INTERVIEW: "Last Night," Don McKellar's Intimate Armageddon
by Dave Ratzlow
Don McKellar is about as famous as you can get in Canada. Not only is he an Atom Egoyan regular (“The Adjuster,” “Exotica“), but he appears frequently on Canadian TV (most notably on “Twitch City” the anti-sit-com which he created), and has written several film scripts from Bruce MacDonald‘s “Roadkill” and “Highway 61” to Friançois Girard‘s “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” and “The Red Violin.” His impressive feature directorial debut is “Last Night,” the emotionally resonant story of several people living in Toronto during the last few hours before the end of the world. Not only is the film a perfect antidote to our cynical 90’s, it’s also a character driven alternative to the effects-driven disaster pictures brought to us by Hollywood each year. Originally conceived as part of a series of ten films about the turning of the millennium called “2000 Seen By. . .“, “Last Night” has struck out with a theatrical life all its own.
McKellar casts himself as a sarcastic young man who just wants to be alone his last night on earth and his biggest dilemma is deciding what CD to play. Fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg also appears as a gas company bureaucrat who calls each and every one of his customers to assure them that the gas company will remain operational “until the very end.”
“Last Night” won the Youth Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, and subsequently traveled to the Toronto Film Festival, where the film opened the Canada Perspectives program and was acquired for U.S. distribution by Lions Gate Films from Canuck producers Rhombus Media, along with their other film, “The Red Violin.” indieWIRE talked with writer/director/actor McKellar during the Thessaloniki International Film Festival held in Greece last November about making mayhem for cheap, persevering in the face of annihilation, and directing yourself.
indieWIRE: For this movie, did you employ that old Merchant and Ivory trick where you spend all your money on a key few scenes to make it look like it cost more than it did?
Don McKellar: Is that a Merchant and Ivory trick? Yeah, absolutely. But it wasn’t that calculated. I did think to myself, I want certain things to be spectacular, like flipping cars, and the street car being pushed over, certain things that I thought would sell the whole ‘end of the world’ idea. I created some everyday mayhem for a few scenes, then on smaller scenes, I tried to get more personal. It wasn’t really a strategy, it might be more intuitive now that I’ve been involved in quite a few low budget features. My focus certainly was always on people and not spectacle. Fortunately, Hollywood covered the spectacle side of it more than adequately.
iW: Was that shot of the overturned cable car a matte shot or. . . ?
McKellar: It was computer generated. It looks good, I think. I kept fighting for it, but my producer kept saying, “Well, we can’t do it, Don, we just can’t do it.” We actually checked with the public transit in Toronto and it would have been really, really, really expensive. Actually, in this other film that I wrote, “The Red Violin,” there was a bigger budget film and had this deal for computer generated effects with a company in Montreal. It was one of those things where they could get a package of effects for the same price, so basically I got a free effect from my other film.
iW: What was the budget and how long did you shoot?
McKellar: The budget was about $2.2 million Canada which is…maybe $1.5 American. Basically nothing, right? And we shot maybe five weeks or so, a five day week. If you’re paying, that’s like your standard Canadian low budget feature, and they’re all low budget, except for one or two a year.
iW: Did you get the financing from the French production company, Haut & Court, the French company behind the “2000 Seen By” series?
McKellar: They ended up being minority investors, actually. But they initiated the money, which is always a crucial thing to say, “Oh, I have some French money.” That was for an hour, too and actually, we couldn’t even fund an hour. It’s complicated. The theory was that you were supposed to get your national broadcaster to finance your film. . .
iW: In your case, Telefilm?
McKellar: It would be the CBC, actually. And their payment would be that they would get all the other films in the series for broadcast. And they would get the rights to all the rest. But you see, that doesn’t really work in English speaking territories, because they’re just not going to show subtitled films, and there’s no place for one hours like that, except maybe PBS, and then they wouldn’t have the money anyway. So, that didn’t work. So we had to make a feature just to get it made. It was easier to finance a feature than it was to get an hour for television. Because people could understand that you could make some money off a feature. Essentially, it’s more, of course. But not much more. Then in the end, I got a Canadian producer, which is Rhombus Media, and then we started raising money based on that. And then we did get the CBC involved and Telefilm and distributors involved.
iW: How’s it doing in Canada now?
McKellar: The response has been great, I’d have to say. I think the thing is that for such a grim subject matter, it has a surprisingly optimistic aura and it can be read that way if you want to. It can be surprisingly affirming. I don’t know, I guess it’s timely.
iW: It was kind of suspenseful too. When you were writing it, did you ever imagine a different ending?
McKellar: For the very ending, that very last shot always seemed too corny to me, so corny that I never even wrote it down. I was talking about it with one of my producers and he loved the idea. So I said, “Oh, we’ll play it and see what’ll happen.” Then it became clear just before we started shooting that that was the way it was gonna go and I finally put it on paper.
iW: What decisions went into choosing the characters and each of their stories?
McKellar: Well the kind of characters that I wanted to follow were those who had dealt with it. That was the main decision actually. I wasn’t interested in characters who were hysterical or had gone insane. And I didn’t want to focus so much on people who were responding by violence. The people who interested me were those that could come to terms with it one way or another and had built some sort of ritual to keep them going until the end. Those aren’t necessarily the most healthy decisions, but that was the kind of response I could understand and empathize with. These were people who were persevering in the face of annihilation. I saw a certain heroism in that response that I hadn’t seen in other movies. Also I wasn’t interested in the people who were trying to stop it. I wasn’t interested in the presidents or the generals. I only heard about those other films while I was shooting. I got a little nervous at first, but then someone showed me the synopsis of “Armageddon,” and I was like… okay, we have something different.
iW: What do you need to know in order to direct yourself?
McKellar: Clearly the most important thing is to have a cast and crew that is sympathetic to that situation. I was really conscious of that, I was worried about that. I got a crew I could really trust and could watch over me. And I got a cast, many of whom I’d worked with before, because I was worried about that problem, and they were confident enough that they could deal with that. As an actor, you’re trained not to comment on another actor’s performance, so to be sitting in a scene and have the actor yell cut and suddenly be talking to you could be difficult for some people. But they were great. Of course I wouldn’t do it without a video tap. I don’t know how anyone could do it without it. I did get a little self-conscious watching the tap after awhile. And that can sometimes spoil the scene. Sometimes you can get a little schizophrenic. You have to force yourself to be objective. It’s really strange. It’s always been strange for me even to see myself on screen when I was just acting. But I got to the point where — I can’t say I was actually objective — but at least I was able to say, “Well, he’s doing it,” or “he’s missed it there, we’ve gotta do it again.” Which is enough.