Monday, June 23, 2014

Archive: Mary Harron's Passion for "The Notorious Bettie Page"

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Archive: Mary Harron's Passion for The Notorious Bettie Page

(from 8/18/06)

I first discovered the fanaticism surrounding pin-up, '50s bondage queen, Bettie Page, in the early '80s when I spent time buying stills at Movie Star News on East 14th Street in New York City. It was run by Paula Klaw, who helped her late brother Irving photograph and film the gorgeous Page while she wore bondage gear and brandished whips. Always the business woman, Paula invariably pitched her Page photos and a bondage booklet to men who came into the store looking for eye-catching pin-ups. She did a booming business with Page.

My greatest memory is when two college age girls came across the booklet and one of the girls got completely excited over seeing many photos of a lovely girl tied to a chair. Perhaps the girl was sexually aroused by the pictures but I think it was more that she was making a connection to the bold and unique looking model with the mysterious, guiltless eyes. The other girl couldn't dissuade her from buying the booklet.

That was when I first realized Page's potential appeal to females. And that's why I wasn't surprised how her cult would grow among women for the next twenty-five years, and that eventually it would be a female who had became a Page fan who filmed her strange story. I took part in the following roundable with director-writer Mary Harron about her third film, "The Notorious Bettie Page," prior to the film's release. I note my questions.
Mary Harron

DP: I've always seen you as someone who make films that a male director might also want to do, but would make in a completely different, and probably objectionable way. Did you pick the story of Bettie Page because it would give you the chance to make a feminist film?

MH: I don't approach movies with an ideology or a message. I approach them with a perspective. I tell stories from a female point of view but that doesn't mean I'm trying to teach a lesson. I'm more interested in contradictions and things that raise questions that I can't always answer myself.
With Bettie, someone else may have done a story about the iconic sexual object, the glamour or whatever, but I I wanted to tell a story from a pin-up's point of view. What was her life like? I wanted to know what it was like for her. especially in regard to the banality of making images. (All women know about the creation of an image-it's a boring, behind-the scenes thing.)
I also wanted to make this film because I am very attracted to the world of the '50s, and interested in the sexuality of that time. What happens to beautiful girls, the young beauty queens, during that era?
My first step-mother was a Hollywood starlet for a few years and had tiny parts in a few movies, including Stanley Kubrick's first film. I'd grow up hearing her stories about what it was like to be so beautiful that you're plucked out of the crowd and have some fame and fortune, and then you find out that it's all over and it's time you go on with your normal life.

I was intrigued by the notion that how you look can transform your life for a few years. And also by-not '50s' low-life exactly, but the hidden world of the Irving and Paul Klaw (Jared Harris, Lili Taylor), who made the bondage films with Bettie. Most of all, I was very attached to Bettie's character. When I got to know her, I didn't want to let her go.

Q: Did you relate to her at all?

MH: Hmmm. I hate being photographed and as you can see in her photographs and films, she loved it, even more so when she took off her clothes. I am much more comfortable behind the camera. So in that sense, no. One thing that is similar: I would want to get on a bus and leave difficult situations. I totally relate to her doing that. I included a song by Patsy Cline, "Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad."
I really relate to that view of life. So in that way I actually related to her religion and her religious search, even though I'm not a religious person, much less an evangelical Christian. I also responded to her being from Nashville. I used to write a lot about country music and I love Nashville.
Q: Did you get to talk to Bettie Page before you made the film?
MH: No, I didn't get a chance to talk to her at all. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The problem with an official biography of a living person is that it is limiting, in the sense: What will she say about it, what will they disapprove of? So you have a freer hand if you don't involve the subject. That said, there were certain things I would have liked to have asked her, not about being a pin-up but about religion in her life. She gave so many interviews over the years about being a pin-up, there's not much more she'd say.
But nobody asked her about her faith and I was interested in the course of that. I wanted to ask her about what happened to her after she had the experience in the church in Miami and found God. I would have liked to have talked to more about how she saw the world.
Q: Are you planning to show her the finished film?
MH: She already saw it, at the Playboy Mansion with Hugh Hefner and his three girlfriends. As you'd expect, it was a bit difficult. She liked Gretchen Mol a lot. She said, "I was never as pretty as that."
I don't think she enjoyed the scenes of the Senate hearings on pornography. I think that's still a source of discomfort. And she didn't like the use of the word Notorious in the title. She thinks it's critical, but it's not meant to be at all.
DP: In the movie, Bettie beams in front of the camera and says convincingly that she has no shame in what she does, but later she talks about having sinned.

MH: I think she went back and forth her whole life. Even today, she's still not sure. In my encounters with country music stars, I realized they were always Christian, whether they were getting divorced or having affairs or had amphetamine addictions. People don't stop being religious even when they're not towing the line.

I never thought that Bettie turned her back on religion or stopped being religious entirely when she was doing her nude modeling and bondage films. It was clear to me that she would have kept her belief in God all the way through. Ultimately, she decided to go back to it in a big way. She was born-again, but she had never stopped being religious to a large degree.

DP: Gretchen Mol told me that she thinks religion was a positive experience in Bettie's life, even though she'd go off the deep end at one point. What is your opinion on that?

MH: I think it was positive because it was a source of comfort to her. I don't think she had a religion that was puritanical or judgmental. We do know that she was in a Bible studies class and someone in there with her was interviewed and he didn't even know about her pin-up career. She wouldn't go around saying, "I was a scarlet woman, I was a pin-up who took off my clothes," which is the kind of thing people often do when they're born-again. I think it was more like, "That was then, this is now, I've moved on, into another place."
Q: Gretchen Mol is absolutely perfect as Bettie. Did you audition a lot of actresses for the role before her?

MH: Yes, we already had a lot of actresses come in and I'd looked at a lot of tapes. I began to think I'd never find someone to play her. There were a lot of great actresses who wanted the part, but they just didn't seem like Bettie. Many arrived wearing black leather and black wigs and would be vamping and trying to be very sexy. They all were trying so hard that they seemed to be straining, and it was hard to watch. But Gretchen seemed to be born to play it, as naturally as breathing. Great acting is never forced, and with her it was effortless. What happened as we moved forward was Gretchen and Bettie became superimposed in my mind. The actress started to define the character.

Q: Do you remember what scenes she did at her audition?
Gretchen Mol and Molly Harron

MH: She definitely did the scene where Bettie's in the woods with the photographer and saying, "Oh, I'll just take this top off." She did the scene in the coffee shop where Bettie talks about missing the scholarship to Vanderbilt. I saw that Gretchen could do the light, playful stuff but also could convey the melancholy and disappointment. In many ways it's a sad story.

Q: How did you find out about the gang rape that takes place offscreen in the film?
MH: Bettie talked about it in a radio interview, and it's been written about in books about her. It actually happened in New York, not Tennessee, but we switched the locations in the movie. After it happened, she returned to Nashville for a while and when that didn't work out, she went back to New York.
Q: How did that incident shape who she became?
MH: That's a very interesting question. Obviously it was a traumatic experience, and you'd think she'd never speak to a stranger again, but-and this is one of the surprising things about her life-- sometime later she's walking on the beach and an African-American named Jerry Tibbs approaches her and says, I'm an amateur photographer, can I take your picture," and she agrees. Despite what happened to her, she remained strangely open and happy to have new experiences, and wasn't a fearful or angry person.
DP: You show how uninhibited she was in front of the cameras but you never show her having sex. You have said elsewhere that she had an "invisible shield" around her and was remote with her husbands and boyfriends, so did you conclude that the sexual abuse from her father and that incident resulted her being inhibited in the bedroom?
MH: Her first husband Billy Neal (Norman Reedus), whom she remarried for a time, died a few years ago, but I was able to meet with him. He told me, "Oh, we had a very good sex life. That's what held us together." We were kind of thinking about '50s movies where you never actually saw anyone having sex. I think the focus on Bettie and her relationship with the camera precluded our showing sex. We thought it might have spoiled it.


DP: You make a big deal of Bettie waiting to testify before Estes Kefauver's Senate hearings on pornography. But why didn't he (David Strathairn) ever call her?

MH: Because he didn't really care what she had to say. He was after Irving Klaw and didn't think his star was important enough. Bettie Page wasn't famous.

DP: Most of your film is in black and white, but when Bettie goes to Florida, it's now in bright color. I read that you wanted those scenes to look like a Douglas Sirk film.
MH: It was completely instinctive. I always think of New York movies being in black and white, like my favorite movies, The Sweet Smell of Success or Pickup on South Street, so that's how I filmed New York in the '50s. I got to know Bettie in Florida through the beautiful color photographs that were taken of her by Bunny Yeager in Miami. So it seemed so wrong to do Florida in black and white.

Q: There are many parts of Bettie's life that aren't in your film. She was in Haiti and lived in San Francisco, and appeared in several off-Broadway shows and some movies like "Striparama" and "Teasearama".

MH: That she spent time in Haiti, where she says she rid of herself of racial prejudices, and San Francisco is interesting but not such a major part of her story where a low-budget film could afford to add scenes in two new locations. We recreated a whole section of "Teasearama", with Tempest Storm and other strippers, and the burlesque acts, and that was in the film for a long time. It was great but on the last day we realized that it didn't progress the essential story, which was: Bettie's life as a pin-up, Bettie and the Klaws, and the Senate hearings. She had small parts in three films, but they never advanced her career or changed the trajectory of her life.
DP: Did she have a mediocre life?

MH: No, I don't think so. Think of what she was brought up to do. She was brought up to stay on the farm. She did much more with her life.

DP: I've always thought of a strange triumvirate of cultural icons: Louise Brooks, Bettie Page, and Betty Boop. Three females whose images were "created" for men, but who were later embraced by women.

MH: Yes, yes. They all had those distinct haircuts which women have copied. Louise Brooks, like Bettie, was very contradictory.

DP: And she also virtually disappeared from the world for many years. These three touch nerves. You have talked about that in regard to Bettie Page.

MH: It's with modern girls. In the '50s she didn't have a huge following among women. Her celebrity and female following happened in the eighties and continues. Maybe it's post-Madonna. In the last twenty years, women have been dressing up in different costumes of femininity, depicting different types of sexuality, so they have found and responded to Bettie.

For instance, there have been "Bettie Page" nights at clubs, where women dress up as her and playfully whip each other. It's as silly as those movies are. If those had been really powerful S&M films Bettie was in, I don't think she'd have a cult following among young women. I think it's the silliness of them that makes women respond.
Q: You have a background in rock 'n' roll and punk, and you were a voice in Legs McNeil's book on the punk era, "Please Kill Me", so it's surprising...
MH: My next project is about all that. I didn't want to do a movie about the punk era, but I knew I'd get really annoyed if someone else did it.
Q: Is there anything less punk than a major motion picture about punk?
MH: No, but I don't think it will be a major motion picture. It will be low-budget. I wish I'd kept a diary of that period, so now it's going to have to be a middle-aged person looking back on her youth.
Bettie Page

Monday, June 9, 2014

Archive: For Maria Bello "World Trade Center" Is Personal

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Archive: For Maria Bello World Trade Center Is Personal

(from 4/23/06)

"World Trade Center" is another super performance on a resumé that keeps getting better and better. Add this to her critically-acclaimed turns in "The Cooler", "Assault on Precinct 13," and "A History of Violence," and she has become one of the top leading ladies in Hollywood, an A-list star
One would think from the title of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" that his picture would be an epic detailing one of the biggest events in history minute by minute and giving it a political slant. Surprisingly, it's instead a budget-conscious, intimate film about two gallant real-life Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) who were trapped beneath the rubble, the heroic men who rescued them, and their worried but strong-willed wives, Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
For Bello, this is another super performance on a resumé that keeps getting better and better. Add this to her critically-acclaimed turns in "The Cooler" (the picture that really made people take notice), "Assault on Precinct 13," and "A History of Violence" (for which she deserved Oscar consideration), and she has become one of the top leading ladies in Hollywood, an A-list star.

I was a Maria Bello fan dating back to her short-lived 1996 TV series "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," and believed she had star power. But I remember thinking she was making a big mistake when she left a secure role on "ER" to take a shot at being a movie star. I'm glad she proved me wrong.

Q: Do you have any specific memory of the Twin Towers?
Maria Bello: I lived in New York City for seven years, before moving to L.A., to Venice Beach, about ten years ago. I lived in the West Village and I would run, a few times a week, down the path on the West Side Highway, all the way down to the World Trade Center. So that was my picture of them...and suddenly they were gone.
I was in New York that morning, staying at a hotel on the upper West Side. I was on the street getting a pack of cigarettes at a newsstand. And everything was so quiet. And a woman turned to me and said, "I haven't smoked in eleven years, but do you have a cigarette?" I asked, "Why?" And she said, "A plane just went through the World Trade Center. When I got upstairs, my mother and I saw the second plane go through. We couldn't believe it.

Q: I've read that you went to St. Vincent's Hospital with your mother, who is a nurse.

 My personality is such that I said, "We've got to do something!" They called for doctors and nurses to go downtown, so we took an ambulance to St. Vincent's. My mom, who is a nurse, stayed there the whole day. I stayed for a couple of hours waiting for people to come in and no one came in except for firefighters for smoke inhalation and small cuts and bruises. Then I left because I had a six-month's-old baby back at the hotel. They were talking about other bombs going off and anthrax, and I had this mother-lioness-protector feeling come over me and went back to be with my baby.

I walked up Sixth Avenue in a sea of people covered in gray dust and saw the most astounding moments between individuals you'd never think would be together. I remember seeing a homeless man in a pink tutu holding up a man in a business suit who was crying and bleeding. I think that's what that day represented, when the whole world came together to support us.

Q: Did that experience influence you in regard to the movie?

 It did, because I walked away not only with the tragedy of that day but also the intense "humanity" that I felt when so many human beings came together. It was very big in my heart.
 Q: What was your reaction when you were first offered a film with this subject matter?

 Oh!!!! I read the script by Andrea Berloff and was so incredibly moved by it that I was just bawling at the end. And I said I had to do it. I met Oliver Stone and he offered me the role right then, in the room we were in. I stood up and hugged him so hard, and went, "I have to do this movie, thank you so much, I'm dying to act for you!"

Q: Do you think American people are ready to see this movie?

 I really do. I think it's time, I think it's an important part of our history that needs to be told, And I think the way the story is written, in that tone, is the perfect way to tell it. It's not about the tragedy of that day but how we came together as human beings. And I think Oliver is the perfect person to tell this story.

Q: Why do you think that?

 Not only is he brilliant and eccentric, but he also has a huge heart, which was needed for this movie. People don't know about his gigantic heart or his spiritual life, which is such a big part of who he is as a man, as a human being. I think he's very enlightened in that way and people are going to be really surprised to discover that. He was amazing to work with.

Q: Do you think people around the world are expecting from Oliver Stone a movie with political view of the whole event and will be disappointed?

I know what you're saying. Oliver is known for having a strong point of view politically in some of his movies. I think it shows his growth as a filmmaker that he was inspired by the story and had to do it they way he did. I think because of how moving the picture is, people around the world are going to appreciate that it's about human beings more than anything else. I think personal is very political as well. There's a line between love and fear and I think he made a statement in that.

 I know you and Nicolas Cage talked extensively to John and Donna McLoughlin before filming began. What was that experience?

 We spent a week or so with the McLoughlin family. Nick had a more serious approach than I did, videotaping John and getting his stuff down. From the get-go, he was so intent on getting every single characteristic of John McLoughlin correct, from his limp to the way he talked to his past history and how that informed the rest of his life. My feeling was that just by being with Donna, I would get to know her essence.

The first time we met them, Oliver, the producers who had become friends with them, Nick, and I went together to their home. The funny thing is that when we got to the McLoughlin's house on Long Island, it was like walking into my parents' house. John had a whole spread out, with his "famous" steaks he makes on the grill; and Donna and I ended up doing the dishes and putting the dessert out--so I kind of got to know her as we did simple things and chatted.

She reminded me so much of my mother. As soon as I met her I thought, "Oh, my God, I'm playing my mother." And I do look like my mother in the movie! I have the same hair and the same blue eyes--I wore blue contacts--and the same weight because I gained about fifteen pounds. This was probably the scariest role I've ever taken because I was playing a real person. I wanted to do it right and do Donna justice. I felt that to embody her was such challenge because I liked her so much--she's such a good woman. So I prayed to God every day that I could understand and portray her essence.
Q: You say you found her "essence." What is it?

 Love. I think it's that simple. She has a huge amount of love and such a kind heart. I was so in awe of her self-possession, her patience, and her love for her children and her family. It was about finding that. My mom has that as well.

Q: When Donna McLoughlin saw the film, did she think you got her essence?

Yes, when she saw the film, she told me that I got it. And her accent! Donna did say she wasn't as angry as I was in a couple of scenes in the movie--like when she pulls her son from the car and when she loses her temper in the police station because she had received wrong information that John was safe--but we needed that for dramatic purposes. She was probably a bit more subdued when those things really happened, but Oliver pushed me to go far in those scenes and I think they really worked.

Q: Oliver Stone has said that you captured Donna's calmness. Were you consciously trying for that?

 Yes. For her, at the beginning, it was all about keeping her children and family calm and being patient and not breaking down. She never broke down that whole day, except at the very end when she met that black woman whose son was missing at the hospital. She was trying to keep it together for her family and for her friends.

She said that being a cop's wife, she experienced this every day of her life. When he left each morning, she didn't know if he'd come back. So this was another one of those days. She was trying to keep positive and think he was still alive. It wasn't until she arrived at the police station and was told he was still buried and no one knew what was going to happen that she realized, "Wow, this might be it."

I think she has moments of dread when she's alone, when she's smelling the sheets and having memories, and when she's in his workshop and thinking about what a great father he is. The emotional stuff came out during such moments when she's not with her kids.

Q: Did she really smell the sheets that day?

 She really did. What you see in the movie, including dialogue, happened almost exactly like it is in the movie. Oliver would even ask John if the words were exact. We were in awe that he involved the families and the actors the entire way with the project. At our first reading he said we needed more about Donna, so we ended up adding a couple of scenes, including that scene where I stand next to the grieving woman. Donna told me that story and we incorporated it into the script. She doesn't know that woman's name but wants her to know she changed her life. She says she opened herself to her in that brief meeting in a way she never opened to another human being.

Q: How was it for you to play that scene? It seemed so spontaneous, but did you have to do it more than once?

 It was emotional. We did have to do it over and over again. We rehearsed it quite a lot. Her story was so moving that every time she told it, I broke down because of her beauty and pain. It was about Donna getting outside of herself and her own pain over her husband being lost, and touching someone else and allowing herself to be touched for the first time.

Q: Did you know that Oliver Stone was going in and out of focus on each of you?

I had no idea. Did you like that?

Q: Well, you are both in focus when you come together and hug, so it kind of works.
I remember seeing that for the first time and saying, "Is that a mistake?!?" Then I realized Oliver did that because the focus really needed to be on the woman as she told Donna the story, and for us to focus on her pain rather than Donna's.

Q: This film is about people helping one another. Did the actors playing those people help each other?

 When I saw the film I was inspired by the acting. It was because it was a real ensemble piece and nobody was trying to be a movie star. So Nick Cage wasn't Nick Cage and Michael Peña wasn't Michael Peña. They really became John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno and that had a lot to do with giving so much to each other. We were so engrossed in our characters and trying to play off each other. For my character, it was about giving so much to her kids, focusing on them rather than focusing on her own pain.

Q: You and Maggie Gyllenhaal played the wives of the two trapped men. Did you compare notes about playing Allison Jimeno and Donna McLoughlin?

 We talked quite a lot. I fell in love with her not only as an artist--she's an incredible actor--but also as a woman. We did our parts differently. She didn't try to mimic the woman she was playing, I tried to take on externally who Donna is. We went at it from opposite ways.

Q: You only have a brief moment with Maggie in the movie because the women are strangers. And in truth you don't have much screen time with Nicolas Cage, although he plays your husband. But how was it working with him?

 He and I have only a couple of scenes together but we sure had fun doing them. It was incredible working with Nick. I was so inspired by the unbelievable job he does in this movie. To be stuck like that beneath the rubble and not have use of his hands and legs and to have all the emotions there in his face and eyes--that was astounding.

Q: The marital problems of John and Donna seem minor to me, but in the movie they are magnified (at least in John's eyes), perhaps as a plot element. Were you forced to play to their having problems at all?

 You know what I played to? To anybody who has been married twenty years and has four kids. It's what Donna says to John when she goes to him in his dream and he asks if he loved her enough. She says, "It was in the moments." I think that's what life becomes in a way, if you're smart enough to see it--it comes in just the tiny moments that make up life. I do think they had a lovely life together--the beginning passion may have been gone but they created life out of friendship and common interests. They don't have major problems in real life, and I think we showed their relationship to be like that.

Q: Was "WTC" shot in sequence?

 No. We shot the New York exteriors in five weeks and the rest was done on a soundstage in Playa del Rey in Los Angeles.

Q: Did people come up to you in New York?

 Many people would come up and shout, "Hey, what film are you doing?" Others would come up and share their stories, saying where they were that day and what happened.

Q: Did you go to the Ground Zero set?
MB: I...did. It was incredible. It is what Ground Zero looked like that day, down to the minute details, including every water bottle on the street. It wasn't hard for me to be there--it was all inspiring. I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it.

Q: What was the atmosphere like on the set? Were people solemn or giddy or did they exhibit the whole range of emotions?

MB: The whole range of emotions. They flew out fifty firefighters and policemen and their families so the guys who were actually in the rubble on 9/11 were in the film doing what they really did. So that was a very emotional time. But I talked to a bunch of the guys and they felt being part of the movie was a real transformation for them and a great, really healing thing to do. So there was solemnity but the rest of the time we were joyful at the love that we were playing on screen.

Q: Nicolas Cage speaks of the film being healing.

 Especially with what's going on in the world right now, I think it's important to remember the lessons of 9/11 and the kindness of human being to human being. That's important step right now.

Q: What is the most important lesson you took from this film that you can apply to your own life?

I always bring something away from roles that I play. With this role, I took away a softness and gentleness I never had before, and more of a patience with my own child. I have found myself connecting with family and friends in a way that I hadn't before, and finding myself on the phone with my mom and dad every day and saying I love you over and over again, as if it could be the last time. Some days I lose that and get back into my "world" and my own self-involvement, but there are more days than not that I remember to connect again.
Q: How was coming down from this movie different from coming down from, say, "A History of Violence?"

 Oh, my God, after "A History of Violence," I was in bed for three months. I was so anxiety-ridden during the process that and I shaved off my hair because I needed to get rid of that character. Every single moment of that film, I had such anxiety and a high threshold of pain. I always had said that I wasn't a method actor, but I surprised myself when I discovered that I am a method actor after all. I completely took on my character. Even the weight loss I experienced throughout the film was real and not planned. It was just the stress and anxiety that drove me to that. But this film, I left with a calmness I never felt before. I felt I was leaving with a deep love that I had never felt going away from a previous film. So it was the only time I walked away from a film feeling great rather than wanting to shoot myself.

Q: When you look back at this film ten years from now, what do you think your reaction will be?

 I'll think the film is adocument of what happened that day. I will have huge pride. I've never been so proud doing a film and being part of a story. I feel really, really lucky that I got to do it. I see it as a milestone in my career. It's not just my character but the movie as a whole. I'm just incredibly proud to be a part of it.

Danny Peary: One thing, on a personal note. I saw you in Los Angeles this spring at the Music Cares James Taylor all-star tribute. It was a fabulous concert but I noticed you walking toward the exit early in the evening. Did you leave early?

Maria Bello: I did... You know why? Bruce Springsteen was one of the performers and he was my idol and I was going to get a chance to meet him for the first time. I was so excited. I was introduced to him and said, "I'm from Jersey, too!" And he went, "Oh, heh, heh, that's nice..." I'd had these dreams of saying "Bruce, I'm a Jersey girl!" and he'd say, "Oh, my God!" and wrap me in his arms. But he didn't and I was a downtrodden little girl walking out of Music Cares...
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Friday, June 6, 2014

Don McKellar's Seductive "The Grand Seduction"

Playing in Theaters

Don McKellar's Seductive The Grand Seduction

(from Sag Harbor Online 65/14)

The Grand Seduction fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  Don McKellar’s charming Canadian comedy is entering its second weekend in New York City, where it has received rapturous reviews.  I certainly had never before read a critic calling a film “adorable,” much less in the New York Times.  McKellar (inset left) is best known to New Yorkers as the Tony-winning co-writer of the Broadway smash, The Drowsy Chaperone. But true-blue movie fans recognize him as the writer of The Red Violin, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Roadkill, Highway 61, and Blindness–all of which he acted in; the director-writer-star of Child Star and Last Night; and a prolific actor, with appearances David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and Where the Truth Lies, and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.  He also has done a ton of writing, directing and acting on television (including Twitch City and the current series Sensitive Skin).  Although he probably doesn’t want it, he may finally become known to US film fans because his new film is a real crowd-pleaser.  It’s an ensemble piece, set in Ticklehead, a dying fishing village in Newfoundland.  When his wife Barbara (Cathy Jones) moves to the city where she can find work, heavy-drinking, self-pitying Murray French (Brendan Gleeson delivers another splendid performance) gets off his ass and devises a sneaky plan to get her back and save the village.  No matter that it involves the villagers bribing an oil executive to get him to bring a factory to town.  But they can’t get a factory unless the town has a full-time doctor in residence.  They manage to bring a handsome young plastic surgeon, Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), to the town temporarily and deviously try to seduce him into believing Ticklehead is a paradise where he should settle down.  Guaranteed, you will cheer on Murray, his friend Simon (Gordon Pinsent) and all the other characters who are trying to save the town and regain their dignity.  Last week, I spoke by phone to Don McKellar in Toronto.
Danny Peary: Don, you have had a strange career, writing, acting in, and directing movies and television series, writing several plays, including The Drowsy Chaperone.  Is this the career you expected?
Don McKellar: No, I’ve never been one of those career-planning guys. My career is completely unplanned. I’m always writing and acting and directing in no particular order. In high school, I founded a children’s theater company basically as a way to make money.. I was acting. writing. and directing with my friends. On The Drowsy Chaperone, I wrote with the same people.  I was a huge movie buff and it’s hard for people to understand that in those days you could see Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Godard back to back. Here in Toronto, that blend of European art films and American exploitation films and trash was my schooling, that was my taste. It was hard to see some movies, so I would drive down to Buffalo to see those I couldn’t see otherwise.  So I loved movies but I never really thought of it as a realistic career choice. It wasn’t until after I did more theater–I founded an experimental theater company–and I was asked to write my first movie that it started happening.
DP: Since movies became part of your career, has it gone the way you expected?
DM: I didn’t really expect anything, and I’m always running up against new, completely improbable scenarios that I didn’t anticipate. I enjoy throwing myself off and doing something that I’m unprepared for that is out of my field of expertise. My Broadway musical is a perfect example of that.
DP: You’re almost iconic in Canada, but as you probably know, people have to be reminded of who you are down here in America.
DM: A lot of countries have actors and filmmakers who are huge there but are unknown elsewhere.  But for Canada, it might be true. I think there are not a lot of people in that category up here. Usually if you’re Canadian and make it big here, you also make it big in the States, too.
DP: What is weird is you haven’t tried to become that well known in America, have you?
DM: No, no!
DP: I’d say you haven’t gone the Hollywood route on purpose.
DM: I’m the first of my generation that’s attempted to maintain a career in Canada. I think David Cronenberg is the only director of the previous generation to have done it.  He has became even more of a Canadian director late in his career; he sort of pulled his career back here when he saw it was possible. But before him, it wasn’t a possibility.
DP: You directed The Grand Seduction but the screenplay was written by Mike Dowse and Ken Scott. I was thinking it has your sensibility, so I was surprised to learn that you weren’t the writer. So where does this fit in for you?
DM: I did do a little un-credited rough draft, but I found it was a fun challenge for me directing someone else’s script. I’ve never really done the auteur thing in the traditional sense, trying to impart my personality on someone else’s script. And it was fun to be able to say, “How do I make that work?” There’s a certain mechanical pleasure in making a comedy, setting it up correctly and making it work. It was fun to indulge that side of myself. When you’re writing the movie yourself, you can just change it, you don’t have to figure it out.
DP: So you looked at it as a good challenge.
DM: For years and years people have given me scripts and I think, “This is okay, it’s good, but find someone who can do it. What can I bring to that film?” But with this, I thought there was some sort of reality behind it, a sincerity at the heart of it that I could grab hold of.  And I thought I could help with the humor. I thought there was something complementary about my sensibilities, so I decided let’s give it a shot. 
DP: I didn’t realize The Grand Seduction is actually a remake of a 2003 film.
DM: Well, that’s good.
DP: In Canada, is Seducing Doctor Lewis well known and are its fans angry you’d do a remake?
DM: In the French territories it’s really well known, and it was a big hit in Quebec. I must say they’re not outraged by it. Somehow I sort of pulled it off with the Quebec audiences. It was a beloved film, but this one is very different in tone, the feel, and the look. I went for that distinct Newfoundland culture, so it just feels different from the other film.  The original has more of the French sense of humor.
DP: There is a lot of farce in this story, so I guess that’s the French influence.
DM: Yeah, in the Jerry Lewis vein.
DP: The Drowsy Chaperone has a lot of farce in it, too.
DM: Yeah, absolutely, because I like farce. It’s not that I shied away from the bigger comic aspects, but I do think I tried to have the humor be more rooted in Newfoundland culture and make it more naturalistic than in the original.  Because of the way the economy is up there, my film is a little more realistic.  I had more of a responsibility to depict the real situation up there.
DP: Where exactly did you film it?
DM: On the Bonavista Peninsula, which is about two-and-a-half-hour drive from St. John’s. It’s pretty remote, on the most eastern area of the continent.  Most people aren’t familiar with it.
DP: Had you been there before?
DM: I had been there a couple of times. I hadn’t explored as much of the rural area, though I’ve always wanted to. I’d always loved the people. In Canada, Newfoundlanders are sort of known for their sense of humor and hospitality. A lot of well-known comedians and television people are from there.  Almost everyone you see in the film is from Newfoundland, and most of the villagers are from the area where we were shooting.
DP: Your film is set in “Ticklehead,” but did you film in more than one town?
DM:. It’s complicated, but there were basically three main villages where we filmed, only because no single town had everything that I wanted. One town had a harbor, another had a post office, all that kind of thing.  The farthest apart the villages were was about forty minutes.
DP: You said that you can’t imagine having filmed this anywhere else.
DM: It’s true. Once I’d thought about it, it’s very hard to think of having it take place anywhere but Newfoundland.  It wouldn’t have been the same anywhere else in Canada.  And if I went somewhere like Maine, it would have that New England personality.  The accent and the rapscallion-like nature of the villagers is very distinct, and there a different feel.  And in the history of Newfoundland there’s a lot of such things as scheming premiers trying to get industries there.
DP: If The Grand Seduction had a traditional storyline, all the townspeople would be trying to go back to their old ways, which was fishing, but the goal of these people is to scheme to bring in a factory and work for an oil company.
DM: That’s one of the things I find interesting about the film, but at the same time, at the heart of it, it’s one of the things problematic about it.  The people are not anti-progress. Of course, they would prefer to go back to fishing, but they’re practical and they’re trying to survive.  It’s more about the town than the industry. I think for viewers it creates an ambivalent feeling because the villagers are doing all this for a factory for the oil company, no less!
DP: So when you were reading the script did you say, “Hey, you know this is a problem.  We can’t have them end up working for an oil company.”
DM: There were days when I thought that, but the truth is that oil is out there and it’s their salvation in a way. It’s the only industry that’s arisen since the fishing industry collapsed, and it’s an industry with quite a lot of money. It’s a byproduct, a bullshit project, to make up for the environmental damage they’ve done. At least it’s better than nothing.  It’s sort of a triage–we’ll do what we can.  It’s a strange turn of events and you’re right, it’s a weird sort of feeling you get.  But to me the film is about how these people are being forced to compromise their integrity and even their ethics to survive. That seems tougher and more realistic.
Don McKellar

DP: I’m not going to say you were inspired by them, but does you film fit into the same genre as Local Hero and Waking Ned Devine?
DM: I guess it does. But I haven’t seen Waking Ned Devine and I think Local Hero hasn’t aged that well.  I can’t say I really thought about it. [Local Hero is set in Scotland so the similarity has to do with a fish-out-water storyline] but I think the similarity to Waking Ned Devine is partly because of the Irish connection up there in Newfoundland, that they’re mostly of Irish heritage. To me, when I read the script, it reminded me of a classic Ealing Studios film. It reminded me more of Whiskey Galore and Preston Sturges films– that older kind of social comedy.
DP: What about The Quiet Man, with an outsider in an Irish community?
DM: Yes, for sure.  I saw that fairly recently and I do really like it. I guess one of the things that appealed to me about the script was that it was kind of a classic comedy and that would be a challenge for me. I liked that it was a social comedy.  Most comedies today aren’t about a place or a people, and I thought that was a shame.  I wanted to make a movie about a people and a place.
DP:  There are intimate scenes in your movie but also many with several actors or a crowd. Do you prefer small two-character scenes or those with many characters?
DM: Crowd scenes scare most directors.  It’s much easier to maintain control when filming a two-person scene in an office or something like that. It’s always scary to do a big crowd scene because you need a lot of coverage and it’s time-consuming. And this film is full of big crowd scenes!  Again, that’s a challenge that appealed to me in this case; I thought, I have to go with these people.  Almost everyone you see in the film is from Newfoundland.  Most of the villagers are from where we were shooting.  I wanted to use the same ones in whatever village we were filming, so we’d bring them with us. I did a lot of stealing moments with them, and that was fun because I thought that was going to be the flavor of the film.
DP: You’re maneuvering a lot of people around, so those were mostly people who lived there?
DM: Yes.
DP: I imagine they had a good time…or they got bored because of the slow pace on movie sets.
DM: Well, both!  They got bored sometimes, but I think they really enjoyed it. They just recently successfully petitioned my distributor to show it in the one cinema remaining in this area, this beautiful old cinema, the Bonavista.  So they’re excited that it’ll be released there at the same day as the rest of the continent. They’re really into it.
DP: This whole story reminds me of a tale that will be told through the ages.  I can picture thirty years from now, somebody saying, “Remember the time when all our fisherman manipulated the oil company and we got our factory?” Did you think of that?
DM: Sure. It has this tall Irish-bar tale feel to it. I wanted it to be a slightly exaggerated, romanticized version of this tale.
DP: Do you think for your story and their plan to work, the doctor who comes into town, Paul Lewis has to be a totally nice guy?
DM: In many ways. I thought that was the toughest part to cast because if he’s just too stupid or not likeable the whole thing would collapse.  Or it would be dangerous if he were too naïve, or too callow, or too slick and urban.
DP: Taylor Kitsch is known to American audiences for the TV series Friday Night Lights, John Carter, and The Normal Heart, which is now on HBO, but he’s Canadian.  I think he’s very talented and charismatic.
DM: He is very good and has a real likability.  I’m really pleased to have thought of him or the part because he has that old-fashioned, classic charm that you don’t see in a lot of actors of this generation. He’s got an old movie-star charisma that I don’t think has been fully exploited in a lot of things he’s done. He’s a real, serious actor. I really like the first scenes of him being a doctor and tending and being compassionate to all the people who come to see him.  We just had everyone in the cast line up and filmed them coming to him.  When we filmed him I thought, “Wow, he’s a real doctor, he’s a guy you want to see in that town! He’s going to help!” The flip in the story is that basically Paul ends up seducing the villagers, which I’m very pleased with.
DP: I liked seeing people of all different ages acting together.
DM: I agree.  But it strikes you pretty quickly up there that with few exceptions there’s a young generation missing.  That’s really how it is. They can’t really live there so they go to the city.  Their parents still try to. You’re not allowed to do any commercial fishing but you can go out with a rod and catch five fish a day. As you see in the film, you can fish only by line and not on commercial boats. So you can eke by an existence, but you certainly can’t get enough fish to entice a young person to stay there.
DP: I didn’t see many children, other than those of the woman with a lot of kids.
DM: That’s sort of true.  A sad feeling you get up there is that there is not another generation coming around. A lot of schools are closed. There isn’t a school there; it can be almost an hour’s drive to the nearest school.  That’s tough, which is why a lot of kids are home-schooled.
DP: The tricky part about Paul is that he is courting a pretty woman in the village, Kathleen [Liane Balaban], although he’s engaged.  Do you hope viewers don’t notice that?
DM: It’s not that I don’t expect them to notice.  Paul has aspects that you could imagine playing up, such as his coke habit and his infidelity. They’re part of him, but I don’t think you get stuck in that.  You realize that he wasn’t probably that happy with this woman he was engaged to.
DP: I think we let it go with him because we sense he has good instincts about his current relationship failing, and is pursuing Kathleen because he knows that eventually he can go 100% after her.
DM: That’s right.
DP: Kathleen is a tough cookie.  What makes her appealing to you?
DM: We’ve always thought of her as someone who went away and came back. That’s realistic.  If there are young people there, they tend to be people who’ve come back for environmental reasons, or because they love the land, or because they want to start some sort of little organic farm. If they’re young, they’re those kinds of people. Kathleen is a tough cookie. What I liked about the scenario is that it’s set up like it’s going to be a romantic comedy, but it never ever succumbs to that easy route because Kathleen continually rebuffs Paul all the way through. I do find it funny and entertaining that she stands up to him all the way.
DP: Kathleen’s very pretty. But she’s actually the person we find the most cynical and we get mad at her for spilling the beans.
DM: That’s right, it drives people crazy. But I enjoy it when I watch it. I backed off a little towards the end.
DP: When she and Paul take cover during the storm and she lets her defenses down a little, it recalls The Quiet Man.
DM: It’s totally The Quiet Man.  I like the idea that she’s all ready to hate and resist this outsider, and thinks, “I’m not going to be fooled by this guy.”  And then she’s like, “Ah, damn, this guy’s pretty good-looking and not a bad guy.” So she has to sort of overcompensate.
DP: Brendan Gleeson is not Canadian, so how is he in this movie?
DM: The producer, Roger Frappier, mentioned his name at the beginning.  They’d already talked to him, and I said, “Yep.”  That’s sort of when I got on board because he was so perfect to play Murray.  It was impossible to think of anyone else once he was in your head. Yeah, he’s not Canadian, but if you bring in an actor from the outside to play someone in Newfoundland, it might as well be someone from Ireland. Having an actor from Toronto is no better than having someone from Ireland–in many ways Ireland is closer, if you know what I mean. It’s one of those unique areas in the country. The biggest Newfoundland star is Gordon Pinsent, who plays Murray’s friend Simon.  Gordon’s a god up there. Walking with him through Newfoundland is like walking with the Pope. Any door opens. He’s really beloved.
DP: Were Brendan Gleeson and Gordon Pinset kindred spirits?
DM: Oh, totally, yeah.  Gordon’s hard not to get on with, he’s extremely charming. For sure, it helped Brendan to have the authority of the people from there, like Gordon and Mark Critch, who plays the banker, Henry Tilly.  He needed those people. Brendan took his role really seriously.  The accent was a big part of the appeal for him. And it’s a hard accent, actually. It’s been attempted before by some esteemed actors. I’m proud that people up there reluctantly can see that he pulled it off.  He was also was very interested in the Irish diaspora, and how the culture transformed–that was a big part of it for him. Brendan was really, really committed to the truth of the situation.
DP: Simon reveals he has never been to town.  Are there truly people in that area who have never left their villages?
DM: Yeah.  Again, it’s a generational thing. Gordon said he knows people like that.  He’d say, “They used to be the town sage, they used to be the king of the town, they had a bit too much to drink, they got stuck, and they never got out.”   A lot of the outpost towns that were only accessible by boat have died off in the last fifteen years or so.  I would say that culture and those kind of characters are on the endangered list.
DP: I like the honest relationship between Murray and his wife Barbara (Cathy Jones).  They aren’t as young as Paul and Kathleen, but you seem equally interested in them.
DM: Cathy Jones is from there and Barbara is the type of practical woman you’d find there.  I was interested.  Part of the appeal of the script to me was the slightly politically incorrect nature of it.  Murray’s a male chauvinist, still. But he comes to realize it’s not so much about his being in control, he just wants to live in the town. If she’ss his boss in the factory, he’s fine with that.  That’s the real romance in the piece. It’s a successful relationship.  The other real romance is the father-son one of Murray and Paul.  We pushed that one, too.
DP: Talk about the  music, including when Murray goes to see Barbara in town.
DM: The Dardanelles did that song you like.  That’s a beautiful song.  They’re a local band that is hip but does indie rock mixed with traditional style Newfoundland music.  In a lot of areas up there, there’s sort of a folk revival, and it’s common to have of a hip local band doing traditional-style music.  Out there, the music is so, so deep. Everyone plays music. When I wanted someone to play the accordion in the movie, I asked the villagers who were my extras, “Does anyone here play the accordion?”  And about twenty people put up their hands! I didn’t even have to go outside my pool to find a guy to play the accordion. Brendan plays traditional music, so he would sit around in the bars playing with them.
DP: The music throughout is very good. There’s jazzy stuff, regional folk music with fiddles and accordions, and contemporary music, like the Dardanelles song.  Obviously you paid a lot of attention to the music
DM: There’s a culture of value there, that’s why I thought it was a very important to have music present, it’s part of it.  That’s what it makes it more than just a conservative impulse to preserve it. It was hard at first.  Part of me resisted going the traditional route, bringing in the accordion and stuff like that.  I thought it was too easy, but it became clear that it was impossible not to. That route is so deeply ingrained in that culture and in that land that I had to embrace it.
DP: When you showed your movie at the Toronto Film Festival, I saw a headline that read “Can a Canadian Comedy Become a Hit?”  Is that a problem?
DM: People say, “Why don’t you go the States?”  I always think, it’s not for lack of ambition that I don’t. There’s no more elusive goal than making a Canadian hit. Particularly a domestic Canadian comedy hit, or something like that. I admit that I will be happy if The Grand Seduction becomes a hit, but I didn’t try to sell out or to be commercial, I just tried to give the film some integrity.  I think there’s this perception internationally–and it’s partly true–that Canadian filmmakers tend to be very serious. The ones they know are Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and now there’s Denis Villeneuve.
DP: Cronenberg’s serious but he has a sly sense of humor.
DM: My parents think of them as being extremely grim. I think that if there’s a cliché about Canadian films that people have internationally, it’s that they’re perverse and dark. Maybe I’ve contributed to that somewhat.  Although not in this case.
DP: We both hate the cliché “feel-good movie of the summer,” but The Grand Seduction may be just that!
DM: Yes, although I worked pretty hard to keep out any false sentimentality out of there.
DP: I agree that there’s no false sentimentality, and maybe that’s the reason that it really hits the spot.