Bruce McDonald, director of the new Canadian thriller Pontypool, says that although he thinks fondly of the undead, “We realized our monsters were technically not zombies”. Still, the film, which chronicles the spread of a mysterious virus, shares a good deal of DNA with the zombie genre.
Watch the trailer for Pontypool.
The story turns around talk-show host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and his coworkers (Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly) at radio station CLSY in Pontypool, Ontario. Their day begins innocuously enough, but before long they’re inundated with strange reports of violence. Soon, the radio station is besieged, and the group finds staying on the air (and alive) increasingly difficult.
Pontypool’s antagonists are much more talkative than traditional zombies, thanks to a virus contained within the English language. Over coffee at a downtown Vancouver restaurant, McDonald (Hard Core Logo, Highway 61) describes how just hearing an “infected” word, and understanding it, is the first stage of the virus. The victims then begin to repeat that word obsessively, as their immune system tries to take meaning away from it and render it harmless. When this doesn’t work, panic escalates until the victims attempt to escape their condition by chewing through the mouths of other people.
Of the preferred nomenclature of the infected, McDonald says: “We ended up thinking that their language is infected and it gets them into these heightened states of babbling, so we thought, ”˜Let’s call them conversationalists.’ ”
Filmed in just 15 days, Pontypool breaks new technological ground. It’s the first full-length feature in Canada to be filmed using the Red One high-resolution digital camera. “We were going to shoot this on 35-millimetre [film] up until the last moment,” McDonald explains. Then he saw test shots filmed with the Red One. “The technology was more affordable, and it allowed us to shoot more—it’s a revolutionary camera in the sense that there are other cameras like that but they’re hundreds of thousands of dollars”.
Although filming was quick, Pontypool’s development process took a lot longer. “Tony Burgess wrote the screenplay based on his own book [Pontypool Changes Everything],” McDonald explains, “and for about 10 years we worked on a script and we finished a script, which is actually completely different from the movie that we’re releasing.” By chance, McDonald then received a call from the CBC asking if he’d be interested in producing a radio drama, “so we basically took everything we’d been doing for 10 years and put it aside and plucked the one idea—the English language is infected—[then] we took radio drama, combined that, and then thought of War of the Worlds.”
While the radio drama never happened, the process helped tighten up the new Pontypool script. “We still have the other script sitting there,” McDonald explains with a laugh, “so if this one gets some legs we’ve got Pontypool 2 all ready to go.”