The latest effort from Canadian director Bruce McDonald is Dreamland, a surrealistic feature co-starring Juliette Lewis and punk-rocker Henry Rollins, and starring McDonald’s Pontypool cohort Stephen McHattie, who plays two roles: an assassin and a celebrated trumpeter on the skids, presumably Chet Baker. In advance of Dreamland’s North American premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, McDonald spoke to The Globe and Mail about his dreams, the film and a to-die-for-role for actress Lewis.
Directors have their passion projects or their sell-out films or their whatever. What’s Dreamland to you?
I would say it’s my midnight movie. I used to go the Original 99 Cent Roxy Theatre to see a film like Eraserhead or The Song Remains The Same or The Rocky Horror Picture Show or El Topo. These are misfit movies, but with a rock 'n' roll heart and a weirdo DNA to them. Those movies shaped me. I’d seen the sophisticated films and the foreign films, but the midnight movies occupied a different space and operated in surprising ways. They were inscrutable and often delightful.
How did Dreamland come together?
I had worked with writer Tony Burgess and actors Lisa Houle and Stephen McHattie before, on Pontypool. We had a great time. When you get a gang or you’re in a band, you want to keep it rolling. Robert Budreau had done a short film in 2009, with Stephen McHattie playing Chet Baker. The question of the film was how did Chet Baker fall out of that window In Amsterdam. How did he die on that drug-fuelled night? I saw the film and thought, “Stephen’s a pretty good Chet Baker.” So that’s where the impulse came from. The result, in Tony Burgess’s mind, when it came out the other side, was Dreamland.
It’s pretty far out. Was it what you had in mind?
Never. That’s why it’s great working with Tony. It never quite comes out the way you think it will. People make movies for different reasons. On this, we did it because we liked working together. We found a nugget and made it happen. It was a bit of a miracle for such an irrational impulse to attract industrial-strength support.
Robert Budreau followed up that short film of his on Chet Baker with a full-length film, 2015′s Born to Be Blue, starring Ethan Hawke as Baker. And with McHattie playing Baker’s father. How did that affect what you were doing?
You always feel threatened by another approach to the same subject. We were well into Dreamland at that point. But I knew many of the people involved with Born to Be Blue and I was keen to see it. Their film was a biopic, something totally different. I was relieved, and secretly delighted. Because we were going to come at in a different way – a druggy, dreamy way.
Chet’s name is never mentioned in Dreamland. Why not?
Apparently Chet Baker sold his life rights to 20 different organizations over the years. For anybody trying to make a film about him, it was a nightmare. Anybody who would enter that zone would be flummoxed by lawsuits and insanity. So, we thought, “Let’s just call him the trumpet player.”
While you were filming in Europe, Juliette Lewis tweeted that she had just filmed a death scene, and that it would be the first time in her career that she died on screen. Were you aware of that?
I never thought about that. She didn’t mention it, and we were quite chummy, her and I. I’m glad it was her first time. Technically, she doesn’t die, though.
That’s what I thought when I saw the film. I was a little disappointed.
Well, she’s so fun. Maybe I’ll have to design a film for her. Maybe the great Juliette Lewis death scene is still to come.
Are you a guy who checks off boxes? What’s next for you?
I would love to make a Western. And I would love to make a really sexy movie, like Last Tango in Paris – obsessive-romantic, super verboten but titillating movie, in an unlikely and romantic place. Paris has already been covered. Can you suggest a place? A place were we can lure actors to?
Maybe you should ask Juliette Lewis.
Yes! Fog-bound St. John’s has been on my mind. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s where Juliette is killed in a tragic and beautiful way. So, yes, next for me is a Western and then an erotic thriller for Juliette.
Dreamland screens at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival on July 14 and 15.