Q&A with Steve McCarthy, Director of “O Negative”

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ALTER: You’ve gotta go through some bad ideas to get to the good ones. Tell us one of your bad ideas. How do you get past the bad ones to find your spark?
STEVE MCCARTHY: So many bad ones – I can’t even go there because it hurts but the important thing is to keep making stuff. I think having a great group of friends is key. People who inspire you with their own work. People you look up to and trust.  People with whom you share ideals. The first few people I showed my little rough version of O NEGATIVE to, Cabot who ended up shooting it, Alyx the lead actress and my two friends (and great screenwriters) Kelly McCormack and Nicholas Billon, they were all so encouraging. I was SO embarassed and scared to show it – I was like “it’s nothing, it’s stupid, it’s not a script, doesn’t even have dialogue, it’s just a sketch.” They set me straight. They told me to stop apologizing. They helped me believe it could be something worthwhile.

A: Do you consider yourself part of a horror community?
SM: To bastardise Groucho I’ll be a part of any community that would have me! I would never have believed that my first film would be a horror film, and really, I’m not sure if it qualifies as a horror flick. I just had this image of two people attached to each other in this visceral, definite way. I also just thought Alyx should really play a vampire someday. Sometimes the ideas that stick are the ones you think are just silly things you are just jamming on without a plan.  I love good genre films because it’s a shared language with you are your audience. All films have that but with horror, thrillers etc it’s more codified. That allows you to play with the expectations of the audience and subvert them and challenge them to create tension and release. When you go to see a vampire movie you are waiting for the first kill, you are wondering how it’s going to happen and what conventions the film will adhere to and which it will ignore. We are all just kids who like to hear the same bedtime story over and over with just a bit of change here and there to keep things interesting.

A: When you’re building the world of your film, where do you look for inspiration?
SM: Everywhere. Art galleries, photography, films, the news, the world itself. I think you are what you eat. What you take in, and the care with which you watch it, will determine what you make. We all need models. When I was younger I use to think it had to come out perfect on the first try. I believed that the goal was to be ‘right’, to not make mistakes. Now I see that it’s all about having a process. I read an interview a long time ago with Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip who said he carried a notebook with him at all times and he’d write down snatches of overheard conversation, a fun rhyme from a radio commercial, an image that came to him. Inspiration comes in many forms. The key is to keep track of it and to write it down and to revisit it. You never know what pieces will come together to make your work of art. I first came up with the opening shots of O NEGATIVE while I was driving overnight up to my hometown. It was a rental car and I found a hardcore metal station, music I hadn’t listened to since I was a teenager. I thought of what it would be like to drive this highway with someone who was sick or hurt, trying to get them to safety.  I noticed the motels that I’d driven by a million times that line the highway up to Sault Ste. Marie. I grabbed my little mp3 recorder I used to use for my song ideas for my band and recorded my thoughts for 10 minutes while I was driving. When I got home I wrote it all down. That stayed on my desktop for about a year before I looked at it again, realized it was kind of cool, and wrote the next ten pages that became the O NEGATIVE script.

A: What would you do if you woke up inside of your film?
SM: Have sex in a bathroom and go for a car ride while the credits music played.

A: Lightning round: Freddy or Jason? Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Practical or CGI? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?
SM: Freddy – because we all have bad dreams that we can’t escape.
Stephen King – because he’s interested in people and how the ultimate horror always comes from within ourselves.
Practical. Or cgi if it’s used as a tool, instead of calling attention to itself. Limits always make art better.
Pre – cause that’s where we live.

A: How do you go about creating the props and sets for your film? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?
SM: I like places and objects that looks useful and used. Like they have a history. I think that way they tell a story. Cory Lynn Hawke, who made the blood machine in O NEGATIVE, and I had never met before we got to set. I had sent her photos of 18th century blood letting machines, photos of modern medical equipment, transfusion machines — I remember saying it should look like it’s been jerry-rigged with pieces from different eras. I want it to feel real, to feel part of the world, not to be interesting in and of itself. It was important that it not be cool or ‘interesting’ in the wrong way. To me that’s just advertising. I want it to tell the story.

A: And finally, Ghostface would like to know ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’
SM: It’s gotta be “The Shining” because the film itself feels like you are part of something evil. You are inside the film – that’s something Kubrick and a few other filmmakers are able to do. It’s not a story that you are watching. It’s a ride that you are complicit in taking.
And maybe “Don’t Look Now” – a lost child, a fragile marriage, a foreign city, logic vs belief, and then the shock. It still gives me chills. Some movies just have the feel. It’s hard to figure out what it is but they just create a world that has texture and feel and it’s the real thing. They don’t answer all the questions. Those movies stick with me.