Telephone: 604 444-4889
Outside Vancouver: 1 888 445-4176
Fax: 604 444-4119
(This article by Stephen Cooke first appeared in The Chronicle Herald on April 25, 2009)
It’s a grey, bleak day in Shubenacadie, with howling wind and a steady downpour casting a pall over the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #111. The scene inside has a similar feel, as a film crew buzzes around Genie Award-winning actor Callum Keith Rennie, sitting next to a hospital bed containing actor Kate Lavender, portraying his comatose daughter Meg in the movie based on Josh MacDonald’s play Halo.
A heavy haze fills the air, softening the harsh light of the giant lamps blazing through the window from outside as Rennie summons up the tired frustration of a man who hasn’t slept in several days. “I just want you to know, what you’re seeing us working on today is not indicative of the film as a whole,” grins MacDonald, the film’s screenwriter, as we walk onto the set of the movie.
It certainly isn’t. MacDonald’s social satire, produced by Moving Films Inc. of Windsor, with veteran Canadian director George Mihalka at the helm, finds its roots in the mysterious 1998 appearance of a Christ-like image on the side of a Cape Breton coffee shop — and the media frenzy that ensued in the village of Bras d’Or.
This time around the town is the fictional Nately, N.S. We see the religious hubbub through the eyes of Casey, a sceptical, teenage, Krowne Donuts server played by Superbad’s Martha MacIsaac. As Christmas draws near, her attempt to gain attention from the apparition soon spins out of control into a double-double full of trouble; meanwhile her father Donald (Rennie) latches onto it as a symbol of the faith he needs to believe that Casey’s sister Meg will recover.
It’s the last day of filming and Montrealer Mihalka — best known for the 1981 Sydney Mines-shot thriller My Bloody Valentine — has saved the heaviest scenes for last. Donald has to come to terms with the fact that his faith may not be enough. It’s a sharp contrast to the rest of the story, which first came to life on the stage in what MacDonald calls “a mix of Norm Foster-style, punchline comedy with heavier Canadian roots drama.”
Turning it into a screenplay, over the past decade, the Dartmouth-based writer leaned more in the direction of the screwball, character-driven classics of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, whose prescient 1951 take on media-driven hysteria Ace in the Hole had some influence.
“The story was always about this escalating media circus and the crowd psychology,” MacDonald says later, one floor below the action in the Legion bar. “In the theatre we had to infer and imply a great scale with seven actors, but the story always had the potential for blowing it out past the proscenium arch and actually creating this world.” MacDonald combined the original furor over Christ on a coffee shop wall with his own upbringing by a neuropsychologist father, who knows how the human brain works and why there’s a deep-seated need to believe in a higher power, but remains a faithful churchgoer, and a mother skeptical about organized religion.
“There was always this point-counter-point discussion going on, it was like growing up on The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, but they’re still together 40 years on,” he says with a hopeful smile. “The play and the movie are really about an effort to find a good middle ground, where you can believe what you want to believe and I can believe what I want to believe, and as long we don’t try to cram it down each other’s throats we’re all a little bit better off.”
Back on the set, Mihalka looks for the middle ground with his actors as they shape the blocking for a scene where Donald confronts Meg’s male nurse, a voice of reason portrayed by Halifax actor Cory Bowles. As he sits in his folding chair, you can sense Mihalka’s mind working on multiple levels as he watches the actors on the hospital room set while seeing how the camera frames them in the video monitor.
At one point he physically shifts Bowles’ stance to get him positioned at the correct angle for an over-the-shoulder shot. The end result is a setup that corresponds with the conflict between the nurse’s medical science and Donald’s spiritual doubt. “It’s not as much about new things for me (in the script) as it is the presence of themes and ideas I personally love to explore,” says Mihalka, who was also fond of Halo’s small-town, blue-collar milieu. “I love exploring the concept of faith and I’m calling Josh’s story one of “faith, fraud and minimum wage.”
“Josh’s very deft handling of the question of faith and doubting one’s faith is a fabulous exploration. Casey’s got this one great line that sums up her position when she says, “How messed up am I, thinking that God will find out that I know he doesn’t exist?” That one phrase bottles and captures the doubt of everyone who’s ever questioned their faith or has lost their faith. I don’t think you can call yourself an atheist if you haven’t at least thought about God.”
It’s the bright-eyed, P.E.I.-native MacIsaac, as Casey, who’s the all-seeing eye at the centre of Halo’s spiritual storm. “She just jumped off the page,” MacIsaac says, moments before diving into one last, long evening of shooting. “I could play her night and day, although she’s quite a bit more sassy and sullen than I am.”
It’s Rennie’s Christmas-tree salesman Donald who is caught in the balance. Taking a break in his trailer parked outside the Legion, Rennie considers his role as Halo’s dramatic anchor. He sees Donald as a man with a tragic past and an uncertain future, with one daughter he can’t relate to and another who can’t relate to him as she wastes away in the hospital.
“Donald’s complex, because he’s holding on to hope, even in the face of science and facts,” says Rennie, taking a sip from a much-needed latte, in one of the Krowne coffee cups made just for the film. “He wants to believe that things are going to work out for everyone and he hasn’t been able to let go of a promise that he made to his late wife that he would take care of both his daughters; even if that means one of his daughters is in the hospital and he’ll be there every day. It’s tender, but there’s a lot of comedy in it. It’s almost like two movies, between Donald’s two daughters and how he’s trying to stay afloat. His heart is with his hurt daughter, that’s where he feels most at home, or most understood, or responsible.”
Known for roles in the film Hard Core Logo and the series Due South, Rennie was last in Nova Scotia for a pair of Daniel MacIvor projects, Wilby Wonderful and A Whole New Thing. More recently he played the philosophical humanoid Cylon Leoben Conoy on the new Battlestar Galactica, where coincidentally his character claims that a girl named Kacey is his half-Cylon, hybrid daughter. While his specialty is world-weary, hard-boiled characters, Halo allows him to handle humour and tragedy in equal measure.
“If you just want to watch a funny film with a lot of silly surface stuff, you can have that, because it’s a story about a girl who made Jesus on a wall,” says the actor, who bought a stamp that imprints the Virgin Mary on your “holy toast” as a parting gift for MacIsaac. “Or it becomes another story if you want to look a little deeper; it just depends on where you are at when you see it and what you want to take from it. That’s what’s nice about Josh’s writing because it’s very funny and very smart. When it pulls at your heartstrings, it’s not forcing you to feel that, it’s just a well-crafted scene with some really nice words in it.”
This weekend the town of Shubenacadie will be a bit quieter, now that the film has wrapped, the trucks and trailers have moved on and Mihalka has taken his footage back to Montreal to work on post-production.
Don’t be shocked if you don’t see a film with the title Halo making the rounds of film festivals in the fall, since a movie based on the popular video game “Halo” is rumoured to be starting production in the not-too-distant future. Alternate titles are already being tossed around, including MacDonald’s favourite, Holy Grounds.