Legends of the Mall

'Waydowntown' Director Gary Burns Braves the Great Indoors

Gary Burns wants me to tell you why his film, waydowntown, won't be in any of the Sundance coverage: It wasn't in the festival. For various complicated, scheduling-type reasons, his distributor asked him to turn down the invitation. It's not that it would have made much of a difference—as a Canadian film it would have been considered foreign and thus ineligible for competition. (The festival is, in this way, one of the last American film institutions to recognize my nation's sovereignty.) But still it saddens Gary, partially because now, without that massive promotional machinery to surround him, he is left to generate his own hype, an imperative counter to all Canadian breeding.

Fortunately the film speaks for itself to a large extent—it's witty, energetic, even stylish in a novel way. And the acting! (For the sake of journalistic ethics, I should perhaps confess that I am in the movie. A small, unflattering part. I appear pasty and puffy like a ripe cadaver. It's the kind of character that might be viewed as a brave departure from an actor who wasn't already considered pasty and puffy.)

I met with Gary in Toronto to discuss some promotional angles.

"People don't want to go to movies about their depressing workplace": Burns (left) and McKellar in the Manhattan Mall.
photo: Bryce Lankard
"People don't want to go to movies about their depressing workplace": Burns (left) and McKellar in the Manhattan Mall.

The idea for the film is that there is a bet.

Yeah, there's a bet between a bunch of office underlings to see who can stay inside the longest. The film takes place on the last day, over the last lunch hour. They've been inside for a month and they're at the point of melting down.

It's like a game of Survivor. You have to say that for marketing purposes.

That's right. It's a game of Survivor in an office mall complex, where people can't go outside.

It actually would be great to do a game of Survivor in an urban setting. It would be less artificial, in a way.

You could pick people who actually work downtown.

"For years, natives of this urban sprawl have eked out a living . . . " The tribal council in the boardroom—that would be really cool. So why did you pick office comedy? You never really worked in an office, did you?

We're not supposed to call it that. "Office comedies" tank. People don't want to go to movies about their depressing workplace.

So what is it then, a rebellious-youth-type comedy?

That sounds horrible.

Maybe it's just a fantasy genre in my mind. Waydowntown was always more about architecture, really. I wanted to make something about the architectural anomaly that is Calgary.

Where the movie's set.

The entire downtown core is connected by a system of raised, enclosed walkways. They call it the plus-15 system. It's the only city in Canada where this architectural model exists and it's just a great set piece. So I was looking for something to inhabit that world and it turned out to be corporate culture.

It's a sort of a space-station idea: this glassed-in world. It's like The Starlost. Do you remember that series? This cheap Canadian TV series that starred that guy from 2001, Keir Dullea. He wandered about a space station that had spun out of orbit, from pod to pod, encountering surprise guest stars. One pod was like a giant garden, a self-sustaining ecosystem. It was like the mall system in Calgary.

Or that Bruce Dern movie, in outer space, and at the end it's just him and the plants. What was that called? At the end they just go floating off into space.

I think that's the tradition you're aligned with, oddly enough: dystopian space-station films. And in your film this urban space station becomes a metaphor, a giant allegory for . . . something, right?

You can look at it as a sort of suburban analogy. I mean, the Calgary system was built to provide comfort, to keep people from having to put on a coat at lunch hour in the winter, and basically it destroyed the city. [laughs]

In Toronto we've got this underground system—the world's longest underground mall. We're very proud of that.

Montreal has the second longest.

And there are other cities, in the States too. I know that they've got those walkways in Minneapolis, and in Dallas for some reason—you wouldn't think it gets that cold.

The reason they have it in Dallas and Fort Worth is the class system. It's to keep the rich people away from the poor people. It's the same thing; walkways on the second level connect all the buildings.

Oh really? So the rich can literally walk over the heads of the poor. How did they get that through city council? "We want walkways for the rich folk."

It's a total class system. And it's all air-conditioned, so it's the opposite of Calgary.

How do they keep the poor, sweaty people out of the walkways?

It's like Manhattan. It's just policed.

And once the sidewalks are inside tunnels they can be policed by private security guards. And there are no rules for those private police. They can throw you out at will.

So there's no beggars, no street people. Either you're wearing a suit and tie or you're not walking around in there.

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