It’s Sunday morning on the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival last summer, and the designated industry lounge is bustling with people rushing around with armfuls of breakfast items, en route to meetings, panels, and potentially big deals. The people I am searching for in the lounge are decidedly more low key, and very easy to spot in a crowd.
Towards the back of the room, nonchalantly sipping water and seemingly immune to the crazy around them are famed Canadian director and cowboy hat enthusiast Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, Pontypool) and the thin haired writer and star of his latest film, The Husband (opening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Friday in proper theatrical release), Maxwell McCabe-Lokos. Sipping on water and vastly more personable, alert, and less high strung than the people bustling about around them, it’s almost the perfect place to talk about their collaboration that debuted at the festival.
It’s a quietly dark comedy with few frills about a young father caught in the middle of a wild storm he did nothing to create. In The Husband, Lokos plays Henry, a man whose wife (Sarah Allen) is a former teacher currently imprisoned for having sex with one of her almost dangerously underage students. Henry is headed for a breakdown thanks to the combination of public scorn towards what his wife did, the stress of raising an infant on his own, and his soul crushing ad agency job. With his wife’s release on the horizon and a lot left unspoken between the two, Henry goes on a very ill advised search for the boy who slept with his wife.
A film full of subtle wit and deeply seething rage, The Husband is a great vehicle for Lokos’ talents as a writer and as an actor (having never had a starring role this high profile before), while marking yet another change of pace for the already eclectic career of McDonald. Together they take a story that could have been played for misanthropy and melodrama and make something a lot more nuanced and realistic.
We chatted with Lokos and McDonald about the film’s sense of brevity, their collaboration, what shooting the film digitally brought to the production, avoiding melodrama, trying to find the right tone for the film, and why the film’s most pivotal scene is also the most universally relatable one.
Dork Shelf: This is a darker kind of drama, but it’s a really emotionally deep film that’s told over a very short length.
Bruce McDonald: Yeah. I really like the kind of pop song length of it, and that’s what kind of drew me to it in the first place. It’s like a B-side to a radio single that’s actually the better song. It has that kind of vibe to it. It’s really tightly packed.
Maxwell McCabe-Lokos: Which is really funny because I am terrible at that kind of economy. Bruce is the economy guy.
BM: I’m the economist. (laughs)
MML: I tend to get brought down by details a lot, and Bruce was really great at helping me to find those details that mattered the most and getting it to this point. There’s a lot of stuff that we did shoot that didn’t make it into the movie, but he’s pretty relentless when it comes to editing and getting this down to where they need to be.
BM: But I think the very idea of the material and how contemporary it is kind of designs it to be economical.
DS: When you say you’re a big fan of details, since you’re both the writer and star, does that mean you brought a lot of the details for the character into the writing process or that you brought them to the set as an actor? I can imagine there would be some overlap.
MML: I guess so. There were details that I tried to incorporate into the acting that I think were always there, but they were just lost and that I couldn’t really find a way to put into words in the script. I didn’t think I would ever be able to recognize them unless I tried doing them. Then there were the things and ideas that I specifically brought to the set that were just kind of small and weird. One time I said “Oh, we should really use this coffee table book!” And I brought this book, and of course it isn’t even in the movie and we didn’t even shoot it. My brain kind of works in that weird way. I think most of my ideas can be kind of useful, but I bet that at times I’m just kind of showing off in some way. (laughs, and turns to Bruce) Was it useful?
BM: Oh, it’s always useful even if we don’t use it. For a movie like this the plot is in the details, and you need to find those details in the moment. Sometimes they play in the scene or sometimes an actor will engage with something in a scene and you need to take a close up of it because it really says something about the character. Those are the things you don’t know until you start shooting, you know? Just the fact that there’s something in the room creates an energy even if that object doesn’t show up on film. You brought it to set for a reason, so you must have thought something of it. That stuff is important. The record that’s hanging on the wall is always different from the one on the turntable and both are there for a reason. Watches, rings, and jewelry are particularly great for things like that, I think.
DS: It seems like you guys collaborated pretty closely on the tone of the film in addition to the look. How did you guys decide you wanted to work together on this?
MML: We worked together before, and I’ve known Bruce for a long time. I had this script and it was without a director, and Bruce was my first choice. We were friends and I knew I could trust him to do a good job. It’s nice when you can have somebody that gives you a feeling of ease. I think I said this in an interview a couple of days ago, but it’s really hard for me to trust people, and Bruce is someone that I really trust.
You have to be told to what to do sometimes. I went to Catholic school, so I have totally been brought up believing that. (laughs) And Bruce make good choices and he did a great job because the way the script is written it could have gone in so many different directions, and he did it with a very light touch. I never knew how it would come together even after having written it, which is why I wanted someone I felt like I could trust handling that material. I knew that he was great at assembling things in a lot of different ways from when we worked together on The Tracy Fragments, and he’s really good at working in different angles to tell something like this that’s kind of a small story. It’s not a story about a bank heist, or a natural disaster, or 9/11, or anything like that. It’s just about a guy. Bruce is really interested in that: small stories that have kinda like a large effect on the character. I was glad to not have to go further than the first person I asked.
BM: And I was happy to be asked! It was nice to be invited, and like he said, it’s always nice to work with people that you trust. We had a great rapport from other projects so it’s great to be able to team up and do something again.
DS: Is it sometimes a little more freeing to work on the material that someone else brings to you and values your own input on than to always put all of your energy into your own material?
BM: Yeah! I never really work with my own material for that kind of reason. I mean, I’ll tinker, dabble, and write melodies and things like that, but I always worked with a writer for all the things that I have done. I mean, on some I guess I could claim a co-writer credit from what I’ve done, but I don’t because I think I’m a director and I don’t need to. I’m still actually way too insecure to write my own script. One day, hopefully.
But to have the writer with you when you are casting and choosing locations and while you’re shooting is great because that’s a songwriting partnership, the director and the writer. Your job as a director is to serve the writing and find out what’s cinematic about it and to find what’s buried in between the lines, and that’s the fun stuff sometimes. Once you start having that conversation and you get it going, that’s great. Some directors and writers are one in the same, like someone like Woody Allen, so I guess you could have that conversation with yourself. (laughs) It’s a classic line-up. The writer and director are the rhythm section of the film. It can be one, two, sometimes more people. Sometimes there’s that other element that can come in – an actor, a designer, a producer – some strong personality that can finish out that kind of holy trinity. It can be a duo, but for me there’s usually that one extra person.
I think on this film that third was really our DP, Daniel Grant, because he just brings so much to the framing and just so much style that really added another element that made this film what it is. It was like you were saying, this was a project that could have gone so many different ways even with a small project like this. It could have been a lot more documentary style…
MML: Yeah, which was kind of how I always pictured it in my head, but you guys made it look really cinematic.
BM: It really is kind of like a slice of life, almost like a British film from the 60s or an old school “kitchen sink” drama where there’s a certain kind of Mike Leigh kind of feel to it. But it could have very easily gone that kind of documentary style way, which is totally fine and is a totally valid choice, and then Daniel just brought so much elegance and a real sense of framing to the film that really opened the material up. He had such a great sense of light and subtlety. There’s nothing really jumping out at you, but I think he was what made kind of the final decision for me on what direction I was going to go in as a director.
DS: It looks like a film that feels like one of those 60s dramas, but it looks a lot better now in the digital age. I think if you shot this on 35mm it might add a bit of a grittiness that would add a sense of falseness to the material and might make everything have a bit more of a melodramatic feel in terms of the tones being used. It seems like a film that has a sort of timeless theme that’s kind of made for digital photography.
BM: There’s definitely a cleanness to the image that I liked.
MML: That’s interesting. (to Bruce) You’ve shot on 35mm before, so do you think that would have really changed the direction of something like this if it were an option to us?
BM: There is that difference that digital does have that clear aura to the image. But I don’t know. There’s a certain modernity to it now, and certainly something with more grain to it could have taken it to a different direction to make it more of a throwback. That’s a really astute observation, though, and there’s still a lot of debate over that.
MML: Like would you think that maybe it could have seemed like a copy if it was on 35mm or does the look of something digital have something that you can embrace?
BM: Well most people when they shoot digital are trying to emulate a film look. We’re still in that zone where we’re trying to figure out what digital even means anymore: What do we do with it and how do we employ it and do we just let digital be digital, you know?
DS: I think it works because the tone of the script has such a light touch with the comedy and such a deep emotion to it that if you shoot it as gritty as possible, not just on 35mm but even if you tried to make it look like you did in post, it would take on another tone that the script doesn’t really have. It really could have become a melodrama.
MML: Melodrama is a really tricky thing, too, because I think the more you try to avoid it the more you might bring it out. I don’t know if the shooting style has anything to do with that because I can’t really say I’m an expert on it, but I certainly think that you can’t take yourself too seriously. Once you start doing that when you have material that has a few lighter touches to it is when you start down the path to melodrama. Being unctuous or sanctimonious or sentimental is what makes films descend down that road and I hate it. And Bruce is really good at making things funny and even in the darkest situations finding something funny in it.
DS: I did want to talk about the humour of the film, because this is a dark subject that most people wouldn’t even want to explore in the subtle ways that you guys are doing it here. People don’t like to talk about things like this in “polite society,” so maybe the best way to do that without turning into a melodrama is through that use of humour. It must be hard as the lead actor to sort of be the straight man to all this craziness around you while you still have to act deeply shocked and wounded.
MML: I don’t know any rules about playing comedy, but it sounds logical to me that you should never actively try to be funny. I think there are moments where I do funny things in the movie, but I didn’t actively try to be funny. Maybe it’s like what you’re talking about when it comes to keeping it real because you aren’t going to just have a comic just walking through your day to day life cracking jokes when you’re at your lowest.
That was something we talked about a lot when we were shooting. What would be the real thing that would happen in that situation, and what if anything is funny about that?
BM: In a lot of ways the character of Henry is definitely the straight man, and he’s often funny because he’s not trying to play funny. He’s the guy that has to react to the absurdity of some of the characters around him, who maybe are or aren’t funny but they say something that produces a reaction that an observer might find funny.
DS: With everything going on around Hank is it hard to mine that kind of humour as a director when the main character is so internalized and caught in such a struggle with himself?
BM: I just find the situation as sort of funny rather than just the performances to be funny. Sometimes things that are really interesting come across as the funniest things. I honestly wouldn’t know how to make somebody funnier than they are. I have no idea how to do that. But it’s just kind of my role to be the observer who recognizes characters’ familiarities, oddness, or discomfort, and to then capture that. Some people will find it funny and others will find it really painful. I don’t know if I was ever pushing the funny, but I did find when I read the script a lot of funny stuff in it. There’s a real cheeky sense of humour to it.
There was a lot of debate in the beginning with the producer and the financiers over what this movie even was, exactly. At a certain point there was a discussion as to whether or not we put more funny in it. Whether it’s like when Hank’s changing diapers and he maybe drops his cell phone in the poo, you know, stuff like that. We resisted that because honestly even I didn’t know what this movie would be, and maybe that’s what compels certain people to it and that’s kind of what attracted me about it. I don’t know what to call it, but it was something interesting and I figured once we got to the end we could figure that out. We’re still trying to figure out how to market the film or what to put on the poster or how to easily describe it to people, but the story was always there. We sort of know, but we’re still trying to figure out how the present it to people now that we know what it is. It has a heavy subject, but it’s not this overly depressing movie. It’s serious, but not all the time. Do you have any advice you can give us? (laughs)
DS: (laughs) Well, it’s interesting that you say that because that seems to be a common thread that brings you to most of your movies in your career, which is that you often don’t know what you’re going to get out of them until you are done.
BM: And that’s a great part of the fun! It’s like going on a trip to New York. You have a vague idea of what you’re going to see, but you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do all the time you’re there. You might meet your friend for dinner or you might go to a show or you might just go and buy some shoes, but whatever the “plot” of that trip is there will always be things where you can stand back and say “Wow. Who knew that would happen?” Scripts are often the same way. The trip is laid out, and I’m always shocked when I get to the end of something in terms of how things are often much, much, much different than I imagined them to be. Maybe that’s my addiction to it. Just needing to know how things are going to be in the end.
DS: Have you ever walked away from something because you looked at a script and thought it was too obvious?
BM: Oh yeah. There are plenty of things that I see where I just say, “Oh, it’s this movie that I’ve already seen about 37 times.” Yeah, I can do that and make a different version of that. But I mean, if they pay me I’ll do it and try to do it as well as I can, but when you’re given the opportunity to do something outside of the machine a bit, the things that draw you to projects are the things that make you curious and the things you don’t know. That’s the reward, I suppose.
DS: I wanted to bring up a specific scene in this film because it’s excellent, and it’s the scene in the film where Hank’s wife is about to be released and there’s this final confrontation with her and you pretty much tell her to “fuck off,” and that’s a major turning point at about halfway through the film that changes the dynamic of everything that came BEFORE the scene happens as well as after it. He goes in with one set of demons and leaves the room with a whole new set when he’s dealing with a strange kind of guilt. It seems like the scene that the whole movie kind of hinges on like a lynchpin.
MML: It definitely is that kind of a scene. I think the idea when I was writing that scene was just thinking about the pain of how for a full year these two had never conversation. There are three prison visits in the film the first one was the numb visit, the second is the happy visit, and the final was the angry visit. There’s anger in all of them, obviously, but it’s the first time he has said “You did this and we never fucking talked about this.” All of that rage and humiliation coming out is actually a really easy thing to perform as an actor because it’s meant to be performed big like that, but it’s also importing because the whole film really does almost literally revolve around it like an axis. And I wrote it to be performed like that. (laughs) It’s weird because it’s a long scene at such a pivotal point, but I think once you get there it’s a scene that really invests you in what’s to come. It has real gravitas and weight. It puts the film in the right place and it puts the film exactly where it needs to be.
BM: What I really like about that scene and why it has impact for me is because as a guy in a relationship that is a husband – and I have had this all my life and I’m sure other men and women have had this, as well – is that sense of “Well, why don’t we talk about our feelings? Why don’t we actually TALK about our relationship?” Finally, when you try to articulate it and put it into words you suddenly realize you’re having this conversation for the first time and it’s often incredibly emotional and it almost always happens in the blink of an eye. Whether it’s a year or a five year relationship you’re just amazed at what ends up coming out. It’s a big thing to be someone who’s told “You never say what you feel” or “You’re so passive aggressive” or “You’re hiding something and I just want to know what it is.” I’m not that kind of guy, really, but that happens so much in life and in relationships.
MML: And it’s definitely like that for me, too. I know that just from watching and being in that scene that it has happened and I have done that, too.
BM: It’s something so painful when it happens, but this scene is kind of an example of why those things really shouldn’t be ignored or put off or swept under a rug or paused. He’s trying his very best to articulate and understand and at this point it’s too late because they have such a distance between them that no matter what he says, she can’t do the same in return or really comprehend what’s happening.
DS: There’s no closure to what he was looking for even by doing it.
BM: No matter what he says, she can’t give him an answer at this point in time, and in some ways it’s even worse to be the person who can’t give that answer. There was this discussion early on where the idea was floated that at some point in the film where she has to explain why she fucked this kid. But there is no satisfying answer that you could give to that in any way. It comes up in that conversation where he lists three or four possibilities in anger, but if he has any of them confirmed by her story, would that make him feel any better? Will it bring him peace?
DS: The worst tragedies that could happen to anyone are the ones without explanation, because if you could explain it, that takes away a lot of the tragedy.
MML: Right, because that implies there was a sense of control to it. There’s nothing Henry can do to fix this situation. He can’t erase what happened. He wasn’t directly involved in what happen. He can’t atone for her actions. He can’t explain or excuse it. All he can do is accept it. And it’s killing him that he can’t fix it.