As theaters tentatively start to reopen around the U.S. without the usual glut of studio product to fill their screens, there’s an opportunity for filmmakers who previously might not have edged their way very deeply into U.S. cinemas to find a wider audience. That’s particularly true of Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald, whose fantasy crime comedy “Dreamland” is being released by Uncork’d Entertainment and Dark Star Pictures on June 5, day and date with VOD.
McDonald, known for films like “Roadkill,” “Hard Core Logo” and “Pontypool,” which mash up humor with adventure, music or horror — and sometimes all of these — felt that for “Dreamland,” he needed to venture outside the familiar environs of Canada to find the right locale to bring the story to life. The movie, which reunites the director with “Pontypool” novelist and screenwriter Tony Burgess, follows a hitman tasked with obtaining the pinkie finger of a jazz musician (both played by “Pontypool” star Stephen McHattie) on the evening of a demented international wedding. Co-stars include Juliette Lewis and Henry Rollins.
“When we wrote it, we didn’t know where we were going to shoot it,” McDonald tells Variety. Aiming for something more “exotic” than his own Toronto environs, he discovered locations in Luxembourg and the Belgian city of Charleroi that helped set up what he was looking for — a landscape seemingly disconnected from time and reality. Still, when it came to the fateful wedding, he was unable to find an existing space that could meet the story’s Grand Guignol impulses, which would see the place sprayed with bullets and painted with blood.
Producers Jesus Gonzalez-Elvira, Amber Ripley and Sebastian Schelenz had introduced McDonald to Belgium-based production designer Eugenie Collet and her frequent collaborator, art director Florence Vercheval, who located a soundstage that could more or less accommodate the mayhem — with a few adjustments.
“We had one wall and a half for this whole big ballroom,” says Dutch cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout (Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship”). “It was quite a challenge to make the storyboard and shoot the whole thing.”
The budget-minded Vercheval, who calls her partnership with Collet “a body with two heads” — they have worked together on more than a dozen films — employed old-school theatrical tricks to transform limited studio space into an environment suitable for the many scenes where the movie’s elaborate climax take place. “We didn’t have enough space to build three sets,” she says. “We made these columns and fabrics like a theater so we could move them around for the bedroom or the hallway or dining room.”
Leaning into the hallucinatory title of the film, McDonald relied on the instincts of his design team, even if those impulses often subverted his own. The director says he had envisioned the wedding scene in an old castle or chateau. “My challenge was to dump what I had previously imagined while in a writing vacuum and embrace these very talented people with way more knowledge than I had about design.”
Van Oosterhout says McDonald’s self-assurance created a collegial environment that empowered everyone to contribute freely: “Bruce is so full of confidence that it triggers everybody to give their best.”
McDonald says he enjoyed making a film that, early in the production process, set an inclusive tone. “I said, ‘I’m the visitor here; I’m going to depend on you,’ he explains. “I was very lucky to have people who had vast experience — and I think they all had a pretty good time because I was pretty open to their suggestions.”