While creatively and deceptively forming an ingenious and clever plan to secure your long-standing goals and dreams may seem superficially deceiving and harmful, it can at times ultimately bring about the results you long desired. That’s certainly the case with the close-knit Newfoundland fishing community that’s humbly and comically depicted in director Don McKellar’s new comedy, ‘The Grand Seduction.’ While the residents modestly relied on their honest nature to make their living for most of their lives, they wittily went to the extreme to achieve their goals to survive, much like the filmmaker did while shooting the comedy.
‘The Grand Seduction’ follows the residents of a small fishing village as they set out to secure a lucrative business contract to escape a financial slump. Their odds are slim as a town doctor is needed to land the contract, and they’ve been searching for permanent caregiver for years. After the mayor skips town, resident Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) takes it upon himself to find his village a doctor.
When unlikely candidate and big city doctor Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) agrees to work in the village for a month, the townsfolk rally together to seduce him into staying beyond his initial stay. The ever creative Murray deploys varying ranges of sploy. He taps Paul’s phone, fabricates a love interest and forces the entire village to learn how to play cricket, Paul’s favorite sport.
As the month grows, so too does Paul’s fondness for the village, clueless that everything he loves about it is an elaborate scheme. With the decision for the contract looming, Murray’s grand seduction faces collapse from both guilt and revelation, potentially crushing both the dreams of the small village and the hope of a young doctor.
McKellan generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘The Grand Seduction’ over the phone. Among other things, the director discussed how several elements, including the chance to film in Newfoundland, how the demise of the fishing community there added an authenticity to the story and the classic comedy structure of the plot, convinced him to helm the comedy; how he felt Gleeson and Kitsch were perfect for their roles as Murray and Paul, as they both brought a unique authenticity, sophisticated sense of humor and charm to their characters that isn’t seen in all actors in Hollywood today; and being a Toronto native, how he’s honored the movie premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with which he’s had a long professional history with the festival, and how it was gratifying to hear the laughter throughout the theater during the screening.
Question (Q): You directed the new comedy, ‘The Grand Selection,’ which was written by Mike Dowse and Ken Scott. What was it about their script and story that convinced you to helm the film?
Don McKellar (DM): There were a number of things that drew me to the project. First of all, I liked the idea of shooting in Newfoundland, which is a place I’ve been to a number of times and have always been taken by. I have always thought, wow, it would be great to shoot a movie there because the people are so great, and the setting’s beautiful.
Also, I thought the story is a classic comedy, which isn’t something I have read in a long time. It’s a well-structured, social comedy, and I thought it was an exciting challenge as a director. Also, I felt it was really about something important.
Having been in Newfoundland, like I said, I have seen how the situation has become dire for the community since the fishing industry has gone down, and how that’s changed their lives. I thought the story showed something real. There’s a real authenticity to the story, despite it being a structured comedy.
Q: Speaking of shooting the film in Newfoundland, what was the overall experience of filming there in the community where the story is set?
DM: It was great. We were quite remote-we were about a two-and-a-half to three hour drive from St. John’s, which is the capital of Newfoundland and is in itself remote. We were all living in traditional houses, and became integrated into the community. Everyone in the area helped us, whether they were working or acting in the film. All of the villagers are from those communities, and all the locations were real. None of the locations were in a studio, because there isn’t a studio there.
When you take the risk of being trapped on a location for a film, it can either be a great experience or a terrible one. But it worked out for us, because everyone was so warm and welcoming. Newfoundland is known for its hospitality, and the people there made it work.
Q: Also speaking of the fact that you filmed ‘The Grand Seduction’ in Newfoundland, do you find that shooting on location helps with the overall genuineness of the film?
DM: I think so. In this case, one of the main goals from the very beginning was to go for authenticity. I really do believe that with a story like this, you have to show the real place to the audience. I really wanted to embrace the accent, the culture, the music and the people. I think it’s pretty authentic, and the people there gave us their stamp of approval.
I think part of the appeal of this kind of movie is that you’re immersed in a foreign culture, which is exotic to some people, and you can’t fake that. There are so many things you wouldn’t think to build in a studio, such as the wallpaper and the low ceilings. The linoleum on the floors would be hugely difficult to build. Even for the actors, to be amongst the people of Newfoundland, and be able to fish and experience the landscape, was really beneficial.
Q: Speaking of the actors, Brendan Gleeson and Taylor Kitsch play two of the main characters in ‘The Grand Selection’-Murray French and Dr. Paul Lewis, respectively. What was the casting process like for the two of them?
DM: Before I became involved, one of the producers, Roger Frappier, had been talking with Brendan Gleeson. It was one of the things that pulled me to the movie, because I think he’s one of the best actors. Authenticity was one of my things, so he’s the perfect guy. He’s incapable of making a false move, even when he’s playing a liar, like he is here. Also, I liked that he looks the part, and you can imagine him as a fisherman in a rural community. There are very few movie stars I can think of that can pull that off.
Taylor’s part was harder to cast, because it required a sophisticated sense of humor and charm. I think those qualities aren’t in great supply in younger actors in Hollywood. They aren’t turning up the charm as much as they used to. But I always thought Taylor had that, and I loved his work on ‘Friday Night Lights.’ I’ve always thought he had a comic ability, and a leading man skill that I think is a rare commodity. So I was excited to cast him.
I think he did an amazing job. If the character was played as being too dumb, you wouldn’t feel for him. He also has an authenticity and likability that really carries the film.
Q: Did you have any rehearsals with the actors before you began shooting to help build their working relationships?
DM: Both Brendan and Taylor had very tight schedules, as they were both coming from other things. So we didn’t have a lot of time for rehearsals. But we had long enough to squeeze it in when needed.
Brendan wanted to go out on the boat and play the fiddle. He also wanted to spend time working on the accent, so that was important for him. Taylor went fishing a bunch of times, but just for his own pleasure, I think.
We did have cricket rehearsals. We brought in a guy to teach the cast how to play cricket well enough for their scenes.
But I wasn’t too descriptive on the days of shooting, and I didn’t overly plan. I was quite open to the actors’ input. So I think it was an actor friendly shoot in that way.
Q: Speaking of the actors’ input, did you allow them to improv at all while you were filming the movie?
DM: I allowed them to improv a little bit, but not a lot. It was a tight script, and the way the comedy worked was quite machine-like. It was precisely set up, and it paid off. So there wasn’t a lot of room for improv. But to get the local flavor, I would often ask people how they would things, and a lot of that was in the film. But there wasn’t a lot of long improv. The actors felt comfortable with the dialogue.
Q: Also speaking of improvising and the script, how closely did you work with Mike and Ken on developing the story? Did you collaborate with them at all on the set once you began shooting?
DM: They didn’t actually visit the set during the shoot. They were both shooting other things while we were filming. Also, like I said, it was so hard to get out there. But they both went out there during the writing process. Also, the script was pretty done in pre-production.
Q: ‘The Grand Seduction’ is based on the 2003 film Quebec film, ‘Seducing Doctor Lewis.’ Were you interested in mainly sticking to the original movie’s storyline, or was it important to you to infused your film with your own perspective?
DM: I had seen the original film before we began shooting our movie. I saw it on a plane and really liked its comedy. But after I got the job, I made it a point not to look at the original film again, and encouraged my actors and crew not to look at it much. Not to say it’s bad; it’s actually really successful, so it would be hard to imitate it. I wanted to find authentic and true performances, delivery and blocking that wasn’t based on repetition.
In the act of casting new actors, and bringing it to Newfoundland, I tried to let that change it. I didn’t say to myself, how can I make this different? I naturally let the different culture come across, and let things evolve naturally, and I think it did.
Q: Besides being a director, you’re also an actor who has appeared in short and feature films, as well as on television. Does having that acting experience influence the way you direct a movie, and interact with the actors on the films you helm?
DM: Yes, in ways that are hard for me to define. But of course I like actors and what they can do. I knew this film was very actor dependent, and it had to have real moments, connections and chemistry. I like talking to actors because of my background. That was my chief focus of this film.
I wanted to get the beauty of the surroundings and the beautiful shots. But I knew that wouldn’t be hard, because I was such in a beautiful place. As long as I was accurate, I would get that. It was the acting I was focused on most.
Q: Speaking of the geography, how did the landscape of Newfoundland influence the story? Was the cinematography an integral part of telling this story?
DM: Yes, but like I said, it was so beautiful, it wasn’t that hard. I had a great cinematographer, Doug Koch. I made the point of waiting to capture some shots and traveling to remote locations that weren’t necessarily easy for us. There were a lot of logistical problems traveling to a lot of the places where we shot. The cliff where we shot the cricket game wasn’t easy, but it was important. With a film like this, it’s important to show the natural beauty and landscape.
Q: The film premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and also played at the Atlantic Film Festival and the Calgary International Film Festival. What was your reaction when you heard the movie was going to be playing at the festivals, particularly in Toronto?
DM: It’s always a big one for me, because I have a long history with the festival. I used to work at the festival many years ago, and most of my significant career moments have been at the festival. So it’s always the place I wanted the movie to premiere. I had my family and friends there. There was a massive audience, so it was nerve-racking, but also really gratifying.
Fortunately, it played exceptionally well. It was gratifying to hear the laughter throughout the theater. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film with that warm of a response at the festival, and certainly not one of my own. So it was thrilling.