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Q&A — GAME Writer/Director Josh MacDonald

Although we don’t usually cover short films here at Canuxploitation, our curiousity was piqued  last month when we heard Josh MacDonald, writer of one of our favourite Canadian horror films from last year, THE CORRIDOR, had taken a seat in the directors chair for a brand new horror short. GAME debuted at this year’s Fantastic Fest, and not only does the East coast-shot film deliver the gruesome goods, it also features a piece of winking Canadiana–the immediately recognizable theme song from the Hinterland Who’s Who films.

Torontonians will have a chance to see GAME  playing before Toronto After Dark’s Closing Night Film on  October 26. In fact, in the week before Halloween, GAME will play genre festivals on four different continents. See the film’s website and Facebook page  for more news and screening info. (Also keep an eye out for GAME producer Angus Swantee’s own short film TORTUROUS at many of the same fests!)

We talked to Josh about the stupidest lines he ever wrote, why Nova Scotia is still a hotbed of film talent and generally messing with audiences’ heads.

How did the short come about?

Even the title of GAME is meant to be something of a declaration of purpose — it definitely has meaning within the story (as in the hunter-hunted relationship between the characters)—but in a wider view it’s meant to imply I’m just “playing in a sandbox” here, goofing around with a new set of tools. After writing a couple of features, I was encouraged by my collaborators to try directing something for the first time.

I always try to write my screenplays in a really visual manner anyway, hoping readers will be able to conjure a “mind movie” for themselves while flipping those pages. My friends suggested I try, at least once, to realize that “mind movie” for myself in full, without passing over the baton (to totally mix my metaphors).

It was around this time that I was approached by local producer Angus Swantee, who wanted to apply for CBC-TV / Film Nova Scotia’s Bridge Award. The award gives an emerging team an opportunity to make a short film, and we eventually got selected to make GAME. In the history of the award this piece is something of a risk, I figure, because it’s genre filmmaking (and a piece particularly front-loaded with “Woman In Peril” imagery), so I’d totally like to thank the Bridge for their belief in us, and for the opportunity. To a degree, I think our local timing was right, applying on the heels of THE CORRIDOR and HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.

GAME is also a horror film, but the tone is quite different from THE CORRIDOR. Why did you choose to go for something different this time out?

I really wanted to try directing a “director’s piece” instead of a “writer’s piece,” you know? Since I am primarily known as a writer, I felt there might’ve been an expectation I’d direct something pretty static that just framed up my precious, precious words: two people sitting at a card table, y’know, having a conversation…?

THE CORRIDOR, in particular, had been received as a heady, talky example of a horror movie. It’s about a group of guys, choked by midlife crisis, having something of a “state-of-the-union address” about their friendships, and talking about their pasts, presents and futures. Then the future comes bearing down on them in the form of the extra-normal corridor itself. The corridor, as a fantastical story device, always remains an abstraction—it’s an absence of winter weather, it’s a negative space, a null—and the characters practically need to talk about it to give it story definition, to make it exist. Finally, when the corridor causes the men to lose their minds and turn against one another, this means that the good guys of THE CORRIDOR also become its bad guys. Charting this gradient shift over the length of the picture was a exacting assignment, and dialogue heavy.

All this is to say that when I moved on to GAME, I just wanted to make a goof-off, Friday Night Monster Mash for myself: a clear heroine, clear villains, immediate life-and-death stakes, and a lot of physical action. I wanted to make a classical action flick in miniature: slo-mo, animal wrangling, in-camera FX, fight scenes in water, chucking axes, all of that movie-shit I love, and that I can’t do when I’m typing at my desk.

And I purposely bound up my ability to write dialogue, like I bound up my main character—my heroine here is gagged at the mouth. The five lines left over for the other characters, willfully, are the stupidest lines I’ve ever written in my life. So, um, definitely not a writer’s piece??

GAME plays a lot with audience expectations–was the idea here to subvert typical genre conventions?

Well, like a lot of low-budget horror, I think GAME’s storyline was first born out of practical considerations: what can I stage on a dime, but still stage well? I grabbed onto the hoary ol’ chestnut of a Woman In Peril, trying to outrun some Monstrous Hillbillies, for probably the same reason that everybody else does: all you need is a handful of actors, some intimidating power tools, and a lot of forest.

Knowing, though, that this basic story was so well-trod, I felt I had to pivot it a bit, if I was going to do it at all… First off, for non-genre fans, the iconography of a terrorized woman being hunted by a pack of men, without any narrative relief, is going to feel pretty unsavory, pretty sleazy. And, secondly, for die-hard genre-fans, it’s just going to seem cliché.

I thought I could redeem the experience by gear-shifting it half-way through: starting in a very for-keeps, 1970s, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT / I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE vibe, then hitting a three-minute springboard that launches a different tone, something zanier and closer to an EC Comic from the 1950s (or a 1980s CREEPSHOW episode).

I know even the twist I’ve got has been done before, but I wanted to see if I could skate this thing primarily on technical marks: assemble all of these little movie tricks in a quick row, and execute them with as high a degree of polish as I could.

I saw Jason Eisener edited GAME–how did he get involved?

In the words of Geddy Lee when he helped on Bob & Doug’s “Take Off,” ten bucks is ten bucks. One of the things I really loved about directing was getting to pick my team, and being able to surround myself with amazing people who inspire me to raise my (here’s the title again) game. Jason is obviously one of those people.

Living in Nova Scotia, I’ve been blown away by Jason’s talents as a filmmaker ever since he was in high-school. Over the years, he’s become a good friend. We only live a couple of blocks from one another, and going to Jason’s place to watch crazy shit is always one of my favourite movie nights. If Jason’s career had never blown up with HOBO, etc., he STILL would’ve been the guy I’d have asked to edit GAME… As it stands, though, I know I was lucky to find a pocket of time where he could work with me on this: I’ll always be proud to see his name on GAME’s poster.

That being said, though, I felt just as lucky to get every other collaborator who worked with me on GAME: every one of them is a ringer. From storyboards at the beginning to CGI titles at the end, my crew, cast and family members did incredibly heavy-lifting on this thing. Even when a movie’s only eight minutes long, it takes a small army of super-talented people to make it happen. I can’t name everybody here, but I do want to give a particular shout-out to my friend and incredible DOP, Jeff Wheaton.

We have to ask–how did you get to use the Hinterland Who’s Who music?

The whole way along, I kept trying to convey the look & feel I wanted for GAME by saying, “It should be like one of those old Hinterland Who’s Who commercials”! I said it so often that one day, while working on post-production with score and sound designer Adam Burke, I just went home thinking, well, what the hell, why don’t we try to get that music cue for real?? Angus got in touch with the Hinterland PSA folks, and they were freakishly accommodating.

My plan was to use the music over the ending credits, but it was Adam’s idea to also use it over the nature shots that open the short: as soon as I heard it placed there I was convinced. I couldn’t stop laughing.

For Canadians of a certain age, that music is so instantly recognizable, so woodland-zen, that using it to start our urgent-stakes horror-show seemed so awesome, so tonally askew. Then, when our lead actress, Andrea Lee Norwood, first enters frame, I think that pretty music cue just curdles away for people, and they forget they even heard it.

Finally, when the music comes around a second time at the end, the audience has a fuller context for why we chose it at all, and it’s fun to hear them react.

Preserve our wetlands, fellow Canucks! *

(* Incidentally, this music means absolutely nothing to audiences beyond the Great White North, but it’s still a haunting little flute melody, and we thought it made awesome score.)

What was the most fun you had when putting the film together?

Like I was saying earlier, it was just the experience of getting together with super-talented folks who I also love as individuals. At its best, GAME was a chance to go camping in the woods with a bunch of my favourite people. Fall in Nova Scotia is beautiful, and we got lucky with our October weather.

GAME was shot around Grand Lake, NS, on land that’s been in my extended family since before my Great Granddad. During shooting, my parents and aunts & uncles donated their cottages or homes so we’d have base camps to bunk down in, apply SFX makeup in, or make meals in, and their wood stoves were always stoked when we came back in from the cold water.

Having my film-family and my real family come together made me feel like I was in a really strong place. Grand Lake is sort of cherished territory for me—has been, ever since I was a kid—so defiling it completely by staging a series of ridiculous gore scenes there seemed like the right thing to do…

It’s summers at the camp where I read all of those old EC Comics in the first place.