By Chris Tait
Think back to a different time. A time when sweat beads off the foreheads of rollerbladers, kids stumble with triple-stacked ice cream to the wading pool at Eau Claire Market and ducks hide in the shade across from Prince’s Island Park. All along the street, leaves are yellow and tumble to the sidewalks, to be crunched by the busy tread of pedestrians. It’s a gorgeous day in late September 2004.
In the late-afternoon shade of the Sheraton Hotel, Canadian screenwriter/actor/director Don McKellar enjoys a tall, cold pint of dark beer in the pub, taking a break from the buzz about of the Calgary International Film Festival and promoting his newest film, Childstar.
“I feel a strange kinship with Calgary,” he says. “I was at the opening night of the opening festival and I always find the response here in Calgary is very warm.”
McKellar helped kick off the festival five years ago with Gary Burns in Waydowntown, and involved in many film festivals across the nation before and since. The jack of all trades in the Canadian film industry, McKellar has directed, acted in and written dozens of films, the most famous include The Red Violin, Last Night, and Waydowntown. His new film definitely fits his M.O.
Childstar is a thoughtful comedy exploring the difficulties of being a young rising star. Within it, the characters film an entirely different movie called the First Son. This meant McKellar had to write in double–double plot, double storyboard, double everything. The film inside the film is a children’s action movie (think Spy Kids) in which Taylor Brandon Burns, played by real-life actor Mark Rendall, plays the American President’s son who has to save the day from terrorists.
“I wanted for you to be able to imagine [First Son] as a real film and not just a stupid joke,” McKellar explains. “I soon got into it. I felt like I was the director of that other film. Coincidentally, this film opened up this weekend called the First Daughter. So, if I’m in trouble, I can always fall back on my First Son plot.”
Beginning his performance career as a magician, McKellar always had a knack for the unusual. Throughout his many roles, McKellar maintains a subdued sense of humour evidently appealing to audiences. His characters are sometimes socially awkward, but often hilarious while avoiding the in-your-face laughs like the confused and eccentric Curtis from the television series Twitch City.
“It’s nothing that I necessarily consciously do,” he admits with a humble chuckle. “There’s definitely something that appeals to me, which is a kind of surprising humour. I don’t like people that work to make you laugh. [In Childstar] I kind of make fun of my character’s earnestness, with his little soul patch–he’s kind of out of it in his own way, too.”
On top of his latest film’s central issue of young stardom, McKellar also takes a look at the working relationship between the Canadian and American film industries, with massive production companies constantly coming from California to film in Toronto. The dynamic in the film industry seems to reflect the state of affairs around the world relating to the U.S.
“I definitely know that I have more international movie friends than most American guys,” he claims. “That’s always been a big strength in Canada–we are a little more open to international cinema and a lot of international films break here first.”
The film pokes a little fun at our neighbours to the south and also displays some of that ol’ self-satirizing Canadiana. We’re portrayed as a cold and desolate country in the film (shot in December) and the producers hate going north of the border because there’s nothing here.
You wouldn’t recognize it from looking outside in the last refuges of fall, the wind, slowly coating the sidewalks with leaves, and patrons enjoying the last of the patio season. What could be more befitting a perfect day than sipping a cool dark brew with a Canadian film legend?