It's the first day of the spring thaw, and Bruce McDonald and Maxwell McCabe-Lokos are sitting in a Liberty Village townhouse feeling cautiously optimistic - both about the end of winter and about the prospects of their film, The Husband.
The movie stars McCabe-Lokos (who also co-wrote the script) as Henry, an overmatched family man trying to hold his life together and care for his infant son after his wife, Alyssa (Sarah Allen), is jailed for seducing high school student Colin (Dylan Authors). When Henry happens to see Colin on the street one day, he begins stalking the kid for reasons he can't articulate to family or friends.
It's a breakout role for McCabe-Lokos, who's knocked around the Toronto film scene in bit parts and short films, and an intriguing departure for McDonald after a string of TV gigs (including stints directing Bomb Girls, Cracked and Reign) and more raucous feature projects like Trigger and Hard Core Logo 2.
There's a very European vibe to The Husband. So much of the movie is made up of these quiet, observational moments when the character is observed like a specimen. I found myself thinking of something like Christian Petzold's recent Barbara. Was that intentional?
BRUCE McDONALD I would love to say it was all those New German Cinema movies I watched [laughing]. The only posters I have hanging in my office are The American Friend and The Passenger, so I don't know if it was a conscious thing on our part. Everybody has their sort of movie ignition marks, you know? And when I was in my late teens and stuff, that was the time when we saw all those movies - [Wim] Wenders and [Werner] Herzog and [Volker] Schlondorff and all that stuff. That was my French New Wave, I guess.
MAXWELL McCABE-LOKOS A lot of the aesthetic of it - you and [cinematographer] Daniel Grant had this idea to make it look austere and wide.
McDONALD Yeah, a great testament to the look of the film is this very talented young DP, Daniel Grant, who just had a great eye for space and a great eye for trying to bring the inside outside of this guy, this character Max is playing.
McCABE-LOKOS We were lucky that it was constantly grey, too. We had warm but grey weather, so it gives us that Belgian/northern German environment.
The tone of the film is very precise, too. It's a really incisive character study, but it's also designed as a pressure cooker, trapping us in Henry's head.
McCABE-LOKOS When I was first working with Kelly [Harms], the co-writer, we talked a lot about the movie The Son, by the Dardenne brothers. I don't think [the final draft] is similar to The Son, but five years ago we were talking about The Son, the sort of European aesthetic, the Viennese twist of this kind of thing. It probably comes from very early on.
And there's something very Canadian in the way everyone around Henry is trying to help him as he comes apart. Even someone who punches him out does so while saying, "I don't want to hurt you."
McCABE-LOKOS That's Canadian? Yeah, I would say so.
McDONALD Well, in a way. Canadians tend to go for, you know, "Let's work it out." The Americans killed all the Indians, where we sort of said, "Okay, let's see if we can work out a little Champlain-Huron trade thing or something. Let's see if we can find some common ground." And the Americans were like, "Fuck that, let's just kill the fuckin' bastards. It's just easier."
I was struck by the film's empathy. Henry could just as easily have been a comic figure.
McCABE-LOKOS Bruce was adamant about this the whole time. You've gotta be with him. There's a lot of things that Henry does... he behaves inappropriately quite often. But you don't want to lose the audience. You want to care about him. All those people who are sort of helping him, even though he's acting like an ass, are the audience. You want to be there, like, "Come on, man! Shake yourself out of it! We can see you're not a complete fuck-up yet. There's still an ounce of decency left in you. You can crawl out of this hole!"
Bruce, I found myself thinking of The Tracy Fragments, another movie where puzzling out the central character's psychology is the whole point of the thing. How much did you construct beforehand? How did you decide what to reveal and what to hide?
McDONALD The delicate thing with this was always having the mystery without having to explain too much. That's what I kind of liked about it, there was the mystery of the backstory.
Maxwell, as co-writer as well as leading man, were there some things you kept to yourself about Henry?
McCABE-LOKOS There was certain stuff that maybe I thought of as backstory that wasn't meant to be shared with other people - just to help me flesh out the character - but it was really important that the movie's only about this one situation. This dude in this situation. We never wanted, for example, to go into what happened with Alyssa and Colin, cause it wasn't germane. The less we knew about that, the more we'd be with Henry. He's looking for an explanation of something there is no explanation for, so if we tried to explain that to satisfy the audience's desire for a plot piece, it would just be a disservice to the movie.
It's a really physical performance. Henry's introduced as someone walking bent over by his shame, as if there's a hand pressing down on his neck all the time. Did that take a toll on you?
McCABE-LOKOS Yeah, for sure.
How did you modulate Henry's physicality?
McDONALD Maxwell had a chart he made up and he showed me at the beginning. He came in and said, "I have this chart, the chapters of Henry."
McCABE-LOKOS It was like a drug metaphor.
McDONALD Yeah. "Here he's on Quaaludes and he doesn't look at people and he's kind of weird in his body." It was nicely mapped out, and because of course we were shooting out of order, it was like...
McCABE-LOKOS It was like colour-coded with highlighters.
McDONALD "This is the cocaine section, this is the Quaaludes section [laughing]."
McCABE-LOKOS He goes from being really hunched over and refusing to look people in the eye - with all that humiliation he's carrying, it's easier to just not talk to people - to very combative and energized. That's the cocaine phase. Often after he sees the kid, he's wired - you know, the kid gives him a sort of injection of energy. Usually he makes some kind of irrational decision after he sees the kid. We mapped those things. You know, actors do whatever they have to do. The physicality was a big part of it, for sure.
I wasn't able to catch the film at TIFF, but I was aware of the growing buzz throughout the festival. That must have been fun for you guys.
McCABE-LOKOS Oh, yeah.
McDONALD I was actually quite surprised, because it's kind of a crazy little movie. We had three screenings, and the venues kept getting bigger and bigger - we ended up at the Ryerson, which is a huge theatre. And it was packed! People kind of respond to the slice-of-life [aspect], or it seems authentic to them - this strange autopsy of a relationship. There's enough mischief in it, [and] there's a little bit of humour in it - people find it funny in places. But I think mostly, I guess, they get into it. "What's gonna happen?" They're not sure what old Henry's gonna get up to.
That was certainly the way I experienced it.
McCABE-LOKOS I think one of the most satisfying things for me in this whole experience has been that people have not misinterpreted it. And the way it's being marketed and the way it's being absorbed is the way I hoped it would be. We're just like, "Look, here's the movie. It's a fucking good movie." We can't sell it any other way. It's a little bit funny, it's not self-serious, and it's a good, well-done, authentic interpretation of a story that is relatable yet just outside what people have experienced. People seem to get it, and they like it for the reasons we hoped. It's been very satisfying.