Making Breakfast – An interview with film-maker David Hewlett

David HewlettThe world of independent movies is notoriously difficult. Getting a distribution deal from one of the major players is the holy grail – so when MGM recently took on the Canadian comedy, A Dog’s Breakfast, the film’s triple-threat writer-actor-director David Hewlett was understandably thrilled. Now he is taking his movie on the road, with a series of preview screenings in the US and Europe, having already generated substantial internet interest. Here, during an appearance at Wolf Events Pegasus 2 convention where he met fans of hit show Stargate: Atlantis, in which he plays scientist, Rodney McKay, he talks to Carole Gordon about his early influences and the movie’s development.

A Dog’s Breakfast focuses on the relationship between Patrick (played by Hewlett) and his sister, Marilyn (Hewlett’s real-life sister, Kate) and the attempts by Patrick to get rid of Marilyn’s actor fiancé, Ryan, who Patrick believes is not good enough for his sister. Set in an isolated house, the comedy is broad and visual with echoes of the slapstick of the Monty Python films.

Hewlett agrees that John Cleese has been a big influence on him. Growing up, he says, he loved watching the Monty Python star’s work.

A Fish Called Wanda was a big big influence – all of the sketches in Monty Python; I was a big fan of that stuff,” Hewlett says. “I always preferred that kind of very personal, silly, uncomfortable humour. I loved how tormented John Cleese always was in his performances and I hope we recreated some of that in A Dog’s Breakfast.”

Although he doesn’t claim to know a great deal about movie history, he’s become more interested recently because he finds that the current crop of movies don’t have the same appeal.

“I was always very focused on the actors and the acting,” he says earnestly, “and I’ve found as the years have gone by I’ve become more and more interested in the past when it comes to film because frankly so much of the stuff that’s out now is completely foreign to me. It doesn’t resonate with me the way the old films did. I was looking back on it – why did these work where other ones don’t? And I was looking at comedies from today, for example, Little Miss Sunshine, which we really enjoyed, because that to me was an old style comedy. Yes, it’s a modern film, it has modern themes, but it’s the style of the film that’s very old-fashioned.”

Hewlett also admires the film-making of directors such as Blake Edwards, whose techniques he used in his own project.

“The man will just set up a camera and things will come in and out of the frame. Comedy works so well in wide shot and I think today there’s such a need to show off, especially in first films; they’re always terribly violent or gory to try to shock people into noticing the film. And I just didn’t want to do that. I wanted a film that my father would chuckle about and wince a couple of times – just something that people could enjoy, that the family could enjoy. And I definitely pushed the limit with that with A Dog’s Breakfast!”

Those limits including a degree of blood-spattering and gore?

Hewlett laughs. “It’s funny because someone came out of it the other day and said now that they’ve seen the ending, they’re fine to show it to the kids because they know that it’s all make-believe in the end anyway.”

The cartoon-like elements of the movie should certainly appeal to the younger members of the audience. Hewlett thinks they will even feel as though they are getting away with something a little naughty by watching it.

“They feel like, oooh, I’m watching an edgy movie and the parents are watching the film and they’re just enjoying it. Probably some stuff is going over the kids’ heads and some stuff may be going over the parents’ heads.”

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Hewlett’s other influences include the stars of the silent era of movie-making who he says reflect a simpler method of story-telling and comedy.

“There’s a simplicity to the making of the films of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. I just really admire the bravery involved in setting up a shot and having to make everything work within this frame. Again, in a lot of stuff today, there’s so much cutting and manipulation, and if you feel manipulated in comedy, you’ll lose the comedy. It was something that I kept saying on set; shots weren’t always as smooth as people wanted them to be and I was like ‘It doesn’t matter; because it’s the intent that’s what’s funny, not necessarily the final shot.’ People will forgive anything as long as they don’t feel that you’re messing with them.”

Not that making the film itself was easy. Although he loved writing the script, being involved with both the directing and acting in the movie presented Hewlett with a major challenge.

“It’s the weirdest thing,” he says with a smile. “You’re literally like a psychopath because you’re two personalities. I would be sitting there behind the monitor going through some stuff and Jane [Loughman – the movie’s producer and Hewlett’s fiancée] was my eyes and ears.”

This technique involved Hewlett demonstrating what he wanted, making sure Loughman knew what the frame should be. Then he’d call for action – and realise that the actor who should be there wasn’t on his spot.

“That was supposed to be me,” he grins, “so I’d have to sort of run in! I knew it was going to be difficult so we set up the first couple of days to be as easy as they could be for me in that they were scenes with [b]just[/b] me. But even then it’s so odd – trying to look at a monitor and do things at the same time.”

Part of the movie focuses on scenes from a cheesy science fiction show called StarCrossed, featuring Ryan, Marilyn’s fiancé (played by Stargate: Atlantis’s Paul McGillion). These scenes gave Hewlett the chance to be a full-time director.

“When we shot the StarCrossed stuff it was just so much fun, because I could sit back and be a part of the camera department and see it and make sure it all worked the way I wanted it to and it was just fantastic.”

The action of A Dog’s Breakfast almost all takes place in and around Patrick’s family home. The original plan was to use Hewlett’s own house, but visa issues got in the way.

“We ended up having to rent a place because I actually live in the States so technically we had to bring everyone across the border to shoot and that wouldn’t have worked out. So we rented a place – beautiful, with a lake at the end of the property. And then it rained for forty days! The first day we showed up, and the lake that was off in the distance when we looked at the house was actually lapping up against the side of the porch!”

Despite the rain and the mud, Hewlett clearly enjoyed this directing experience. Will he move away from acting in future?

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“Well, it’s hard to say because I love acting,” he says. “But what I love about this whole new writing and directing thing is that you can choose when to do it. All of a sudden instead of auditioning for little independent films you can just make them. And do the parts you want to do. I mean it would be very unlikely for someone to give me a part like Patrick based on what I’ve done in the past. It’s great to have people, even director friends of mine, come up and say, ‘I had no idea you could do slapstick!’ I said, ‘What, are you kidding? I fall over all the time!'”

Fortunately, the recent strike by the Canadian actors’ union, ACTRA, didn’t affect the production, but the concept of the strike mystifies Hewlett – and gives him concerns for the future of the Canadian film industry.

“I don’t understand how you strike as an actor,” he says, looking perplexed. “There’s so many people vying for jobs in this industry and I just wish there was another way around it. I’m afraid my biggest concern with the ACTRA strike is that it’s crushing the Toronto film scene. I haven’t kept up with all the intricate details of it, but I just worry about poor old Toronto, because even just the threat of a strike will kill the American productions coming up.”

Not that Hewlett seems to have any need to worry about his job prospects at the moment. As well as starring on Stargate: Atlantis which starts filming its fourth season in March, and promoting A Dog’s Breakfast internationally, Hewlett will also appear in the upcoming Internet SciFi show Sanctuary. Some internet sites have reported that he will be heavily featured in this show, playing a number of roles, but Hewlett makes it clear that isn’t the case.

“There was a little bit of a mix-up with that,” he says. “I’ve done a role on it; I’m not doing [b]several[/b] roles on it.”

With something of an evil grin, Hewlett confirms that the show will have a Jack the Ripper theme running through it, with his own role that of a psychotic killer. A role not [b]too[/b] far away from his part in A Dog’s Breakfast, then, but possibly without the Pythonesque touches!

© Carole Gordon 2007

A Dog’s Breakfast: http://www.adogsbreakfastmovie.com/

MGM Stargate Atlantis site: http://www.stargateatlantis.com/

Sanctuary: http://www.sanctuaryforall.com/

Wolf Events: http://www.wolfevents.com/php/

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