Born May 28, 1959, Kingston, Ont.
He’s made a lot of movies, but Bruce McDonald will go down in history as the man who announced he would buy “the biggest chunk of hash” he could find after winning the $25,000 prize for best Canadian feature at the 1989 Toronto International Film Festival (then called Festival of Festivals). “What can I say,” says McDonald. “I’ve never been all that interested in doing what’s expected of me.”
A true Canadian maverick, McDonald’s career started in documentary and gradually shifted into narrative features after a solid stint as an editor on such films as Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts and Ron Mann’s Comic Book Confidential — not to mention crewing on Norman Jewison’s nun story, Agnes of God. A proud Canadian, when McDonald originally set to work on his first road movie, Roadkill, he wanted to make sure it was a Canadian take on the romantic genre and made sure his characters pointed north — not south, like they usually do. With that in mind, McDonald approached local Toronto playwright and theatre type, Don McKellar to write some pages — and the rest is history. Roadkill was the first Canadian film to burn the earnest, English-Canadian tradition in favour of hipster chic and quickly became a cult film for a whole new generation of Canadian moviegoers who were blown away to see such a cool reflection of themselves on screen.
“I grew up watching all kinds of American crap on television and loving it. I watched all those lame horror films like Soylent Green and thought moviemaking would be such a cool thing to do, but it’s so much different than what you think it’s going to be. Film is a very cerebral exercise that tries to access a very emotional space — it’s a real challenge creatively because you have to use two parts of your brain all the time… which can be a challenge, even on the best of days,” says McDonald. “Film is such a fabricated medium. The main job of a director is to try and get an honest performance. The performer has to feel true in the moment, and that means they have to trust what you are doing. So you have to appear that you know exactly what’s going on to put them at ease — but half the time you don’t know what the fuck it is you’re really looking for.. that elusive moment of truth. I’m completely insecure, but as a filmmaker you have to have a huge ego. You need both, and it’s the collision of those two forces that makes it all happen.”
Like a few other Canadian filmmakers we’ve run into (hint, hint: Reg Harkema), McDonald is also a fan of Jean-Luc Godard, the former critic who was at the leading edge of the French New Wave. “Godard should be our god. He pushed the envelope all the time and brought an incredible amount of creativity to the whole process. I try to push the envelope too. I’m always looking for the next layer of meaning, but you have to be careful not to get too precious about being an artist. You want people to understand at least some of what you are doing, and that’s why it’s usually a pretty good idea to have story editors and people you can bounce things off of. But you can never be afraid to appropriate the material and make it your own. As a filmmaker, that’s your job. You’re the one looking through the camera — and I take responsibility for that.”
McDonald is clearly fond of creative collaborations. He worked with McKellar on Roadkill, Highway 61 and Twitch City. He adapted the work of W.P. Kinsella in Dance Me Outside and he hooked up with Vancouver’s Michael Turner to bring Hard Core Logo to the screen.
“I sort of look at it like a rock ‘n’ roll kind of thing. You know, one person writes the lyrics and the other writes the music and then you have a group of musicians to bring it all together on stage,” says McDonald.
“Some days I really wish I played in a band. You can get all that angst out in one night instead of fretting over it for months and months. In music, it’s all about being in the moment but in a film, it’s about setting up a set of circumstances so the moment can happen – and hopefully happen in a way that feels convincing. That’s what you try for, but it doesn’t always work. You have to be open to something that you may not have planned for.”
For instance, when McDonald realized he wouldn’t be able to make the road movie he always wanted, which turned out to be Highway 61, he rolled with the punches and made Roadkill instead. The revenues generated from that film paved the way for Highway 61, and those pesos in turn gave McDonald enough clout to finish his road movie trilogy (with a short break in between with Dance Me Outside), and create Hard Core Logo.
As someone who describes freedom as “driving at night listening to the tape deck, with a whole pack of butts and some beer,” McDonald’s passion for the road oozes from every frame of the rock-road-movie trilogy. Oddly enough, for a guy who loves to travel, he’d never really spent time in Vancouver before shooting the mock-documentary, Hard Core Logo.
“People in Toronto told me Vancouver was small-town and that it was inhabited by a bunch of laid back potheads. The small-town thing was wrong, as I discovered when I stumbled into this thriving East Indian community. The pot thing might be true, but people on the west coast aren’t as lazy as people think — they work really hard and then kick back… It was a good education for me because I think it opened my eyes a bit about what life is really all about out here,” says McDonald. “I also learned to love the muted, pastel light. It’s a nice change to the stark sunlight and crisp shadows we get out east. It gives everything a totally different feel that I can really only describe as melancholy. I found that very interesting. But I needed to know all of that stuff to make Hard Core Logo because it’s a movie about time and place. There were other punk movements in other cities, but the Vancouver movement was such a weird, grassroots thing. It was like spontaneous combustion — it just blew up in everyone’s face.”
The symbolic shrapnel were bands like DOA, The Pointed Sticks, The Modernettes, The Subhumans, The Young Canadians — and many more scrappy acts that played hard, lived hard and burnt out almost as fast as they appeared. Turner’s book and McDonald’s film offer a reflection of that crazy time in Vancouver, but McDonald hoped the film would find universal resonance — especially as it came so close on the heels of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
“I guess all my movies deal with a sense of loss, but in very specific ways because I think the more specific a film is, the more universal it becomes. So Hard Core Logo is about the end of the band — the end of the dream.” In an interview with Vancouver Sun critic Elizabeth Aird, McDonald described Roadkill as the death of rock and Highway 61 as the funeral, so Hard Core Logo’s obliteration of the last wriggling fibres of punk rebellion provided the end of the cycle, and a rather gloomy ending.
After Hard Core Logo’s run, McDonald took a five-year hiatus from filmmaking and turned to television work, re-teaming with McKellar for Twitch City. He also made an ad for Levi Strauss that gave him a chance to tinker with sci-fi form, as well as Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story and American Whiskey bar, Noel Baker’s adaptation of another Turner book.
McDonald says television is a good confidence builder because there’s more money and less pressure. More recent projects include Pontypoole, a horror movie based on a novel by Tony Burgess which McDonald describes as a zombie movie made by Polanski, Picture Claire, starring Juliette Lewis, Gina Gershon and Mickey Rourke, The Tracey Fragments with Ellen Page, the Broken Social Scene concert movie This Movie is Broken, Tracy Wright and Molly Parker’s rock-chick drama Trigger, Hellions, The Husband and Hard Core Logo 2, a meditation on the creative exercise starring Die Mannequin’s Caroline Kawa (a.k.a Care Failure) and McDonald himself – who reflects on the act of selling out as a director.
“Money has always been the big taboo in Canadian film. You’re not supposed to talk about how much money your films make — or don’t make — because we’re all supposed to be thinking on a higher plane. But we make crappy movies like everyone makes crappy movies. Sometimes, not even having your own vision is enough to make a bad script come together, so at the very least, I always try to tell a good story.”
– Katherine Monk
FILMOGRAPHY: Let Me See (1982), Knock! Knock! (1985), Roadkill (1989), Highway 61 (1991), Dance Me Outside (1994), Hard Core Logo (1996), Pontypoole (2001), Picture Claire (2001), The Interview (short, 2002), The Dark Room (2007), This Movie is Broken (2010), Trigger (2010), Music from the Big House (2010), Hard Core Logo 2 (2010), The Husband (2013), Hellions (2015).
Other credits for TV include Twitch City, American Whiskey Bar, Platinum, Liberty Street, Lonesome Dove, Queer As Folk, This is Wonderland, Lexx, The City, The Collector, The Tournament, ReGenesis, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Less Than Kind, Transporter, Bomb Girls, Cracked, Heartland, Dark Matter, Bitten.