Interview: Don McKellar
The award-winning writer, actor and director says bringing Joseph Boyden’s bestselling novel about a Cree woman in search of her missing twin to the big screen felt like the right thing to do — because it wasn’t his idea.
Through Black Spruce
Starring: Tanaya Beatty, Brandon Oakes, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal
Directed by: Don McKellar
Running time: 1 hr 51 mins
Playing in select markets across North America
By Katherine Monk
Don McKellar is my preferred epitome of the Anglo-Canadian soul: Charming without being smarmy, smart without being pretentious, creative without being too self-possessed, and constantly capable of surprise through a mere gift for personal honesty. Unassuming, yet legend, in the same whispered breath.
I can say this in an introductory paragraph to an interview. But I wouldn’t tell him that in person, or even over the phone. As Canadians, that would be embarrassing to us both. And yet, it’s hard not to fawn a little over the man who co-wrote and starred in Roadkill and Highway 61. He and Bruce McDonald built a whole new scrappy chassis for English Canadian cinema, and drove it wide open. Don McKellar won a Tony Award with Bob Martin for penning The Drowsy Chaperone, deemed 2006’s best book of the year. He worked on Oscar-nominated movies such as The Red Violin and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, then created his own millennial classic with Last Night. But that’s just a fraction of the McKellar quilted oeuvre that includes patches of TV work such as Twitch City to animated sitcoms such as Odd Job Jack. In other words, he’s not afraid of straying from his comfort zone and trying something completely different, because his brand identity isn’t just one thing.
He says this particular gift is something unique to Canadian performers, and something that helped him make his decision to stay in Canada when Hollywood beckoned in the early 90s. Culturally, we tend not to box people in, which is why he felt relatively comfortable taking on the directing duties on Through Black Spruce. Based on the bestselling novel by Joseph Boyden, it tells the story of Annie (Tanaya Beatty), a Cree woman from Moonsonee, Ontario looking for her twin sister who’s gone missing in Toronto.
The fact it tells an indigenous story and features indigenous characters played by indigenous actors didn’t intimidate McKellar because the job was at the request of Tina Keeper, former Manitoba MP and star of North of 60. Now a pioneering indigenous producer, Keeper came to McKellar and looked for his insight and experience to handle the job of bringing it to the screen. He says it felt like he was just there to enable the realization, not control it. It was a big shift in headspace, he says, but it felt right. It also forced him to examine dramatic expectation, see from a new perspective and ultimately, celebrate just how much indigenous culture and language has visibly and invisibly shaped who we are as a people and a nation.
Don McKellar: I will tell you this film was a different experience because it was something that was only going to happen later in my life, sort of sitting back and letting other voices speak. I was open to the idea of a collaborative process instead of getting out my own stuff. I didn’t initiate this project. This wasn’t my story, so that was fun. It was fun to step back and be able to bring it out of other people. Creating an environment where they could contribute and be supported was sort of the project, and it was really fun. I think that’s something that comes with age.
Ex-Press: How so?
Don: Well, it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my satisfaction, in that way. It felt like I was serving Tina (Keeper), it was her project. It was really important to her. Very personal to her. She came to me and I said I think I can help. I can help make that happen. That is not the sort of decision you make when you are younger and just starting out in the business.
Ex-Press: Yeah. When you’re younger, it’s kind of all about telling your own stories.
Don: Exactly. I think when you age, you realize you can tell your stories through other means…. I mean you realize you are part of a grander picture and little stories are just reflections, echoes of a bigger story.
Ex-Press: Does that mean you could throw your feelings, recollections and expressions into this film?
Don: Totally. I mean I learned that at an early age if you’re going to take it seriously, you have to invest yourself. But I mean I wasn’t really interested in just writing about me and telling my story… and one of the great things about the business of theatre and movies is that you can be very personal and expose yourself in a way that no one will even know…. You know, you can get satisfaction out of something, saying this is who I am. This is my story. And it’s very autobiographical. But almost more satisfying is being very personal and no one knowing that.
One of the great things about the business of theatre and movies is that you can be very personal and expose yourself in a way that no one will even know….
Ex-Press: Ha! Secret confessions…. that only you know.
Don: That’s what you learn. You know how to invest and know secretly that it’s you. It goes very close to the bone for you, but no one would necessarily even know. I think it’s the old-school auteur theory. You know what I mean?
Ex-Press: I think I do. Expand for me.
Don: Allowing parts of yourself to naturally speak.… When you think of the old-school auteurs, it’s not like how to tell the story of my teenage years. You know, when you adapt and change it, it allows you room to expose yourself. It can be very exciting. I’ve always found that I like to throw myself in unfamiliar work and out of that you know, kind of paradoxically you find yourself exposing facets of yourself that are deeper, more revealing than you might have otherwise.
Ex-Press: Now you’ve opened the door and I want an example…
Don: Ha… I can’t really say right now. You know.. all I can say is it was very easy for me to empathize with these characters. There were many things that I could identify with deeply even though probably no one would even see that.
Ex-Press: I did my perfunctory research before I spoke to you, and most of the coverage seemed to revolve around whether a white guy should be allowed to make this movie or not.
Don: Well you know what’s funny about that is, everyone says it’s the story because everyone asks about it — like it was the story. So, definitely, it seemed to be the one thing the press was able to grab hold of. It’s not anything I experienced during the shooting. Or during development, but um, yeah, that’s the story. I’m not shy about talking about that because it was very there from the beginning of the story, and it’s why, when Tina talked about it, she talked about it being an intentional step towards reconciliation — which as a politician and an advocate, she really felt strongly that we had to work together. And share our skills and experience, and that meant two nations supporting each other and telling stories and taking responsibility. And I knew that was sort of a bold idea. But I felt it was sort of important and a challenge.
Ex-Press: I agree… I don’t know… I try not to weigh in on this stuff because who does? But I think acting is acting. I don’t think you have to be gay to play a gay person.
Don: Yeah. And I have played gay characters before. You know, you think about those things anytime you step outside yourself. And one thing you learn early in Canadian film is that the outsider position is often a very strong position and that’s something we know in the arts…. Think of Ang Lee doing Sense and Sensibility, or the Ice Storm, or Brokeback Mountain. These are all extremely specific western ideas, and yet growing up in Taiwan, and I think it gave him really interesting insights. And something that’s fundamental to Canadian cinema is that outsider status, right? And that means being able to not even empathize, but deeply connect with outsider characters or characters that have been oppressed or marginalized. I think that’s been a part of my work. And I think, fundamentally, I don’t think it’s all that interesting to tell my own story again and again.
One thing you learn early in Canadian film is that the outsider position is often a very strong position and that’s something we know in the arts….
Ex-Press: Yeah. I agree. And yet…
Don: Ha ha! And yet we always do.
Ex-Press: Right? It’s the narration in our heads. Hard not to. But you have to grow, right? And just the experience of stepping outside yourself and seeing through another set of eyeballs changes it. The beauty of the whole dramatic experience. And our urge to engage with it. We crave something in it.
Don: That’s it. Right there. It’s a fundamental experience. God knows that is needed more and more. I think the last couple of years of what’s happened in the world has shown us that the fundamental ability to step outside yourself — to sort of travel, or see the world from another perspective, [is so important]. Of course, the lesson is always, yeah, I’m not that different from these people. I get it. I can understand what it would feel like to face this kind of trauma, that’s it’s not that different from my human experience. My family. My parallel tragedies.
Ex-Press: Yes. And then there are singularities of each story. Say the twin aspect in this one…
Don: Of course. That’s where you research. That’s why I’m saying I know I didn’t survive residential school. That’s not my experience. But I am able to hear people and listen to their voice and help them speak. The funny thing is, unless you are from Moosonee, which is a very specific place, it has all sorts of unique aspects of life up there. For instance, Tantoo Cardinal has a small part in this movie and she has to speak Cree. And she was very excited to speak Cree. It’s her mother tongue and she doesn’t get asked very often, but this film is Moose Cree, you know… and she had to learn Moosonee Cree. So we brought in a dialect specialist, and you know, Tantoo worked very hard. So did Brandon [Oakes] and so did everyone. Everyone had to work as an actor. You have to do that. That’s a given. It’s not a documentary. Actors have to act and that means it’s not enough just to be indigenous. You have to act. If you’re playing a twin girl in Moosonee, you have to do some work.
I know I didn’t survive residential school. That’s not my experience. But I am able to hear people and listen to their voice and help them speak.
Ex-Press: Tell me about casting, what you were looking for? And did you and Tina Keeper do it together? Are you collaborative that way, too?
Don: Yeah. Well, one of the reasons I did this movie is I knew there were great actors in the indigenous community. I knew that was something I grew up alongside — with the flourishing in Toronto of indigenous theatre. The Native Earth Performing Arts Theatre company was always a presence when I was starting in theatre, and for whatever reason, someone could write a thesis about this, but there have always been a lot of actors and performers that have come out of the native community. And I felt there was another generation, even from my peripheral understanding, that needed to be seen…. And that was exciting. And yeah, we auditioned a lot. There are a lot of talented people out there. But immediately, I was taken by Brandon and Tanaya… I couldn’t get either one of them out of my head. They were both unique. Brandon brought this image of indigenous masculinity that I had never seen before, and Tanaya was fresh, unclicheed. She was strong and vulnerable, but also had that resilience. The humour and intelligence that you encounter when you go to those communities, but rarely see represented.
…One of the reasons I did this movie is I knew there were great actors in the indigenous community… And I felt there was another generation, even from my peripheral understanding, that needed to be seen…. And that was exciting.
Ex-Press: As a writer, director and actor… do you have to compartmentalize your creative urges?
Don: Yeah. I think that is always something that’s been unique in my career, or at least something I learned at an early age, because I started working in collaboration in a theatre company with two other people. I was acting, writing, directing, and so you learn how to go back and forth and how to compartmentalize. I remember when I was editing Last Night: Reg [Harkema], my editor, would say: ‘You’re kind of weird and schizophrenic when you talk about yourself on screen…’ [McKellar says he’d refer to himself in third person]. So I know I have this split personality sometimes.
Ex-Press: Good thing, bad thing?
Don: I think it can actually be helpful if you allow it to happen like that, if you can sort of focus it. And working with actors, you’re always learning about acting. Sometimes you look at people and you wonder: Is this good acting, or bad acting? And you’ve got to get beyond that because you have to realize you’re falling back on your expectations of how this scene would be played based on previous iterations. But that means you aren’t allowing the actor to surprise you or give you something fresh. That’s something that I was really working on with this film, and being open to what I was given, and you know, strengthen that rather than change it.
Ex-Press: I’m glad you’re talking about that because I realize so much of what I’m used to hearing is a white European inflection — modern “Hollywood” dramatic convention. It’s just what’s happened after so many years that when I watched Through Black Spruce, I had to pause and ask why the dialogue sounded so different. And you know what? I realized something about the Canadian identity. It’s inflected by indigenous culture — in fact, I think it’s what makes us so different from our southern neighbours. I was listening to a documentary on French CBC radio, and it was all about how the distinct sounds of “Quebecois” French are borrowed speech patterns (inflection, rhythm, syllables) from Mohawk. It made me realize that Canadian english has also been shaped and moulded by First Nation inflection, and how our whole culture — from our humour to our sincerity — is the result of a First Nations influence almost more than a British or French one.
Don: I was thinking along the same lines when I was talking to Tanaya, because that accent she uses is a James Bay accent of Cree. The people you see in the movie are mostly Moosonee Cree, and that’s the accent that I would describe as essentially Canadian. It’s what we understand as “Canadian” — a classic Ottawa Valley accent — which has antecedents in the native way of speaking, and the behaviour, the world view and the irony. It’s an interesting subject for anthropological study.
Ex-Press: I agree, but most directors don’t have that anthropological inquisitiveness. If something sounds “wrong” to their ear, they would probably push for the inflection they’re expecting. They might hear a First Nations “accent” as leaden because it’s not modulated the same way.
Don: Yeah, we have an idea of what we call “good acting.” Right? But that’s something, if you look at the history of movies, that changes. I always encourage young people to look at old movies and they’re all like, ‘that’s weird, they’re all speaking in such different ways.’ There’s a different speed and rhythm to speech, and have we changed that much? Well, maybe. But also, it’s the conception of what realism is that’s changed. People have to understand that is also culturally affected. It’s what we call “natural acting.” I was just watching Rebel Without a Cause the other day. And wow, James Dean was considered to be super natural at the time. But now, it seems extremely arch, in a way as a performance. I think it’s an amazing performance — but it’s certainly not what anyone would think of as being natural now.
Ex-Press: Can you make any observations about what these changes say about our culture?
Don: We think: Oh, this is a great actor, and it’s because they can epitomize what we have accepted as being the standard Hollywood performance style of the time. But you have to allow yourself to hear different rhythms and instincts. This movie really made me do that, and I think that’s something that an outsider can do. I think of Ang Lee directing Brokeback Mountain. He had this classic take on western masculinity that was different from the people who grew up with it.
Ex-Press: Liberating, or this exchange of codes, demands an awareness of the codes and the difference in perspective. You were clearly aware of both. And you were able to pull them together for a different kind of film experience, and a different kind of film heroine. Here’s a First Nations female character with full agency and a voice that’s her own.
Don: I think that’s one thing that’s come through. I was just down in Los Angeles for a screening and people came up and they were Pueblo, and they said they weren’t seeing real female indigenous characters.… they weren’t seeing full characters that have that kind of agency. And that’s the one thing that felt fresh to me with this script. And attaining that agency is complicated. She has to process a lot. She has to learn about a sister and get over her judgment. And she has to acclimatize to the city — which I never wanted to make bad, because that’s too easy. Nature good. City bad. It’s too simple. And Tanaya knew how complex the dynamic is because she grew up in a small town of about 500 people. She lives in Los Angeles now, so she also understood the conflicting feelings about place and belonging.
Don McKellar and Brandon Oakes, interviewed for Cineplex.
Ex-Press: Conflict and reconciliation… are some pretty significant themes right now in the Canadian psyche. It’s why I loved Through Black Spruce: The whole exercise felt like an exercise in reconciliation. It’s also why I didn’t understand all the criticism about cultural appropriation.
Don: I mean ultimately, I understand indigenous filmmakers wanting resources. I am all for that. But to be clear, this was not out of any native funds. I always saw this as a way of sneaking more money out of the agencies to speak for indigenous voices.
Ex-Press: I think if the underlying idea here is reconciliation, that doesn’t happen in isolation.
Don: That was Tina’s main point when she talked to me about it. … we all have to acknowledge that we’re all sharing the land and we all have to engage in the dialogue, too. We all have to take responsibility for where we are now.
Ex-Press: We gain so much more when we can work together. That’s the beauty of the film, too — its message as a movie, but also as a creative artifact. It’s you and Tina and the whole team working together.
Don: Thats the point. I don’t want to speak on her behalf, but she feels it’s another colonial tactic to tell her who to work with… and she wanted to work with me. I didn’t really know her from before.
Ex-Press: I thought all you Toronto celebrities hung out together…
Don: Ha. Well, she lives in Winnipeg. So she’s not exactly a Toronto social butterfly.
Ex-Press: Not like you.
Don: No. Not like me.
Ex-Press: You’ve travelled all over. How do you feel about Canada’s North?
Don: I love the North. But I have never been to, and this is probably an Ontario thing, but I think people in B.C. know the North better than we know the north in Ontario, for one thing, easier to get to. I’ve been to Northern BC and the Yukon a lot more than I’ve been to Northern Ontario. And when I say Northern Ontario, I mean really Northern, like the roads only go up to Cochrane and then you’ve got to take the train to Moosonee — which is four and a half hours. It’s not easy. It’s surprising and amazing.
Ex-Press: What are Canadians missing by not seeing it.
Don: I never knew there was a part of Ontario where I could see seals! I know that’s not a big deal to you, but it’s like what? Seals? And another thing — the bay in town — where the Moose River empties into James Bay, half the day in town it’s salt water, and the other half it’s fresh water. It changes with the tide. That kind of blew my mind.
Don: And the trees are very different, too. At one point, we thought about shooting some scenes in the south because it’s so expensive to shoot in the North. But when we tried to emulate the landscape, the trees were so different. The trees were unique — much to the annoyance of my line producer… But you can’t just go to Toronto Island and say it’s the North.
Ex-Press: The mosquitoes make it authentic.
I never knew there was a part of Ontario where I could see seals! I know that’s not a big deal to you, but it’s like what? Seals? And another thing — the bay in town — where the Moose River empties into James Bay, half the day in town it’s salt water, and the other half it’s fresh water. It changes with the tide. That kind of blew my mind.
Don: There’s no hiding the mosquitoes. That was one of the most touching things. My actors were extremely invested and committed to the project, but sometimes, watching them on the monitor I’d see the mosquitoes kind of crawl across their face while they were doing their lines or playing dead. All I could think was “god bless them! That’s commitment.”… Turns out most of Northern Ontario is a giant swamp… a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Ex-Press: Did you ever go back to your experience on something like Dance Me Outside, or is that a whole other world away for you now?
Don: Yeah. I mean I thought about it a lot. [Dance Me Outside] is well regarded in the community and I think it has aged really well. There was a reunion screening last year. And I didn’t direct that film, and didn’t experience it the same way, but I don’t know. It’s a weird thing, and I hesitate to talk about it too much because it feels kind of poseur. But I’ve always felt comfortable with indigenous people. Like I feel at ease. I like hanging out… And I remember with that film in particular, I was really thinking we’ve got to somehow capture the humour. At that point, humour was really absent from any depiction of the indigenous community — and anyone who knows about the indigenous community knows that’s a key component.
Ex-Press: And this new movie?
Don: I think I would have felt very uncomfortable exploring cross-generational traumas in the indigenous community when I was younger. I don’t think I would have felt capable. I do think that comes with experience.
Ex-Press: Well, we’re all gaining experience, and understanding, thanks to movies like yours and others that tell indigenous stories. And from my perspective as a viewer, it does feel like things are changing for the better. Just from a volume perspective, there are more stories being told.
Don: That is very optimistic of you and I hope you are right. Actually, I do think there is some reason for optimism in Canada. At least that some people feel the idea of justice is important for them. We may be bungling left, right and centre about how to deal with it, but I feel people’s desire. I think that is pretty new. I think there’s a fundamental craving for change. People know it’s a problem with our country, they know what’s happened is wrong.
Ex-Press: And you? What about healing and reconciliation in your life? Is anything solidifying, or do you prefer things to be fluid?
Don: I can’t say anything is solidifying because when I think about my splintered career potentials for the coming year, it’s not close to a unified plot. I remember when I first started out with Roadkill and Highway 61, I was entertained by American agents who said okay, but you have to decide what you are and what you are doing. They were very clear about it. They told me I couldn’t go into an audition as an actor and tell them I wrote 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. They told me I would lose jobs that way. Nothing like that has ever occurred in Canada. I need to surprise myself, and jumping from one discipline to another just seems to be the best way to do that. I’m just about to act in a movie, and I’ve been looking forward to it for days because I will finally get out of my own head. I’ve been talking about Through Black Spruce for days.
Ex-Press: Well, you’re almost done! The future is yours again… which can be intimidating.
Don: I don’t know. I’m not anxious about it so much anymore. Maybe there will be a solidification of my life, some unification on a higher plane. But from the outside, I don’t think it will look that much different.
Ex-Press: Cool. I think we covered pretty much everything we can talk about without a drink.
Don: I know. How are you going to edit this down to make any sense?
Ex-Press: Ah, that’s the beauty of Ex-Press… no word limit. I will run the whole thing as a Q and A. A really, really long Q and A…. But I promise the edits I do make will only be with the intention of making us both look smarter.
Don: Good. Happy transcribing….
Through Black Spruce is currently playing in select cities across North America.
Main image: Don McKellar and Brandon Oakes, courtesy of Cineplex.
THE EX-PRESS, April 9, 2019