The Grand Seduction fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Don McKellar’s charming Canadian comedy is entering its second weekend in New York City, where it has received rapturous reviews. I certainly had never before read a critic calling a film “adorable,” much less in the New York Times. McKellar (inset left) is best known to New Yorkers as the Tony-winning co-writer of the Broadway smash, The Drowsy Chaperone. But true-blue movie fans recognize him as the writer of The Red Violin, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Roadkill, Highway 61, and Blindness–all of which he acted in; the director-writer-star of Child Star and Last Night; and a prolific actor, with appearances David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and Where the Truth Lies, and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He also has done a ton of writing, directing and acting on television (including Twitch City and the current series Sensitive Skin). Although he probably doesn’t want it, he may finally become known to US film fans because his new film is a real crowd-pleaser. It’s an ensemble piece, set in Ticklehead, a dying fishing village in Newfoundland. When his wife Barbara (Cathy Jones) moves to the city where she can find work, heavy-drinking, self-pitying Murray French (Brendan Gleeson delivers another splendid performance) gets off his ass and devises a sneaky plan to get her back and save the village. No matter that it involves the villagers bribing an oil executive to get him to bring a factory to town. But they can’t get a factory unless the town has a full-time doctor in residence. They manage to bring a handsome young plastic surgeon, Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), to the town temporarily and deviously try to seduce him into believing Ticklehead is a paradise where he should settle down. Guaranteed, you will cheer on Murray, his friend Simon (Gordon Pinsent) and all the other characters who are trying to save the town and regain their dignity. Last week, I spoke by phone to Don McKellar in Toronto.
Danny Peary: Don, you have had a strange career, writing, acting in, and directing movies and television series, writing several plays, including The Drowsy Chaperone. Is this the career you expected?
Don McKellar: No, I’ve never been one of those career-planning guys. My career is completely unplanned. I’m always writing and acting and directing in no particular order. In high school, I founded a children’s theater company basically as a way to make money.. I was acting. writing. and directing with my friends. On The Drowsy Chaperone, I wrote with the same people. I was a huge movie buff and it’s hard for people to understand that in those days you could see Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Godard back to back. Here in Toronto, that blend of European art films and American exploitation films and trash was my schooling, that was my taste. It was hard to see some movies, so I would drive down to Buffalo to see those I couldn’t see otherwise. So I loved movies but I never really thought of it as a realistic career choice. It wasn’t until after I did more theater–I founded an experimental theater company–and I was asked to write my first movie that it started happening.
DP: Since movies became part of your career, has it gone the way you expected?
DM: I didn’t really expect anything, and I’m always running up against new, completely improbable scenarios that I didn’t anticipate. I enjoy throwing myself off and doing something that I’m unprepared for that is out of my field of expertise. My Broadway musical is a perfect example of that.
DP: You’re almost iconic in Canada, but as you probably know, people have to be reminded of who you are down here in America.
DM: A lot of countries have actors and filmmakers who are huge there but are unknown elsewhere. But for Canada, it might be true. I think there are not a lot of people in that category up here. Usually if you’re Canadian and make it big here, you also make it big in the States, too.
DP: What is weird is you haven’t tried to become that well known in America, have you?
DM: No, no!
DP: I’d say you haven’t gone the Hollywood route on purpose.
DM: I’m the first of my generation that’s attempted to maintain a career in Canada. I think David Cronenberg is the only director of the previous generation to have done it. He has became even more of a Canadian director late in his career; he sort of pulled his career back here when he saw it was possible. But before him, it wasn’t a possibility.
DP: You directed The Grand Seduction but the screenplay was written by Mike Dowse and Ken Scott. I was thinking it has your sensibility, so I was surprised to learn that you weren’t the writer. So where does this fit in for you?
DM: I did do a little un-credited rough draft, but I found it was a fun challenge for me directing someone else’s script. I’ve never really done the auteur thing in the traditional sense, trying to impart my personality on someone else’s script. And it was fun to be able to say, “How do I make that work?” There’s a certain mechanical pleasure in making a comedy, setting it up correctly and making it work. It was fun to indulge that side of myself. When you’re writing the movie yourself, you can just change it, you don’t have to figure it out.
DP: So you looked at it as a good challenge.
DM: For years and years people have given me scripts and I think, “This is okay, it’s good, but find someone who can do it. What can I bring to that film?” But with this, I thought there was some sort of reality behind it, a sincerity at the heart of it that I could grab hold of. And I thought I could help with the humor. I thought there was something complementary about my sensibilities, so I decided let’s give it a shot.
DP: I didn’t realize The Grand Seduction is actually a remake of a 2003 film.
DM: Well, that’s good.
DP: In Canada, is Seducing Doctor Lewis well known and are its fans angry you’d do a remake?
DM: In the French territories it’s really well known, and it was a big hit in Quebec. I must say they’re not outraged by it. Somehow I sort of pulled it off with the Quebec audiences. It was a beloved film, but this one is very different in tone, the feel, and the look. I went for that distinct Newfoundland culture, so it just feels different from the other film. The original has more of the French sense of humor.
DP: There is a lot of farce in this story, so I guess that’s the French influence.
DM: Yeah, in the Jerry Lewis vein.
DP: The Drowsy Chaperone has a lot of farce in it, too.
DM: Yeah, absolutely, because I like farce. It’s not that I shied away from the bigger comic aspects, but I do think I tried to have the humor be more rooted in Newfoundland culture and make it more naturalistic than in the original. Because of the way the economy is up there, my film is a little more realistic. I had more of a responsibility to depict the real situation up there.
DP: Where exactly did you film it?
DM: On the Bonavista Peninsula, which is about two-and-a-half-hour drive from St. John’s. It’s pretty remote, on the most eastern area of the continent. Most people aren’t familiar with it.
DP: Had you been there before?
DM: I had been there a couple of times. I hadn’t explored as much of the rural area, though I’ve always wanted to. I’d always loved the people. In Canada, Newfoundlanders are sort of known for their sense of humor and hospitality. A lot of well-known comedians and television people are from there. Almost everyone you see in the film is from Newfoundland, and most of the villagers are from the area where we were shooting.
DP: Your film is set in “Ticklehead,” but did you film in more than one town?
DM:. It’s complicated, but there were basically three main villages where we filmed, only because no single town had everything that I wanted. One town had a harbor, another had a post office, all that kind of thing. The farthest apart the villages were was about forty minutes.
DP: You said that you can’t imagine having filmed this anywhere else.
DM: It’s true. Once I’d thought about it, it’s very hard to think of having it take place anywhere but Newfoundland. It wouldn’t have been the same anywhere else in Canada. And if I went somewhere like Maine, it would have that New England personality. The accent and the rapscallion-like nature of the villagers is very distinct, and there a different feel. And in the history of Newfoundland there’s a lot of such things as scheming premiers trying to get industries there.
DP: If The Grand Seduction had a traditional storyline, all the townspeople would be trying to go back to their old ways, which was fishing, but the goal of these people is to scheme to bring in a factory and work for an oil company.
DM: That’s one of the things I find interesting about the film, but at the same time, at the heart of it, it’s one of the things problematic about it. The people are not anti-progress. Of course, they would prefer to go back to fishing, but they’re practical and they’re trying to survive. It’s more about the town than the industry. I think for viewers it creates an ambivalent feeling because the villagers are doing all this for a factory for the oil company, no less!
DP: So when you were reading the script did you say, “Hey, you know this is a problem. We can’t have them end up working for an oil company.”
DM: There were days when I thought that, but the truth is that oil is out there and it’s their salvation in a way. It’s the only industry that’s arisen since the fishing industry collapsed, and it’s an industry with quite a lot of money. It’s a byproduct, a bullshit project, to make up for the environmental damage they’ve done. At least it’s better than nothing. It’s sort of a triage–we’ll do what we can. It’s a strange turn of events and you’re right, it’s a weird sort of feeling you get. But to me the film is about how these people are being forced to compromise their integrity and even their ethics to survive. That seems tougher and more realistic.
DP: I’m not going to say you were inspired by them, but does you film fit into the same genre as Local Hero and Waking Ned Devine?
DM: I guess it does. But I haven’t seen Waking Ned Devine and I think Local Hero hasn’t aged that well. I can’t say I really thought about it. [Local Hero is set in Scotland so the similarity has to do with a fish-out-water storyline] but I think the similarity to Waking Ned Devine is partly because of the Irish connection up there in Newfoundland, that they’re mostly of Irish heritage. To me, when I read the script, it reminded me of a classic Ealing Studios film. It reminded me more of Whiskey Galore and Preston Sturges films– that older kind of social comedy.
DP: What about The Quiet Man, with an outsider in an Irish community?
DM: Yes, for sure. I saw that fairly recently and I do really like it. I guess one of the things that appealed to me about the script was that it was kind of a classic comedy and that would be a challenge for me. I liked that it was a social comedy. Most comedies today aren’t about a place or a people, and I thought that was a shame. I wanted to make a movie about a people and a place.
DP: There are intimate scenes in your movie but also many with several actors or a crowd. Do you prefer small two-character scenes or those with many characters?
DM: Crowd scenes scare most directors. It’s much easier to maintain control when filming a two-person scene in an office or something like that. It’s always scary to do a big crowd scene because you need a lot of coverage and it’s time-consuming. And this film is full of big crowd scenes! Again, that’s a challenge that appealed to me in this case; I thought, I have to go with these people. Almost everyone you see in the film is from Newfoundland. Most of the villagers are from where we were shooting. I wanted to use the same ones in whatever village we were filming, so we’d bring them with us. I did a lot of stealing moments with them, and that was fun because I thought that was going to be the flavor of the film.
DP: You’re maneuvering a lot of people around, so those were mostly people who lived there?
DP: I imagine they had a good time…or they got bored because of the slow pace on movie sets.
DM: Well, both! They got bored sometimes, but I think they really enjoyed it. They just recently successfully petitioned my distributor to show it in the one cinema remaining in this area, this beautiful old cinema, the Bonavista. So they’re excited that it’ll be released there at the same day as the rest of the continent. They’re really into it.
DP: This whole story reminds me of a tale that will be told through the ages. I can picture thirty years from now, somebody saying, “Remember the time when all our fisherman manipulated the oil company and we got our factory?” Did you think of that?
DM: Sure. It has this tall Irish-bar tale feel to it. I wanted it to be a slightly exaggerated, romanticized version of this tale.
DP: Do you think for your story and their plan to work, the doctor who comes into town, Paul Lewis has to be a totally nice guy?
DM: In many ways. I thought that was the toughest part to cast because if he’s just too stupid or not likeable the whole thing would collapse. Or it would be dangerous if he were too naïve, or too callow, or too slick and urban.
DP: Taylor Kitsch is known to American audiences for the TV series Friday Night Lights, John Carter, and The Normal Heart, which is now on HBO, but he’s Canadian. I think he’s very talented and charismatic.
DM: He is very good and has a real likability. I’m really pleased to have thought of him or the part because he has that old-fashioned, classic charm that you don’t see in a lot of actors of this generation. He’s got an old movie-star charisma that I don’t think has been fully exploited in a lot of things he’s done. He’s a real, serious actor. I really like the first scenes of him being a doctor and tending and being compassionate to all the people who come to see him. We just had everyone in the cast line up and filmed them coming to him. When we filmed him I thought, “Wow, he’s a real doctor, he’s a guy you want to see in that town! He’s going to help!” The flip in the story is that basically Paul ends up seducing the villagers, which I’m very pleased with.
DP: I liked seeing people of all different ages acting together.
DM: I agree. But it strikes you pretty quickly up there that with few exceptions there’s a young generation missing. That’s really how it is. They can’t really live there so they go to the city. Their parents still try to. You’re not allowed to do any commercial fishing but you can go out with a rod and catch five fish a day. As you see in the film, you can fish only by line and not on commercial boats. So you can eke by an existence, but you certainly can’t get enough fish to entice a young person to stay there.
DP: I didn’t see many children, other than those of the woman with a lot of kids.
DM: That’s sort of true. A sad feeling you get up there is that there is not another generation coming around. A lot of schools are closed. There isn’t a school there; it can be almost an hour’s drive to the nearest school. That’s tough, which is why a lot of kids are home-schooled.
DP: The tricky part about Paul is that he is courting a pretty woman in the village, Kathleen [Liane Balaban], although he’s engaged. Do you hope viewers don’t notice that?
DM: It’s not that I don’t expect them to notice. Paul has aspects that you could imagine playing up, such as his coke habit and his infidelity. They’re part of him, but I don’t think you get stuck in that. You realize that he wasn’t probably that happy with this woman he was engaged to.
DP: I think we let it go with him because we sense he has good instincts about his current relationship failing, and is pursuing Kathleen because he knows that eventually he can go 100% after her.
DM: That’s right.
DP: Kathleen is a tough cookie. What makes her appealing to you?
DM: We’ve always thought of her as someone who went away and came back. That’s realistic. If there are young people there, they tend to be people who’ve come back for environmental reasons, or because they love the land, or because they want to start some sort of little organic farm. If they’re young, they’re those kinds of people. Kathleen is a tough cookie. What I liked about the scenario is that it’s set up like it’s going to be a romantic comedy, but it never ever succumbs to that easy route because Kathleen continually rebuffs Paul all the way through. I do find it funny and entertaining that she stands up to him all the way.
DP: Kathleen’s very pretty. But she’s actually the person we find the most cynical and we get mad at her for spilling the beans.
DM: That’s right, it drives people crazy. But I enjoy it when I watch it. I backed off a little towards the end.
DP: When she and Paul take cover during the storm and she lets her defenses down a little, it recalls The Quiet Man.
DM: It’s totally The Quiet Man. I like the idea that she’s all ready to hate and resist this outsider, and thinks, “I’m not going to be fooled by this guy.” And then she’s like, “Ah, damn, this guy’s pretty good-looking and not a bad guy.” So she has to sort of overcompensate.
DP: Brendan Gleeson is not Canadian, so how is he in this movie?
DM: The producer, Roger Frappier, mentioned his name at the beginning. They’d already talked to him, and I said, “Yep.” That’s sort of when I got on board because he was so perfect to play Murray. It was impossible to think of anyone else once he was in your head. Yeah, he’s not Canadian, but if you bring in an actor from the outside to play someone in Newfoundland, it might as well be someone from Ireland. Having an actor from Toronto is no better than having someone from Ireland–in many ways Ireland is closer, if you know what I mean. It’s one of those unique areas in the country. The biggest Newfoundland star is Gordon Pinsent, who plays Murray’s friend Simon. Gordon’s a god up there. Walking with him through Newfoundland is like walking with the Pope. Any door opens. He’s really beloved.
DP: Were Brendan Gleeson and Gordon Pinset kindred spirits?
DM: Oh, totally, yeah. Gordon’s hard not to get on with, he’s extremely charming. For sure, it helped Brendan to have the authority of the people from there, like Gordon and Mark Critch, who plays the banker, Henry Tilly. He needed those people. Brendan took his role really seriously. The accent was a big part of the appeal for him. And it’s a hard accent, actually. It’s been attempted before by some esteemed actors. I’m proud that people up there reluctantly can see that he pulled it off. He was also was very interested in the Irish diaspora, and how the culture transformed–that was a big part of it for him. Brendan was really, really committed to the truth of the situation.
DP: Simon reveals he has never been to town. Are there truly people in that area who have never left their villages?
DM: Yeah. Again, it’s a generational thing. Gordon said he knows people like that. He’d say, “They used to be the town sage, they used to be the king of the town, they had a bit too much to drink, they got stuck, and they never got out.” A lot of the outpost towns that were only accessible by boat have died off in the last fifteen years or so. I would say that culture and those kind of characters are on the endangered list.
DP: I like the honest relationship between Murray and his wife Barbara (Cathy Jones). They aren’t as young as Paul and Kathleen, but you seem equally interested in them.
DM: Cathy Jones is from there and Barbara is the type of practical woman you’d find there. I was interested. Part of the appeal of the script to me was the slightly politically incorrect nature of it. Murray’s a male chauvinist, still. But he comes to realize it’s not so much about his being in control, he just wants to live in the town. If she’ss his boss in the factory, he’s fine with that. That’s the real romance in the piece. It’s a successful relationship. The other real romance is the father-son one of Murray and Paul. We pushed that one, too.
DP: Talk about the music, including when Murray goes to see Barbara in town.
DM: The Dardanelles did that song you like. That’s a beautiful song. They’re a local band that is hip but does indie rock mixed with traditional style Newfoundland music. In a lot of areas up there, there’s sort of a folk revival, and it’s common to have of a hip local band doing traditional-style music. Out there, the music is so, so deep. Everyone plays music. When I wanted someone to play the accordion in the movie, I asked the villagers who were my extras, “Does anyone here play the accordion?” And about twenty people put up their hands! I didn’t even have to go outside my pool to find a guy to play the accordion. Brendan plays traditional music, so he would sit around in the bars playing with them.
DP: The music throughout is very good. There’s jazzy stuff, regional folk music with fiddles and accordions, and contemporary music, like the Dardanelles song. Obviously you paid a lot of attention to the music
DM: There’s a culture of value there, that’s why I thought it was a very important to have music present, it’s part of it. That’s what it makes it more than just a conservative impulse to preserve it. It was hard at first. Part of me resisted going the traditional route, bringing in the accordion and stuff like that. I thought it was too easy, but it became clear that it was impossible not to. That route is so deeply ingrained in that culture and in that land that I had to embrace it.
DP: When you showed your movie at the Toronto Film Festival, I saw a headline that read “Can a Canadian Comedy Become a Hit?” Is that a problem?
DM: People say, “Why don’t you go the States?” I always think, it’s not for lack of ambition that I don’t. There’s no more elusive goal than making a Canadian hit. Particularly a domestic Canadian comedy hit, or something like that. I admit that I will be happy if The Grand Seduction becomes a hit, but I didn’t try to sell out or to be commercial, I just tried to give the film some integrity. I think there’s this perception internationally–and it’s partly true–that Canadian filmmakers tend to be very serious. The ones they know are Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and now there’s Denis Villeneuve.
DP: Cronenberg’s serious but he has a sly sense of humor.
DM: My parents think of them as being extremely grim. I think that if there’s a cliché about Canadian films that people have internationally, it’s that they’re perverse and dark. Maybe I’ve contributed to that somewhat. Although not in this case.
DP: We both hate the cliché “feel-good movie of the summer,” but The Grand Seduction may be just that!
DM: Yes, although I worked pretty hard to keep out any false sentimentality out of there.
DP: I agree that there’s no false sentimentality, and maybe that’s the reason that it really hits the spot.