You all know Bruce McDonald right? Canada’s rock ‘n’ roll filmmaker. Director of Canadian classics like Highway 61, Hardcore Logo and last year’s The Tracey Fragments. His latest, Pontypool had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival and it’s his first foray into genre films. It’s also the best horror film made by a Canadian director since David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Bet you didn’t see that one that coming.
On Valentine’s Day, radio shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, who will play Nite Owl in 2009’s Watchmen) is driving through a zero visibility blizzard in the quiet Ontario town of Pontypool. He pulls over to the side of the road to take a call and a woman appears out of nowhere and starts speaking complete gibberish to him. A little bit shaken up he continues on his way to work at the radio station, located in the basement of a church. It’s a typical morning with reports on school closures, people calling in to complain that there’s no 9-1-2 number people can call for lesser emergencies and Grant trying to get under the skin of the sleepy town. Then a call comes through about civil unrest at a doctor’s office with numerous deaths. There’s not a peep about this on the newswire so is it a hoax? Then the BBC picks up on Grant’s report and wants to know if French separatist terrorists are to blame for all the deaths.
As the calls come into the station, it’s looking like the French aren’t to blame (this time) and Pontypool is in the midst of a deadly zombie outbreak spread by language… possibly of the lovey-dovey type Valentine’s Day language. What follows is a highly suspenseful sci-fi horror thriller that owes as much to the War of the Worlds radio play and Night of The Living Dead as it does to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I got locked in a room with Bruce McDonald, Stephen McHattie and writer Tony Burgess for 10 minutes and the following conversation ensued.
Bruce, your last movie The Tracey Fragments: Ellen Page, Broken Social Scene, avant-garde editing, a hip movie. Your latest, Pontypool is a genre film, which is probably the nerdiest kind of movie you can make. Did you intend on making films that contrast so sharply?
Bruce McDonald: Not particularly. That was just the next thing up. Tony, the writer, and I have been working on this project for many years. The fact that the script came up was a neat antidote. It was exactly the opposite approach of the previous one so it was very refreshing in that way.
Are you a horror movie fan and if so which ones?
Bruce: Oh yeah. The classics. The Tenant, dunno if it’s horror but it’s a Polanksi film. The Shining. Love The Shining. The Host, which was out fairly recently. It’s a Korean film about a sea monster that’s creepy and good. Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The classics indeed.
Tony Burgess: Phantasm.
Phantasm is amazing but it makes no sense.
Tony: That film is very near and dear to me.
The Tall Man and the silver spinning spheres. It’s insane. What scares you?
Bruce: At the festival there’s a certain kind of character that’s around. It’s this desperate, wide-eyed, glassy, I’ve had a script for 12 years that I’ve been working on kind of crazy. To me that’s a bit scary and disturbing. You’re not sure what’s going on there.
Okay, well I won’t pull this script I’ve been working on out of the bag that I’d like you to read.
Bruce: Scripts out of the bag are fine. It’s more of the Mark David Chapman kind of guy.
What’s scarier: French separatist terrorists or a killer zombie virus?
Tony: Stephen Harper.
Bruce: They’re both pretty scary but I think Stephen Harper tops them all…
Stephen McHattie: The most scary thing is people with power. It’s scary because they can actually do things that harm you.
Tony: I think what’s scarier is when a media from another super power doesn’t know the difference from a terrorist or a zombie. You know the guns are coming but you’re not sure what the target is. Bruce: It’s not so much the French terrorist group that’s frightening but the guy who’s equated some political dissatisfaction with terrorism.
You bring the gore in this film but would it be fair to say you’re more of a fan of psychological terror?
Bruce: I think so. Your imagination will always provide the biggest scares. You go back to these guys who made horror films at RKO and they suggested the terror and they suggested the horror which was in the shadows and it was half-seen. Seems much more effective than the full CGI’d eight-eyed beast. I mean c’mon, it’s a computer program.
In a few shots in Pontypool, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is prominently featured in the foreground. Explain to me why this wasn’t an accident.
Bruce: We love that book. I read it and my editor Jeremy had read it. There’s so much in it that’s simpatico to language and viruses. It’s a really terrific book and it’s our little salute to the author. So we just stuck it on the table there.
Stephen, how did working on this film compare to working on films like The Watchmen?
Stephen: This grew naturally. I got to work with Tony and Bruce on the character. It felt like we were all doing it together. If you’re working on a great big picture it has to be so planned out. A lot of times you can get stuck into trying to imitate a storyboard.
When do you call 9-1-1?
Stephen: Don’t think I can talk about that.
Tony: I have a five-year-old who’s always trying to call it so I’m constantly screaming, “No, don’t do that! Constable so-and-so is going to put you in jail if you do.”
Bruce: I’ve never called 9-1-1. Thank God I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to. My father once called 9-1-1 when the hood ornament from his car got stolen.
Bruce: That’s why we need 9-1-2.
Is this film an assault on Hallmark cards?
Tony: That’s new and that’s true.
Excellent. Bruce McDonald hates Hallmark cards. Bruce, I talked to you a year ago and asked what’s the most you’ve ever drank in a single sitting. You said eight double vodka martinis. Has the number changed since then?
Bruce: I think it has.
Tony: Yeah, add a couple cognacs to that number.