INTERVIEW: All Work and No Play; Burns and McKellar on "waydowntown"
by Steve Erickson
(indieWIRE/ 01.23.02) — Writer-director Gary Burns‘ “waydowntown” illustrates the truism that local art is often the most universal. Set in Calgary, Alberta, the film was inspired by the city’s “plus 15” system, an inter-connected group of office and apartment buildings and malls built 15 feet above-ground. Designed to protect office workers and shoppers from the cold, these complexes have wound up decimating the city’s downtown district.
The film describes a city that has become a giant mall, a place in which work and leisure have become nearly indistinguishable. Within this inhospitable climate, four office workers decide to test their limits by betting a month’s salary on who can stay indoors the longest. The film is set mostly in real-time on day 24 of the bet. Tom (Fab Filippo), the narrator, shares an office with the terminally depressed Bradley (Don McKellar) and wanders around the complex offering constant voice-over narration. Sandra (Marya Delver), who carries around magazine perfume samples to combat the building’s bad air, trails her boss, Mather, as he goes on a shoplifting spree. The soon-to-be married Curt (Gordon Currie) tries to pick up women, and Randy (Tobias Godson) spends his time giving mall patrons animal names. Shot on DV, the film captures its setting brilliantly, creating an only slightly exaggerated view of stifling corporate culture. Unlike many directors who use video, Burns avoids naturalism, producing instead a jittery, hallucinatory world with unexplained costume changes and room for appearances by superheroes. Steve Erickson spoke with Burns and McKellar about the film in August. Lot 47 will release “waydowntown” in New York on Jan. 25, followed by a nationwide release.
indieWIRE: Gary, your own background is relatively working class. I was wondering what attracted you to the office milieu in “waydowntown”.
Gary Burns: I’ve worked construction, so I built office towers rather than working in them. I wanted to make a film about architecture, but it wound up being quite different. In Calgary, the entire downtown is connected by glass walkways. I co-wrote it with a friend of mine who has more office experience, James Martin. At any job, you’re working with total strangers. You may see them more than your family, but you don’t really know them. You’re only put together by chance.
iW: A friend who lived in Calgary described “waydowntown” as the most “Calgary-centric” film ever made, but the setting is never mentioned. It could be set another city.
Burns: I don’t think of myself as a regional filmmaker. My other two films are all about the suburban experience, which is pretty generic in North America. Suburbs don’t change that much. And in this movie, when Tom goes outside, it’s not any better than the inside. He doesn’t leave this artificial world and enter a forest.
Don McKellar: The film is ultra-Calgary, which actually appealed to me. But the point of malls is that they’re all the same everywhere in the world. It becomes an allegory for an all-encompassing corporate culture.
iW: Of course, Tom will have to get another office job.
Burns: I think he’ll last a week before finding another one.
McKellar: He’s not going to join Greenpeace.
Burns: It’s important that my characters have a life after the film. There’s no swelling music at the end. He doesn’t have a girlfriend with him. If it was a Hollywood script, he would’ve had something he wanted to do. He would’ve been a struggling novelist or something. I hate that kind of stuff.
iW: Films about office work, like “Office Space” and “Clockwatchers,” have usually bombed in the U.S.
Burns: It’s tough to make a film about office work because people don’t want to see a film about themselves. Escapism is still one of the fundamental reasons for going to the movies. It’s hard to market.
McKellar: For unemployable people, this film is escapism.
Burns: When the film was in release in Canada, there was a woman at this bakery I go to who came up to me and said “You made me really glad I became a baker.” That was the biggest compliment I’ve received in years.
iW: Was the role of Bradley written with McKellar in mind?
Burns: No, the only person I had in mind when I was writing it is the security guard. I usually don’t work that way. But as soon as we started casting, I thought of Don.
iW: Were you afraid that casting him would alter the balance of the film, since his part is relatively small?
Burns: The acting pool in Canada is relatively small, too.
McKellar: Bradley is outside the betting pool, so I’m positioned as an outsider. If I was one of the main characters, it would have been a much different effect.
Burns: In the niche market here or even in Canada, there’s a lot of pressure around casting. Whether you want or don’t want to use an actor of Don’s stature (laughs), the pressure is there. Apparently, Sarah Polley didn’t want to do it. She read part of it and didn’t like it. Her agent said something like, “I think she read a bit of it, and it was not her cup of tea.”
iW: Was shooting on video always part of your concept?
Burns: Originally it was supposed to be one 90-minute shot. But then I couldn’t get tapes that long. You can’t get 90-minute Beta tapes, and I was thinking of going directly to the manufacturer. It hadn’t been done at that point, but then Mike Figgis‘ “Time Code” came out with four 90-minute shots. So I threw that idea out. The environment really works for video.
iW: There’s a weird quality to the lighting in malls that video captures very well, much better than if you try to make it look like film.
Burns: If you’re working in digital, you’ve got to embrace it, and not pretend you’re shooting film.
McKellar: Video actually captures that light very well. On film, you have to correct the color to reproduce overhead lighting. It’s one of the few video-films I’ve seen that exploits the medium for its themes.
Burns: It comes out a bit too green. We did some tests to see how it looked, and it was quite green, and we decided to leave it that way. We were startled when we switched to another brand of camera and the green was gone. We wondered what we did wrong.
iW: Are the hallucinatory quality and the superhero references meant to reflect that Tom is recalling events that took place while he was stoned?
Burns: No, I think the pot just loosens him up and lets his mind wander. It’s not the reason why he thinks he can fly. The superhero is his conscience acting up, I think. When Tom is not being an upstanding individual, the superhero comes to mind. Superman is his image of his conscience.
McKellar: Also, after 24 days of claustrophobic insanity in bad air, you don’t need dope.
iW: Over the course of the film, he comes to realize that he’s not quite as nice a guy as he thinks he is.
Burns: Certainly. It’s so prevalent in Hollywood — and pretty much all narrative filmmaking, period — to represent people who live great lives, with great apartments and glamorous careers. They’re brain surgeons married to cellists. So I like to make films about regular people, with everyday flaws. I try to avoid escapism by creating characters who aren’t always pleasant people.
McKellar: In order to survive corporate culture, you’ve got to build a wall of defenses, as well. You’ve got to pick on the guy everyone else does.
iW: Don, do you have any interest in working on American films, especially independent cinema?
McKellar: I have nothing against American movies, and there are great directors I’d love to work with. There’s no patriotic stand I’m taking. Most of the American films I’ve been offered are complete crap, so it’s not that hard to resist them. I guess I’m one of the few people who has received some recognition in Canadian film and TV, so I feel like I’m in a privileged position. I had a TV series and a film which I had complete control over. It would be pretty ungrateful to move to the U.S. and say goodbye. But I’m not gonna turn away Jim Jarmusch‘s calls and say “Fuck you, Yankee scum!” Trans-national conglomerates finance most movies anyway. Jarmusch and Hal Hartley are working with money from France and Japan. And even more, most Hollywood films are barely American. They’re made for the international market.”