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Bruce McDonald

Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Editor, Actor
(b. May 28, 1959 Kingston, Ontario)

One of the leading figures of the Toronto New Wave which emerged in the 1980s, Bruce McDonald is best known as a film and television director – and for his irreverence and love of rock music and popular culture – but his many credits also include editor, actor and producer. He grew up in the Toronto suburb of Rexdale, where he started making films with a Brownie 8mm camera. At 19, his work was being shown at the Toronto Super-8 Film Festival. He studied film and photography at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University), where he also made the short films Merge (1980) and Let Me See... (1982). A 30-minute, 16mm film about “the faith of graffiti,” Let Me See... won the Norman Jewison Award for best student film at the 1982 Canadian National Exhibition and screened at many film festivals, including Toronto's Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival).

Although he wouldn’t direct his first feature until 1989, McDonald began making his mark on the Canadian film industry in the early 1980s. He started out in 1980 as a production assistant and driver, and was an assistant cameraperson and assistant editor before serving as an editor on films by Atom Egoyan, Ron Mann, Peter Mettler and Amnon Buchbinder. In 1983 he studied acting techniques at Triune Arts in Toronto and was a founding member of LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) as well as a member of its original board of directors.

Norman Jewison was an early mentor for McDonald. McDonald first contacted Jewison in early 1985, requesting an investment to complete his 60-minute, 16mm mock documentary Knock! Knock! (1985). Later that year, McDonald worked (uncredited) as Jewison’s assistant on Agnes of God (1985). Their relationship has continued over the years.

In 1986, McDonald began writing on film for Cinema Canada and Nerve. As the guest editor for Cinema Canada’s “Outlaw Edition,” published in October, 1988, he helped draw attention to the burgeoning new Canadian film scene, as represented by the works of Patricia Rozema, Peter Mettler, Atom Egoyan and Ron Mann, among others.

In 1989, McDonald delivered his feature debut, Roadkill. The first of a trilogy of road movies — including Highway 61 (1992) and Hard Core Logo (1996) — the film launched his reputation as a maverick independent. Shot in black and white, Roadkill was an immediate success with audiences and critics alike, winning the Citytv Award for best Canadian feature at the 1989 Toronto Festival of Festivals. McDonald’s follow-up, Highway 61 (1991) was named best Canadian feature at the Vancouver International Film Festival and won awards at festivals in Brussels and San Sebastiàn. In 1996, Hard Core Logo won the award for best Canadian feature at Sudbury’s Cinefest and the Vancouver International Film Festival.

McDonald’s other work, including the feature Dance Me Outside (1994), produced by Norman Jewison (based on stories by W.P. Kinsella), and the short Elimination Dance (1998), based on a Michael Ondaatje poem, was interspersed with extensive television projects. Notably, he directed the made-for-television movies Platinum (1997), shot by cinematographer Guy Dufaux; Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998); the underrated American Whiskey Bar (1998), shot as a live television production ala the early work of Jewison; and the series Twitch City (1998, 2000) for CBC, as well as a number of music videos and commercials. Dance Me Outside won the best director award at the American Indian Film Festival.

McDonald continues to project a hard-living, poverty-with-attitude rebelliousness, perpetuating his image of struggling indie filmmaker made good. But he is also recognized for his acute business sense, gentle manner and nurturing, supportive attitude toward musicians, filmmakers and craftspeople, as well as other emerging artists. Like Atom Egoyan and other key filmmakers in the Toronto New Wave, McDonald was closely connected with the independent theatre community in Toronto during the 1980s. Many of his key collaborators emerged from this scene, including Don McKellar, Valerie Buhagiar and the late Tracy Wright. McDonald frequently works with the same crews and performers. In addition to McKellar, Wright and Buhagiar, he has collaborated frequently with Stephen McHattie, Hugh Dillon, and cinematographer Miroslav Bachek.

McDonald takes pleasure in playfully undermining “fact-based histories” and middle-class values. Using irony and black comedy, he has reinvented Canadian imagery, spinning a new bizarre mythology that is still distinctively Canadian. (He has frequently commented in interviews about his fascination with American mythology and his desire to develop a similar mythology in Canada.) His films have garnered a huge cult following and received much critical acclaim. However, despite his significant contribution to Canadian film and his success with critics, audiences and at film festivals, the Genies and other major awards have eluded him.

In 2001, he completed Picture Claire, produced by Robert Lantos and starring Juliette Lewis, Gina Gershon and Mickey Rourke. The film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2001. (Its premiere was originally slated for the evening of September 11, but was cancelled following the attacks in New York and Washington and subsequently rescheduled.) Afterwards, McDonald recut the film, calling the first version a failure. The seldom screened alternate version (entitled Claire’s Hat: The Unmaking of a Film) has garnered a quasi-legendary status. Constructed like a DVD commentary – with McDonald re-imagining the creators in the principal roles – Claire’s Hat features some genuinely hilarious, though possibly apocryphal, behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

Claire’s Hat reflects McDonald’s experimental roots – or at the very least a discomfort with mainstream conventions. Despite his evident and well documented interest in pop culture, he is equally interested in playing with form, a tendency which was especially apparent in the made-for-television production The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess (2004). Based on a notorious true story, the film recounts how a single mother (played by Joely Collins) is seduced by the accused in a murder case for which she’s serving as a juror.  McDonald and his screenwriter Angus Fraser focus less on the actual facts than the mindset of the character. The film shuttles between numerous genres, from romantic fantasies (often using the colour scheme of Rock Hudson-Doris Day movies) to musicals to cheesy TV suspense movies – all of it anchored by a surreal talk show hosted by sleazy punk Bobby Tomahawk (Hugh Dillon).

McDonald’s next film, The Tracey Fragments (2007), pushed the formal experiments of Love Crimes even further. A portrait of the traumatized consciousness of a teenage runaway (played beautifully by Ellen Page), the film virtually tears the screen apart – through the use of split screen – to capture Tracey’s fractured, tormented headspace. Relying heavily on music to propel the narrative, The Tracey Fragments marked McDonald’s first collaboration with fabled Toronto indie band Broken Social Scene. One of McDonald’s most celebrated films, The Tracey Fragments won the Manfred Slazgeber prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and was named one of Canada’s Top Ten films of 2007.

Both of these films continued McDonald’s ongoing interest with deeply marginalized characters. His first venture into the horror genre, Pontypool (2008), features characters who are effectively marginalized and isolated from everyone on the planet. Set in the less than comfortable confines of a small town radio station, the film focuses on a lethal virus carried by the English language. Based on a novel (and script) by writer Tony Burgess, Pontypool boasts its fair share of chills but is far more cerebral than your average zombie movie. The film was named one of Canada’s Top Ten films of 2008.

In 2009 and 2010, McDonald worked on a phenomenal number of projects, all of them linked to music, and some of them made almost simultaneously. Set and shot in Toronto in the summer of 2009,  This Movie is Broken (2010) is a concert film/love story that follows Bruno (Greg Calderone) as he attempts to hook up with Caroline (Georgina Reilly), a girl he has had a crush on for more than a decade. The film re-united McDonald with screenwriter Don McKellar and the music of Broken Social Scene, and is as much about the city of Toronto as its two protagonists.

In the spring of 2010, McDonald shot the long awaited sequel to Hard Core Logo, and shortly afterwards made a documentary called Music From the Big House (2010), which follows blues musician Rita Chiarelli as she visits a prison in the southern United States to organize a concert with the inmates. The fall of 2010 saw the release of Trigger (2010), starring Tracy Wright and Molly Parker as former band mates who reunite for a tribute concert after years of estrangement.  Their friendship is complicated by enormous baggage, much of it to do with their heavy drug and alcohol intake. A sort of distaff rock version of Louis Malle’s indie classic My Dinner with Andre (1981) and written by acclaimed playwright and director Daniel MacIvor, the film boasts extraordinary performances by Parker and Wright, who passed away from pancreatic cancer while the film was in post production. The project was conceived as a tribute to Wright, one of the city’s most respected actors. Trigger was widely praised, with several critics calling it McDonald’s most mature work to date. In late 2010, McDonald completed the feature Hard Core Logo 2, which takes one of McDonald’s most acclaimed earlier films as its jumping off point. In March of 2011, McDonald unveiled Yonge Street – Toronto Rock & Roll Stories, a three episode  documentary series for Bravo (commissioned by the Juno Awards to celebrate their 40th anniversary) which examined the city’s musical history from 1955 to the mid-1960s.

For more comprehensive analyses of McDonald’s work, see “Straight Outta Hogtown: Sex, Drugs and Bruce McDonald” by Aaron Taylor in Great Canadian Film Directors (2007), edited by George Melnyk, “Outlaw Insider: The Films of Bruce McDonald” by Steve Gravestock in North of Everything: English Canadian Cinema Since 1980 (2002), edited by William Beard and Jerry White, and Hard Core Roadshow: A Screenwriter’s Diary by Noel S. Baker (1997).

Film and video work includes

Merge, 1980 (director)
Let Me See…, 1982 (director; producer)
Scissere, 1982 (sound)
Knock! Knock!, 1985 (director; writer; editor; producer)
The Ray Bradbury Theatre series, 1985 (director; TV)
Legal Eagles series, one episode, 1986 (editor; TV)
Family Viewing, 1987 (co-editor with Atom Egoyan)
Heart of the Forest, 1987 (sound)
Harriet Loves, 1988 (co-editor with Alexandra Gill)
The Mysterious Moon Men of Canada, 1988 (editor; producer)
Roadkill, 1989 (director; co-writer with Don McKellar; producer; actor)
Speaking Parts, 1989 (editor)
Blue, 1992 (producer)
Highway 61, 1991 (director; co-writer with Don McKellar, Allan Magee; producer)
The Hidden Room series, one episode, 1993 (director; TV)
Dance Me Outside, 1994 (director; co-writer with Don McKellar, John Frizzell; producer with Brian Dennis)
Liberty Street series, one episode, 1994 (director; TV)
Taking the Falls series, 1994 (director; TV)
Nancy Drew series, The Death & Life of Billy Feral, 1995 (director; TV)
Curtis’s Charm, 1995 (actor)
Lonesome Dove series, one episode, 1995 (director; TV) 
Lonesome Dove series, one episode, 1996 (director; TV) 
The Rez series, 1996 (executive producer; TV)
Flash Forward series, 1996 (director; TV)
Drawing Flies, 1996 (actor)
Hard Core Logo, 1996 (director; actor)
Ready or Not series, two episodes, 1997 (director; TV)
Platinum, 1997 (director; TV MOW)
Lexx series, two episodes, 1997 (director; TV)
Life and Times series, Norman Jewison, 1997 (director; TV)
American Whiskey Bar, 1998 (director; TV MOW)
Elimination Dance, 1998 (director; co-writer with Don McKellar, Michael Ondaatje)
Little Men series, 1998 (director; TV)
Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story, 1998 (director; TV)
Emily of New Moon series, one episode, 1998 (director; TV)
Twitch City series, 13 episodes,1998-2000 (director; producer; TV)
The Bill series, Hot Money, 1999 (director; TV)
Emily of New Moon series, two episodes, 1999 (director; TV)
Stuff, 1999 (executive producer)
Little Men series, 1999 (director; TV)
Eternity series, 1999 (director; TV)
Fort Goof, 1999 (director)
Last Night, 1999 (actor)
The Bill series, A Girl’s Best Friend, 2000 (director; TV)
Lexx series, two episodes, 2000 (director; TV)
The City series, two episodes, 2000 (director; TV)
Verlorene Flügel, 2000 (executive producer)
Vinyl, 2000 (executive producer)
Road Songs: A Portrait of Robbie Robertson, 2001 (director; TV)
The Bill series, two episodes, 2001 (director; TV)
Picture Claire, 2001 (director)
Degrassi: ReUnion Special, 2001 (director; TV MOW)
Degrassi: The Next Generation series, four episodes, 2001 (director; TV)
The Interview, 2002 (director)
Queer as Folk series, three episodes, 2002 (director; TV)
Degrassi: The Next Generation series, four episodes, 2002 (director; TV)
Claire’s Hat: The Unmaking of a Film, 2002 (director)
Degrassi: The Next Generation series, five episodes, 2003 (director; TV)
Queer as Folk series, three episodes, 2003 (director; TV)
Playmakers series, two episodes, 2003 (director; TV)
The Outlaws of Missouri, 2003 (actor)
Queer as Folk series, two episodes, 2004 (director; TV)
This is Wonderland series, three episodes, 2004 (director; TV)
The Collector series, two episodes, 2004 (director; TV)
Kevin Hill series, one episode, 2004 (director; TV)
Instant Star series, two episodes, 2004 (director; TV)
Tilt series, one episode, 2004 (director; TV)
The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess, 2004 (director; TV MOW)
Darcy’s Wild Life series, one episode, 2004 (director; TV)
The Tournament series, six episode, 2005 (director; TV)
Darcy’s Wild Life series, one episode, 2005 (director; TV)
ReGenesis series, two episodes, 2006 (director; TV)
Killer Wave mini-series, 2007 (director; TV)
The Dark Room, 2007 (director; TV Pilot)
The Tracey Fragments, 2007 (director)
Metric in NYC, 2007 (director; TV)
Debut, 2007 (actor)
Brendan Canning Makes a Record, 2008 (director; TV)
Degrassi: The Next Generation series, four episodes, 2008 (director; TV)
Pontypool, 2008 (director)
Almost Audrey, 2009 (director; TV MOW)
City Sonic series, one episode, 2009 (director; TV)
Living in Your Car series, one episode, 2009 (director; TV)
Less Than Kind series, 2009 (director; TV)
Mr. D, 2009 (director; TV Pilot)
Being Erica series, 2009 (director; TV)
This Movie is Broken, 2010 (director)
Breaking This Movie, 2010 (director; executive producer)
Living in Your Car series, one episode, 2010 (director; TV)
Trigger, 2010 (director)
Hard Core Logo 2, 2010 (director; writer with Dave Griffith; actor)
Music from the Big House, 2010 (director)
My Babysitter’s a Vampire, 2010 (director; TV MOW)
Yonge Street – Toronto Rock and Roll Stories, 2011 (director; TV)

By: Theresa Rowat
Additional Notes by Steve Gravestock