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Interview: Director Bruce McDonald Talks Vampires, Henry Rollins & Chet Baker in DREAMLAND

Canadian director Bruce McDonald is such an interesting filmmaker because you never know quite what to expect with his films. He’s moved from a fast-paced fresh take on zombies with Pontypool, to a black and white post-Vietnam story with Weirdos. Horror fans may also be familiar with the fun, trick-or-treat killer kids thriller Hellions from 2015.

With Dreamland, starring Stephen McHattie (Pontypool), Henry Rollins and Juliette Lewis, he’s created the kind of genre world I would like to live in where anything seems possible.

On the orders of his gangster boss, hit man Johnny must cut off the pinkie finger of a celebrated jazz trumpeter before a high-profile gig. Seems simple enough, but the gig is playing a wedding at the palace of crime queen, The Countess. A vampire, a femme fatale, a handful of severed fingers and a ballroom full of music, mayhem and machine guns…it’s just another night in Dreamland.

Dread Central: How would you describe the world of Dreamland and what genre do you think is the closest to categorizing it?

Bruce McDonald: Sometimes I like to think of it as a Eurotrash jazz Western. It’s clearly influenced by noir, I read some Raymond Chandler preparing for this and that was a real treat. I start with the base and this odd little sauce with vampire and some Lynchian dopplegangers. You have this noir-ish base of a contract killer, that kind of is the glue. Because it’s a dream, you can add these odd elements. To have these references in film history and literature, it’s a nice grounding for us to go forward.

DC: All those different elements really come together but on paper they don’t really seem like they should. A story about a hitman and a jazz musician, child sex trafficking, and a bizarre wedding where a vampire is the groom. Did you and Tony Burgess always intend to have these characters in one story?

BM: It began after Pontypool and we had seen a short film where Steve McHattie played Chet Baker and we were like, ‘Wow, he’s a great Chet Baker!’ It was a short film called The Deaths of Chet Baker by a guy named Robert Budreau. Everything was there in the first draft: the Countess and the vampires, it was quite mad. I never quite knew what it would look like at the end. It was a mystery and a strange equation on paper. I was lucky to have a pretty great design team and a great composer and somehow it all feels like it belongs together. It was a stab at madness…it’s like a fairy tale. I think of it as a modern fairy tale. 

Maybe shooting it in Europe was helpful. Europe has this weird old and new thing, it’s always fluctuating and there’s a mix of cultures and languages.

DC: Was the Countess’s domain, was that Luxembourg? It ended up being a perfect location, it’s got this dreamy, tucked away quality to it.

BM: Yeah, it looks like this fairy tale city when you see it from a distance. The Countess’s palace was the Luxembourg Palace of Justice. That was the place that we convinced them to let us in, they’d never had a film crew in and I don’t know if they will again.

DC: Mentioning Chet Baker, I also thought it was interesting how there’s that connection with Ethan Hawke’s movie Born To Be Blue. Stephen played the father in that, Chet Baker’s Dad.

BM: That’s the same guy that made Born To Be Blue that made this short film with McHattie. I owe a big salute to Robert Budreau for introducing me to Stephen McHattie as Chet Baker.

DC: He’s perfect. Maybe we could talk about your relationship with him and the double performance. I love him at the end when he sings the Eurythmics cover, especially with that explosive final act happening all around him.

BM: In the script, it was Alice Cooper actually. We had a song, I think, from Killer and then Stephen was like, ‘I tried singing it like Chet Baker but I’m not quite finding it.’ So he brought up the Eurythmics track…”I Saved The World Today.” I had to write a letter to Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox to ask them permission. I had to explain this is a movie with a vampire and a killer and this guy was going to sing the song but in a Chet Baker way. Luckily, they said yes and they ended up loving the performance that we made from their song.

DC: You could see it as a music video, too. Now I really want to hear the Alice Cooper version, I’m sure he would’ve allowed that as well. 

BM: At one point we thought let’s get Alice in the movie but we didn’t really know how to get to him, so…

DC: Maybe he could’ve given away the bride as another vampire. I thought Tómas [Lemarquis] was just meant to play the vampire. Can you talk about that character a little and why the decision was made to not have any background or explanation about how a vampire can exist in this world? I love that he seems to be the only bloodsucker and this strange, elite society and the mob underworld just accepts him as another eccentric among them. 

Tómas’s performance kind of represents the tone for the movie: he’s scary, he’s weirdly funny and mythical. Would you agree with that?

BM: Oh yeah, absolutely. Our co-writer Patrick Whistler said, ‘Oh, you should check out Tómas.’ We had just seen him in the Denis Villeneuve film, he plays the librarian. He accepted the role, he was very excited. He said ever since he was little he always wanted to be a vampire. In terms of why there’s a vampire in the movie, I don’t really know. Again, using this dream logic we were like it’s a dream and he’s just a vampire. 

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DC: That’s what’s cool about it.

BM: Yeah and you don’t explain. What I loved about Tómas’s performance…I probably originally was imagining the Bela Legosi vampire. The classical, remote, erudite evil vampire. When Tómas came he said, ‘I don’t know what you think of this but I think my vampire…he is just excited. To him, this girl is like chocolate cake,’ and it’s not about morality, it’s not about any of that stuff. I really loved what he did with that character, it was just a treat. Sometimes, you have it in your head of what it’s going to be and the actors come and they may have a completely different idea. They really do their homework, people like him and Stephen and Juliette and Henry.

DC: He must’ve been a younger vampire. He’s still excited about the chase. Speaking of Henry Rollins and Juliette Lewis, Henry has moved from being a frontman to more of an actor and Juliette is perhaps more well-known for her music now and doesn’t really act as often. They’ve been on these parallel paths but in reverse.

BM: I hadn’t really thought of that before. I’ve seen Juliette and the Licks a couple times. I once saw them open for Soundgarden, she fucking goes hard, man. She rocks out. And Henry, I’d worked with him once before years ago at a show in Vancouver, a science fiction show, and we hit it off. When I was thinking of this, I thought of Henry and he right away, he showed up. He was telling me about some of the other parts he’d been playing lately and how much he really likes acting. He was just really generous,  surprisingly kindhearted and generous man. He is a lovely human, Henry Rollins. 

And Juliette, of course, I’d worked with her on a movie years ago called Picture Claire and we had a great time. She accepted to come and do a lovely cameo, kind of a big cameo. She had a lot of fun. She got to play and try things. She was just hilariously eccentric and beautiful.

DC: It’s interesting to see them in a jazz film where they’re known for punk and hard rock. Kind of a fun parallel with Hardcore Logo. Would you ever want to do a full musical? I guess the closest you’ve probably come is your fist film, Roadkill.

BM: I would love to do a musical. Musical films have always attracted me and some kind of singing and dancing thing would be really, really fun.

DC: It would make sense and you’d be keeping us on our toes for you to do a musical next.

BM: It’s funny that you say that, there is a project that we’ve been working on. There’s a band from Montreal called Stars…they’re a very lush pop band with a guy singer and a girl singer. Their music is great. They’re friends with a guy named Daniel Handler and he’s most known for the Lemony Snicket books. He’s written a musical for Stars and it’s sort of early game but it’s something that we’ve been talking about. So maybe if the God’s align we will be able to make a musical. 

Dreamland is in theaters if possible, On Demand and Digital June 5. 

Written by Drew Tinnin

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