In Don McKellar’s charming character-driven comedy, The Grand Seduction, a small Newfoundland fishing village facing hard times pulls out all the stops to find a town doctor needed to land a lucrative factory contract that would mean jobs for everyone. Long-time resident Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) comes up with a scheme to seduce a big city doctor (Taylor Kitsch) into staying after he arrives for his one month trial residence. Opening May 30th, the film is directed from a screenplay by Mike Dowse and Ken Scott and features a terrific cast that includes Gordon Pinsent, Mark Critch and Mary Walsh.
In an exclusive interview, McKellar talked about the appeal of the script, what the cast brought to the film, the challenge of finding the right tone, how D.P. Doug Koch and Production Designer Guy Lalande drew on the amazing landscape to create the distinct look of the film, how the score by Maxime Barzel, Paul-Étienne Côté and Francois-Pierre Lue and the musical talent of Gleeson and the local villagers added authenticity, and his upcoming projects: a feature film, The Drowsy Chaperone, based on his Tony-award winning Broadway musical, and a comedy series, Sensitive Skin, that he’s directing and co-starring in with Kim Cattrall. Hit the jump to read the interview.
DON MCKELLAR: It’s based on this Québécois film, the French-language film (Jean-François Pouliot’s 2003 film Seducing Doctor Lewis) which I’d seen. I didn’t think about remaking it, but I was approached by Roger Frappier, the producer of the original one. I liked the first film because it has this classic, timeless comedy feel, but then he suggested the idea of resetting it in Newfoundland and that immediately made sense to me. It made sense economically and in terms of the culture because of the collapse of the fishing industry there. They are undergoing hard times. And then, there is a distinctive culture and tradition. All that made sense and translated by itself. Then, I had been to Newfoundland a number of times, and I had always wanted to shoot there, and I loved the people. I thought they were funny and smart. So, that made sense to me. And then, they had already mentioned the approach. Roger had discussed the idea of working with Brendan Gleeson. Once I had that in my head, I thought okay, that does it, because I think he’s the best actor. Once I had him in my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I could see the parts. That was it, and then I was all over it.
What was it about Mike Dowse and Ken Scott’s script that made you want to direct this?
MCKELLAR: I found it very well constructed. The comedy played out brilliantly. It was a wait for the long term joke. It’s situational humor. It’s not gaggy, and I liked that. I liked the classic social comedy structure, which is the kind of film that I like and I feel is rarely attempted these days. It’s a character-based, social comedy like Ealing Comedies, Preston Sturges comedies, and that sort of lineage, and it did that really well. At the same time, it didn’t make fun of the real characters. They were the smart ones. They weren’t bumbling country rubes. It was inverted that way, which I liked. I felt that there was this honesty at the heart of it despite its meticulous and challenging comic construction. That was it.
I love how the plot comes out of left field and it’s so unexpected.
MCKELLAR: Yes, that’s it. There’s something believable about that, too, especially when you’re out there. Newfoundland has a long history of schemers and of seducing too, so I liked that.
Can you talk about your terrific ensemble cast?
MCKELLAR: It’s an amazing cast. I’m most proud of the cast. They’re my greatest achievement. I adore my cast. Most of the people are Newfoundlanders. They’re from out there. Some of them are pretty well know. In Canada, at least, it’s a place that’s famous for breeding comedians for whatever reason and comic actors. A lot of people like Gordon Pinsent, Mark Critch and Mary Walsh are fairly well known. The rest of the people, most of them, are from there. Some of them are not known at all. Many of them are acting for the first time. But then, there’s Brendan. The Newfoundlanders generally are from an Irish heritage, so genetically that makes sense. It was settled by Irish people, and their accent, I suppose, is some sort of strange distortion of that accent. I’m sure I could put it more gently.
MCKELLAR: He made sense genetically, but he was also just a fine actor. When I first met him, he talked about how he was fascinated by the Irish diaspora and seeing how his culture had been transplanted. He was fascinated by the people, and he’s of that tradition. He’s a very serious actor. He took very seriously the responsibility of playing someone from there. He took on the challenge of getting that accent down and learning how to fish cod with a hand line and things like that. It needed someone like that because I knew that I had to capture the authenticity. I think that’s one of the appeals of a film like this where you feel like you’re exposing yourself to a culture that’s real.
Gordon Pinsent has a great character part in this. What did he bring to the film?
MCKELLAR: He’s amazing. Gordon is the most famous actor from out there. He’s legendary. Traveling with him in Newfoundland is like traveling with the Pope or something. He’s adored. He’s the most charming man on Earth and he opened every door. He was a huge asset, and he’s also tireless. He was the last person to ever complain about the weather, the wind, the cold locations, and the fact that he had to climb cliffs and things. He had an amazing spirit and he’s also so rooted in the culture. He’s from there so he was a huge asset for Brendan, for instance. They were able to build this rapport that has translated into something magical when the two are together. Generally, he’s a leading man, and he hasn’t really played a lot of supporting roles. This is a real character part for him, but I think he relished that opportunity, too.
Taylor Kitsch is charming as a straight man even as he’s being seduced. What did he bring to his performance?
MCKELLAR: That’s exactly it. Being charming is a rare asset in movie stars these days. It’s what used to be considered essential for being a movie star. It’s hard to manufacture and hard to fake. I always thought he had that in him. In the last while, he’d been doing action films and things like that, and I thought they weren’t exploiting that aspect of his personality. It’s really important, because at the same time as the village is seducing the doctor, he’s also seducing them. If he was too dumb or too gullible, we wouldn’t like him and we wouldn’t care, but he has to make them eventually feel guilty for their deception. He had to be someone genuinely likeable and he had that. I’m very proud of his performance, because it’s easy to undervalue the straight man, but he also has excellent comic timing and he really pulled a lot of stuff off.
How does being an actor play into being a good director? How much latitude do you give your actors, and do you like them to contribute and make suggestions?
MCKELLAR: Yes, for sure I do. I like actors, and I trust actors, and I know how important they are. I knew how important they were for this film. It’s the kind of film, like I was saying before, where you have to believe the actors. You have to have them fully inhabit the characters. You can’t feel like they’re observing from the outside. It’s hard to define why, but I think that I feel comfortable with actors. As an actor, I’ve met directors who I know are more at home with the camera than they are with the actor. They’d rather sit in the trailer and watch and choose lenses and things like that. I wanted to make this film beautiful, and I wanted to capture the environment because it is beautiful, but I also knew that that was not going to be hard, because if you pointed the camera anywhere, it looks pretty beautiful, not to diminish the work of my director of photography. I was very conscious of making the actors feel comfortable and authentic, and I think it worked.
How do you find the right tone when you’re directing a film that has this quaint sense of humor and everything is part of an elaborate seduction? How do you know how far to go?
MCKELLAR: It is tough. It is a balance. What it comes down to is trusting. When I read the script, I thought this is very well constructed. It works. The set-ups are beautifully placed. If I do it correctly, it should work. It’s not gag. It’s not sitcom-y. It’s all about situational jokes. It’s all about long term payoffs and things like that. It came down to trusting the material and letting the natural humor of the actors come out. There’s a natural rhythm out there in Newfoundland that is quite distinctive and quite funny, and I tried to bring that out and let people go for it that way.
How was it shooting on location with this amazing landscape, and what was it like moving the story from a small Quebec town where it was originally set to a Newfoundland village?
MCKELLAR: It was amazing. It was a beautiful experience. We were about 2-1/2 hours outside of St. John’s, the capital of the province, and then some locations were about an hour farther than that. It was pretty remote. There were complications that came with that and expenses and bringing equipment out and housing all our crew, because obviously there weren’t enough hotel rooms or even hotels in some places. We had to find homes for people. Fortunately, the people are insanely hospitable so it wasn’t that hard. All that presented challenges, but I felt that was one thing I couldn’t fake. I had to show the natural beauty. I had to show people that we were there. I shot everything on location. That’s the main way I tried to translate it from the Quebec film. I just said that I have to embrace this location and these people, and they will naturally transform it, and they did.
Can you talk about how you collaborated with your D.P. Doug Koch and your Production Designer Guy Lalande on the look of the film?
MCKELLAR: They were both great. When we went out there, we decided fairly early on, let’s go with the look here. It’s quite distinctive. We shot all in real houses which is not that easy because the ceilings are six feet tall sometimes and Brendan is more than that. It’s a really cool look you’re seeing at the same time, because you never see that, and it gives a different perspective seeing those low ceilings. We opened it up. It’s complicated balancing the images sometimes camera-wise, but I wanted to play the open windows out to the sea, so that even when you’re inside, you can see a view as you can. That’s hard to do, and we had to do it with few lights because it was all on location. It was quite natural. With the design, too, in terms of the color palette, we drew from what we saw out there. Early on, we thought a lot of films set out on the East Coast, in Maine and that area, go for this foggy gray, old-time, muted color look and that wasn’t our experience there. We saw color everywhere in the rocks and even in the houses and the floors on the way in which were often painted bright colors. We decided to embrace that, too, and make it more colorful, and let the natural colors shine out.
How long did you shoot and were there any surprises once you started production?
MCKELLAR: We shot for a couple months. One of the weird surprises, and it was a good surprise, was how nice the weather was. One of the big fears going in was the unpredictable weather because we didn’t have the money or the time to deal with it. It can be terrible weather. It’s there on the ocean and you can get tornadoes, fog, rain and all that. Sometimes it can be miserable and that would really have changed the tone of the film. It’s hard to be seductive if we were stuck with rain all the time. I was quite scared about it, and we didn’t have the money to work around it. As you can see, there are a lot of exteriors. Even when we were inside, I wanted to shoot out through the windows. That was a big worry, and it ended up being a freakishly good summer. They called it the best summer ever out there. It was so sunny that even Newfoundlanders may not recognize it. That was amazing. We did have one hurricane. It came in and you can see the beginning of it in the film. It’s the scene at night with the boy running towards the house and there’s this weird horizontal rain. It was just this one shot, but then we had to stop shooting. It was pretty dramatic, but then the next day it was bright and sunny again when we all went out.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
MCKELLAR: It’s sunnier and brighter than I would have expected. I’m very happy with that. I was prepared for fog and things like that. There’s something undefinable that I could never have imposed, which is the nature of the performances and the rhythm and the natural humor out there, and I do feel somehow I captured that. I never could have dictated that, so I’m delighted and surprised when I see it. Some of this stuff that Gordon does I find so funny and fresh. That’s the value of a performer, I guess. I’m also quite thrilled with some of Taylor’s stuff which I found so authentic. I remember the first time I saw him being a doctor, those scenes where he is examining the local people there. We just shot that stuff. It was all pretty much for real. We had people going in to see him. It was a therapy session, and he was so persuasive and also so compassionate. I was surprised. I thought he came across as a good doctor and they needed a good guy like that. That was a nice surprise.
Can you talk about the musical choices you made for the film and the contributions of your three composers: Maxime Barzel, Paul-Étienne Côté and Francois-Pierre Lue?
MCKELLAR: There were three composers but they worked together. They’re these young guys from Quebec who play every instrument. They drew from Newfoundland music which is deep and well-loved out there. Practically everyone in the film [could play] if you’d asked them. The locals play some instrument. I remember at one point I said, “Does anyone here play an accordion?” and then half the cast put up their hands. It was half the villagers. I said, “Who’s the best?” and it was this guy who ended up being the accordion player in the film. It’s amazing. Brendan does play the fiddle and played with them and learned the tunes. The music is so important out there that I had to include that, and I wanted the score to reflect that.
What are you working on next that you’re excited for audiences to see?
MCKELLAR: The Drowsy Chaperone is this Broadway musical I wrote with my friends, and that’s going to be a movie that we’ll probably shoot next year. We’re excited about that. We have a lot of people were excited about [in terms of casting], but I don’t believe I’m allowed to reveal their names yet. There are some pretty big names. The thing I’m currently working on is Sensitive Skin. We finished shooting. It’s a half-hour comedy showing up here in July with Kim Cattrall and myself as a couple who move downtown to a new condo hoping to revive their marriage and it ends up backfiring. It’s pretty great. It’s very funny, so I’m happy with that, too. I’m directing, executive producing and acting in it.