By Sean Axmaker
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.
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