Canadian auteur Bruce McDonald has attracted a small but passionate following with movies like Hard Core Logo and The Tracey Fragments, experimental works with some fierce defenders. In a just world Pontypool, now playing in select theaters and on IFC On Demand, would exponentially increase the size of his fan base.
That’s because it’s as smart and thought provoking a horror movie as any released in years. The screenplay by Tony Burgess, based on his novel “Pontypool Changes Everything,” imbues its zombie story with deep rooted philosophical underpinnings and McDonald brings it the meticulous technical expertise of a master filmmaker. Stephen McHattie stars as Grant Mazzy, a radio DJ working in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, forced to stay on the air one cold, blustery morning as mysterious foreboding events begin to happen outside the studio. In an exclusive interview, Film School Rejects spoke to the director.
The film relies heavily on the many dimensions of sound, including silence. To what extent, in collaborating with Tony, did you visualize the film being that way? What were some of the challenges in creating it?
From the start, from the design, it was inspired by Tony’s book, but also a radio play from the 30s, the Orson Welles Mercury Theater “War of the Worlds,” which is all about a news station that starts to get reports that the Martians are invading and kind of plays out in real time. Even today it still sounds pretty cool. We always knew going in our movie would be about people’s faces and there’d be a lot of listening in it, so sound would be an important character. All the sound and the idea of listening, not only the characters listening but the audience listening, was kind of going to be another supporting character in the movie. To account for that we tried to photograph the movie in a still way, not too kinetic and not too shaky cam, you know what I mean? Kind of very classic, so that you could feel you had the room to just watch their faces and listen as they listen. It’s a powerful thing, sound. People who work in movies, they understand how powerful sound can be. There’s a great book by Walter Murch, who was the sound editor on Apocalypse Now and has written some really terrific books about sound, how it sneaks in the backdoor of your conscience and how it’s incredibly powerful. It’s half the movie and in this case in a way people become aware of that and it’s exciting for people to realize how powerful it is. It’s like the theater of the mind. The viewers of the film become the Industrial Light and Magic. They provide the special effects. And it’s incredible, the sound editing, not that it’s easy, but it’s relatively inexpensive. And now the fact that you can shoot on pretty much anything to make a movie, [and] people buy it, sound is becoming more and more important.
Why don’t more films adapt the idea of what you don’t see is scarier, less is more?
It’s a good question. I love horror movies. I don’t know if I would consider myself an expert, but I think you’re right. The trend is nowadays to show more because it’s fun for people to do. Maybe the money likes it when they see the results on the screen or something. But I also think of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is an incredible film in that there’s not one shot of the chainsaw jigging into somebody, [or] whatever it does, and blood splattering. The way that movie works is the sound. This terrifying sound, it’s pretty clear. You know. It’s the sound of that chainsaw and the constant screaming and running. There’s very little violence in it. I just saw it again a few years ago and I was amazed at how gut-wrenchingly suspenseful it was, in this kind of horrible way, which seemed like a documentary, seemed like it actually happened. I don’t know, because there are certain films like that that prove undeniably, “Boy sometimes what you don’t see is way scarier.” It’s like, how many horror films have you seen where the werewolf is coming at you and you’re in some forest and it’s dark and then finally you get the hero shot and you go, “Wow that looks so lame.” And you just think, “Oh why did they? It was so much better when it was half it’s way in the dark [and] you just see the little tentacle or whatever it is coming at you.”
Is there anything about this film that’s particularly Canadian, that in any way relates to modern Canada and the Canadian mindset?
I guess Canadians, because of the size of the country, modern society anyway, have always relied on technology. They’ve been generally quite adept, [having to make] a lot of phone conference calls, and a lot of telecommunications companies [have come to the fore] because of the vast differences [in geography]. So I guess maybe more than other [countries], I’m not sure, [but I think finding a] way to kind of communicate with each other through certain external devices has been a very Canadian thing. And maybe because of that inherent frustration, you know, or they’re like, “Hey what if it all just got fucked and we had this horror movie kind of thing?” So maybe that could be a thing. There’s always the language thing between the French and the English, the political situation, and you know if I really want to reach deep into my Scottish heritage, there’s a lot of Scots that settled Eastern Canada, I could say it’s just my Scottish delight in fucking with the English, right [laughs]?
Why was Stephen McHattie right for the part of Grant Mazzy?
I’d worked with him on a number of different projects and got to know him. And the interesting thing about Stephen, when you first meet him you’re kind of scared of him. He’s a dude, right? He’s like the kind of classic alpha male Western tough guy, and often plays a villain. He can be scary. And what’s wonderful about Stephen McHattie as a person is what a sweetheart he is. I thought this part that he plays in Pontypool, I think why people are attracted to his performance is that he has a lot of vulnerability. He’s a kind of character with bravado, that alpha male kind of thing, yet there’s this kind of very frightened vulnerable guy who thinks he’s going insane. Then there’s the hero who gets to kiss the girl. In the hands of a lesser actor he would have maybe not hit as many notes. What was surprising about Stephen and what makes him such a great actor is that he often goes left instead of right.
Are you at all afraid of the film simply being lumped in with other zombie movies? There’s much more to it.
I’m a big lover of the zombie. I always have been. So it’s not that we’re afraid. It’s such a weirdly original film that on the one hand we want to kind of be on the bus, we want to be on a shelf that says horror or zombie so people will go, “OK it’s not some totally out there film.” It’s kind of, I don’t know, the smarty-pants zombie. It’s finding that kind of clique. Somebody said, “It’s like the ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ of zombie movies.” That’s pretty hilarious. So it’s finding those and letting people know we don’t think we’re snooty and [says in British accent] “Oh no, we’re too smart for zombies. Those filthy creatures. We have nothing to do with them.” Because we love the zombies, but at the same time we don’t want to disappoint. [Zombie movie fans are] quite a rabid bunch of people and very smart and they’re very knowledgeable about film history, so we don’t want people to think we’re misleading them and we’re trying to trick them. We want to tell people that there’s a bit of a sense of humor. Part of it is, we feel [great] that writers like you are coming out and are interested in discussing it and talking about it. I think that is great because we don’t really know what to call it exactly. I like to think of it as a romance movie, because it’s kind of romantic. People are like, “What?” And I say, “Yeah, there’s a great screen kiss in it, it’s really hot” and people are like, “Really, in a zombie movie?” “Yeah.” So something I have to learn as an entrepreneur/showman, it’s really fun to make the movies but the big challenge [is] how do you let people know what it is?