Atlantic Filmmaker Focus: William D. MacGillivray

Newfoundland filmmaker William D. MacGillivray

The Atlantic Film Festival is a champion of Atlantic Canadian filmmakers. In keeping with this promise, every month we profile some of the most incredibly talented people in the filmmaking industry today. This month, we look at Newfoundland filmmaker William D. MacGillivray.

William D. MacGillivray

Birthday: May 24th
Where are you from? St. John’s, Newfoundland
Where do you currently reside? I live on the South Shore, just outside of Lunenburg.
What are you currently working on? I am co-directing the NFB-produced documentary DANNY with Justin Simms, about former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador Danny Williams. It is a locked picture; we’re doing sound editing now, with the mix in Montreal scheduled for the end of August.
What got you first interested in film? In the 1960’s, I did two years at the Nova Scotia College of Art, followed by studying at St. George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal. There I took a design course that sparked my first interest in filmmaking. At that time, I also went to see the Japanese film WOMAN OF THE DUNES. It was the first time I had seen a non-Hollywood movie and it made a very strong impression.
When did you first decide filmmaking would be a career path for you? I knew I wanted to study film after my experiences in Montreal, so I came home and was a teacher for two years to save money to attend the London International School of Film Technology (now the London International School). I had the extremely good fortune to attend while Mike Leigh was teaching there, and he was also a strong influence, especially in how a director interacts with their actors.
Later on, I knew I was on the right path when we shot STATIONS in 1981. It was a drama we shot completely on a train and it was an amazing experience. We were a small crew, creating stories on the road, very exploratory. It was very well-received, including winning the Audience Award at the Atlantic Film Festival. Yet it had been just nine people whose experience crystallized into something special. It was then I knew I could do this as a career. Although I had returned from school in London, I was still teaching while making STATIONS. We got enough funding on our next project LIFE CLASSES that I was able to quit teaching and pursue filmmaking full time.
What, in your opinion, makes a good film? There is no point in making a film unless you can represent yourself well through it. You choose the subject, crew, format, you choose everything. Every step, every move, every decision, you are in that decision. Ultimately, you are on the screen. Personally, if I haven’t represented myself well on the screen, I have failed. It’s a privilege to make a film, to have access. Many people do not have a voice, the privilege should not be taken lightly. A good film is one that is inventive, that doesn’t rely on a formula. The dominant culture dictates how stories should be told, we need to fight that. A good film suits the story, and most suits the filmmaker.
What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker? Take up pottery! It’s a tough slog. These days anyone can pick up a camera, anyone can make a film. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Everyone can pick up a pencil, but not everyone can draw. Everyone can pick up a camera, but not everyone can tell a story. If you want to be an industrial filmmaker and be told what to do, you can do that. I’m from a co-op background, and if you go that route, believe in yourself and the stories you want to tell.
What is your preference, documentary or fiction filmmaking? Fiction, but thank god we did documentaries! Documentaries have been a way to keep the wolves at bay. I learned a lot from making documentaries, unscripted filmmaking, and I’m very thankful. Dramas usually sell the best as well, aside from our documentary THE MAN OF A THOUSAND SONGS, which was a fairly dramatic documentary.
Have you had a mentor that has helped you become the filmmaker you are today? What other directors, filmmakers, or artists have influenced your style the most? Jean-Pierre LeFebvre of Montreal was a big influence with co-ops, workshops and the idea of personal films. He also was very important in helping me with my scripts. Lots of people think they can write scripts even if they’ve never written one, he showed me how much more there is to script-writing than that. Another mentor was Peter Harcourt, who sadly just passed away this month. He was a professor of Film Studies at Carleton, and really the godfather of Canadian film criticism. He was the first to take Canadian film seriously with a critical understanding. Peter called me after seeing my first film AERIAL VIEW and encouraged me to keep going with film, and that was very important to me and my career. It is a great loss to Canadian film, as there is no Canadian film criticism anymore. There is no one talking about why we make the films we make anymore.
Many of your works feature Atlantic Canada in various ways: in several of your documentaries, the series GULLAGE’S about a Newfoundland taxi company, and LIFE CLASSES set in Nova Scotia, among others. How important is it to you to highlight your region through your filmmaking and put it on the map? It is never my intention to put anywhere “on the map.” I am just interested in these subjects. I was born here, I understand it, I love it, it’s what I know. My stories aren’t in Toronto, they’re here. We were even a little nervous to shoot on Baffin Island because it’s not our culture. The most important story to anyone is their own story. You are your own best story. You have to know this is your story. HARD DRIVE is actually our first film outside that box, we made an effort to make sure it is not associated with one city, region or place, just set in Canada.
Your most recent feature film, HARD DRIVE, is the first drama you have done in a long time. What made you decide to return to fiction after two decades of documentary filmmaking? It was not for lack of trying! We had another drama in the works, THE DREAMS OF JINKY DROVER, which was already casting. The distributor dropped out and it fell apart. We actually had several dramas lined up at the time, and they all fell through. We battled for money for HARD DRIVE and then got a distributor, so we went ahead with that project. We had about four dramas in development along with HARD DRIVE, and it was just a matter of which one got a distributor first.
When you read Hal Niedzviecki’s novel Ditch on which your film is based, did you immediately begin envisioning it as a film? Were there any other inspirations for HARD DRIVE? My partner Terry, who has worked with me from the beginning, read Ditch and passed it on to me thinking there was a movie there. I read it and agreed with her. We optioned the rights soon after. Hal really nailed the characters, especially the young people. You can’t take a book and reproduce it exactly as a film. Canadian author Allistair MacLeod said once “It’s my novel, but it’s your film.” I just try to be true to the story, what is the essence and bring it to the screen. You have to look for cinema on the pages; you have to dig it out and find it for yourself.
What were the key themes and messages of the Niedzviecki’s story that you wanted to convey to the audience in your film? I chose this story because it is about youth and about what young people go through as they figure out who they are. I want to convey the youthful energy of the story, and the terror of being a young person in today’s world.
How did you go about casting HARD DRIVE? Did you have people in mind for the lead roles from the beginning? I needed actors who would resonate with the intended audience, which is 19-30 years old, actors who could represent the story to a young audience. My partner Terry’s daughter suggested our two leads, Doug Smith from the show BIG LOVE and Laura Wiggins from the show SHAMELESS. I thought it was a long shot, but we contacted their agents and they loved it. I also needed an aging drummer, and knew that legendary jazz drummer, Jerry Granelli, lives in Halifax. Jerry came on board, and then stayed on to help with music for the film, and this led to drumming becoming an integral part of the soundtrack!
When and where can we expect to catch your current and upcoming projects? HARD DRIVE and DANNY will be released this fall. We are also in the very early stages of a documentary on mental illness that we are very passionate about. Finally, my partner Terry is working on a romantic comedy called WHAT YOU NEED set in Quebec, with director of LA GRANDE SEDUCTION Jean-François Pouliot. They hope to start shooting this fall.
HARD DRIVE screened at the 33rd Atlantic Film Festival. What does that experience and the Atlantic Film Festival mean to you? Well, it’s your home audience. I’ve screened film at Toronto International Film Festival, which is just a huge machine, and it was nerve-wracking. I always like it more when festivals don’t try to be TIFF. At the Atlantic Film Festival, it’s still a little nerve-wracking but you’re amongst friends. There’s a nice vibe. I’ve been to many festivals, the smaller ones are always the best.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, William. We look forward to enjoying your upcoming work!