Bruce McDonald dips once more into his Canadian horror classic Pontypool

It’s something of a homecoming for Bruce McDonald.

Or maybe more of a Heartlanding?

On Wednesday the Toronto-based Canadian director will return to Calgary, an almost second home for him of late.

It’s here the noted filmmaker behind such iconic Maple Leaf motion pictures as Hard Core Logo and Highway 61 has been setting up shop while filming episodes of the beloved-by-many, uber wholesome, CBC family drama Heartland.

“I’ve been a bit of a regular the last three years,” McDonald admits of his travels here for the locally-shot series.

Well, his trip back west this time is for a purpose that couldn’t be further away from the kid- and gramma-friendly fare that he produces when behind the Mother Corp’s TV cameras.

It’s actually for the Wednesday screening of his tight, taut and terrifying horror film, 2008’s Pontypool, which will show as part of the programming for this year’s Calgary Underground Film Festival.

He laughs. “Ah, sweet little, Ponty.”

Again, it’s kind of the opposite of that — sweet and wholesome, that is.

The film centres around the small Ontario town of Pontypool, where an infection has transformed the citizenry into flesh-eating rioters. 

Most of the action takes place inside of a local radio station, where the DJ — a one-time popular shock jock (Stephen McHattie), who has been all but excommunicated from his former life on the big city airwaves — and his small staff first hear news of the infection and then attempt to survive the assault on their studio.

It really is a paranoid, claustrophobic little film, but one that most definitely stands up in the decade since its release.

Interestingly, the CUFF screening at the Globe, which will feature McDonald and McHattie in attendance, is also a free one to celebrate National Canadian Film Day. 

It’s an odd choice, considering that out of his film work, it’s not really the one you would immediately think of as his most inherently Canadian. Whereas those aforementioned pictures — not to mention the First Nations-centred Dance Me Outside and Roadkill, of which Highway 61 is a sorta sequel, or even his recently released film Weirdos — are informed specifically by their northern characters and locales, Pontypool, on its surface and with a few minor tweaks, could have taken place anywhere.

When asked his ideas on what makes his horror flick specific to his nationality, McDonald pauses thoughtfully before pointing to Tony Burgess, the writer of the book that it was based on, Pontypool Changes Everything, and the film’s lead, who has also appeared in such films as Watchmen, 300 and Shoot ’Em Up as well as being a regular on Seinfeld as Elaine’s psychiatrist Dr. Reston, and who the director calls “one of the great Canadian actors.”

Digging a little deeper, though, McDonald thinks even pondering that speaks to the larger question of: What makes a Canadian film a Canadian film?

“When you look at the bigger picture Canadian films are generally independent films made outside of the gate of Hollywood,” he says.

“I think Canadian films tend to be a bit more subversive than American films, they’re a bit more suspicious of the tried and true methods of wonderful — and it is wonderful — Hollywood. Because we don’t make films with that elaborate beautiful machine behind it, we tend to make films that are a bit more — well, they don’t necessarily have the scope and grand production values, but what they lack in that they make up for … in their ideas and their characters.”

He namechecks Guy Maddin and Lynne Stopkewich — the latter who made Kissed, “a film about a chick making love to dead people.”

McDonald continues. “There’s a delight in subversion or there’s a delight in being a little cheeky or a delight in doing it different or a delight in taking on characters and subjects that are a little outside of the common sphere of what is acceptable,” he says.

“So that might start to approach the Canadian zeitgeist, I’m not sure.”

Actually, the subversive nature of the film and that it’s character driven really are part of what makes Pontypool a remarkably Canadian filmic statement. But perhaps it’s the fact that the largest, overarching themes in it are language and communication, and specifically, how important a role they play in our national identity, seals the deal.

“I’m sure a lot of cultures could say that, but our peculiar one is the French-English (dynamic), the multicultural (aspect), and the huge distances that are covered by all our devices and all that stuff,” he says of the relationship we’ve forged.

(Spoiler alert)

For those who haven’t seen Pontypool, it’s through words and our dependency on them that the virus, itself, is transmitted and infects its victims, most of them initially getting stuck on phrases or words before lapsing into the dead-eyed cannibals they become.

McDonald admits that’s what initially drew him to adapting Burgess’s work for the screen — although at first it was conceived as a radio play, the pair then coming up with a film script — the sentence and thereby the central idea: “The English language becomes infected with a virus.”

That entire concept was one that he thought was perfect for bringing to the screen as a horror-sci-fi film, one that marries the high and the low, and allows for a metaphorical reading while also providing some scare and gore. He compares it to, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which took on the idea of the hysteria surrounding McCarthyism in the 1950s.

It was something that had immediate appeal for McDonald, “shooting b-movie into a snooty, high-culture concept and smashing those things together,” he says.

“It’s so un-elitist.”

As a result, Pontypool is a film that still appeals to both sides of the spectrum almost 10 years since it first hit theatres.

McDonald says that there are “weird pockets of super-fans of Pontypool” in not just Canada, but around the world. In fact, it’s also been adapted for the stage, with theatrical productions of it having taken place in nine different centres, including Kansas City, San Francisco and the sister town of Pontypool in South Wales.

The director admits he hadn’t actually seen the film for some time until receiving an invitation from the head of philosophy at DePaul University in downtown Chicago, where the prof was presenting a “very high-brow, intellectual paper of philosophy and semiotics and language” and wanted to screen it and have McDonald in attendance.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that the filmmaker and Burgess are on their way to making the other two films in the what will be a Pontypool trilogy.

He’s in the middle of casting and raising the money for the first one, tentatively titled Typo Chan, which he’s hoping to have completed filming a year from now, with the third film, which takes the name of Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything — which was actually the second of the author’s literary threesome but, again, what the first movie was based on — quite a bit further down the road.

While McDonald doesn’t offer too many specifics, he does reveal that the next one will have different characters, take place the same day as the first although outside of the studio, and be an “action-horror adventure film, with a very surprising twist towards the end.” 

It will also build off of the seemingly ambiguous ending of the first, a brief scene after the closing credits that is somewhat surreal and open to great debate and interpretation.

While not spelling it out entirely, McDonald offers some insight.

“We thought, ‘If the virus can infect the English language, why can’t the virus infect reality, itself?’ ” he says. “I always loved that notion. And it takes a little bit of laying the table to get there.

“The ending of the first one plants that seed of, ‘What?’ ” he says and laughs. “And the other two have fun with that.”

He laughs again. “Which takes you off in a whole other fucking place.”

McDonald also says that in its current state, with the script that he and Burgess now have, Typo Chan will feature “quite a surprising homage … to the lovely zombie.”

That, in itself, is something of a surprise, considering there’s a perception that the director has been quite adamant that Pontypool is not part of the zombie genre and has gone out of his way to distance himself from the walking dead description.

“I’m pretty fond of zombies,” he says, dispelling that notion and painting the film into more of the 28 Days Later camp.

“I always say technically, but technically our Pontypool (victims) aren’t really zombies, because zombies are the undead that come back to eat people. Ours are people that are still alive … We call them zombies for short-hand because they become like zombies, they become flesh-eating maniacs — they’re cousins of real zombies …

“But I’m tickled that we share the zombie canon.”

In fact, McDonald admits that seeing George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead as a kid at Albion Mall in Etobicoke was one of the first times he thought he “could make movies.”

“It was like, ‘Wow, this is so awesome. I wanna do that’ … So I gotta thank the great George Romero for opening a door for me and allowing me to pass through.”

The fact that upon crossing that threshold he’s had as lengthy and eclectic career as he has — from the killing fields of the kinda zombies of Pontypool to the heartwarming, family farms of Heartland — is something that McDonald truly appreciates.

As to whether or not he’s thought about possibly marrying the two, the director, not surprisingly, has contemplated it.

“You know I have these secret fantasies. The cast of Heartland is just so fucking wonderful, they’re just awesome people, so I always had this fantasy of turning Heartland into Darkland or something. Having the same cast, the same thing — just let us loose for two weeks.

“A.) I think they would all love it, and, b.) we’d have a big audience.”

He laughs. “At least at the beginning.”

Pontypool has a free screening on Wednesday at the Globe Cinema as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival and National Canadian Film Day. Director Bruce McDonald and actor Stephen McHattie will be in attendance. For tickets go here.