Discussing 'Pontypool' with Tony Burgess by Teresa Bailey

Jun 06, 2020
 

Genesis

Pontypool was born when Tony Burgess was scouting for a picture for his first book. Lost and frustrated, he took a photo of the town he was in: Pontypool. He noticed the word ‘typo’ in the middle of the town name…‘Typo’ led to the idea of a virus linked to language and he wrote the novel “Pontypool Changes Everything’. He set this aside to write the film. Free of any obligation to the original material, he wrote something new but ‘in the universe’ of the book. 

The writing process

Tony’s  uses ‘a form of very fast improvisation’ he calls automatism. He feels his way, intuits, not knowing what is happening. He also prefers to start with character, developing them by 'killing time with them', he says. Then he writes ‘with the speed and dynamics of it actually happening.' If structure happens, it’s because it evolves.

Director Bruce McDonald let him ‘run away with himself ‘as a writer, with no pressure to explain himself. He was free to not know 100% what he was doing

Collaboration

Tony’s writing went straight to the actors, with scenes developed as written. A short-hand communication developed between him and director Bruce.

Preparations for filming were collaborative and organic with months of talking beforehand and little rewriting. Character development relied solely on the actors’ behaviour, language and how they were in silence.

Dialogue informs character 

Tony enjoys unsettled characters and his dialogue produces them. In Pontypool, the dialogue is slightly ‘off’, with words that ‘catch the audience's ear’ but not their complete attention. This created the sense of ‘imbalance’ he wanted, with the audience not understanding lines delivered as if they were logical.

As the dialogue was fine-tuned, subtext built up naturally and something ‘slippery’ happened to the language. Together, they worked on how much they could do with just a line. ‘Everything you need can come from a word,’ says Tony.

Stephen McHattie says Tony writes lines that are ‘impossible to deliver.’ Tony wrote nonsense dialogue for one actor but needed her to make it seem logical. To help her, he wrote what her character thinks she’s saying. This gave it ‘an uncanny vibe.’

Violence unseen... but felt 

Because little of the outside world is visible,  violence is conveyed through the ‘magic ability of language’ to conjure everything. The enormity of the scale of the horror is provided by the guy in the chopper whose ‘superb’ delivery rendered the universe of the story huge.

The violence exists in the language, on the faces of the actors. Grant’s powerful facial reaction allowed them to cut a bloody scene they had shot. The one exterior scene they filmed comprised 500 zombie extras and a snow machine in the parking lot. It was the most expensive scene and they had done it ‘to please the money’ but it didn’t work and they cut it. 

Tony wanted to create something that worked outside the ‘rules’ of infection/horror movies. He explores the panic when the link between the speaker and their words is severed;  the horror that words can have a separate existence from the speaker, the ‘inability to be in your own mind’.

Tony loves the moment  it dawns on people what’s happening, before they can join the dots. It is 40-45 minutes into the movie before the audience reaches this point. The moment of realisation that there is no safe haven, the nightmare of a tightening ‘gyre’, this is the moment to intensify the fear, ‘pull the switch’. It’s ‘a mind... it’s crumbling. And you’re in it.’  

‘Bizarre’ protocols were issued on set.  No-one was allowed to explain anything, leading to uncertainty and confusion. Bruce let this run throughout the filming process. One thing had to be clear and notices were put up: ‘Scary not funny.’

Advice to writers

If you’re making a small film, experiment, make it ‘nuts’, but keep the producer and the budget in mind.


I write female-led drama and dark comedy based on her experience of working in child mental health for many years.  Most recently, I have written a post Brexit radio play which involves giant rats and am currently working on a drama about a young woman with a phobia of death who lives in a family of undertakers.

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