Interview: Bruce McDonald on a Trip to “Dreamland”

It certainly isn’t the strangest sight in “Dreamland,” but when such lavish attention is paid to a scene involving a cat knocking over a wine glass, just to create a sense of decadence in the latest film from Canadian cult director Bruce McDonald, you know there’s a commitment to taking audiences to another realm entirely.

“Cats always look great, but cats are not like dogs,” says McDonald of the wily one on his set. “That was like take 26, and you see that in a script and think how difficult is that going to be? The cat knocks over the wine, but fuck, two hours later and you’re still trying to get it. That’s why there’s not a lot of cats in movies. Cats don’t pay much attention to things, but we thought it was such a nice little odd moment, we thought it was worth struggling to get.”

McDonald has shown a commitment to getting such weirdness on screen — it’s almost too perfect that his last film, the lovely, nostalgic “Weirdoes” was actually his least unusual with Andy Warhol occasionally popping in on a formative road trip for two teens. “Dreamland,” on the other hand, may be his most wonderfully bizarre, reuniting with key collaborators from the beguiling 2008 zombie hit “Pontypool” — stars Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle and writer Tony Burgess — for the story of a hit man named Johnny Dead Eyes (McHattie) who is tasked with removing the pinkie finger, and by extension, livelihood of a jazz trumpeter (also McHattie) by a mob boss (Henry Rollins). That’s easier said than done, particularly when vampires get thrown into the mix, but McDonald concocts an agreeable stew that could be described as a really wild riff on the neo-noir stylings of “John Wick” or in McDonald’s words, “what Chet Baker must’ve felt like on drugs” — hence the presence of a jazz trumpeter — if it could be described at all.

While McDonald has shown a chameleonic range over the course of his nearly four decades making movies ranging from the rock ’n’roll hijinks of “Hardcore Logo” to the harrowing Ellen Page drama “The Tracey Fragments,” “Dreamland” harnesses it all to establish a cohesive logic inside of a narrative that should make no sense at all, letting one wander in a world so far removed from our own. A welcome diversion in these already strange times, the dark fantasy is invading homes this week on VOD after running rampant on the festival circuit and McDonald shared how he reconvened the “Pontypool” gang for a follow-up, found an ideal location to film the otherworldly crime drama and working with an actor in a dual role.

How did “Dreamland” come about?

Tony, Stephen, Lisa and me had such a fun time doing “Pontypool,” we were like, “Oh, we’ve got to do something like that again. It’d be fun. We didn’t really have anything right away, but Stephen showed us a short film that he plays Chet Baker in called “The Many Deaths of Chet Baker,” made by a friend of his, Robert Budreau, and we were like, “Wow, Steve, you’re a great Chet Baker.” That kind of planted the seed with Tony, [who] said, “Let me cook up something,” and he came back with the basic architecture for “Dreamland.”

Actually, at the very end of the credits in “Pontypool,” there’s this weird little 40-second thing where Stephen and Lisa, who is the other actress in the film, are sitting at a sushi bar and they have this weird little talk about kicking boots in the free world. It’s sort of insane, but Tony took those two characters and Chet Baker and came up with this. So it’s quite mad. But I think part of the fuel of making this was the kind of comradeship of people that you like to work with. We had this band and we didn’t want to break it up. We wanted to make another record, and that impulse to play together was really powerful.

It felt like there really was something to hang onto as you went off in a bunch of different directions. Was it a challenge to figure out how far you could go with the dream logic of this?

Because there are so many disparate elements that are firing off in different places, like worlds colliding, the director’s job is to traditionally unify and be the person on set that everybody can ask a question to and get an answer, but in this architecture, it’s partly Stephen’s performance that was a grounding wire, and the music really helped a lot and the talents of our production designer to make it seem like one thing. We tried to see the movie in two [layers] — there’s the upstairs world of rich decadent evil people and the below world of… evil people, slightly. [laughs] — gangsters and killers and that sort of thing. There’s an old phrase, “What goes on above goes on below,” and it’s this weird world of dualities — light and dark, upstairs and downstairs and a guy that’s playing two characters.

That balance helped us a little bit, and it’s little things too, like the movie begins with a lot of color with colorful lights and sets and the last part of the movie is very monochrome in its costumes and the sets, so there were efforts in these very broad ways to find through lines, but because there’s a temptation to try to explain things, like “Why is there a vampire?” “Why is there two guys that look the same? Tony was the guy who said, “Don’t explain. Just have it. Try not to explain.” So that was another rule that we had.

It’s interesting to hear you mention music when there’s a bunch of different styles, but it all does coalesce. What was it like to work on the score?

Weirdly, our first musical ideas were Alice Cooper songs and we were going to do Chet Baker versions of songs from “Killer” and “Love It to Death.” And then Stephen was like, “These are great songs, but maybe not for Chet Baker,” so he found the Eurythmics song [that’s part of the climax] and that became part of it. It’s a weird thing when you’re editing because you’re using a lot of temp music, so the score didn’t really come until the end and every time you do a film, you learn a lesson, and my lesson on this was I love what the composer Jonathan did with the score and I thought, “Fuck, next time, I want to start with that. I want to have him or her or whoever the composer is going to be part of the team at the beginning with the designer and with the DP because it just is such a great grounding rod.” In the end, it does help unify the whole thing, but it was one of the very last things that was done.

Before the edit, what went into figuring out how Stephen would act against himself?

Well, the only guy I feel sorry for in this whole movie is this guy Mike, who had to do the scene with Stephen so the timing would be good with the dialogue, and he’s dressed as the character, but he’s not the character, and [we were] shooting over his shoulder. So trying to please Stephen, Mike thought he should really act and do a lot of acting, which really started to throw Stephen and he said, “No, no, no, I just want you to say the lines.” [laughs] “I’m going to do the acting when I get to the other side.” So that was the only time there was a bit of tension, but we got through it and Stephen prepared so well for both these characters – costume details and hair and mannerisms and voice work — so he really did all the work, so for myself, it was a very easy day. We talked about things, but there was so much as an actor that he prepared for, it was like having a front row seat at Steve’s acting academy and watching him do his stuff, and it was pretty fun to see the different little things he would bring to each character.

How did you find a place to shoot this in?

So often with independent movies, it’s the money that dictates certain things, so when we wrote it, we didn’t know where we were going to shoot it. We just thought we’d go somewhere exotic. At first, we thought “Oh, it’d be fun to go to Havana,” or we might shoot it in a little mountain town in Italy, but the money came from Belgium and Luxembourg and Canada, so we found ourselves in Luxembourg of all places, which none of us had ever been to before. It ended up working out really well. The palace was the Palace of Justice in Luxembourg and some of it was shot in a place called Charleroi in Belgium, which was sort of the Detroit of Belgium, it’s sort of this broken down industrial city, [which] was fun for us. Very few Canadians that went over, just me, Stephen and Lisa and my AD Keith White, so everybody else was new crew and cast that we met there.

Was that an exciting prospect for you?

Fuck yeah. The great thing about making movies is it’s like planning your own adventure. It’s not exactly a holiday, but you’re meeting new places, drinking a hell of a lot of great European wine, you’re going to weird dance clubs in the middle of the night – not on shoot days, but on weekends. [laughs] And you’re meeting these great, hilarious people that invite you into their world and take you to their favorite spot. It’s like the band of gypsies where you’re meeting all the other circus people and you have the circus in common, like, “Oh, we do it like this in Canada, how do you guys do it?” So it’s fun to go away and shoot a movie. Everything is fresh, everything is new and you’re learning new tricks for how to do things, whether it’s the way they use a dolly or the way they go through a shoot day or what they eat for lunch — they have really great cheese in Luxembourg. So it’s always fun to go away and have an adventure.

You also got to travel a little bit with the film. What was it like going to Fantasia and Torino?

It was really fantastic because I was like, “What have we made? I still don’t exactly know what to call it and what it was or how people would respond to it. We went to Fantasia in Montreal and Brussels, which has this great festival for horror and sci-fi, and Torino. Fantastic audiences — really keen. I think once people get the humor of it, they relax into it and enjoy it, so we were really, really pleased. I never really sit through a film with an audience when I get it done because I’ve seen it about a thousand times, but in each of these cases I did and it was just really fun to feel the audience and it went as good as you could want it to go.

“Dreamland” will be available on VOD and digital HD on June 5th.