Last Night - Nitrate Online Feature
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Last Night, First Film, Canadian Career: 
A look back at the work of actor, screenwriter, 
and now director Don McKellar

by Sean Axmaker
Posted 19 November 1999

In person, Don McKellar is at once exactly like and completely different from his onscreen personas. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to one-time American sitcom star Bronson Pinchot, McKellar is tall and slim, nondescript in an everyman guy-on-the street sort of way, except for eyes that appear slightly askew. On screen he’s soft spoken and gentle, with a curious smile and a relaxed presence that in some films (David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, for instance) he can turn into an ominous mask. In person he radiates a disarming modesty and welcoming friendliness and his eyes don’t look at all odd (is this a corollary to the 10 pounds the camera adds, some kind of exaggeration of minor asymmetries?). And though he looks almost the same, all similarities to Pinchot seem ridiculous.

Moviegoers who stick with mainstream marquee fare are unlikely to have seen his films, but for the past 10 years the Toronto native has been starring in the cream of Canadian cinema, including the films of Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Adjuster), Bruce McDonald (Highway 61, Roadkill), and Francois Giraud (Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, The Red Violin) and writing or co-writing such screenplays as Red Violin, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, and Dance Me Outside. Last Night, the Canadian entry in the French sponsored Millennial series “2000 Seen By,” is feature debut as a director. I’ve been a fan since seeing Highway 61 on video one New Year’s Eve. “I’m hoping that Last Night becomes a New Year’s Eve staple,” he remarked after I mentioned to coincidence, as his latest film takes place in the final hours before the year 2000.

He appeared at the 1999 Seattle International Film Festival with both Last Night and The Red Violin, which he co-wrote and co-stars in. One of the most popular interviews of the festival, he and I squeezed out 20 minutes before his schedule pulled him away. We briefly discussed the genesis of Last Night, his career, and the growing Canadian film industry.

Sean Axmaker: How did the idea come about. I understand the production company was initially approached to become involved in the 2000 AS SEEN BY series.

Don McKellar: I was approached and I brought in my Canadian producers. I guess you know it’s a series of ten films from ten countries about the turning of the millennium and they asked me to represent my nation.

SA: You’d never directed a feature before.

DM: No, so you’re thinking ‘Why did they ask me?’

SA: I’m wondering why it took so long.

DM: Partially it’s because there was a lot of pressure on me, I felt, to make my first feature. I had directed a couple of short films, I’d directed on the stage before, people knew me fairly well in Canada for acting and writing, and people kept saying to me ‘We’re waiting for your first film, Don.’ My director friends, Atom Egoyan and others, we’re saying ‘We’re waiting, Don, we’re all there for you,” and it was just impossible for me to create under those circumstances. At least in my mind everyone was waiting, though I’m sure it’s not the case. So it was great to have the incentive of this commission, to force me to come up with something without thinking too much. The idea came very quickly and I wrote the script faster than I ever did, so I’m grateful. I’d directed a couple of short films that got around quite a bit and had been written up in Cahiers du Cinéma and they knew them in France, so that’s how they knew I was interested.

SA: You’ve acted in so many films before, how did you go about casting this? I know you’d worked with many of them before, and I notice that half the cast of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ winds up in this film.

DM: That’s true, but actually I’d made my film before eXistenZ and David (Cronenberg, who appears in a supporting role in McKellar’s film) really liked Last Night and drew a number of cast members from it for his film, which made me very proud. It’s the most flattering and satisfying thing you can do as a director, to get your actors work, so I was happy that he cast Callum Keith Rennie and Sarah Polley form my film, but also he said he would have cast Sandra Oh if he’d had a role. But yeah, I’d worked with many of them before. And I think partially, because it was my first film, I wanted actors that I knew, I knew their work, I trusted them as people too. Because I was going to acting in the film too I didn’t want any difficult actors. I wanted actors who were tough and who had done some work, so I drew on my acquaintances quite a bit. It’s perceived as an all-star cast in Canada, kind of, so it helped me also funding this. I love my cast. I didn’t write any of the parts for these people, but as soon as I’d finished they immediately came to mind and I got my dream cast.

SA: They are a terrific cast. I’m a big fan of Sarah Polley and I think she’s about ready to hit it big. She was terrific in Go!, but she’s terrific in everything.

DM: She is, and she’s so smart and so fun. Such a brat. I’ve worked with her in about four for films and I think it’s true, if she wants to I think she can go all the way.

SA: You have been writing screenplays for years now. How did you start? Was Bruce McDonald the first to approach you?

DM: Yeah, I’d been working in theater, actually, I had a theater company which seemed like a more reasonable career choice in Toronto at the time, and Bruce just asked me – Bruce, who was at that point Atom Egoyan’s editor – asked me if I would be interested in writing a film and he offered me a couple bucks, maybe $100 (laughs), as a sort of up front payment, and at the time it was more like a job but then as I got into it and I realized I could actually make movies of course I was really excited.

SA: So what was the first movie you wrote?

DM: I started writing Highway 61 first, but then we realized it would take a little bit of time to get it together because it involved travel, it was going to be a fairly expensive movie, though compared to most films it was incredibly cheap, but before that we did a film called Roadkill, which was really, really, really low budget road movie with Joey Ramone.

SA: I haven’t seen it but a friend of mine saw it at a film festival and couldn’t stop raving about it.

DM: I like it, I think it’s quite fun. It was certainly thrilling for me because it was the first thing I ever made and it sold. It won an award at the Toronto Film Festival, so it was really a big boost to all of us.

SA: Did you work together on the screenplay or did you work together on the story…?

DM: Roadkill was such an odd thing because it was initially supposed to be a documentary about this band who got lost in Northern Ontario on tour – well, as a documentary they weren’t supposed to get lost – but then Bruce had problems with the band, they started threatening him and the lead singer took a vow of silence, which is a problem in a documentary, and he kept asking me to write more. At first he just asked me to write some scenes or some ideas like, say, the band meets the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, something like that, but by the end he was saying ‘Write a script,’ so I wrote a script very quickly and again it was a great push to get me to write my first script. And then after that I wrote Highway 61, based a lot on Bruce’s ideas, he had these weird notions, but also based on album covers and maps and all these things he’d collected.

SA: With the Bruce McDonald rock and roll films and your collaborations with Francois Girard, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin, not to mention the completely bizarro soundtrack to Last Night  you’ve worked music into all of your films.

DM: Music is very important to me. I always have music playing when I’m writing and I have pretty wide musical taste. I remember when Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould played in Venice, the first question at the press conference was “You’ve done rock and roll movies with Bruce McDonald and now you’re doing this film, what’s happening there?” The fact is I used to listen to Glenn Gould music the way other people my age would listen to Pink Floyd in the basement. I never really had that distinction.

SA: I noticed that most of your cast, you included, has really stayed in Canada, whereas many actors like…

DM: Jim Carrey? (laughs)

SA: I wasn’t thinking of Jim Carrey. Like Colm Feore, recently, someone who I think of as a Canadian actor who went to Hollywood to find roles and he wound up landing supporting roles in big films whereas Callum Keith Rennie and Sarah Polley and you stayed in Canada, around Toronto.

DM: It’s  partly patriotism but it’s also a recognition that it’s possible to stay in our hometown and work. It’s also a recognition around the world, even in Hollywood, that local filmmaking is still possible, that you don’t have to move to Hollywood. I think it’s partly a technological thing too, that you don’t have to be there in Hollywood in order to get Hollywood money. I think less and less that it’s necessary to move there. That is, with a certain kind of film. If you’re James Cameron, obviously you move from Niagara Falls and leave Canada because the idea of making those films in Canada is inconceivable, or if you’re Jim Carrey it makes sense. But if not, Canada offers a possibility of a certain amount of control over your films that’s very unique in the world, actually, it’s very privileged. I think we’re all beginning to see that because thanks to certain people like Atom Egoyan and a few of us who have done well.

SA: Egoyan and Bruce McDonald were the two that I noticed that started making independent Canadian films that got attention and distribution in the US. You showed up in so many of those.

DM: Patricia Rozema was the other one who, at the beginning there, with I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing and others, got some recognition.

SA: I think Cronenberg was the first Canadian filmmaker to really become successful and remain based in Canada.

DM: Cronenberg was the first but he’s saying now that it’s the first time that he feels that there’s a community around him because he was a go it alone guy for a long time. He was the godfather because he stayed in Toronto for a long time. All his films were made in Toronto and he was a real role model for a lot of us because of that.

Be sure to read the review by Jerry White. 

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