By Sean Axmaker
January 17, 2005 - 5:20 AM PST
Don McKellar showed up for the nightly reception at the Vancouver International Film Festival without his ID badge. He was appearing with his sophomore directorial effort Childstar, which premiered at Toronto 2004 and was a spotlight film at Vancouver, and could be seen almost everywhere during his days at VIIF - watching movies, giving interviews, grabbing a beer at one of the evening parties. But when one of Canada's most active actor-writer-directors showed up for the filmmakers reception, he was initially refused entry because the festival volunteer at the door didn't recognized him.
Because Don McKellar doesn't look like a movie star. With his everyman face, crooked nose, and eyes that look just off center, he looks more like your old college buddy's offbeat roommate than Canada's most prolific hyphenate, and his manner is as unprepossessing as his looks. McKellar will likely never be a superstar, but those very qualities are what will make him such a fascinating and unpredictable presence both in front of and behind the camera.
He's had substantial roles in films by Atom Egoyan (The Adjuster and Exotica), David Cronenberg (eXistenZ), Patricia Rozema (When Night Is Falling), and Olivier Assayas (Clean), written screenplays with Bruce McDonald (Highway 61 and Dance Me Outside) and François Girard (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin), and has now has two wry features of his own as a director in his own right. And he's remained in Canada for practically all of it.
I had fruitlessly attempted to set up an interview with McKellar during his brief stay at VIFF and had all but given up hope when his producer suggested a morning meeting on Friday, October 2 - an hour before his flight to New York City. That morning interview turned out to be as relaxed and easy-going as I could have hoped. McKellar was happy to talk about everything from his first film to his most recent, Childstar, a quintessentially Canadian film with his distinctive brand of humor. As of this writing, Childstar has no American distributor.
I was looking at your filmography and almost everything, if not in fact everything you've done to date, is a Canadian production.
There are one or two things that are not, but, yeah, pretty much. It's pretty rare, actually, in Canada even. I really should do something to throw people off. It wasn't a choice, it just sort of happened, again and again. But it's also a recognition that it's possible to stay in our hometown and work. And it's also a recognition that local filmmaking is still possible, that you don't have to move to Hollywood. I think it's partly a technological thing too, that you don't have to be there in Hollywood in order to get Hollywood money. I think less and less that it's necessary to move there. That is, with a certain kind of film. If you're James Cameron, obviously you move from Niagara Falls and leave Canada because the idea of making those films in Canada is inconceivable, or if you're Jim Carrey, it makes sense. But if not, Canada offers a possibility of a certain amount of control over your films that's very unique in the world, actually, it's very privileged. I think we're all beginning to see that, thanks to certain people like Atom Egoyan and a few of us who have done well.
Roadkill has come out on DVD and I was finally able to see the film that basically broke you and Bruce McDonald. Had you even acted before that film?
I did a commentary track on that. It was funny because I hadn't seen it for a long, long time.
You also have a short film on that disc.
"Elimination Dance." That was made quite a bit later, actually. We'd already done other things by that point. Me and Bruce and Michael Ondaatje co-directed it, theoretically, and co-wrote it.
You wrote the script for Roadkill, Bruce McDonald directed, and you starred in it. According to your credits on the IMDb, you didn't have any TV or film work before that.
I had done nothing. I had acted in a couple of little shorts but they were really, really little.
So how did that happen? How did this film come together? How did you wind up scripting this rock and roll road movie?
Well, what happened was, I had this theater company, an experimental theater company called The Augusta Company, and we had a bit of a reputation I guess. So when Bruce was asking around for writers, one of his friends, one of his neighbors actually, who happened to be one of my partners in the theater company, recommended me. And then we met and talked about what actually turned out to be Highway 61. He already had a whole bunch of ideas about Highway 61 and he hired me to write, just on spec, a couple of scenes. I wrote those, he liked those and he hired me.
And in the meantime, we realized Highway 61 was going to be fairly difficult to get off the ground because it was a little bigger than we expected. Just the idea of traveling that distance itself and getting visas and things was difficult. So Bruce came up with the idea of doing a documentary to build a name so he could help get support for his future. And then that documentary turned into Roadkill. It was supposed to be a documentary of a band touring northern Ontario, but the band, well, like in the movie, the lead singer took a vow of silence, so it sort of threw off the tour plan. So Bruce, while he was negotiating that, started saying to me, "Why don't you think of some ideas or help out with ideas for the documentary because I'm having difficulties." And then one day he said, "Write the script." And I just wrote the whole script.
The reason I was cast is that no one quite understood - you saw Roadkill? - no one actually really got that part that I was playing [an aspiring serial killer who has never killed anyone]. Bruce didn't quite get it either. He auditioned some people and it never really played; it didn't come over very well, because people tended to do it aggressive, like crazy. And he said, "Look, you're the only one who seems to get this part, why don't you do it?" And so I did. I'd done theater, I had acted before, but I'd never really been on film. And then history was made.
The way that you approach the part, the very deadpan, very underplayed manner, seems to define your approach to humor.
In a way, yeah, and I've been doing it ever since. It's weird.
The funniest part of the movie for me is when you were explaining how you were an aspiring serial killer. If I recall, when she asked, "Why?," you said, "Because it's either that or become a hockey player and I've got weak ankles." And you had a crooked little smile on your face...
Yeah, it was a really fun part. I got some attention there, and then Atom cast me after that in The Adjuster; that was the next thing I did. I actually really like The Adjuster. I think it is sort of undervalued.
And then you went back for Highway 61.
And then we did Highway 61.
In which you co-starred with Valerie Buhagiar, the lead in Roadkill. And so started Bruce McDonald on the road to becoming a director of rock and roll road movies, in a way.
Yeah, I guess I did, I'm responsible for that. Well, no, I mean, he would have done it anyway without me, I'm sure. We met because we liked similar music. That's how we bonded, that's really why he hired me. He just thought we had a similar attitude when we met. It wasn't really about my writing. I gave him a writing sample of a script I'd been writing but he told me later that he didn't even read it. He thought, oh well, why not, let's see what he does. And he obviously did like the script that I did write eventually.
Both those films have a very dark side to them, and the end of Roadkill verges on being nihilistic.
Yeah, it's a weird ending. I'm not sure it's a fully natural ending. It's a bit bleaker maybe than the film warrants.
I would say it's a bit unnatural.
Yes, yes, it's not totally persuasive. I guess we wanted a big rock and roll type ending and it sort of works in a weird, funny, fun way. It's weird. In the beginning, Bruce had the more exuberant rock and roll thing and I was always the more skeptical and the more jaded about the whole rock mythology. I think in both those films you can feel that sort of tension between our two attitudes.
From there, how did you get hooked up with François Girard to co-write 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould?
This is a real career retrospective, this is. I met François in Montreal at the premiere of Highway 61 and we chatted a bit, but it was actually my producer Niv Fichman - who produced my film Childstar - he sort of suggested the two of us get together, because François needed an English writer; it's not his mother tongue. Also, I think they wanted someone a little closer in background to Glenn Gould, who would understand where he was coming from a little more. François has a French Canadian and Catholic background and I'm English Canadian, actually a very similar background to Glenn Gould. So I think that's why he thought that we would match up. And also I think he probably wanted... François had been doing sort of art videos and formal gallery things and I think Niv was worried about him dealing with characters and with humor, he thought maybe needed a bit of a sense of humor, because Glenn Gould had quite a bit of it. So he brought us together and then we liked each other, and there you go. When Niv and François first approached me, I was very skeptical because I knew Glenn Gould's life a little and I knew that it was very undramatic, but I realized the implication of this 32 Short Films idea was very provocative and I got excited by it.
I think the same is true about The Red Violin. I didn't want to do another biography film, but when François suggested we do a biography of an instrument, it was an exciting challenge; and it was such a challenge to the idea that it would cross so much time and so many languages that I couldn't resist. I found it really fascinating because we realized at one point that we were just writing the subtitles for the film. We had written the text and slaved over the exact wording and realized that that's not what they were going to be speaking. So we went to these different countries and chose writers, real writers, from each country, not just translators, but writers that we trusted and who knew the period, who could write dialogue that was convincing. Actually it was really exciting for me to be able to meet these different writers and hand it over and discuss nuances. It was really complicated and was probably hellish for François because a lot of it was happening during the shooting.
With all the writing you'd done and all the theater work and all the performance, it took you a long time before you directed your own feature.
I wasn't one of those guys itching to direct. I had really good experiences with those collaborations. I like collaborating. My theater work was collective, with no assigned director or writer, and I enjoyed that environment. So it was more as a change of perspective for me. I went to the Canadian Film Center, which is the Norman Jewison Center for Film. They asked me to go come after I'd written Highway 61 and Roadkill. And then I thought, "Well, I'm not going to go as a screenwriter, because I've done that pretty much, but maybe I'll go as a director, just to change perspective and see what it's like. And also to incorporate some of the stuff I'd been doing in theater, some of the slightly more experimental stuff that was more affected by 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which I did after going up there. So I just sort of directed for fun; it's weird, and really did enjoy it. I found I was quite comfortable doing it. So it wasn't like I was frustrated all those years.
You'd been writing non-stop, so it did seem like a natural progression.
I guess that's what I'm saying, it was sort of natural. That's where I was headed, in a way. I just didn't really know it.
"You don't have to move to Hollywood.""I got my dream cast."
"The challenge is always to let your voice speak."
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A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
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