Bruce McDonald is a Canadian treasure. He has directed some of my favorite films, such as zombie radio drama Pontypool and punk rock tour story Hard Core Logo. His latest movie is the surreal and jazzy Dreamland. It stars Stephen McHattie in two roles; in one, he’s a hitman having a crisis of conscience, in the other, he’s a junkie jazz musician.
Written by Tony Burgess, Dreamland crawls through a seedy criminal underground, with corruption boiling over at the top. I was excited to speak with McDonald, and I could have honestly spoke to him all day, he’s just such a friendly and passionate individual.
“It was just one of those things where you go “This is so crazy. I don’t know if it will ever be made because it’s so nuts…”
Chris Aitkens for Nightmare On Film Street: I recently rewatched Pontypool because I’m working at a radio station in the middle of a pandemic. I noticed this post-credit scene that I didn’t see the first time, as Stephen McHattie introducing himself as the character Johnny Dead Eyes. How did Dreamland grow out of that post-credit scene? Was this all part of Tony Burgess’ master plan?
Bruce McDonald: It’s funny, I don’t know how many people get to the end of the credits and see that little thing there, because that was the original ending for Pontypool. The concept was that the language virus leapt into reality itself and changed them into Johnny Dead Eyes and Lisa the Killer. And the producers—God bless them—just thought it was one bridge too far. So instead of ending that way, we finally agreed to put it at the end of the credits just so we have it. But when we did it, we didn’t really have making Dreamland in mind, it was just a fun way to conclude Pontypool. But when you work with people—Tony, Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle—you finish something and you’re thinking “Wow, that was fun, let’s do something else.” So it was that post-credit thing and it was this other short film, those two things gave birth to Dreamland.
This short film that Stephen had done by a guy named Robert Budreau—he’s a Canadian guy—it was called The Deaths of Chet Baker, where Stephen played Chet Baker. And the film tried to imagine how he died in that Amsterdam hotel room. Was he pushed out the window? Did he fall? Was it some sort of suicide thing? We saw that and we were like “Fuck! Stephen plays a hell of a Chet Baker!” And then Tony put some stuff together and he brought this thing forward. So we thought “OK, let’s write this,” never really thinking that we were going to shoot it. It was just one of those things where you go “This is so crazy. I don’t know if it will ever be made because it’s so nuts. We got two guys being the same person, we got a vampire.” But through a series of circumstances and coincidence, suddenly we found ourselves saying “Holy fuck! It looks like we’re going to shoot Dreamland.” Now we’re done!
NOFS: What was it like working with part of the same team?
BM: It’s always a pleasure because you know how to work together, play together, fight together, it’s like being in a band. You have a way of communicating. I think most people agree that when you have the privilege of working with the same actors again, the same crew, it’s always a pleasure. McHattie and I worked together on many other television shows and movies. Juliette Lewis and I had made a movie together quite a while ago. Henry Rollins and I had done a television show together once in Vancouver. It was very much like a reunion. Juliette and Henry happily showed up and had a lot of fun. It was a sweet thing to see them because when you share a history with somebody, it just feels good and you want to continue that relationship, and see what else you can do. Especially when—between the times you worked together—they’ve accomplished all these other amazing things. People are always getting better at what they do, so when you come together again, they bring more things to the table. It’s nice.
NOFS: A lot of your movies are centred in these small Canadian towns, whereas with Dreamland, it’s a lot more international, even though the geography isn’t really discussed. What was it like filming in Luxembourg and Belgium?
BM: It’s funny, because when we wrote the script, we didn’t really know where we were going to shoot it. At first we thought of maybe shooting it in Havana or some mountain town in Italy. But productions are sometimes determined by where the money comes from, and because the guy that embraced this project the most was this guy from Luxembourg. He said “Hey, I can put this money together. The only condition is, can you shoot it in Luxembourg?” At first, I said “Where’s Luxembourg?” Then I found out it’s somewhere in Europe, in between Germany and France and Belgium, it’s this tiny little place. It was a lot of fun, because it’s like “Plan your own adventure!” It’s always fun to go away to somewhere that’s new to you because you see everything through new eyes, whereas the people living there are used to it. But you come as the visitor and you find it very exotic, you find it very curious. It’s a nice way to look at a place, when you are fresh. It’s like Wim Wenders coming to America and shooting Paris, Texas. It’s not quite the same example, but it’s that fresh-eye thing that makes it interesting.
“…you think, I’m not in Hollywood. How can I make a film? I’m just this goofball from Rexdale […] And the punk rockers were like, Don’t worry about that. Just go and do it.”
NOFS: You’ve had a lot of punk rock royalty in your past films: Joey Ramone, Joey Shithead, Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins. Why do you feel the need to include this particular set of rockstars?
BM: When I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, it was punk rock that excited me and moved me, not only for the music, but for the message that it sent me as a beginning filmmaker. The music was about not being a virtuoso, you don’t have to be particularly good looking, you don’t have to have a big plan. That punk rock ethic of “Just do it” or “Use that energy. Use whatever you got.” That was a very powerful message to me, especially as an independent filmmaker, because you’re outside the gates of Hollywood and you’re never going to get in unless you’re invited. So you’re using what you have. To me, punk rock—or Henry’s journey, as a singer, and the things that he writes about, and what he represents—just gave me a lot of go.
I hold those people in high regard, I hold those people as my mentors, as people who gave me permission. Because you think “I’m not in Hollywood. How can I make a film? I’m just this goofball from Rexdale. Nobody has ever shown me how to do it.” And the punk rockers were like “Don’t worry about that. Just go and do it.” It’s kind of a way for me to salute them or give back. And it’s also fun to meet your heroes. It’s a great job to have, as a movie maker, that occasionally, you get to invite someone to play with you, and if they come, what better treat to be able to meet a Biafra or a Rollins or a Ramone, and feel like you’re having a jam together? It’s sort of my way to be in their band.
NOFS: What’s your relationship with jazz?
BM: I came to jazz late in the game, but through a couple of friends, roommates and others who were total jazzheads, with the right hallucinogens, I came to love jazz, in a sense, because it was crazy music. It reminded me a little of punk rock; the people that made jazz were all pretty wild and eccentric and interesting characters. People like Bud Powell and Miles Davis and Chet Baker and Duke Ellington were bigger-than-life characters. So the romance of the music was filtered through their characters.
What I liked about jazz was the way they would take a simple melody, something classic—it’s not in all jazz, but in many cases—and they go sideways for a while, and then they come back to it. I’ve always loved that form; the people coming together and soloing off the melody, that open/close style, that is still moving forward. Dreamland is very much influenced by that notion; finding that simple melody, and then going off in all directions, and then coming back again.
“It was really amazing to see people like the designers, the costume people that we had, the props guy, if they’re just given the time and a bit of a budget, the things they can bring to a film is just beautiful.”
NOFS: Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on Roadkill, which I thought was an incredible movie, especially for its small budget. What was it like working on a project like that with such humble means versus a project like Dreamland with a much bigger budget?
BM: When we made Roadkill—again, with that punk rock thing—we said “This is what we got? OK. We’ll figure it out.” I had a guy, my producer Colin Brunton, who is a fantastic guy, he was the guy who helped us figure out how to get from the beginning to the end with very little resources. At that time, you’re just thrilled to be doing anything, just thrilled to be shooting with a camera and making it happen. And you’re learning, I didn’t even know if I was going to like directing, because I was coming from editing. Forward to now, what’s great about something where you have a bit more time and money is that suddenly you can work with these really talented people, you know, the production designer and the costume designer, people like that, who need the money and need the time to be able to dress the set and the characters, and be inventive about it.
In Roadkill, pretty much whatever we had in the closet was what you were wearing. When you start to become more aware of all the different elements that go into making up a film, everything from the musical composition to locations, you really see that it’s not a hard to business to spend money in. No matter what your budget is, you never have enough time and you never have enough money. I remember talking to Alexander Payne—we’ve exchanged a couple of cards; I sent him a thing because I thought his movie was brilliant, that’s how I got to his casting director John Jackson, who did the casting for Dreamland—he told me he was doing this movie that was like a hundred million fuckin’ dollars to make—it’s that one with Matt Damon, where everybody’s small, called Downsizing—he says “We’ve got $100 million, but we’re $20 million short.” So you just go “Fuck… it never changes.” It was really amazing to see people like the designers, the costume people that we had, the props guy, if they’re just given the time and a bit of a budget, the things they can bring to a film is just beautiful. You see that in many films that we love and admire, and it all looks so simple, but when you peel it back, you see the thought that goes into it. You get to play with the details.
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NOFS: I imagine you’re not able to work currently during this pandemic, but was there anything you were working on before it hit?
BM: This time of year for me is always sort of a quiet time for me anyway, January to May. Productions usually slow because of winter, and people are usually gearing up. Nothing has been seriously delayed, but it’s been a very productive time with the writers that I’m working with because there’s time to write and to polish up certain things. Hopefully, things will begin to come together soon. We’ll see what happens.
Dreamland is now available through Digital and On Demand. Let us know what you thought of Bruce McDonald’s hallucinatory vampire meets assassin meets jazz musician film over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!