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Bruce McDonald keeps it weird

The legendary filmmaker and Ryerson alum premieres new film Weirdos at TIFF
By: Will Sloan
September 08, 2016

In Bruce McDonald’s new film Weirdos (premiering September 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival), two teenagers from small-town Nova Scotia go on a hitchhiking road trip to escape the monotony of their surroundings, and maybe find themselves. For his part, Bruce McDonald grew up in Rexdale—not exactly a small town, but as he puts it, “It was a place you wanted to leave, in a way.”

He continues, “It was a great place to grow up, in a sense, because it was on the edge of the city but still of the city. But you just got the sense that there were things going on even as close as downtown that you wanted to be at. I remember when I was going to Ryerson, I was so happy to be downtown.”

With Roadkill, Hard Core Logo, The Tracey Fragments, Pontypool, and Trigger to his credit, Bruce McDonald has become one of Canada’s key filmmakers. But before that, he was a film and photography major Ryerson’s School of Image Arts from 1978 to 1982. Though more than 30 years have passed, the experience continues to reverberate.

“I fondly remember that we had some people there who had a huge influence on me: Bruce Elder, Jim Kelly, Murray Pomerance, and a few others,” he said. “They were brilliant and giving—I think to be a teacher, you have to be giving—and they just turned you on to all kinds of amazing things. I lived in the suburbs, for god’s sake—I needed some new landscapes.”

One of his early films, Let Me See (from 1982), won the Norman Jewison Award for Best Canadian Student Film. “I’ll always remember going to the ceremony at a building at the CNE, getting the prize and the cheque, and then going across the street to see the Clash play at the CNE grandstand, which was awesome,” he said.

“Any kind of award at any age is encouraging because it’s just such a long slog, and there’s so little actual, tangible encouragement—it’s nice every once and a while.”

Looking back at Ryerson, McDonald says that the school helped prepare him for the collaborative nature of filmmaking. “You could create these little teams and experiment with working with different people. The fact that I still work with people from that class is a testament both to the nature of filmmaking, and to the fact that the people you meet in your formative years are very important to you.

“It’s kind of amazing that the people that you meet in school may ride shotgun with you for many, many years to follow.”

McDonald’s films often have the energy and resourcefulness of a good student film: his Pontypool was a zombie apocalypse movie where the zombies stayed off screen, and Trigger was funded by friends and rushed into production as its star, Tracy Wright, underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer. Weirdos is shot in high-contrast black-and-white—a decision that was practical as much as artistic.

“It does give you a great freedom when you have limitations,” said McDonald. “Especially when you understand what your limitations are and you’re not pretending they’re beyond what you have, it’s a great way to work, because it actually sets everybody free a little bit. Small decisions can have big effects, like the idea, ‘Okay, we have a limited budget for art direction, so let’s make it black and white.’”

Glance through his IMDB page and you’ll see that McDonald alternates his films with a broad range of for-hire gigs in TV. When asked for advice for students, he said, “Whatever your day job is—whether it’s directing a television series or loading a truck—make your own stuff with your gang. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Don’t think you’ve made it when you’re directing an episode of Flash Point or whatever the thing is. That’s just the practice; that’s just the gym. You have to do your own stuff.”

Weirdos debuts September 9, 7 p.m. at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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