Theproduction will feature the same actors, director, and writer as the movie version. “Its going to be a kind of modern day Orson Welles’s War of the Worldsapproach to the story with breaking news flashes and I’m going to have an alternative ending to the film.”
McDonald’s face looks tired as his assistant ushers in the next interviewer. His agent begins reciting a laundry list of commitments, weeks full of promotion, filming, and production meetings shuffled and reshuffled. He may well be a “conversationalist” victim himself. He pushes his hat back and takes a slug of water, slides off of the chair and walks me out as his keepers scramble to follow. When asked what his definition of success is, McDonald resolutely replies, “Not money, not this. Success is when I contribute something to the collective identity, when it becomes part of the cultural vernacular, that’s success. For example, I love that there is a band, Billy Talent, named after a character in my film… I love that people quote stuff in my movies, and I love that my work entertains people.”