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A few days ago, Nobel-Prize-winning author José Saramago died at the age of 87. With this in mind, I thought I’d post an old interview with one of my favorite writers Don McKellar, who adapted Blindness (one of Saramago’s most famous books) for film a few years back.

The Wide Saramago See

An Interview with Blindness screenwriter Don McKellar


Michael Marano

(c) 2008, 2010 by Michael Marano

“It’s sort of contradictory, in a way, to do a movie about blindness.”

Canadian screenwriter (he wrote The Red Violin, and his script for Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould was lampooned in The Simpsons episode “22 Short Films About Springfield”), Genie award-winning actor (he’s a stalwart of Cronenberg films), director (his slice-of-life apocalyptic SF movie Last Night won the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes), Tony Award-winning playwright (for The Drowsy Chaperone, the first line of which is “I hate theatre!”) and creator and star of the Magic Realist TV show Twitch City Don McKellar is talking about his adaptation of Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago’s novel Blindness, which is directed by City of God and Constant Gardener helmer Fernando Meirelles.

“The fact that [the book] is about blindness, as I explained to Saramago when I asked about getting the rights… [relates to the notion that] a movie about blindness is also about seeing. It’s the reverse of the same thing. It makes you think about seeing. That’s what movies are about. And so all these sorts of questions about movie making, about whose point of view it is, who is looking and the responsibility of looking become central to the script, become central to the storytelling in the movie. You can address these big ‘Film 101’ issues without being pretentious, because you have to deal with them. And the visual style of the film becomes very crucial, because it becomes the actual content. And that’s sort of exciting, too. That’s one of the reasons why we were excited to get Fernando on, because he’s such a stylist.”

Blindness, as both film and novel, addresses no ordinary loss of sight–the premise is that an epidemic of blindness that spreads Day of the Triffids-like throughout an unnamed metropolis, afflicting nameless characters who are known only by nomenclature that describes what they are or do, such as the Doctor (Mark Ruffalo), the Doctor’s Wife (Children of Men’s Julianne Moore), Girl with the dark glasses (I Am Legend’s Alice Braga), and the Thief (played by McKellar).

How did McKellar, as a screenwriter, write a dynamic screenplay out of a work in which the characters are tropes, neo-platonic stand-ins, and that is set in a non-location?

“One of the things about film is, and this was something that was clear to me when I was writing, is that when you’re filming an actor, they’re not a type. They’re not an archetype, they’re a person. You’re looking at a person. So, when you look at the film, and the way Fernando shoots it, it’s actually quite realistic, the performances are certainly realistic. No one is playing it theatrically, or any thing like that. But there’s a sort of tension, still, that I like. Yeah, you don’t know what city it is, the characters don’t have names, but you don’t feel like you’re watching a play, you know what I mean? An absurdist play from the 1930s, or something? You feel like you’re fully inhabiting and looking at real characters. And that’s the feeling you get in the book, too. The reality of the situation is extreme and it really hits home. But the sort of literary distance is what keeps it powerful, keeps you watching.”

“These are the thoughts that were going through my head when I was writing. I was aware that they were actors [that we’d be using]. I was playing with that sense of extremely gritty realism, because one of the feelings of the book is that you can believe it goes as far as it does [in its depiction of the epidemic of blindness], and I wanted that same feeling. I wanted the kind of allegorical side just to play almost subconsciously. I wanted the reader [of the screenplay] and later, the viewer to think of the [people] entirely as real characters that upon reflection represent types. All of humanity, of different ages, of different races, different everything.”

Not all those who have seen Blindness have been receptive to the film’s allegorical ambitions. When Blindness opened the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, the first Canadian film to do so since 1980 (“We were a little worried about being the opening night film, because it was a very unusual opening night film,” McKellar said), the reception was not very warm. Despite the fact that, according to McKellar, the screening “went very well and there was long standing ovation for about 10 minutes”, the Cannes jury only saw fit to award Blindness a rating out of 1.3 out of four. Justin Chang wrote in Variety that “Saramago… long resisted the idea of having his 1995 masterwork adapted for the big screen. Meirelles has proven the Portuguese writer’s instincts to be sadly correct. A horror tale, a bleak allegory and a chronicle of human suffering as consoling as it is devastating, Blindness emerges onscreen both overdressed and under-motivated, scrupulously hitting the novel’s beats yet barely approximating, so to speak, its vision.” Stephen Garret in Esquire wrote: “That the director succeeds more often than he fails proves the resilience of Saramago’s potent themes as well as Meirelles’s skillful visual language. But Blindness stumbles because it’s a fundamental mismatch: a visceral director better known for searing portraits of real-life injustices shouldn’t really make a parable.”

“There were some good reviews, too,” McKellar says. He notes that “critics are used to a certain realism in films”, and today don’t seem to “allow for a certain kind of literary film or allegorical film unless it’s a straight genre film” the way that they used to. Speaking of fantasy, genre and allegorical films that had in decades past taken Cannes and the international critics by storm, movies like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, Bergman’s Virgin Spring, Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, McKellar says, “Those are all of a period. I think [fantastic, allegorical movies are] unfashionable now. This film [Blindness], its lineage is more with those films. When I was growing up, the films that excited me were, well to tell the truth, kind of genre films, like American genre films, horror films and the like. And I guess the big films of the time, the sort of European art films, the Fellini films and the Bergman films, films like that that are not so much in fashion. Now, the sort of high art films that people champion the most tend to be gritty naturalist films. So, in that sense, yeah, [Blindness] is sort of harkening back to an earlier period, a period of film that I miss, where big allegories could be accepted by a serious audience. Now, people look down on horror films and things like that, and science fiction films that do deal with allegory. They don’t like that to intrude on their serious fare.”

“We’ve changed the film slightly since Cannes, because we sort of rushed to get it in there [in the festival]. And I’m very pleased with those changes.”

Poetic allegory and the kind of realism for which Meirelles is known may seem almost contradictory. Yet anyone who has followed McKellar’s several careers know that in many ways, the guy is like a Magritte painting. His work as an actor, writer, director is defined by that which is fully fleshed out and “real”, but just a few degrees off plumb, so that it becomes as unreal as anything you’d see in an George Lucas effects vortex. In Waydowntown, Gary Burns’ essay on corporate wage slave culture, McKellar plays with Buster Keaton deadpan a guy so defeated, he bloodily staples motivational slogans to his chest with about as much reaction as a guy parked in a chair at SuperCuts; think Zig Ziglar’s corporate motivation as done by Hellraiser’s Pinhead. In his amazingly low key, as in limbo-low key, apocalypse Last Night (the perfect inverse of how Michael Bay ends the world), David Cronenberg plays a nebbishy utility executive who calls customers to assure them that they’ll continue to get service right up to the last second of existence. In his Twin Peaks-y sitcom Twitch City, the household cat just happens to be the Egyptian goddess Bastet. In McKellar’s work, personal realities that are just a little tweaked define unreal, fantastic scenarios. How did he develop this unique slant?

“There is a comparison, and if you think of all of my work [in relation to talking about] allegory. It’s similar to all these things [that] could be viewed allegorically, but they’re also very real. What makes them real is that there they are all based on people, on character. I remember for Twitch City thinking, the character, the sort of unique protagonist [a slacker named Curtis who never leaves the house], forces the structure of the TV show, and that’s the same for Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, the sort of extreme structure is necessitated by this very real character who is slightly off center, and so requires an off center shape to the movie around him. Where that came from, it’s very hard to define where things come from when you write. I guess on some level that I thought that my perspective was slightly out of the ordinary and as a defense I tried to find value in my skewed perspective of the world, you know what I mean?” McKellar laughs at that. “And it’s sort of the same in Blindness, where all the characters are forced together to survive outside of this rather oppressive environment.”

As movie that makes use of McKellar’s trademark character-based tweaking of reality, Blindness is still a “movie that pushes genre. And that’s what I love, it is a genre film, if you want to call it that. It is a sort of science fiction thriller, I suppose. But it’s not particularly played like that, taking the cue from the book. And that to me is exciting, that’s not a retreat. That’s new territory that’s sort of fun to play in.”

The gene-splice of art house and genre isn’t a contradiction to McKellar.

“When I was growing up–it’s hard to explain to the youngsters now–but it really wasn’t seen as an arty thing to do [going to foreign, arty movies]. In high school, we went to those [kinds of movies] all the time at the review cinemas, and it was cool to go see [Jean-Luc Goddard’s SF movie] Weekend, on the weekend. They were cool movies.”

If Blindness exists in a kind of borderland between genre and art house, non-Cannes audiences can see the final cut of the film this fall and judge for themselves if they’re comfortable feeling their way through the kind of fantastic allegory that harkens back to the days when Fellini and Bergman flicks were cool.

The Predalien-From Aliens vs Predator: Requiem

Well, with Fox finally figuring out that a). they own two of the coolest SF/Horror franchises of all time and b). maybe they should do something right with them, I got to thinking about the last two totally crappy Alien vs Predator movies. I think it’s safe to assume with Nimrod Antal’s and Robert Rodriguez’s reboot of the Predator series and with Sir Ridley Scott rebooting the Alien series with two new prequels that Alien vs. Predator and Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem will be airbrushed out of the history of the Alien and Predator franchises just as surely as certain Chinese politicians have been airbrushed out of Maoist era history books. I interviewed Greg and Colin Strause just before their flick Aliens vs Predator: Requiem came out. They were wicked nice guys, taking time out while the movie was being scored to talk to me. Thought I’d republish the article here, in light of the new developments at Fox regarding the two franchises.


(c) 2007, Michael Marano

Brothers Greg and Colin Strause, digital effects experts and the directors of the upcoming Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem, were around four and three years old respectively when Alien came out. They took their first very steps toward getting AVP:R, their first gig directing a feature, eight or nine years later… in a scenario worthy of a mid-80s family-oriented sitcom. Or maybe a vignette in a flick like Adventures in Babysitting.

“We saw [James Cameron’s] Aliens first [before Ridley Scott’s Alien],” says Greg.

“It was on pay-per-view,” says Colin. “We were in a hotel room, and our parents were working at this crafts show thing. And we kept flipping on the pay-per-view, watching it, and then we’d get scared, change the channel, and then we’d flip it back. And we didn’t realize that every time we did that, we kept getting charged again for the movie. So our parents weren’t too happy when they saw the bill, which had, like, ten charges for the movie. But yeah, that was the first time we saw it, and it pretty much emotionally scarred us, from that point on.”

The Brothers Strause, as they’re sometimes billed, traumatized as were hundreds of thousands of kids in the 1980s by Cameron’s classic sequel, made it a point to honor Cameron (with whom they’d work as effects artists on Titanic) by making sure that their sequel to Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2004 AVP: Alien vs. Predator had a very specifically worded title; it’s the plural Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, not the singular.

“A big influence on our movie career has been Jim Cameron and we wanted to make it [the title] kind of a little tribute to Aliens,” says Greg, putting emphasis on the sibilant, “in being the second [movie in a series]. We also wanted to point out the idea that there are more Aliens in this film than there were in the last one. We just wanted to continue the tradition that Cameron established in ’86.”

The Strauses grew up in a place that for a lot of fans is as much an iconic locale of science-fiction and horror as is Lovecraft’s Arkham country–Waukegan, Illinois… Ray Bradbury’s hometown, an All-American Midwestern city that Bradbury has depicted or re-dressed in works ranging from Dandelion Wine to Something Wicked This Way Comes to even The Martian Chronicles.

“We knew where [Bradbury’s] house was, you know… that was the town’s little claim to fame,” says Colin.

“Yeah,” says Greg with a laugh. “There were only two famous people from there, Jack Benny and Ray Bradbury. I think our neighbor [played with the Chicago] White Sox, for  a little bit, but I don’t think he lasted that long.”

“I read a little bit of [Bradbury’] stuff,” Colin says. “I was actually much more of  Stephen King fan. Every Stephen King book, I pretty much read twice. He was my favorite author.”

Which might lead fans to wonder–how will the two newly-minted feature directors, primarily known not just as digital effects whizzes, but as the directors of music videos, commericials and shorts, approach their handling of two iconic monsters, most especially in light of the fact that the Alien and the Predator, once horror creatures, have mutated into action-oriented creatures? There have been no fewer than 13 Alien vs. Predator video games (including ones for PC’s and mobile phones), a slew of comic book series (including Aliens vs. Predator vs. The Terminator, Superman & Batman vs. Aliens & Predator and Aliens vs. Predator/Witchblade/Darkness), and a series of novels begun in 1994, most of which emphasize the Aliens’ and the Predator’s capacity for first-person shooter thrills over their ability to strike slow and stalking terror.

“One of the most important parts of our take on the film when we first went in was to make this very much of  a horror movie,” says Greg. “We felt that if anything, over time, maybe the Alien movies had become less and less scary. And we thought it was very important to bring back all of the elements that made the first Alien and Aliens the scary, visceral experiences they were. We wanted the whole second half of the movie to be at night. We wanted it to be raining. We’re trying to add atmosphere. [The movie is set] in a small town. We don’t have all the tools at our disposal that Ridley [Scott] had inside the spaceship [of Alien]. He was just a master–using steam and flashing lights and whatnot to create that incredible, horrific tension. So, we tried to figure out as many was as we could in an exterior small town setting to do that. Halfway through the movie, the power goes out. There’s no lights anywhere. We used all these classic horror techniques, we tried to inject into this film. There’s actual jump scares–Aliens that are actually gonna scare the hell out of people again.”

Well and good. But what about the Predator?

“We thought it was very important to bring back many of the tribal, ritualistic aspects to him,” Greg says. “He’s awe-inspiring. Predator… I don’t know if he’s quite as scary as the Aliens.”

Colin chimes in. “It’s because he has motivations [that] people can relate to him. Even if he’s doing something really bad, there’s a relatability [sic], whereas the Aliens are pure evil. They don’t need a motivation.  They do what they do and that’s what makes them scary. The Predator is much more of a main character in the film. We follow him a bit more. We see what he’s doing. We see how he’s tracking. Because this is movie we’ve actually seen a Predator not on a hunt for trophies. He’s actually goin’ down there [to Earth] for the sole purpose of wiping these things out, because a ship crashed at the beginning [of the movie], this wasn’t a deliberate thing, this wasn’t some sort of ritualistic tribal hunt. And because of that, he’s not doing the ‘fair fight’ stuff that we’ve normally seen the Predators do. He’s got a whole new arsenal with him, whole bunch of new tools, he’s just a lot more badass in this movie. A little part of the audience, I think will actually be cheering for him in some parts of the movie, even though when he does cross humans, he’ll kill them just as easily as he’ll kill Aliens. It’s actually kind of cool to see how a Predator deals with this kind of infestation.”

No wonder the Brothers have referred to this Predator as being like Harvey Keitel’s character “Mr. Wolf” from Pulp Fiction–this Predator’s job is to clean up messes. And the mess of Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, which takes place right after the events of AVP: Alien vs. Predator,  is a big one, involving, among other things, a creature called the Predalien (glimpsed in the first film)–an Alien that gestated in a Predator, and which as it matures takes attributes of that species. But if the Predator is a full-blown character with motivations and an agenda beyond collecting the skull of a certain mesomorphic California Governor, how did the Strauses, primarily used to motivating things on film through keyboards, direct a title character played by an actor wearing tens of pounds of latex?

“It’s not easy!” says Colin. “The problem is that Ian [Whyte, the former British pro basketball player who plays the Predator] was blind half the time. He had the big animatronic head on, and he can’t see. And when he had his Predator helmet on, he has these little mesh things over the eyes, which he can kind of see out of.”

Greg cuts in. “But then, if he’s wearing just the normal mask that he can see out of, his vision is limited, but he can barely hear! So, giving him instructions is kind of tricky. Certain scenes were done completely blind. The actors had to remember how many steps to take before taking their cues.”

“And Tom Woodruff,” says Colin, “who plays the Alien and Predalien, he was even more blind, because his head, in the suit, is in [the monster’s] throat. So, when the Alien has its chin down, he literally can’t see anything at all. Luckily, he’s been the Alien now in over four movies. Tom is just an amazing performance artist and its his specialty, to be the Guy in the Suit, so he knows how rto act correctly. I was tricky. This was also the first time that we’ve had Aliens on real locations. Predator 2, obviously, was in real locations. But the Predator is a much easier creature to have on location, whereas the Aliens have tails, they have slime coming out everywhere, which is a mixture of what they call Super Slime and KY Jelly. So, you’ve got this super slick lubricant squirtin’ outta this thing, it’s getting everywhere. All your sets turn into ice rinks [because they’re so slippery]. It made it all more complex. Almost every single day, we were moving to a different location. We were running gun pretty much for the entire show.” How badly were they running gun? Over the course of the movie’s 52 day shooting schedule, there were 42 company moves; the Vancouver teamsters working on the shoot said it was the most aggressive move schedule they’ve ever done.

As effects artists, the Brothers claim that one of the best lessons they learned as keyboard jocks is what not to do as digital effects, what effects look best done in camera. What not to do also turned out to be a good lesson while they were developing the script.

According to Greg, “One of the big changes we wanted [to make to the script] was to keep the Predalien a major component throughout the movie. When we first got on board, he was killed off on page 2! Knowing that there was a definite cool factor in seeing something new…”

Why kill it off?!” says Colin, finishing his brother’s sentence, and voicing what would have surely been a major gripe on fanboy blogs across the world if the Predalien had been offed before audiences had gotten more than two handfuls deep into their popcorn buckets.

“And we’re expanding the mythology here, a little bit,” says Greg. “The Predalien was hinted at in the end of the last movie, and we should try to make something big out of this. That was one of the major changes [to the script]. There was also a lot of work done on the characters, just to fit in with the whole horror film approach we were taking to the movie.”

How well this hybrid creature will work in this science fiction/horror hybrid remains for the future to determine. A good, quantifiable barometer of that success might be the number of irate parents going over pay-per-view bills racked up by freaked out little boys.