In a country renowned for innocuous politeness, filmmaker Bruce McDonald sticks out like a sore thumb.
He’s best known for 1996’s Hard Core Logo, a mocumentary slice of punk rock nihilism that to this day remains one of the best films ever produced in Canada. Of course, in recent years the director has turned his attention to a variety of different projects, working on everything from the new edition of Degrassi Junior High Series to the verbose zombie flick Pontypool.
However, despite showing an affinity for a variety of styles and projects, McDonald still has his well-earned rockstar director status. How could he not? We’re talking about a guy who accepted his Best Canadian Feature Film Award at the 1989 Toronto International Film Festival by announcing he planned to spend the prize money on a brick of hash.
Talking to the mellow version of McDonald that exists today, the director joyfully reveals that he did in fact make that purchase. “Absolutely,” laughed McDonald. “That’s what prize money is for!”
Perhaps it’s not too surprising to learn then that since a Broken Social Scene film (This Movie is Broken) has just been released, that McDonald would be the filmmaker responsible for it. If you’re going to dedicate a film to Toronto’s seminal rock band from the last decade, you might as well get the local filmmaker best suited to the material. However, fans might be surprised to hear that this is a much gentler take on the rock movie genre than McDonald has done in the past and deliberately so.
“I wanted to make a story where people aren’t punished for their pursuit of pleasure,” revealed McDonald. “Just kind of a ‘hey, life is great. Let’s make out, hear some tunes, and get high’ kind of movie. No big judgments—just a perfect day in the city. I want to live a day like this.”
The amusingly titled This Movie Is Broken is exactly that—a warm-hearted day in Toronto between two longtime friends and recent lovers struggling to decide the nature of their relationship.
It’s a simple waif of a plot, just as it should be.
This is primarily a concert movie and Broken Social Scene are the stars of the show. The simple storyline weaves in and out of the concert, with the music underscoring the character’s lives whenever appropriate. The film came about when McDonald became friends with members of the band after they crafted the score for his bizarre 2007 film The Tracey Fragments.
McDonald had always wanted to make a concert film with an intertwined plot and thought this could be an ideal opportunity to play with that concept.
“Some of my favorite films are music performance films whether it’s Purple Rain or even musicals,” said McDonald. “I guess it’s the song and dance man in me that wants to be close to the world of the stage entertainer and the musical performer. And in a concert film you don’t have to hear characters talk, so that’s always a plus.”
Since the filmmaker and band already had a relationship going into the making This Movie Is Broken, the film came together easily and quickly. Too quickly you might say. While most concert movies are planned carefully in advance McDonald suddenly found himself with a concert date last summer and had to put together a movie to surround it in record time.
“I think we had about 2 weeks. Maybe a little bit longer than that, but it felt like about 48 hours.” For a feature film, that’s an extraordinarily short amount of time to prep a project, even if most of the running time is dedicated to a concert. While many directors might be put off by having to put together something so quickly, McDonald actually found the tight schedule oddly exhilarating. “It’s really liberating and very inspiring to be up and running that quickly,” admitted the director. “But somebody’s gotta clean up the party after it’s over. And that’s usually the people who throw the party. We spent 8 months in post so you put in your time somewhere. It was insane and I’m happy with how it turned out, but that’s not the way you’d want to recommend to people of how to make a movie.”
To pull off the fast-tracked project, Bruce McDonald enlisted an old friend for help. Don McKellar came on board who had written and starred in McDonald’s first two films (Roadkill, and Highway 61) as well as the remarkable TV series the pair made called Twitch City, before going on to become a director in his own right. McDonald brought in McKellar to write the script.
“Don was really excited about the idea, more excited than I’d seen him in a long time,” laughed McDonald.
But writing wasn’t the limit of McKellar’s involvement. While McDonald was in charge of the nine cameras filming the concert, he had McKellar directing the scenes between the characters at the concert. “He was kind of my back up guy that night and it was really a great collaboration,” said the director.
McDonald and McKellar enjoyed the experience so much that the two plan to collaborate again very soon. They’ve already got two screenplays in the works, marking the first time the two filmmakers have worked together in a decade.
It’s a good time to be a fan of Bruce McDonald’s substantial back catalogue. Not only is he planning on reuniting with Ryerson film school buddy Don McKellar, but he’s just completed two sequels to Hard Core Logo.
“I’m in the editing room working on part two as we speak,” said McDonald, “that should be ready in the fall.” Though wary of going into details, McDonald revealed that the deceased punk frontman Joe Dick might appear in some form (“I’m not really sure just quite what it is yet”) and that the movie would feel “very much like a companion piece to the first one.”
There’s also an unofficial third movie in the series, that’s apparently already completed. “It’s a kind of a sequel in disguise. The clever people will recognize it right away and for the other people it’ll take a few minutes to go…‘oh my god!’” laughed McDonald.
Though not exactly a household name, Bruce McDonald has established himself as one of the most intriguing and productive Canadian directors to emerge from the 90s. He may have calmed down a bit in private, but his films are still alive, vibrant, and willing to punch an audience in the gut when necessary. Those are qualities that come along all too rarely in Canadian film and set the director apart from the pack.
Just don’t ask him to define what he strives for as a filmmaker if you expect a serious answer. “Film is the 21st century literature, so people have all kinds of motives to make it: make some money, meet a girl, change the world, rewrite history,” admitted the director before deadpanning, “I don’t know why I do it, but it’s probably one of those.”