At five to midnight, lighting illuminates the sky above a haunted church in Toronto’s west end where director Bruce McDonald is filming his new horror film, Pontypool. As McDonald shoots car exteriors atop soggy snow blankets in the church parking lot, 35 extras in zombie make-up wait patiently in the basement. “We’re two hours behind the zombie attack,” notes co-producer Jeffrey Coghlan who keeps a calm eye on the set and a firm hand on his watch. Meanwhile, his partner Ambrose Roche and executive producer Jasper Graham are up the street huddling over drinks with one of their private investors.
A truly independent project, Pontypool bypassed the Canadian film system—no Telefilm, distributors, broadcasters—by raising its entire budget privately. While still closing those deals, its first-time producers rushed into production so they’d have a shot at a Toronto International Film Festival world premiere. With $1.5 million riding on the line, McDonald & company needed TIFF to recoup its investment for its Bay St. investors. The production of Pontypool is a tale of serendipity, gut instinct and chutzpah.
Ironically, McDonald’s indie project is his most commercial film, a zombie picture that he and writer Tony Burgess had been germinating for ten years. “Last fall, CBC Radio called to say that they were doing a series of dramas,” recalls McDonald, “‘Would you have anything?’ I was thinking, ‘Gee this story is about a language virus. That might be good for CBC Radio.’ So we wrote a script for the radio drama not thinking it would become this. When Tony finished the draft I thought, ‘This might be a really great movie.’”
Burgess loosely adapted his novel Pontypool Changes Everything to focus on down-and-out shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie of History of Violence) who is reduced to taking the early morning slot at fictitious radio station CLSY 660 in real-life Pontypool, Ontario. As Mazzy broadcasts from a run-down old church basement, a snowstorm hits the unsuspecting town. Suddenly, the station starts receiving terrifying reports of the townsfolk killing and eating each other’s remains. As the snow traps Mazzy and his colleagues, the zombies attack the station so they can infect the rest of the world with their murderous linguistic virus.
Jeffrey Coghlan braved Toronto’s record-breaking snows last February and ran into McDonald at the Horseshoe, the legendary punk-and-rockabilly club on Queen Street West. McDonald told Coghlan about this horror film he wanted to make and that he was courting a few producers. Seizing the opportunity, Coghlan rushed to his producing partner, Ambrose Roche, the next day. The timing was good—a George Romero project they had been developing had just stalled. “Talk to Bruce,” Coghlan urged Roche. “He’s got something.”
A few days later when they all met, McDonald said he wanted to get the ball rolling ASAP in order to double-up on the CBC Radio production and shoot television in the summer. McDonald knew Roche as the “the rock ‘n’ roll guy who does [indie] distribution as well” and programs films at North By Northeast (NXNE), the city’s annual live rock showcase. Roche boasted: “If you trust us, we could have you up by April-May.” McDonald hadn’t worked with these upstarts who had never produced a feature, but he had a gut feeling. The following week, Roche and Coghlan optioned Pontypool and hit the ground running. They wanted to make the TIFF deadline of late June— a mere four months away.
Like all producers, the duo knocked on doors both institutional and private until Coghlan chanced upon an acquaintance named Jasper Graham. Graham was a British-born actor and screenwriter who founded the Canadian branch of the Future Shorts film festival. Coghlan explained “this thing with Bruce … and we’re looking for some money.” Asked Graham, “What are you looking for?” “A million-five.” “I got somebody,” Graham responded.
J. Miles Dale and his investment counselor had formed a fund to invest in independent Canadian film. The group of eight private investors were interested in diversifying their holdings to film, yet remaining hands-off. “We originally intended to do a pool of four or five films, but this one came up,” recalls Dale. As a veteran TV and film producer and director whose credits include Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, the RoboCop TV series and some work with Bruce McDonald, Dale was the film expert of the group. “Look. It’s likely going to make some money,” he apprised his partners, “but don’t bet that you can’t lose.” Dale read the script, met McDonald and recommended Pontypool to his partners with the words, “It’s a winner.” By April the fund gave the producers their verbal green light. “Bruce’s track record was a big part of it,” says Dale. “It was a good script in a genre that was a little more commercial than his other films.”
By then it was April and Roche and Coghlan were already prepping the shoot out of their own pockets. “Let’s aim for TIFF” was the mantra. As development overlapped pre-production, McDonald cast quickly and chose the first location he saw, the basement of the Victorian-Royce Presbyterian Church where many films had been shot. No completion bond was purchased. Budget largely dictated that DP Miroslaw Baszak would film on the much-hyped Red HD camera, not conventional 35mm. With classics like 12 Angry Men, Repulsion and Night of the Living Dead in mind, McDonald decided to shoot in a contained set over three tight weeks starting immediately after Victoria Day and wrapping June 9. Editing would overlap shooting. It was an Olympian schedule—everything had to work to plan—and until the contracts were signed, there was still the off-chance that the investors would back off and shut down the entire film.
The typical Canadian feature travels a long and torturous path from idea to screen. Every producer is “independent” as he/she employs cunning, idealism and cajones to gather slices of the funding pie from Telefilm, distributors here and abroad, TV broadcasters, funding agencies at every level, tax credits and, if they’re lucky, private capital. The starting point is the “package”: script, director, stars. However, notes Coghlan, “it’s really hard to put a package together without any money. You’re always in that Catch-22.”
Roche and Coghlan know that if they had taken the conventional financing route, they’d still be knocking on doors: “Everybody would’ve told us, ‘Well, you haven’t done a feature before.’” Instead they were lucky—but the duo also took risks in a country that always plays it safe.
While the powers that be want our films to be mar- ketable, Canada hasn’t offered tax breaks to private investors since the bad old days of the late ’70s when dentists’ money spawned third-rate slasher flicks. Meanwhile, provinces are quick to offer incentives to for- eign productions to shoot here, but what are they doing to keep homegrown talent from fleeing to Hollywood?
The stakes are high with Pontypool, and it’s not just the $1.5 million that the producers have to recoup for their investors. Canadian film needs more profitable indie pictures to entice Bay Street to open their wallets and finance further movies. “We were spoiled,” says McDonald of the boom years when American productions rushed to shoot in the Great White North. “It was great for a number of years when the dollar was low and everybody was working. But when that moves away, what do you have left? You need the writers/producers/actors to carry on.”
Five months after he ran into McDonald at the Horseshoe Tavern, Coghlan stands in the ballroom of the Royal York Hotel. Minutes before, TIFF had announced its Canadian line-up and Pontypool is in it. Coghlan and Roche haven’t slept—they were up late the night before trying to cut a trailer to hand out to the media here. They didn’t finish it, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling giddy. Across the room, Dale and his partners are encouraged. They all got what they wanted: a TIFF world premiere.
“Now, part two begins: selling,” says Coghlan. “We’re talking to people already. We may have more interest because we were privately financed—with Bruce McDonald. They say, ‘You did it? Wow. I just read the script. I heard you guys were gonna go.’ It’s created momentum from a different angle—from distribution.”
So, did he, Ambrose Roche and Bruce McDonald beat the system? “No, no,” he quickly responds. “What we got was a get-out-of-jail free card. We still have to pass go and collect two hundred bucks.”