Interview: Wilby Wonderful director Daniel MacIvor

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  October 10, 2004 @ 12:00am

Filed under: Interviews

As the film festival entered its second week and I entered about day five or six of minimal sleeping, I'd seen far too many movies, and the location at which I live began to seem a distant memory, I took a step back. After getting home at 1:30am for the fifth consecutive day, I remembered that I had scheduled an interview for the next afternoon with Wilby Wonderful director Daniel MacIvor. For whatever reason, I thought the interview was at 2:00pm when in actuality it was scheduled for 4:00pm. To me, there could be no clearer indicator that I was losing my mind. I had seen his film a mere three days prior, but since I had seen at least 5 since (I've lost the exact count) it would take some referring back to some of my post-screening notes to get in the groove.

So I sat down at 1:30am in the morning and began to hammer out questions for the interview. By 3:00am I was downright exhausted and hadn't really progressed to a point that I was happy with what I had to ask. Flash forward 12 hours and I wake up (late of course) and rush downtown. The setting is the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Georgia Street -- a location I've come to know all too well in the last two weeks as I sat down with person after person discussing movies and where us media members can go get a nice free Starbucks coffee at any time. The interview time quickly approaches and before long I find myself in the same exact room from a couple days before across from Daniel MacIvor, director of Wilby Wonderful, a film which had two festival screenings and will be seeing a wide release in Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax just as the festival closes. Relaxed and only a bit tired, the conversation began.

Mark McLeod: To start, tell me a little bit about Wilby Wonderful.

Daniel MacIvor: Wilby Wonderful is sort of a whimsical, bittersweet comedy that's 24 hours in the life of a small town on an island. For me, it's about the idea that we're so desperate to fit in, everyone is always trying to fit in, and in the end no one really feels like they do. So we're all kind of wasting our time trying to do it because there's no point. I was really interested in working with an ensemble so that's what started the idea.

MM: And where did you get the title?

DM: Well for a while we were calling it Honey, and the town was named after that. We had this whole metaphor about the sweetness of the sting and all that and then it turned out at the time there was a Jessica Alba movie shooting also using that title so we realized that title was out. So we started thinking about new titles and this whole Wilby Wonderful thing came up and it was a much better idea. In the movie, Callum Keith Rennie plays a painter and he paints these signs that are supposed to say "Wonderful Wilby" but he's dyslexic and paints them backwards. Plus, there's a whole concept in the movie where things are reflections and reversals, so that's where the title came from.

MM: The entire film takes place in the span of one day. Was it difficult to tell the story in just one day since the characters can only go through so much of an arc in a short time period?

DM: I did that intentionally to give myself a little serious clock that I could use to track the day. I'm big on structure in the theatre work that I do, and that structure demands a lot of rigor. I actually enjoyed doing the writing, but the thing that was tough was the edit. Normally in an edit, you can try and move things around and flip them, but you couldn't do that because it's all so seriously based on "this happens at 1:00, this happens at 4:30". The day has to run that way, so you can't really mess around. In some ways, it's a real break in the edit, even when you are going to go back to the original just to mess it up, but we couldn't do that. At that point, I started questioning why I might have done this, but I really enjoyed building it that way and while it offered us some challenges I actually liked them and it kept it interesting.

MM: If you could only choose one word to describe your film, what would it be and why?

DM: Bittersweet. I think. I feel that "bittersweet" implies there's a real sweetness to it, but at the same time there's a darkness, and I think there's a bit of a shadow in the movie, but I'd never call it dark. Bittersweet sums up the tone quite well.

MM: Now do the same for yourself as a director/actor/writer.

DM: Me?..... AGH.. simply complicated. No, that's more than one word. Me. I would say a "traveller" because I feel like I travel a lot. I woke up two days ago in Halifax, two days before that I woke up in Spain, [and] before that I was in Germany. But I also feel that I'm learning so much in my life and I've worked for many many years in theatre and started working in film four or five years ago, and I'm constantly learning. It feels like I'm on this kind of journey travelling and learning and seeing new things. I keep moving, that's what I'm trying to say.

MM: The film has a strong community vibe with everyone knowing everyone else, which isn't something that I get from living in a big city like Vancouver. Do you think people both from small towns and big cities can relate to this rather quaint and small story?

DM: I think so because I think we're really a country of small towns, since our cities are so far apart, that we sort of create mini-towns within the city. I don't know Vancouver as well as I do Toronto, but I did find in the city that what would happen is that you go to your laundry mat, your corner store, your movie theatre, and you create these little towns in your city. I just think that we're a nation of towns, really, and I think a lot of people and certainly in Toronto I know everyone who lived in a small town in Ontario wants to go to Toronto, so you end up with all these people from small towns in the city. On another level, I think that the incidents that happen in the movie are identifiable to everyone in some way. I think that we can connect to them emotionally, but they might mean something different to us depending on where we live and our life experiences.

MM: Building on that sense of community, the actors and actresses in the movie all really feel and act as if they know each other well. How were you able to make the relationships between the characters (be it positive or negative) so realistic?

DM: One thing I did do was that I wrote for a lot of them and their characters were developed specifically for them. Rebecca I wrote for, Ellen Page I wrote for, Maury Chaykin I wrote for, Jim Allodi as well. So I wrote it with these people in mind so they immediately felt at home in the parts. The biggest thing that happened was we all lived together on location on an old navy base. So we were living as a community together. No one went home from work, we all went back to the base together and we shot there and ate there as well. So we were actually a community of people shooting a movie about a community of people.

MM: So the people were always together, none of those 8 to 12 hour shooting days, then back to the room and their own personal lives.

DM: That's right, we were full time together.

MM: Wilby Wonderful recently played the Vancouver International Film Festival and will be released on October 8th in Vancouver, Toronto, and Halifax. Is it going to build after that?

DM: It's going to be on what they call a film circuit. It's going to be playing small towns and smaller cities after it leaves Vancouver and Toronto. Places like Nanamio and Hamilton, there's a total of like 20 cities it'll hit after the release.

MM: Are film festivals important to your work and building an audience that might otherwise not know or see your film?

DM: I was just actually talking to one of the festival programmers downstairs about this, but yeah, it's really important. Vancouver for instance because we're releasing on Friday and our screenings are sold out (at the VIFF) here which is great. But part of you is like, well crap, the screenings are sold out and now those people won't come out to the movie theatre when it opens, and it's all about the numbers because if the distributor gets the numbers the first weekend then they'll keep it around for a second week and then a third week. What actually happens is that it does generate a buzz and word of mouth and people tell others that they should see it. I think a movie like Wilby isn't dependant on what you read in the paper or on the web, but you really just have to see a movie because people you know say you'd like this or this is good.

MM: Callum Keith Rennie usually plays sort of a psycho or creep, but in your film, although his character's done some questionable things, he sort of comes across as a hero at the end. How did you get him to play against type?

DM: I've known Callum really well for a couple of years. We've worked together before and I wasn't actually writing the part for him at first, but once he was aboard it was really clear to me. I know that the Callum you've seen on screen before isn't really who he is. In fact, he's closer to the character he plays in Wilby than he is to the psychos he plays. Sure, we all have our psycho sides and Callum's life has also changed in the last few years. Both of us were pretty crazy and we partied together. We kind of grew up and things change and I really think he's sort of shifted his whole person and I think Callum is a bit of a hero in his real life.

MM: You shot the film in Nova Scotia. How important was shooting the film in an actual small town near where the story is set as opposed to recreating it in a studio or shooting in Toronto or Vancouver?

DM: I can't imagine how it would have worked in a city. You know, when you're working with a restricted budget -- we had 2.2 million which is crazy to be calling a little bit of money -- but when your working with film that is a small amount. We also only had 23 days to shoot things. So there was a need to get everything and as much reality on your side as you can. The time we would have to spend creating a small town in a city would have been wasted time because, you know, all we had to do was point the camera and there we were.

MM: In general, not a lot of Canadian movies receive much of a theatrical release up here. What is it about Canadian films that for the most part seems to cause them to do so poorly at the box office? Is it the marketing, because you don't really see a lot of trailers being cut for smaller films?

DM: You know, it's a couple of things. Well there's probably many things, but what I see is a couple of things. One is partially what you say in that we can't afford television air time, so American movies can spend at least 2.2 million dollars on marketing, and so those are the movies that can get the audience's attention and those are the ones that the cinema owners want to have on their screens. Also, the business of movies is run by the Americans, and they run it, so they want their movies on Canadian screens. That's just business and that's how they work. I think that's a whole complicated, weirdly conspiratorial thing going on. Then there's the other thing, and that's our nature as Canadians, which is not to hold ourselves up as being great. The Americans are taught to be that way. Their first history lesson is that they won the land, whereas ours in that we stole it. It's just the nature of who we are. We're not great celebrators of our own, which has its pros and cons. It means we don't end up watching or supporting our own movies. At the same time, it allows those of us who make art a little bit of freedom and it doesn't turn into this celebrity circus. It's got to be hellish for some people and it's so substanceless. It wears at the very basis of what their society is based on -- hollow dreams. There's just nothing of any substance in this stuff. What we lose superficially we gain spiritually. At the end of the day, it's just a movie, so I'm a bit torn on that whole thing. Anyway, it's a very interesting conversation.

MM: What do you think of Telefilm and their current practices?

DM: I think it's clearly not working for them. Intern Academy bombed, as did Foolproof. It's because we don't do heist movies. However, I believe that Wilby Wonderful is a commercial movie. I think it's a Canadian commercial movie. We make movies about people, we make movies about relationships, and they always seem to be about what is our place in the world and how do we fit in. At the same time, when I look at commercial movies, what I see is a familiar story being told, so it's easy for people to attach themselves. What we've done with Wilby is tell a familiar story, but put little twists in here and there to try and keep people awake and engaged. In some ways, I feel that Wilby is as commercial as we get. The other stuff, heist movies, not so much. Cameron Bailey, who writes for Now Magazine, said it well. If you're going to see a heist movie, you're going to see The Italian Job, not Foolproof, because it's not what we do. I mean, I guess we did Meatballs but we haven't done something like that since.

MM: That and the whole star power thing.

DM: Exactly. You look at an actress like Nicole Kidman. She's not a great actress but she can carry a movie because she was married to some guy who can't act either. It's this thing where you have these actors that, when you actually watch them, can't act. If you look at Nicole Kidman in The Hours, I think she won the Oscar or some award and really it's all about a nose. The nose should have got the award. Then I was on a plane recently and I saw Stepford Wives, and now that is a terrible movie, but yet you see that she can't act, she has no timing, subtlety, and can't do comedy. Comedy is a real test of an actor, it's a very serious business as they say. It's just very interesting when you look at someone like Rebecca Jenkins, who is so great and has a good presence, and everyone in the movie is just so good that people like them can't open a movie in Canada.

MM: What's next for you as a writer/director/actor?

DM: I'm co-writing and acting in a super low-budget DV movie that we're shooting in the winter in Nova Scotia and working on a script for something called Understanding How, and it's a movie about one man late in his 40s. I suppose you could say it's a mid-life crisis movie.

MM: Is there anyone you haven't worked with but want to, or anyone you'd like to work with again?

DM: I'd work with everyone in Wilby again. I'm interested in trying to do that and build a company of actors like what Mike Leigh or Woody Allen have done. I'd love to keep working with the same actors. But also, I've never worked with Sarah Polley, and of course Don McKellar, who I worked with on Twitch City. Yeah, there's lots of people.

MM: What do you think of the internet as a promotional tool for movies?

DM: I think it's great. There's some people we're talking to in the States about releasing the film called Film Movement. What they do is release the film in a couple cities and then they have a subscription service people sign up for and they send them the DVD. This allows people in Atlanta or Baton Rouge to get this cool indie movie that wouldn't normally get in the theatre. I think that concept is just two steps away from doing away with the mail. Clearly, it's moving in that direction, and once the technology is more accessible and can provide crystal clear images, it's just going to explode. I think it makes perfect sense that movies are promoted and being viewed over the internet.

At this point, having gotten all my questions answered, it was time to thank Daniel for his time as he moved onto a Question & Answer session as part of the VIFF Cineworks Filmmaker Series.

Special thanks to Bonne Smith at StarPR for setting up yet another excellent interview opportunity, the VIFF media office, the Crowne Plaza hotel, and JW and CC for their friendship and for hanging out so much during the festival.

Wilby Wonderful opens in Vancouver (Cinemark Tinseltown), Toronto (Canada Square, Carleton), and Halifax (Park Lane) on October 8th. For more information visit or

Tags: Daniel MacIvor, Wilby Wonderful, VIFF, Callum Keith Rennie

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Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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