David Ondaatje - Films - Waiting For Dr. Macguffin
waiting for dr. macguffin

(written and directed by david ondaatje)

Story about a Latvian man's anxiety during a visit to the Dentist expressed through a series of bizarre hallucinations involving the dental assistant (Karen Black). Experiments with visual and other film elements to differentiate a series of dreams. A tribute to the technical innovations of Alfred Hitchcock. 12 minutes.

Official Selection:

Venice International Film Festival, Italy.
Cork Film Festival Ireland.
Huy World Festival of Short Films, Belgium.
Short Pictures Int'l Film Festival.
Oslo Int'l Film Festival, Norway.
Karlovy Vary Int'l Film Festival, Czech.


The New York Festivals, NY (Bronze Medal)

Opening Titles

Over black, the film begins as we hear but do not see two elderly voices speaking a foreign language (Latvian). There is then a single long black and white shot of the elderly foreign couple, Kristo (Ernie Vincent) and Valda (Janet Rotblatt) walking toward us down a long dark hallway continuing to speak to each other in Latvian during the opening titles. While we have no idea what they are saying, it is clear they are concerned and agitated. Finally, the couple stops…we see fear on their faces. References the opening of The Lady Vanishes.


A series of shots as Kristo (Ernie Vincent) waits and is ultimately woken by the Dental Assistant (Karen Black). Includes series of dissolves between clock paintings by Salvador Dali. References Spellbound.

Accident Sequence

Kristo (Ernie Vincent) wakes while seated in the dentist chair. Karen Black gives an outstanding performance as the Dental Assistant recounting an accident that occurred earlier in the day. Communicates Kristo’s increasingly terrified POV. References Blackmail.

Worst Fears

This scene is almost entirely an abstraction; a montage of violent hallucinations representing Kristo’s (Ernie Vincent) worst fears as he waits for the dentist to appear. References Spellbound, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), Strangers on a Train, Psycho.

Dream Comparison

Comparison of shots from the film illustrating the parallel symmetry of Kristo’s (Ernie Vincent) series of dreams. References Spellbound, The Wrong Man, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions).

Another Dream

The Dental Assistant (Karen Black) wakes Kristo (Ernie Vincent) a number of times, creating a disorienting inconclusiveness between what is what is real and what is an illusion. References Vertigo.

End Credits

End credit roll to the beautiful music of Neal Acree.


Explanation of how the film is structured as a series of dreams, one within another. Kristo’s (Ernie Vincent) deepening fears are expressed visually as he moves deeper into the Dentist’s office. Each dream has a different ‘look’ (black + white, color, sepia/orange, grainy/skip bleach) and is more frightening than the last.

Karen Black

Karen Black (Dental Assistant) is excellent as the frighteningly distant dental assistant and provides an additional link as a tribute to Hitchcock. Tells story of working on Hitchcock’s last film.


Conscious choice of abnormal font for the opening titles as a foreshadowing device.


Opening Sequence

Storyboards vs final footage of elderly couple (Janet Rotblatt and Ernie Vincent) approaching dentist office down a long dark hallway. Filmed in black + white.

The Waiting Room

Storyboards were used to pre-plan a series of shots of the elderly couple (Janet Rotblatt and Ernie Vincent) in the dentist’s waiting room communicating the passage of time as the Dental Assistant (Karen Black) is busy in the background.


Montage of shots pre-planned with storyboards illustrating Kristo’s (Ernie Vincent) mounting anxiety as the Dental Assistant (Karen Black) tells him about an earlier accident.

A Bad Dream

Comparison between storyboards and the final footage of Kristo (Ernie Vincent) imagining the worst as the Dental Assistant (Karen Black) unwraps two large white bundles revealing a frightening collection of sharp instruments.

Down the Drain

Storyboards were used to carefully map out shots of red liquid swirling down a drain and dissolving into a close-up of Kristo’s (Ernie Vincent) eye - providing a playful reference to the similar sequence in Hitchcock’s film.


Storyboards vs final footage of Kristo (Ernie Vincent) waking from yet another dream. Seeing the large white bundles, he suddenly realizes that the horrors of his earlier hallucinations might still be ahead...

Storyboards (all)

All the storyboards created for Waiting For Doctor MacGuffin, playing in fast forward. To view them individually, pause the clip and advance one frame at a time.

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