The Director’s First Shot: the Last Few Hours on Earth


Don McKellar doesn’t want you to like him. You can tell by the type of characters he plays on screen, particularly the roles he writes for himself. He plays odd little men, reticent, wary nebbishes--nerds, really--who seem content (if not necessarily happy) sitting alone in their rooms. They are wounded characters, though the viewer may never know why they’re wounded. They may come across as peeved and aggrieved or as just plain disagreeable, the kinds of people you probably in real life would seek to avoid.

Chances are you don’t know who McKellar is, but this might change. After spending the last 10 years carving out a unique and important niche in Canadian film, theater and television, McKellar has directed his first feature movie. The film, “Last Night,” opens today. And if there is any justice, its writer, director and star soon will be known by everyone. You can pardon the character McKellar plays in “Last Night” if he’s a bit tightly wound. The film is set on the day the world will end. Funky feelings are allowed on a day like this, but, even so, McKellar plays him as a tad more abrasive than he needs to be. Clearly end-of-the-world jitters aren’t all that’s going on.

This is just one of the quirks that distinguishes “Last Night” from other doomsday movies. This isn’t “Armageddon” or “Independence Day.” No one ever discusses why the world is ending, nor is it explained why everyone knows the exact time it will occur.


“I didn’t want the audience to be thinking about, ‘How is it possible? Is there anything they can do? What is Bruce Willis doing?’ ” McKellar, 36, said in a recent telephone interview.

Rather, he wanted to focus attention on the characters’ lives and priorities as they make choices about what is truly important. They all choose to spend their last day in different ways. A gas company executive, played with deadpan solemnity by filmmaker David Cronenberg, spends it telephoning each of his customers to assure them that service will continue “right up until the end.”

Another man has made a long list of his sexual fantasies, and he tries to fulfill each of them before he dies. An older couple pretends it’s Christmas. Still others run wild in the streets, overturning cars and committing murders. Sarah Polley appears in the film as McKellar’s character’s sister. She and her friends spend their last hours outside acting as if they’re at a Grateful Dead concert.

It’s a funny movie and also a moving one as Patrick, McKellar’s withdrawn and sour character, learns through his interactions with a woman played by Sandra Oh how to reconnect with life in the hours before all life is extinguished.

“Last Night” came about because Haut et Court, a French production company, wanted 10 filmmakers from 10 countries to make movies pegged to the changing of the millennium. McKellar was chosen to represent Canada. (Hal Hartley was picked from the United States.) One of the rules was that the film be set on Dec. 31, 1999. McKellar disregarded this, choosing to set his movie in an indeterminate time and place. In Canada, however, a note appears on screen establishing the date.

Yes, a Tall Order for a Director of Short Films

Although largely unknown here, McKellar is a celebrated figure in Canada. So much so that a retrospective of his work recently in Montreal showed everything he’s ever written or appeared in, along with all the short films he’s directed. Last month, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image held a two-day program focused on his work titled “The End of the World and Other Comedies.”


“To have a retrospective before a first feature is a rare privilege,” he observed, dryly.

In addition to his movies (McKellar has written or co-written seven features and appeared in 22) he writes and acts in plays. And he is writer, producer and star of a wonderfully twisted Canadian television series, “Twitch City,” about a man who spends his life watching television.

The show (sort of a combination of “Slackers,” “The Odd Couple” and “Days and Nights of Molly Dodd”) has been picked up for a second season, and McKellar is in the process of deciding whether he wants to do a third. The company that produces the show, Rhombus Media, has held discussions with various U.S. services about airing the show, but nothing has yet come of those talks.

Americans who follow serious cinema will be most familiar with McKellar’s work as a writer. He co-wrote “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” the elliptical, intriguing and emotionally austere 1993 movie biography of the celebrated pianist. He also co-wrote (with Francois Girard, the co-writer and director of both movies) “The Red Violin,” the sweeping film released earlier this year that is set on five continents and includes four languages. He appeared in both of those movies as an actor--but only in small roles.

He played a larger role in “Exotica,” Atom Egoyan’s 1995 movie about grief, alienation and voyeurism. He played a repressed gay man, a dealer in exotic animals, who is drawn into intrigue involving a dance club. He won a Genie Award (Canada’s version of the Oscar) as best supporting actor for that movie.

“Glenn Gould” won four Genies when it was released, including best film. And “Last Night” and “Violin” swept last year’s Genies, winning 11 awards altogether (including best screenplay and best picture for “Violin” and the Claude Jutra Award for best direction for a first feature for “Last Night”) and gaining 10 more nominations.

McKellar’s involvement with Girard began when the director was looking for a writer to collaborate with him on “Glenn Gould.” When they approached McKellar, Girard and his producer Niv Fichman didn’t know the writer actually had long felt an odd affinity for the eccentric Canadian pianist.


“I had some acquaintance with his work,” says McKellar, who says his background was similar to that of the pianist, whose work he’d studied in college. “I adored his work in high school,” he said. “I listened to it the way some kids may listen to Pink Floyd in the basement.”

The startling thing about that movie was the way Girard and McKellar structured it like the movements of Bach’s “Goldberg’s Variations,” Gould’s signature work. And the film itself was as brittle, icy and elusive as was Gould’s personality. This structure came from the filmmakers’ conviction that their movie would break conventions and avoid the “fakeness” of standard movie bio-pics. The soundtrack is full of the pianist’s music, for instance, but not once is Gould shown in the movie playing piano.

“Twitch City” grew in part out of McKellar’s awareness that his writing has always been episodic. Maybe it would be interesting to explore a truly episodic format, he thought. “I love the medium of television, but I didn’t really want to be writing a sitcom,” McKellar said. “So I did a sort of anti-sitcom.”

All the episodes are directed by Bruce McDonald and are filmed without an audience or laugh track. Each is self-contained, yet characters and situations evolve over time in unpredictable ways. And the characters aren’t cuddly. “In many ways they’re reprehensible,” McKellar admits, laughing. “Everyone has major flaws.”

The most sympathetic character is Hope, the girlfriend played by Molly Parker, and she has serious self-esteem issues. Otherwise she’d never be able to put up with Curtis, who doesn’t work, never leaves the house and takes advantage of everyone. He is, as Hope observes in one episode, a lot like a house cat.

Hollywood Always Had an Eye on His Work

On the surface, the distance between “Twitch City” or even “Last Night” and the films McKellar wrote with Girard seems vast. McKellar says there is a common denominator. “I wrote them,” he said. “They all do come from me. . . . One of the great things about writing is that you can reveal aspects of yourself without anybody knowing what characteristics are drawn from you.”


His decision to direct his first feature didn’t stem from any dissatisfaction he’s had with having his work interpreted by other directors, he said.

“I’ve had wonderful experiences with directors I worked with in collaboration,” he said. After directing stage plays, directing his own movies “seemed like a fairly natural progression.”

While the movie undoubtedly will heighten his profile in the United States, he said he has been in discussions with Hollywood producers for years. Hollywood was interested “right from the first things I wrote,” he said.

He, too, is interested in working here, but he’s in a pampered position in Canada. “I would have to be convinced that I’d have equal amount of control and liberty before I make an American film.”

After he finished “Last Night,” McKellar said he thought it might be nice to direct something that someone else wrote.

“I’m still reading stuff,” he said. ‘Ninety percent of the stuff I read is crap, but there is some good stuff too.” So far, however, he said he has read nothing with which he’s felt a personal connection.