Bruce McDonald is one of the coolest filmmakers to come from the Great White North in the last twenty years or so. With a filmography as varied and eclectic as you could imagine, he’s done everything from documentaries to road movies to horror films to televised teen soap operas and back again and managed to maintain an impressive level of quality and originality with his work.
With one of his more recent films, Trigger, hitting DVD this month, Bruce was cool enough to talk to us about his work and share some stories, spill some ‘secrets’ and dish some dirt on his life and times. So without further ado…
Rock! Shock! Pop!: So you went to Ryerson for film (I went to Humber!) and wound up making two low budget early films, The Plunger Murderer and Our Glorious Dead – a lot of your movies have been made available on DVD and VHS before that, hopefully they’ll turn up on Blu-ray soon. These two, however, are missing – are they ever going to see the light of day?
Bruce McDonald: No.
R!S!P!: Ok then. What about Knock! Knock!, a film you made in which future awesome director Atom Egoyan acted – what’s up with that one?
Bruce: I’ve got to get around to transferring it, but it’s funny and kooky and involves the President of the United States.
R!S!P!: Presidents do tend to be kooky. From there you pretty much immortalized yourself with a certain segment of the cult film audience when you made Roadkill. This was your first collaboration with Don McKellar, was it not? How did you and Don get together to work on this? Obviously it was a sign of things to come.
Bruce: Strangely, Don and I met at a bathhouse after the Halloween parade and we hit it off right away.
R!S!P!: How’d you get Joey Ramone on board for Roadkill? What was Joey like to work with?
Bruce: Roadkill producer Colin Brunton was the first person to offer the Ramones a gig outside of New York City back in the day, so Colin and I used our mutual admiration and passion for the Ramones and that little historical tidbit to lure Joey back to Toronto. The offer of free hamburgers and an actually nice hotel room didn’t hurt. Joey was awesome. Nice guy. Generous. Charming. Awesome.
R!S!P!: Hamburgers are persuasive. Music has always played a huge part in your movies and you got the mighty Nash The Slash on board for Roadkill too. Why Nash? There’s got to be some interesting stories about working with him to tell, as you’d work with him again on your next movie.
Bruce: Again, Colin Brunton had a great relationship with Nash through a Toronto theatre called the 99 Cent Roxy. The interesting thing about Nash the Slash is that Nash is actually a woman. After all these years, it’s probably an ok time to reveal this strange, but charming fact about Nash the Slash. Again, she was very generous and charming to work with.
R!S!P!: The more you know! So Roadkill did well enough that you and McKeller teamed up with Valerie Buhagier and Earl Patsko again for Highway 61, probably one of the greatest road movies made in the last twenty years. You also got Art Bergman and Jello Biafra to cameo in this one (Jello’s scene is classic). It’s a very different movie but is widely considered a classic of Canadian indy cinema and I’d imagine is a bit of a crown jewel in your filmography. Where’d the inspiration for this one come from?
Bruce: Such kind words. Thank you. The inspiration came from three places: for the route, Bob Dylan’s classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited; for the cargo, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying; for the destination, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter
R!S!P!: I’d imagine given the geography of the shoot and the travelling involved that this would have been a more complicated shoot than the film’s you made prior. Any good stories about this one?
Bruce: Memphis musician and actor Tav Falco (who plays the barber) was almost gang raped by the other Louisiana bikers. On a research trip in Memphis, I stumbled onto the set of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train and for the weekend got to hang out with cameraman Robby Muller and my idol Joe Strummer. And then there was the night our small traveling crew spent in jail just outside Greenville, MS. The charges were public drunkenness and causing a disturbance, but in jail we had each other.
R!S!P!: Those are good stories and jail does tend to help form special bonds. From there you did quite a bit of TV work, something you’d do throughout your career – do you prefer to work on film or television projects, and why?
Bruce: I don’t have a preference for either. The plus side of directing TV is that I get paid a fortune, but I’m not the boss. The plus side of filmmaking is that I’m the boss, but fortunes are rare.
R!S!P!: I hear you. Dance Me Outside was also quite well accepted when it was released. What inspired you to delve into a movie about Canada’s native peoples and the issues that surround their lives, as it’s quite a step in a different direction from your earlier films.
Bruce: Norman Jewison brought the project to me after seeing Highway 61 and I had the generous support of people like Tomson Highway and the fine people of the Wikki reservation on Manotoulin Island.
R!S!P!: This film also marked the first time you worked with Hugh Dillon of The Headstones fame. The one and only time I ever saw that band play live Hugh was in fine form and came across as completely insane. He’s got a reputation as shit disturber and a bit of a tough guy. How was he to work with?
Bruce: Hugh is an amazing collaborator and a generous and natural film actor. He has a great bullshit detector and a terrific ability to be in the moment, which counts for a lot in film acting. He’s also a hilarious nut.
R!S!P!: You worked with Hugh again on Hard Core Logo, which Quentin Tarantino would go on to distribute through Rolling Thunder in the US. You got Joey Shithead to appear in this one and Joey Ramone showed up again too. What was it like working on this picture and how much did you pull from the local BC punk community for the film? It’s been said you used a lot of locals to get the right sort of tone for the movie.
Bruce: It was my first time working in Vancouver and actually Joey Shithead didn’t really help much at all. I think he was pissed that the part of Joe Dick went to that “East Coast Asshole” Hugh Dillon rather than himself and was quite convinced that author Michael Turner had based Joe Dick and Hard Core Logo on the DOA story. Buck Cherry from the Modernettes was very helpful and welcoming to a Toronto boy in his town making a film about his scene. Also I had great collaborators like DOP Danny Nowak, who grew up in the punk rock scene in Van City and the Foxy Bitches - our crew gals, producer, designer, production manager, costume designers and assistant director. The Foxy Bitches made sure of punk rock authenticity.
R!S!P!: Good stuff! More TV work followed, including the short lived and SORELY underrated Twitch City which once again saw you working with Don McKeller and this time also with the lovely and talented Molly Parker, who also had a small role in Hardcore Logo. Is she really as lovely and talented as she seems? Did you know then that you were working with someone who would go on to such critically acclaimed projects as Deadwood? What’s she been like to work with over the years?
Bruce: Molly Parker is actually a robot. She’s been programmed for success and world domination. Don’t tell anybody.
R!S!P!: I will take this secret and Nash’s secret with me to my grave but more importantly, over the years you’ve directed quite a few episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation. The Degrassi shows have become pretty much legendary even outside of Canada. What did you try to bring to this ridiculously long running series and how did you find it working on a project geared more specifically to a teenage audience as opposed to your more adult oriented projects?
Bruce: Degrassi was fun. I guess I brought, or tried to bring, a sense of humor, endless patience and a handful of good songs. Physically aging, but not mentally aging past the age of 14 - I found Degrassi to be a pleasant center of reference.
R!S!P!: It’s been said that for The Tracey Fragments you completed principal photography in two weeks but then spent nine months editing the movie. This was a markedly different type of movie compared to your other work, especially in terms of its experimental visual style. Why the shift to use all of those multiple images on screen at the same time? This was obviously representative of the lead character’s psyche – but it had to have been an insane amount of work to put it together this way.
R!S!P!: I knew it! How did the cast for The Tracey Fragments come together? Ellen Page annoyed the Hell out of me in Juno but she’s great in this film.
Bruce: Our producer Sarah Timmins turned me on to the lovely Ellen Page and we’re very happy that she chose the role. It’s my hope to work with her again one day, because she is so talented and so cool.
R!S!P!: And possibly a robot, or….? You followed this one up with Pontypool, a film that’s definitely a lot darker than most of your other movies. Had you always wanted to make a horror picture and what attracted you to this project?
Bruce: I’ve always wanted to make horror movies. It was “Pontypool Changes Everything,” the novel by Error! Reference source not found., that introduced me to the insane and attractive notion of language as a virus.
R!S!P!: It’s a great concept that the movie handles well. Stephen McHattie has been on the go since the early seventies and is an actor with a ton of great credits under his belt – how was he to work with and what do you feel he was able to bring to the role? Personally I think he’s pretty amazing in the film myself.
Bruce: Stephen is my favorite actor in the world. It’s always a pleasure and surprise to work with him, because he brings such freshness and smarts to every role he plays. Tony Burgess and I are in the process of creating a new movie for Stephen McHattie right now, because we love him so much
R!S!P!: There’s been talk of a sequel to Pontypool – are you going to be involved in it in anyway?
Bruce: Yeah, we’re doing some preparations for it this coming year. The “sequel” was actually written a few years before the movie we released. Contact Tony Burgess, he’ll give you the real lowdown.
R!S!P!: You collaborated with McKeller again and with McHattie again in This Movie Is Broken, an interesting mix of a fictional story in with live concert footage shot at a Broken Social Scene performance. Again, this was kind of experimental in nature – what was it like shooting the live footage versus something more prepared and scripted?
Bruce: With This Movie is Broken it helped that we were all on psychedelic mushrooms during the shoot. This provided an environment of true experimentation, conducive to freewheeling narrative experiments.
R!S!P!: Rad. McKeller pops up again, as does Molly Parker, in Trigger, one of your latest projects which is coming to DVD this month. It’s almost as if you’ve gone full circle in some ways, going back and working with some of the people you worked with in the earlier days. Tracy Wright, who has appeared in Highway 61 and Twitch City also shows up, as does Callum Keith Rennie. Why the tendency to go back to these guys? It’s got to be more than just the quality of their work.
Bruce: It’s important to work with people you trust.
R!S!P!: Can’t argue with that logic. In as many ways as this film plays with some of the same themes and ideas of your earlier pictures, it’s also quite a different animal than the movies you’ve made before. What do you think sets Trigger apart from other Bruce McDonald movies?
Bruce: Its 15 million dollar budget, its extensive use of green screen technology and digital face replacement. It’s recreation of Toronto in the studio - a remarkable feat in art direction and set construction. I’m very proud that we achieved these very natural results entirely on a green screen stage.
R!S!P!: A few more questions – when Hard Core Logo broke, you could have gone Hollywood and you didn’t, you stayed in Canada where you continue to work. Was there ever the temptation to head south and look for bigger projects? What keeps you in Canada?
Bruce: Well in fact I did move to Hollywood in 1996. I still keep my apartment block in Toronto. The last few films have all actually been shot in the valley - we just recreate Toronto here. I still like to come back to Canada now and again to see the Leafs play, for Headstones reunions and the enjoyment of paying off corrupt police officers.
R!S!P!: Uh-huh. We have corrupt police offigers here in New York, too. Is Hard Core Logo 2 actually going to happen?
Bruce: In fact, it has happened. And it will be released early 2012, hopefully before the end of the world. If you want to chat more about that, gimme a ring –a-ding.
R!S!P!: You forgot to give me your number. I hope the world doesn’t end next year, that would suck. Did you really spend the twenty five grand Roadkill won you at the Toronto International Film Festival on a big chunk of hash?
R!S!P!: ha! Anything else you’d like to add? Any upcoming projects you want to talk about?
Bruce: Well, we’ll know very soon about a project called “Caroline Rush, Robot Girl.” Give us a ring in a couple of weeks and we’ll tell you more.
R!S!P!: Awesome! Thanks for taking the time out to do this, Bruce. It’s been an honor and a pleasure.
For more information on Bruce’s world, check out the Shadow Shows website here.