Bruce McDonald is one of Canada’s most original filmmakers. His latest movie features a narcissist, a hitman, a vampire, and Chet Baker. Sound Bizarre? Well, get ready to enter the world of Dreamland.
Mark Gordon: how would you best describe Dreamland?
Bruce McDonald: well, you know, it’s a strange one. I would sometimes describe it as a euro trash jazz western. Or it’s kind of a midnight movie. That’s sort of the vibe of it.
Mark Gordon: are you a big fan of Chet Baker?
Bruce McDonald: I like the mythology and the broken down romance of Chet Baker. I’m probably more of the Miles Davis fan in terms of the trumpet men. Chet is a strange and spooky cat.
Mark Gordon: I saw the movie Let’s Get Lost, and I loved Chet Baker, so I went out and bought a bunch of his records.
Bruce McDonald: I was turned on years later through a short film about Chet Baker called The Deaths of Chet Baker. It was made by a filmmaker named Robert Budreau. The film tries to imagine how Chet Baker died in that Amsterdam hotel room, found down below on the street. Was he pushed? Did he nod out after a particularly strong dose of his favorite juice? It’s a really fun movie because they play up this scenario three or four times, and each time it’s a bit different.
Mark Gordon: how did you develop the concept for Dreamland?
Bruce McDonald: One of the things that inspired us was that short film, obviously the let’s get lost material and I had read somewhere, and I heard from a number of people that to make a Chet Baker movie was very problematic because when he was alive, he’d sold his life rights to many people. Of course, all conflicted with each other. There’s been a lot of musical biopics made about all kinds of people like Johnny Cash, but it was a rare event to see one about Chet Baker. So, we thought maybe instead of going the biopic route, we would kind of imagine a movie that late-career Chet Baker on a big dose of heroin might cook-up or a movie he might write. So, this opened the doors to our movie Dreamland.
Mark Gordon: What I found interesting about your film is I didn’t know what to expect. It goes from being a gangster movie then all of a sudden there’s a vampire, blood dripping from a tree, and you have some social issues too, you’ve got human trafficking, mixing all these elements and it just works.
Bruce McDonald: We tried to capture the experience of having a dream. And I don’t know about your dreams, but in my dreams, the oddest things co-exist and it seems quite normal until you think about it, until you wake up and you think about the strange collisions that seemed quite every day and quite natural in your dreams seem quite ludicrous and illogical when you think of them from afar looking at them. The idea of mixing in a vampire, with a film noir, and having a little bit of euro trash plus a little art film, with a little bit of jazz, seemed like a dreamy concoction. One of our guiding principles was the mind of Chet Baker, who our trumpet player is modeled after. Instead of doing a biopic on Chet Baker, why don’t we try to sit inside him during a heroin rush in the later stages of his life and try to be inside Chet Baker and write a movie that he might enjoy? So that was one of the guiding principles, I suppose, of this unusual collage of genres and characters, and the high world, the low world and it was really fun to turn off the logic machine and the rational part of ourselves and open up the door to the unconscious and allow things to be beside each other or on top of each other and to be just as curious, almost, as to the audience. Hopefully, we hold on to the audience until the end, but see what that ends up communicating or what it means. Because I think like a dream, analysis probably means different things to different people.
Mark Gordon: I didn’t get the Chet Baker reference until midway into the film.
Bruce McDonald: One of the reasons we don’t call him Chet in the movie is because we wanted to avoid having to ask someone for permission because the estate was such a tangle. So we just called him the trumpet player or the maestro. The actor, Stephen McHattie, inhabits the vibe of Chet Baker so beautifully, his posture and phrasing, and that fragile voice. It was really lovely to see Stephen conjure [up this character]. So we were kind of happy to have the spirit of Chet Baker in some way, along for the ride. Steven often plays characters that are much more pushy, they’re much more driven, much more active. They drive things. Where is in this, it was interesting to see him play this kind of isolated, lonely, broken, haunted man. It was beautiful to see the lights on in his eyes, and that fantastic face of his. Yeah, it was a treat for me to have a front-row seat.
Mark Gordon: What was your biggest challenge in making Dreamland?
Bruce McDonald: The biggest challenge was finding the right music. When you’re editing a movie, it’s often done where are you use what is called a temp score, and you put in bits and pieces of music from different albums and movies and that sort of thing. So when you show the [film] to the producers for the first, or you show it to a little test audience, movies generally have music, or often do, so it’s a way to make the first viewing experience palatable, and make it feel like a full movie because music is such a big part of a lot of films. In this case, I think the biggest challenge was, once you leave the temp score and you hire the composer, and you begin to work, and then the next time you screen the film you show it you realize what happens is that the producers and the other people close to the production have gotten so used to the temp score they can’t listen to the new score. They don’t like it because it’s different from what they’ve been hearing for the last three or four months. It can be a great barrier and a great hurdle and in this particular movie, not quite sure why it was this one, but it was a challenge to get people to hear it because all they could hear was what was in before. There’s a phrase for that in the film business people call it temp love where are you fall in love with this temporary placeholder music. And it’s often music you can’t afford anyway, even if you wanted to, [for example] you are using Bowie tracks, and you are using stuff from Low or you are using stuff from Radiohead. My lesson on this was not to use temp music anymore and get the composer to begin much earlier.
Mark Gordon: I’ve spoken to some composers about this, and they call it temp death.
Bruce McDonald: That’s good. It’s very much like that. I always feel terrible for composers because it’s such an awkward and horrible place to put them in. I mean, it’s just so unfair because you’re starting with this monkey on your back. The composer should start along with the designer and start at the beginning. I don’t know what it’s like in Hollywood movies or other productions, but I know often in Canadian independent features, the composer is often in a much later stage of the game, and by that time, a lot of the resources have already been gobbled up, and there’s not enough left for that. The nice thing about having gone around the track a few times, you start to put in place at the beginning what you’ve learned at of the last [film], and that can be very productive.
Mark Gordon: You came up with a group of filmmakers which was called a new wave of cinema in Canada.
Bruce McDonald: Sure, Peter Mettler, Atom Egoyan, Ron Mann, and many people, mostly out of Toronto. Canada has the English and the French side. The French were kind of cooking along quite well through the 70s and the 80s. The English Canada, because English Canada is kind of a cultural providence of the United States, and so these filmmakers that started to percolate, and I’m not quite sure why in that time, but up until that time, it has been kind of an aberration to make a film in the English Canada. It was something that had been done, but not in a regular way or not in a kind of in a big way. There was not much of an industry. Here we are outside the gates of Hollywood, and we love movies. We love American movies. We love German movies. We love French movies. Some of us went to film school. Some of us worked in the theater. Maybe the draw to the filmmaking spirit is this communal effort and a kind of a nice. There is a nice thing that happened at that time. This was sort of the late 80s, 90s, and the time was right. There was just a little bit of support in cultural industries for filmmaking. The industry was just beginning to take off, where Toronto and Vancouver we’re becoming bigger and bigger production hubs.
The industry, especially the independent film industry, was supported. We would work on big productions, and then we would liberate materials for our productions, or we would always find a way to hatch our own stories, and we would use what we had available to us. It was a very integrated group of people. I would edit for Adam, or I was Peter Mettler’s camera assistant. I would edit for Ron Mann, and people traded and were very supportive and competitive. I think when you’re starting, and I’m not sure how it is for other people, but I know for myself, the idea of being part of a community was almost essential. It’s one of the essential ingredients for being able to go forward because you had people that you could count on. You had people that you could bitch too. You had people who could help guide you or to be a critic of what you’ve done. I really value that beginning time.
Mark Gordon: In 1992, you got the highest rating on rotten tomatoes, 100% for Highway 61. Then you did a movie called Hellions, which got a 27 score, but what was the one to watch from bloody disgusting.
Bruce McDonald: it’s funny, but you realize at a certain point that you’re not going to please everyone. I remember that we premiered Hellions at Sundance, and I remember the night we were very excited to be invited. It was part of the Midnight Madness series. The guy that programs the series gave us the best introduction. Like you couldn’t have asked for a better thing. He was like, not only is my favorite film of the series this year, but it’s my favorite of the last five years. And I think the audience was there to see another film. They were just not expecting that one. They were expecting something very different. Anyway, so, it didn’t go very well. But sometimes, it takes time for a film to find its audience. Or, the audience to find the film. Pontypool was a good example of that because when that came out, it barely, kind of raised a blink. And over time, over, whatever ten years or so, for certain people, it’s become a kind of well-loved part of the Zombie genre. The most important thing is you get people talking and hopefully, a little debate. My friend Tony, who is the writer of Pontypool and Dreamland, made a couple of other movies. And one of his critics named a film that he wrote, I’m not sure what the publication was, but he picked Tony’s film Septic Man as the 17th worst movie ever made. And Tony’s quite proud of that. Quite an accomplishment. I don’t know the other ones that are the total worst, but he feels like he’s made some kind of list, and he’s proud of that accomplishment.
Mark Gordon: With that in mind, what constitutes success for you?
Bruce McDonald: Well, I guess in the simplest way, it is the ability to go on and make another one that’s the thing. And then, when I’m walking down Queen West in my neighborhood, and a car goes around the corner and somebody yells out the window, Hey man I like your movies, that to me is a success. [He laughs] It feels good. Success is the platform or the ability or the privilege to continue on because if you weren’t able to for some reason or you were prevented or stopped, that would be a tragedy. You always go into it thinking, it’s about the next one and it’s the next one, you learn something on this one, and you think OK, well now I know what’s going on, and now I will put that in to play on the next production one like the way we talked about the composer. OK, I learned a lesson on the last one, and you hope the next time, God willing there’s a next time, and you can be better, and you work hard to try to become good at what you do.
There’s a position on a film set called the assistant director, and they are the lieutenant, the right-hand man or woman of the director. And they are kind of the straw boss, the organizer of the whole circus. There was a fellow named David Webb, who was my assistant director on our first three films, Roadkill, Highway 61, Dance Me Outside, and Atom’s films, and I still see David. David gave me a call last year. He was in town with a new thumb that he worked on called Joker, and he just finished up with Martin Scorsese on the Irishman. So exciting for me to go oh there’s one of our boys, David Webb, who is kind of the best in the world, I think, at what he does. And to see him flying at the top of his ability, working with the real masters and working on really exciting projects, it’s just a great marker in terms of how long it takes to kind of become a master and that it can happen to a friend of yours. It’s exciting, it kind of charges the rest of us up, gives us hope.
Mark Gordon: What did you learn from Dreamland? What did you learn about yourself and about making movies?
Bruce McDonald: I think I’ve learned to trust my instincts a little bit more and the instincts of my collaborators. I learned that you don’t always need your home team to score a victory or to complete something. Going to Dreamland, which was shot in Europe, it was pretty much me and my A.D. Keith White. Everybody else was kind of brand new. So it was a great lesson for me and trust, instinct with pleasing and surprising results. And then to be reminded of the magic and the power of a great performer, things that aren’t on the page come out and that’s where the fairy dust is. That’s what I learned, just a deeper appreciation of the performer, and openness to trust new people, new allies, and fellow travelers.
Mark Gordon: What advice would you give to a young filmmaker just starting?
Bruce McDonald: Have a gang, get a gang. Whatever that gang is. It could be two people, four people, but it’s got to be more than just yourself because filmmaking is a communal effort. It’s a communal art form. It’s not like painting. It’s not like novel writing or photography. It’s very much a game-related kind of expression. It’s fantastic to have all the technology that we have available to us, but in some ways and I’m talking more in the independent circles, it’s kind of atomized people a little to do everything themselves. I think there’s a great power in the band or in the gang to say, OK, I’m going to focus on the editing, and you’re going to focus on the writing, and I am going to focus on the producing. It’s a group thing. So that to me is extremely important to be talked about. My community, growing up, I had that. I was lucky to find that.
The second thing I would say to a young filmmaker is story, story, story. A lot of young filmmakers, through necessity, are riding their screenplays, and some are OK, but often I find, that’s the weak link in the production is the structure and the craft of the screenplay. And I think if I were a young filmmaker starting again, and I was going to write my script, I would seek out a senior person. It could be a playwright or just a great storyteller. It could be an actor, someone who has a sensitivity to character and story. Because when you’re starting, I mean if you’re gifted you’re good with the story, but often you’re just full of the beans of wanting to do something and prove something maybe make a genre film or make a whatever film. You’re kind of possessed, and you need that, but I think within that possession if you could just get help with your script. Like the way people will have a rough cut screening for their first cut or second cut, or the third cut of their movie and they show it to friends, and they show it to some other filmmakers, and they show it to their mentor if they have one. I think the same should follow through for a screenplay because if the story doesn’t work, nothing will work, well somethings will work. So I can’t stress that enough. Seek out people that are better than you because people love nothing better than to tell you what they know. We’ve all had to help when we were starting. If you approach people in the right way and thank them and reward them, I think you’ll find your screenplay or story will become infinitely better. Not always, I suppose, but I think it will be stronger and sharper. And that’s the map that everybody follows. So it’s very important that that map is made as good as it can be at the writing stage as opposed to in the editing room when it’s a bit too late.
Mark Gordon: When you look back on your career, is there one touch-tone that you have, or one moment, one film, that resonates with you?
Bruce McDonald: I was approached by, none other than, Norman Jewison, who is famous for making Rollerball, In the Heat of the Night, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Fiddler on the Roof, and Moonstruck. He’s a Toronto guy that’s moved away to Hollywood and Britain and then came back to Canada. He saw Highway 61 at the Toronto Film Festival and sought me out and presented me with this script about native Indian teenage kids on a northern reserve, based on a series of short stories by a writer named W. P. Kinsella, who is best known for his book Field of Dreams. And so that began this kind of amazing kind of adventure. Probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had on a set. We shot it in the autumn in North Ontario with a bunch of native actors that were just amazing in this beautiful landscape with Norman Jewison as our mentor. He was off in Italy shooting, so he would just phone in once in a while. It was one of the most magical shooting times, the crew was all there, we were all on location, they were all away from their homes, so they were love affair is going on. And there’s drinking mushroom tea on the beach, and there’s getting good at your craft of filmmaking. We had, for the first time, a little bit of support. We had a little bit of design. We had a little bit of costuming. I felt like it was the first real grown-up production. And I think fondly of that movie and Norman Jewison and some of the things that he taught me. I guess it was the film that made me think I like this business. I think I’m going to try to make a go of it.
Mark Gordon: What was the lesson that Norman Jewison and taught you?
Bruce McDonald: One of the things he taught me, he said if it’s not about love, it’s not worth doing. He knows, more than anybody, it’s a tough road out there in Movieland. It’s a fun job. It’s not an easy job, and it takes up a lot of time. So it’s not so much about the money that they pay you because you can make good money doing things. But I think he was trying to say that the gold will follow if you do good work. It’s such a long engagement. People are often shocked when I tell them how long something takes from that first inception in your mind or with your writing partner to the time [it is finished]. It’s a long-distance run, so if you are not passionate and in love with the thing that you are doing it’s not hard to run out of steam or put it aside because it’s a very grueling, long-distance run.
Mark Gordon: You were speaking in front of a group of people, and you were telling a story about something that changed your life when you were 14 and it was a Bob Dylan record.
Bruce McDonald: The name of this song was Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan, off of the great record Highway 61 Revisited, and that’s the record, one of them anyway, that changed the course of my life.
Mark Gordon: What was it about that record that changed your life?
Bruce McDonald: Music has always been really important to me. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, a middle-class kid, always figuring the world was somewhere else, other than where I was. And when I think of that song in particular, I clearly remember the day hearing it come over the radio. I had no idea who Bob Dylan was or where the song came from, but it was kind of like someone kicking open the door in your mind or your heart and suddenly the wind rushes in and the sunshine and you are like wow, where’s this from? And you start on a journey. For different people, it’s different wakeup calls. Maybe it’s a book or a poem, or a person or a trip. For me, that song introduced me to Bob Dylan and introduced me to Arthur Rimbaud. It was a road towards Patti Smith. It was a road towards a great French film called Children of Paradise, which is a favorite film of Bob’s. It took me to concerts. It took me down to the real Highway 61, which runs right through the center of America, down through Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans. It was the road all the great jazz and blues guys took up to Chicago. When I look back, maybe my memory isn’t completely accurate, but I do remember that song being a marker in the road that changed my direction and led me to some amazing places. Anyone that is an artist or a writer or creator, you need your master, you need to look at the people who have come before, and they propel you forward. So I think fondly of that. I often think fondly of Mr. Dylan and I’m always hoping that he’s feeling all right.
Mark Gordon: Bob Dylan’s voice, David Bowie described it as Robert Zimmerman, a man with a voice like sand and glue. You once said something to the effect, that if a man with a voice like that can make it, and there was something about that, that if he could do it, someone who is not the greatest singer in the world, but there was something about him that told you, as it giving you permission to strike out and follow your dream.
Bruce McDonald: Well, I think that’s very true. Bob Dylan doesn’t seem like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby or Michael Bublé, but he doesn’t wait around for permission. He puts it out there with what he has. I think it was a US general Patton, he once said, you never go to war with what you want you to go to war with what you got or lose your country. I think that people like Bob Dylan like an early proto-punk; he became an original voice. I think a lot of the punks like Patti Smith and probably the Ramones and Joe Strummer from the Clash did that same thing too. Where they like we’re not virtuoso guitar players. We’re not particularly handsome. We’re not particularly gifted, but we have something to say. We are going to use what we’ve got and hit the road. I found that tremendously inspiring because it’s a tall order for a suburban kid growing up way outside the gates of Hollywood, it’s a tall order to think you can play in the movie business.
Mark Gordon: What would you do if you didn’t make films?
Bruce McDonald: Good question, I’ve always ask myself that and the only thing I could come up with was making pizza at Giovanna’s, which is a restaurant across the street from us. I was lucky at a young age to fall into this, I never really had to think too much about what I wanted to be or do. It was something that felt interesting, and it just seemed to fit and was lucky enough to live in a world where that became possible.
Mark Gordon: What would you like an audience to away with after they see dreamland?
Bruce McDonald: I think I made this for the people that used to go to the .99 Roxy and watch Eraserhead.
Mark Gordon: That movie freaked me out.
Bruce McDonald: It’s one of the freakier movies. I adore that movie. It was a mind-blower. We were formed by those movies, El Topo, and Eraserhead, and The Song Remains the Same. These are all the midnight movies that we would watch on the weekend till three in the morning. So, it’s a kind of salute to those people and those late-night weirdos that have an adventurous palette and kind of embrace that sort of strangeness and those kinds of shadows. Lovely people, when you are sitting in a crowd at midnight, watching these sorts of films. So it was our way to salute that time in our lives and salute those people. I hope that they are still out there. I’m very curious about how people will interpret it, or what they think it is. How they will join the dots or how they will process it and what they will call it. It doesn’t matter to me whether they embrace it or they like it or don’t. What I’m curious about is what they think it is and how they decode it. It’s not so much an issue of like or not like. It’s more of like what is this? I feel like I’m having a dream, and the audience is Dr. Freud, or whoever that says, ‘Well, Bruce, think that this is a manifestation of your inherent mischievousness and your love of the vampire.’ I’m hoping that the audience will take and guide me and Tony, the writer, to the next station.