An Oral History of Bruce McDonald's 'Hard Core Logo'

Twenty years after its release, the classic punk rock road trip movie is just as awesome.

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Oct 25 2016, 10:15pm

Hugh Dillon and Callum Keith Rennie as Joe Dick and Billy Tallent. All photos courtesy of Bruce McDonald unless otherwise noted

The 1990s were a heady time for square-eyed aspiring filmmakers. Super movie-nerd and ex-video store clerk Tarantino won the Palme d'Or in Cannes for Pulp Fiction, Kevin Smith was still making good movies, and there was a sense that if you had passion and guts and a little bit of luck, you too could make it in film. It was arguably the last time true independent culture has walked that fine knife blade between authentic independence and commerce. This sensibility extended across the arts and underground music found mainstream favor, and suddenly it was OK to be an artist, a weirdo, a punk.

In 1996, coming off the success of his small indie films Roadkill and Highway 61, Canadian director Bruce McDonald set his sights on Vancouver writer Michael Turner's book Hard Core Logo. Together with a small but dedicated crew, a green producer, an emerging actor, and a punk singer who didn't even want to do the movie, he took the gang on the road and shot the third in what has become his road-movie trilogy.

McDonald's Hard Core Logo survives beyond its time and place. It is from the 90s, but it is not "of" the 90s. Its themes of rebellion, male friendship, mortality, and the grit and chaos of life on the road still play out today, as anyone who has been in a band can attest. The film is intuitively written, smartly shot, brilliantly edited, and offers a masterclass in what onscreen chemistry looks like. It follows a fictional Vancouver punk band, Hard Core Logo, as band leader Joe Dick gets the band together for a reunion show and subsequent tour in an attempt to keep his dream and band alive. Crammed into a small milk truck, the band takes to the road. Along the way friendships are shattered, feelings are hurt, and many cigarettes are smoked. The film balances an energetic punk aesthetic with powerful, convincing, and timeless human relationships. The characters are conflicted, rude, desperate, and flawed, but we follow them because, while we may not we like them, we are like them. For all their bravado and "fuck you" attitude, we know they are all just hoping to find something that matters, even if all that means is making it to the next show. We talked to the cast and crew to find out how it all went down.

The Set-Up

Bruce McDonald (Director): I was given the book at a BBQ in Toronto by this guy Keith Porteus, and we got to talking about music and he knew I was a filmmaker and he said, "You should read this book by this friend of mine, it's called Hard Core Logo, and it's more a book of poems, it's not even a novel really. It's more a collection of poems and set lists and phone machine messages..." So I read it in like 40 fucking minutes [and thought] This is awesome! We could just shoot the book. I just thought it was very well drawn, it was very well observed from truthful things and rock 'n' roll lore. And I thought it'd be easy to turn into a script. Then we spent about a year on the script.

Noel Baker (Screenwriter): The first crack to adapt Michael Turner's book was to make it a straight-up road-movie drama. As we were thinking about what we had on our hands and the characters, we were also aware of movies like Spinal Tap, and the mockumentary. We asked ourselves, Why are we following these guys? What made this feel significant or epic? I don't think the first run at it as a straight drama didn't really inspire me or Bruce. It took a lot of conversation for us to work around to ask, "What about if they had a filmmaker friend?" If there was a reason for their reunion or to commemorate their reunion, then we could create all kinds of levels of irony and fourth-wall things by turning the camera into another passenger, and turning Bruce into another passenger. And suddenly that really woke the thing up.

McDonald: It wasn't until that last stages of scripting that we turned it into a documentary. Up until that point, it was kind of a fiction film. And it goes back to this notion of authenticity, because documentaries—or that feeling of a documentary—helps to support that feeling of authenticity. Like this was something that was just captured—it wasn't overly designed or overly set up. It was kind of a late discovery. But it really helps tip that feeling that these guys are real. We're shooting a tour, as I am a fave fan of the rock documentary, and you go, "I want it to be one of those..." That was one of those surprises that was a good call in the script-design department.

Baker: I think I tried to do something more conventional at first, some kind of drama about four guys who were friends and sort of a family that falls apart definitively and finally after this one last attempt to get back together. I mean, the story is all there, and it's iconic in all the major ways, so I don't feel like I did anything wildly different with it, except I think that we ended up, over several drafts of the script focusing more on the Joe and Billy story.

Christine Haebler (Producer): I had just started producing, and my friend Armand Leo was supposed to be involved with the film but couldn't do it, and I'd seen Highway 61 and Roadkill and thought this could be really fun, so I read the script, I read the book, and I knew Michael Turner from high school. I met Bruce, and we just hit it off. But we had to kind of reinvent the wheel in terms of how we were going to finance the film. Telefilm at the time was not very interested in the movie. It was a bit too subversive for them, and we basically browbeat them into it by making the film predominantly in Vancouver. I knew a lot about production but not a lot about film producing, but I had a lot of help. But we made a big case to BC Film and basically said this an important BC film, an important BC writer, and all we do is make these big American films and there is very little Canadian feature films being made in BC, so they all kind of came onboard. And we originally had the idea of shooting all across Canada... but that quickly went out the window because of cost.

Hard Core Logo meets Bucky Haight. Photo by Julian Richings

Casting

McDonald: This notion of authenticity in punk rock... I was a big punk fan growing up and the minute there is a whiff of success you're seen as a sellout or chugging on corporate bullshit. So in keeping with the concept of authenticity, not that we had tons of money, but it was partly because we thought, We don't want to get Matt Dillon in this movie "playing" a rock star because everyone will go, "That's Matt Dillon," so that was important."

Haebler: The one thing we needed was believability in performance. It was imperative for the film to work you had to believe that these guys knew what they were doing. Callum was perfect for Billy Talent, and Hugh Dillon was Joe Dick. The second you clocked eyes on him—the second he opened his mouth you were like "wow" he's an actor but doesn't need to do much acting. So a lot of what was happening in our movie was also happening in his own life.

McDonald: Christine, the producer, and some of the other people, they knew this guy from a band was gonna be the actor, and there was a lot of concern and worry about hiring a guy who had never really acted before to be the lead in this movie. I mean, they were sort of excited but also secretly terrified that this was totally the wrong call and was gonna blow up in our faces.

Callum Keith Rennie (Billy Talent): It was old school casting. Go in and audition. Bruce was in town, and I was a big fan of his work, and I'd only really just started working not that long before that, so I was still relatively new and learning, and I wore this fucking weird shirt, and if Bruce commented on it, then I was in. Because I knew the time, and I grew up in all of it. I really didn't want Bruce to do some hackney piece with some actors acting the part. Because I really lived through a lot of that stuff, without being a musician, but with all the friends and people I knew and the early punk days in Edmonton, so all of that stuff was really relevant to me.

"Who the hell do you think you are?"

Hugh Dillon (Joe Dick): It was one of those things—you get lucky, and it changed my life. I was always a cinephile myself and had a deep knowledge of television, film, and music, and those were the only things I focused on in my life. But it just seemed ridiculous because I felt you could say more and do more as a singer in a band if you had the right chemistry. It just seemed you had to listen to too many fucking people to make a movie or shoot something, and I had shot a few short things in school and it was like, "Holy Fuck!" Whereas if you could get a band together, it was kind of DIY, and I was always interested in that.

So when I met Bruce, it was the right time and the right place. He loved rock 'n' roll, and he'd spent all his time with movie people and I'd spent all my time with musicians, so when we met, we'd go to bars, and drink, and talk about movies and music and the combination. It was fascinating because I had no agenda, and he had no agenda. He was going to do a Headstones video and liked our work, and I just talked about Sam Peckinpah movies.

Here were two people who were kind of successful. It was the early 90s and things were changing and anything was possible and we didn't give a fuck.

McDonald: Bernie [Coulson] was a lock. As soon as he walked into the room, it was like OK, he's in. John Piper Ferguson, who I'd seen a little bit, was also a lock. We'd seen tons of people for the parts of Billy Talent and Joe Dick who are the leading couple in the movie. Callum was the third-person cast, he had this easy swagger, and this confidence and his lack of trying to be a rock star. It's weird, every other actor came in, and they were trying to be punk rock, attitude-y loud-mouthy, and he just kinda eased in like fucking Clint Eastwood, and it was like this guy owns it. And you're like, OK, there's Billy Talent!

Rennie: Bruce was talking about a couple different people for the singer, and I immediately said go with Hugh. You know, have at least one musician and someone who has the complete fucked up attitude and energy and chaos that he has. Let's use that. Of course, it wasn't really my decision—it was really only my two cents, but for Bruce, that was a risk. But we were able cover it and make it all work.

McDonald: We had narrowed it down to three or four people who were pretty close [for the role of Joe], and they really wanted it. You could tell they were like, "Fuck this is such a great role..." But those people had that same weird actor thing where they were playing the rock star—it seemed put on to me. And I had done a bunch of videos for the Headstones [Hugh Dillon's band], and at the end, I was like, "You know what, just for laughs, let's bring in Hugh and see how he does in an audition" and our casting agent, after he left the room was like, "Who is this guy, where did you find him?" And I was pretty delighted. But then I said, OK, he's got one more test to pass. Callum is the serious actor, the story is all about Joe and Billy, it's about chemistry, does Callum think Hugh's got the discipline and the chops to pull it off? So we pulled Hugh in and spent a couple hours at my apartment, and after he left, I asked Callum if he thought Hugh could pull it off, and he said, "I got a good feeling about him... I'm not saying no." I mean, that's why people still love this movie to this day: People go, "Why does it still seem so relevant now? Why does it seem so true?" And it's because of that relationship. It was so totally clear that there was this kind of "brodeo" going on and that these guys found each other hilarious. There was great respect on each side. There was this great balance of this actor who was terrified to be a rock 'n' roller and looking foolish, and a rock 'n' roller terrified to be an actor and looking foolish.

Dillon: When I met Callum Rennie, it was like Bruce—he's the most generous, decent actor I've worked with, to this day. He taught me to trust my instincts and to not take any shit.

He came on the road with the Headstones and saw it all, and we were just friends, we hit it off. Like with Bruce we are all kind of kindred spirits, we work outside the box, it's difficult to trust a lot of people in this business, and we really trusted each other. Callum and I just laughed a lot and when you laugh with people that's half of it.

Baker: I was a little on the outside looking in, but I did hang out a little bit with Callum and Hugh as they were getting to know each other, and they very quickly bonded and became very tight friends. It was almost instant. And very quickly they started into their own secret language that was really interesting to watch, and I think that carried over into the film itself.

Haebler: I noticed the chemistry between Callum and Hugh within 20 seconds of them meeting. And a lot of that was Hugh. I think that Callum, and he may agree or disagree with me, but he's a more cautious person. Whereas Hugh was game. He got it. He knew that character, but as a person, it was much more of a risk for Callum than it was for Hugh. But you can't underestimate how charming Hugh is. My experience was that all that tough-guy act was just bravado, it was just a mask. I found him to be very vulnerable. But he was also battling his own demons. But they all were. That's the other thing about the magic of this movie, is that it exposes the vulnerability that was going on with all of those people at the same time.

McDonald: So there was a kind of mutual dependency society with Hugh telling Callum, "Don't worry, man, I got your back, I'll tell you how high or low to wear your guitar, I'll tell you how you should dress, I'll tell you what you should drink..." and Callum was like, "I'll tell you what hitting your mark is, I'll tell you why they pull out fucking tape measures, I'll tell you why you have to do it again, I'll tell you about not overlapping dialogue.." and you know they clung to each other, like the other one was gonna fucking save them.

Rennie: I don't play the guitar. Hugh hadn't worked much as an actor, and I wasn't much of a musician, so I said you cover my ass on the music part, and I'll cover your ass on the acting part, and we'll be fine and that was the deal back-and-forth, and he would tell me this is how to cheat this or a good way to make sure this looks right. He was very very good.

So I booked some music classes, but it's a Canadian film, so you know you're doing it like three weeks ahead of time, and there's only so much you can learn on a guitar. So I learned some basic chords and went ok, so how do you cheat it? So in the film I turn my back to the audience a lot, and everyone was just like, "Don't sit on it too long to make it noticeable."

Haebler: Clearly the success of that character is based on the fact that Hugh Dillon had lived every moment before and knew that character to its core. The character in the script had more wit and less charm. Hugh brought a lot of charm to that character. Whereas the original character was more calculating and sharp.

On the set filming the band's "tour bus." Photo courtesy of Christine Haebler

ACTION!

McDonald: It was one of those movies that was almost an act of will that it was made. Partly because when we were financing it, pieces fell out in Ontario, and there was a certain point where it was like, "I dunno if this is really gonna happen..." And then it was Hugh Dillon who just said, "Fuck it, I'm getting on a plane and going to Vancouver, you can follow me or not, we're going to make this fucking movie!" Just that act of will and him saying he's going. Movies are always kind of precarious in terms of you never really know if you're making the movie until you're rolling the camera on the first day, and even then it can be like: We're not having a second day.

Haebler: It was tough to put it all together. I brought in a lot of my friends who Bruce didn't know but who were basically my friends. Basically it was beg, borrow, and steal and call in a lot of favors. But I had a lot of sleepless nights. But it did kind of take on a life of its own, where we were kind of making it up as we went along. It became a kind of a family unit, where everyone was doing to or three jobs. We didn't have enough money for a wardrobe person, hair, and makeup, so that became one person and we had a little motorhome and the actors... We asked High Dillon, "What do you wear?" and he said, "This is what I'm wearing," and he wore it every goddamn day. Like he never changed. The only person we sort of transformed was Callum. We sort of transformed his look. And she became the person who dealt with all of that stuff. And the sound guys were also the drivers. It was literally a group effort. Cobbling it together every day, because we hadn't really closed our financing and had all these moving parts. I look back on it now, and I go, "Are you fucking kidding? How did we do that?" I would never do that now. The fact that I was new to producing and the gods were aligned—it could have been a complete train wreck, but it wasn't.

Dillon: I brought authenticity, and I changed a lot. Like everything in the script. I changed the fucking bass player. And Callum changed a lot. I mean, I wasn't going to do it, but the good thing about Noel is that he was flexible. You know, he got it and worked on the fly, and changed stuff, and he gets the credit for that. I have since learned... I was a creative consultant on that, but now I develop my own projects because that's what I bring. I didn't know enough, or I would have asked for a co-write on that movie.

Baker: You'd be surprised how similar the finished film and the finished script really were. The film is a style of filmmaking, the fake documentary, this verite style where you need to give people the leeway to run with it, especially with people like Hugh, but then you had other actors working with him where things needed to be true. I was on the set, and Bruce would just keep the camera rolling.

Rennie: Bruce had set up certain things, like what we shot at the Commodore. He had created a night where there was a bunch of other bands, and then we came out—like people had paid to get in to go see Art Bergman and a bunch of other people on the list, and then we came out. And the mic was live, the songs were dubbed and we played, or it looked like we played. People only clued in the second time when we did a retake and did the song again. But then they were like, "What the fuck?" But for me to stand on a stage with a guitar in my hand in front of 2,000 people was awesome. Bruce set it up that way so you got to feel that whole energy of what that was, of the world you were in. And it was great, because then you're on the road and you have the weirdness of all that stuff. Bernie was in his world half the time, John Piper had his own concerns, Hugh and I doing our thing—it was all fucking crazy.

McDonald: Some of the first stuff we shot was that concert at the Commodore. And it was just such a lift off for the band. We didn't tell people we were making a movie. They just thought we were having this punk rock reunion show at the Commodore, we didn't make any announcements until I came onstage and told people the band was going to do the song again because we were making a movie—then people started catching on. Because they were wondering who's Hard Core Logo. But that was an incredible bonding thing for they guys in the band to be among the real fucking soldiers and heroes of that scene. It gave them all confidence, it terrified them, it scared the shit out of them that they knew they were gonna be playing, or fake playing in front of a live audience. So it was great to have the support of the Vancouver scene.

Dillon: I think things like shooting a live thing at Commodore were fun for the band and the regular actors who hadn't really been around it, where you really only one take, and that's where my expertise came in because I know how to perform live, and Callum had toured with me and so he had a good sense of it.

McDonald: There was an incredible camaraderie, it was a small crew, and the girls liked the boys and the boys liked the girls and the boys were playing, you know, 20th-century cowboys. And the crew was incredibly dedicated. Danny, our camera man, was a former punk rock singer, and we were a bunch of yahoos making a movie with enough experience to get it done. So the crew equalled the spirit of the content we were making.

Haebler: We were all in our late 20s, early 30s, and we'd had this outrageous party and completely screwed up these motel rooms. Call time was 8 AM, and we were all so hungover nobody showed up until 10 or 10:30. And then we just got on the bus and rolled and shot. It just had that interesting fluidity, and there was no one stamping their foot going, "Holy shit, you're all two hours late, what the fuck is going on?" We were all just winging it, and because we were all there together it created this bond, and became this family—it worked.

Baker: Once we started down this path of making it a mockumentary, there was this whole meta aspect to the whole thing, like, we are going to be following the circus, but these guys really are like the band in reality as we go along with it. And basically, what we are capturing and doing isn't wildly different that what the actual documentary would have been.

Dillon: There was a lot of [talk about how this is] "tribal" and this is "a special kind of thing," but to me it was not really like a band on the road. I mean, I was clean, I didn't drink, I didn't smoke dope. I was clean and sober to shoot that and that was the first thing I signed up to do and I promised I'd do. And that's why I was a sponge and soaked everything up. Really I had Bruce directing me, but I also had Callum directing me. Callum taught me the work ethic, which I understood as a musician, but he taught me how to twist that over and make it work for acting. For me it was really homework every night, preparation, so it wasn't like, "Woo! We are on the road!" I remember once when we went to shoot up in wherever the fuck it was, you'd see the crew go apeshit, and maybe Bernie went out. But Callum and I would stay and run lines and work on the script.

The real band felt like Bruce, Noel, Callum, and me. Callum really did the leg work and went on the road with the Headstones to really fucking dig deep and understand it. It was DeNiro-esque, and he inspired me write, think, pull up ideas. And Bruce and Noel were like the rhythm section that kept it all together and made sure the song was gonna get played. That's how it was a band for me.

The crew. Photo courtesy of Christine Haebler

The Incident

McDonald: Even the girls on the film—like the AD Rachel, Christine, our producer—they started to get infected and started to call themselves the Foxy Bitches! It became a bit of a traveling road show. I remember we got run out of Cache Creek, [BC] because we were partying so hard in this hotel room and just somehow pissed off the wrong people somewhere in the night while the cast and crew were having the greatest fucking time. They loosened a bolt off the wheel of the van. Luckily there was only one person driving at the time, and they weren't driving too fast, but the wheel came off. The whole thing could have ended with the small crew and four actors plunging off a cliff into the gorge below.

Haebler: We were in Cache Creek, and they hated us. It was the night before, and I guess again there was a party, and some people had trashed a couple of hotel rooms and were making some noise and the locals were pissed off with us, and so they sabotaged the van that we called the Milk Truck. They sabotaged it by loosening the wheels on the van, and as we were driving and shooting and the wheels came off—and it could have been a total disaster. We were super lucky. So in retaliation, Bruce went to the hardware store and got some spray paint and there's the sign saying "Welcome to Cache Creek," or "Thanks for visiting Cache Creek," and he changed it Gache Creek. And of course he was seen, and a little bit down the road and there's sirens and they handcuff Bruce and put him in the car. And normally I'd be terrified, like, "our director is being arrested," but I just laughed. And he didn't get charged. But there's a very funny photo of me laughing hysterically as Bruce is being put into the back of the cop car.

The Last Shot... To the Head

Baker: We'd written an ending that was closer to the ending of Michael Turner's book, and Hugh Dillon, having romanticized himself into the lead, [got this] idea for Joe Dick to blow his brains out at the end of the whole thing. There was concern about how that might affect our distributor, or if others would go along with such a radical change, because Hugh basically talked Bruce and me into it over the course of one night while we were in production, and we kind of just improvised that ending when the time came. I think Bruce just neglected to tell our producers about it, and so when the time came, there a little bit of a freakout. I mean, it is a pretty radical departure.

There was going to be a lyrical bittersweet of ending where there are buskers on the street, and you could read it any number of ways, and Hugh just had this visceral reaction against that and was like: "Fuck that I'm going out in a blaze of glory." And he kind of made a weirdly compelling case, and we realized if we go with this it will be so abrupt people won't forget it.

Rennie: The original ending was just not satisfying in any way. So the ending came out of me and Hugh talking. There was this other show I was going to work on, so I had to leave early, and Hugh was doing that scene off by himself. I was on the phone with him going "No, keep the gun down," because we had come up with dialogue and Bruce agreed, though I'm not sure the producers loved it. But we thought it was an effective way for him to do it so it was so surprising and weird. That's what we were trying to get—that it came out of nowhere. He had a nice little line into it and then BOOM he was out.

Dillon: It was all about authenticity and rebellion. To film the finale of a motion picture with all the people higher up against it is pretty renegade. People are pretty loyal to Bruce, because he listens to everybody. He really is the master collaborator. You got to be a leader to get anything done. Because the trade off for him was either me or an actor that will do what they are told—and it came down to that casting call. Because this is a guy who went against everything, and everyone and trusted his gut. I wasn't a tried and true actor and it was a huge gamble.

McDonald: The book ends with an ad taken out in the local paper saying, "My name is Joe Mulgrew, I used to go by the name Joe Dick I'm looking for three players, must be under 30, must be willing to tour...call this number." And it was OK—so Joe will continue on, even though his life long project has exploded. And we never really gave it much thought. We always thought it was a sort of bittersweet ending but with a little bit of hope. Me and Noel were staying together in this small hotel room in downtown Vancouver, and I think we were already a week or two into shooting when Hugh came up one night. We were all smoking, and he was really enjoying himself and really feeling like this was the greatest experience of his life, working in another medium and being the rock'n'roll expert. He enjoyed that immensely, and started becoming the rock 'n' roll philosopher, so he was feeling confident and was having such a good time with Callum that he turned himself to the script and he came and said, "You know what guys? Somebody's gotta die.

I don't know if you guys understand it but rock 'n' roll is MY life, it's all I've got. You guys went to college, university, you got a fucking chance. Guys like me, we don't have a safety net so this is important to us and to have this band explode without any real consequence, without any real tragedy, is doing a disservice to the altar of rock 'n' roll..." or something like that.

Dillon: I was able to take apart that script and change the things that needed to be changed to make it more authentic, and I thank Bruce for that. I mean, I wrote the end sequence where I off myself, but I had no interest to do a rock 'n' roll movie because as a musician in a real rock 'n' roll band, I thought they were all shooting some bullshit. So I had to have a fair bit of control myself. I just wanted to be authentic, and at the end of the day Bruce McDonald had the guts and the vision and he taught me everything because nobody, not the producers, nobody was gonna go for that ending. He got shit right on the street from the day we were shooting and he protected me and the other actors from all the nonsense and anything the producers had to say.

And he, against everybody—people with money, the producers, everyone who said "You can't use that ending"—for someone like that to champion an idea I had and execute it... people don't do that, and they don't do that anymore.

Haebler: Bruce and I had one really, really big argument. Epic actually. And that was over the last scene of the movie, where Joe Dick shoots himself in the head. It wasn't in the script, but it was the rock 'n' roll way to go and that was how he was going to shoot it. And he was not gonna shoot any other ending. And I was like, "You can't do that! You have to shoot the other ending because what if it doesn't work out? AND our distributors and the people who bought the film or pre bought the film all think it's going to be 'this' type of movie. What if they don't take delivery of the film and say this is a breach of contract?" I knew enough that this could have been a real thing. And what was the problem about just shooting both endings? So we had this huge argument and I was furious.

But Bruce can be bloody minded and entrenched in his vision and he wasn't going to play ball. So I just had to live with it. And as it turns out it was the right decision for him—it works and it's quite epic.

McDonald: It continues to be a lesson to me, that with movies, you don't wait for permission. It is a bit of an act of willpower... I mean not insane willpower. But there's a point when you either lean into the hurricane or fucking run for cover. I kind of always salute Hugh for being the first guy to run into the hurricane, and we all followed.

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