Published Mar 05, 2009Bruce McDonald is probably the coolest dude making movies in this fine country. His work always reflects some subtle version of our national identity, a rock'n'roll version of Canuck cinema that prods at some of our deepest connections to this country, be they tied to music (Hard Core Logo), a complicated cultural history (Dance Me Outside) or plain old Satan (Highway 61). His first horror film comes from the heart of Tony Burgess's brilliant novel Pontypool Changes Everything, but isn't a adaptation in the truest sense. Taking ideas from the book, Burgess and McDonald have constructed a story set in the same world as the novel, one afflicted by a strange plague of zombies infected by language and doomed to repeat words and phrases until they tear the mouths off of each other. Seriously. The film focuses on the skeleton crew at a small-town radio station and in the grand tradition of Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, unfolds mostly through information received from the world outside the station via a frenzied series of on-air phone calls. The framing device allows Stephen McHattie to shine as morning show host Grant Mazzy, a role that shoulders the entire dramatic weight of the movie. McHattie excels here, playing Mazzy with engaging charisma and palpable sadness. McDonald works the single-location shoot to his advantage via creative camera work and an overall slick look. One of the first major features to be shot using the revolutionary Red One camera, Pontypool looks like a million bucks, producing arresting visuals in what could be a creatively limited setting in lesser hands. A deeply poetic horror film at its core, this is easily McDonald's finest work in years, and an exciting sign of things to come from the venerable, vital director.
The movie was optioned for a Kinder Surprise Egg, right?
McDonald: That's right. I was introduced to Tony Burgess by his editor, Michael Holmes, at ECW. I had read the book and I knew I had to get a hold of the book. The Kinder Surprise seemed like a good, grand gesture. Tony accepted the offer and we went from there.
And the original plan was a radio play for CBC?
It's a long story but the shortest version is this: I got my Kinder Surprise Egg, optioned it in '98 or '99. We worked for many years on a screenplay, went through different producers, different co-writers, blah, blah, blah. We were interrupted in our process by the CBC, who were looking for radio dramas. We dropped the script we had been working on for a few years and wrote this new one in a few weeks based on this idea of a language virus and that War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Now that we've made this, we're looking at the project as a trilogy. The movie we made doesn't have that much of the book in it but the adaptation we were working on for many years is ready now. We're hoping it ends up being a cool little trilogy. I don't know if that makes any sense at all.
No, it makes perfect sense. So if the movie does well, you're going to make Pontypool 2 and 3?
Yeah, that's the plan. We've got the scripts. We want to tell the whole story. The first one is like, "What the fuck's happening?" and the second is like, "This is what's happening," where you see what's going on in towns. The third is, for lack of a better term, zombie rehab. The infected people are put through a rehabilitation process and are expected to reintegrate into society. There's a lot of crazy and great stuff in the book, so it's a goldmine for madness, fear and romance.
I thought it was interesting that you guys went outside the traditional structure of Canadian filming, which is the grant system. You guys made this whole movie with independent investors. At what point did you decide, "Fuck it, we're just going to make this"?
Part of the thing that gave us that chutzpah to say, "Fuck it, let's do it" was the creative model, which is three people in a room. Doing the radio play gave us that confidence. We knew if we could get four actors in front of a microphone to act it out that surely to God we could shoot it with my sister's video camera. We knew we could make this low-budget film. That sense of possibility gave us the confidence to rocket forward; it was kind of infectious. I have to thank Brendan Canning for this, because we were shooting a documentary about him at the Horseshoe Tavern, and I met a guy outside having a smoke. I was talking about this project and how we were going to do it for 50 bucks or a hundred bucks and he said, "Well, how much would you really need?" I go, "Well, it'd be nice to have a million bucks." One thing led to another, he knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who had some extra cash and was a business wizard on Bay Street. We didn't have to go to distributors or Telefilm or Canadian television. It was right out of this guy's chequebook. It was an unheard of and miraculous event. It just comes back to the fact that we believed that it was possible. Half of the time, or most of the time, when you're making a film it's just an elaborate act of hypnotism to get others to follow your insane quest. When you believe it yourself, it's not as hard to convince other people. It comes back to the creative design. The book was such a great model for a low-budget, independent project. It required such intense focus and just the right elements. Like the space we found in the Junction, and the actors we found. It was just a great, intense focus based on a 50-dollar premise.
You got a lot of early press based solely on the decision to shoot on Red Cam, which, at the time, was a really new technology. Whose idea was it to utilize that?
One of our producers, Jasper Graham; he's connected to the guys who run the Red Lab, which is a special lab being set up to work with just Red Cam stuff. I had sort of heard of it and he was insistent that we check it out. Miroslaw Baszak, our DOP, was pretty suspicious because he's a little bit of a purist. We had budgeted to shoot the whole thing on 35 but we tested the Red Cam and blew it up to 35 and Miroslaw was like, "Well, you cannot fucking tell the difference." It's pretty radical technology, and we were some of the first guys to use it in a big way. We got a lot of support from the Red Cam guys and it worked out great.
You mentioned the actors earlier and one of the things that struck me immediately in the film was the strength of the performances. Specifically Stephen as Grant is just spellbinding. It's such a simple premise and you're relying on the characters and the power of the performance, and he's just phenomenal.
When Tony and I first wrote it, thinking of this character, Stephen pretty much leapt to mind as the guy. We had worked together a few times, mostly in television, and I had always been amazed at his chops. We sent him an early draft, keeping our fingers crossed that he would engage. He right away said, "Yeah, this is great." He and Lisa were the first people cast, and it was great casting them before the script was finished because they not only came up with some great character bits but some really good plot points before the script was finished. You have people like that who are on board and excited to engage on a creative level and it creates a great energy when you go to shoot. It creates a great sense of ownership and wanting to do the best thing you've done in your life. Stephen could tell this was a lead role, a great opportunity. Stephen works all the time but he's always in supporting roles or great characters bits. It's probably the first time in a long time where he was number one. He got to have a lot more dimension. We shot the film in sequence, which is an area of luxury for the actors. Stephen's just a bright, smart person. He's always taking unexpected risks and making unexpected choices. It is a real actor's piece. We knew going into this that no matter what it looked like or how much money we had, it would live or die based on the performances of these people. That's what you're engaged in for 90 minutes.
There's that moment where Grant gets put on the line with the BBC and the performance is so pitch-perfect.
It's true. That's a great example because I think a lesser actor might have played it really important and excited, where as Stephen played it like mom and dad had come home during the party.
Knowing that the film didn't have a huge budget, I was impressed by how effective the minimal amount of effects were, like the scene with Laurel Ann smashing her face against the glass.
Tony and I both love horror movies and effects and all that stuff, but we knew this movie wasn't going to be competing with Dawn of the Dead on an effects level. The horror in this was going to be much more in your head, but we wanted to have a few good gore hits. Geoff Hill was the coordinator of our physical effects and everyone rallied around him since we only had a few opportunities to do something cool. I think he appreciated that we focused our money on those few spots.
The sound design in the Ken Loney stuff is harrowing. And in lesser hands that stuff could be really cliché. How involved were you in the sound production?
That performance is so harrowing. Rick Roberts is the actor and it's a great performance for someone who doesn't appear on screen at all. We were shooting in the basement of a church in the Junction and he would be crouched outside in a laneway with a mic in his hand just screaming as a live feed to the set. Underneath that is Steve Munroe's sound design, which is terrifying. Cinema violence is always scariest when it seems caught, not centre frame. It makes it seem like it's really happening. I think that's why audiences have responded to the fact that it's really, truly scary. (Maple)