An interview with director, Bruce McDonald
We all know it’s difficult to be a teenage girl. Only, there’s adolescent angst and confusion caused by raging hormones and a developing mind and then there’s Tracey Berkowitz. On many levels, Tracey is like all the other girls. She’s waiting for her body to develop; she longs for the new boy in school’s affections; and she transforms her life into a fantastical movie star existence in her head when the dull monotony of reality gets to be too much. That said, the life she is fantasizing an escape from is far from perfect; it’s far from acceptable even. Between torment from her peers in school, a hotheaded father, a mentally unstable mother and a missing brother, it is not surprising that Tracey’s focus is so, well, fragmented. And while Tracey’s plight makes THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS a compelling tale in its own right, it is the visceral split-screen aesthetic and raw performance by Ellen Page as Tracey that create for the viewer a fundamental need to see these countless fragments be pieced together into some manner of integrated whole.
THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS is based on a novel by Canadian playwright, Maureen Medved. The novel too is a disjointed experience that alternates between first and third person narration as Tracey rides a city bus in the middle of a blizzard, wearing nothing but a shower curtain. One day a few years back, a colleague passed the book on to Canadian film director, Bruce McDonald (HARD CORE LOGO). The mouthiness of the main character made him feel this could be a good film alternative to the kind of perfect pop princess imagery that is so commonly tossed around today. McDonald and Medved were soon in touch and realized they had similar friends in common, a similar love of film as well as similar thoughts about Tracey Berkowitz. Medved would go on to write the screenplay as per McDonald’s theory that if you wrote the book, you should get first crack at the screenplay, if you so desire.
With the screenplay completed, the first of three vital aspects to this production was in place. The two remaining elements to secure were editors talented enough to fragment Tracey’s life and the perfect woman to play Tracey herself. The role ultimately went to Canadian actress Ellen Page before most people knew who she was. McDonald sat down with me hours before THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS was to screen at the Montreal Nouveau Cinema Festival to talk about the film’s journey through the festival circuit, the innovative ways they’ve found to promote the film and how he is basically one of the least important stars of this film.
Joseph Belanger: I was telling someone that I was interviewing you this weekend and they asked if I had seen the film yet. At the time, I hadn’t and told them such. They made a face and said it should be an interesting interview then. Why do you think she said that?
Bruce McDonald: It’s been funny to see audiences engage in their own debate with each other on the film. It’s been pretty hilarious actually. Some people are one way on it and some people are another.
JB: I’m sure you’ve had lots of chances to get reactions as you’re reaching the end of your festival run with the film. It’s playing the American Film Institute next month and being released nationally in Canada. Have you been touring with the film?
BM: Pretty much. We started in Berlin in February and we went to Istanbul, then here. If I want, we can still go to Cuba, London, Australia. We could tour forever really. I wanted to go to as many of these places as I could because I wanted to do what I could and say, “Hey, check this out. It’s a crazy, cooky, fucking weird movie”
JB: With the film going national though now, it must be a different experience to not be there to hold its hand, so to speak, to let the film speak for itself.
BM: Part of going on the tour was a general curiosity. We had been working on this for a year almost. I just wanted to see it on the screen with an audience and get a vibe from people. The editors came too. They’ve come to like three or four festivals. Often it’s just the director and maybe a star actor that comes to festivals. But everyone was in Berlin. Not only the three editors but the colorists, the DOP; they were all curious and they wanted to see it with an audience. They were just like what the fuck, how is this going to play?
JB: It’s nice to hear that all these other people, like the editors and the colorists, are all getting to go these screenings. It’s not like they’re not important roles on other films but in this case …
BM: No, they’re the stars, really. They’re the stars of this movie. I wish they could be with me on all of these interviews and talk to the interviews because the stars of this movie are Ellen Page and the editors. They didn’t invent this look from scratch exactly but they didn’t have a guidebook. I would just tell to go all the way and they would be like, what does that mean? Just do it. You figure it out. I don’t know how to work Final Cut Pro. I’m proud of those guys.
BM: The screenplay was done years before we shot it. At the time it was written, I didn’t have any split-screen stuff in mind. It was just when we got things together and it looked like the movie was going to be made that I told the investors this was how I was going to do this. The reason why really is because it’s like a kitchen sink movie. It’s about poor people, bad side of town, dark, not tons of laughs, a lot of grimness in it. I thought the split screen would bring an airiness to it and a pop-art feel so that it didn’t end up so relentlessly, fucking dreary. Y’know, it’s snowing; it’s night; it’s Canada; it’s some weird town somewhere. Why do I want to be here? It was a way to embrace that and not be afraid of the dark but at the same time be entertained. Plus, the title kind of suggests it and we just went with that. It’s like a portrait or a painting or something in this non-linear way. It’s like how does the brain think? Or how does memory work? What does memory really look like? Does memory look like BLADE RUNNER? It could but many things are going on all at once. It’s pretty crazy up there, as we all know. We tried to channel memory and desire, that full-on input/output you have when you’re that age. It’s kind of chaotic and fucking crazy.
JB: On THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS website (www.thetraceyfragments.com), there is a section you can link to called “Re-Fragmented”. If I understand it correctly, you can essentially download all the raw footage and recut the film any which way you like.
BM: It’s basically like, here’s the fourteen days of rushes. The reason for that is the design and the shooting of the movie was a great experiment and we’ve felt rewarded by the screenings and the curiosity and the generosity so we thought might just carry on that experiment. See what happens when you put it into this cyber-world. Let people just fucking play with it. There’s a contest. We’ll put some of the stuff people send us on the DVD when it comes out. People can cut a rock video for their band or what you think a cool trailer for THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS would be. Ideally, cut a full length feature film but don’t use the split screen. It’s like THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS unplugged, the acoustic version.
JB: You mentioned earlier that there are two stars of your film, the editors and Ellen Page. I had seen Page before in HARD CANDY. (This interview was conducted months before Page rose to fame with her Oscar nominated role in JUNO.) She clearly has a disturbing ease playing troubled, angry outcasts. What was your involvement in coaxing this performance out of her or does it all just come naturally to her?
BM: It comes out. Literally, it’s like turning on a switch. People think, what do you to direct that? You talk about a common ground, a couple of reference points, share a couple of mix tapes so you know where you’re going. It’s not campy or funny or ironic; it’s a little dark, heart-beating romance. My job as a director is just to make a safe place. She really surprised me. I’m a pretty straight guy. I’m not a big fan of attempted rape or anything. I just want to get through scenes like that as quickly as possible. But she said it didn’t bother her. She says she kind of likes it because she gets to go to the dark places without real life consequences. That’s what being an actor is all about. As a young woman and young actress, everything is just on and she’s ready to go there. She’s smart enough and grounded enough to know that it’s pretend. A lot of other people just get lost in it. She’s courageous and intelligent and refreshing. A lot of people want to be actors but their motivation is to be famous, to be a celebrity. With Ellen, her aim is true.
JB: Last but not least, let’s talk about Tracey Berkowitz. She’s a self-professed “normal” girl. To some extent, I would say she’s very much right. She’s an angst-ridden teenager, angry and not sure why. On the other hand, she’s a girl who has quite a bit on her plate, much more so than many other girls her age. Maybe you can clear things up for me. Who do you think Tracey Berkowitz is?
BM: The short answer to that is I always tried to think of Patti Smith at 15. Part of her is a female version of Holden Caulfield from “Catcher in the Rye”, one of the modern day teenage angst classics. So, she’s a weird cross between the two then, somebody who is trying to channel some interesting things. A fifteen-year-old girls who wants to be Patti Smith is much more interesting than a fifteen-year-old girl who wants to be Britney Spears. The teenage girl, I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but is weirdly important part of our culture, like it’s somehow this touchstone of glamour, innocence, horror, exploitation, pop music, like this foundational cornerstone. Other people could probably talk about it better than I do but just this ear to the idea of what is the model? I don’t think the model anymore is Joan of Arc. The model is that belly button-showing pop tart. I just thought why not put Tracey Berkowitz out there as this alternative touchstone. That wasn’t the reason to do the movie but I just wanted to go left instead of the right way.
JB: I can’t imagine it would have been a successful film if you had gone any other way.