Hellions director Bruce McDonald chooses his favourite shots

CBC Arts asked Canadian directors to share their favourite frames, and the stories behind them. It’s all part of a new series called The Viewfinder, and launching it is Toronto writer/director Bruce McDonald.

The Toronto filmmaker helps launch CBC Arts' new feature series, Viewfinder

Bruce McDonald, director of the upcoming horror thriller Hellions. (Whizbang Pictures)

What makes a great shot? Is it a single element, or some tantalizing cocktail of subject, style, composition, colour? In cinema, as with most things, beauty is in the eye of the beholder — the eye that's gazing through the lens.

That's why we've asked Canadian directors to share their favourite frames, and the stories behind them. It's all part of a new CBC Arts series called Viewfinder, and launching it is Toronto writer/director Bruce McDonald.

Since his punk-rock road odyssey Roadkill was named the best Canadian feature film at the 1989 Toronto International Film Festival, McDonald has remained one of the most prolific names in the industry, directing Hard Core Logo, Dance Me Outside and Pontypool as well as countless television series.

At this year's TIFF, he'll premiere Hellions, a Halloween thriller about a teenage girl facing a pair of nightmares: a marauding horde of homicidal munchkins, and an unplanned pregnancy.

To kick off our series, McDonald chose his three best shots from Hellions for us, and told us why a classic movie image ranks as one of his all-time favourites.

Want to see more frames from top Canadian films at this year's TIFF, with notes from the filmmakers? Follow us on Instagram @CBCArts.

(Whizbang Pictures)

Dora, played by Chloe Rose, gazes out a hospital window in this opening scene. "Your eyes go to her eyes," McDonald says, but her expression is unclear. "Is she sad? Quietly happy? Relieved? Terrified? I love that the viewer is inside the frame she is looking at with so much ambiguous intensity."

The scene actually appears twice in Hellions, but it wasn't always that way. According to McDonald, it replaced the original ending of the movie, "which was solid but not as focused as this."

"To get this shot took the hiring of the remarkable cinematographer Norayr Kasper who flew in from Venice to make the movie," McDonald says. "Norayr suggested the camera placement as well as her hand on the glass and Chloe's approach from way down the hall. It worked very, very well."

(Whizbang Pictures)

Getting the perfect shot can seem as impossible as landing on Oz. This scene from Hellions, for instance? It'll flash by in a blink, but it took ages to lock. The result is one of his favourite frames. "I love it because it's simple, elegant and a fresh twist on the familiar. What was originally intended to be a well-lit night-time shoot turned into this strange, mysterious world."

Dora, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, is "stepping out from black-and-white Kansas into colourful Oz," says McDonald. "[She] steps out for the first time into a world that has changed. A familiar, yet nightmarish world."

To achieve that, McDonald says, so much effort was involved: "10 or 20 meetings," camera tests and endless debates and e-mail threads about parallel universes and horror movies and the Wizard of Oz. McDonald gives special thanks to the team involved in pulling it off — specifically, the talented Rose, the film's "adventurous cinematographer" Kasper and its "brave" producers.

(Whizbang Pictures)

At this point in Hellions, Dora is pregnant and in pain, phoning the doctor. And though your instinct may be to look towards her face, McDonald says his eyes are drawn to her angel wings.

"I love this frame because of the framing of the wings, the darkness that surrounds her, the gathering gloom and the source of the light," he says. "There was talk between myself, Chloe and Norayr that the character's pregnancy was the result of immaculate conception. I liked that idea. And I liked that we tipped our hat to all those beautiful paintings of angels, the annunciation and all that cool, mystic shit.

"To get this shot Norayr suggested: 'What if Dora made the call sitting on the edge of the bath tub?'

"'Right here?' I asked. 'Yes, right here.'"

(Screen capture)

When asked to choose his favourite frame of all time, McDonald rattles off a few suggestions. The closing scene from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, for instance, "and the face of Brigitte Bardot from any movie." And then there's this image taken from The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 classic. 

"There's a shot from The Passenger of Maria Schneider. She's in a car with Jack Nicholson driving through a tree-lined grove, Maria sitting in the back with Jack driving," says McDonald, setting the scene. "She says something like, 'What are you running away from?' and he says, 'turn your back to the front seat.' She turns around and looks back and there's a look of wonder on her face. That's a nice frame."

Hellions. Starring Chloe Rose, Robert Patrick, Rossif Sutherland. Written by Pascal Trottier. Directed by Bruce McDonald. 82 mins. Opens Thursday, Sept. 17 at the Toronto International Film Festival.


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