TIFF Retrospective: 25 Years Since ‘Last Night’

Don McKellar’s Last Night At 25: As an homage to this Canadian classic, Wider Lens sat down with the DGC Ontario Members who made this film – and have since gone on to prolific careers.

In 1998, Don McKellar’s apocalyptic dramedy Last Night screened at TIFF. The film, starring Don himself, along with Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley and David Cronenberg, received critical acclaim and numerous accolades, including TIFF’s Best Canadian First Feature Film award. A quarter of a century later, Last Night’s depiction of humanity’s final few hours on Earth is just as relevant and reflective of our existential fears as it was upon its release.

As an homage to this Canadian classic, Wider Lens sat down with the DGC Ontario Members who made this film and have since gone on to prolific careers.

Twenty-five years later, we catch up with Director/Writer/Actor Don McKellar, Production Designer John Dondertman, Picture Editor Reg Harkema, 1st Assistant Editor Chris Donaldson, and Sound Editor Steve Munro. Read below as Don, John, Reg, Chris and Steve share their stories about the film’s production, its lasting success, and the enduring resonance of Last Night‘s themes.

“Coming home to Toronto was very memorable….even Torontonians want to feel like our hometown likes us. It’s so rare that you get that feeling in Toronto. It’s such a hard town to win over that when it happens, it’s very emotional.”

Director/Writer/Actor Don McKellar

How did you first come up with the concept for the film? 

Director/Writer/Actor Don McKellar: Last Night was commissioned by Arte, this European broadcaster, and initiated by the French production company Haut et Court, who were doing films about the turn of the millennium called 2000, Seen By….. The idea was that these films would be from around the world, and they asked me to represent Canada. And the idea was to feature new filmmakers. They knew me because I made a short that reviewed well, and they knew my writing work, but this would be my first feature. They actually didn’t ask for a feature; they asked for an hour – it was supposed to be an hour for television, but I thought, they’re gonna give me money, so I might as well make a feature. I thought of the idea very quickly because I didn’t fully understand the rules. It was supposed to be about your feelings around the turning of the millennium, and literally midnight in 1999. But I thought it was supposed to be more metaphoric or personal. They asked me to make it actually midnight when the end came, because that wasn’t my first choice. But then I justified it because it was like time had been reset to the end times. I was partly trying to do something Canadian because it was representing the country and Toronto in particular and trying to play with and satisfy some Canadian caricatures of character types. But at the same time, I was also trying to validate different kinds of Canadian protagonists. We often get criticized for our more socially minded heroes instead of the usual American “go it alone” individualists. I’ve always liked films about the end of the world, but usually, those films are either set after the apocalypse or about stopping the apocalyptic event. And to me, the question that had never been answered in those films is, what would you do if you couldn’t stop the apocalypse, which most of us, individually at least, won’t have a chance to do? Especially in Canada. We’re not gonna be able to stop it. We can be part of some coalition, but the vast majority of the world who aren’t astronauts and scientists are going to have to contend with it. I wanted it to be at a point where the panic was over, and everyone knew it was going to happen. That’s why I came up with the idea that there is no night – that sort of dawns on you as the film continues because I felt there had to be some clear sign that something was wrong. Otherwise, people wouldn’t believe it. Although right now, denial would probably be a bigger factor if the world was ending, or at least counter theories or conspiracies. But for me, it was more interesting to explore the philosophical question of what you would do with your life if you knew that the world was going to end.

I didn’t literally make it about climate change because that seems indecisive. It’s like where we’re at now with this sort of slow, petering out. It’s not very dramatic. But if it’s caused by immediate human action, like nuclear warfare, then that’s all that people would be thinking about, and there would be a lot of hate directed in one direction, and that would cloud the experience. I felt it had to be something natural, even if man did have a hand in it. But it had to be something that people couldn’t fight and had to accept. I thought something had gone seriously wrong with the planet, but I didn’t want people saying, Oh, but if that’s the case, couldn’t they have blown up something or piped oxygen somewhere? I didn’t want people theorizing about what could happen to save the world because the characters don’t have that option anyway. Presumably, someone is out there is trying, but no one really has faith in that anymore. And that’s sort of where we are now.

Director Don McKellar on the set of Last Night. Photo credit: Rhombus Media

Tell us how you came on board Last Night.

Picture Editor Reg Harkema: So I had just cut Hard Core Logo, and Bruce McDonald was so happy with it. Back then, digital hadn’t quite arrived in Vancouver; we just didn’t have the post houses to deal with it, so I had to come out to Toronto because I was also the Post Supervisor on Hard Core Logo. I spent three months there to do all the post work, and Bruce just kept bringing me around to different parties. I remember at one party, I met Don, and we hit it off. Then I went to another party, and he was in the corner talking to Sandra Oh about this movie they wanted to make. I went back home to Vancouver, and a few months later got a call from Don about working on Last Night

1st Assistant Editor Chris Donaldson: My memory was that you only knew of one Editor in Toronto at the time, and that was Tad Seaborn. Tad is a really old friend of mine, and he only worked with Ron Sanders. When Tad was approached, he told them, “Well, I’m not available, but my buddy Chris is available.” Not only did I have hair back then, but I had long hair, so Reg and I probably took one look at one another and thought we were kindred spirits. 

Production Designer John Dondertman: I had worked with Bruce McDonald before, but I actually don’t recall how I met Don, even though I did another movie with him after this called Childstar. But I knew Bruce McDonald and met Don when he was in Highway 61. So that’s how I would have known him; he was just in the circle back then.

Sound Editor Steve Munro: Last Night was part of that whole wave of young Canadian filmmakers, like Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, and their creative energy. I was lucky enough to be very much part of many of those films. I worked with Don on Highway 61 and Twitch City and with Atom on Exotica. It was a pretty tight group of people that were, you know, bouncing between all these films and the creativity flowing between them. TIFF was just exploding at the time and really coming into its own. It was a pretty exciting time for cinema in Toronto because the independent film community was getting a lot of attention outside of Canada, which was awesome. I think Last Night probably launched Sandra Oh’s career. Doug Koch shot this film, and he was part of that group as well. He was Vancouver buddies with Atom, and he and I had gone through film school together. The craft was very young, as far as storytelling in that format, so it was kind of neat to see this amazing raw energy popping out.

But then the tax credit period happened and threw a lot of money into the industry, and we really didn’t have a huge infrastructure yet. And then the was the birth of Telefilm and even the Guild. The Directors Guild was so tiny back then. When I started in the Post Production community, I knew pretty much every Picture Editor and Sound Editor on a first-name basis. But it’s just exploded and grown so much. It’s kind of cool to see it mature and to see the crews and their quality of work go up.

“The who’s who of Canadian cinema would be hanging with us on a Friday – people like Bruce, Atom, and Patricia Rozema. It was this really incredible, fertile time where it felt like this group of people had the potential to take on the world.”

Picture Editor (and Last Night’s Assistant Picture Editor) Chris Donaldson
Sandra Oh as Sandra in Last Night. Photo credit: Rhombus Media

The characters in Last Night go on very different emotional journeys as they confront the impending end of the world. What was your approach in writing all these characters and their different responses to the apocalypse?

Don McKellar: I asked people casually and got varied responses, most of which are covered in the film. Of course, I had conflicting feelings, like most people probably feel on New Year’s Eve when you’re like, “I do want to go out, but I just want to stay inside with my loved ones.” I think for all these signpost life events, you have those kinds of conflicting impulses, so I wanted to cover them all in a positive way. The characters all take it to various degrees, but I didn’t want to say what the “correct” response to the end of the world was.

Sarah Polley’s character and her boyfriend are out like it’s New Year’s Eve, and I feel, in some ways, that’s very healthy, right? Really internalizing what’s going to happen and facing it head-on seems like an honourable approach. Even though my character initially makes fun of the boyfriend, I think he’s probably pretty healthy. To me, the little speech that the older ladies gave is very important. They’re saying that no one’s prioritized, nobody’s death is more tragic than another’s. I’ve often thought, of course, that most of the people we know who pass away are older people, and we always say, “Well, they lived a long, natural life,” and I think that sort of diminishes the tragedy of their deaths.

What influences and themes did you consider when creating the look and feel of Last Night

John Dondertman: There were two main things. One, we decided earlier on to embrace this mid-century look, and there was a certain amount of that in Toronto. There was an architect named Uno Prii, and he built all these space-age-looking apartments in the city. We really liked those graphic elements, so we used some of those exteriors and most of the interiors as well. But on the other hand, we did want this sort of bleak exterior, so we looked around Toronto. Not throwing shade on Weston Road, but at the time, it really looked like a completely different city. There were a lot of vacant stores up there, and this being a low-budget project, that worked for us because we could go up there, and it already looked kind of deserted in certain spots. We did quite a few of the exteriors there and some just west of Lansdowne. Don’s character Patrick’s apartment was just off Queen West. We actually put a wall in there to make it smaller because it was a really large space. Again, we went with this mid-century graphic look, but it felt lived in. The backstory was that his wife, who had passed away, was a school teacher, so you have these children’s drawings everywhere, and I think all these things draw in the viewer. 

Don McKellar: I purposely avoided all those cliche Toronto landmarks, but I still wanted it to be very identifiably Torontonian. That meant shooting a lot out in Weston Road and places like that, also because I didn’t want to have much vegetation. That was tied into my look for the end of the days, like the idea that there’s no night and the city is sort of burned out. I didn’t want to make a big thing out of it, but at one point, you see a burning tree, which seems very timely. But that was part of the idea, and it was hard to shoot because it’s true what people say that we have a very green city. So those ideas forced me to find areas that were pretty unfilled.

John Dondertman: We also shot on film, and very few people do anymore. Douglas Koch, the DP, came up with this ‘bleach bypass’ idea, which gives the movie this very contrasted look. We had a really specific colour palette that we worked with. We did quite a bit of colour testing at the beginning of production – we would throw up panels of colour and wardrobe and figure out which colours worked and which didn’t. The film doesn’t really talk about what’s actually happening – maybe there’s an asteroid or something hurtling towards the Earth, and it’s getting brighter and brighter outside. So the windows were overblown as that “something” was getting closer. So there’s that darkness in the story, but then there’s this bright brightness, and then the movie ends with a flash of light. 

Callum Keith Rennie as Craig in Last Night. Photo credit: John Dondertman/Rhombus Media

Much of Last Night takes place in the streets of Toronto, which is very different now than in 1998. If you were designing Last Night today, what do you think you would do differently? 

John Dondertman: Back then, CGI was a bit of a big deal. The cost of digital effects has come down significantly, but at the time, you had to transfer to digital and then transfer back to film, and everything was much more time-consuming. So the CGI streetcar being pushed down was really the one thing we could afford to do. 

Don McKellar: There’s actually one more instance of CGI, and I love this shot because it’s the best kind of CGI. It’s the shot of the character Craig when he and I are both at the top of his building talking about his cars. He throws a cigarette off the edge of the rooftop, and we see Sandra’s car pulling up down below. She’s leaving with his car, and I didn’t know how to coordinate that, so we CGI’d the cigarette falling in this nice arc instead. It’s great because you would never expect that at the time. In those days, CGI was very expensive, but I got it sort of as a bonus through Niv, who was doing another film at Rhombus.

John Dondertman: We could definitely afford to do a lot more now. You can get a 4K camera, and you can edit it on your laptop now. If you have people in your circle who are good at visual effects or editing, there are really great opportunities out there for young filmmakers. Doing what we had to do to shoot in Toronto would be very tricky now, though. The whole city’s infrastructure has changed. There are hardly any parking lots anymore, and it can be tough for Locations people. For that streetcar scene, we had to clear Toronto Street, and we filled the whole background with fog and smoke. It was a bit of a crazy disaster, actually, because the special effects guy said there was so much smoke on King Street that cars were driving through the streetlights because they couldn’t see what was going on. Luckily nothing bad happened, but you would never get away with that today.

But I think part of the success of that film is that Don really embraced the story. And it’s not really a big special effects movie; it’s a human story. In a lot of ways, it’s a love story between Patrick’s family and his friends and Sandra. I know a lot of people love movies with big visual effects and so on, but there’s really no substitute for a good story.

Sandra (Sandra Oh) wanders an abandoned supermarket in Last Night. Photo credit: John Dondertman/Rhombus Media

Steve, can you talk a bit about the role of sound in Last Night?

Steve Munro: Don, and that whole school of filmmakers, they look at sound as a storytelling device, not just a bit of icing to throw on the cake. Last Night is a perfect example of that, and also using sound to really increase the production value because he didn’t have a ton of money. If you look at that film, what’s interesting is it’s a lot of foreground or mid-ground shots. So much of what I was doing was in the extreme background, and you didn’t necessarily have any visual reference. Don wanted to depict what was happening on the last day on Earth. If you wanted to go out and kill people, you went out and tried to kill people. If you wanted to party, you went out and partied. And that was reflected in all the characters and all of the misadventures they got into, but sound-wise, so many of these things that maybe visually he couldn’t show were definitely implied. 

When we were first designing the track and figuring out exactly how we were going to execute it, I built up this massive sound library of activities that could be going on. Everything from marching bands, parties, gunfights, blasting around in hot rod cars, you know, just a whole myriad of different activities that you’d like to fulfill on the last day of Earth. And because it’s happening in the extreme background, what we ended up doing is putting these two massive speakers in the back of a pickup truck. In the wee hours of the morning, we went to various locations in the city, like down at York and King Street, and blasted the sounds from the speakers – and then we were recording it, like a block away, to get those sounds reflecting off the buildings. You’d probably end up in jail now if you did that, or at least have the SWAT team called on you because we were blasting like machine gunfire. But it was fun to create these atmospheres and make little cocoons for the scenes to sit in and the actors to do their thing with this going on in the extreme background. You never saw the source of the sound, but you had a sort of sonic reference to it. Those were also the early days of multitrack playback systems. There was no 5171, no Atmos, none of that sort of stuff. So we really tried to use the space that was available to us to create these soundscapes. There might not be a sound in the immediate foreground, but there are sounds going on way out and around. So it creates this interesting juxtaposition sound-wise. It’s pushing the audience back, then drawing them in, so it gives the viewer time to reflect and absorb these moments that are crucial to the storyline. If you get inundated nonstop, it’s sensory overload. We pick up those pieces, absorb them, reflect on them, and then it’s on to the next thing that allows you to connect and get inside the character’s head. But if you’re constantly pushing the viewer back with this cacophony and wave of sounds, it’s a full-on assault, which is a tough way to tell a story.

Sandra (Sandra Oh’s) car is totalled by some hooligans. Photo credit: Rhombus Media

Reg and Chris, what was your collaborative relationship like with each other and with Don? 

Reg Harkema: Don is such a scriptwriting genius that structurally, everything did seem to fall into place. I think, ultimately, what Chris and I were there for was not to let Don be too clever for himself. For instance, I remember that the original ending was actually Jackie Burrows running through the streets, yelling, “It’s over, it’s over!” That was the scripted ending and the kind of clever capper Don wanted, and it was clear to Chris and me early on that you just have to end this film with that fucking kiss! That’s the emotional moment. No knock against Don; he just had to work through it to come to realize it. Back in those days, we didn’t have an Assistant working on one machine and the Editor on the other. Chris and I had to work on the same machine. So at the end of the day, Don would leave, and I’d hang around and do a little more work with Chris, and we’d always be like, “When is this guy going to realize it’s the kiss?” [Laughs] When you’re a genius, sometimes the wheels just have to click.

Don, when did those wheels “click” for you?

Don McKellar: It’s funny; it’s one of those things where I sort of knew all along that the ending was the kiss, but maybe I was a little shy about writing it down. It was actually (Producer) Niv Fishman who first said to me, and I remember him being really shy about it, “Um, there’s one thing I was thinking, maybe at the ending, what if they end with a kiss?” And it just immediately confirmed my intuition, and it was like, yep, that’s the ending. It looks so intentional, as Reg always says. But it was a little more open than it looked.

“There was one time when I was on a bus in late 1999, on the cusp of Y2K, and this weirdo started talking to me about the impending doom of humanity and blah, blah, blah. Then he goes, ‘Did you see that movie Last Night? That’s what’s gonna happen to us.’ I was just like, ‘Yeah, man, I saw that movie.'”

Picture Editor Reg Harkema

Chris Donaldson: Reg really brought his sensibility into it, which at the time was very influenced by Godard. Reg had this incredible ability to open up the world of who’s contributing to the movie with his enthusiasm and also had a strong creative and aesthetic take. He would openly take any idea from anybody, whether it was me or the universe. There’s this great cut where they’re talking about cars, and Don’s character says: “Why don’t they come in a matte finish?” Reg, I don’t know if you remember this, but the way you cut between these two shots was, initially, a mistake. And then you hit play…and it was the perfect cut. But it was a mistake, and you were just like, “It’s the universe, man.” It was really inspiring for me as an Assistant because Reg just had this incredible, playful, open creativity that was so informed by personal and intellectual aesthetics.

Reg Harkema: You’re giving away my secrets there, Chris. It’s not any real talent or skill. It’s just the universe. [Laughs]

I remember we used to do dailies, and even in the assembly, when we first got that footage, you and I stuck the song “Guantanamera” on there. I remember going to the daily screening, and you and I were just over the moon because we were skeptical. A fucking Pete Seeger song? Chris and I were these Guided by Voices indie rockers and shit. But that worked so well, and we were just beaming when we went into dailies. Niv Finchman and Don both looked at us like, why are you guys so happy? And Chris and I just looked at each other and started going, “Guantanamera…Guantanamera…”

Don had all these different musical ideas, and both me and Chris are super into music, so we just glommed on to that stuff. I don’t think Don had made the connection between the kid’s paintings combined with the Menzies piano recital scene up until we did it in the edit. Watching it again the previous evening, I was struck by how emotional that was, trailing the Menzies music into the close-up of the paintings. 

Sandra (Sandra Oh) and Patrick (Don McKellar) moments before the end of the world. Photo credit: Rhombus Media

How did you approach some of the casting choices in this film?

Don McKellar: I was just so lucky that I was making the film in this moment where that cast was available to me, everyone basically that I wanted to cast, I cast. It really was a portrait of the Canadian acting community at the time, and they’ve all pretty well lived up to my admiration.

What was it like working with fellow Director David Cronenberg, who plays Sandra’s husband Duncan? 

Don McKellar: David Cronenberg had previously done my short film Blue, where I also paired him with Tracy Wright, who was my girlfriend at the time. Cronenberg was hugely important to me as a filmmaker and definitely a major Canadian influence, that’s for sure. He was definitely the one filmmaker who made me think movies like his were possible at the time. When I first cast him in Blue, Bruce McDonald, who was producing that my short, said, “Well,  what kind of character do you want?” I said someone like David Cronenberg, someone who has that kind of benign exterior but has an interior life that we speculate about. He really seemed like an uptight Toronto type to me. I just loved working with him because he was so surprisingly generous and very invested as an actor. He took it really seriously. I didn’t know if that would be the case for sure. But he really likes acting, and he thinks about it a lot. He said that he thought it was important for a Director to see what it was like on the other side of the camera. I agree with that, and I think a lot of Directors forget that, especially over time. Then, of course, he cast me in his films, and he cast me again in Crimes of the Future last year. So it’s a funny relationship, but I really cherish it, that’s for sure.

Reg Harkema: Those were the early days of me trying to write and direct my own stuff, and I remember I got the chance to hang out with David Cronenberg and pick his brain about directing. I think he actually gave me a primer on how to direct nude scenes or something. That shot in Last Night where he backs up into silhouette as that guy’s coming towards him with a gun, I was like, “Man, that’s a David Cronenberg shot. This is a David Cronenberg moment.” That’s just so indicative of Don and how he’s just soaking up influences and figuring out how to put a fresh spin on it all. “I’m gonna kill David Cronenberg in this movie, and I’m gonna do it the way he would kill someone.”

John Dondertman: I actually spoke to [Director of Photography] Doug Koch the other day about this, and he said he was really excited about shooting a scene where David Cronenberg dies in a pool of blood. He shot the last two David Cronenberg films as well. So everyone is interconnected. 

Chris Donaldson: I remember that one of the most difficult storytelling challenges there was how to tell the audience that David Cronenberg and Sandra Oh’s characters are married. A lot of people just never saw that moment when she’s listening to the message in Don’s apartment as, oh my god, he didn’t call as opposed to, he did call. We were even joking that we should add a little thought bubble where she’s thinking about David Cronenberg here at this moment. 

Duncan (David Cronenberg) and his assistant Donna (Tracy Wright) celebrate the last day on Earth by…working.
Photo credit: Rhombus Media

“There are a whole bunch of people on that crew that I continue to work with today or have been in contact with all this time. I’ve known [DGC Ontario Chair] Annie Bradley for a long time, and she was the 3rd AD. I’ve known her for so long that Last Night may have been the first time I met her, but I can’t even say for sure.”

Production Designer John Dondertman

What was it like to see Last Night with a hometown audience at TIFF?

Don McKellar: Well, it played Cannes first, so that was a thrilling event, and it was received very well. But coming home to Toronto was very memorable. I remember it was really an exciting career event because even Torontonians want to feel like our hometown likes us. It’s so rare that you get that feeling in Toronto. It’s such a hard town to win over that when it happens, it’s very emotional. It was important to me that I picked Toronto to set this story in, but I purposely avoided the sort of cliche Toronto landmarks. 

John Dondertman: It was exciting to see it get into the Cannes Directors Fortnight, and then we got into TIFF, and then it started winning some awards. It was getting a fantastic response. You always hope for the best when you do low-budget Canadian film or TV, so to get into Cannes or TIFF was a huge deal.

Steve Munro: When you’re working in Post, you probably see it a thousand times. It’s interesting, though, when you’re working on it, it’s kind of like when you see the first cut. The film hits you in a certain way. You make your list of questions for the Director, stuff like that. I try not to look at it too much in technical terms at that point, but you can’t help yourself. I try to just sit back and enjoy it. And then you dive into again from a more technical perspective, play 20 questions with the Director and whoever else has creative input, and hopefully, you get a chance to chat with the composers and bounce some ideas back and forth and that sort of thing. When you see your final playback, you sort of sit back and go, “Oh, that’s okay. That kind of works.” Then you see it on a festival screen, that’s usually not too long after you finish working on it, and then you can sit back and enjoy it. But you’re also nervous because your work’s up on the screen, and you’re seeing it with an audience, and you don’t know how people are going to react. It’s got to be 10 times worse for the Director, because they’re really throwing their heart on the screen. 

What I find interesting is that, especially as you get older or as more time passes, you start to look at the film, and it surprises you how well it all works. I’ve been lucky because I’ve worked on a few films that are like, okay, you know. Occasionally you get the one that kind of looks like 1990. But with Last Night, you can really sit back after some time passes and really enjoy and absorb it.

It’s just a really heartfelt, well-thought-out film. That Canadian new wave in the late ’80s and through the ’90s, that era just had some really good writing. You watch those films, and you’re thinking about what they were saying, and they had something to say. These films are still relevant, and it’s because it’s from a human experience perspective rather than effects and action. I mean, it’s fine to have those elements. But they really tried to write about the human experience, which makes you think and reflect.

“I teach a sound for film course at York University, and I actually showed the film to my students recently. Pretty much all of them weren’t alive when the film was made, but they got it, and they were gobsmacked by it. So, is the film relevant today? Absolutely.”

Sound Editor Steve Munro

Last Night was released in 1998 when fears around Y2K were especially prevalent. Do you think our thoughts and feelings around “the end of the world” have changed in the past 25 years, or are our fears and anxieties about the apocalypse mostly the same?

Don McKellar: It’s odd because we are sort of experiencing this idea that the world is ending in slow motion, and people are responding in different ways. I think right now, there would probably be more active resistance in the face of an event like this. The weird thing is, when I talk to younger people, they sort of take the end of the world for granted. There’s no shock in the proposition, and so how would that affect their psyches? There’s this idea that there might be defeatism at worst and maybe anger at best. I feel like that would dominate more had I made the film now. I don’t know, but that would be fascinating to see. There’s been a number of films sort of copying the model, including Don’t Look Up, which I think has some parallels towards the end. But the whole point of Last Night was really that everyone was in it together. Denial of death is a sort of tough position to start with. Not to get too deep, but it is really about facing death and mortality, and surely, that can be done with dignity and in a healthy way, given the right circumstances. I wanted to get at that, and I wanted to suggest that it’s a kind of Canadian ending. I’m not so sure I fully embrace that now, but I wish I could say that was the case.

Chris Donaldson: Back then, we had the sense of some sort of manmade catastrophe with computers, whereas now it feels like we’re constantly in the midst of a slow-motion catastrophe. One of the powers of the film is that the choices Don made to depict it are really humanistic. It’s possible to relate very emotionally and personally to all of the choices that the characters are making because they’re very human. Even Duncan, David Cronenberg’s character – while he’s extremely eccentric, it’s a sort of madness that I can recognize coming at the end of the world too. 

Reg Harkema: The one big gamble that Don was taking was not explaining this end-of-the-world thing. He was just like, Okay, we’re just going to do the sun. It feels very “climate change,” that storyline. If Last Night had come out today, that would actually have had even more resonance. The full effect of that didn’t really hit home to me until I watched the film again yesterday. When you’re getting all the footage for editing, it’s just footage, right? We cut to a title card, it’s 11 PM, and it’s still sunny out. But rewatching it yesterday, there was a moment of, wait a second, it’s still sunny out at 11 at night. Something is definitely off here. And I’m betting initial audiences were feeling that in a way that I only felt recently.

Steve Munro: I think that we’re living in an even more polarized world now. There would probably be people in total denial, saying this end-of-the-world thing is nonsense, blah, blah, blah. Just look at climate change and the stuff that’s been going on this summer. I mean, I’m not a scientist, but look what the scientists are saying. And just look at the state of affairs with US politics. But Last Night is still relevant because the film isn’t really about the end of the world. The film is about all of these hidden desires and our human nature. I think a lot of disaster films get it wrong in the sense that they’re trying to combat the existential threat or the physical threat. But it doesn’t really matter when the world’s coming to an end and you have a day to live. What do you do? How does that affect you or your neighbour? That’s a much more human story and more interesting than the central conflict being, “The world is going to end, and we’ve got to stop it.” If you’re making the big tentpole disaster movie, then the central conflict is, how do we save the day? Well, guess what? The day doesn’t get saved. How do you reconcile that? In Last Night, it’s reconciled by human connection. You see evidence where the interaction is violent and clashing, but it’s all about caring and connecting. I think what makes it makes it stand the test of time is the fact that those emotional responses are not going to change.

John Dondertman: I mean, just look at what’s going on in Canada right now. These forest fires are pretty dire. I think the idea of an environmental disaster isn’t that far-fetched anymore. At the time, it was technology we were afraid of. Nobody knew what was going to work after Y2K. Anything that was connected to the internet, your phone or your computer or your car, everything was a concern, because nobody knew what was going to happen. And it ended up being a great big nothing, really. But sadly, now we’re dealing with these terrible fires all over the world now. 

One of the things that you see in the movie is Sarah Polley’s character and her husband at a huge party for the end of the world, and they’re screaming and having a great time. So Don didn’t tap into this sense of dread or horror. It’s that darkness into light again. I think that appeals to people. Nobody really wants to be depressed at the end of a movie anyway. I think we prefer feel-good movies. [Laughs]

Reg Harkema: Nowadays, I don’t think you would even need that impetus to construct a series of films about the end of time. I mean, wasn’t there a film five years ago or so that basically ripped off Last Night? I remember going on IMDb being so upset about that film. I was like, “You guys better lawyer up!”

Sarah Polley as Jenny Wheeler in Last Night. Photo credit: John Dondertman/Rhombus Media

Did you know at the time that this was going to be such an iconic Canadian film that’s still so relevant right now? Did you have any sense that it would be this beloved film in Canada and internationally?

Reg Harkema: At the time, it just didn’t seem possible. We were expecting it to play at the Carlton for two weeks and maybe get other jobs out of it. But then it got into Cannes. And that’s when we realized this might be something bigger than we thought it was going to be.

Steve Munro: I teach a sound for film course at York University, and I actually showed the film to my students recently. Pretty much all of them weren’t alive when the film was made, but they got it, and they were gobsmacked by it. So, is the film relevant today? Absolutely. Does it hold water? Absolutely. It was really interesting to see their reaction to the film. It really sent a few hamsters running on the old hamster wheel. 

John Dondertman: A couple of years ago, they remastered Last Night and screened it at the Paradise Theatre, and it was packed. Five years ago, they did a 20-year anniversary screening, I think, at The Revue, and that was packed. Most of them were very young people, like in their 20s. They would have been, like, three years old when this movie was made. To sit there and think, “Oh, my God, all these people, they love this movie.” I’ve worked with a lot of young people in the Art Department, and they’ve come from more of a design background as opposed to a film background, so they don’t know as much about cinematic history in Canada. Hopefully, when people read this article, they’ll get interested in learning more. 

Chris Donaldson: In some ways, when you’re working on Canadian features, you put your guard up in terms of what life that feature will have outside the editing room. Going to the dailies and watching it with “Guantanamera” for the first time and thinking, Oh, my God, this is really special. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, there’s no weak elements. But you don’t dare to dream that it will get anything more than two weeks at the Carlton because that is so often the fate of the distribution system in Canada. I certainly felt like I was working on something very special that I thought a lot of people would like if they had the opportunity to see it, but I didn’t allow myself to even think it was going to be huge. I think it’s entirely deserving of the attention it still gets 25 years later, and in a different film ecosystem, it could have been considered one of the great 90’s independent films internationally if more people had the opportunity to see it.

Reg Harkema: I got a real sense that it had invaded a certain kind of zeitgeist. There was one time when I was on a bus in late 1999, on the cusp of Y2K, and this weirdo started talking to me about the impending doom of humanity and blah, blah, blah. Then he goes, “Did you see that movie Last Night? That’s what’s gonna happen to us.” I was just like, “Yeah, man, I saw that movie.” [Laughs]  I was also struck by the deadpan humour, which isn’t really spoken about a lot when people talk about this movie because they tend to focus more on that apocalyptic milieu. But there are very funny scenes like Geneviève Bujold’s character running into Don by the elevator or Callum Keith Rennie saying he wants to die a guy with three cars, just little things like that. It seems to be a sort of hipster irony but done with a lot more heart than I think many indie films have subsequently built on. I’ve gone on to kind of become a comedy Editor – I cut FUBAR 2 and Goon, and I’m working on an action comedy right now. So I just want people to remember that Last Night is funny, man! It’s a comedy.

Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) shows Patrick (Don McKellar) his sexual bucket list for the end of the world.
Photo credit: John Dondertman/Rhombus Media

Do you think that the success of Last Night opened up any doors in your career at the time?

Don McKellar: I remember after the Cannes screening, one of the buyers who really liked the film came up to me, and he was all excited. He said, “I hope you know that no matter how long your career is and how much you do, you’re never going to have an ending as strong as that.” Well, okay. [Laughs] It’s sort of a curse, as well as a compliment, but it’s always the case, I guess, with your first feature film, it did make a splash. I suppose if I had more career savvy, I would have exploited it more. I didn’t know that, in some ways, we were in the glory days of independent cinema and the apex of Canadian cinema, as was perceived abroad. I, of course, always thought that was going to continue, so I guess my memories are bittersweet that way. But I certainly felt very strongly that I’d expressed myself fully. A lot of my theories about movies and what I wanted to see in movie writing, I put it all into that film quite naturally. It definitely wrapped up a lot of things that I had been thinking about and wanted to see on screen. 

Chris Donaldson: After the film had come out, Reg said to Bruce McDonald, my Assistant Chris, you gotta hire him for this weirdo documentary called Vinyl that Alan Zweig was trying to make, which was essentially my first real professional Editing credit. At the time, nobody wanted to do it, and I was super keen. Bruce was producing it, so there’s a direct line between Last Night and my editing career. When people see that I worked on Last Night, it’s clearly a film that still gets appreciation and love. 

The other thing that was happening during Last Night was the transition from film to Avid, and this was my first job on Avid as an Assistant. When you’re working with film, as a 1st  Assistant Editor, you are beside the Editor; you are taking trims, you’re doing everything. You’re integral to the process. On film, especially with one machine, a lot of what happens is the Assistant comes in later. We work on off hours, and you become more like an appendage to the creative edit. Whereas Don and Reg were like, “No, we want you in the room. We want you to contribute,”  and that was amazing for me. These two really incredible, creative people were allowing me to be a part of the team. I was a junior member, but they never made me feel that way. So that was really extraordinary.

Reg Harkema: I think I still have a clipping from when Playback used to print newspapers with a headline that said, “Last Night Editor Directs Feature.” It became such a phenomenon that I was able to convince people to give me money to direct my own features. And then, of course, I had a bit of a career with Don; I cut his next film Childstar as well. I’m in my late 20s or early 30s, and boom, Hard Core Logo gets nominated, Last Night gets nominated, and demand for me on the directing side and on the editing side all increased after that.

John Dondertman:  It definitely started a trajectory where I started working mostly with [DGC Ontario Production Designer] Carol Spier on these larger films that were being made in Toronto. Then I gravitated towards these smaller indie films because it just felt like a nice change. It’s not for everybody, but working on smaller films like Last Night, you’re more connected, you’re much more involved in what’s going on. It was a good stepping stone for me, and I really enjoyed the indie films I worked on with David Wellington, Bruce MacDonald, Don McKellar, Patricia Rozema, and all these Canadian Directors. Last Night was part of my progression into working on different kinds of productions.

In what ways do you think the film has influenced Canadian filmmaking and filmmakers in the years since its release?

Chris Donaldson: I’ve met younger filmmakers who saw Last Night as integral in their awareness of what you could do in Canada. For any filmmaker, there are these initial films that open your eyes to the world of cinema. And then when something closer to you has achieved something, you can actually think, wow, we’re capable of doing that here. I remember coming out of a screening of The Red Violin, and I was in tears talking to Niv, saying, “We can do this here. We don’t have to leave here to achieve something like this.” How could it not be something that a young filmmaker in Toronto or Canada could see and say, This is something I can do?

Reg Harkema: I think it’s cemented the legacy of that “Ontario New Wave,” with filmmakers like Atom, Bruce, Patricia, and so on. Don was like the “problem child” running around all their productions. Then when he finally directed something, he went and directed this thing. This group was kind of special, and Don’s work was just the cherry on top.

Steve Munro: So many of the filmmakers at the time were making these features on absolutely minuscule budgets, and they weren’t getting attention here. For example, Patricia Rozema’s film I Heard the Mermaids Singing played at Cannes. And that had a tiny budget. It was refreshing and encouraging to see that these films could play on a world stage, and they were getting a lot more attention in Europe than they were south of the border. I remember when Siskel and Ebert did the review of Last Night. The movie Armageddon had also come out that year, and I think their quote was something like, “This is actually an intelligent last day on earth film.” I’m totally paraphrasing, but it’s a phenomenal feather in the cap for Don, for sure. 

Chris Donaldson: There’s this cliche that the filmmaking community, and a lot of other artistic communities, are these crazy narcissists, stabbing everybody in the back and doing everything they can to move themselves forward. But working on Last Night was the first place that really confirmed for me that great work comes out of a sense of community and that people actually support each other and believe in one another. I was just the Assistant Editor, but I remember one time Reg had finished his dailies and went to the movies. So I was cutting, and Reg came back in, and at first, I wanted to hide my work, but he said, let me see it. He watched it, and in pure Reg fashion, he was like, “Holy shit, it’s better than mine!” Then he went and amalgamated the two versions and made an amazing version of the scene. For most people, that’s where the story would end, but Reg is not most people. We went to dailies, and he’s telling everybody, “Chris cut the scene better than I did!” All throughout the process, Reg was giving me that confidence, telling everybody else about me, and asking for all the input I could create and give. In so many other cliched stories, the seniors are pushing the junior people down, but that is not how I believe the world actually works, and it certainly wasn’t how this film worked. And it certainly wasn’t how that film community worked at that time. The experience made me an incredible believer in mentorship and in the idea that you can do this together in a way that enriches everybody and that shows up on screen.

Reg Harkema: Wow, Chris, I’m gonna cry here. You know, Editors sit in dark rooms by themselves, making someone else’s vision, so there’s no room for ego. If we had egos, we’d be in front of the camera, but we sit in dark rooms and sublimate our egos. Chris showed me something that was going to make Don’s film better, and that’s what we’re here to do.

Don McKellar as Patrick Wheeler in Last Night. Photo credit: Rhombus Media

What memories from the film’s production stand out the most to you?

John Dondertman: One thing I remember is that we would go to dailies at a Post House on John Street. After a day of shooting, we’d all go watch dailies together and decompress, talk about how things are going and what you’re doing, and it was kind of light-hearted and fun. You might even have a drink. Even when I was an Assistant or a Trainee, I was allowed to come to watch dailies on certain movies, which was super thrilling. When you’re just starting in the business, to be allowed to sit at the back somewhere quietly and listen is so important. 

There are a whole bunch of people on that crew that I continue to work with today or have been in contact with all this time. I’ve known [current DGC Ontario Chair] Annie Bradley for a long time, and she was the 3rd AD. I’ve known her for so long that Last Night may have been the first time I met her, but I can’t even say for sure. Doug Koch was the DP, and he’s my neighbour,  ‘Fast’ Eddy Mikolic was the gaffer, and Kei Ng, my Art Director. I’m still friends with these people, and there’s a really nice camaraderie there. I’ve worked on American films and Canadian films, and one of the great things about working on a Canadian film is you’re very connected. The writers are from here, and often, most of the cast is from here. And this movie, what a great cast. Callum Rainey, David Cronenberg, Geneviève Bujold, Jackie Burroughs, Tracy Wright, Danny Iron – a lot of people may not know who he is, but he’s a very prolific Producer. Sarah Polley, as well as Sandra Oh, became a massive superstar. And, of course, Don is a super affable, positive and creative person to work with.

Steve Munro: Being in Post Production, you kind of come to the party a little later. I always get invited to wrap parties, and everyone else at the wrap party has gone through this crazy journey together, shooting the film. It’s a pretty tight group, and then you walk in. [Laughs] But when we mixed this film, we mixed it in Vancouver, which was great. We were in Vancouver for the better part of a month, and it was awesome because we were all there with the sole focus of getting the track sounding the way it needed to sound. And it was a great, great experience. 

Reg Harkema: Can I tell one more little story about working with Don?  

Ultimately, when you’re editing, you’re just looking at pixels, right? And Don was very good at reacting to the pixels. Because he’s such a tight screenwriter, everything came together, and we had time to go back and look at all the tapes to make sure we had the best cut of everything. Well, there was one really emotional scene in the movie where Sandra asks Don’s character Patrick to tell her something that will make her love him. I remember sweeping through that footage to make sure we had the best takes, and Don was sitting on a couch behind me as I was going through and making a few adjustments. And finally, I’m like, “Okay, I think we got this, what do you think?” and I turn around to find that Don had taken all the cushions on the couch and was hiding underneath them as he was watching this scene. It was just so emotional that he needed some sort of psychic protection.

Chris Donaldson: I think the thing that’s most remarkable about that time for me was that it really felt like we could do whatever we wanted in Canada. Rhombus was also making The Red Violin, which was this huge budget, international, historical lush drama, Don’s making Last Night, Hard Core Logo had just happened, and Atom Egoyan was making The Sweet Hereafter. It felt like this incredible groundswell in Canadian cinema. Even while we were working on it, every single Friday night, people just congregated at Rhombus to drink wine and hang out. It gradually became this thing over the course of the film where, while we were cutting it, the who’s who of Canadian cinema would be hanging with us on a Friday – people like Bruce, Atom, and Patricia Rozema. It was this really incredible, fertile time where it felt like this group of people had the potential to take on the world. 

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