Practicable Jokes in Macdonald Hall: An Interview with Mike McPhaden
By Tom Ue.
Following the enormous critical and commercial success of Go Jump in the Pool (2016), based on Gordon Korman’s novel of the same title, director Vivieno Caldinelli and the cast return for two more adaptations of Korman’s Macdonald Hall titles: The Wizzle War and This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall. In what follows, I discuss with writer Mike McPhaden his process of adapting the enormously popular series for a global audience. McPhaden has been writing television comedy for kids, teens, and adults since his graduation from the Canadian Film Centre in 2007. His credits include Spun Out (2014), Seed (2013-14), InSecurity (2011), Men With Brooms (2010), Connor Undercover (2010-11), Degrassi: The Next Generation (2014), and he served as Co-Producer on YTV’s How to Be Indie (2009-11). Mike has also written for several animated series. As a playwright, Mike is best known for Poochwater, for which he won 2003 Dora Mavor Moore Awards for both Outstanding New Play or Musical and Outstanding Performance by a Male.
The Macdonald Hall series has become a kind of cult classic. How did you come by the books?
I discovered the books back in Grade 5, and I’ve been a fan ever since. In fact, I got into a bit of trouble back then, when I used a funny ad jingle from Go Jump in The Pool, in my fifth grade marketing assignment. Fast forward a few decades, and here I am, still riding on Gordon Korman’s coattails!
What led you to return to take on this project?
I’ve wanted to work with Go Jump in the Pool screenwriter Adam Barken for a long time now, so when he asked me to co-write This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall with him, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. That combined with my love of the source material made it an easy “yes”.
Did Gordon Korman have any advice for adapting his work? If so, what?
I didn’t have any contact with Mr. Korman myself, but I imagine his advice would be a lot like Headmaster Sturgeon’s. He’d tell me to work hard, do my best, and try to become a better person along the way.
In an earlier interview, Korman stresses the timelessness of the stories and the friendship of the boys. What resonates for you?
Bruno and Boots’ friendship is the heart and soul of the books, and we’ve worked hard to capture that for the screen. It helps that the boys are perfectly cast, with Jonny Gray as Bruno and Callan Potter as Boots. I think there’s something so refreshing about unironically loving your school so much, too. And I love the boys’ relationship with their headmaster, Mr. Sturgeon. He’s not just there to dole out punishments. He may be tough on them, but only because he thinks they’re great boys, with great potential. Bruno and Boots know his heart is always in the right place, and they have a lot of respect for him – even when he’s doling out punishments.
This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall is the first book in the Macdonald Hall series. What was different about telling this story after Go Jump in the Pool?
Co-writer Adam Barken and I were able to be more economical in our storytelling with This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, since the key character introductions and exposition had been handled in Go Jump in the Pool. It freed up the screen-time to really have fun with our favourite set pieces and our finale.
What was different about adapting Bruno and Boots this time around?
The Wizzle War presented a unique challenge because it’s about a new teacher taking over Macdonald Hall with all sorts of wild high-tech teaching methods. But how do you translate a story written in the era of dot matrix printers for the age of smartphones and digital assistants? The answer was to trust the lasting relevance of the themes. Ultimately, The Wizzle War is about issues we struggle with now more than ever – finding the balance between technology’s benefits and its pitfalls. Too much tech in our lives can turn them upside-down. It also happens to be comedy gold.
Macdonald Hall houses 700 students. How did you create the school’s energy with a much smaller cast?
You can thank our gang of secondary Macdonald Hall boys: Wilbur, Elmer, Chris, and George. They represent the rest of the school in miniature, while still feeling like fleshed out characters in their own right. And director Vivieno Caldinelli has a real knack for making the school feel steeped in history, yet buzzing with activity.
The series of pranks in both books has the potential to become endless: how did you decide on which pranks to show?
It was a bit like facing one of those giant restaurant buffets. You eventually have to admit you can only pile so much on your plate. Ultimately, you have to make very tough decisions, based on what’s most visually striking and what’s achievable from a production standpoint.
Boots visibly takes on more active responsibility in orchestrating trouble this time around. Do you see him as having grown?
I think they’ve both grown, and I think that’s why their friendship is so appealing. It’s more than just fun and games. They’re very different people, and they often disagree, but they always work through it, and end up learning from each other. It’s certainly fun to watch Boots taking on some of Bruno’s bold, impulsive qualities when he has to.
Rereading The Wizzle War (2003) and now watching it on screen, it’s striking how Mr Wizzle’s plans—to modernize Macdonald Hall—are sometimes well meant, even if there’s a mismatch between his theory and his practice, for instance, in his use of line writing as punishment. How do you keep from becoming too critical of Mr. Wizzle?
Much of the credit here goes to Matt Baram’s fantastic performance as Mr. Wizzle. He’s so socially awkward, you always feel for the guy, even when he’s ruining things for everyone else. And as the saying goes, he eats his own dog food – the technology he foists on the boys of Macdonald Hall is stuff he uses himself everyday. But he’s such an oddball, what works for him doesn’t work for anyone else.
Conversely, how do you keep the boys’ pranks from becoming excessive?
The truth is, pranks by themselves are only so interesting. They have to be situated within a fun, compelling story, with emotional stakes. If you string too many pranks together, you run the risk of the audience losing track of how they’re connected to your real story. This encourages you to seek a sensible balance.
What is next for Macdonald Hall? And you?
I certainly hope there’s more Macdonald Hall in my future. We’ll all just have to wait and see!
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.