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Exclusive: We Shiver with the Director and Stars of 'Pontypool'

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With the countless zombie epics that have hit in the wake of 28 Days Later, there's little reason to expect anything original in theaters for fans of the undead. Yet original is just what Pontypool delivers. The first in a proposed trilogy of films by director Bruce McDonald based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything, the movie examines how communication -- or more specifically the challenges in its path -- can be as fierce a terror as any walking corpse. Pontypool is deliberately limited in scale, with almost the entire film taking place at a Canadian radio station; at which DJ Grant Mazzy -- actor Stephen McHattie -- and his producer Sydney Briar -- played by Lisa Houle -- find themselves at the core of an undead outbreak. But its scope extends much farther. We recently sat down to chat with McDonald and his stars about the challenges of crafting an offbeat zombie fable, and their hopes for a sequel.

How difficult is it to generate suspense within the confines of a single location? Film is, after all, a visual medium; and today's audiences are especially used to varied visual stimuli.

McDonald: I guess if you want to get really fancy about it and talk about the essence of cinema, I think it could have been the fabulous Roger Corman, or it could have been Francois Truffaut – I can't remember which one it was – one of them said that the essence of cinema is the movement of the human face. It does what a painting or music or dance doesn't do, because dance or theater doesn't have the close-up. So, in a way, having heard that quote once so long ago, it made me feel braver going into the challenge of entertaining people in such a tight frame. So every choice was really, really important. And that's what became interesting to me – everything from choosing exactly the right actors and hoping they would play the part – from their wardrobe to the little details on the desk to why we would choose a certain lens for certain scenes. I think we went ahead with it because I think there was a great trust in the script and in the story. I knew that if I had a great trust in the script, I could get the right actors. I didn't really have to do too much. I just had to kind of stay out of the way, and [employ] a style that wasn't too obtrusive.

Houle: Also in terms of building the suspense and being in one spot, it definitely is a challenging exercise, from an actor's point of view, to not know that at the end of this we're gonna be outside or we're gonna be at the restaurant or something. But it also presented a great opportunity as well, because we shot it in sequence, in a sense in one location. Having that as a bonus is huge. As an actor, it's incredible. It gives you so much room to learn as you're going.

McDonald: In a way, the downside, or what you might see as problematic in terms of a production, the idea of one location, did give us this surprising freedom, of shooting the film in order, which is rarely done. I think Ambrose, our producer, said the last film he can remember that was shot in sequence was The Graduate by Mike Nichols. So it's not done very often, and when it is done it's a great gift for the actors and the crew.

Houle: Yes. There's moments when you wouldn't necessarily have said that that moment was the upsetting thing for my character had I looked at the script from the beginning, but since you're doing it in sequence, you can feel the build of it all, and say, "Yes, this is definitely where I am." It gives you a really nice [rhythm].  

Stephen and Lisa, you have a natural chemistry on screen. How was that developed?

McHattie: We worked on it a lot. We'd worked together quite a bit before, so we were sort of used to each other's rhythms. We know each other well enough that we… Lots of time, when acting, you find yourself looking at the person you're talking to way too much. You don't do that in real life, except in certain situations. But if you know somebody really well, you can kind of imagine what they're doing. And when you look away from them, you're not worried you're gonna be hit over the head. So the experience of having worked together so much… It was a great thing to have that kind of past experience with another actor. We worked on it a lot, but didn't direct each other at all, which was great.

Houle: We worked on it to the point where the lines weren't going to be a problem much. We just wanted to be completely prepared for the day. It worked to that point. We just got a sense of the characters. It was a huge help. Stephen's got kind of an electric presence on set, I find. And having him there, I think for everybody, it was great.

McDonald: The costume that they had, the boots. It was great.

Pontypool is firmly rooted in the tradition of zombie films, but it offers a unique spin. Were you fans of the horror genre, and were you attracted to the idea of adding something new to its vocabulary?

Houle: I never really thought of what sort of genre this movie falls into. I think it falls into several, so I wasn't thinking, "Is this going to hold up as a horror movie or as a suspenseful thriller?" but was [getting] into the skin of this world, and keeping it as real as I conceivably could, and dedicating my energy to that. I don't think I thought about how it was fitting into…

McDonald: I don't think the motive was so much, "Oh, I love horror movies so much I want to make one." I mean I do. I think what attracted myself to the project was how original it was, and how it did oscillate – there's horror, a kind of romance, whatever genre My Dinner with Andre was in. [Laughs.] We didn't concern ourselves until the marketing of the film with what this was. It was "that Pontypool thing." It was scary, there were some really funny bits in it. We specifically wanted to put some blood in it, because we like blood, but we just put a little in this one.

Houle: When you've got two characters speaking bad French, arguing who killed the girl…

McDonald: Yeah, to me that's entertainment. [Laughs.] 

Houle: How do you categorize that?

McDonald: Yeah, it's hard to categorize. That to me is sort of the fun of it. The horror genre's well taken care of. There's a lot of people out there. They know what they're doing, and they'll continue to do it. So we wanted to do something original. It's being put in that genre, which is great. Hopefully, in the end, if this adds something to the canon or it becomes a really welcome cousin to the zombie genre, where it's like, "Hey, cousin Pontypool's coming over today, yeah? Awesome! He's just a nut!" To do a horror movie just to do it, or just to remake something, there are people who will do that and do it really well. So our sort of project is "Let's try to entertain people, but in a way that people haven't really seen before."

There's been some speculation about a possible sequel. Can you share your thoughts on that? Would you guys be up for it?

McDonald: Yeah, the scripts are written. They were actually written a long time ago. Without getting into the whole history of it, they were written before this was thought of, I guess. So, yeah, I mean you can't control and determine everything, but if the film gods shine down upon Pontypool, there are two more parts to the story. This all comes from a book, it all comes from a novel called Pontypool Changes Everything. So in a way, presently, we're kind of imaging the greatest situation as this little trilogy of films. Triptychs or trilogies – everything is sequenced now. Anybody that makes a genre film is generally trying to make a sequel of it. Whether it's Saw or the Elm Street movies or The Exorcist or Star Trek. We're living in a sequential time I guess, or whatever you call that. So people are a little bit afraid of originality, but it's nice when it arrives and we're ready to go sequels if you know anybody. [Laughs.]

Is it safe to say a sequel will begin with the bonus scene that plays after the end credits?

McHattie: The Japanese gangster Pontypool?

McDonald: Joe, what was your thought when that went up?

It seemed like a funny, unorthodox starting point. [Laughs.]

McDonald: Running through the streets of Tokyo, killin' and kissin'. That would be alright.

Houle: And not speaking English, or speaking it with an accent. [Laughs.]

McDonald: Yeah, anything is possible at this stage. I'm glad you enjoyed that last [scene]. That was the last thing we shot in sequence. It was really a great way to cap off a good time, and it has engaged people's curiosity. So it's nice that it comes up as a little surprise.

Thanks for your time, guys, and for making an entertaining film.

McHattie: Thank you, Joe. Glad you enjoyed it.

Houle: Thanks very much.

McDonald: Our pleasure.

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