The new “zombie” flick from Canada’s Bruce McDonald
ShockTillYouDrop.com has an exclusive first look at the U.S. poster for Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, the second theatrical release in the IFC Midnight series, as well as an interview with the Ontario-based cult filmmaker. While McDonald has not been as prominent an export from the region as say Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan, his movies have constantly been selected by his fellow Canadian movielovers as the best the country has to offer.
Pontypool is McDonald’s first full foray into the horror genre since making a low-budget super-8 zombie movie called Our Glorious Dead in high school. Over 20 years later and McDonald is taking a very different approach to the genre with a movie set mostly in a radio station where local loudmouth host Grant Mazzy (played by Stephen McHattie from Cronenberg’s A History of Violence) starts getting in-coming reports of mobs of people rampaging, resulting from a virus that’s been unleashed on the normally quiet Canadian town. The results fall somewhere between the original “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and 28 Days Later, although some might be surprised how disturbing and scary the film is without showing all of the violence and carnage. (Don’t worry, gore fans, the movie doesn’t disappoint there either.)
Check out the poster below:
Shock had a chance to get on the phone with the always-busy McDonald to talk about the movie, but be warned: if you want to go into this movie without knowing anything about the general premise or the twist that makes it different from the normal zombie movie, you may want to wait. Out of necessity, we do discuss the premise quite a bit, though not enough to take away from your enjoyment of seeing the results of this unique virus.
Shock: Did you know writer Tony Burgess before you started working with him on adapting hisâ€¦ was it a book or a short story?
Bruce McDonald: It was a novel called “Pontypool Changes Everything”. I remember his editor, the guy that was working with him as editor of the book and was sort of a friend of mine, “Hey you gotta check this out. It’s a crazy movie about a language virus, zombies and stuff.” I read the early copy–or whatever they call it before they send it out and Tony and the book launched and said, “Hey, wanna write a movie?” He’s like, “All right.” So, and we ended up becoming good pals.
Shock: So you guys didn’t know each other before this?
McDonald: No, he’s like a Toronto writer. This was his first novel I think he’d written some short stories and things and covered the music scene. He’s kind of a character so, yeah, it was kind of a great way to meet somebody. You fall in love with their writing and then they turn out to be a pretty terrific person, and I gave him first shot at writing the screenplay. Sometimes you write a novel and you don’t want to do that because you’ve kinda done that, but in this case, Tony, he’d never written a screenplay before, but he was like, “All right, let’s give it a go.”
Shock: I was reading about some of the work he’s done, the type of material he writes about, and it seems like it would be a natural you’d work together considering the type of work you’ve done.
McDonald: Yeah, well, we ended up clicking pretty well and became really good friends and there’s other writing projects that we’re sort of working on. It’s sort of a nice relationship where you go, “Oh, okay. You’re one of those guys that we’ll probably work together for the rest of our lives kinda guys.” Sometimes it’s just friendship stuff and sometimes it’s work related. Yeah, it’s sort of a nice ongoingâ€¦ every once in a while you meet one of those people in your life and you’re like, “Yup, you’re on the life boat,” so its good.
(The next few questions/responses get into the whole twist and whether it’s good to know about it before seeing the movie.)
Shock: You mentioned the “Z” word which is interesting because this is kind of a zombie movie, but not really. When you’re talking with people who are diehard zombie fans, they’ll always correct you if you’re making a generalization calling crazy infected people as zombies, especially if they’re not dead.
McDonald: It’s not really a zombie movie; it’s just one of those things that it’s kind of a shorthand that weâ€¦ we specifically didn’t even put the word “zombie” in the script because we thought, “Well, we don’t want to disappoint the zombie lovers ’cause there is a certain sort of expectation of zombie rules and how zombie movies work.” As much as we love zombie movies, we ended up calling our infected people “conversationalists” instead of zombies.
Shock: I was curious about the main twist of the movie, that basically this is a language virus. How much should people know about that before going in? Do you think it’s better to know about that going in or not?
McDonald: It’s funny, I keep forgetting that it is kind of a twist in the movie where they realize, “Oh my God, this virus or whatever the hell is going on, it’s in the language!” I often talk about it â€“ maybe I shouldn’t because it’s sort of giving it away.
Shock: It’s also a good selling point in a way, because it’s so unique that it’s almost a draw in itself, I would think.
McDonald: Yeah, because usually people ask, “What is your movie about?” “This movie’s about this radio station and the English language becomes infected with a virus.” And they’re like, “What?” So it kind of captures their imagination.
Shock: Yeah, it’s strange because you never know how much you want to mention it or keep it a surprise.
McDonald: It’s just a fun thing with language. Tony I think used to study semiotics and stuff at University and he also loved the Romero canon and he found a way to show these two and put them together.
(Okay, spoiler section overâ€¦ for now.)
Shock: I was looking through your bio and I saw that one of your early movies was a zombie movie too which is kind of interesting. I’d already seen “The Tracey Fragments,” so I wasn’t really sure if you were heavily into genre or if you were a fan who just hadn’t had a chance to explore it. Were you a fan of horror?
McDonald: Always as a kid growing up, I guess as a teenager as a lot of kids do, they make their high school zombie movie, which was my introduction to filmmaking, having been pretty directly influenced by the “Night of the Living Dead” which we thought was the strangest movie we’d ever seen, it almost felt like a documentary. We were so used to seeing films set in malls really growing up in suburbs where you can see movies like “Planet of the Apes” and seeing a weird black and white movie with no stars and people chewing each other’s arms off and we’re thinking, “This is the greatest thing ever, right? This looks like it could actually happened.” So I don’t know it gave us this sort of strange sense of empowerment or something like, “We can do that!” Then I went to college and I studied art films and I’ve kinda done that for a while. (Laughs) But I’ve always loved the horror movie and the zombie movie, and I don’t know why it’s taken so long to do something like “Pontypool”, but I guess you gotta find the right material.
Shock: It’s kind of ironic because Romero now does all his zombie movies up in Toronto, too.
McDonald: That’s right! His last A few have been done here. The guy that shot “Pontypool” shot one of his last films and he toyed with the idea at one point of getting George Romero to do a cameo appearance, but we had a fast enough schedule that we didn’t want to slow it down with worship moments. It would slow the day down, letting the worshipping happening.
Shock: Having not read Tony’s novel, is it similar thing where it’s set in a radio station and a lot happens “off-camera” or did Tony actually take it to the locations where stuff happened?
McDonald: Well, it’s funny because the novel actually has very little to do with the movie. Without getting into a big, long story, we worked for a long time adapting his book which is set in the town and you see a lot of things. Then, I don’t know, it was just taking forever, and this movie originally began as a radio play. We were commissioned, for some strange reason–we’re still not quite sure why–to write a radio drama. So we just picked out some of the ideas that we’d been working on from his book and we said, “Well, let’s set it in a radio station kinda like ‘The War of the Worlds’, the radio play by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater.” I loved that notion of theater of the mind in a way and in the film version, you still get this theater of the mind where you can imagine what is beyond the walls of this basement radio station, so it became this really wonderful design for a low-budget scary movie.
Shock: I think older genre fans aware of the history of “War of the Worlds” as a radio broadcast that started a panic will certainly be reminded of that. Your movie is similarly frightening without actually showing anything. Was that something you knew you were going to do as soon as you started working on it?
McDonald: Very much. I’ve always loved sound, and I’ve always loved sound design and sound mixing, that kind of element of making a movie. I was really attracted to this project just because the sound becomes a main character in the movie. There’s a certain character in the movie that you don’t see but you imagine as you follow the story. I just found that in the day and age where everything is shown, especially in horror movies, it’s kind of an old-fashioned Hitchocky kind of scary movie where it’s maybe it’s more scary sometimes when you don’t see it, imagine it a bit. It’s almost like instead of hiring Industrial Light and Magic to do our special effects, we used the imagination of the audience to provide the special effects.
Shock: How did you actually handle the shooting? Was it done like a play where you rehearsed a lot? Because basically you’re on one set for almost the entire movie.
McDonald: Actually, it’s fantastic and we shot in sequence. As a director and as actors in the roles, you always prefer to shoot in sequence, but it’s usually never possible because of schedules and finance and stuff. It became like–not only for the actors, but for the crew each day–the story would advance a little bit and so, not tons of rehearsals. We had a handful of great meetings with the key actors and the writer kinda helped the last drafts of the script, so it was actually very pleasant and kinda cohesive. For me, to shoot a film (like that) is very enjoyable. I think the actors had a great experience because it was very much like long takes and on the stage, so there was a great sense of fun I think in making it because it was almost like putting on a show for the crew every day.
Shock: Did you tape a lot of the telephone and radio calls to the station beforehand so that the actors could actually hear and react to them on set?
McDonald: The actor, Stephen McHattie, he read the script and he said, “Wow, you know it would be great if the actor could be there off stage and we could do it live.” We made a point to have the actor come, and it wasn’t prerecorded. It was kind of during the take, so you know you’d get whatever shimmer of right there right now going. It was a very actor-friendly movie in that way, that we did everything we could for the actors to make it as real as possible, to have people on the other end of the phone talking to them and as live as possible, so they weren’t talking to air or just pretending to listen. We knew it was a film hopefully that would live or die by the performances, so we tried to make it as actor friendly as possible and whatever we could give them, whether an off screen actor or the idea of shooting in sequence, it made a nice experience for them.
Shock: We’re so used to actors talking on the phone to nobody, because that’s just a part of movie magic we’re used to, so it’s nice to hear you did all that live.
McDonald: Oh yeah, especially with green screen. The big effects movies where you’re acting to a tennis ball, it must be tough for the actors to pull that off sometimes.
Shock: I was curious about the timeframe of the movie. It feels like a lot of time passes, but it could just be happening in real time during a single day. There’s a lot of long takes, there’s not a lot of edits it. Did you guys have an idea of what you wanted the timeframe to be from what was going on and what we see in the movie?
McDonald: Well, it’s a bit elastic, but we were trying to compress it in the course of a day. It gets a little rubbery towards the end, but I think the idea of like an early morning DJ and mid-morning, things go crazy and then time elapses. Through the course of the day it would be where maybe initially we were hoping it would be almost real time, like 100 minutes is 100 minutes, but needed a few times for time to have elapsed just for logic. I’m trying to think of other movies, like “12 Angry Men”, were you just have them in one room in a courthouse or “My Dinner With Andre.” Once you land in it, you just sort of go with it. (laughs)
Shock: I felt like the obituaries is especially powerful because in most zombie movies, you don’t really see or hear much about the dead after they’re offed. It’s a very different way of handling that.
McDonald: Yeah, because sometimes in a movie like this, our limitations became our freedoms in a way. The fact that we really couldn’t compete with the George Romeros in these days. We didn’t have the budget for makeup and hordes of zombies, so we thought the obituary scene would give us the sense of that kind of sweeping doom and the portraits of these country people in black and white thinking, “Are they the killers or are they the killed?” Just to have a simple and emotional way ofâ€¦ in a traditional movie that might’ve been the action sequence or the running-down-the-street-mayhem-with-limbs-flying-off scene. We thought, “Let’s just try this.”
(The next couple questions/responses gets more into the film’s premise and the twist.)
Shock: The rules for the virus, were a lot of those created in the original novel and then fleshed out for the movie? Did you play around with that?
McDonald: Yeah, yeah. The basic steps of getting the virus and it’s just sort of that one word that’s effective and then your speech becomes kind of scrambled and then you become quite violent, that’s sort of the basic idea.
Shock: Now, people watching this who aren’t familiar with the book or your other movies might assume that a.) You’re against talk radio, b.) You have something against Valentine’s Day or c.) You’re just completely against the English language. Since you’ve probably screened this movie, what’s been the reaction to some of the ideas in the movie?
McDonald: Well maybe my Scottish ancestry, maybe I’ve got a secret sort of genetic suspicion of the English empire. (Laughs) I mean, there’s this Scottish delight in poking at the English overlords so there’s a bit of fun in that.
Shock: I could see you maybe having a little bit of that as a Canadian, too.
McDonald: Yeah, for sure. Then we thought love and horror always go together, so we thought Valentine’s Day would be kind of good to have love and death occurring the same moment or you think of all these Keaton comedies and they’re all about when people kiss and the blood begins. So we thought this just seems to fit Valentine’s Day more. Talk radio guys, I think everybody loves to hate them in a way. I think Stephen was sort of channeling–there’s that American guy, Don Imus. Stephen did a lot of theater in New York when he first started out and I think Don Imus was one of the guys he listened to all the time and he channeled him a little bit. Some of the local guys he did some research in. They’re very interesting characters. I mean, they’re kind of like rock stars and they’re in the command booth and they can cut you off or they can jack you up. They’re there really to try to get a rise outta you, to be these sort of great emotional triggers kind of talking about hot topics and different things. I don’t know, they’re interesting characters because like in the Oliver Stone movie “Talk Radio,” he ends up getting somebody so angry that (spoiler!) So I don’t know, the talk tadio guys, they’re basically an indicator of the power of language and what language could do. They’re just words coming through the air, but boy, can it get you riled up. It’s just a kind of neat metaphor I suppose as a Talk Radio person.
Shock: Are the morning DJs very different up there than they are in the States?
McDonald: They’re kinda quieter and gentler. There’s this one guy in Toronto who is quite popular now. He’s been studying some of the more notable guys in the States ’cause it’s sort of a new thing here, but there’s not this same tradition that has been going on. I always remember you’re driving through Iowa in the middle of the night and hearing it maybe goes back to like a preacher like and Oral Roberts type guy, these kind of crazy preachers on the radio that you hear in the middle of the night coming from outta Alabama or someplace, right? (Laughs) It was always so spooky and weird. So America has always had this great tradition of orators and midnight ramblers and these crazy unhinged media (people) who are so kind of entertaining and don’t play music. We, being the quiet, conservative, Protestant work ethic, corporate-loving Canadians that we are, the talk radio cage rattler is a fairly new–maybe not new, but maybe the last 10 years or something. Here people would love to listen to Howard Stern. When one of the radio stations here picked up Howard Stern in the morning, it was kind of live out of New York, but it was broadcast over a station here. We all loved listening to Howard; we just couldn’t believe it. This is only like six or seven years ago or something like that. I remember thinking, “This guy is unbelievable. We’ve never heard anything like this before.” That shock jock or talk radio guy is a pretty great character, newish at least to people here, but very familiar to Americans, maybe it’s those down home preachers, maybe that’s where it comes from. It’s a really exciting, that kind of gospel chants of “Here comes an Armageddon, get ready.” People flipping out, speaking in tongues, it’s a pretty neat tradition.
(And now, we’re back to safer spoiler-free discussion for a while.)
Shock: I was wondering about the title, which is kind of enigmatic like “Cloverfield” and you don’t know what it’s about. I’m assuming “Pontypool” is a real place in Ontario?
McDonald: Yeah, it’s actually named after a Welsh town, it’s a town in Wales as well. I think Tony the writer was attracted to the title just ’cause it sounds slightly pornographic. It’s strange and oddâ€”he loves those strange things and the semi-obscene and unknown meaning of that word. (laughs) We had auditioned other titles, but we could neverâ€¦ what was it? “The Spoken” and there was likeâ€¦ God, what were the other titles we had? But we just kept coming back to this kind of thing we weren’t quite sure what it was. It’s almost like the “Chinatown” title a little bit. It had little to do with it, but yeah, we tried to think of other titles that we had auditioned. Because the name of the book was “Pontypool Changes Everything” we shortened it to “Pontypool” because it seemed, like you said, like “Cloverfield.”
Shock: It’s like the obituary thing. It’s one of those things that’s very unconventional but it actually works because of the opening monologue and when you realize what the premise is.
McDonald: Yeah, maybe it’s one of those titles that sort of grows into its name somehow. I haven’t seen “Cloverfield” yet, so where does that name come from? Is that the name of the monster?
Shock: To this day, I’m not sure that anyone knows, even if they’ve seen the movie.
McDonald: Really, huh?
Shock: Yeah, I guess that’s why it’s called “Cloverfield.” It could be the monster. It could be where the monster came from. But that’s why I asked, because it’s an intriguing title.
McDonald: Like “Zardoz” or something, right? You’ve heard of that film “Zardoz”? Sean Connery and the giant head?
Shock: Oh, yeah. So what are you working on now? Are you still doing television regularly?
McDonald: I love shooting, so doing television, I always meet lots of great people and then some of them join me on the movie adventures. We’re working onâ€¦ gosh, there’s actually a New York writer, this guy Robert Lyons, who has this script called “The Briefcase,” a really terrific script kind of a romantic comedy with a slight surrealist edge Gosh, how would you describe it? Anyway, it’s a good script so we’re trying to get that going one going for the summer.
Shock: Great, are you going to try and do that a similar way, very independently?
McDonald: Yeah, I mean, like independent financing, some German money, some American money, some mafia money (Laughs) and some Hell’s Angel’s money. It’s always a bit of a dance, it’s so different. One of my first jobs was I was driving Norman Jewison, he directed “All the President’s Men,” and he was fascinated with independent financing. He said, “I’ve been such a studio guy” but with independent films, it’s just one check. “Here you go. Go make your movie.” He was kind of baffled and intrigued and horrified at the idea of independent financing. It was sort of funny to see his world and for him to see our world.
Shock: The thing is that a cast like this would never happen in a studio movie though.
McDonald: No, it’s funny we’ve gotten a couple of calls from different companies and one guy said, “Bruce, can you send me the script?” I’m like, “Why do you want to see the script?” We sent it to him, and I think another guy phone up from a horror movie company and he was like, “Oh yeah, we’re just curious about the remake rights.” And you think this would be the perfect vehicle for like Kevin Bacon as the radio guy or Forest Whitaker as some famous guy. It would be an awesome gig and you’d get paid a huge amount of money. You don’t have to go too far, you don’t have to run down too many streets, you just get to be the man talking on the radio. I don’t know, maybe some actor will go, “I want to be that guy.”
Shock: It’s kind of ironic that every studio is trying to do English remakes of foreign horror films, so if they did a remake of this, it would way too bizarre, because this is already in English and that’s part of the basic premise, so how would they change it?
McDonald: Yeah, if the French remade it, what would it be? Or they could just do translations, too, but that would be kind of odd. The dubbed version in Germany or France or something.
Shock: I’m guessing that English would always be the trigger wherever it gets made. You speak in English and you go crazy.
McDonald: Well, our distributor or our sales guy was saying that in Korea, they’re going to have a 50-print release or something and I was like, “What?” I was just trying to figure it out and the guy says, “Oh yeah, everybody here in Korea wants to speak English.” So I guess in their weird parallel universe, it’s like, I don’t know, maybe it’s scarier, because they’re all trying to learn English.
Shock: Maybe this movie will make them stop wanting to learn how to speak English.
McDonald: Make ‘em stop and be good Koreans or something, I don’t know.
Shock: Are you also still working on a movie based on Chester Brown’s “Yummy Fur”?
McDonald: How’d you know about that? (Laughs) It’s funny, it’s one of those dream projects. We’ve had the script done since like ’94 or something like that. Yeah, so we’re just doing design work now and I’ve got a producer Steve Hoban, who is a local guy. For a while there’s a theater company called Good Machine, he’s now doing Charlie Kaufman scripts and Ted Hope and those guys were all like huge “Yummy Fur” fans. He said, “You know, we sit around the table with some film guys and we’re all talking about the greatest project to be made and we all say ‘Yummy Fur’. So yeah, it’s still cookin’ and it’s still a little bit away. For years, it was like, how to pull it off because there’s so many different â€“ it’s like pygmies that live in the sewer, a President at the end of this glass penis, so technically how do we do it? The fact the technology has sort of has done what it’s done has allowed us to actually entertain the idea of now using certain techniques to kind of make it happen. The script is by this guy Don McKellar (Last Night) whose worked with me before, and as we’ve kind of done different things, we start to get to know some of these people, who’ve become famous like Ellen Page is a desirable box office person, at least for the present. Maybe it’s her or somebody like her who decides, “Yeah, sure, I’ll be in ‘Yummy Fur'” and we’ll make the movie.
Shock: I’m pretty sure I saw “Juno” and “The Tracey Fragments” for the first time on the same day in Toronto, almost back to back, which was very strange.
McDonald: She’s a terrific gal and that was a fun, strange little art film that we’ve had some good adventures on.
Pontypool kicks off the IFC Midnight series on May 29 in New York and L.A., but in other cities, you can catch it two days earlier on IFC Festival Direct On-Demand.
Source: Edward Douglas