Kevan Funk is a Canadian filmmaker and director of Hello Destroyer, which premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is nominated for a number of Canadian Screen Awards and was also part of TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten. 

Kevan recently made waves with his frank thoughts on the Canadian film industry in response to an article in the Globe and Mail by TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey.

We talked at length about his film, which opens this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, its financing hurdles, his thoughts on Canadian distributors, the response to his recent criticisms, and the Canadian film industry at large.  

The Seventh Art: You’re very forthcoming about discussing the themes and institutions you are engaging with in the film – male violence, a homosocial sphere, how these relate to Canadian identity, etc. I’m curious what brought you to thinking about those subjects in the first place.

Kevan Funk: I think there was a maturation process to arrive at that interest and how it’s rooted in Canadian identity. Not totally new, but to be able to articulate it in that way. I think that [ability to articulate] is tied to having a bit more agency in the place and industry I’m in, as I’ve been in the industry longer. It’s a really good question, thematic interests that are broader and systemic issues – a socio-political bent – is not to fly a flag and be a “political” filmmaker. It really comes from my upbringing; my parents were full-time activists growing up and the activism they did was not-for-profit environmental theatre during my childhood. It stopped about when I was a teenager, I’m the oldest of four kids and it got harder to be something viable to do with a bunch of teenagers. They were people whose practice was balanced between art and activism – it’s different from what I’m doing, but they would pick an issue every year, write a play around it, and tour around Alberta and British Columbia. I remember being self-conscience about what my parents did, because it was a strange thing, especially in an affluent family like Banff. We were not an affluent family because my parents were essentially full-time activists. Activism was a part of a process and kind of my introduction to storytelling; I don’t have a background that understands stories as very biographical, that’s not how I learned to write. There was a structure to how my parents developed a play that is similar to the way I write now: take an issue – as a sidebar, I see how chic evironmentalism is now, but you guys missed the boat twenty years ago, we’re already fucked – improvise ideas around that issue and distill a story from that. 

That’s how I write my work, the short films that precede this and Hello Destroyer. It comes from a socio-political issue that I’m interested in. I certainly have opinions, but I avoid stories based just on an answer I’ve arrived at that I tell the viewer. I’m interested in the discussion around this thing I’m interested in and from there characters, setting, all those things are devices. A character, for me, is a device to get to what I want to articulate. The human elements come in as the last thing for me, I’ve never written from a place of, “This is an interesting character, I wonder what their world is and explore it.” It’s a broader thing that gets distilled into a focused thing by the end. I credit my parents a lot for these interests; they’re my own interests, but I definitely grew up in a space where critical thinking and an interrogation of ideas, facts, and how they’re presented to you is the most important element of education. We would have dinners where you’d listen to the news and then talk about it and the perspective of [the report]. A history book is written by someone, people or a board of people wrote it. Recently that focus has matured to an interest in Canada, partially because as I started making films, I made films about the environment around me – especially rural Western Canada. Canada is underrepresented in media, but especially that part of Canada is underrepresented. There is more stuff about out East or in the cities.

Canadian philosophy has included looks at our rural vs. urban dichotomies and it’s interesting that when there is art that takes place in smaller, rural spaces, it tends to fetishize that life. It seems like your film show how these places can be non-communicative, which impacts the characters. It’s not overly critical, but it is to a certain extent…

Yeah, for sure.

It’s like the violence in hockey as something that happens, but no one talks about until now when we’re forced to because of suicides and violence after some players’ careers. If you grew up in a major city, you may not still play the sport after you realize you’re not going to make it, but maybe there’s not that same self-awareness in a smaller space.

Yeah, I think some of those things – the criticisms of the film – I’m fine with because I know going into it because the film’s oppressive. I can understand that some people take the view that is overly critical of this sphere, but I wanted it to feel that way. It’s subjective to the character, because when you’re in the midst of [his situation], it does feel that way. On a smaller scale, it’s like having a bad hangover and you feel like you might have done something stupid the night before, you don’t want to leave the house because you might bump into… or all eyes are on you. It’s a subjective perspective of the character, but more to your point, it’s something I’ve always been interested in: what I identify with in Canada is that part of Canada. Banff is a bit of a weird bubble, but I played so many sports that I spent all my time in these towns on weekends all year around. Also touring with these plays all summer.

It’s interesting that you brought up that idea of communication, because the antagonist of this film or the element that sits in place of that is a failure of communication. I’m interested in the small town thing or any community, when you live in the bubble of your community it’s way easier to be insulated and not open to outside ideas or opinions. When someone is cast out as a pariah or ostracized from that setting, the extreme of that is amplified as opposed to a city – where you can find new places to be, new groups of friends. I wouldn’t say that that’s discounting smaller places as lacking of ideas because of the intelligence of the people, it’s just a matter of scale.

There’s a status quo. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched a lot of hockey, but this character is what? A fourth line grinder? He’s a rookie, but it’s for a [junior team] and no one tells that person, “You know by the way this is not a thing you can do as a career?” 

To me, this story could just be over if he realized that hockey didn’t need to be his life. 

You’re waiting for his dad to tell him.

For me the saddest scene from the sense of character, not emotionally sad when you see it on screen, but when I was writing it was the calls he makes back to the coach. There’s something about leaving a voicemail, this empty one-sided conversation where they have moved on, but you’re telling yourself there’s still a chance for the dream to stay alive even if it’s passed you by.

Bringing up communication is interesting because when I shifted more from the broader themes that I was interested in that extended beyond hockey, and started focusing more on the character and fleshing him out, understanding him, it was through the idea of communication. What are his communication skills? What skills does he have and what is he missing? It came down to that point that I’ve read about [in hockey], there’s a great book by John Branch who did a book, Boy on the Ice about Derek Boogaard [Ed: An ‘enforcer’ who died from an accidental overdose]. It tracks his life and one thing that’s clear is that the skill set of communication that you end up being given, that you articulate yourself through these physical acts of violence. The end of the film, not to spoil it, but it’s meant to feel inevitable. It’s not meant to be a shock ending, but an inevitability for a kid who only has violence as a means of communication. As he is spiralling down and he needs to start asking for help for himself, the only means to communicate is violence, which ends up being violence enacted upon himself. 

Even if he continued in hockey, it might just end with him being addicted to opioides, because that’s the outcome for so many of those enforcers. You kind of allude to that in the scene where he’s icing his knuckles. It’s a larger issue with pain reduction prescriptions.

It’s true, it’s nice chatting with people who watch the sport. My main interest in this had very little to do with hockey as a starting point, I didn’t want to spend two years making a movie about whether hockey is good or bad. I don’t care. But it is definitely an important element in the film, even if it’s just the institution that really mattered to me. There’s also an element when I thought about doing my first film as a hockey film, there was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek fuck you within the context of Canadian cinema, because to me it’s the genre of film that seems the worst example of what English Canadian cinema has to offer. It operates just on cliches and stereotypes that are so far removed – I find it so funny how we talk about hockey films as an identifier as Canadian identity, when there’s so little to them that actually reflects anything about Canada. Goon (2011) is set in Canada, but it’s so homogeneous in how it treats Canada. Not to beat up on Goon, but I wished it was like Fubar (2002) on ice. It was a goal of mine to make a film that was very expressively Canadian and that hockey can play a part of that, but also to want hockey to feel real. The sports films I like feel real. He Got Game (1998), I think basketball fans like that film even when it’s not painting a beautiful picture of basketball necessarily, it’s darker. There’s this appreciation and I’ve found it from people who came to my film that are only hockey fans, who stumbled into the film because they thought it was a normal hockey movie. Some of them were a little put off by it, but a bunch of them had reactions that were super interesting to me. They were engaging it in a way that was fairly moving to them, challenging to them. It’s a more interesting audience to talk with and have see the film than a cinephile audience. Obviously a cinephile audience is great and I love all those people, but it’s been really nice when there’s been a crossover.

Let’s pivot to the cinephile audience. I wanted to talk about the choice to film in 2.35:1. When the violence happens early on, it’s a very claustrophobic framing even if it’s so wide. It also sets up an expectation of using this space, like when the players are lined up on the blue line before the puck is dropped, they’re filling the frame nicely, but the rest of the movie is him alone in a mostly empty frame. Why choose this aspect ratio?

There’s an aesthetic level where it’s what [cinematographer] Ben [Loeb] and I have operated with for so long that it feels – not that we didn’t discuss it – we go to it because it’s what we’ve gotten used to. It was, I think initially, based a lot on the fact that I was making films in Western Canada and the landscape seems to demand that in such a way. In this film, one thing that I loved was this idea of formally taking advantage of before the hit happens and after. I wanted there to be a sense of claustrophobia throughout the film. The second half of the film is shot a lot more on sticks, locked off, where the camera does not move. We have him in space, which was important to show this sense of isolation. That’s a more obvious film tradition. But in the first half I wanted to still articulate the sense of isolation, but we still wanted the camera work to be a lot more alive and immersive in this environment. That’s where this claustrophobic aesthetic was born from, even if you’re on the wide frame, shooting close to him and being with him constantly – so much of the film is in close-up and with him – even in the wide frame you feel the scale of the world he’s in. I didn’t want it to feel like we’re making this very small film and he was just this guy on his own. There’s something about the environment that was important for me, especially in terms of tracking his degree of isolation and loss. You need to feel the loss of the world around him. When you have quiet characters who are not particularly articulate – I think [lead actor] Jared [Abrahamson] does an incredible job of being very articulate without saying much, a performance I’m very proud of as far as physical acting – sticking with him so much gives a sense of anxiety, and I’ve heard this from audiences. There is this feeling where you want to step back and have a breath of fresh air, you want a wide shot to get out of being so immediately with him. I like that anxiety as an undercurrent of the film. For people who have played sports and know that world, there is this constant measuring and performance that is so much a part of being a part of the group, not about being an individual at all. Even if you’re an individual star, you still want to be top of a group. Regardless of our character being expressive, I wanted to create that tension of anxiety, this constant competition in that environment that leads to that breaking point: the feeling that you have to do everything you can. 

It’s dimly lit, as well, especially in the second half. It’s difficult to see him, outside of when he’s working [in the abattoir].

Yeah, that was something where Ben, who I’ve worked with on a lot of things and is from Norway, and I are both influenced by Scandinavian cinema that is darker like that. I think visual language is very important in a film like this where you don’t have a character that is telling you very much, not doing much to verbally express some of the ideas that you need to express. There were a lot of ideas that were important to articulate with the sound or visuals and you have to be consistent with it. The idea that there’s this heaviness, this darkness on top of him, was something we liked from the outset.

One of my favourite scenes, which my producers wanted me to cut [laughs], is the scene where he hears a sound in the house and he walks in a circle around it where he’s just back with himself. So much of this battle is with himself and he ends up where started, but what I loved was shooting that scene sort of like a horror movie. He’s covered in darkness and searching for this wolf or something. That scene summarizes the second half of the film in terms of the struggle he has, alone with himself.

I know you often mention sound being important to you and it’s something that literally comes up in the film when he talks about the feeling when sound drops away, but what was that process like for you on this film? As a Canadian, the sound when the camera is close on him but you can hear the sound of a wooden stick scraping on asphalt was triggering for me…

I’m glad you liked that, that’s a very strong memory to me, too; I didn’t really play ice hockey, it’s an expensive sport to get into, but I played so much road hockey growing up. I’m glad you said triggered [laughs]. Sound is something that I’ve become super obsessed with in my storytelling and even in the way I write. I write scripts a lot more like a novel, I don’t keep it sparse or open, I’m very descriptive. It’s because I want and expect sound to do a lot and I think you need that in there. It’s easy when you’re writing for yourself and not writing a script for a director that wants to put their own ideas in it, I can be as descriptive as I want. Part of that comes from a really great teacher I had in university. I went to art school, not film school, and I had this teacher who showed me a lot of sound art as well as films that used sound. Obviously it’s important, but I never thought of the value it truly had in terms of the type of storytelling I like.

The film that was seminal for me was Safe (1995), which I even saw before art school when I was working in a film school. It has a resurgence of cool now, but the way that Todd Haynes uses sound to articulate anxiety and tell so much of the story that could not be verbally told or I would argue even visually told. There’s not really a score in the film, there’s a little bit when he’s on his way to the showers, but even that is mixed in with sound design. Sound is this great thing that allows you to shape the way you want people to respond through this invisible way. It holds on to so much ambiguity that music just obliterates. Music gives you such a strong emotional response immediately. This is a phrase I’ve used a lot: I like ambiguity with intention. I obviously have a perspective and point of view that I want to get across, but I try and do that with enough room for the audience to still have space to have an opinion on it. There are some things that are very blunt in this film, quite frankly. I’m always trying – and I’ll probably get better at it over the course of my career – to leave room for ambiguity, to hand some agency back to the audience to participate and figure some of it out on their own. I say the ‘with intention’ part because I don’t love when I watch cinema – it’s personal preference, there’s a good argument in support of it – that is confounding and doesn’t feel like it has an entry point, no matter how well made. I find it frustrating and alienating, sometimes that’s fine and sometimes I do like that.

What would an example be?

I’m trying to think of something that stands out. I think there’s a lot of art-house cinema that does that and I think that’s often the way that that’s meant to operate. I’m trying to think of good examples of films I really hated [laughs], which is harder to think of. Maybe this is not a good example, but Ted Fendt’s film [Short Stay (2016)] I was not a fan of and I know why people love it. That one’s a bad example because part of my complaint is that I’m tired of watching American, white men be bored; I’ve seen so many of those movies. But also, when Ted was doing the Q&A about it, I was hoping for more of an interest in terms of what he was reaching for or interested in. When there’s what feels like ambivalence from filmmakers… There are things in that film that I liked, but there’s something about taking the time to sit down and watch something, and taking the time to make something – I know I have a lot of friends that would absolutely disagree with me on this, it’s my personal preference –  and I like when there’s a gesture that you want an audience to feel something. I don’t mean feel something in the Hollywood emotional way or that you need to ‘educate’ an audience or have a point. It’s something that maybe comes from the art school background. You can have two black painted canvases, but there’s a reason one is in MOMA and the other is just someone painting a black canvas. Whether you think someone instilling meaning in that one painting that ended up in the MOMA is bullshit or not, there’s some intention. If there’s intention behind it and an interest, that’s what makes me interested in any art, film or not. I know this is totally personal position for me, but I want that sort of engagement. I like intention, something people want me to engage with, but I also like ambiguity because as a viewer it allows you space to participate in the work. It’s not just an entirely passive experience.

The intention behind these films seemed to be the focus of this conversation you had with [TIFF’s] Cameron Bailey. What are your thoughts on that debate? It was interesting how it was placed within a larger narrative, like when you mention not wanting to burn down the system and [TIFF] linked to things [filmmaker] Matt Johnson has said on the matter.

I know Matt and I like Matt. I think everything Matt said was super useful and important. The link to Matt Johnson was so annoying. I like Matt and the point was not to start some beef with him.

It also makes him out to be a bad guy rather than observe how these two arguments relate. I think that considering these things politically, as the conversation does, it’s like considering how to deconstruct Neoliberalism from the inside, like some political leftist parties position themselves as doing, it doesn’t work. It’s a system that is so fuelled by money. In this case, too, it has to relate to the economics of the people who make decisions, who fund things based on a distributor’s attachment, and the distributors are considering money the most.

I wrote that just as a personal email because I was so annoyed. I like Cameron, I don’t know him well, we’ve only met a couple of times. I wasn’t trying to just bitch and moan, because I also get tired of that, not searching for solutions at all because that’s really frustrating. That’s what sort of bothered me about his op-ed, more than anything, was that it didn’t have any solutions. He might argue that there was a call to action, but it doesn’t have any solutions to the reality of the problem. I would say, to that point you’re making politically, because I think we have similar views on that, when I’m saying I’m not burning it down I agree with a lot of Matt’s sentiment, but to me I’m demanding more of those institutions and taking back control of them. I have to be honest: if it wasn’t for Lauren Davis at Telefilm West, we would not have our film made. We had to push a year and she held our money over, she fought tooth and nail. We were screwed by other institutions. The CFC [Canadian Film Centre] was going to support us and backed out a month before we went to camera, so we lost half our budget. We signed a development deal and were told everything was a go, then they backed out. eOne signed on to the film because you do need a distributor and then a month later they dropped out of the film. I guess this is where I wish the conversation would broaden and why I get annoyed by Globe & Mail articles that are not that in-depth. I’m not saying these places aren’t without serious issues. Telefilm, for example, it’s whatever person you’re dealing with. I’ve dealt with Lauren and she’s been a dream, but I know people who have dealt with other people and their experiences haven’t been the same. I can’t speak to that, we didn’t get any notes and Lauren fought for our film to be what it was. 

Telefilm and TIFF are easy to beat up on because they’re big cultural organizations. The reality is that no matter what they do, there’s always people who are going to be left out. Someone can make the argument that it’s easy for me to say this because I’ve played TIFF and I got Telefilm money, but part of what my biggest issue is that we need to stop levelling all the blame on those guys. For me, the most frustrating is that distributors and broadcasters don’t get the heat. The fix with Telefilm and TIFF is a little bit easier because they are tied to public money and institutions – TIFF a little less so. People need to stop pretending that executives at Telefilm are the same as Harvey Weinstein, they’re civil servants. To me, that’s an inspiring thing. I get a little frustrated when friends – one of those burn it down things, not like how Matt’s talking about it – in certain times it feels apathetic to me, “It’s fucked, I’m not going to engage in the system.” I have American filmmaker friends, “It’s so lucky that you guys have any money at all that can go into…”

A kind of nihilist point I wanted to make about this is that films are very expensive to make, even the small ones, and you need systems that exist to make them. Maybe what the distributors are realizing – and in the history of well-regarded Canadian cinema you always had a broadcaster to get a minimum return in those days – it’s harder to make money off a film today. What motivates a distributor at that point?

I would push back on that argument a little bit, as if I was talking to a distributor I would push back, because they get out of this conversation the easiest and are quick at a DGC event, like eOne and those guys, to get up there and say, “We love Canadian film and we’re all about supporting it.” That is fucking bullshit. They are private companies. One thing we should hold Telefilm more accountable for – even if they have their success index, and yes I would love if Telefilm was profitable – is that they are a cultural institution. Their main goal should be to promote Canadian culture, so we shouldn’t be so worried about the financial return. Decide what you’re doing, there’s too much of an identity crisis and that’s where you end up making nothing that anyone likes. 

With the distributors, what I would say to them is either say “Hollywood is easier to sell and we’re going to sell it, we don’t support Canadian film”. That’s fine, you’re a business, you can do that, but stop pretending and taking the PR podium to say you support something when you don’t. They play a really important part in terms of dictating… Like with a film like mine or Ashley [Mackenzie’s Werewolf] or Johnny [Ma’s Old Stone] or Mathieu [Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves], I know we’re darker films, we’re difficult films for sure. I’m not saying we’re going to light the box office on fire, but it’s one of these things where I want the chance to fail.

I had a really frank conversation with my distributor, that’s a much smaller one [Northern Banner], saying it’s really frustrating that we don’t have a theatrical run. Optically, it looks like we are because we have posters up, which is more than Ashley has, but realistically we have a week in Toronto and a couple dates across the country. I was frustrated because it seems crazy, yes our film is difficult, but it’s a pretty standard narrative film. It’s not really asking that much of a film in that way, yes it’s shot darker and the content is darker, but it’s pretty standard. It’s not talking about my film as the be-all, end-all. There are better Canadian films than mine made this year, but just as an example, we’ve passed the critical test of playing some festivals that you need to play at to be validated, [TIFF’s] Canada’s Top Ten, Canadian Screen Award [nominations], and we’re literally about a subject that there’s this voracious, unending appetite for in Canada. You can sell it that way, so if you’re a distributor and you’re telling me you can’t do a week in most major cities across this country, that seems ridiculous.

What pisses me off about that conversation was that this same thing was told to me about Sleeping Giant (2015), for example, or In Her Place (2014). “We liked that film, but the box office for that film was just a couple thousand dollars across Canada.” Okay, that might be true, but you didn’t market this film and it hardly had screens. If you’re talking about Albert [Shin’s] movie [In Her Place], it’s so well-made. It’s dark, but it’s accessible. You don’t need to be a cinephile to watch that movie and feel it and understand it. It was brought up a bunch as a film similar to our’s in terms of the recognition it got and the tone of it, we would always hear that “that film didn’t work in Canada.” You didn’t give it a fucking chance to work, that’s what bothers me more. I think focusing only on Telefilm and TIFF is problematic, not that those places shouldn’t be interrogated or held to account. I don’t think we should get defensive about that, we should be more comfortable. These conversations should not be adversarial, it’s just about trying to do better. 

Another funny thing about our industry and maybe it’s because our industry is so small, but I felt bad about writing negatively about Nathan [Morlando’s] film [Mean Dreams] because I was writing it privately to Cameron and he asked me to publish it. I thought maybe I take this out, but then I thought no, this is not an attack on Nathan personally. I don’t even talk about the subjectivity of whether I think it’s a good film or bad film, it’s about trying to engage in a critical discourse that will hopefully make the industry better. To do that you have to be specific, you have to name names and talk about things. We’ll often level criticisms, but hide it behind innuendo and then it becomes very easy to avoid holding anything to account because no one has said anything about anything. That’s where I think it becomes bitching and complaining that I don’t think is particularly useful. I know for filmmakers it can be a scary thing because you’re dependent on these big institutions. It’s probably easier for someone like Matt to criticism Telefilm and TIFF because he’s succeeded outside of it, I think they’ll still want to be involved with him because he’s proved he can do it. He’s proved that he’s talented. For example someone like Ashley, I’m not speaking for her, but someone in her position, that would be a much harder thing to come out and complain in a public way about Telefilm because they paid for her film and supported it. She’ll need to go back there probably to get money. I don’t think eOne is going to watch Werewolf and say, “We’re writing you a cheque for half a million dollars.” 

Maybe not enough people have looked at whether there’s a big enough film audience in Canada, maybe the institutions need to re-train people to care about cinema. People who see Spider-Man may not be seeing more than a few movies a year. A film like Moonlight (2016) doesn’t make that much money, even if you’re the biggest possible small film in the United States, and that’s with a good distributor. Maybe judging a film by how many people are seeing it says more about how many people go to see films. 

Exactly. If it was an individual film’s problem, it would have been solved by now. I totally agree and this is sort of my point, it’s a difficult conversation to have if you just want to get pissed off at Telefilm or TIFF or even the distributors, who I’m bitching at a bunch right now, it’s missing the point a little bit. I think the first measure of success that you need to get to before you start talking about financial success is just cultural viability, where people know of these films. I feel that any film Telefilm funds that doesn’t sell, like my own film has not sold to a broadcaster, after a year, Telefilm should be able to own that and have their own Netflix-like platform that’s public to every Canadian. If they paid for it, I have no problem having a year to try to sell it and pay them back and if you can’t do that, they own it, put it up and it’s available.

Netflix is a really interesting thing to me because a lot of people watch stuff on Netflix just because it’s on Netflix. Friends of mine who are not cinephiles, I’m kind of surprised at the things they’ve seen, because there’s not a huge amount of stuff on Netflix if you’re watching it regularly. It feels like there’s a lot more than there is. It’s this sense of availability. You need to make people used to seeing this kind of stuff. It’s not comfortable in the sense of there being a huge learning curve, it’s just knowing a movie like Sleeping Giant is a Canadian film. I have a bunch of friends that went and saw it – on the plane, I don’t know – and they loved it, it was one of their favourite films of the year. It wasn’t because they were proud of a good Canadian film, they just liked the film. When we only frame this conversation around why Canadian film is failing, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because for people outside of the industry, the only time a story pops up is the yearly or bi-annual Globe & Mail article about “why is Canadian film failing?” That’s what I think becomes a bit problematic.