February 1, 2010

Brain Picking: Interview with Tony Burgess (Pontypool)

(author, screenwriter of Pontypool)

This is a transcript of a video interview I did for Horror in the Hammer with Tony Burgess (author and screenwriter of Pontypool). Burgess was in Hamilton for an October 14th, 2009 screening of Pontypool organized by the Art Gallery of Hamilton for its Fall 2009 film series. Burgess was kind enough to stick around for an interview. Unfortunately, the video never made it out of post-production.

Speaking is risky. At least that is the premise of Pontypool, a fantastic Canadian zombie film directed by Bruce McDonald and written by Tony Burgess (author of Pontypool Changes Everything). Even though speaking is risky, I could not give up the chance to speak with Tony Burgess when he was in town for an Art Gallery of Hamilton screening of the film. He and I discuss Pontypool, the film’s proposed sequels, the metaphysical terror of language, the film’s stellar cast of actors, and the debate over when it's appropriate to use the word "zombie."

Zed Word (ZW)Tony, thanks for spending some time with The Zed Word zombie blog and Horror in the Hammer.

Tony Burgess (TB): How you doing, man?

ZW: Not too bad. Not too bad. I wanted to ask you a few questions about the book [Pontypool Changes Everything] but also about the process of turning it into a movie, and I can’t start without this question: where are you and director Bruce McDonald in the production of the Pontypool sequels?

TB: The Pontypool sequels are written, more or less, and we’re just sort of waiting for – you know – funding and things to happen, and who wants to line up and get behind it and who wants to get involved. But sometimes that’s nine months and sometimes it’s nine years, right? We’ve got everything in place, everything we need, except, you know, for some [funding].  

ZW: But are [the scripts] completely finished? Because I know on the DVD commentary for the film you and Bruce talk at length about plans for the future movies. Have they all been written completely?

TB: They’ve been written completely. I’m careful not to say “completely” completely because then, you know... but there is some room in there to move things around.

ZW: Now, you were telling me that Pontypool 1, the first Pontypool movie we have out now, is sort of an appetizer for the other movies. That the other movies were kind of conceived first, but Pontypool came a bit later.

TB: Pontypool 2 and 3 were written substantially before [Pontypool 1]. Actually, Pontypool 2 and 3 are Pontypool 1 broken in half. And Pontypool 1 is some of the pieces of those two.

ZW: So, when you approach Pontypool 2 and 3, what kind of things do you hope to bring to them that is different from the first Pontypool? Because I know the book is . . . something of a feral creature, kind of unstable, and fragmented and very gory and very bloody whereas the Pontypool [movie] that we have know is - not more restrained - but the scope is limited.

TB: [Pontypool 1] is a tauter, sort of more controlled, thing necessarily, but the sequels are more feral, and those qualities in the novel I’m trying to keep in the film versions. In fact, that was part of the difficulty we had over the years in keeping the people interested in the screenplay. They’d go, "Oh, I like this, it's really interesting, but......”

ZW: Is that a particular issue for Canada?

TB: No, not necessarily. You know, it’s a question of raising a lot of money for something. Really, it’s as difficult as it sounds to talk somebody out of millions of dollars for an idea that’s, you know, not tested. An idea that’s not clear and is not there. So yeah, it’s a big challenge, I think anywhere. I’m always attracted to the idea of small in film, and love that about Pontypool 1, so in Pontypool 2 and 3 we have bigger, much bigger, canvases. But, in the back of my mind, I have scalable versions of them . . . but they’re all sort of based on the same principles which is they’re about actors and performances.

ZW: It’s interesting that you bring that up. I’ve found that the people I talk to about Pontypool don’t find the scariest moments to be when the zombies are present and the violence happens, but they tend to find the tense moments are when the characters start to lose their grasp on language and start to babble, or repeat words, or latch on to inhuman sounds. I think you describe in the book [zombies] replicating the sound of windshield wipers. What do you think it is about language or when language goes awry that is particularly frightening for people?

TB: Well, I can tell you this is sort of an autobiographical thing. When I was a teenager, I went through a period of time (this where a lot of this stuff came for me before I started thinking about it) in my late teens where – and I’m not sure what happened – but there was this (this is kind of going to sound insane) there was this noise in my head like this humming, buzzing, and it prevented me from speaking clearly. It lasted about a year, and it was a terrifying, terrifying year. The most mundane, banal things – the most commonplace things – were horrifying because it felt like there was this muffled cloud of screaming going on that prevented me from ever saying to anyone, “How you doing?”

Phatic language was destroyed. I’m not sure what happened, but it kind of disappeared and who knows what. That is where it came from: the idea that phatic communication, which we take for granted (phatic language is just, “Hello,” “How are you,” “Good morning, “Good night,” “I’m here”), which is really what, to me, most language is best served doing.

ZW: Like an affirmation of your existence?

TB: “I’m here!,” you know, and “Are you there?” "Show me how much you are there"; "what’s that like over there?" Once that phatic communication becomes scrambled, or garbled, or lost, or garbage, or polluted, or something like that (you don’t clean that area out where we identify that “we are here”), then you have this kind of nightmare of the commonplace. The more commonplace, the more horrifying it is.

ZW: Right, unlike, say, in a real-life zombie apocalypse –

TB: – where they come stumbling at you going, “AAAAARRRRHHH!”

ZW: – those moments [like in Pontypool] when the nightmare slips can happen everyday and are where the real pits of terror are...

TB: And everybody’s had that experience, probably, which is that kind of unidentifiable thing you shrug off – that moment when you weren’t able to be there and say something, and it broke, and someone looked at you and wondered if you were there.

ZW: I get that a lot on the bus, actually. I also read a quote once from Derek Walcott who said, “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property to the language itself,” so I wonder if the fear in Pontypool, that idea of losing grasp on language, or it losing its grasp on you, comes from that inability to own language and make sense of yourself.

TB: Yeah, it’s a series of things – language is a mediation, it’s not immediate, you know what I mean? It’s not the grunt and noise of what I am or the transferring to you [of] my experience – it’s a mediation of a series of, really, clich├ęs and repetitions that you’ve received from somewhere that aren’t yours, that you have in your experience and become the thing you hold up to say, “Yes, this is my experience.” But it’s actually a kind of foreigner to your experience and doesn’t care about your experience.

ZW: And in a way it also becomes you too.

TB: And becomes you! But, you’re right, it becomes you. You can’t separate this other that creeps into you.

ZW: I can’t think of a more perfect example of that than the zombie itself. At the same time, it’s interesting because in zombie films the iconography of zombies is mouths and hands; you see it on a lot of the posters and films. Also, mouths are very important in the book Pontypool Changes Everything and the movie Pontypool. I want to talk to you a little bit about how your take on the zombie kind of inverts or changes how the mouth is a symbol of the zombie. In the book, your characters, or the ones who are infected, don’t have the desire or need to consume flesh but rather to eat themselves into other people.

TB: Yeah . . . it comes out a little in the film . . . but more of it is made in the sequel versions. That is, it’s a misprision, a misunderstanding . . . Once you [the infected] are completely foreign, the familiar is somebody else who can still speak, and so the person tries to escape themselves and where it’s coming out of which is a misreading of the moment, it’s the mouth physically, because there’s a kind of concretization of everything that is collapsing and physical. There isn’t figures of speech anymore; there’s just physicals of speech.

ZW: It’s frightening that when that is stripped away, the impulse is to want to inhabit the inside of someone.

TB: Inhabit the inside of someone, yeah, and thereby killing them and killing yourself. . . . You know, there’s arguments about what’s a zombie / who’s a zombie; I’ve seen some insanely fantastic, over-the-top, nutso arguments about that, you know online and on different blogs and stuff. . . which to me I think is a geek’s argument (I love a good geek’s argument, but I don’t think it necessarily goes anywhere). When we came to this idea of zombies, there was no argument. When I was writing the book, there was no argument about what a zombie was. Although George Romero zombies are fantastic, the idea – and its clear – they are the dead coming back to life. It’s not "you bite, you get infected". It’s not a virus movie . . .

ZW: Not like a 28 Days Later...

TB: Or even like many virus movies before that; Outbreak was the first opening of the virus/zombie rampage movie, right? 28 Days is really like Outbreak on meth.

ZW: In the film Pontypool, you never really refer to them as zombies although in the book you use the zed word all over the place.

TB: But you know what, “zombie” is an audience word. It’s not a film word. “Zombie” or “the zed word” is never used in George Romero films in Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. They don’t say, “Here it comes? / What’s that? / It’s a zombie, man!” That’s the audience! It’s an audience word. I think that once you use the “zombie” word, in a film, which now happens, you’re really saying that you’re a kind of campy, fun-loving, extra zombie [film].

ZW: Now, was there a difference of opinion between you and director Bruce McDonald about that because Bruce likes to call them “conversationalists.”

TB: No, no, we talked about that. That was actually my word . . . it was a joke. We sat down and said, “Okay, everyone is coming out of this saying it’s a zombie movie,” and maybe it was an abundance of caution because we didn’t want to go in and say, “We got a zombie movie, man!” We’re not sure the zombie set is totally going to go for this, so let’s not call them zombies. So, what do we call them? Speakers? Talkers? Talkers! “Conversationalists” was just the most insanely non-zombie kind of [word] . . . but who’s kidding who? Its’ a freaking zombie movie .

ZW: Beyond the zombies, the best thing about zombie movies is that they’re not about zombies but people. And you’ve got a great cast of characters, a small group of characters, . . . and we don’t get to see a lot of the outside world. It seems like the character of Grant Mazzy is a character people really latch on to . . . but in the book, he’s a very side character and . . . the way he’s represented in the film is much different. What did Steven McHattie bring to the role?

TB: Originally, I wrote the piece and . . . the elements were there, which was it’s a War of the Worlds thing and it’s all going to happen in [Grant Mazzy’s] voice and on his face and we’re never going to leave – everything has to happen in that little box. . . . He had to be somebody who had to fall apart, and you had to be right inside him while he was falling apart, and psychologically bend you in a way that wasn’t clear or obvious. Then we grabbed Steven McHattie. We had a reading at a restaurant, and Steven – I think Lisa [Houle] came and Rick Roberts who is Ken Loney, he came – and we started reading, and Steven was so good. He was so good at getting the bend in the character: that it was all off-season for him, every moment was off, and nothing landed – all his machismo was now tragic. And it was the end of his life, the end of his day – the end of the world in the bottom of a basement at the end of a winter -- all those feelings he had.

And he also brought . . . a romantic sense of it. [McHattie] early on said, "You know, . . . this is a sort of romance." So we talked about that and went and worked it back into it, and some of the other ideas came out of that for me, which was the notion that there was this sort of sublimated sexual attraction going around the room all over the place. [Mazzy was] a fallen god who had landed and was never going to get up again. That’s the way Laurel Ann saw him -- this great god lying on the god and was never going to get up again, but she was the only one who really saw who he had fallen to earth, and Sidney was somebody who was going to prop up this god again and make him live and breathe. It was all a bit sexualized.

Him and Sidney (Lisa Houle) brought a lot of that sort of dynamic. And Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) wonderful understated stuff that she did that became very clear as we were going.

: Speaking of creating the movie, you mentioned that one of your philosophies in doing the book and the movie was to present everything “as if it were happening,” you say, “but not necessarily so.” It’s an interesting paradox. Can we talk about what that means for the story of Pontypool?

TB: Well, you know, it’s something . . . it’s everywhere when I’m writing anything. That is, that’s how I’m going to do it. Its’ going to be absolutely, without question, “what is happening now,” and “it is not necessarily so,” so that you can play the same beats. It’s a bit of a tricky line. The premise and the concept [of Pontypool] and how it’s physically arrived is completely absurd . . . but the most important beat there (the most important thing to hit) is that it is absolutely – absolutely – happening now, and the “it is not necessarily so” will be taken care of. You don’t include it in “it’s happening now.”

ZW: Is it an after effect?

TB: Well, no, because if you include “it is not necessarily so” in the “it is absolutely happening now,” you have a farce, which Pontypool plays with and pulls it over once and awhile, and so does the book. But, you get much more of a vivid experience if it is actually truly happening for sure; you don’t include “it is not necessarily so.”

ZW: Then let’s imagine it is happening now. If there were words that could be infected, what words would they likely be? What words would we need to avoid to not become zombies?

TB: I’ve always agreed with the film’s idea that familiar words, words that make us familiar with each other but don’t have any meaning other than phatic – “Hello”

ZW: “Hey.”

TB: “You’re a good guy.”

ZW: “How’s it goin’?”

TB: “Nah, it’s good. It’s good. Good to see you. Nice, man.”

ZW: If that’s the case though, we should probably stop talking—

TB: -- and talk about something that goes beyond us. Something else. Or can we now?

ZW: No, we’ve gone beyond that point. I think it’s do or die. So, in that case, to not risk zombie infection, I want to thank Tony Burgess for being with us, and I’d like to thank the Art Gallery of Hamilton for hosting the screening of Pontypool here in Hamilton. I’m Aaron from Horror in the Hammer. Shut up, or die.

TB: Shut up or die!

Tony Burgess lives in Stayner, Ontario, with his wife Rachel and their two children. He is the author of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, Caesarea, and Fiction for Lovers, which won the ReLit Award