A scene in Highway 61 has Satan (a.k.a. Mr. Skin) approaching a man and offering him a six-pack in exchange for his soul. The man is not about to be taken advantage of and thinks for a moment before replying, “What’s the catch?” This could be one of the funniest lines in cinema, Canadian or otherwise. It’s funny because the man doesn’t recognize the value of his own soul or because he knows exactly the value of his soul and a six-pack happens to be a very good deal.

Bruce McDonald films are filled with characters who have sold their souls, are selling their souls, or are bargaining to get their souls back. It’s not just who they are, but it’s who we are. And I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonald counts himself among us.

Chances are that if you live in Toronto you already think you know McDonald. That’s the way it is with Canadian celebrity: proximity breeds familiarity and if you see someone often enough, and if they’re famous enough, you reserve the right to call them your own. And so it is that for over 15 years I’ve been calling McDonald an acquaintance. It hardly matters that until now we’ve exchanged nothing so much as a “hello.” He knows I’ve sold my soul and he knows I want it back and he’s put it all up on screen. How much more is there to know of each other?

We’re meeting at Il Gato Nero, one of many trendy bistros lining Toronto’s Little Italy. Trendy is not what immediately pops to mind when I think of McDonald. I’ve pegged him, for reasons all my own, as a cowboy who might be more comfortable kicking back at The Silver Dollar or The Communist’s Daughter. Maybe it’s because I’m used to seeing him in a Stetson or in a horseman’s duster, or because his movie Roadkill ends in the now-defunct basement saloon The Apocalypse Club, where Canada’s loudest band, 13 Engines, used to routinely crank their amps up to 11.

I’m here early and consider ordering a beer. After all, I am about to meet the man who infamously accepted the award money for Roadkill, which won Best Canadian Feature Film at the 1989 Toronto International Film Festival, by announcing the cash was to go towards buying the crew a big chunk of hash. A beer might put me in good standing. Maybe it should be whisky. I settle for a café au lait.

McDonald walks in. The patrons seem to know him, some enough to shout out, others lift their head in recognition. The waitress walks over and takes his order. I think of her as being unmistakably qualified to be a TORO Woman. He asks for a café au lait, sits down and faces me. For the first time I’m about to talk to a man I’ve thought I’ve known for years.

Q: Why are we meeting at the Il Gato Nero?
A: The Black Cat. This is the meeting place. This is the hangout. I use to live upstairs from here and I’ve always lived in this neighbourhood. It used to be up the street and we followed it down here in its groovier incarnation. Yeah, and we drink a lot of coffee, have a lot of meetings, talk to a lot of people. It’s not unusual to see a lot of writers and filmmakers and actors in this place.

Q: So this is the Sardi’s of Toronto.
A: Yeah, the Sardi’s of Toronto or the Russian Tea Room. I don’t know anyone who hangs out at the Russian Tea Room, but, you know, it’s definitely a hangout.

Q: I hope you read the review I wrote on Pontypool for TORO.
A: I haven’t yet, but I’m sure Tony [Burgess] has. Is it good?

Q: Oh yeah.
A: Great.

Q: I did start off the review by asking, “How does Bruce McDonald make a zombie movie?” I answer by saying, “He doesn’t.”
A: I think that’s great. It isn’t really a zombie movie at all.

Read Thom´s Review of Pontypool

Q: But it’s built up as one.
A: I think people search for shorthands. Like 28 Days Later, which is technically not a zombie movie either, they’re infected people. I was recently talking to George Romero who said, “Well, they’re not zombies. Zombies are dead.” So just on that fact alone we are kind of cousins of zombies, I suppose. People use it because it’s shorthand, and anybody that has become unbalanced or unhinged because of a disease of some sort or a bite or a meteorite or something like that is immediately put into the zombie camp. And there’s been this weird avalanche of zombie movies lately. Horror now is almost defined by zombies. Tony and I made an explicit mention in the script that they weren’t to be called zombies. We called our “horror people” conversationalists instead of zombies. So we tried to make that a point on set when we were shooting it. You have to talk to the extras and say, “How are you going to behave?” We had a big meeting to try to explain to them that they weren’t zombies, in fact they were living people who were infected and it was less about dragging their left leg or trying to chew human flesh than they were conversationalists. Their speech had become infected and they were very emotional as oppose to zombies who are more mono-emotional or something like that.

Q: A significant difference between Pontypool and traditional zombie movies seems to be where the audience’s empathy is placed – often with the victim of the disease as oppose to the survivors.
A: I think that maybe comes from Tony’s experience as being the writer. If you go back to the source, which is him, down and out on the streets of Vancouver as a pretty messed-up guy and years later putting it in as an experience as to what it must be like to be a monster.

Q: Are you wary of how Pontypool might be promoted? People who think they have signed up to see a traditional zombie movie might be disappointed.
A: This is part of the discussion with Maple Films, which is releasing it. They have a history with the Saw movies. They had number five come out recently. I think that is what’s being discussed. Who is our audience? Obviously you want to attract, they do anyway, the largest possible audience, and we’re kind of in the land of horror. They’re always excited that a Canadian independent is in some kind of genre because that’s not always the case. So it gives them a leg up over the independent Canadian auteur film. They’re having screenings now for different types of audiences and trying to figure out, “Okay, who is the audience?” I don’t think it’s necessarily for the 16-year-old kid who goes see Saw. Horror movies this day and age, I think, are a bit more defined in the popular imagination as the blood-and-guts film. That’s generally what horror has become. I don’t know if it’s always been that way. I think it’s evolved from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which were the Hammer horror films with Christopher Lee. We’re very conscious of, or I think they’re very conscious of, wanting to invite the hordes that go to see Saw but not mislead them too, because it’s a different kind of horror movie. I’ve always thought this is more Polanski than it is Romero. I’ve always been a big fan of The Tenant.

More on The Tenant: One Vivid Nightmare

Q: I appreciate Pontypool for what it makes me think I’m seeing. That poor guy in the helicopter....
A: Yeah. We were blessed with a terrific actor, Rick Roberts, who played the guy, Ken Loney, in the Sunshine Chopper. This movie was originally a radio play. CBC Radio had commissioned us to do a radio play and this is what we chose. And we thought, “Wow, this could make a great little movie,” in the tradition of say, Lifeboat, 12 Angry Men, Talk Radio, to a degree. We thought it would be fun to create restrictions on our movie where we very rarely, if ever, go outside. And radio being theatre of the mind works very well and this was an experiment to try it with a film. The fact it was set in a radio station, about a radio DJ, about radio things ... we thought maybe by grounding it in that way people would accept this character we never see but we become quite emotionally involved with him.

Q: Talk a bit about The Rawside of... – the documentary rock series of which you’ve directed three episodes. I watched the Brendan Canning segment. Does the entire series share the same style as the one you use in this episode?
A: I haven’t seen the other ones. Some of the same cinematographers are used. With Die Mannequin – this was to set a template. I was quite thrilled to be invited to join this team because I’m a big music fan. A couple of these bands, Brendan Canning and Metric, I was a big fan of. Die Mannequin I was introduced to by being a director on the show. And I guess we set out to do something that was more a portrait of the musician rather than an exposé. The cocaine years or that sort of stuff is covered well and is better if it’s Britney Spears or Bono anyway, right? We’re dealing with, in some cases, emerging bands and in some cases successful independent bands. Our intention was to have as little talking heads as possible and try to more capture the idea of an impression of the band and honouring that. Maybe I’m just a music fan and I’m just so enamored by musicians. To me it’s like being invited to walk among the gods. I just have a lot of respect and admiration for the people that make music and the kind of lives they choose to lead – because they’ve chosen this lifestyle, they’ve chosen this mission to make music. With Die Mannequin it’s hilarious because they’re all living in this little rooming house together and they travel together. And they can all share the same hotel room together and they’re just about to bust out. They were generous and sweet and very cool people that we got to know.

Watch Brendan Canning´s live Garage Band performance

Q: Could you have just as easily gone into the profession of music as the profession of cinema?
A: Totally. If I was talented or even more ambitious. I think of music, growing up with music, and how powerful music is. And many people I’m sure (including myself) would testify to the fact that music on many occasions has saved your life or saved your emotional life.... Certain times in my life, certain albums and certain musicians have just hit and seem to change everything: worldview or emotional stakes. I mark my life by what I’m listening to. To me it’s a history. It’s a way to engage in the world. It’s a guide. It’s an antenna. It’s a lot of things for me. I don’t know, if a few things had been different, if I’d hooked up with a different tribe, probably guys, I would have been touring with a Zeppelin cover band in northern Ontario for most of my 30s.

Q: You were friends with Art Bergmann.
A: Yeah.

Q: I bring his name up because it seems that sometimes music can’t save the musician.
A: It’s a tough lifestyle, for sure. It does take a heavy toll. It’s that weird thing of the public wanting to believe in the myth, and the musician themselves wanting to and often living the myth because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. Look at Art. Look at a guy like Hugh Dillon who came out of that very similar school of alcohol, cigarettes and heroin and something happened with him that he was lucky to turn it all around. And the way he turned it around was just leaving that world for the most part and going into acting. In terms of somebody that I’ve known in my life that’s managed to make an amazing transformation, an amazing turnabout or been lucky enough to have people in their lives to save their lives, to save them from that full embrace of the myth – which is what an audience secretly loves whether it’s Dee Dee Ramone or Art Bergmann or Gram Parsons. It’s that shooting star which is part of the Billy the Kid myth.

Most Underrated (Punk Rock) Canadian: Art Bergmann

Q: I’ve always imagined Hugh Dillon to be a Canadian version of a badder-ass Bruce Willis.
A: Totally. I think he slides more on the Mickey Rourke side. But yeah, he’s often had that Bruce Willis thing even to the point now that they both shave their heads. Bruce Willis has a band, as does Hugh, and they both play in clubs. I don’t think Hugh has anything against Die Hard.

Q: And who would? That movie still kicks. And talking about a movie that kicks: Roadkill. I think Roadkill was the first Bruce McDonald film I saw.
A: Wow.

Q: Not only did I think the film rocked, but it introduced me to Don McKellar, who I pegged would become the first Canadian movie star.
A: I think if Don chose exclusively to do acting he would have, but he writes and directs and produces as well. He looks good on camera. I just saw him in Blindness and I thought, “Wow, he looks great in that.”

Q: You two were a writing team for, what, three films?
A: Yeah, we worked on Roadkill, Highway 61, Dance Me Outside and there’s another film called Yummy Fur: The Adventures of Ed the Happy Clown, that Don’s written. That’s starting to bubble up again.

Q: That’s good to hear.
A: This is the Chester Brown graphic novel. One of our all-time favourite projects. So Don and I, you know, we lived in the same neighbourhood. He’s been very busy the last couple years with his Broadway musical and Blindness. We just been reconnecting again after he’s been touring around and going all over the place.

Q: Since when did the bad boys of Canadian cinema start making Broadway musicals?
A: I know. It makes me laugh. Right? He’s, I think, a little confused about the whole thing too. But he’s having a good time in New York City.

Q: I ran into Chester Brown with Seth at a party and monopolized their time as much as possible. I mentioned to them that I have a friend who doesn’t believe there is such a thing as graphic novels; there are only comic books. I expected them to be appalled, but instead they agreed. I wonder what your take is on that?
A: In what sense?

Q: Well, graphic novels are becoming prime sources for film, Black Hole is coming out soon....
A: Really? The Charles Burns one, right?

Q: Charles Burns. Yeah. David Fincher’s doing it.
A: Wow.

Q: Yeah, and Watchmen due in 2009. So when filmmaker’s are working from a graphic novel are they dealing with characters that might be comic book heroes or characters from a novel?
A: A graphic novel you get a sketch of a character. You’re not going to get the depth of a Holden Caulfield or a Madame Bovary or the guy from Money, the Martin Amis book. Maybe the attraction to the graphic novel is that it’s halfway to a movie because it is in pictures. Movies are often strange reductions of novels to begin with. When you compare the movie The Handmaid’s Tale to the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s slim. Maybe the graphic novel is a closer mate to a film. You hear often that the movie is shit compared to the novel. I think novels should make miniseries. With “Yummy Fur” for example, if we’re lucky and we get a remarkable actor and a remarkable actress, then the actor and the director and whatever, the designer, can fill in the implied backstory in that kind of character, in simple cinematic moments where you go “Oh my Gad. They must have lived with the squirrels for four years before they surfaced” or whatever their crazy backstory was. I think people make graphic novels into movies if they can inject some novelistic elements back into it. Is that easier than going the other way? Reducing a novel to the sliver of what its intention was? It’s hard to say.

Q: I pitched The Fountainhead to Seth but he wasn’t buying it.
A: I guess they have to pick their projects carefully because it takes years for them to literally draw this comic series or graphic novels, right?

Q: Just like you have to storyboard. Maybe that’s a graphic novel?
A: I’ve been thinking, I have this little company and we develop a lot of screenplays. This is what I’ve been doing for 15 years. I use the money, some of the money, I make directing television shows and use the money to support writers like Don McKellar, Tony Burgess or Lynn Crosbie and a bunch of these people and say “Hey, let’s make a movie.” Lynn Crosbie is an amazing writer and poet who wrote this great script. And part of me thinks, before I send that script out I should get some of my comic book friends, graphic novel dudes, to illustrate it. Whether it’s the whole graphic novel or it’s the illustrated screenplay. I don’t know if film people like reading. It’s a big difference seeing the sequence realized or semi-realized than reading the paragraph on the screenplay page. People often will skip the prose and read the dialogue. When you see how exciting the simple drinking of a cup of coffee can be in a movie, or the way John Wayne walks down the street. Something that looks quite banal on the page can be so stunning in a picture or a design....

Q: Pontypool would make a great graphic novel.
A: Highway 61, I got a graphic novel out... Dance Me Outside, Hard Core Logo. I think it all comes back to me working on Ron Mann’s movie, Comic Book Confidential as an editor. That introduced me to the whole independent comic-book scene. After that, every time we were working on or finishing a movie I would find somebody and say, “Hey man, do you want to do a graphic novel or a comic book?” And I would find them enough money to pay them to make it worth their while and I ended up with three of them. They were small presses, but nicely done. Black Eye press was one. I don’t even know if I have copies of them anymore. I guess you can find them on eBay. You can find anything on eBay.

Q: Are you tired of talking about the “hash” speech? Where you announced from the podium that the award money you received for Roadkill was going towards buying a big chunk of hash.
A: That was our first movie. That was fun.

Q: You did say you were sharing the hash with the crew. That was cool. Back then we all liked to smoke before a movie.
A: Even now sometimes. It just makes everything more poetic. Hash as opposed to pot. I’ve never been a big pothead. I’ve always loved hash because it smells great, it’s smooth and it tends to keep me awake rather than put me asleep. Hash has always had that air of mystery and creation, of Old World. Whenever I think of Afghanistan I don’t think of war, I think of hash. Blond Afghani. You think of all the great art and music that was created, not because of, but with a little bit of assistance of drugs or alcohol.

Q: Why did you take on Dance Me Outside?
A: I was brought the project from Norman Jewison who had seen Highway 61 at the film festival. He had been trying for years to make it into a movie. He had bought the rights to that book and had, God, he had Larry McMurtry take a stab at it – he wrote Lonesome Dove and Last Picture Show. And he was off to other things and he said to me, “Hey, why don’t you take a shot at it. You seem to know what you’re doing, you’re funny and it’s a comedy.” So a couple of years knocking it around with Tomson Highway and with a couple of other people, and finally it was me and Don and John Frizzell who sat in this room and hammered it out. I did it because Norman had always been a godfather to me, and I couldn’t say no. I had no connection with anything Indian at all. I grew up in the suburbs. I had no Indian friends. I’ve never been to a reserve. I think being in the suburbs I don’t think I had even seen an Indian except on The Lone Ranger. Pretty bizarrely removed from that culture, for me it was like saying, “Oh there’s this other planet that people live on that you’ve never even seen or been to.” I never would have thought of this in a million years – making a film about teenage Indian kids. I loved the book by Kinsella. I regret never having talked to him. I was told at the time he was not really interested in the movie thing. I don’t think he was that happy with the movie. I don’t think we took that many liberties – or maybe we did. Or he had a different conception of who these people were. Maybe they were too pretty to him. But it was one of the best times making a movie.

Q: What made it so great?
A: I remember my first experience meeting a native person other than say, Tomson Highway in the city. He very kindly drove me up one Christmas to his home. I would say within a half hour getting there I found myself in somebody’s basement drinking and dancing to The Doors with a bunch of old Indian ladies having the time of our lives. I was thinking this is fucking hilarious. I spent the weekend there. This was great. I was invited by Tomson Highway. I’d come in on the prince’s coattails. Immediately I was welcomed by anybody and everybody that was from there. I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to a reserve before. I didn’t know what to trade culturally. Luckily I had a Cult CD and that went a long way. Driving around in a pickup truck listening to The Cult and Metallica – wow, these guys are all right. Great musicians. There is a tragic atmosphere in a certain way which I don’t think me, them, or anyone in this country has rectified.

Thom Ernst is a Toronto-based film writer and critic and the
producer/interviewer of TVO´s long-running movie program, Saturday Night at the Movies.

More from Thom Ernst’s Saturday Night at the Movies blog