Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pontypool: an Interview with Bruce McDonald (and an appreciation of Stephen McHattie)

Stephen McHattie in Bruce McDonald's Pontypool

I’ve always liked the films of Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald. Hard Core Logo probably remains his greatest achievement - to borrow a construction from Nietzsche, it’s the “Maximum Bruce McDonald Movie Attained Thus Far,” an unmissable, if entirely fictitious, contribution to Vancouver punk lore, based on local writer Michael Turner’s book of the same name. Roadkill and Highway 61 also have a lot of quirky charm, and last year’s The Tracy Fragments was certainly fun to watch (if more for its formal innovations - it’s told in a non-linear fashion on a dizzying variety of partial, varying, constantly changing “sub-screens” on the main screen - than its ultimately rather straightforward story, based on the highly praised novel by Vancouver writer Maureen Medved). The very idea of McDonald making a zombie movie that involves a virus spread by infected words in the English language - a Burroughsian horror film, set (even better) in a basement radio station, for that Rio Bravo "besieged" effect - is appealing indeed.

However, the main reason I’m happy about McDonald’s new film, Pontypool - opening Friday - is that it features the return to a lead role by one of the most under-rated, fun-to-watch character actors working, Stephen McHattie, whom I never even knew was Canadian until recently. Bruce McDonald aficionados and zombie fans will have to indulge me for a paragraph while I enthuse...

The now-grizzled McHattie, born Stephen McHattie Smith in Antigonish, Nova Scotia in 1947, seems to be best remembered (by other folks, anyways) for his performances in TV movies and series. David M. of No Fun (and, uh, Chapters - his next free concert there is on the afternoon of the 21st) tells me that the young McHattie did a terrific job as James Dean in 1976 TV biopic, which I have not seen. IMDB claims that he’s best known for his performance in a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, a series I have never watched; and McDonald, at a Cinematheque Q&A for an advance screening of Pontypool the other week, joked about how viewers had recognized him for his role as Ellen’s psychiatrist/boyfriend in Seinfeld (which I also never watch). More cinematically-minded viewers will probably associate McHattie with small character roles - his memorable thug in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (the one who gets his face blown off in Viggo’s café), or even as Hollis Mason in a brief sequence in the current Watchmen film (where he’s given very little to do, alas). My own admiration for McHattie revolves around a gritty, neglected exploitation film, shot by British filmmaker Peter Collinson in Quebec in the late 1970’s, called Tomorrow Never Comes. It's only available in a rather bad full-frame DVD presentation, alas; I’ve tried both the US and UK releases, trying to find a cut that doesn’t have an outrageously bad bit of dialogue-dubbing near the beginning, where a character’s profanity is substituted for no reason known to me with lighter curses - the absurd “galdarn” for “goddamn,” for instance - which kind of mars the otherwise profanity-rich film, making it seem like a bad TV broadcast. (Sorry to report, the UK DVD, while appearing to be a minute or two longer, isn’t of much better quality than the US.) In Tomorrow Never Comes, McHattie plays a brain-damaged young man who loses control, flips out on a an unfaithful girlfriend, and holds her hostage at gunpoint in a bungalow while the powers that be (including Oliver Reed, Donald Pleasance, Raymond Burr, and John Ireland) try alternately to talk him down or pick him off. Though Reed and Pleasance are always fun to watch, McHattie completely carries the film, outshining the rest of the cast by miles - he’s both the bad guy (abusive, vicious, unpredictable) and sympathetic hero (betrayed, understandably hurt and angry, and ‘not in his right mind’ - a bar fight at the beginning of the film has muddled his forebrain and the poor guy just can't control himself). For the film to work, we have to be both afraid of him and sorry for him simultaneously, a nifty trick for McHattie to have pulled off. While the dour Reed and German-accented Pleasance (!) are fun to watch, the only performance that nearly equals McHattie's is the snivelling, moaning, pleading, self-compromised self-abasement of Susan George, who actually fares worse in this film than she does in Straw Dogs, believe it or not. It’s a nasty, cynical little movie with a pretty wide misogynist streak, but the psychodrama is compelling, and as exploitation cinema goes, it seldom gets better; LA punks the Flesheaters even wrote a song apparently inspired by the title, which, given Chris D’s knowledge of B-movies, is high praise indeed.

Given McHattie’s talents, it’s kind of a shame that every other role I’ve seen him in is a supporting one. My first question to Bruce McDonald is simply to thank him for casting McHattie in Pontypool as Grant Mazzy, a down-on-his luck radio station shock jockey broadcasting from a Podunk local news station in Ontario when the plague of zombies hits. Neither Bruce nor myself can think of lead roles by McHattie since the 1970's (maybe we're missing something). McHattie, of course, is terrific in the role - he has a rich, deep, gravelly voice, and his expressive face is perfect for the range of emotions (horrified indignation, horrified horror, drunken self-indulgence, desperation, despair, outrage, and even a bit of love and concern) that he channels. He even has a cowboy hat as cool as Bruce McDonald's.

Allan: How did you first start working with Stephen McHattie?

Bruce: I first met Stephen McHattie on a TV show called Emily of New Moon. It was shot in PEI, and he played this mentally challenged farmhand. I was just amazed at what he did with the role, which could have been supercheese, right? But he just gave it a great spin. We became friends, and I worked with him on that, and I worked on him on a pretty funny Michael Turner script called American Whiskey Bar, which we did as a live television broadcast. And he did that, and I worked with him a couple of years ago on a TV movie called Killer Wave, about killer waves attacking America.

Allan: Like tsunamis?

Bruce: Yeah, like - the bad guys detonate nuclear explosives underwater and they're trying to destroy Boston or something like that (chuckles).

Allan: Wow.

Bruce: It's pretty wacky, and again, he was great. I'm just an admirer of his work. I've seen him in stuff and it's like - "Wow, he's great." And we always get along well on set, and when we had this script come up, I thought, "I know the guy to do this," and luckily he stepped up to the plate.

Allan: How did his wife get involved? (Lisa Houle, married to McHattie, plays Sidney Briar, McHattie's boss at the station and eventually his ally in fighting the zombies - or "conversationalists," as McDonald refers to them - more on that in the Straight article on Pontypool, if you like).

McHattie and Houle. Note cowboy hat: McHattie apparently modelled his character's look in part on Don Imus.

Bruce: Well, I talked to Stephen - he's now living just outside Toronto; for years, he was living in Topanga Canyon in LA, but a couple of years ago he moved to Ontario with his kids and his wife. And I showed up at his place to go through the script with him, and Lisa answered the door. I'd worked with Lisa as well in PEI, and she's also a terrific actress. I'm sitting looking at her and thinking, "God, she's perfect for this other character, this Sidney Briar role" - perfect age, great actress. And so I kind of leaned over to Stephen when she was out of the room and I said, "Hey, do you think Lisa would be interested in doing this? Would you consider acting with Lisa?" And he kind of lit up, and he was like, "Yeah, it'll be great!" (For this, Bruce adopts McHattie's gruff growl). He really liked the idea.

Allan: How was that, directing a husband/wife team?

Bruce: It was great. Part of the thing is, Stephen can be, y'know, a very intimidating guy, because he's a powerful guy and pretty serious about his stuff. But what was great about Lisa was, she knows him so well - so there's a complicity there, in their working methods and in their onscreen thing, and also the fact that they were both so excited about it, they did a lot of extra homework about it, in preparation. It was a dream.

Allan: Let me ask you about the film itself, then. I kept wanting to read the film as being a parable about media responsibility: the comments about the response to the plague being a genocide set to elevator music, or lines like, "We were never making sense - we have to shut up or die." It seems like it's a political film, but it's kind of obscure - I couldn't quite fit my mind around its message.

Bruce: Tony Burgess, the writer of this movie (and the novel on which it is based, Pontypool Changes Everything), likes to say that the politics of this movie are "headless." There are politics in there, in a sense - you're right, the references to Afghanistan, or Osama bin Laden hiding out in a smalltown theatre troupe, or the BBC guy referring to the French separatists (whose not speaking English renders them immune to the plague) as "terrorists." But there was no foundational political agenda as such. It was more like, because these guys were in the media, the world as it is could seep in. I guess what I was attracted to with it was the whole playing with language... It seemed to be a very rich, deep - a nice fat vein to hold things in. I think it's open to a lot of interpretations.

Allan: A phrase like "Kill the word that's killing you" - it has a very Burroughsian resonance. Was he in your mind?

Bruce: Oh yeah, sure! I first heard the "language is a virus from outer space" thing on a Laurie Anderson record - and she got it from Burroughs. I'm just sort of now digging into that stuff - Burroughs and the French semioticians. These are all people that Tony has studied. He takes a great delight in language play, signs and meaning.

Allan: It seems like you're moving in that direction, as well, with The Tracy Fragments and its play with film syntax, and now this, which plays a lot with words. Is it something you want to do more of - more experimental projects?

Bruce: I've always been drawn to that. I studied experimental cinema in college, and I was really drawn to that - these movies that were made the way punk rock music was made, movies that were bold formal and personal experiments. I trained as an editor, and I've always admired play with structures and that kind of thing.

Allan: Is there a film you really admire, along those lines?

Bruce: I can go right back to Rashomon or something like that - or Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Alain Resnais, who played a lot with time and memory and space. Film is such a plastic medium that, being an editor, you can sit there and move the past to the future, and vice-versa. Film seems like a great place to play with that - it seems effortless in a certain way. There's a book I really admire, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje - again, it's a very unconventional structure; it plays a lot around in time and associations. I like these stories that are sort of more impressionistic than straight-up narrative tales.

Allan: The language play at the beginning of the film - with the lost cat and stuff; is that supposed to, in some way, initiate the virus? The virus comes from language?

Bruce (laughs): I think that's a good interpretation! - that that could be the origin of the virus that ends up in the film, that Grant's little language play results in this... That's a pretty good origin story!

Allan: Does he succeed in saving the world, by rearranging language again at the end?

Bruce: It's funny - Tony and I were working on this script, and we're working in a b-movie structure or genre, in a way; and we didn't want to totally fall into the trap, but there's a great delight at the point in those movies where they go, "Oh my God, we've discovered how to reverse things!" And the idea of finding the word and de-meaning-izing it, shaking the meaning out of the word as the antidote - I thought, "Well, I'd buy that as an antidote."

Allan: Do you follow zombie films? I find it interesting that in the new zombie films, it's no longer a dead person risen from the grave, but a living person who has been infected. Your film participates in that - like 28 Days Later, say...

Bruce: Yeah!

Allan: Are you a zombie movie fan?

Bruce: As much as the next guy, I think - the Romero films made big impressions on me, growing up. I haven't followed all of them - I saw Rob Zombie's movies, and I saw the 28 Days Later movies that I really enjoyed. Some of the remakes, Fido... Yeah, I like zombies. I don't know if Romero was the popularizer of the term, in a way - I think it's become a modern term to include mentally ill people, and people who work at IBM...

Allan: (laughing)

Bruce: You know what I mean? You hear that all the time: "Oh my God, I feel like a fuckin' zombie - I've been staring at the computer all day." If I could speculate - it has grown from its initial, "the dead in search of brains" to something a lot of people can identify with.

Allan: (laughing) Because of work?

Bruce: (laughing): Because of their work, yeah!

Allan: Okay. Last question - I keep hearing rumours about plans to do Hard Core Logo 2.

Bruce: Yeah, we've got a great script. But now Hugh Dillon (former Headstones frontman who plays Joe Dick) has just exploded - he's on Flashpoint, he's on this other show, Durham County, and they've got him seriously under contract for at least the next year. We were planning to shoot it this year, but - it's like, "Allright, we gotta wait til he's done takin' people out!"

Allan: ...So you're going to bring Joe Dick back somehow.

Bruce: Well, right now we've got a way, and now, we're kind of re-looking at it... We want to make it as good a script as we can, and not have the fans go, "Ahh, that's stupid!" It's gotta be great. We have a whole script written and we think it's pretty good, but we have one more concept to consider before we throw the switch...

Allan: I'm really looking forward to it. Any final comments for Vancouver audiences?

Bruce: Well, when I think of Vancouver, I always think of Michael Turner and the freshness and the braveness of his voice. It's this kind of collision of high-end smart with low end "give'r" kind of thing, which Michael has done so well in The Pornographer's Poem and American Whiskey Bar... I think Tony Burgess shares that. Maybe that's why I'm attracted to his stuff...

Allan: Thank you very much, Bruce. I've got what I need!

Bruce: Thank you!

("Go see Pontypool!")

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I liked Mc Hattie in 'Look what happened to Rosemary's Baby' !!