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One-on-one with Bruce McDonald

Independent Canadian director Bruce McDonald does not follow the beaten path. His last endeavour, The Tracy Fragments, was a stunning achievement in editing that incorporated several split-screens. His newest project, Pontypool, is a horror film that never leaves the basement of a former-church. It features zombies that aren’t really zombies, and a virus that infects words instead of blood. The picture is based on Tony Burgess’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything, but the two have little in common.

I had a chance to sit down with McDonald at Pilot Tavern in Toronto’s Yorkville, and ask him some questions about his unusual little movie.

Pontypool is your first horror film, but it is also your least stylized picture. Why did you decide to pair those two firsts?
Well, I guess because the content is pretty stylized and the idea of the English language being infected with a virus is pretty strange. It was actually funny; at the beginning of the process everything’s possible – you sit with the designer and DP and say “Hey, what are we going to do?” And you know about how much you got to work with, so you’ve still got a pretty wide range of choices in terms of how you’re going to shoot it. So we spent a couple of meetings just thinking about it and we kind of decided that the real stars of this movie were going to be the actors. And it was gonna be the fact that we’re in this one place and that this scary stuff came through their ears. We said, “There’s going to be a lot of listening in this movie and they’re gonna be watching these characters.” So I thought well, maybe we need to really listen closely and maybe we need just to be still. So that gave us a good starting point for the language of the movie and we thought okay, we don’t have to be fancy; let’s let the actors do the work and let’s let the script do the work and we’ll just kind of hang back and frame it.

The other reason is the movie before that [The Tracey Fragments] was a pretty crazy, stylized movie with all the split-screen stuff and it was six to eight months of editing. It was really intense, and a really great and fun thing. So every time you go out, you kind of want to do something totally different; you want to approach it from a different kind of way; you want to learn or try something new each time. So it’s like all right, what do we want to do this time? And it was great. Making this movie almost felt like making a movie for the first time. It felt like I was making my first movie again. It was really neat. It was really interesting because Miroslav Balszac – who shot the movie – we made our first movie together years ago – Roadkill – and it was kind of funny, because here we are again in this little independent movie. It was interesting because we both learned a lot. We don’t have to prove that we can do a crane shot, or that we can do a snap zoom, or use different film stocks. I think we’ve both reached some level of confidence. “I know how it goes; I know the game; let’s just prioritize ourselves. I don’t need to show-off; you don’t need to show-off. Let’s just be classic.” And it was kind of refreshing.

It was a long journey to bring this story to the screen; I heard you started in 1998.
This script is not a complicated story. I optioned the book from Tony [Burgess] I guess in 1998. Back in the 20th century … the 20th century (joking). So Tony and I worked for years with a few other co-writers and different people developing this screenplay. The story we were working on was about a guy taking care of a house in the country near Pontypool and this language virus breaks out; and he goes into town, things happen, and he saves this girl and it’s this big story. It was great; it was very thematic; it took us a long time. I think we were still working on it when we got a call from CBC Radio and they said, “We’re looking for radio dramas. Do you have anything?” And we’re like, “No, but we could.” And I said, “Tony, what if we took a break from all this work and do this radio drama for CBC? We’ll take some of the ideas from Pontypool.” And he said, “All right.” So we thought, okay, radio drama … and just sort of blanked out. I thought, what about War of the Worlds; that was a great radio drama – the Orson Welles thing. And it’s all in a radio station. So we kind of thought, okay, let’s do something like that. We’ll get a guy alone in a radio station and it will be great. One thing led to another and suddenly I thought this would be a good little movie. This would be a good little Pontypool primer. So that’s what we did. It’s a funny thing sometimes how you think you can control everything and plan everything, and then somebody throws you a left hook and you’re like, what? It was one of those things. It was probably the fastest zero to 60 I’ve ever experienced. From the day of “let’s just think about making a movie” to shooting, it was four months or something. It was like what?! It’s just this crazy little ride.

When comparing Tony’s novel to the film, there’s only a few similarities. You have Dr. Mendez, Grant Mazzy, and the infection – did you ever consider telling one of the stories from the book or was it just those concepts that resonated with you?
It was the concepts. The other script allowed some of that stuff. Tony has learned enough or is confident enough to know the book’s the book and the movie’s the movie. Let’s not feel like the book’s gonna be our guide because the book is more of a collage than a single narrative. It’s almost like it’s a book of short stories connected with this language virus idea.

(Did you read the book? Yes. And it’s like, “What the fuck is this right?” But that’s cool that you checked it out.)

There’s definitely crazy, beautiful flourishes in that. What attracted me to the book was the freshness of Tony; that kind of brazen, “Here’s my book.” He’s a great spirit. He’s a great original thinker. I think working on the movie has really taught him a lot of discipline. In a way, it’s much harder. I think he said to me himself, “I wrote the novel in three weeks or something and this fucking movie has been eight years.” He’s gone through quite a curve. He’d probably be able to tell you a lot more. But he’s learned a lot and it’s been an interesting trip.

I heard that even though the novel classifies the infected as zombies, you didn’t want to use that word – you had a different word to describe them.
Yeah, we called them “conversationalists” because we found in the early stages we’d take some of the early drafts of scripts, and we’d called these people zombies, and producers and financiers would be like, “They’re zombies, but it’s not like Dawn of the Dead.” They would expect all this other zombie stuff and they’re like, “It’s not really a zombie.” So we finally just dropped the word in the script because it set up all these other expectations. It was weird because in ’98 when we started, there was fucking no zombie movies on the horizon; skies were clear. And within a year or two, suddenly there was this barrage – the remake of one of the George Romero films, 28 Days Later and the second 28 Days Later [28 Weeks Later], Fido. It was weird. For years nothing, and then *exploding sound.* So we just thought, we love zombies but maybe we should back off a little bit. We’re kind of proud to be associated with the zombie family tree, but we’re more just a cousin of zombie then king of the zombies.

You shot the film in chronological order in only 15 days – how did that experience compare to your typical style of shooting?
Well, the chronological order was a really amazing thing because I’ve made a lot of television and I’ve made a hand full of features, and I’ve never, ever shot in chronological order. And not many films are. But you talk to any actor or any director and their first choice is, “Yeah, let’s shoot it in order.” But you can’t because economics doesn’t really allow for it unless you’ve got a huge amount of money, and even then it’s never really done. So we were all kind of wow, this is a really beautiful way to work because it’s like reading a chapter book to a kid at night – you just build on your progression. There’s that sort of coherency and continuity of beginning-to-end, because whatever happened yesterday, you can build on today. Sometimes when everything’s out of order, you lose track of where you are and often you see those funny things in movies of continuity mistakes and people wearing different jackets and sweaters are on backwards and you’re like, “What?” It’s sort of funny. It was a really lovely way to work; for the actors especially and for me – and for the crew, who everyday would see the next instalment. I think it affects performance and the chemistry of the actors. I don’t know if it will ever happen again in my career. The only reason we were able to do that is because we had one location that we were shooting in, so it was like doing a play. There was no reason to not shoot it in order. Maybe if we had an actor that could only be there certain days, that would affect it. So that was great.

Fifteen days – it was fast. I’m used to shooting movies pretty fast. TV movies now are done in 12 days. It’s getting retarded. The average, mid-level, Canadian independent film might be like 25 days or something. So 15 days is still a pretty snappy pace. Partly because we didn’t have to go anywhere, it was one place, made it possible. If we had to do a lot of travelling around, it would have been difficult. The fact that our actors were so prepared; there was never a moment of, “Could you give me the line.” That can really slow you down too. It’s like, “Everybody’s on except for Sandy. All right, take 12. Let’s go. Come on Sandy, wake up. Let’s go.” They were all totally on their game and it was kind of great. And we didn’t have long days – they were like 10 hour days. Often you hear these horror stories of 14-16 hour days. It kept people fresh. The last couple of days were busy but you know, sometimes it’s fun to go fast because it’s like “Holy shit… boom done.”

Were you ever concerned about employing a “tell, don’t show” model for the major events in the narrative?
A little bit. There was discussion in the early stages with the producers; and just doing their jobs as producers, they thought maybe we should go outside once in a while; maybe we should see Ken Loney in the Sunshine chopper; or maybe it would help people identify with him if they saw him or they got to know him or something. So there was a lot of discussion around that but a super-convincing argument could never be completely made. So the original idea that we had … we had one or two scenes outside but it pretty much takes place in this room. I think the audience end up kind of going with it. It’s not that weird. It’s more odd after the fact when you realize, “Holy shit, we never even saw that Ken Loney guy and he was such a main character. We kind of love little Ken and wow, we never even saw his face.” It was interesting.

And there were temptations. We did shoot some scenes outside the front doors with the conversationalists going crazy, and we ended up just cutting them. We thought we’re breaking our rules; we’re not supposed to go outside. The minute you go outside – the minute you step out there – that creates a precedence to say, “Well, if you shoot the people at the door, why can’t you show the guy flying the helicopter and the trucks driving up and down?” So there’s a kind of integrity to say, “All right, this is where we’re going to be and we’re going to keep you entertained while we’re in here.” I think we end up doing a pretty good job of making it happen in those confines and I think in a way, the audience goes, “Hmm, that was sort of interesting.” If we had more money; if we’d had twice the budget, I bet you a million dollars that we would have shot other things outside because you could. We sort of could and we sort of couldn’t – more that we couldn’t.

We had a strong idea about, in a way, if you want to get fancy about it: it’s the modern condition of being in a room and experiencing the world through media. You don’t really get outside. A lot of people, especially with Internet and computer technology, can experience all kinds of things without leaving the house. It’s an experience but a very different kind of experience. The character of Grant Mazzy is a character that engages with the world inside of a glass box. You go, “Wow, that’s not so different from me and my computer room.” You’re talking to people; you’re getting freaked out by things you see; and the people you engage with – it’s interesting from that level.

Horror films are classically known to have underlying meaning. Is the English language as a virus that incites violence a metaphor?
You would have to tell me. “Pen is mightier than the sword” comes to mind; those sorts of things about language. Language is an interesting notion. It’s abstract, bizarre-o sound that we make with our mouths that somehow is able to engage us with others and you can understand what I’m saying. It’s amazing. I don’t know what the metaphor would be. Part of me is curious to see what are people going to say about it or what they’re going to write about it. I think writers are very interested in this movie because it’s rich with metaphors and political meaning and social meaning, I suppose. The politics and the metaphor are headless in this movie; it’s running amok. Tony doesn’t like to be pinned down. It’s as simple as it makes you think about language; how powerful it actually is in our lives; and how even something like a computer – when our computer gets a virus and goes all cuckoo-bananas – you think, well maybe it is possible our language could be infected. Maybe it is already infected with a virus. Maybe there are certain words that are bad words; maybe swear words are bad words and that’s a bad thing to say or bad things will happen; or certain phrases are powerful things. I don’t know what to say to that actually.
Glad I could ask one that actually stumped you.

A more specific question: the black-and-white photos shown in the movie don’t actually correspond with the obituaries being read. Why is that?
A few sort of do…
Yeah, at the beginning they do but as the list continues, it stops.
Yeah, it becomes a random thing. We thought that at first you think, that must be Mrs. So-and-so and that’s So-and-so, but partly because so many people are listed in the obituaries. Don’t know how it reads exactly, but we thought maybe if the first few were assumed to be them, then the rest would just be seen as more of them. It’s just an odd little sequence.

Pontypool is the first Canadian feature to be shot using the Red One HD camera. Why did you choose to pave that path for Canadian features?
Probably because it looks so beautiful. We initially budgeted the film, and God bless the producers, they were fighting to shoot it in 35[mm]; most producers would be, “Okay, let’s shoot it in 16[mm] or my sister’s video camera.” There was a desire because the movie was in a small contained space, we wanted it to be as cinematic as we could and we thought of a kind of widescreen; try to make a really nice image. So we thought 35. Jasper Graham, who’s one of our producers, said “There’s this thing called the Red cam, you gotta check it out.” We were kind of suspicious because we thought it’s just another HD thing; but when we tested it, we put it up next to 35 side-by-side and you could barely tell the difference, if at all. So I said to Miroslav, “If you’re convinced, I’m convinced; because you’re the guy, ‘I don’t want to shoot any video crap.’” And it was great. The company was very supportive. They were excited we were using it because we were kind of the first ones, and they knew there would be a lot of interest in this. And it worked out great. It was smooth sailing all the way through post. The crew was kind of interested and excited because it was a new thing. We chose that in the end because it looked as good as 35; and it took 35mm lenses; and we could shoot more than if we had shot 35mm film. Ordinarily we might have kept the 35.

It’s not so much an economic thing, but it sort of is. But because we knew this was an actor’s piece, I knew we were going to be doing these long takes of a lot of dialogue and it’s going to be all about the performance. And I knew that if we didn’t have a good performance, we wouldn’t have a good film. And sometimes to get a good performance, you have to find it. Sometimes it’s take one, sometimes it’s take 12. If myself or the actor wants to go again, I didn’t want to have to say, “We’re out of film.” We really had a finite amount of money. It was financed by this very generous fellow from Bay St. and it wasn’t something where I could just go and say, “Hey, get us some more film.” It’s more like, “Here’s what you got,” and once you ran out of film that was it. We had a lot of people come to the set and visit and look at it and talk to the camera systems’ and talk to the DP and the designer. Since we used it last May/June, I’ve heard a lot of other people [used it]. So it’s exciting when a new piece of technology comes along that is a definite huge leap. And suddenly all those other new fangled things that were so cool are now useless; not useless, but it’s pretty much over. It’s kind of savage, that whole technological competition. There’s these companies that bought these $200,000 HD cameras, and then suddenly this little Red cam comes along that does the job for a 20th of the price. That’s a fucking knockout blow. It’s neat to be a part of a new thing like that.

How important was it that the film has its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival; because beforehand you were scrambling to get the last bit of editing done?
For this film in particular it was very important because the financing is so unusual. Often, a Canadian film is financed by Telefilm or English television money or distribution. But in our case, we had a couple of individuals using their own money. I’ve never seen that happen before in this town, like ever – maybe it has, but not in my recent memory. Everybody took a chance. The investors said, “Okay, we’re taking a chance so you guys take a chance. You’re not getting paid a lot up front; but if we make some money, we all make some money.” The festival is very important for the investor because suddenly you’re on a world stage; and we were very excited to be invited because that meant to us and the investors, especially for him, it was like, “Oh my god, I’m in the biggest film festival of the world.” And he got to come to a party and see the premiere. They make a big deal of it and the festival was very generous, and they gave us a great slot. Also, on a business level, it’s a chance to introduce the film to other buyers and distributors. Out of that screening we got a deal in New York, an American release; invited to other festivals; we got written about. In Entertainment Weekly, there’s some big piece about how it was this woman’s favourite film of the festival. We all bought like 100 copies. Just that kind of hit, that timing … Toronto is on the level of Cannes. It’s the biggest festival in the world; it’s in a great city; people love to come here; business is done. There, the strategy is to just open the film. Toronto has been so generous and so supportive of myself, and people like Atom Egoyan; there’s a lot of people. We’re all kind of crazy independent filmmakers. Sometimes just to get a leg up and get people’s attention, something like the festival is very helpful and really generous. They get a big thing from us too. We’re giving them a free film and they sell a bunch of tickets and make some money. But it’s a two-way street.

And to wrap up: at the end of the film, there is no definite conclusion. Are you thinking sequel?
Oh yeah, we’ve got two and three pretty much written. Two is called Pontypool Changes and three is called Pontypool Changes Everything. Pontypool Changes is the story of what happens in the town that day. You hear Grant on the radio a little bit but none of those characters are in two; and in the second one, you kind of experience what happens with the French soldiers and all that stuff. And then in the third one, the main character in the second one gets the infection and becomes a conversationalist. We watch him kind of go berserk and kill a whole bunch of people. And then they try to rehabilitate him. The military finally come in when things calm down and they round up the survivors – the people who have gone berserk, and talked funny – and they put them in this school and they’re taught how to speak properly again. And they try to teach them how to become functioning members of society again. That’s sort of the scariest one. They have these lessons on how to speak properly and how to say things. It would just be hilarious to be able to run the whole pattern on this. Tony’s put in so much work and there’s some brilliant, sort of hilarious ideas and some really scary things. It’s just such a fresh, kooky idea. That’s our plan.

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