Before we talked about his charming new film, “The Grand Seduction,” I just had to ask Don McKellar about the plans to make the sensational Broadway musical he co-wrote, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” into a film. He assured me that while he wasn’t allowed to give me any details, I would be very happy with the casting. I can’t wait.
“The Grand Seduction” is an English remake of a French Canadian film about a small harbor (that is their term for a fishing village) trying to break out of its severe economic decline after the collapse of the fishing industry. Their best hope is to persuade a recycling factory to come to their community. But they will not come unless there is a doctor. So the harbor conspires, using some blackmail and some “Truman Show”-style legerdemain, to bring a handsome young doctor (played by Taylor Kitsch) and make him think that they have everything he loves and needs — including cricket players and jazz music — in their remote location.
McKellar is a lot of fun to talk to and we discussed the challenges of making a location vivid enough to be a character in the film and taking actors from the US (Kitsch) and England (Brendan Gleeson) and making them sound like rural Canadians.
How did you do that incredible job of creating that sense of place?
That was a big, big goal of mine. I really feel that for a movie like this to be successful–and you don’t see a lot of movies like this–a social comedy set in a specific locale like that, I really felt you had to convince the audience that it was real. It was real but you really had to show the people there, show the real landscape, show the real beauty. That’s a big part of the seduction. So it was all shot on location. There is no sort of CGI-ed landscapes. There is this night shot of them running from the bar to the church and it is illuminated by the moon and reflected on the water and I remember shooting it with my Director of Photography thinking, “No one would even believe that this is possible; to illuminate the scene by the moon.” We actually lit it with the moon. That’s how clear and bright it was. Yeah, I am really proud of that. I really feel that the place is the signpost of the people.
We waited for the sunsets sometimes and panicked to get them in time but it was all real. You really can’t fake that. You can never second-guess natural beauty like that and it’s so unpredictable out there. Yeah, I’m really proud of that. And it is not hard, it is a beautiful place but still I’m glad we captured it.
You have actors from all over the world pretending to be from a very specific place and the accents are as important as the setting. How did you work on that?
You are right. It’s very distinctive. And it’s actually really hard to do and certainly out there, they are really sensitive about that and they feel that it has been butchered by some very fine actors in other films. So it was really important to me and certainly to Brendan Gleeson because it really rested on his shoulders to go for that and make it as authentic as possible.
And I am happy to say that when we screened it, the first response was, “Sir, I have never seen it done by an outsider before but you pulled it off.” Brendan as an actor was actually a plus; a lot of people would just be scared away by that but some of those actors out there in the UK love that kind of challenge; they love working on accents and getting it down. He worked really hard and hung out with the locals. Almost everyone in the cast was from there so that helped a lot but that’s pretty much the way they sound.
Often when you make a film, you have a dialect coach who sort of dictates the sound and people start imitating that and everyone sounds homogenous. One of the things that gave us a little bit of freedom is that from Harbor to Harbor people sound different. The accent has a certain constants across the province but also there is this wide variety. I kept saying to Brandon, “Sometimes a brother does not sound like a sister out here.” People are distinctive.
I have to admit at first, I tried to resist it. My producer and I said, “Oh maybe we should just go with the same old Celtic thing.” You can’t fight that in a way and its part of the culture, it’s so deep. Everyone out there plays a musical instrument. It is really astonishing. There is a guy in the film, the accordion player, I found him by just saying to the cast, “Does anyone here play an accordion?” And then the locals put up their hands: “Oh, he’s good, he’s better, he is the best one.” “Okay, we’ll go with him.” It was really like that. And I remember there was sort of an amusing scene in that bar scene where Brendan is playing the fiddle. At one point my assistant director was trying to tell people how to react. Maybe this one would be interested, another would be drinking, another would get up and dance. It was sort of absurd because we were outside telling the people how to respond and then they started playing and the place came alive in a second. We don’t have to tell these people how to respond to music. It’s a big deep part of the culture so I’m really happy that we evote some of that.
How did you choose Taylor Kitsch for the role of the doctor?
I have always thought Taylor was a good actor. I thought he was really very strong in “Friday Night Lights” and I have seen him on a couple of things that showed his range, like a film called the, “Bang Bang Club” where he played a South African and I thought he was a serious actor. He is certainly capable of doing those action films but I thought they never fully exploited his skills. And one of them is his charm; which is which you know is a real rare asset in a movie star these days; they don’t make them like that anymore. I really feel he has classic movie star appeal and it was really important to me that that character had an authenticity and a heart because it sort of flips around and he ends up seducing them as much as they are seducing him and they realize they have genuine empathy for him. Somehow he’s played naïve without seeming gullible. So I think it is a really skillful performance from him actually.
This is a remake of a French language film. Did you ever see the original?
I had seen it and I admired it. I admired it sort of for its classic comedy structure but I hadn’t thought of remaking it to tell you the truth. It was the producer who asked me to do it and I was skeptical just because it is always dangerous to be remaking a successful film, it was very successful in French territories. But then the idea of Newfoundland came in and I thought, “Oh, this is about something.” This is about a real problem out there in these fishing villages that are dying and I also thought it is a beautiful place and the actors out there are brilliant so all of a sudden it came to life for me and so I was on board.