Home Article Bruce McDonald – An Interview

Bruce McDonald – An Interview

Bruce McDonald - An Interview, image,

Bruce McDonald
Interview by Wyndham Wise

(2004) 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 [1982], 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.

Click here to read Part two of a Bruce McDonald Interview.

Also see: Bruce McDonald’s filmography.

Northernstars, logo, imageReprinted from an issue of Take One in 2004 when Bruce McDonald was interviewed by the magazine’s founder and publisher, Wyndham Wise. In 2007, Northernstars.ca acquired the archives of Take One Magazine.