| BRUCE MCDONALD I was born in Kingston, and my parents moved to Toronto when I was five. I grew up in Rexdale, so I don’t remember much about Kingston. We lived just behind the Albion Mall, around Kipling Avenue and Albion Road. It was a cool place to grow up. It was the end of the bus line, so you could take the bus into the city, or go to the mall, or be in the country. As a kid, I had all these fields and places to go. I wasn’t stuck right in the heart of the suburbs.|
Wyndham Wise What is the background of your parents?
B.M. My mother’s family are Camerons. Her father was Scottish and her mother Finnish. Nobody knows too much about my father’s parents. They left the scene at an early age. He was raised as an orphan by Scottish people. My mother grew up in Fort William, and my father’s guardians were farmers. My father became a schoolteacher and principal. His adoptive mother was a schoolteacher who also worked on the farm. He became a teacher at 19-years-old and taught at the army schools in Kingston.
W.W. Was he the principal at your school?
B.M. Everybody hopes that! We lived in Rexdale, which is in the north end of the old Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, but he taught in Mimico, which is in southern Etobicoke, down by Lake Ontario. He really liked it and was there for the longest time. He really liked the neighbourhood. It was an old neighbourhood, working class, with a strong community feeling, which you didn’t get in the suburbs. I guess coming from a farm, he liked that sense of community. My mother worked part-time in the schools as a librarian. They were good parents to have. All my brothers and sisters went to college and university. School was always a big thing at home. We always had to do our homework. We were read to as children and taken to the library every week. I was encouraged to read and do my homework. I have two
sisters, one a year older and the other a year younger, and a brother who is three years younger.
W.W. Did you go to movies a lot? What were the ones that influenced you the most?
B.M. A lot. I remember Night of the Living Dead was the big turning point for me. I was in grade eight, and a bunch of us went to see it at the mall. It was awesome. We were so freaked out. We had to walk home across the field, and it was scary dark. It was the best thing we had ever seen in our lives. It was like hearing The Ramones for the first time. I remember Planet of the Apes was a big thing and that got me going to see more movies. I remember Le Mans with Steve Mc-Queen. I loved going to the movies, everything from the movie posters and the lobby cards. I loved scary movies. I was a big horror fan. Horror and science fiction, nothing could top that.
W.W. Did you make any films yourself while you were in high school?
B.M. There was nothing in my school. There was no photography class or anything like that. Once you got to the later years you could take drama, but I was making films before high school. My uncle gave me a camera when I was 13. It was a Brownie 8 mm, flip-up view-finder. I shot a Night of the Living Dead zombie movie. It was about 40 minutes long. I was the ringleader. I shot it and cut it. It was kind of like having a band. It was something to do. My sister was in it and my other sister’s boyfriend. One by one, the teachers are killed by the zombies. We’d shoot after school and pretty much everyone we asked was in it. We would spend weekends making cardboard gravestones, or figuring out ways to rip someone’s arm off, or do some weird make-up thing. When it was finished, I showed it at school. I made posters, charged people money, and had a big hit. The kids loved it. We actually allowed the English teacher to come back from the dead to rip apart some of the kids because we liked him. It was called Our Glorious Dead. At first it was going to be called Chew Me Flesh, but I decided to take the high road when I saw the war memorial on Queen Street, to ‘Our Glorious Dead.’ It made it sound more important.
W.W. After high school you entered Ryerson where you hooked up with Peter Mettler.
B.M. I tried to get out of high school after grade 12. I was interviewed by Bruce Elder but I didn’t get into the Ryerson film program at that time. The next year I applied again and this time I got in. Peter was a year ahead of me. The great thing about Ryerson was not that it taught you how to make films, but it was the people you met there. And of all the people I meet, Peter and I just connected. We became good friends. Peter would shoot a lot for other people, and I would cut a lot of stuff. We each had our territory stamped out. At the end of each year we had to show our films, and Peter showed this film called Lancalot Freely. It just shut the place down. You have to remember, most of the students were like me white suburban kids, some still living with their parents and wanted to be Steven Spielberg. There was a small experimental group, but Peter’s film was different. Here was this nasty, angry freak screaming at you. It was shot in a cool way and was just so accomplished. It was not like some poncey thing. It was after the screening that we became friends.
Then he went away to Switzerland for the summer, and I rented his place on King Street East, down by where The Funnel used to be. After Peter left, my worst nightmare came true. Lancalot Freely turned up at the door. It was this rainy night, and I opened the door and thought, ‘Oh my God! It’s that guy from the film.‘ He asked me if Peter was home, and I told him he was gone for the summer. There was a pause, then he looked at me and said, ‘I need a place to stay.’ He ended up staying all summer, and eventually we became pals. But initially it was like Frankenstein had arrived at my door. When Peter came back, he started work on Scissere. So I started looking around for something to do. I managed to come up with a script and in the meantime I helped Peter shoot his film whenever he needed me to do something. It was really exciting because this was the guy who had made Lancalot Freely, and I just wanted to be part of it. A lot of the editing was done that summer , after school was finished.
W.W. In the meantime, what happened to the script that you were working on?
B.M. The story really wasn’t very good, and I thought it was going to be hard to shoot. And for what? It was stupid. So I decided to go left and make a document about the process, and since I didn’t have a script, I created the story in the editing room. I learned a lot about editing with that film [Let Me See …]. It was like a collage. I did that film and helped Pete with Scissere, which got into the Festival of Festivals that year. That was impressive, seeing Scissere on the big screen. My short film didn’t get in, so I showed it anyway, on the sidewalk.
W.W. This is the famous films-on-the-sidewalk story. Would you tell me how that came about?
B.M. I was quite crushed that my film had not been accepted. I spoke to Kay Armatage about it, and she said, ‘Well, it’s good, but half-hours are hard to program.’ So, I decided to show it anyway. I got a projector and a really long extension cord and went to the University Theatre, where they were doing the gala. I dressed-up in a third-hand tuxedo I bought in Kensington Market. A couple of other people caught wind of what I was up to. Their films didn’t get in either. Then Atom somehow showed up. I didn’t know him all that well, but he knew Peter, and anyway he showed up in a tuxedo. We showed our films on a screen on the sidewalk, just as the sun was going down. The cops came by at one point and looked at the screen and looked at us. They said, ‘We’re going for a long coffee break. By the time we get back, you’re not going to be here, right?’ But they thought it was pretty funny. They were cool.
Then some people from the upper echelons of the festival came along. They just stood there whispering. Then one of them came over and gave us a handful of tickets. I had one of my sisters passing the hat around. So all in all it worked out really well. And we got on television. Jeannie Becker from Citytv came down to tape us and Atom and I were interviewed. We talked about this new sidewalk program the festival was launching. So, in the end, we got way more press than we would have if we had a film in the festival. We got on television and in the newspapers. It was a laugh.
W.W. Tell me about the first time you met Atom.
B.M. The first time I met Atom was at his apartment in a house on Spadina Avenue. Peter and I went over because he was doing a short film, Open House. He didn’t really know too much about movies, so he asked Peter to help him and I worked as Peter’s assistant. I would load the magazines and haul the gear. That is how I got to know Atom, over those three or four days on Open House. It was the first time I had seen a crane shot, and I thought it was pretty cool because Atom was using real actors and had a real script. My stuff had been ‘shoot first, ask questions later.’ Peter was shooting water and trees, and sometimes a human being. Atom was the first guy we had met who was actually prepared. We were impressed and we all hit it off quite well.
W.W. Didn’t you also work on Next of Kin and Family Viewing?
B.M. Peter shot Next of Kin, and I came in at the very end. Atom knew about preparation, writing, and drama, but he didn’t know anything about cameras or editing. He was studying political science or something like that. So I came in at the end and said, ‘Okay, just cut out the camera flashes.’ It took about seven minutes to edit the whole thing, because, literally, there were about 18 shots. He had filmed the whole thing with master shots. I taught him how to keep it in sync. It was more like offering him advice and showing him how to do stuff. Atom is a bit of a control freak. He doesn’t like things getting too much out of his hands. He prepares and he wants to keep his films the way he wrote them. On Family Viewing he hired me to do the editing, but he also was the editor, and much of the time I was sitting in the chair watching him.
W.W. Can you tell me about Knock! Knock!, which you also made at Ryerson or, at least, you started it there.
B.M. You’re right, Knock! Knock! began in film school. I’m basically a lazy guy and I don’t like to work too hard. You’ve got to know that about me. It may look like I’m very productive but actually I’m really very lazy. In Ryerson we had an assignment in my third year to make a sync-sound documentary. Of course, I put it off and put it off. Some people were making a documentary about the Ku Klux Klan, some people were making a documentary about the auto workers down in Windsor. I thought this was very impressive. The deadline was upon me and I had to have something by the next week. So I thought of the easiest thing to do for a documentary and shot my friend’s bedrooms. One take each. People thought it was hilarious.
Later, I thought if I could put this footage into a structure then I might have something interesting. So I wrote a story about a guy, just like me, who was making a film about people’s bedrooms. Then I decided to go to the top and have this guy go to Ronald Reagan’s bedroom in the White House. So I wrote a script about this guy going to Washington. I hired Daniel Brooks, who is now quite an accomplished theatre director, to be that guy, and I had Peter shoot it. Camelia Frieberg was the production manager and Atom was going to appear as a journalist. We had this whole thing set-up, with a budget of $750, which I borrowed to pay for the film stock. I had three days to shoot, and the entire production was going to take place in my rented apartment on Euclid Avenue. After the first day of shooting, the Portuguese landlady just went nuts. We had 20 people upstairs in this tiny apartment. We even had a dolly up there. We calmed her down and shot a bit more. I had been in that apartment for a week without leaving. The landlady freaked out again and threatened to call the police. I became unhinged a little bit from sleep deprivation and I just walked out.
I walked around for about an hour, thinking about what I could do without a location, then I went back to the house but the door was locked. Then my imagination just took over and I thought they were all upstairs laughing at me. I had lost it and I became scared that I had screwed-up big time. So I walked around some more and ended-up at my girlfriend’s place. When I woke up, she told me Peter had been in touch and they were waiting for me back at the house with the camera. So I knew I would be walking back in with the camera rolling. I was really touched, because they had decided to keep going with the film and had gone looking for me. This really gave me a boost in confidence. It was liberating.
I came up with the idea of making the film about the cast and crew looking for the director, and over the next two days we just had fun. It was like a dark cloud had been lifted from my head. The first thing we shot was Daniel and Christie [MacFayden] repeating a conversation they had about, ‘Do we want to con-tinue?’ The argument was, ‘Can we continue without the director?’ I can’t remember who took which side, but the answer was, ‘It’s easy, we’ll just take over the film.’ I asked Daniel and Christie where they would like to go best, and Christie wanted to go to the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, so we shot there. It was a very Mettleresque way of shooting. Peter’s way is to trust that things will happen, things will be interesting, and he just goes for it. Atom is almost the exact opposite. He’ll have it all planned out and he doesn’t put too much faith in the accidents that can occur on set. He has designed it, and that’s the way he shoots it. Peter is the total opposite. I’m somewhere in between.
W.W. I asked Peter about the start-up of LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto), which I understand you also had a part in. Why did you become involved?
B.M. Two reasons. One ideological and one out of necessity. Film school was such a great place to be. It was like this secret playground. So when we had finished at Ryerson, we went looking for a place that could serve as our headquarters. For a while it was at Peter’s house, but we needed some place and we had heard that a few people were meeting to form a co-op. I don’t think it was called LIFT at that point. Janis Lundman had put together a small group of people, about eight or 10. They didn’t have a place, and it was more theoretical. They were filling out forms to apply for money. Peter and I joined these people and it was our intention to find a place to work out of. Eventually we got a space on Niagara Street with a rewind bench. We would meet fairly often, talk, and trade information. Then we took a big step and found a place on Adelaide Street West, about a block west of Spadina Avenue, on the fifth floor. Suddenly, we had a space to call ourselves a co-op. People would come and go, but Janis was like a rock holding the place together. Alex Raffé joined sometime later. Patricia was around a bit.
I was a bit anxious to come up with a manifesto, but LIFT ended-up being defined by whoever was around at the moment. It depended on the people who were involved. It was quite a revolving door. People would stick with it really intensely for a period of time. They would come on the board, volunteering, painting the space, setting up the screenings, and making films. It was quite inclusive and we didn’t mind what films were being made there.
W.W. It sounds like it was defined not so much by what it was but what is wasn’t, which sometimes happens.
B.M. You’re exactly right. We weren’t The Funnel and we didn’t want to make tax-shelter films, which were still being made at the time. That Cinema Canada issue I put together came out of those discussions. I wanted a defining mission and Peter was on side. I felt we had to make a statement, a declaration of intent, but there were too many divergent opinions. I don’t think we had the view we were new or different filmmakers, because nobody cared about us. The only people who cared about us were us. We thought we had something going on. We were just trying to make some noise and, for me, it was just how do we make more films.
W.W. Can you tell me more about how the ‘Outlaw’ issue of Cinema Canada came about? This would be in the fall of 1988 and it seems to be the closest thing to a manifesto the group would publish.
B.M. Connie Tadros, the editor of Cinema Canada, was in town from Montreal, and Peter and I met her at a screening. We all went for a drink afterwards, and we were excited to be with the editor. We were sitting around complaining about things and asked her why there weren’tany articles about us in the magazine. She said, ‘If you guys think you can do a better job, why don’t you see if you can.’ We talked some more and it was evident she was serious, so we agreed. But I quickly realized I would have to be the guy to ringmaster this. We spoke to Connie in the spring, and she gave us the September issue. Suddenly everyone was too busy to help, but I asked each to at least write something. I didn’t want to write it all myself. So I gave everyone a little assignment, and they agreed. But it was a hard job just to get people to deliver something, and then when they delivered it, it was really long or something completely different. It was a lot of hard work and I had never done anything like it before. I had a friend do the graphics and layouts. It was one of my main objectives since we were all supposed to be visual people to have comics and neat graphics. The magazine was a chance to express what
I had been trying to work out. It was the best I could come up with in terms of a singular voice. It was more about making some noise and saying there is a whole bunch of people like me out there.
W.W. During this time you were gaining a reputation as a capable editor. You edited Family Viewing and Speaking Parts for Atom, Comic Book Confidential for Ron, and The Mysterious Moon Men of Canada for Colin Brunton.
B.M. I would live in the edit room at LIFT, and since I didn’t watch television at night, I would edit other people’s films, and that’s how I survived. Initially people paid me in cigarettes and coffee. The first thing I cut was something called Bread and Freedom about Lech Walesa. Once I got out of Ryerson there were a lot of people who hadn’t finished their films, and since I had spent a lot of time in the editing room there, I was the editing guy. So it just became a thing I would do for people, and since I really didn’t have the money to do anything like go drinking in the bar with my friends, I would edit their films. Atom was the first guy to pay me to edit his films. I was never an assistant editor. I just made it up as I went along.
When Peter was going to do The Top of His Head, he wanted me to edit it, but I had never touched 35-mm film. I had no idea. Thirty-five was a completely new game. I became an editor because people thought I was an editor, and then eventually I had good assistants to help me. Atom paid me on Family Viewing, and Ron paid me for the longest time to work on Comic Book Confidential. I think I was on that for about a year. I got paid every couple of weeks at first, but toward the later half of the film the cheques stopped coming. Pizza came and cigarettes came, and then a stereo came from his father’s stereo shop, which I still have. Finally it was like, ‘Ron, I don’t know if I can keep on this.’ I had been at it forever. Then Peter offered me his film, so I took that. I think Ron was offended that I chose Peter over him. But I didn’t last long on Pete’s film. The producers soon realized that I had no experience with 35 mm. Actually, Niv Fichman had his own editor lined-up from the beginning, and I think Pete was just being kind to offer me the job. So I ended up syncing the rushes on The Top of His Head. I edited Speaking Parts, which was great. At that point I had come to know Atom well, and we had a good working relationship. It was his third feature and he was a huge inspiration for me. He was always kind, funny, really supportive, and in the editing room he would let me do what I wanted.
W.W. The ending of Speaking Parts is heavily edited. Was that in the script or did you create the ending in post?
B.M. I haven’t seen it for a long time, but I do remember the ending and showing Atom a bunch of stuff. Atom would never show me the script, and to this day he is kind of protective about his scripts. Actually, I never really read the script properly. I just looked at the foot-age, what it was and what I was getting from it. I would glance at the script, but I wouldn’t really pay much attention. I would just look at the material coming in and go from there. I saw a lot of different opportunities in that last scene in Speaking Parts. Atom is not a process guy in that sort of way and he was just amazed about what I could get out of what he had shot. To this day he will show me footage of Ararat, and I haven’t read the script, but he will want me to see the footage and I will give my opinion, straightup and honest. He appreciates that. I think a good editor will try to bring objectivity to the material. I like to think I have a good instinct for people and moments. I think I’m quite a formalist in some ways, especially when it comes to construction, and I think this comes from my early days of trying to create something out of nothing. I became attuned to structure because I would not be working from a script. I would find a structure.
Working with Ron Mann on Comic Book Confidential was a huge exercise in creating structure. I think my strength, as an editor, is to create a sense of structure and a sense of economy. What I have found in writing and editing is that filmmakers have all their ideas on the table and then they try to create structures to contain all the ideas rather than having a structure and filling it. So many times what they end up with is really convoluted, awkwardly paced, and an unbalanced piece of work that sort of seems smart and sort of seems interesting but it doesn’t work. To me, that’s the biggest problem with first-time filmmakers.
W.W. Can we move on to Roadkill, or perhaps Highway 61, since that seems to have been written first, although you filmed Roadkill first.
B.M. I was working as a driver on a film called The Legend of Wolf Lodge, which was a tax-shelter horror movie starring Susan Anspach. I remember writing Highway 61 during the shoot, but I don’t know when I started it. It began before Roadkill. This guy approached me, a young guy about 22, wearing a suit, and said he had this band called Neon Rome, and they were the coolest band on Queen Street West. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had already approached Peter, and Peter said he was too busy. I was next on his list. He had seen Scissere and Knock! Knock! at a screening at the Rivoli on Queen Street. So I went to see the band, who were amazing Iggy Pop meets Jim Morrison meets the Sex Pistols and they had a magnetic lead singer and a cool following. This young guy told me he had written a treatment that he called The Prince and the Playground. I think Purple Rain had come out not long before, and he imagined himself to be a Malcolm MacLaren, taking these young pups off Queen Street and turning them into the world’s most notorious band. He showed me his treatment, which opened with Neon Rome playing on the stage at RPM with a giant shark tank in the middle of the room with sweaty bodies of kids being tossed into the tank to be devoured alive while Neon Rome rocked out.
I got excited about the possibilities of doing a rock ‘n’ roll movie, and he got excited that I was excited. So I started thinking of how we could do this with no money. I started working on a script with Purple Rain in my head. So that winter I was working on this tax-shelter movie, driving Susan Anspach around Northern Ontario, and at night I would be trying to figure out how to do this rock ‘n’ roll movie. At the time I was sleeping with a girl who worked in the production office, and she gave me a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. She said I should read it. I had heard of Faulkner and she was smart so I read it. In it there is a dead body they are carting around the South. I thought it was a fantastic idea, and that started the whole thing going. I had a hook and I started writing a script, but I knew nobody was going to give me money to make a road odyssey down Highway 61, which it came to be. I thought maybe I should make a documentary first.
W.W. Is this when you meet Don McKellar?
B.M. I worked on the script all that summer, writing and writing. Then Daniel Brooks, who was living next door to me on College Street, said maybe I should find another writer because I wasn’t very good. I was really crushed and hurt, but I got over it. So I asked Daniel whom should I ask. Since he was working in the theatre, he told me about Daniel MacIvor and this other guy, Don McKellar. I went to see one of MacIvor’s plays. I thought it was pretty good, but he wasn’t around at the time. Then I met Don, and we hit it off right away. I asked him if he wanted to write this thing. I offered him some money. I think about $300. We met at my place where I’m living now, right here in this room, at this table and we talked about movies we liked and zombies. It turned out he had made a zombie movie as well. I thought he was the guy I needed. I asked him to show me some of his writing, just because I thought that was the professional thing to do. But I knew he was the guy.
About a week after we met, Don did actually send over something he had written but I never read it. Sometime later he sent me the first few scenes of Highway 61, and I loved them. What he brought to it were real characters. I had all these crazy ideas, pictures, and stuff, but what I lacked was the ability as a writer. I thought this was the best thing ever. I didn’t have to write. It was like receiving a present. So we continued to work together. It took awhile, but in the meantime I was learning a bit more about financing, about how difficult it was to raise money. I had made this weird short, Knock! Knock!, about a guy running away from making a movie and I had done some editing. I thought, ‘This is not going to inspire confidence in investors.’ So I decided to make a documentary first and went back to talk to the Neon Rome band. I thought it would be fun to take them up north and do an on-the-road sort of thing and see if I would even like directing a movie.
W.W. Where did the money come from to shoot the documentary?
B.M. Eventually I got some money from the art councils. I had applied four times with the Highway 61 project and had been turned down every time. But for the documentary, they gave me some money. I think they felt sorry for me, or they thought that since it was a docu-mentary about the north in Ontario. Actually, I don’t know why they gave me the money, but I had packaged the project very well and somehow I got the money. I got $70,000 to make a movie I called All the Children Are In, then a week later I found out that the leader singer of Neon Rome had shaved his head and taken a vow of silence. Within four weeks the band disintegrated. I couldn’t believe it. I had received $70,000, but I didn’t have a band anymore. I was still determined to shoot something, so I phoned up Don and asked, ‘Can you help me here?’ I told him what had happened, and we came up with the idea for Roadkill in three or four days.
W.W. It sounds a bit like Knock! Knock!, making something out of nothing, or at least something out of an original idea that didn’t pan out.
B.M. Exactly, how to turn a downside into an upside.
W.W. Let me say from the outset that you were blessed with a great cast, and it seems fairly evident that you, as the director, were in love with the roadie girl played by Valerie Buhagiar.
B.M. The first time I saw Valerie was in a film by Alexandra Gill, and she was naked. She looked pretty hot to me. That was a big factor in casting her as the lead. She just looked amazing and beautiful. I phoned up Alex, and she introduced me to Valerie. She seemed pretty cool and she had this great voice. I really didn’t know any other actors apart from Daniel and Don, and Valerie knew Don from somewhere. I was going out with someone else at the time, so it wasn’t as if I wanted a relationship, but by the end of the shoot we were together. I was intrigued with her, but she had a boyfriend at the time. It became complicated, and her boyfriend was ready to kill me, but it all worked out.
W.W. What also works is the soundtrack. You used a great mix of Canadian bands, old and new, as well as The Ramones. You even have the late, great Joey Ramone show up at the end.
B.M. This was Colin Brunton’s contribution. Colin and I worked on The Mysterious Moon Men of Canada, and I asked him to help me produce Roadkill. Without Colin, the film would never have happened. He made Don and I write inside the box. He made us focus on the script. He was like a dad. We had 15 days to shoot it, and he told us we couldn’t go a day over. That was it, no screwing around. The equipment would be returned on day 16. He also brought the music to it. His background was in the alternative music scene in Toronto. He was booking the New Yorker theatre when The Ramones first played Toronto. He worked at The Horseshoe when The Police played there. He was a big music guy and he had also worked with Ron Mann and he directed The Last Pogo. He now wanted to be a film producer and asked us who was our star. We told him we couldn’t afford any stars, so he suggested some cameos. That’s how we got Nash the Slash and Joey Ramone.
Colin is a great negotiator. He has a great way with people, a great charm. He contacted Joey Ramone, and we got a call about a month later saying he would do it. He turned out to be a really nice guy and he enjoyed himself. He was there for a day. He obviously saw us as the punk-rock version of a film crew, because there were no star trailers and we had about 10 people working on the film, but we all were huge fans. Joey put in a good word with the publisher, and we were able to use his music. Colin’s enthusiasm was infectious and he got us a record deal for the soundtrack. Nash turned us onto the early Toronto bands such as The Ugly Ducklings and The Paupers, so we had a great mixture of early stuff and brand new stuff like The Cowboy Junkies.
W.W. Roadkill did make it into Toronto’s Festivals of Festivals this time.
B.M. Actually, it was the last Saturday night film of the festival in 1989. It was literally being finished and arrived by cab at the theatre the night of its first screening. I remember, and Don told me this later, that the jury requested a copy of it on the Saturday afternoon because they hadn’t seen it yet. Cronenberg was on the jury that year. Anyway, I didn’t know anything about this and after the screening we went and partied and I got loaded. The next morning Valerie woke me up and told me that they wanted me at this brunch thing, so I started to think something might happen. Valerie was up to go, so we went and they announced that Roadkill had won the Best Canadian Feature Award. It was the weirdest thing, because I was totally unprepared and I won $25,000. I still have some of the hash left!
W.W. This story has been told so many times it’s going to be chiseled on your gravestone, but, for the record, tell me again what happened.
B.M. Jesus of Montreal had played in the festival that year [editor’s note: it had won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes that year]. Then they announced Roadkill. I was like, ‘What!?!’ Valerie was all excited and I was stunned. I went up to the podium, and they had these officials up there with this little statue and a big cheque. They said something nice, introduced me, and pushed me toward the microphone. So I say, ‘thank you,’ and I saw all those faces out there, maybe a couple of hundred people, and there were some cheers, but it was like Roadkill? I think the Arcand table was pretty quiet. I was going to make a crack like ‘Jesus was roadkill,’ but I didn’t. I thanked some people but I could feel the expectation of people saying, ‘What are you going to do with the money?’ I had just been given $25,000, so I said I was going to buy a car a 1963 Chrysler LaBaron and a big hunk of hash. Suddenly it all got very quiet. This was the time when Nancy Reagan was telling people to just say no to drugs. The next day it was all over the newspapers. Every one had a picture of a smiling, longhaired me and the quote. It was like, ‘filmmaker buys drugs with prize money.’ But I thought this was probably the best thing I could have said. It was just off the top of my head, like I was speaking to my friends.
W.W. Roadkill came out only a short time after you had done the ‘Outlaw’ issue. Peter had released The Top of His Head, Patricia had made Mermaids and Atom had made a few of his films by now. Did you feel part of something larger that was happening now that you had completed your first feature?
B.M. We did feel that we were on the edge of something. We had the tenacity and the boastfulness to believe we were creating something new. There was this great synergy. There was a lot of ambition and we had big plans. We were pretty intense about what we were doing and we figured it would pay off in some way. It’s nice to look back on it now and see a lot of the people still doing what they set out to do.
W.W. Roadkill stands out from the rest because of its funky energy. It perhaps didn’t get the critical raves of Atom’s films or the financial success of Mermaids, but it stands out as one of the best, most original films of this period.
B.M. Thank you. I’ve heard people people that I have come to know say that they saw Roadkill at this or that theatre in Kingston, or Saskatoon, and they were so excited. They didn’t seem to think it was possible to make a film in this country that was fun and funky and had a lot of energy. A lot of people have told me that it was that film that made them want to make movies, made them think it was possible. It was my version of punk rock, just do it and make things possible.
W.W. In Roadkill, you take two of the sacred topics of Canadian film discourse the landscape and documentary and turn them around and have fun with them. The landscape is littered, literally, with roadkill, serial killers, and very strange people.
B.M. I don’t think it was conscious on our behalf to mock these things, but being a lazy guy, the documentary approach was the most attractive at the time because it meant a style that was off the hip and easy to shoot. I saw it more as a method of production rather than a content thing. It seemed to fit the way we needed to make the film. I’ve always been a big believer that style doesn’t come first, but function and economy are equally important. The style is a function of the methods of production. I’m a very practical person. People tell me that as an artist and filmmaker, you must have had it all in your head. Well, not really. I had the ambition in my head but not the film. If someone had given me $5 million, Roadkill would have been completely different different.
W.W. What you did do was turn around and make Highway 61 right after Roadkill.
B.M. The film was already written. We had finished Roadkill and we were editing it when we were ready to go with Highway 61. Well, actually the script was finished in the spring of 1990 because Don is not the fastest writer in the world. But when he delivers, it’s always there in the first draft. There is never a draft two or three. We delivered Roadkill in the fall of 1989, and we were in prep for Highway 61 in February 1990. I was aiming for winter, because I wanted the opening scenes with the snow, but we missed that. It was great just to get back into shooting right away.
This time we had Telefilm Canada, Channel 4 in England, and some German money. That was very encouraging. The British bought the film on the strength of Roadkill, which was great. We also had sold them on Iggy Pop being in the movie, but he pulled out at the last minute. Colin was working on him, and he had verbally agreed but that year, at Cannes, he was appearing in a John Waters film and I think it went to his head. Now he thought he was a movie star and he no longer wanted to be in this low-budget Canadian movie. It was very weird. It was a few weeks before production was to start, and he pulled out. We were feeling very bad because we had sold the movie on Iggy being in it. He was to play the character that Art Bergman plays. But we went ahead anyway and there is a little dog in the beginning of the film that we called Iggy pup. We were all big Iggy fans, but not anymore.
W.W. With Highway 61 you went south instead of north, down the highway made famous by the Bob Dylan song and album of the same name.
B.M. Highway 61 was a continuation of Roadkill, in a way. We had ended Roadkill in Thunder Bay, and then we continued south with Highway 61. So Roadkill had served its function. It was an exercise to see if we could shoot a movie on the road, and that lead us in to shoot something more substantial. Roadkill was originally budgeted at $70,000, and we got a little extra money from the OFDC to complete it. The total was $130,000 for everything. Highway 61 was a million bucks.
W.W. This time you were working with professional actors. Were you intimidated?
B.M. By now I had gotten over my basic fear of directing. I think when you are afraid of actors you either say nothing at all or you talk too much, trying to impress them with your directorial knowledge of psychology and Stanislavsky. A common thing with directors these days is they stand in front of a monitor and say ‘action’ and ‘cut’ and they don’t engage with their actors. It’s shockingly common. Just out of basic respect for the actors and what they do, I tend to empathize with them. I think they have the toughest job on the set and I think empathy endears me to them and a bond of trust is created. It’s really about asking them questions rather then telling them what to do. I still feel I have got a lot to learn about actors and I’ve taken some acting classes to study that a bit more, but I have been very lucky to have talented people who know what they are doing.
W.W. You had the two core actors from Roadkill, Valerie and Don. Would you talk a little about casting McKellar as Pokey because I understand that was not your original plan.
B.M. Valerie was a little bit jealous of the attention Don got in Roadkill because he was very funny. It was a standout performance. When I cast Valerie for Roadkill, I had already cast her as Jackie Bangs in Highway 61 in my mind. She was always that character before we even shot Roadkill. She thought Pokey should be someone else and I had Daniel Brooks in mind, but he didn’t get the part. He was really pissed off with me because the name Pokey came from a one-man show I had seen him do. Don got the part, which caused some friction between the two of them as well. It took Daniel a number of years before we got back on speaking terms. Daniel justifiably felt a bit used because he had introduced me to Don and the theatre community. He had introduced me to writing and books. He was a great mentor for me. He lived next door and in the end the choice role went to his friend. I’ve always been looking for projects where we might work together again.
W.W. But to be fair to Don, he does have a star quality and he is Pokey Jones without a doubt.
B.M. That’s why I went with him. Daniel auditioned, but Don just seemed right. At first Don auditioned for the part of Mr. Skin because he liked that part, which is a great character. Then Earl [Pastko] auditioned for that part, and he was perfect, so Don ended up being Pokey.
W.W. Can we talk about the set-up scenes for Highway 61? Don has talked about being unhappy, to a certain extent, with those scenes, and it does seem to take them awhile to get on the road.
B.M. It was a lesson in getting the show on the road. Ideally, a set-up should take 10 or 15 minutes, and in Highway 61 it took a bit longer. There were a lot of questions about why he was leaving and in the early drafts there is a lot about his father. The most frustrating part of that script was to find a rational way for him to leave Pickle Falls. I just wanted to get him out of there and on the road, but I was getting a lot of advice to explain the situation more than I wanted to. If you were in Pickle Falls, wouldn’t you want to leave? I was under a great deal of pressure to set-up or explain why he wants to leave and, yes, those scenes go on too long. It was even longer in the script and I tried to cut it back as much as possible. But with the larger budget came responsibilities to make a proper film and do things that maybe I wouldn’t have done in Roadkill. The larger budget meant I was not as free to do what I liked. We couldn’t repeat the freshness of Roadkill and with Highway 61 we were a bit more nailed to the ground.
W.W. Rock ‘n’ roll plays a large part in the film the music and mythology.
B.M. It answers the question of why we go away. Why we leave the place we know? Because you hear the music on the road late at night coming from theses places that seem weird, cool, mysterious, and strange. Dylan, to me, was that, a lightningrod that came into my suburban, Rexdale room and told me there was this place called Memphis, there’s this place called Highway 61, there’s New York City, there’s Blind Lemmon Jefferson, there’s Jack Kerouac, there’s Patti Smith, and Arthur Rambeau. You hear these names and something happens, and Bob Dylan has been my tour guide through all this.
W.W. The success of Highway 61 led you to Dance Me Outside. How did that film come about?
B.M. Norman Jewison saw Highway 61 at the Toronto festival. He knew of Roadkill, and, in fact, had made a phone call to the OFDC in support of the film. I had won a student prize for Let Me See …, and later I wrote him a letter asking for money to help me finish Knock! Knock!. He gave me some to help finish the mix. I was his driver on Agnes of God, in 1985, just after Knock! Knock!. So he sent me a script by Tomson Highway called Dance Me Outside. I had never heard of it, but I knew of Tomson High-way, so I read the script, which was about Indians. It was based on a collection of short stories by W.P. Kinsella and had been in development for 10 years. Norman had tried a number of different approaches and writers. It was just something he wanted to do. He had come back to live in Canada in 1978 and he wanted to make a Canadian film. The book was popular and Field of Dreams had just been made, so Kinsella was hot.
I think Norman had finally decided he couldn’t do it, so he gave it to me to do because he liked Highway 61. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ It was Norman, and the big guy had come calling. If the script had been about midgets in Zambia, I probably would have done it as well. So I worked with Tomson, but it didn’t work out. The project was becoming way too expensive, and Tomson was untried as a scriptwriter. But it was a good experience because he took me all through the reservations in Ontario and I learned a lot. Actually, the only reason that script got made was that I couldn’t bring myself to say no to Norman and tell himit couldn’t be done.
W.W. You ended up working with Don McKellar again, and also John Frizzell, who has a reputation of being a script doctor.
B.M. Norman brought in this guy Allan Greenberg who had written a script about Robert Johnson, the blues great. He was an American from Kansas City. We hired him, and Norman put up the money. Again we had a go at it and wrote not a bad script, but again very ambitious because we were under the impression that Columbia Pictures was going to pick it up. When we finished that version, Columbia gave it a pass. I don’t know why, and I don’t think it was a script thing, they just said no. So now we didn’t have Columbia, and I realized we probably had a one- or two-million-dollar script. It eventually was $2.5 million. We had no more money for development, so I sat down and in two weeks had come up with an outline. I finally begged Don to help, and we came up with the basic structure. Then I phoned John Frizzell and asked him to help as well. We had just finished doing Yummy Fur, so I already had this team. I would type and Don and John would pace and drink. That’s how we had written Yum-my Fur. We did the same on this one and gave it to Norman. It was not the best script in the world, but it was done.
W.W. With Adam Beach, Jennifer Podemski, and Hugh Dillon, the cast was particularly strong in Dance Me Outside.
B.M. The charm of that movie was not in the script or the directing but in the cast. We still get together, hang out, and maybe we’ll work together again. Dance Me Outside was probably my favourite movie to shoot. I know I got some shitty reviews all about some white guys making a film about Natives and how wrong that was but I didn’t care about that and that’s not what it was about. It was a comedy about teenage Indians. I don’t think that has ever been done before. I know some people wanted to see the alcoholism and glue sniffing, but it would have been a different movie.
When you make a movie about oppressed minorities there is so much baggage. Everybody climbs on board saying you have to talk about suicides, about how tough it is on the reservations, about how all white people are evil, and if you leave something out, people will then say you are ignoring the problem. I have met enough people who genuinely love that film and I remember Norman saying early on, when Green-berg was still on the script, ‘You have a Jew writing the script, a white guy from the suburbs directing, and a Kinsella book. The critics are going to kill you!’ But enough people liked it and it did okay at the box office. I got a television series out of it, and it was fun to work on, so it was okay.
W.W. The Rez, the 1996 CBC series drawn from the film, came quickly after the film’s release. How much were you involved with that?
B.M. I didn’t work much on the series because I was out in Vancouver getting ready for Hard Core Logo. I owned the property, helped a little bit with the shaping, and directed a few episodes. I was listed as the executive producer. I’m sad because I think it could have been much better. I thought with the movie we had taken a small step into this world. Some things were successful, some things weren’t, and I thought the television show would be a perfect op-portunity to showcase this community in interesting ways. But the writing was bad and the approach was bad. It offered an opportunity for structural innovations, which never happened, and writing innovations, which never happened. I was really disappointed. I thought they could have used the opportunity to do something quite radical or funny or challenging, but it fell into the usual grind, a sitcom set on a reservation. Which is sort of a good idea, but they could have shot that in a studio in Toronto, like a proper sitcom. However, they had to do everything on location and they spent a lot of money and ultimately it was not one thing or the other.
W.W. Hard Core Logo was shot in British Columbia in part because at that time the OFDC ceased production funding. It was the time when Mike Harris and his Conservatives came to power. Were you in the loop before the funding plug was pulled?
We thought we had a shot at receiving production funding from the OFDC, but it closed down. We thought about shooting out East, and I even thought about giving it to Mina Shum to direct. We couldn’t make it in Ontario, and people were saying I shouldn’t do another rock ‘n’ roll movie, so I phoned Mina and offered it to her. She accepted, but then her agent phoned back and asked for $450,000. We just laughed our heads off. She could have directed that movie if she didn’t ask for so much money. That was funny.
W.W. You had Hugh Dillon for your lead. What about Callum Keith Rennie? How did he come into the picture?
B.M. Jennifer Podemski from Dance Me Outside introduced me to Callum. She kept saying I know this guy and he is great. But I had never heard of him. So when I went to Vancouver I asked specifically to see Callum. He came in and within five minutes it was obvious that he was our guy. No question, he was Billy Tallent. I had always had Hugh in the back of my head to play Joe Dick, but I didn’t want to scare the producers. Hugh’s pretty intense, and the producers weren’t worried if he could act, rather would he show up or would he hurt anybody when he did. I phoned Callum and asked him about Hugh. I told him I had directed a couple of videos for his band [The Headstones] and used him in Dance Me Outside. Callum sounded interested, but I told him it had to be his call because he was the one who was going to be up on the screen with the guy and if it proved to be an embarrassment, it would reflect badly on him.
The three of us got together at my place and read some scenes. Hugh then left. I turned to Callum and asked him what he thought and he didn’t say no. He was curious. He said it would be a lot of work but it might be worth it, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ Callum helped Hugh through the scenes, shaping his character, and actually they became very close. There was chemistry, as if they had been best friends forever. Like with Roadkill and Valerie, there was something that just clicked with those two. You hope for that, but you can’t really plan it. Hugh’s contribution was as a kind of bullshit detector for the actors. He taught Callum how to hold the guitar and some basic riffs. Hugh and Callum gave each other what they needed to make their characters real. Callum used to be a raging alcoholic and Hugh had a huge drug problem, but he stayed clean for the shoot out of respect for Callum, who wasn’t just some pouncy Hollywood actor. Callum had lived hard and drank hard. He was a late starter and didn’t achieve any sort of attention until Double Happiness when he was already in his 30s.
W.W. The film certainly has two great performances, but it is also your best film as a director, at least up until now. You really seem to have your chops down and there is that one great shot of the band coming together walking down a ramp towards the stage. It really elevates the film and brings the band together. It’s outstanding.
B.M. Thank you. It’s a great shot. When we did that shot, it was supposed to be John, the crazy bass player, opening his hotel room and the others pass him by down the corridor. But that seemed boring, so I suggested a shot of the whole band together, walking down the ramp. Hugh had his cowboy hat on, and it’s in slow motion. At the end of the take, Hugh walks right into the camera and, just at the right moment, spits off to the side. It was awesome! They were so cool. That’s what a film is about, sound and motion, not people sitting around in a room, talking. It’s always been one of my favourite moments in the film. There is no dialogue, just creating something out of sound and motion.
W.W. There was some controversy around the film when it didn’t play at the Toronto film festival the year it was released. Everyone was expecting it to open Perspective Canada, but it didn’t. What happened?
B.M. The distributor didn’t want to play the festival, period. I don’t know why. Their attitude was, ‘to hell with the festival.’ You give away all these free tickets and you blow all your press and when the movie opens, nobody wants to write about it and you’ve blown your opening weekend. But my attitude was that the festival had been pretty good to me and maybe we could arrange one screening with no press. This started a whole thing with the festival and finally it came down to us wanting one screening, we didn’t care where, it could have been in Midnite Madness, but the festival was insistent on two screenings. So it didn’t play at the Toronto festival. But I didn’t really care. The OFDC had pulled the plug on Ontario filmmakers, and we had shot it in Vancouver and done all the post there, so we decided to open it at the Vancouver festival instead.
W.W. When Hard Core Logo was released in the spring of 1996 it didn’t perform well at the box office.
B.M. I don’t think enough was spent on the promotion. The distributor only spent $300,000, which wasn’t enough. You need a million dollars to open a film before anyone even knows it’s out there. It was released and disappeared. My expectations were low for that film anyway. Remember, people were telling me not to make it; it would be bad for my career. I don’t have a career. I just wanted to make the films I wanted to make. People thought because I had made two rock ‘n’ roll movies, why do another one? I don’t know. Why did John Ford make all those westerns? Because he liked that world. When it was done, I was very proud of it and expected it to do much better than it did. I thought it was exciting and fun and it seemed to have an emotional core. In the U.S. it was marketed as a punk movie, like a punk odyssey, and I always thought that was a fatal mistake. It should have been called a rock ‘n’ roll odyssey. There’s a big difference, because when people think punk, they think nasty unpleasantness. It’s still my favourite film despite the fact that it was hardly seen. I had the freedom of nobody watching me and no-body cared. I could do what I wanted. It’s such a great feeling to have.
W.W. Between the time of Hard Core Logo and Picture Claire, you directed a lot of television.
B.M. I have done tons of television. Let’s see if I can remember: Ready or Not, Lonesome Dove, Platinum, The Hidden Room, Betaville, Scandalous Me, Emily of New Moon, Taking the Falls, American Whiskey Bar, Lexx, two television documentaries one on Norman Jewison and another on Robbie Robertson a couple of commercials, a couple of rock videos, and tons of stuff I can’t remember now. I basically shot constantly for four or five years.
W.W. How do you feel about doing stuff like that? Do you feel your auteur status has diminished or is this what you want to do?
B.M. I don’t really believe in the auteur status to begin with, so it doesn’t really matter much to me. It was a conscious thing and I needed the money. I’m not a writer and most of the directors in this country get money to write. I’m always floored by the fact that Atom and Patricia never seem to have to work for a living. Why am I the one always doing all these crappy television shows? I like doing them and I like to direct, but I look at Patricia’s life and I want that life. So I shot a lot of stuff and most of the time I would enjoy it. I would always meet someone new and I would always get something out of the experience. But I’m pretty much at the end of doing that sort of thing. I’ve made enough money to keep an office going, to pay writers to work for me, and keep a nice apartment downtown. I produced some stuff like Don’s Blue, The Rez, Alan Zweig’s Vinyl, and Peter Lynch’s Arrowhead. I like producing and I want to do some more, but I like the action of being on set directing.
W.W. One television series you directed was Twitch City, which brought you and Don back together again. It seems a bit different from the others, not so industrial.
B.M. That’s right, I directed all 13 episodes. The first season was great and went fine. The second season was more difficult, and in between Don had made Last Night. We hadn’t shot Twitch for about two years or so, and coming back to it initially was more intense. Don now was used to being the boss. We had a couple of tense moments. He was being a bit difficult and demanding and sometimes I just wanted to slap him. I guess it was my ego getting in the way, and Don wanted to be the director. Anyway, it all worked out fine. Once we had acknow-ledged what was going on he was being a control freak and I was being a little precious we fell back into that great pattern we had established on Roadkill and Highway 61, when Don was always on set. Even though I was the director and Don was the writer, we had a good working relationship on set.
W.W. Before we move on to Picture Claire, can you talk about Yummy Fur, a project that you have been working on for quite some time. Who or what is Yummy Fur?
B.M. It’s a graphic novel by Chester Brown, who is a Toronto comic book artist. I came across it when I was working with Ron Mann on Comic Book Confidential. I fell in love with it because it’s an elegantly drawn, black-and-white, nightmarish world that is quite beautiful in its simplicity. It’s surreal in its storytelling, and it’s the closest thing to a nightmare I have read in terms of its structure, its content, and its atmosphere. I thought if I could make it, it would be the greatest film ever made. Forget Citizen Kane. It would be incredible if someone could pull it off, so I bought the rights and hired Don to write a screenplay. We finally finished it just before the option clock had run out and every once in awhile I will go out and try to raise money for Yummy Fur. I’ll advertise it. You’ll see posters for Yummy Fur in Picture Claire.
When people ask me what I am making next, I will say Yummy Fur. They ask what is Yummy Fur? And I will tell them it’s a story about this clown named Ed who finds a severed hand under his pillow one morning. Ed takes it to the police station, and the police throw him in jail. The man in the cell next to him can’t stop shitting and eventually the cell explodes. The police take Ed for dead, so they throw him in the woods, where he’s discovered by flesh-eating pygmies. As they are taking him down into the sewer, his fly pops open and the head of the President of the United States is on the end of his penis. He’s calling for help. When Ed is revived and saved by Josie, a girl who has recently been killed by the guy who lost his hand, they team up together to try to return the president to his rightful dimension, which, in fact, is through the anus of a dead man. It’s this fantastic, gothic, weird, beautiful love story. Eventually it will be made.
W.W. Will it be animated?
B.M. Chester doesn’t want it to be animated. He wants live action. He doesn’t want some weird recreation of his drawings. The thing about Chester is that he is a true artist in every sense of the word. Someone recently had this idea to make the president’s other dimension with puppets. The technology is improving to make this sort of thing, and I’m always looking for the right person to play Ed. It doesn’t need a lot of money to be made, but just enough to achieve basic things. We continue to workshop and design the film. It simmers along and every so often we make a breakthrough. I figure it will take about $6 million to make.
W.W. Turning now to Picture Claire. How does it come about that Robert Lantos, a notorious tax-shelter producer, hires a rock ‘n’ roll outlaw to make a feature film for him?
B.M. When he gets $50 million from Alliance Atlantis and one of his other projects falls out. He’s a fan of the writer, Semi Chellas. I had written a story called Claire’s Hat and I thought I could blow it off really quickly and get back to Yummy Fur. John Frizzell had introduced me to Semi. She was in the middle of the Canadian Film Centre’s writers’ program. I met her and found her to be smart, so I showed her what I had with Claire’s Hat. She agreed, and I hired her to write the script. The story is about what it is like to be abandoned or screw- ed in this world, but it doesn’t turn on a big plot point. It’s much more impressionistic. Claire comes from Montreal looking for a new life and love. She wants to change her life. When she arrives in Toronto, things aren’t so different but then in the end they are. It’s just that she has to go through a nightmare to get there. I always thought it was peculiar that Ontario and Quebec are so different culturally. They don’t speak at all. A lot of the films I saw in film school were Quebec films, which were my favourite Canadian films Les Bons Débarras, Mon oncle Antoine, Rubber Gun, and a few others. When I was in Montreal shooting Platinum with Pascale Bussières it just refueled my interest in that cultural divide.
W.W. Were you going to have a Quebec actress play the lead?
B.M. I was insistent on that, and then the production fell apart because they the producers in Montreal said they didn’t want a Quebec actress in the film. ‘We can’t sell it,’ they said. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ We had a huge argument about it, but they were insistent and finally the deal collapsed. I entertained the possibility and went to France to look for someone, but in the end I wanted Charlotte Laurier for the role of Claire and the producers wouldn’t budge, so the deal fell apart.
W.W. Charlotte Laurier, the actress who played the young girl in Les Bons Débarras?
B.M. That’s right. She was a huge inspiration for this film, and I wanted to work with her. But the deal collapsed and I walked away from it. Then I get a phone call from Robert Lantos. ‘Bruce, I want to talk about Claire’s Hat.’ So I said, ‘Okay, let’s talk.’ I bought the rights back from the producers in Quebec. It was a bit complicated, but I got them back. Then Robert says to me, ‘Okay, Bruce we can make this as a low-budget, independent movie and you can have whomever you want, or we can hire a star.’ Then I went back to Quebec and saw Marie-José Croze, the girl in Maelström, but she wasn’t going to work, and Pascale was slightly too old for the part, and Charlotte, unfortunately, was pregnant. So Robert suggested we go to Los Angeles. At first I thought this was a bit weird, an American playing a Québécois, but then I saw Juliette Lewis and thought, there she is. I found my Claire.
W.W. Picture Claire was not released theatrically. How do you account for that?
B.M. I had a screening for the people at Alliance, and they were horrified. This is a movie where there is about 20 minutes of dialogue. It’s a sound and picture movie. Claire’s dialogue is written in the score, in the music. That’s how you know what she is feeling, until the music and the sound is done, you don’t have a picture, you don’t have a character, you don’t have a person to follow. Of course, nobody could understand this. Alliance said we didn’t have a picture. It was unreleasable.
After the screening, Lantos came into the editing room the next day and said, ‘Bruce, Alliance does not want to release this film. They’re horrified.’ He tends to exaggerate. We had another audience screening and got an average response. The first good response was from the guys at EMI, who have the recording rights. They liked it. It was a tough film to cut because it’s all about following the ball. It’s an action movie, basically, and it’s beautifully designed. It’s the first movie I actually designed, instead of using what was around me, catch as catch can. It’s a pop-art, stylish caper movie.
W.W. Your earlier films were brilliantly marketed, complete with great graphics, comic books and other promotional ideas. Ron Mann also has this ability to attract attention to his films. Comic Book Confidential had a great promotional campaign. Did you learn this from Ron?
B.M. Ron is a real maverick. He produces and directs and knows his film will be playing somewhere; whereas, most filmmakers don’t really have that instinct. It’s sort of like an accident if their film gets any attention and falls into a theatre somehow. I’ve always enjoyed the marketing aspect of the business. The first thing people see of your movie is its name and a poster, and if that is shit, then you have to hope that they will read a good review about it somewhere. If you look at those old, low-budget Roger Corman films, they were brilliantly marketed. I have fun cooking up the posters and promotional ideas. The trouble with the corporate guys at Alliance is that if the film doesn’t fit into a recognizable genre slot, they don’t know what to do. They don’t have a clue. They have their standard issue poster with a couple of faces of the stars, it sort of looks professional, but it’s not great design. It’s crap. The package for Roadkill was beautiful. That’s what attracted people to the film. Because that seemed to work, with each film I have always created a well-designed package. What I send out is not only a script, but a little booklet, something to represent the film. I don’t think most producers enjoy reading scripts of any kind.
W.W. Can you talk about Elimination Dance, another project you worked on with Don and also Michael Ondaatje.
B.M. I made Elimination Dance so I could meet Ondaatje and get in his good books because I want to do The Collected Works of Billy the Kid someday. I’m a big fan of his works Coming through Slaughter and Billy the Kid. At first I thought it would be easy to do the book, but, of course, it turned out to be a very complicated shoot. I ended up spending $60,000 of my own money on that film. That’s another reason why I was doing all that television shit. But I figured it was a long-term investment. Michael was part of the writing process, the shooting, and the cutting. The 1950s-style dance contest was Michael’s idea. Then we created these weird tableaux. Michael is quite nutty. I thought he would be very serious, but he would phone me up and say, ‘Bruce, how about we do something where a woman is pulling up her dress and she has a pear strapped inside her leg.’ I think he views film as a kind of relief from sitting alone writing. So I’m hoping to make Billy the Kid, but as a collective project. I don’t have the rights yet, but it’s something Michael and I have talked about and he has given me permission to go ahead and develop it. I’ve already had Michael Turner write a script for me. I showed it to Michael, and it’s a pretty good response to the play, but it’s not quite right. So I’ve been trying to hammer out a structure myself. It’s sort of like my dream project. My two dream projects are Yummy Fur and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, although Billy the Kid will probably come first, hopefully in the next year or two. And then it’s time to bring down the studio with Yummy Fur.
When you are making lots of money, you can become quite comfortable. I think if you’re going to all the trouble to make a feature-length movie, it’s got to freak people out, blow their minds. You can’t just do it because you have a big star and want to make more money. You really have to have a really strong reason to make it. There was a small revolution in filmmaking in Canada and elsewhere during the time you are talking about, and there was one during the 1960s. But what’s the next revolution? And are we going to be a part of it? Or will we be too old and set in our ways? I hope I’m not.