Canadian multi-hyphenate Don McKellar became a ubiquitous presence in his country's theatre and cinema scene in the early ’90s, working with the likes of Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. He made his directorial debut with Last Night in 1998, but it was securing the rights to José Saramago's Blindness which allowed him to work alongside Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. He talks to LWLies about the experience.
LWLies: Having adapted the book and written the script, how did you feel about being offered the Thief as a role?
McKellar: For a long time I tried to understand what Fernando [Meirelles] meant by casting the author as the Thief, this sort of disreputable role. I thought, ‘Ah, I’m the thief because I stole the book from [José] Saramago!’ Partially I think he just wanted the writer on the set, to have me around, infirm with my leg rotting away. I couldn’t go anywhere.
LWLies: The perfect allegory for a screenwriter?
McKellar: Exactly! That’s it – it’s symbolic.
LWLies: Was there a lot of work to be done on the hoof with the script?
McKellar: Not really. There were changes. It was changed a lot – you can probably tell we were loose with it. I didn’t do strict revisions but sometimes I would be advising in a kind of discrete way and people would be asking me questions. And also, I knew this would be the case, because of the nature of the script, where there were lots of big scenes with people yelling and things like that. For extras, we had to feed them unscripted lines.
LWLies: Were there elements from the novel that you weren’t able to translate?
McKellar: There are lots of things in the book that aren’t in the film, of course. That’s the main thing, things that were cut. The film is different. I was trying to preserve the allegorical level of the book and keep a tension between that and the realism but because you’re losing the literary voice of the narrator I think I was trying to suggest visual comparisons. But the literariness is lost, which I think is necessary.
LWLies: Did you explore other ways of compensating for the narrator other than by voiceover?
McKellar: Yeah, the main way was to come up with some approximation of the tone which was of course visual. You can’t be abstract in that same way on a film, if you’re filming someone you have to describe them, so it wasn’t so much translating the actions in the book, which are fairly close, although cut down. The main challenge was to try and come up with a tone equivalent to the voice of the book. Not literally the narrator, which I didn’t write anyway in that script in the first place.
LWLies: How systematic is the adaptation process – do you go through the book marking things to include and exclude?
McKellar: I did sort of start with that triage kind of approach, but then I moved away from that. I haven’t done a lot of adapting, that’s for sure, but you love it more and hate it more than anyone else. At first I wanted to put in everything I really loved, then I got frustrated with it and then I moved far away and in that process I got to a point where I had to return. I got stuck actually. I then thought I had to go back to the things I thought were interesting about the book, and challenging. And when I returned to it I understood it a lot better, I think. First of all I think I understood that its observation of human behaviour was more accurate than I thought. It wasn’t as symbolic as I first thought, the naturalism made more sense to me. I think I started off very mechanical, moved far away from it, threw the book away and then it came back and in the end it’s quite faithful again. At least to the story.
LWLies: How does your casting in the film affect the ensemble?
McKellar: At first I definitely had to prove that I didn’t care about people flubbing lines and things like that. I could see that a number of actors were a little self-conscious, but I just said, ‘Forget about it, we’re not going to worry.’ I remember Mark [Ruffalo] a couple of times apologised and said, ‘I’m really sorry I did it like that,’ but it wasn’t my business, I’m just an actor.
LWLies: Did they embellish?
McKellar: They did a little bit because Fernando would sometimes say, ‘Keep going, keep going!’ And at first they were apologising for that but I knew that that was part of the process, and obviously we got Fernando involved because we thought that would be interesting. He does that kind of naturalistic, or realistic stuff pretty well and that was always exciting to me because I thought that was one of the things I liked about the book, that it’s really real, shockingly real in a way although where it goes it’s not sort of an abstract parable.
LWLies: Why did you choose Fernando?
McKellar: I think the main reason is, even when I got the rights from Saramago, he asked why I wanted to do a screen adaptation of a book called 'Blindness', when film is a visual medium. I said the flipside of blindness is of course seeing, and in a sort of elemental way I thought it was about these themes that are basic film questions in a way, like point of view and who is watching and voyeurism and all that kind of stuff. I thought it was a clever answer, and it worked I guess because we got the rights, but I also thought it was true. So I thought about it a lot and when I wrote it I realised we needed a director who would be up to that challenge, the visualisation was central to the story. It isn’t a frill, the style on this film wasn’t just a surface thing, it was what it was about, it was fundamental to the film, it was about seeing and looking at people and voyeurism. So we had to get someone who was visually adept, and also someone – to be crass – who people could imagine directing the film. You needed a visual director to comfort investors, so that was part of it too.
LWLies: What were the most difficult scenes to act in?
McKellar: For me personally? Well there was no question that that scene where I’m leaving the building, the asylum, to go out was painful. It was dirty and unpleasant, that place. At one point where I was crawling along I fell and cut the tip of my finger off and had to go to the hospital, so yes that was the most difficult scene for me.
LWLies: Did you give a lot of input into the direction?
McKellar: Not really, people ask me that and I think definitely this isn’t the way I saw the film but nothing surprises or shocks me. I think what he does he does with such authority that I was always persuaded. Which is a great thing as a writer, I didn’t want to pre-direct it in any way, and I didn’t. The acting thing was quite all absorbing too, so it distracted me. Maybe that’s another reason why he wanted me in the film. This whole thing about being blind was terrifying and all the actors had this crisis. You just didn’t want to look like a fool because it’s scary, and how do you even do it, not seeing what’s in front of you. We had to really work at that. We did all these workshops so really all my mind was on that.
LWLies: The film got a mixed reception. How did the bad reviews affect you?
McKellar: I’m confused by a lot of them. We were sitting down trying to figure it out. I still don’t exactly understand what the point is, I can’t figure out what the common thread is necessarily. Of course it’s upsetting, but at the same time – for whatever reason – I’m really proud of... I really have faith in this film. Maybe because I’ve seen audiences respond so well, and some people have been so warm that I know I’m not faking it. It’s confusing and it’s definitely upsetting and I think over time I’ll definitely be able to put it in context more, figure out why. We were just talking last night and Fernando was saying he doesn’t understand why in Brazil it’s not losing business. It’s pure word of mouth, there was hardly any publicity, but it just did so much better than his other films and it’s continuing to. I don’t know, give me a year or so and I think I’ll have a bit more perspective on that.
Blindness is out now on DVD.