McKellar Takes on Cannes

It is a hot, humid Friday in Cannes.

McKellar Takes on Cannes

It is a hot, humid Friday in Cannes. On the Croisette, the fabled seaside promenade on the French Riviera, film producers in black linen, cell phones held to their ears, weave their way through the hordes of buyers, sellers, actors, tourists, journalists and gypsies who habitually descend on the Cannes film festival. On the wedding-cake steps of the Palais, the festival's bunker-like headquarters, shirtless workers are laying down fresh red carpet. Nearby, a jazz quartet of expatriate Americans has stopped to play for passers-by - the bassist in the turquoise shirt croons a more-than-passable impression of Frank Sinatra, who died hours earlier. Down the street, screaming fans press against street barricades around Planet Hollywood, where Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd and B. B. King mime dance routines for an outdoor "photo call" of several hundred cameras. Safely anonymous in the crowd, Don McKellar, a Canadian star, threads his way through the madness.

He has just got off the plane. Dazed and amused from jet lag, he is led to his first Cannes party, and is soon sipping champagne on Astroturf under a white plastic pavilion on the beach. Like so many others at the 51st Cannes International Film Festival, McKellar has come to promote a movie. It is a small movie about the end of the world titled Last Night, not to be confused with a much larger movie previewing at Cannes called Armageddon. And McKellar is its writer, director and star. Commanding the attention of 4,000 journalists at the world's largest annual media event is not easy.

There is an early buzz about Last Night, which has already screened for critics in Paris. But unlike compatriots David Cronenberg, who stunned Cannes two years ago with Crash, and Atom Egoyan, who was the toast of the Croisette last year with The Sweet Hereafter, McKellar arrives with a decidedly lower profile. Last Night is being shown in the Directors' Fortnight, and although it is the hip place for a young director to make his feature debut, it lacks the glitz of official competition. This year, Canada failed to win a spot in the competition. To the surprise of many, the year's most anticipated movie, The Red Violin - a sweeping epic that McKellar co-wrote with Montreal director François Girard - was rejected.

Aside from Last Night, however, three other Canadian feature debuts are premiéring in sidebar programs at Cannes. Also in the Directors' Fortnight, Toronto film-makers Jack Blum and Sharon Corder unveil Babyface, a drama about a mother-daughter sexual rivalry. In Un Certain Regard, another non-competition category, Montreal writer-director Denis Villeneuve presents Un 32 août sur terre (August 32nd on earth), starring Pascale Bussières as a car-crash survivor wrestling with whether to conceive a child. And director Nicholas Kendall's Kayla is being featured in Cannes Junior, a showcase for children's films.

But McKellar's Last Night is the most prominent Canadian prospect at the festival. At 34, he has already cut a swath through the Canadian film scene. He scripted and starred in Bruce McDonald's first two features, Roadkill and Highway 61. He wrote himself a starring role as a TV-addicted slacker in McDonald's off-the-wall series Twitch City, which aired on the CBC earlier this year. He also co-wrote Girard's highly acclaimed Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1994) and acted in Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1995).

For Last Night, he assembled an extraordinary cast, a who's who of Canadian talent that includes Cronenberg, Geneviève Bujold, Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, Tracy Wright and Jackie Burroughs. Considering the directors he has worked with - Cronenberg, Egoyan, McDonald and Patricia Rozema - McKellar's career has become a kind of touchstone for Canadian cinema. He may also possess one of its most distinctive personalities. Applying his thoughtful brand of deadpan wit to multiple roles as screenwriter, actor and now director, he has forged an idiosyncratic style that is all his own - and curiously Canadian. "He's got this strange, understated charisma," says director Cronenberg, who gave McKellar a major role in his new $31-million science fiction movie, eXistenZ, currently shooting in Toronto. "You really can't stop watching Don when he's on screen, and it's very hard to figure out why exactly, aside from the fact that he's a very intelligent and thoughtful actor."

Last Night proves that he is also an exceptional director. The film, which will probably hit Canadian theatres in the fall, plays like the existential flip side of a Hollywood disaster movie. The premise is that the world is going to end at midnight, which is just four hours away. No explanation is given, for this is not a science fiction film - although, as McKellar points out, the fact that the sun is still shining at night "seems to suggest some major planetary alignment problems." Set in Toronto, the story tracks the lives of a dozen people trying to go through with carefully arranged plans for the perfect last night of their lives. But the city is in chaos, with public services collapsed, stores abandoned and nihilists roaming the streets. It is a New Year's Eve from hell.

Unlike the typical Hollywood disaster flick - notably this summer's comet movies, Deep Impact and Armageddon - Last Night has no characters busy saving the planet. People have known the end is coming for several months, and they seem resigned to it. "Presumably," says McKellar, "the Bruce Willises are out there stopping the end of the world somehow. I thought of this like the first half of a disaster movie, where you set up all the characters. I've always wondered about all those people who just die en masse in Independence Day. And the mechanical side - what would it be like, what would you actually do." Rennie's character is trying to fulfil all his sexual fantasies. Sandra Oh is desperately trying to get across town to be with her husband. And Cronenberg plays a gas company employee phoning customers to reassure them their gas will remain on until the end. McKellar's character, meanwhile, just wants to be alone, on his roof, with the right music.

The story unfolds with McKellar's typically dark, quirky humor. But what is so unexpected is its emotional power. The comic irony disarms the viewer so surreptitiously that when the tone finally turns serious, it is tremendously moving. "It just sneaks up on you," says Cronenberg. "People are going to be crying and part of them won't know why. When I saw the first cut, I'd just been sent all the Hollywood movies that you get sent on tape to vote for the Academy Awards. And I thought Last Night was better than all of them. I think it's going to surprise a lot of people."

But it is a small film, costing about $2 million. And unlike Cronenberg and Egoyan, whose Cannes premières were lavishly feted by Alliance Entertainment and its high-rolling CEO, Robert Lantos, Last Night is produced by a much smaller Toronto-based company, Rhombus Media. "I'm a little anxious," says McKellar. "Rhombus has to spend a lot of money. It has to hire publicists and get posters and have a little party. Part of the problem is that they're following the Alliance tradition with Robert's palatial suite and his big soirées. I just hope they sell the film and that it gets good reviews. I don't want to sink them!" McKellar laughs. "Cannes is the cheapest festival in the world, you know. They don't pay for anything. I think they buy me, the director, a Niçoise salad."

A few weeks before his departure for Cannes, McKellar answers the door at his Toronto apartment. It is noon, and he has just gotten up, his hair still wet from the shower. His place sits at the top of a dilapidated set of stairs above a Chinese restaurant in Kensington Market, the inner-city neighborhood where McKellar has lived for 10 years, and which served as the setting for Twitch City. His place looks like a cross between a student bachelor pad and a bohemian loft. Unfinished drywall with screwheads sticking out like rivets. Scripts piled on the coffee table. Deco-drab, yard-sale furniture. Rolled up canvases stacked in the corner. McKellar, in addition to everything else, paints. Two of his works are hung on the walls, pictures of a rabbit and pig with jungle swirls of color. There is also a huge photo of ex-Kensington King Al Waxman, who appeared as a homeless man in Twitch City, dominating the dining room. And visible down the hall is an unmade bed with midnight blue satin sheets - inherited from the set of Last Night.

McKellar wants breakfast, and walks several blocks through the spice and fish smells of the market to a favorite greasy spoon. As he orders fried eggs and coffee, his cell phone rings. "It belongs to the production," he apologizes. "They made me use it." McKellar seems allergic to anything that smacks of Hollywood posturing. "I've been to quite a few festivals," he says, "and you meet a lot of hot young film-makers who go down to L.A. They get a lot of money, they get a secretary, and you never hear from them again. Then, eight years later, they do some piece of crap." He adds: "I always thought I could do that. Americans called after Highway 61. And not just little people, but studio heads and vice-heads. Because they do that down there. They'd call - 'Hey, we love what you're doing, keep us in mind' - but I never dove into that world. It wasn't even a temptation."

McKellar grew up surrounded by a healthy respect for art. His father, John, is a corporate lawyer and arts patron who sat on the boards of the Canada Council and various theatres. His mother, Kay, is a retired teacher. One of three children, he was born and raised in North Toronto. In high school he began acting semiprofessionally with Child's Play Theatre, which performed for children. And as an arts undergraduate at Toronto's Victoria University, he became so immersed in theatre - from Shakespeare to experimental improv - that he dropped out one credit short of graduating.

In 1989, with director Daniel Brooks and actress Tracy Wright, who became his girlfriend for eight years - he founded Augusta Company, a theatre troupe with a collective ethos. "We were always co-writing, co-directing and performing together," he says. Then, he hooked up with a novice director, Bruce McDonald. "He offered me $100 to write some scenes," McKellar recalls. "So at first, it was just a job."

McDonald and McKellar ended up launching each others' film careers. In their first movie, Roadkill, an absurdist rock 'n' roll odyssey into Northern Ontario, McKellar gave a memorably offbeat performance as a would-be serial killer, and won a Genie nomination for the screenplay. In Highway 61, he starred as a shy trumpet player who is talked into driving a vagabond girl and a corpse down to New Orleans. Then, Egoyan cast McKellar as the repressed, gay owner of a pet store in Exotica - a role that earned him a Genie.

On screen, McKellar projects a wonderfully awkward charm. There is a hesitancy in his acting, as if he has a deep fear of being trapped in what he is about to say. "I like seeing people think on film," he offers, by way of explanation. "It's partly my sense of humor - I find it funnier." In Twitch City, McDonald captured the actor's self-effacing magnetism in looming close-ups. But as his own director in Last Night, McKellar was nervous about training the camera on himself. "The first week, I kept postponing scenes where I'd have to act," he recalls. "Then it was pretty strange to be into the part, stop the scene, look back on a video monitor and analyze what you're doing. My editor pointed out to me at one point that I wasn't shooting any close-ups of myself. I was resisting close-ups in general, which I like to think is a stylistic thing. But in some sense I was afraid of shooting myself."

In Cannes, however, there is no room for shyness. McKellar has done his best to rise to the occasion. "I bought new clothes, and new glasses," he says, draining his champagne that first day on the Croisette, a party that Variety is hosting to honor 10 hot young producers - including Rhombus Media's Niv Fichman. "But I need some sunblock." On leave from the set of eXistenZ, the actor has been told not to come back with a tan. "I'm playing an anti-existential virtual Russian double agent," he explains, without bothering to explain just what that means. "The thing is, I'm supposed to look white and pasty." McKellar takes off his new glasses and the clip-on shades. "You know, I'm just realizing that these things sort of make things purple."

It may take McKellar a few more days in Cannes to figure out if that is good or bad. But he is ready for his close-up.

Maclean's May 25, 1998