Catching Up With The Grand Seduction Director Don McKellar

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Independent film creates, out of necessity, a wide variety of do-it-yourself artists and jacks of all trades. Even in this environment, Don McKellar is unique. A sort of laissez-faire approach with his career has, ironically, yielded some fantastic results, including a Tony Award, impressive movie roles, and critical acclaim over the years for his own films at Cannes and Toronto International film festivals. He’s an accidental renaissance man of sorts, and there’s something exciting about that. Paste caught up with McKellar to talk about his lovely new film, The Grand Seduction (starring Taylor Kitsch and Brendan Gleeson), French-Canadian film style (if it exists), and the healing powers of comedy.

Don McKellar: I like Paste!

Paste: Oh, good! We like you!
McKellar: I’m a magazine fan, so I support you guys.

Paste: We appreciate that. I was just watching your short film, A Word from the Management.
McKellar: (laughs) Oh really? That comes from my work years ago with the Toronto International Film Festival. It was sort of an exaggeration of the types I used to encounter. But it’s become a favorite at film festival rap parties.

Paste: I was going to say they should start showing it at the beginning of every film festival. It was great. It’s been so long since then, and you’ve been doing so many different things in so many different genres. Could you talk a little about transitioning to where you are now.
McKellar: It’s interesting. I’ve never really had a career plan, and maybe that’s pretty obvious, but I think I benefited from that. I never really decided what I wanted to do, so I started in theater and then I ended up making movies because I had some opportunities. And then I tried acting, directing, writing. I guess I have a short attention span, so I’ve just always moved on to the next thing. And if it’s been some weird, new opportunity I just take it. So I did a Broadway musical and I’ve won a Tony and things like that. In a way, it all brought me to directing. It’s the kind of thing I never in my life would have imagined doing.

It’s a tip to the youngsters—I’d say don’t plan too hard. Be sort of open.

Paste: A little while back, I got to interview Denis Villeneuve, another French-Canadian filmmaker.
McKellar: Oh, I know Denis! He’s a good friend of mine.

Paste: Oh, so then you might be friends with Philip Falardeau, too.
McKellar: Yes, yes! He’s great, too.

Paste: I’d gotten to speak with him as well when Monsieur Lazhar was just coming out a couple of years ago. I was wondering if you see yourself aligned with them stylistically.
McKellar: Style? I think so. It’s one of those things that’s hard to define—where exactly does style come from? But surely we have similar influences. There is a sort of Canadian sensibility. My countrymen may deny that (laughs), but I think it’s here. There’s the darkness and a weirdness that you see in [David] Cronenberg, that sort of austerity you see in [Atom] Egoyan. The cinephelia, the European influence. So it’s there, somehow.

Paste: This is such a funny movie—the whole premise of faking an entire town is great. I’m also thinking of the phone sex scene, and the part where everyone packs into the bar and then rushes to the church to make the town seem bigger than it is. Was there a particular scene that you read in the script that made you say, “I have to make this movie”?
McKellar: There were two things I liked about the script. It was rooted in reality. I’d been in Newfoundland before. I knew the situation, and I’d always wanted to shoot there. The people are just so great and funny. And the landscape is so stunning. But also the script was really funny and well-constructed. It had a sort of craftsmanship that just reminded me of classic social comedies.That was very appealing to me, but also sort of challenging because the director really has to set it up right for something like that to work. But when you do, the payoff is great.

Paste: The film is also about loss. I think it’s interesting that the need for the doctor to come to the town is born out of this struggle.
McKellar: Yes, that’s true. It is about dealing with loss, and the pressure to compromise yourself ethically in order to survive and preserve your culture. It’s a pretty serious theme in a way.

Paste: It almost could have been a drama.
McKellar: Yes! There were moments when we thought, “Wow, this is not so funny. In the beginning, we have that flashback of the fishermen walking down the hill to go fishing. Almost everyone in the film was from the community, and it’s true that they’re in bad shape. The fishing industry has collapsed because their cod is endangered. They’re having a hard time surviving. So when we dressed them up as their fathers and had them walking down the hill, it was very powerful, and a lot of them started crying at the end. That was when I thought, “Okay, we’re onto something here.” It’s also when I realized that I had a responsibility in making this film. I couldn’t take these things lightly.

So, you’re right. There’s a serious aspect. But that kind of reality often grounds comedy, and makes it even funnier—because it comes out of a need. The people of Newfoundland are famous in Canada for their senses of humor, and a lot of well-known comedians have come out of there. Humor is a survival mechanism for people in places and times of hardship. The truth is, you don’t see a lot of affluent comedians.

Paste: Yes, that’s true. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about working with Brendan Gleeson and Taylor Kitsch.
McKellar: They’d talked to Gleeson before I came on board, and that was one of the big selling points for me. I just think he’s one of the best actors of our time. He’s so truthful. He’s incapable of falseness, even when he’s playing a liar, like in this film! Once his name came up, I just couldn’t think of anyone else who could play this. Most of the people in Newfoundland are Irish or of Irish descent, so even genetically he was right for the part.

He was really serious—serious about nailing that accent. And he really felt a responsibility, and that was a huge comfort. He was a rock of this film. Taylor’s part was tough to cast, too. I was worried about him because he’s playing a sort of straight-forward man. But if it feels too scripted or like he’s too gullible, he won’t be liked because he won’t be believable. But I always thought he had that old-time, movie star characteristic that wasn’t being exploited fully. He is a funny guy, and a smart guy, and he has a charm that’s been underused in his work. Charm is a really hard attribute to find in young actors. It’s really hard to define what it is, but it’s what makes a movie star, and I believe he has it.

Paste: Can you talk a little about your upcoming series, Sensitive Skin?
McKellar: It stars Kim Cattrall and me. We play a couple that moves downtown into a new condo to try and revive our marriage, and it sort of backfires on us. It’s good, people are really liking it. I don’t know when it will be out in the States but it’s playing on HBO here [in Canada]. But I’m really excited about it.

Paste: Well, so are we! Thanks for speaking with us today.
McKellar: Thank you.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.