You can't help but think of Kris Kristofferson's song "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33" when you talk to Canadian director Bruce McDonald. The filmmaker seems a lot like the men Kristofferson said he was inspired by when he wrote "he's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction."
There have been several contradictions in McDonald's life and career. Although he has a huge fan base for directing anti-establishment indie films like Roadkill and Hard Core Logo, he makes his living directing episodes of television shows and made-for-television movies. He dresses like a biker but has managed to forge a close relationship with the "suits" that run public and private funding agencies. And although his films may be brash, he has a quiet, unassuming manner that's allied him with some of the most respected individuals in Canadian film, including his long-time mentor, famed director Norman Jewison.
In truth, McDonald is a sensible man. In a Toronto hotel room during the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, he admits that audiences will probably come out of his latest movie, The Tracey Fragments, talking about the fact that he uses split screens throughout the movie.
(The film is one of the highlights of this weekend's Oxford International Film Festival.)
The film tells the story of a teenager (Ellen Page, nominated for an Academy Award for Juno) searching for her younger brother. Through flashbacks, we see her relationship with her parents, her brother and the men she meets while on her quest. McDonald says the split-screen style choice was organic and not premeditated.
"When we (McDonald and Maureen Medved, author of the book on which the movie is based) wrote the screenplay, we didn't have this style in mind," he says. "When we got the smell that we actually might be able to make this and raise a little money for it, we began to think about it. I had been playing around with the idea of shooting a film on split screens for a while, but there were three reasons why we did it.
"One was to kind of visually re-create a teenaged kid having a nervous breakdown. We also needed something to separate it from the pack, in a simple and economical way, from the other 2,000 movies that Sundance or Toronto gets sent every year. The third was that the story is very simple. It's 'I gotta find my brother.' "
McDonald says Medved did him a service, perhaps subliminally, by calling the book The Tracey Fragments.
"Maybe it was the story that kind of freed us up to say, 'OK, this is a pretty simple little adventure story,' " he says. "There were a lot of passages where there wasn't anyone talking. It was just Tracey tripping out or exploring. It might not have worked for another story, but when we saw all these things that might work if we used a lot of split screen, we said, 'Let's go full throttle.' "
Television has been kind to McDonald. He has made several TV movies and worked on dozens of episodes of Canadian and American television series. If there is a problem with directing series, it's that the director isn't responsible for the vision. They just come in for a week and then move on to something else.
McDonald says that he's been able to find several good reasons for going back to series work, with a leading factor being his ability to bring talented people from TV to his low-budget Canadian films.
"I don't know why I like directing television, but there are a lot of good things about it," he says. "Obviously, the downside is that you are never going to be particularly influential to the overall look of the series or the quality of it. You are a journeyman. You get there and you say, 'Can we try this?' and they will say, 'No, this is how we do it here.' But that's fine. The meat and potatoes of television is someone's head talking, or at least that is what the visual for the audience is. You try to stay on your feet and keep up with it all and then you can use the things you have learned when you are building a movie.
"When we were putting this film together, we could see that most of the people we were using were people I had met through television. The DOP (director of photography) was Steve Cosens, who was on an American series with me, and the production designer, Ingrid Jurek, was with us on Queer As Folk. The truth is, there are a lot of talented people working on television."
THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS receives its Ohio premiere Friday and Saturday night at the 2008 Oxford International Film Festival. Ellen Page was nominated for a Genie, the Canandian version of the Academy Awards, for her leading role in this film.