Vampires & Jazz: In Conversation With ‘Dreamland’ Director Bruce McDonald

The cult figure in Canadian filmmaking discusses working with Henry Rollins and riffing on jazz music for his latest on-screen adventure.

“Music has kept me alive,” says legendary Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald, over the phone on a grey Thursday afternoon from Toronto’s Queen West. 

McDonald is discussing his new movie, Dreamland, a dream-logic style film in which a hitman (Stephen McHattie) stumbles through a nightmarish Luxembourg and chooses to stand up against true evil. Mirroring this tragic hitman is a piteous Chet Baker character, also played by McHattie, who drifts in and out of heroine-induced dreams on the way to perform for a party planned by the royal countess (Juliette Lewis). Vampires, child brides, and a great deal of gore ensue.

The Chet Baker connection should come as no surprise to McDonald’s fans. His career has been interminably linked with the music world, the most obvious instance being what is widely considered one of the greatest Canadian films of all time, his ode to the death of punk, Hardcore Logo. But his filmography is also stacked with other musically-inspired premises, concert docs, and acting performances by musicians such as Broken Social Scene.

McDonald digs into some of the reasons behind this longstanding link. “Anybody that listens or is engaged with music understands the soul and the power. Whether you’re a jazz cat or you’re a punk rocker, it’s just a fucking unbelievable power,” he explains. “It’s kind of a lifeblood, you know? I guess there’s a frustration I’ve always felt at being such a terrible musician, so making films is my way of being in a band.”

The similarities between musicianship and filmmaking are vast. Collaboration in both the artistic genres, often in a big way, is a necessity. But it’s not always so front and centre, as is the case with solo-artists like Chet Baker, who meander the hardships and black pits of success as lone wolves. On the other hand, that’s what makes him such a fascinating subject.

“We thought, well, let’s imagine a movie imagined by Chet Baker on a nod, right? Surfin’ on heroine,” McDonald says. “So, this is what we came up with.” For a dream-logic film, it has a fairly simple through-line: save the girl. But cradling this base is a tangled branching off of various dream-sequences and symbolic imagery reminiscent of jazz riffs or improvised solos. “You know how jazz kinda has a simple melody often, and they kind of go sideways here and there,” he says. “We embraced a bit of the structure of jazz or some of the principles of it.”

Another of the many musical tie-ins to the film is the choice to cast Henry Rollins (Black Flag) as the psychotic mob boss, Hercules. “Working with Henry Rollins, I gotta say, has been one of the pleasures of my life because he is a generous, kind-hearted, intelligent dude that is just one of my favourite humans. The things that he’s up to at any one time is astonishing,” McDonald laughs. “But, yeah, I love that guy, and I think he’s just such a talent and such an interesting force of good in this world.

Henry Rollins in Bruce McDonald’s DREAMLAND.

There are numerous stories that surround the making-of Dreamland, including one involving the film’s bloodbath of a climax and McHattie’s scintillating jazz-cover of the Eurythmics song, “I Saved the World Today” McDonald reminisces how he was required to write two letters to Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, asking their permission to use the song. “I had to introduce myself and tell them I was making a movie with doppelgangers and vampires and how much we loved their song and how we’d like to do it in a Chet Baker style,” he says. “I was like, oh my god, they’re never gonna go for this.” But as fate would have it, they said yes. “We felt excited to be somewhat communicating with some of my musical heroes and having them embrace what Stephen and our composer, Jonathan [Goldsmith], did.”

Amongst Dreamland’s crazy story is a phenomenal score, composed by Goldsmith (long-time Bruce Cockburn producer), that is an ever-present fuselage of off-kilter piano melodies and somber horn sections, that, at times, grows epic in scale. 

McDonald speaks to the all-important role of the composer in filmmaking. “They create this atmosphere, this weather system, and it travels throughout the movie, and suddenly it makes things three dimensional, it makes things authentically emotional, it makes things suspenseful and funny as fuck. It’s an amazing thing to see.” 

Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to The Clash, Sham 69, and the Modernettes have populated the soundtrack to McDonald’s life. With Dreamland, his own filmography mixtape adds another track, grows more complex, and further cements the filmmaker as a master at tight-roping the intersection of that other dreamland that exists between the ethereal worlds of music and film.

For anyone else that’s fallen in love with the film’s mesmerizing score, get lost in the music all over again when the soundtrack drops digitally and on vinyl via Lakeshore Records on June 19.