It's such a pleasure to discover a film like director Bruce MacDonald and writer Tony Burgess's Pontypool at a film festival (Edinburgh, in my case) without knowing anything about it. So I really want to begin with a warning: for the ideal experience, see the movie before reading about it. Words can be dangerous.
The most intelligent and ideas-based horror movie for some time, Pontypool combines two seemingly contradictory narrative shapes, the viral story, as exemplified by the early films of MacDonald's fellow Canadian David Cronenberg (Shivers, Rabid), and the single-set siege horror, Night of the Living Dead style. Through an extremely pleasing confluence of plot, theme and character, the device which allows us to follow the spread of Pontypool's pandemic menace—a local radio station—is also intimately connected to the means by which the virus spreads—the English language.
Language is a virus, but not from outer space, it seems. The "infected words" communicating meme-fashion from brain to brain follow the course laid down by Cronenberg's alternative title for Shivers: "They Came from Within."
Starting life as a novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, the story became an ambitious screenplay, mutated into a radio play and finally re-emerged as a smaller movie in which the city-wide drama is compressed into a single setting, using audio alone to suggest the chaos outside, as a hard-drinking DJ, his producer and engineer try to cope with a semiotically-transmitted zombie plague, French-Canadian military intervention, and BBC reporter Nigel Healy.
- DAVID CAIRNS: If you could say a little about your history as a filmmaker and how you reached this point...
- BRUCE MACDONALD: How I've come to Pontypool! I'm from Toronto and work as an independent filmmaker there, and often have supported writers and been a kind of producer/director/writer in creating a series of independent films that I've been making since early nineties. Some road movies, some comedies. I love music a lot, and one of our more well-loved projects is a film from the mid-nineties called Hard Core Logo, about a punk rock band, and it's one of those films that people...they just fuckin' love this film.
- And then I direct a lot of television, because I use that money to support writers that write these independent movies.
- Television's great, but I like these movies where there's a lot of freedom. We don't have much money so there aren't a whole lot of people trying to control us.
- CAIRNS: That sounds like a contrast with here in the UK, where even on low-budget films, which are virtually all we make, there seems to be a lot of executive overseeing.
- MACDONALD: Yeah, it's crazy. It's more and more, I've found, probably because there, like here, independent films are financed by government agencies and television and there's a growing army of people coming along to give you script notes, and then notes on your dailies, and notes on your first cut. You appreciate the concern, but at some point you just think, "Let us do our fuckin' jobs," you know?
- CAIRNS: The film started as a novel. How did you find the book and what changes were necessary?
- MACDONALD: I was tipped off by the editor of the novel, a friend of a friend. And I bought the rights to the novel for a chocolate egg. There was a reading going on at a local bar, and it was a local press, not a big New York publishing company, and so the option was bought with a chocolate egg and so eventually I asked Tony "Do you want to write the screenplay?"
- Fortunately he really understood that the screenplay is a different thing from the novel. Sometimes the book can be a real trap. A screenplay is very much more like a map or an architectural design. It's never really meant to be read to be enjoyed.
- CAIRNS: In television you've done The Ray Bradbury Theater, and Lexx, but this is your first horror movie.
- MACDONALD: Technically, when I was in high school I made a zombie movie; that was how I learned to make movies, actually. I've always had a great love of horror movies, not fanatically like some people who are amazingly knowledgeable—I wouldn't consider myself an expert by any means, but I have a great fondness for things that I have seen. We tried not to sell [Pontypool] as a zombie movie per se, because we didn't want to disappoint the true zombie fans.
- CAIRNS: How are you selling it? I saw it knowing very little, and I really enjoyed the experience of discovering what it was about as it went on.
- MACDONALD: Well, we've had a release in Canada and a release in America. The best poster was part of the American campaign, and it's the young girl, it's a profile shot, and she's holding her hand to her mouth, with all this negative space around her. That's the movie, that's what we're trying to sell. We're no selling splatter, although there's a bit in it, just because we love that stuff, but we knew we couldn't afford to do much, so what we're selling is mystery, suspense, danger.
- Apparently in South Korea, which bought the film, that's our biggest sale— my producer tells me, so I never know if it's the truth or it's not the truth—their campaign—ours was "Shut up or die," which I kinda like but is maybe too cheeky or something—their cut line is "Fear English."
- And apparently, my producer tells me, there's a lot of people in Korea who want to learn English, not just kids in school, so I guess, they know their audience...
- CAIRNS: Tapping into a national anxiety.
- MACDONALD: Yeah! [Laughter.]
- CAIRNS: One of the things that really works in the film is it reverses the usual concept of "Show, don't tell." You get more value out of "Tell, don't show." Was there pressure to show more?
- MACDONALD: Yes there was pressure to show more. And we did shoot more. The producers naturally are more the "Show, don't tell" people, because they come at the cinema as spectacle, especially in horror these days, which is all about showing as much carnage and blood as possible. It's almost like a competition, who can outdo the other guy. Which is one particular track of horror. But because one of the central ideas is language, and it's set in a radio station, we basically stole the concept of the radio play by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, which created a sensation in its time, had half the eastern seaboard fleeing their homes.
- So this was an attempt to recreate that theater of the mind. This movie's first incarnation was as a radio play, because Tony and I had the REAL movie we want to make, we had that ready for years, but although it's not like a hundred million dollars, it's like eight or something, it's more money than we made this for. Our version of the BBC, CBC Radio, said, "We're looking for radio drama, and we're looking outside our usual circle," and we said, "Well, we haven't really done that before, but we do have this kinda crazy thing about a language virus..."
- CAIRNS: The movie has references to what's going on in the world in terms of war, and also freedom of expression, censorship, the risk of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater...
- MACDONALD: Our original intent was, like, "Let's make a scary movie." But because we're in the world of language and communication and radio and news, you can't help but make it kind of contemporary, and you go, "Okay, what's contemporary?" Well, this never-ending war is contemporary, especially the whole war on terror, so I guess our attitudes come out about that. This kind of manufactured fear on the part of the Americans, using the word "terrorism" at every possible juncture, looking for Osama Bin Laden—"Oh, there he is, he's in a small-town theater company!" —right? Just the hilariousness of that.
- CAIRNS: The very idea of a "war on terror" is a very Pontypool idea, the war against an abstract concept or word.
- MACDONALD: Right. So our ideas naturally come out about the manufacturing of fear by the American media [...] the co-opting of certain words by the media, to label people or things. And it's in a very sly and damaging way, often. "Pedophile" is a popular word, as a weapon, you know. To suddenly hint at that, you could destroy somebody. With something as simple as "You know, I heard he was a pedophile..." It just shows how powerful certain words are. Language is so loaded with great shit, it's almost an embarrassment of riches for us, to know how to place some of these things. And there's kind of a cultural thing too, like when the BBC guy comes on, everybody's like, "Oh my god, we've got the real guy on!" you know? It's like these backwoods colonial guys listening to the real deal. It's such a cultural thing, with the French-English in Canada. And suddenly these sovereigntists or separatists become "terrorists," that easy slip, how easy that is... "Oh, I've never heard the French 'Quiet Revolution' referred to as 'terrorists' in Quebec." But you could...
- CAIRNS: And a violent riot becomes an "insurgency."
- MACDONALD: Yeah yeah. So you start to see how just choice of words, there's a certain WAY that the media talks, to create a drama, to create an ongoing story. That's very interesting. Myself having worked in the media for so long, you have an inside view of how these things go on.