Now here’s a horror film that gets points for creativity.
In Pontypool, a virus sweeps across a Canadian city, spread by the English language and a certain set of words that set off a ghastly mental reaction in the minds of the infected. Set entirely in a church basement — which is serving as the temporary base for an Ontario radio station — the movie is a case study in information and isolation. As morning show host Stephen McHattie starts fielding calls from people all over town, who talk of bloody mobs attacking one another in the streets, it becomes clear that anarchy is being unleashed in this provincial burg.
The L Magazine talked (riskily, in English) with director Bruce McDonald about his smart and scary thriller.
The L: It’s such a peculiar premise, what made you think that this would work as a feature film?
Bruce McDonald: The whole notion behind the infection of a language — it’s such a smart, neat idea. We found ourselves brainstorming as to how this could be done, setting all of the action in a small box. The first incarnation of the script was to do the whole movie with one shot, to just have one shot of a guy in a radio booth. Eventually we decided to loosen that up a bit, but from the beginning, I loved the thought of being in a radio station, and having the sound of the outside world as a secondary character.
The L:So from the beginning, you wanted to keep this story confined to the basement, all taking place on a single set?
BM: Like so many other independent films in Canada without any movie stars, financing is always hard, and we’re so used to trying to make a lot out of nothing. So it was partly a financing concern. But once we decided to structure things this way, it became more of an artistic challenge. When you talk about films like My Dinner With Andre or 12 Angry Men, it’s all about putting characters in a room and managing the tension. That was a directorial challenge that weirdly appealed to me.
The L: There’s a hint of War of the Worlds here, this time with the people at the radio station getting caught up in these horror stories coming in from the field…
BM: The project actually started as a radio play. I got a call from CBC Radio, and they were looking for radio dramas, and Tony Burgess and I had been working for about 10 years on this adaptation of his book Pontypool Changes Everything. For the purpose of a radio drama, we set most of the adaptation aside and instead focused primarily on this idea of language being infected. The radio drama never happened, but our work there helped us to tighten up this much more focused idea, which eventually became the movie. The whole project helped us to identify what was most interesting in our original script, and then streamline the rest.
The L: So there was a whole other script that you tossed aside?
BM: Yeah, we still have it. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a sequel, and we’ll have all the material ready to go.
The L: How did you workshop the film? The story starts in a very casual, reserved place, but by the end, there’s a whole lot of chaos going on here. How did you get the actors into the mindset?
BM: We were very lucky that all these actors have worked in the theater, so they were comfortable with longer takes. We shot the film on location, and were also able to shoot it in chronological order. That helped a great deal. For our two main actors, Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle, early on they spent time with the writer and about a month before shooting we went through readings of the script to really work on the details of the characters, and to discuss how they would react in these various situations. By the time we finally got to shooting, we were able to experiment with these longer takes, and I think they appreciated that — that unlike most films, where things are so short and chopped up, we let the drama play out.
The L: Something about the film seemed very retro to me — that we’re dealing with a radio station, and that the secret weapon is something as simple as language. This is a very low-tech affair…
BM: Even the look of the radio station is a little retro, being in the basement of a church. I might have leaned more towards 70s exploitation films for the aesthetic, but I think we decided at the outset that we wanted to make a scary movie, but we didn’t want something like Hostel with fountains of blood. We wanted something more like Polanski. And that led us back to this world before cell phones. I think today we’re writing out our words more than ever, when it comes to e-mails and text messages. But we wanted to pull that technological rug out from under everyone, to take us back to that time when the spoken word was king.
The L: What sort of exploitation movies were foremost in your mind as you set out to make this?
BM: Polanski’s The Tenant for sure, and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — these weird, suspenseful and creepy movies. I even look back to the Planet of the Apes franchise, where this weird subverting was going on. You thought you were in one movie, and it became about something else entirely, and it had this weird atmosphere to it like a Pink Floyd album or something, this atmospheric and unpredictable quality. I like it when you’re not quite sure how it’s all going to play out; if the hero might just die.
The L: Given that it’s such an unusual film, have you been surprised at all by how it’s been received?
BM: What’s surprised me most is that there was a sale of the film out of nowhere to South Korea — they’re releasing it on 50 screens. We were all kind of like, “What?” And it turns out that there are a lot of people taking English classes and learning English, and it’s very frightening to them — this challenge of mastering the language. So there are all these weird cultural shimmers, this notion of English language being dangerous. That kind of paralleled the French-English conflict that Canadian audiences notice. But we were just laughing as we were writing it — every Canadian kid has to decide which foreign language they’re going to take in high school and we loved this notion that if English became this destructive thing, there would be all these Canadians saying: “Oh, if I’d only taken that elective in high school!”