Scarborough native Ian McDonald credits the late Portland video store oasis Videoport (where I worked until its 2015 closure) for exposing him to “movies you’d never find anywhere else, movies you’d never hear of otherwise.”
After turning his love of horror movies and special effects into the usual aspiring Maine moviemaker high school projects (he graduated from Cheverus in 2002), McDonald pursued a burgeoning love of creative writing, drama and film across the country to Hollywood, where he now resides. Hard work and good luck — and a job as assistant to successful director and playwright Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men”) — led to McDonald’s first feature as writer-director, the 2016 indie drama-romance “Some Freaks.”
The film, about a pair of high school outcasts (played by emerging stars Lily Mae Harrington and Thomas Mann) whose unlikely love story runs up against the pitfalls of internal and external pressures, was picked up by distributor Good Deed Entertainment for a theatrical release earlier this year and now can be seen on Amazon Prime and iTunes. The film currently holds an impressive 92 percent “fresh” rating on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. I spoke with McDonald from his Hollywood home about his path from Maine to Los Angeles and why the often painful “Some Freaks” is his kind of love story.
As an aspiring Maine filmmaker, how did you come to direct your first feature in Hollywood?
I started like everyone else did. Prowling Videoport — it was transformative. My dad worked at One City Center, and I’d give him a little list of movies to pick up after work. I made movies in my backyard, at Cheverus. I wanted to be a special effects artist like Tom Savini … I bugged the family dentist into getting me alginate to make molds of arms and faces. I was a really awful student at Cheverus, honestly, but in college, I realized I really liked learning when I got to pick what to study. I ended up in creative writing and found a playwriting class only after I’d taken every other creative writing class. I got my MFA in playwriting at Brown. From there, I met Neil LaBute at a playwriting festival and eventually became a cross between his intern and assistant.
What advice do you have for other Maine filmmakers?
Getting an agent is hard. It’s (difficult) to hear but sort of true that, when you need one, they’ll find you. I was casting “Some Freaks,” and the script kept getting passed around ,and finally my now-agents reached out to me. Also, “Some Freaks” producer Lovell Holder is someone I met who really made the movie happen. When it came to a festival run, I think we were fortunate that we didn’t get into Sundance or SXSW, really. When we went to [Montreal’s] Fantasia International Film Festival, we found a really receptive audience that traditionally has a love of little dramas that have an outsider quality to them. Still, the whole process has been a bit of an education. We got interest from a number of distributors, but Good Deed seemed the most passionate, plus they were willing to guarantee a theatrical release.
You call “Some Freaks” a love story, but there’s a lot of pain in it. Is it a love story?
I was talking with a friend from high school who was really at the bottom of the social ladder back then. I was an oddball, but I didn’t have it as bad as he did. We were talking, and when I asked about girls he’d had crushes on, he said, “This is going to sound pathetic, but I really just tried to get through each day without getting picked on. Girls? For me, that was like not being able to afford a bike and someone asking you what kind of Lamborghini you want.” It was such a sad and interesting thing to think about and that was the kind of love story I decided I wanted to tell.
The couple in the film are both outsiders who find each other, but that’s not presented as the traditional teen feel-good story.
One review called “Some Freaks” an “anti-John Hughes movie,” and that’s kind of how I think of it in terms of the love story. I do think it is one, but my favorite love stories do take a bite out of you. Something like “Blue Valentine,” which is about the end of it all, of falling out of love. Or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which is, in it’s way, a beautiful love story, or “A Woman Under the Influence,” where, in the end, Gena Rowlands’ character asks her husband, “Do you love me?” He doesn’t answer. It’s a knife in your heart, but it’s also perfect. It’s not as simple as that. Their passion is more complicated than that.
Having had a successful film out of the gate, what’s your plan going forward?
I’ve signed on to write and direct an adaptation of a baseball memoir called “The Bullpen Gospels.” I’m not a huge sports guy, but I have a soft spot for certain types of sports stories, more character-driven stories. It’s a story about a professional minor league pitcher who’s working for minimum wage, sleeping on people’s couches. [Laughing.] There’s a degree in this story of where I’m at.
Ian McDonald’s “Some Freaks,” starring Lily Mae Harrington and Thomas Mann (and featuring a score by Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys) is currently available to rent through Amazon Prime and iTunes.