For fans of the horror genre, the name Bruce McDonald should ring a bell. Known for his horror flick Pontypool, Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald is back with his newest film, the mind-bending crime/thriller, DREAMLAND. The film, which also stars frequent collaborator Stephen McHattie, centers around “the night of the strangest wedding in cinema history, as a grotesque gang boss hires a stone-cold killer to bring him the finger of a fading, drug-addicted jazz legend.”
Prior to the release of the film, I had the opportunity to chat with Bruce McDonald. During the Interview, McDonald discussed everything from the genesis of the film as well as directing two versions of Stephen McHattie’s character.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today about DREAMLAND. What was it about Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler’s script that interested you in wanting to direct DREAMLAND?
Bruce McDonald: It was a project that we began together, me and Tony [Burgess] and [actor] Stephen McHattie cooked up. It kind of came from having worked together before and we said, “Let’s keep the band together.” We saw this weird, well not weird, short film from Stephen McHattie where he played Chet Baker and he was like, really good. It’s a short film called The Deaths of Chet Baker by Robert Budreau. I don’t know how you find it, but I’ve been trying to get it as a little short before this movie. Anyways, it’s really wonderful and we just were like, “Wow, you’re like a great Chet Baker”. Tony and I love crime movies and that sort of thing and so he said, “Well, let me go and cook up something.” He came back and gave us this sort of sketch which had a vampire in it and a countess and a dining Johnny Dead Eyes and Lisa the Killer. We were like, “Tony, this looks great” and so we sort of started there. Things take time but eventually, it was like holy fuck, it looks like we’re gonna be able to make this.
We found this guy in Luxembourg, or he found us, named Jesus and he said, “I got some money and I love your script”. He pulled it together like a miracle. Sometimes when you’re working on something you don’t really think you’re gonna make it. You’re just having fun writing it and imagining vampires but you aren’t thinking you are actually going to shoot it. I phoned Tony and said, “Dude, I think we’re gonna actually make this. I think there’s money out there. The only condition is that we have to shoot it in Luxembourg.” He asked where that was and I told him somewhere in Europe (laughs). To make a long story short, we wrote this never thinking we were going to make it and then suddenly this miracle happened and we were like, “Fuck, I don’t know how this is even possible but let’s get busy.” We are still sort of stoned it got made but very happy because it’s not often that you get to make things that you dream about, literally. So yeah, that’s sort of the genesis of it. I work in independent movies and televisions and I worked with Stephen McHattie a whole bunch of times. He’s one of those guys that you like working with so that was, I guess, another reason why it got made – that impulsive you-want-to-work-with-your-friends and you want to basically play together. It was sort of a weird thing but it’s a strong impulse to do things when you think, “Oh well, we’ll get the band back together and do it,” so it’s good.
That segues perfectly into my next question. As you mentioned, you’ve worked with Stephen McHattie in the past. For this film, how was it having to direct two versions of him?
Bruce McDonald: You know, I think about that and it’s kind of like having a front-row seat at like the actor’s master class or something. For me, it was like no effort at all in terms of directing because Stephen and I had spent time on the script together and we had talks. By the time it came to shooting, anything that needed to be said had already been said. I know him as an actor that prepares to the nth degree – like details on shoelaces and what’s in his pockets and how his hair’s gonna be. He’s just a great detail man and you know, a fine actor. We talked a bit about the difference between the two [characters], beforehand. Then it’s time to say “Action” and you get to see, for the first time, this character really come to life. It’s just a delight because he’s full of little surprises and little touches and things you think in the first take is a mistake and then you do a second take and go, “That lighting of the cigarette backwards is not a mistake. He planned that and did that so well that it looks like a mistake.” Basically, it’s an easy job for me because Stephen is so good.
This film has this wonderful noir/mystery feel to it but also incorporates modern aspects. Where did you pull some of that inspiration from in terms of the look and feel of the film?
Bruce McDonald: Well, some of it came from our costume designer, Magdalena Labuz. We were talking about what someone was going to wear and she was the one that said, “Bruce, what if the different sets, like in the pawnshop and Johnny in his apartment and what he wears and the people at the club, what if they all were in different time periods? What if the pawnshop was in the 1930s? I can dress them like they’re in the 1930s and the hair will be 30s style and their phone will be an old fashioned dial phone. Then for Johnny’s place, it will be in the 1970s and he’ll have a push-button phone and an old record player and his suit will be this 70s thing. Then the people in the club will be from the 1950s.” I was like, “Where did you come from?! You’re like a genius!”. The movie is called DREAMLAND so why couldn’t there be three different time frames in the same movie. It’s subtle but it’s sort of there. And the movie itself has this kind of weird duality. You have the world above where you have the palace and the fancy people and then you have the world below where you have the gangsters and street kids. Then you have the two guys [played by Stephen McHattie] as well as the film being in color at the beginning and then sort of black and white at the end. All these weird little dualities were fun to play within the game of dreams. For the designers and the costume people, it seemed to give them license to not be logical but to be dreamy, to not explain it just kind of vibe it out, ya know? Once people kind of got into that and they knew that I would probably never say no to things, then they started to bring their best ideas.
Because this film has such a dream-like quality to it, what are you most excited for viewers to experience?
Bruce McDonald: Well, I’m really curious cause -, I don’t really understand what it [the film] is all about. I’m really curious to hear from people about what they made of it or what they decode it to be. If you go back to Freud or something, the fun part about a dream, or one of the fun things, is the decoding: what does it mean, what does it mean to you? The film is sort of open, it’s like a fairytale or something that has big markers of archetypal characters and different things. I’m really curious to see what people say about it or what they write about it, good or bad because it’s a strange and weird movie and it’s not for everybody. Just to see what people think it is is fascinating to me because it’s open that way. Ideally, it’s like a record you put on once in a while and hopefully, it’s a little different each time you experience it.
DREAMLAND is now available on VOD and Digital HD. For more on the film, check out our review here.