Interview: Don McKellar, writer, director, and co-star of Childstar

Filed under: Interviews

During a recent interview with Don McKellar, I had the privilege of talking to the multi-talented Canadian about his inspiration for Childstar, the acting process, and what it is like being fluid between acting, directing, and writing.

Candice Coughlin: Regarding Childstar, I wanted to know how you got the idea for the film and what inspired it?

Don McKellar: Well, the thing that really inspired it was this encounter I had with Haley Joel Osment at a post-Oscar party. I've been struggling with Hollywood, going back and forth the last couple of years and questioning why I've been making movies and so forth, and then I met this kid at the bar, and I was talking to him for a while before I realized that I was talking to a teenager, even a pre-pubescent kid in fact and I just, uh, something about him struck me as so odd, this sort of unnatural pre-mature maturity in this child-like shell. When I came back to Canada, he sort of stuck on me as a symbol of my experiences in Hollywood. And then, from that, well, the idea of the movie came about.

CC: So it just manifested from there?

DM: I didn't think of it for a while -- but it just sort of stuck in my head -- that it seemed like such a powerful image of not just movie making but American pop-culture and media influence and, there it was.

CC: With this film, you wrote, directed, and acted. I wanted to know what that experience was like for you?

DM: I do like doing them all, all different disciplines, they all come from the same place to me -- they are not as separate as people sometimes claim and for me, it just makes sense. I enjoy writing and I think it is in a way, the most important, probably serving the most important of the disciplines when it comes to movie making -- but I also find it a pain in the ass and uh, I love directing, directing is great, you know, because you are in control and people respect you and you have power. But the thing about directing is that it takes forever and you're stuck with it for years and years -- it is nice to act every now and then and to be pampered and given lots of perks. So for me, it is a rush to do them all. I am not saying that it would work for everyone, but certainly nice work if you can get it. On the set, you know, I think the way I make it work is by surrounding myself with lots of people who help out -- giving authority and control, or at least listening to a lot of my crew and the people moving around the set, my producers, my AD, my cinematographer, my cast -- I think the secret is to give up to some of that control.

CC: Is there something you took away from this film that you learned, perhaps about the film process or on a personal level, something you can reflect on?

DM: Well, it's hard, I guess to sum up, what you come away with. Sometimes I guess you don't realize how a film has changed you for a couple of years, or until you do your next film. I think this film gave me more confidence in a way -- on set -- and I sort of was able to relax and even though this was more pressure than I ever had and was very tight on the money. So it was kind of a Zen thing, being able to relax in the face of pressure -- I think that this was probably the main thin I came away with.

CC: Are there certain places, certain people, that have always been and will continue to be a supportive backbone for you? Something or someone you can rely on?

DM: You know, I try and work in this country for one thing, and build my support close to home -- you know, work with people that I know, friends and people who have shared experiences -- build a kind of family who can support me -- a kind of movie making family. And in a way, it is kind of what the movie (Childstar) is about, finding your own personal family, especially if your real family is screwed up like it is for the kid in the movie. The other thing is to find real friends, people you can lean on outside of your movie experiences. That is important too.

CC: Was there a specific time in your life you discovered film -- like an epiphany and you realized, "Hey, this is what I have to do!" -- or did it gradually grow on you?

DM: Right. I loved movies in high school -- tons and tons, and I was definitely a movie buff -- but it never really occurred to me as a profession until quite later in my career, until after university and I had been working for a while. I was actually asked to write something for the movies and I sort of got sucked in and before I knew it I had a career in the movies -- it was never something that I set out to do. I was never one of those kids who grew up thinking I was going to end up making movies and it seemed like a crazy goal to me. My parents agreed that it wasn't a career possibility -- so I've been pretty lucky that it has developed gradually and that at each step it has exceeded my expectations and pushed me into another direction.

CC: With Rick the driver, I really got an impression of who he was and what he is about -- and I was wondering on a personal level -- are there a lot of parallels between you and that character? Are there things that you can strongly identify with?

DM: Yeah, for sure it is pretty close to me -- it's not autobiographical, but it is kind of an exaggeration of a certain part of me. I mean obviously, this guy who is a Canadian trying to be a filmmaker, went to university (laughs) -- there are lots of parallels. But you know, I wrote this movie, so all the parts have elements of me in it, but yeah, I think one of the reasons I acted the main part in this film is that it was so close to me in a way that would have been weird not to play it.

CC: How would you describe the acting process? What does it mean to you?

DM: That's a tough one, but I think that the main skill for an actor is to relieve themselves of self-consciousness, to relax and to allow the personality and their own idiosyncrasies to emerge. To me, acting is kind of about relaxing into a part instead of studying and working your way into it.

CC: I do feel you have a great gift for nurturing storytelling and I feel invited in. It is something that is instinctual, something that regardless of all the training you could have had -- I think that it is just there for you. What do you think is the most crucial element in portraying a strong story or forming a strong story?

DM: I am glad you are saying that it seems instinctual because I think that there is some truth to that. The biggest problem with storytelling is when it seems formulaic or when it seems forced or based on some model of what you would think stories are supposed to be instead of letting it naturally develop. That would be my first thought. I don't know what to say other than that. I think that other thing is to look for stories and feel for stories in characters on ways that might not be expected -- to find different models of what a hero is and not to look at it from the outside but go inside a story and let it tell itself. Not to try and slam home some moral but let people decide the morals of what you are talking about from the inside.

CC: Was there a time that someone might have said something to you that made sense to you and helped you persevere?

DM: It's hard to say, there are those moments of affirmation that you get -- quite often, it is the reception at the film festival when you are playing it for your home town, and they are applauding you and it can be satisfying. Sometimes, that doesn't work and it is meeting someone on the street and they thank you for your work. The story that occurred to me when you were talking -- this is a weird story to tell -- but in grade six... can I tell you a story that happened in grade 6?

CC: That's fine. I would love to hear a story from grade six. That's what I was looking for -- it doesn't have to necessarily pertain to the film industry, but something that helped form you as a person.

DM: I was on a gymnastics team when I was in grade six. You know, like gymnastics, it was pretty good I guess -- and there was this display in front of the school, in front of other students, and I was vaulting. I was doing these vaults ?

CC: Vaulting? What is that?

DM: You know, like in gymnastics, where you run into a vault and do flips over it? (laughs)

CC: Oh yeah, yeah. I wasn't going to pretend that I knew because I couldn't visualize it. (laughs)

DM: I did that -- and I remember when I did it, I did it successfully but some of my peers in the audience started laughing and it upset me. And I remember saying to my teacher who I liked at the time, "Oh, do you know why they are laughing at me, what's the matter, did I do something wrong?" He was the coach at the time too. He said, "Well, Don, you know you are an entertainer, people find you funny. Someday you will appreciate that." I always thought the speech gave me this confidence -- that it's not so bad sometimes that people laugh at you and that I should explore these gifts.

CC: What is your take on award ceremonies and being up there publicly to be recognized for your work? How do you feel about that?

DM: I think like a lot of Canadians, I view that with a little bit of skepticism and I don't take them that seriously. Award ceremonies, of course it's nice and sometimes it means a lot and it can make you feel really good, but if you take it too seriously when you win, you have to take it seriously when you lose. I think I generally let it flow over me. I don't see movie making and the stuff I do in a competitive light -- I think that can be unhealthy.

CC: I really do feel that because you seem so versatile and really relaxed and open to new opportunities, that between your hard work and allowing things to comfortably fall into your lap -- one thing I predict for you is longevity in the industry. What do you think are the key elements to maintaining longevity in the industry?

DM: I think that what you say is true -- that if you are too ambitious sometimes you close yourself off to real opportunities if you are too goal oriented. I think my success so far to the extent that I have had a successful career is by being relaxed and letting my projects leap one to the next and not forcing it. I think that's what is really important. I think that it is important to surround yourself in an environment that sort of is nurturing and allows you to work too -- and that means working with people that you trust and in environments that you trust -- and like you say, other than that, I think you have to tell yourself that if you keep being able to work, that is all the success you can hope for. You know, if you are still able to make movies -- especially in the movie business it costs so much money and it is hard to get things going -- so all you have to keep in mind is not matter what happens. As long as you are able to make your next film you are doing okay and better than most people. So that's my wisdom. (laughs)

CC: So what would you suggest to an artist, not necessarily promoting one medium over another -- something you think everyone should remember when they are being vulnerable -- maybe a piece of advice?

DM: One thing that I think is, sort of maybe not too original, but I think you've got to trust in yourself and believe that if you do something that you like and you're proud of -- that there are enough people -- that you are not so alone that other people won't get it. You only really have to satisfy yourself. You only really have to do something that you think is good and if you do that, then other people will like it too. In other words, don't cater to other people. Don't do what you think other people will like, do what you'd like.

Tags: Childstar, Don McKellar, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Canadian films

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