Q & A with PONTYPOOL Author/Playwright Tony Burgess

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On January 11, 2014, Terror Dave Fuentes and I saw Strawdog Theatre’s production of Pontypool, a play based on the book Pontypool Changes Everything (read my review here).

The book, screenplay, and play were written by Tony Burgess. Tony is a Canadian author who has written several novels, including Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, Caesarea, and Fiction For Lovers. He was nominated for both the Genie Award and the Chlotrudis Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Pontypool.

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Tony was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about his work.

How did you distill out of your book “Pontypool Changes Everything” what ended up in the movie (and eventually the play)?  It seems only the nature of the plague and the names of Pontypool and Grant Mazzy remain.

I’ve worked on quite a few adaptions of the novel and those versions have evolved. It may be that being the author of the source material I’m less obligated by it. I like to feel each story is new. I’ve just finished the sequels to the film version and they pull some more elements form the novel out, but I’ve always felt the book to be kind of elastic.

Why did you create a stage version of the movie? Did you use this opportunity to tweak the story even more?

Well, the stage version predates the film and was radio play commissioned by the CBC. I changed some things for the film, because, well, you see things not just hear them. I’ve always thought the play, radio play, film and book play a bit with their mediums. The play is like a movie and the movie is like a play. You import rules from one media to break the rules of another.

Why the change in setting from Canada to the US? Was that to make it more palatable for American audiences?

The play has been produced in a number of places…in the US and the UK and i think in Australia. I tell the producers/directors that the specific references should be local. It should feel like it’s happening across the street. The French became welsh for instance, in the UK. In San Francisco the French is Spanish. The street names, commercials, etc. – all the signifiers that tell you where you are should be local.

When produced in different cities, does the setting change to the local market? The audience loved hearing the local Chicago radio ads, for example.

See above…all of my books take place in very specific Ontario locations. Essentially, my catalogue is on a map.

I found it interesting that not once in the play (as opposed to the book) did anyone use the term “zombie” to describe the people infected with the virus. Was there a reason for that?

Well, Zombie is a fan word. Nobody yells, “look out! Zombie!’ in zombie films, unless it’s a comedy.

The ending has changed significantly from the movie to the play. I enjoyed the play’s ending more, as it was more powerful and frightening. What prompted you to make that particular change?

The ending is arbitrary – like the relationship of a word to its meaning. It can change, evolve. The play is a conflation of the film and radio play. There Mr. Lawfer and I played a bit.

How involved are you, if at all, in the productions of the play?

The first time it was done by Lawfer and Company I was involved. I had my list of suggestions/requirements as above and Lawfer had other more explicitly dramaturgical puzzles to work out. I’ve looked at these productions as great ways to develop the play.

I’ve read that you are planning sequels to the movie. Will we be seeing Grant and Sydney again? Any hints on what we might see?

Ah! Stay tuned. Yes you will see and hear Mazzy again.

Are there any other projects you are working on now?

Oh yeah. Bunch of things…lotsa fiction…adapting Idaho Winter for film, Cashtown as well. A couple other original scripts. Look out for the film Hellmouth (Foresight Features) to come out in the spring. That one’s bonkers.

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Thank you Tony!

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