In the middle of a deserted bar-slash-event space in the back of a King Street restaurant that looks a bit like a cross between a ship’s galley and an old west saloon, Don McKellar is quite a host, offering both water and an egregiously large bag of fresh tarragon that was sitting on the counter. He’s in a happy and playful mood despite being almost finished with a full day of press leading up to the Toronto International Film Festival debut of his first feature directorial effort in almost a decade, The Grand Seduction.
It’s not like the full time actor and acclaimed multiple Genie award winning director really went anywhere since making 2004’s Childstar or his beloved 1998 feature Last Night. He acted on the beloved Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows, co-wrote the Tony Award winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone, co-created and directed episodes of the short lived TV series Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, hosted a CBC radio show mini-series analyzing television and pop culture, and he wrote and co-starred in the opening film of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Blindness. McKellar, contrary to popular belief, never went anywhere. He just wasn’t directing feature films.
For his return to the big screen, McKellar directs from a script by Michael Dowse (director of Goon and Fubar) and a story from Ken Scott (director of Starbuck and its upcoming American remake Delivery Man) that’s based on Jean-Francois Pouilot’s 2003 Quebecois feature of the same name. The story focuses on a young and somewhat morally suspect surgeon (Taylor Kitsch) being courted by a Maritime community desperately in need of a town doctor. While Kitsch is certainly a Canadian, the man tasked with spearheading the town’s efforts on screen is Irish acting icon Brendan Gleeson, who, if you think about it, might just be the best casting choice that’s not actually directly from the region.
Dork Shelf chatted with McKellar about how people perceived his time away from feature directing, the script that tempted him to come back, shooting on location in Trinity Bay, the different stresses between city filming and country filming, and what Gleeson brought to his role and to the set.
Dork Shelf: When I said I was going to interview you, everyone who talked to me seems to think that you haven’t been working at all. I know you have.
Don McKellar: (laughs and sighs) People have said that quite frequently. The other day I was out and this guy at the bar – he was drunk – just goes (starts slurring) “Where the fuck did ya go? Ya used to be everywhere.” I feel like I’ve been doing a lot, actually. I did a TV show last year that I directed. I did a musical that won a Tony. I feel like I’ve been working, but I guess in a way it looks like I walked away from film at the wrong time in some people’s eyes.
DS: You’ve been working a lot, just not making films.
DM: That’s it. That’s exactly it. I mean, I loved doing television, and that’s where things are really happening today in a lot of ways, so I don’t feel like I’ve missed out very much, or even at all, really. But in doing this film it was because I really do love doing it. For me it’s really fun directing films. I guess I had forgotten that a bit. I guess I just drifted away for a little while, but having done it now I would love to do it again pretty quickly. I’m directing a TV series again in the fall, but I’m going to do another film soon. It has been a long time since my last film, and I guess I never really acknowledged that, and now it’s kinda being thrown in my face.
DS: Was it nice to have the downtime between making the feature projects and how going out and working in other mediums kind of informed your process?
DM: It definitely informs your work, for sure. Everything you do informs it, really, even just day to day stuff. God knows it might do it a bit too much, in some ways. It’s easy to fall into that and become a hack or something like that, but I guess the opposite danger was also there. I turned a lot of things down, and maybe there were points where I might have been a bit too precious about my choices. Anyway, it’s nice to have that bit of perspective at this point.
DS: Well, you have always seemed to be very particular with what you choose to write, or act in, or collaborate on, and one of the key things that you seem to be attracted to throughout your career is collaborating with other artists that can bring as much to the table as you do to the films you have made.
DM: I absolutely love collaborating. That’s true that I love to do that. I knew from very early in my career that I liked working with other people very closely. My most exciting creative moments are collaborations where you don’t even know who did what. I always knew that, and subconsciously I’ve always been looking for that. But, yeah, that’s certainly driven my choices and taken me to places that I never would have gone on my own, for sure. Like writing a musical was a career path that I never would have in a million years ever anticipated. (laughs) It’s a strange thing to get up one day and go to work on something where you have to write some lyrics.
DS: It doesn’t seem like just anyone could wake up in the morning and say “I think I’m going to write a musical today.”
DM: (laughs) Well, some do, and I am guessing they are normally pretty frustrated. (laughs) But that’s been the great thing about my career that I find myself getting pulled in all these different directions and been driven to try new things. And like you said, I just love working with people and always with new and different people. That’s the fun part that makes me want to do things like this.
DS: And on something like this latest film you’re working from a screenplay written by Michael Dowse, who has really taken off in the past several years as a major filmmaker in his own right.
DM: Yeah, for sure. He truly is one of the great directors in the country. He’s also a great writer, but you don’t often think of that because they’re his films and his fingerprints are all over them in a way. But the screenplay, which was done when I got on the case, was so solid, and that’s incredibly rare. (laughs) In my case it is, at least. I am rarely given scripts where I can say “That’s really great! I can do something with this tomorrow!” It allowed me a lot more freedom to deviate a bit and try different things and work more closely with the actors because I could just fall back on this script that was so good. The premise itself is rock solid and that’s so freeing to have that one aspect of the film that you never have to worry about. It’s such a solid, classic comedy premise that I knew if we handled that correctly it’s going to work. That’s so comforting.
DS: Was it nice to get away from telling a more urban, city based story and getting to a bit of a different setting for you?
DM: It’s funny that people think of that. I’m just realizing today doing these interviews that people seem to think I’m really urban, and, I mean, I am, I’m from here and I’ve always lived here, but I’m sort of country-ish. I always get out and I love canoeing, and camping, and going out into the country. I think of myself that way, so it’s funny to me that people perceive me a ultra-urban.
I had been to Newfoundland several times, and I was always attracted to it. I always wanted to shoot out there, and at one time I had a project that I was going to make out there, but it didn’t pan out. I did a guest starring spot on Republic of Doyle, but that was the closest I ever really came to working out there. So when this came up and I knew the setting there was really no hesitation. It was such a joy to be out there.
DS: It seems like there would be more of a chance to tell a story with a different set of rhythm and pace out there.
DM: Absolutely. It sets its own rhythm. It’s funny because it’s really different from the original film, and with regard to the setting I didn’t really have to work for that. It was just the people there and the rhythm of the language. They love the language there and they love talking. (laughs) They’re all kind of raconteurs and they set their own pace. And the landscape told me how to shoot and dictated a lot of the direction in a way. I felt like I was really honest to that space and to those people.
DS: It seems like in some ways it can be both more and less of a pain in the ass to shoot out there…
DM: Well, yeah. It’s pretty isolated. It was about two and a half hours outside of Saint Jonh’s…
DS: But you don’t have to worry too much about locking down locations or blocking off streets.
DM: That’s for sure. You don’t have those big city problems, and that’s one of the most amazing things. You can walk up to someone and just say, “We’d like to shoot here.” And they would just say “Oh, sure, come on in! What do you want?”
DS: It seems like the kind of place where if you had a problem that needed fixing you would have a little more leeway because you weren’t as beholden to a big city schedule.
DM: You’re right. The support from the community really can’t be overestimated. And, I mean, they genuinely enjoyed it. This isn’t the kind of film you could ever make in the city. People get pissed off, you’re blocking traffic, everyone wants more money for the locations. We were offering people money for the locations here and there was an absolute minimum of negotiation involved. (laughs)
DS: I saw this one video on YouTube where someone was taking video of your set, and it’s maybe only thirty seconds long and you can’t tell anything that’s going on because they are so far away, but it’s just someone taking video of you guys setting up in and around this barn on the coast and it looked incredibly calm for a shoot. Almost like a painting.
DM: I can’t overestimate the beauty of the place, either. Everywhere we would turn while we were location scouting would bring new questions of how to edit everything we found down because we couldn’t have everything there look like a stunning postcard. We have to make it be a real town. (laughs) It’s so beautiful. I’m not the Nefoundland tourist bureau, but people should go there because it’s so jaw dropping. You can’t believe it. It’s much more beautiful than I expected even having been out there. I just couldn’t believe it.
And we had amazing weather. People kept saying that it was the best summer ever out there. Only one hurricane! (laughs) I was so worried by the lack of fog that I thought no one would ever believe we shot it out there. (laughs) We should have waited till winter, but it was pretty spectacular for the weather. I just talked to Taylor Kitsch, and he said that was one of the best summers he ever had and he wished he could do that every summer.
DS: And I think in terms of casting, you couldn’t have a better Maritimer surrogate than Brendan Gleeson.
DM: I really do think he’s one of the best actors around. When his name came up it was really difficult to think of anyone else. I never did, actually. He’s not from Nefoundland, but he is very Irish and was really into the whole Irish/Newfoundland connection. He’s kind of on a parallel with them already and he really went for it, you know? He tried hard to fit in and learn the accent and everything, but he’s just a beautiful person at any rate. He plays the fiddle and when he wasn’t working he was with the local guys with someone playing the accordion in his trailer. He would always go out fishing or looking for squid on his days off. It’s pretty hard to think of another guy who would fit in so naturally. It’s a character and it’s a performance, but it’s scary thinking of a lot of other Hollywood actors trying to play that part and trying to fit in. The locals embraced him in a lot of ways that it would have been tough for anyone else to achieve. I can think of some names that would be completely inappropriate, but I won’t name names. (laughs)
The Grand Seduction screens:
Sunday, September 8th, Roy Thomson Hall, 6:30pm
Tuesday, September 10th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, 9:00am