Film

THE MAN IN THE MIRROR

Don McKellar creates a frustrated artist not unlike the director himself

Brian D. Johnson January 31 2005
Film

THE MAN IN THE MIRROR

Don McKellar creates a frustrated artist not unlike the director himself

Brian D. Johnson January 31 2005

THE MAN IN THE MIRROR

Film

Don McKellar creates a frustrated artist not unlike the director himself

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

DON MCKELLAR IS ON THE PHONE from Bangkok. It’s 6 a.m. Thai time, and after staying up all night, he’s packing for the long flight home to Toronto. He sounds rattled. McKellar was at the Bangkok International Film Festival to present Childstar, which he co-wrote and directed. He plays an experimental filmmaker working as a limo driver on a U.S. movie shoot in Toronto who gets stuck babysitting a bratty American sitcom star. Showing this quintessentially Canadian, wickedly droll satire of Hollywood North

in Bangkok was bizarre, to say the least. The festival, says McKellar, “was this weird combination of Bangkok decadence and mourning over the tsunami disaster. The obscenity of movie life in the face of tragedy— it’s another one of those experiences that make you wonder why you make movies.”

But then McKellar has turned self-doubt into a one-man industry. He’s the default antihero of Canadian cinema, a self-analytic Everyman who’s built a career on the fine art of hesitation. You can hear it in the cadence of his acting, the halting delivery of an observer confounded by irony. You can see it in the circumspect wit of his scripts, which he’s notoriously slow to write, and in the paralytic charm of his characters—from the anxious barber in Highway 61 to the TVaddicted agoraphobe in CBC’s Twitch City.

McKellar, 41, is Canadian film’s most essential common denominator. He launched director Bruce McDonald’s career by cowriting and starring in Roadkill (1989), then Highway 61 (1991). He’s played assorted misanthropes in movies by Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Patricia Rozema. With Quebec director François Girard (page 47), he co-scripted the musical riddles of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin. And for his feature directing debut,Lost Night (1998), he recruited a pantheon of Canadian stars for a modest tale of apocalypse, casting himself as a resolute loner determined to keep the world at bay.

With Childstar, McKellar creates his most forceful character to date. Rick is an arrogant artiste who’s stuck working as the guardian to the world’s most famous kid—a snotty 12-year-old named Taylor (Mark Rendall) who’s playing the scion of a kidnapped U.S. president in an action-comedy called The

First Son. While Rick resents the job, he’s happy to sleep with Taylor’s reckless mother (a delightfully caustic Jennifer Jason Lee). And when the insecure boy asks for some “advice with the ladies,” Rick simply tells him to loosen up. Next thing you know, Taylor has gone AWOL with a hooker, and Rick has become a concerned father figure. “I was trying to turn around that classic model of the Canadian protagonist,” says McKellar. “At first he’s the passive observer. But as he’s tracking down the kid, he’s forced into the more American model—the detective.” Childstar is a bipolar tale of arrested development: Canadian mid-life crisis meets American pubescence. But with Quebec cinematographer André Turpin shooting cool Cinemascope tableaus, McKellar’s stylized direction seems aloofly European. The cast, meanwhile, offers a circus of Hollywood stereotypes—Alan Thicke parodying himself as Taylor’s sitcom dad, a slimy Eric Stoltz as his real father back in Los Angeles, Dave Foley as a ruthless producer, and Brendan Fehr as a former child star hooked on cocaine The idea for the movie goes back to a DreamWorks Oscar party in 2000. McKellar was there with The Red Violin—which had won for original score—and found himself at the bar talking to an eerily precocious 11-yearold, Haley Joel Osment, who had just lost best actor for The Sixth Sense. “It was the kind of conversation you’d have with an adult,” recalls McKellar. “He was all alone and he had a drink in his hand. I’m not saying it was alcohol. But he was such a strange creature, so poised and controlled. I’d been going to a lot of Oscar parties that week, and everyone’s negotiating status with that same unnatural poise. This 11-year-old seemed like a symbol of my experiences

with Hollywood—a perfect representation of American popular culture.”

At the time, he was mired in writing an adaptation of the novel Blindness, by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago. Putting it on the back burner, he turned Childstar into his sophomore feature. A film about showbiz immaturity seemed apt. “I’d been having meetings in L.A. with my so-called American agent,” he says, “and thinking it was harder and harder to make movies, certainly independent movies, whatever that means.” (He adds that he turned down offers to direct studio scripts, includingK-PAX and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.)

Childstar is the progeny of professional frustrations. On the one hand, McKellar was dismayed by Hollywood types who didn’t get him; on the other, he was feuding with Canadian funding bureaucrats who got him all too welland who were courting Hollywood formula at the expense of auteur cinema. He had constant tussles with Telefilm Canada over the script. The movie includes a scene of Taylor losing his virginity to an escort in a studio replica of the Oval Office. Telefilm asked him to raise the 12-year-old’s age to 13 or 14. “I was stubborn,” says McKellar. “The whole point is he’s a child. A teenager having sex is not as unnatural. It seemed crucial to me.” Over the past year, McKellar has made himself the poster boy for art versus Telefilm. “He’s usually very reserved,” says his longtime producer and friend, Niv Fichman. “But he felt it was up to him to be the voice

WITH Childstar; his

wickedly droll satire of Hollywood North, he’s done the most audacious work of his career

on that issue. He didn’t care about the consequences.” McKellar even chided the agency while introducing Childstar at its Toronto festival premiere—biting the hand that fed half the film’s $4.9-million budget. The speech set up an ingenious conceit: as McKellar left the stage, and the movie started, his character appeared onscreen—standing on a stage in the same suit, introducing a film-within-a-film to a festival audience with the same words: “Nice to see so many familiar faces,

important people in the industry____”

Films and TV shows about show business have become a Canadian staple—Stardom, Ararat, Hollywood North, The Newsroom, Slings and Arrows, Made in Canada, The Eleventh Hour. But McKellar is unapologetic. “If people are making films about art,” he says, “maybe there’s a crisis.” Yet it’s a crisis that has allowed him to create the most audacious, and personal, work of his career, fill