Talking Canadian Film and Hello Destroyer
with Director Kevan Funk
An Interview by The Film Atlas Staff | 11.03.2019
Kevan Funk is a Canadian director from Alberta and British Columbia. A graduate from the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, his work pushes the boundaries of conventional discussions around life in Western society. Funk takes a semiotic approach when creating his art: signifying Canadian social dysfunctions through aesthetics, soundscape, and narrative turns. Funk made waves in 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) when he premiered the melancholy drama, Hello Destroyer. Today, he continues to create stories that ask spectators to turn their gaze onto themselves.
Editor Genevieve Citron sat down with Funk to discuss Hello Destroyer, national identity in film, the boundaries of representation, and the world of Canadian filmmaking.
The Film Atlas: Hello Destroyer (2016) is based off your short film, Destroyer (2014). Did you know from the get go that you wanted to elongate it into a feature length film?
Kevan Funk: It’s actually almost the opposite of that. I had the concept for the feature and knew the story I wanted to tell and had an opportunity through TIFF to make a short film, because I [participated in] Talent Lab. I was actually gearing up to start writing the feature and so it made sense to explore this world a little bit. With the short, I was like — okay I know this environment that I’m interested in and what’s a story that is different but still has similar characters and deals with some of the same systemic issues? And so that’s how the short came about; the short didn’t drive the feature, the feature sort of drove the short.
TFA: The films are incredibly heavy. What is your approach to showing suffering on screen?
KF: A lot of my work is darker, more demanding emotionally. Even in my short work it was like that. I guess in terms of things like suffering or violence, as we were speaking about before, I think there is a responsibility that comes with [depicting] it. And I don’t believe in provocation for the sake of provocation or suffering for the sake of suffering. I don’t like the idea of being cruel to my characters. I’m a very optimistic, happy person. I think people always assume I’m going to be this sort of downer, gloomy dude if they’ve just seen my work. For me [suffering] is about subject matter and story, and so it has to serve that purpose. It has to be connected to articulating a larger view. In terms of my approach to material, I’m very interested in socio-political themes, systemic cultural issues, and cultural criticism.
I went to art school, not film school, and I think that there’s an element of that way of thinking in [my work]. In art school, pedagogically, work is always much more around concept and theme and that larger picture. You can have a canvas that’s just painted red and that’s in a museum because it’s meant to be speaking about something. So when I’m writing I start with themes, and then find stories and characters who help articulate that. In a lot of ways my characters are usually tools to articulate a theme or idea that I want to explore. I’m not someone who ever writes a character and then I’m like “oh, this is an interesting character I want to see what their life is about.” I usually start big and go fill in the details from that. And so, a lot of that stuff does have a degree of sobriety or a sombreness that is tied to it. And it certainly was the case in this story.
I’m not interested in punishing the audience or anything like that. With a story like this, communicating those emotions to me is tied to empathy. A transference of empathy to the audience would be the ultimate goal. The film is oppressive by design because that’s the world that the character is living within. So hopefully you can translate that in a way that is felt by the audience but isn’t just the emotion. The emotion is connected to a larger idea that you want to articulate.
TFA: The film deals with Tyson’s (Jared Abrahamson) depression surrounding his mistake, which eventually leads to his suicide. Would you characterize the film as speaking more to mental or social illness? And how do you square the two?
KF: My interest is more social illness. Because I feel like that’s something that is easier to intellectualize and for me it’s easier to have an analytical view of and deconstruct. On the mental illness side, or depression side, I don’t have as much first hand experience so I would never want to stake a claim to telling that story. I think that [depression is] an element of his story, but I don’t see it as being the catalyst to what happens. He is very much, in my mind, someone who is almost created or built by what happens to him. He’s a blank canvass in so many ways, just like a lot of young people are when they haven’t found that sense of self entirely yet and their sense of self is so tied into a collective thing, a group thing. There’s this crazy malleability of personality when we’re in high school and we’re at that young age where we’re so influenced by what’s around us and whose around us and how we’re treated. And I think a lot of our sense of self worth and the way we see ourselves has to do with how we perceive others as seeing us. And so that’s what I was much more interested in, something that was triggered inside of him as opposed to something that was necessarily there all along. Again, because it speaks to a larger theme that I’m interested in.
And I should note, I would describe the ending as an attempt at suicide. I had a hard time writing that and I didn’t want it to end with suicide because again it’s a very violent act and I feel strongly about a sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness with how you approach those decisions. I had put it off to the side and avoided writing it in. And I remember when I finally wrote it into the script and sent that version off I was actually terrified and I didn’t know how I felt about it. But I ended up going with it because this character is someone who has only known how to express himself through violence, that’s what made him a player on his team and that’s part of his identity. And so when he’s sort of acting out at first, whether it’s breaking the car window when he’s really drunk or these sort of things, he’s doing that through violence because that is his language. So it would make sense to go forward on that conclusion when he struggles so much with communication — whether its personally or people around him who are bad communicators as well — that the only way he would really know how to ask for help is through enacting violence, whether it is on others or on himself.
TFA: So you were tempted at some point to go with a happier ending?
KF: Yeah. I would say the ending was never happy-happy, but the very first draft of the script was dramatically different in the second half of the film. The first half was pretty much always as it is. The second half, when I first wrote it, was different in that there’s this character who doesn’t exist anymore who ended up being this outsider as well. Tyson sort of becomes connected to him, there’s a sense of comradery, and he shows us that you can live outside of this system. But that wasn’t really what the film was about, when I started thinking about it. I like the idea of implicating the audience and feeling like there is a sense of responsibility and it’s like how do we move forward from this as opposed to just being like, oh yeah that got solved. The character just felt too convenient. It didn’t feel earned and it didn’t feel real that there would be this character who has just dropped in and has these answers. So a little thread of that character remained and became the character that Joe Buffalo plays; the one guy who sort of connects to him. I was way happier with that character because, within a sense of reason, this guy is there and he’s willing to open up to Tyson a little bit. And he has clearly a bit of a damaged past as well. But we see Jared’s character, his core flaws are still there: even when someone is offering to open up he doesn’t know how to accept that. So yeah, I wouldn’t say the ending was ever “happy” but there was more a sense that he’s rebuilding his life. And that’s why I say the ending to me is not like “he’s dead” it’s like, “maybe there’s a chance for him to be saved.” I don’t know. But it’s sort of saying that about a lot of these kids. There are these kids out there and there’s a chance for them to be saved and there’s a chance for them to have a very tragic ending. Whether it’s as extreme as [Tyson’s] or not.
TFA: Your film is obviously very political and comments on norms of Canadian and Western society. Do you have a specific approach to creating social commentaries on screen? Is there a strategy you take when you want to confront the audience in a particular way or combine particular subtleties to hammer home a meaning?
KF: I settle on ideas that I’m really interested in and then the practical ways of articulating those ideas is a process of problem solving in the writing. Of being like “okay I want to talk about nationalism and how it’s a very problematic, polluted thing that really is damaging.” And something like the idea of a hockey team wasn’t like “I want to make a hockey movie because I think violence in sports is bad.” I played a lot of sports growing up and I think that there is a ton of positivity in those environments as well as obviously down sides.
I am very interested in talking about Canada in my work and things that I see as problems [in Canadian society]. And what is the biggest most ubiquitous cultural institution in Canada? It’s hockey. Even if you don’t give a shit about hockey, there is a general awareness where it touches your life. If the Leafs are doing really good I’m sure you’ll know about it, even if you don’t care about the Leafs. If Canada is winning a gold medal at the Olympics in hockey, people are running around in the streets. It’s unavoidable. If I was doing this film in the United States, it would probably be college football to even the military. But the military in Canada doesn’t have that same resonance of touching our lives and it’s not carried in the same esteem that something like hockey is. And those are our heroes too, I love that.
Going into more specific details, one thing I’m super interested in looking at with Canadian cultural identity is the idea that we often pass it off. We sort of joke around like “oh we don’t have much of a Canadian identity. There’s not this, there’s not that, we’re just sort of a nice version of America.” This sort of thing. I think that so much of the identifying factors of what it means to be Canadian and how we see ourselves as Canadian are these weird derivative strands of clichés that have just been reinforced time and time again and I don’t think they actually contain very much truth at all. And I think a large part of why that is, is that we don’t spend a lot of time actually looking back at our history in an honest way. And again, this is why I was super interested in the subject around violence because any colonial country has a violent history. That’s just a reality of that process of colonialism. Choosing to call the team [in Hello Destroyer] The Warriors, and they have the Tomahawk as it’s co-opted Indigenous stereotype and iconography, was a subtle nod to that. And again, this one’s probably even more obvious, but the slaughterhouse [scene] was a pretty direct way [to address violence]. And the hardest thing with the slaughterhouse was doing it in a way that felt not too on the nose and not too deliberate. I eat meat, it’s not an anti-meat thing. It’s more about the violence that is a part of our daily lives that we choose to ignore. And I would say that about our history too. The violence that’s a part of our daily life in this country, tied to historical context, that maybe we don’t even actively choose to ignore but it’s very easy to obscure on day to day basis.
TFA: In Hello Destroyer there are many meaningful and substantial silences. How do you pace your dialogue and why do you choose silence?
KF: Yeah, it’s a quiet movie. I’ve said sometimes it’s almost like a silent film because I think you can watch the film without sound on and probably understand the story quite well. That again goes back to the first question, where the cinematic choices and tools are very much arrived at because of the requirements of articulating the broader theme. Tyson’s main struggle is his inability to communicate and express how he’s feeling. He’s this very muted character in that way. He struggles with telling and, again, this is a historical thing: we can see it in his father too, and in the people around him. There’s this long line of lack of communication and people not really articulating and that has a damaging effect. With that in mind, it was this interesting thing in terms of the writing process and thinking about it. What do you do when you have a character who can’t articulate themselves very well? Cause they’re not going to have speeches. To me it’s untrue to the character to have them break down finally and have this speech where they pour out their emotion. So you have to use those other tools. And that’s one of the things that’s so great about cinema is there’s a lot of them. There’s that quote about it being sort of the ultimate art form. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it employs so many different forms.
I had a really good teacher at Emily Carr, this guy Brady Cranfield, who was actually a sound design teacher. I hadn’t really thought about the power of sound before and to me silence is sound. He just really changed my mind. And Todd Haynes’ film Safe (1995), which is probably my favourite film of all time. Safe uses silence in such a profound way. The thing I really love about silence [is when] there’s actually a lot of room tones, so it’s like close to silence but it’s a little affected. I love — especially when you’re playing with the tension between a diegetic soundscape but you sort of lean into non-diegetic — where it’s not quite music but it’s almost like you’re adding these sounds that are maybe a bit unsettling or uncomfortable, especially in dealing with them over long periods of time. Silence is an uncomfortable thing, I think it has a much more interesting effect on the audience than score. Score is deliberate and it tells us what to feel. Sometimes it doesn’t do that as explicitly, but music is such an expressive medium it’s hard to compose stuff that is agnostic in terms of the way it is suggesting you feel emotionally. Silence is sort of the opposite of that, again it is more of a tool that implicates the audience because you’re sitting with yourself and just responding to what’s there. There is this beautiful suffocating power of silence in those moments. I think it also gives us more time to be with that character, really study that character. Jared’s performance is extraordinary and one of the things that’s so good about it is the nuance of the physicality of the acting. I think he says so much in a lot of small moments and I think that silence demands more attention from the audience. It probably bores some people to death but for the people who it works for I think it works well. Again, I like the emotional ambiguity that it presents because I think it implicates the audience in an interesting way in terms of how they have to grapple with what they’re seeing and respond. It’s the way you activate them. They’re not just being told everything they should feel. You’re sort of inviting them to make a decision on how they feel.
TFA: I’m also interested in the aesthetic that you use. It’s very monochromatic. What is your inspiration for your colour pallet and design?
KF: It’s very similar to this last answer. We don’t have a character whose expressing a lot and there’s not a lot of dialogue to articulate things. So the visual design plays into that in terms of communicating the experience of the character. In the first half of the film there is a lot of hand-held stuff and the camera has a sense of energy. But most of the second half of the film is locked off and that was again an idea of putting Tyson in space, where it felt like he was the small person in the frame. The locked off feeling of “this is an un-moveable frame”—he’s just sort of stuck in these places.
There’s an aesthetic that also just reminds me of that part of Western Canada. To me that is kind of gloomy. It’s not like the Western vista thing; I like to subvert that a bit. Certainly, a large part of that is storytelling and the function of it but then there’s also just an aesthetic appeal that we like and that fits for that sort of story.
TFA: Within the film, there is an obvious irony and tension between the idea of teamwork and collective responsibility and the reality that these concepts eventually lead to Tyson’s ostracization. Can you speak further to that?
KF: I think that often, when we’re talking about heroes and we’re talking about teams, we’re talking about all these clichés of sports that get used in every other workspace, things that are a shorthand culturally for us. We always think of “team” and “family” as positive things, but there’s a function of those things that can be dramatically destructive if they’re turned in on that person. Like the idea of being excluded from the family, excluded from the team is extra damaging.
We like the idea of there being good and bad in the world because that ties into individual responsibility. We want to know if someone is innocent or guilty, there’s not a lot of grey area there. There's a convenience to that, if we can say there was a bad thing that happened and this bad person was responsible, [then] we don’t have to look at our team, or family or ourselves as a society in the same way. And I was more interested in that, of how we are all implicated: What degree of responsibility do we hold and if someone is a part of our team or our family, how does that tie into our responsibility? For me it ties into the larger societal fabric.
TFA: You won a Much Music Video Award for directing “Stadium Pow Wow” for A Tribe Called Red and you’ve also hired Indigenous actors in your film. What is your approach to depicting Indigenous life as someone who is not directly a part of an Indigenous community?
KF: That’s a very good question. It’s one I think about a lot and should be a more active conversation in this country. It’s really important that we start to engage with our history more, but while we do that I think you have to have a sense of perspective and self awareness in terms of where you fit in that conversation. And in terms of talking about the Canadian experience with Indigenous people and how it’s represented in the media, and actually just in conversation, the problems with those things on the far right are really easy to understand. It’s racism, lack of education, lack of exposure to people, and actually knowing people. That stuff I think, statistically, dies out over time. It’s still awful and we should still work to actively fight it, but that type of stuff dies out over time. What I think can be more insidious sometimes is actually on the left: creating this fear of engagement, a fear of being wrong and not doing something perfectly. It’s fine to go out and engage and be wrong—I mean wrong in that you’re trying to present a certain vision that you think is progressive and useful but maybe there’s a problem with it. I think people can get super paranoid about that. That’s fine as long as you’re willing to learn and accept criticism. You can’t be defensive about it and you can’t think that you are the person who is the arbiter of whether you got it right or not, that’s not your decision to make. I also think that if you’re too afraid and you don’t engage, that’s when we create this weird cultural reservation system. We decide because we’re too afraid to engage, Indigenous filmmakers, storytellers, and artists have their space over here and white — or even just the rest of Canadians whether it’s immigrant Canadians or people of colour or whomever else — gets lumped into a world over there.
Obviously things like imagineNATIVE are great and vital, but that should also not be the only venue. We shouldn’t think that because there’s imagineNATIVE it’s not important that there’s a way bigger presence of Indigenous stories and filmmaking in TIFF for example. For me, the Tribe Called Red video is a little bit different because I was asked to do that by them and I realized quite quickly that I couldn’t really direct it. There were things that I thought were progressive and thoughtful about my approach and some of them were fine and some of them I thought were problematic when I actually was on the ground. And so I relinquished this sense of trying to control that project and process. Whenever we got into any space I sort of just said “show me what you want to show me.” I’m not going to be like “oh we need this smudging ceremony now” and this sort of thing because that’s just something I know is a cultural stereotype, because that’s what you lean into is what you know. So I think you need to have a sense of vulnerability and not feel like you’re the genius.
KF: The letter. The infamous letter.
TFA: The letter! What motivated you to write this email?
KF: Just a very visceral frustration when I read the op-ed. It’s nothing about Cameron and it’s nothing about the films that were called out. I have a huge amount of respect for Cameron, I think he’s fucking incredible at what he does. He’s a remarkably smart person and I tried not to come off as it being about a personal thing, it’s not that at all. It’s just felt very incomplete. I was really hoping it would be a conversation piece. Because I said [to Bailey], I totally understand a lot of the points that you’re [making], but I think that you’re missing a lot of the narrative here. And that’s a frustrating thing for me as being someone who's really in the middle of this. I think it struck a cord because some of the films he was asking for were being made. I thought our film tried to do a lot of what he was saying. Ashley Mackenzie’s film, which I think is one of the better Canadian films in years, Werewolf (2016), very much does that, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves (2016) [as well]. There were a lot of indie films that year that were quite exciting. But then you butt up against the realities of the market, which are difficult. And I’m not saying “Oh, well just put my film and Ashley’s film and Those Who Make Revolution in theatres and it’s all good.” But I got frustrated at the idea that this was a problem laid at the feet of filmmakers only. I mentioned Mean Dreams (2016) specifically, which I thought about taking out before I sent [the email] because I know the people who made that film and I really like and respect them. I was not trying to pick on that film because I thought it was a bad film or something. I was just trying to say that it was frustrating to be in a situation where we have the minister of heritage introducing this film that avoids being Canadian for reasons I totally understand—because they’re told that the market won’t accept it. And that’s where I just disagree. I think often in these debates there’s some assumptions about how the film industry works in this country and in the global marketplace that are old assumptions. I’m not saying that they’re all wrong, but the industry’s changing so fast that I think there’s a lot more space to be thoughtful and critical about what is changing.
I can understand the argument, if you’re a more conservative person: “Why do we have Telefilm and why are we subsidizing a private industry and throwing all this money at it that isn’t profitable? It’s fucking insane, cut off all funding and put it somewhere else.” But my counter argument is: No, as a culture we see value in arts. The arts are valuable not just because you want to have nice things. They’re valuable because the arts allow us to understand ourselves and to get a sense of who we are. Outside of the entertainment mission. I think they can be entertaining and that’s great. I’m not like an anti-entertainment person, although my film might suggest I am. If we’re talking about a funding body and we’re talking about institutions like TIFF and all these things that are driven by public money, then what is the cultural value of doing this? To me, it’s about showing this country and reflecting it and talking about it. If we’re going to justify the value of spending money on this stuff it’s because we think art has value, and then we should be trying to make art, not trying to make commerce. It doesn't all have to be intense Canadiana, but it should have some sort of reflection.
TFA: So to that point, I want to know: What makes a film Canadian and how do we support Canadian national identity? What benefits does it bring to us and to communities outside of our borders if we have a strong Canadian identity or aesthetic concept within film? We know what Hollywood film looks like, we know what French film looks like, why do you think we need to have an idea of what Canadian film looks like?
KF: It’s important because you start to develop an audience, globally, for it. There’s a ton of films in France or Germany that never make it across to Canada. It’s only really a handful that do, and those niche films survive because you develop an audience overtime. That’s the best we can hope for here: having some sense of identity because then people actually know how to seek it out. It’s like Québec. When people think of Canadian film, if they’re not from Canada, they are probably actually thinking of Québécois film, because there’s more of a cultural focus. The stories that have travelled well are ones that are really tied into a distinct voice and that’s something we need to think about. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be Tim Hortons and snow; they don’t even necessarily need to all be set in Canada or shot in Canada. But I think what you want to do is find the most distinct voices that are from here and have those people be the ones who are telling our stories. Yes, I still would love to see us shake off our inferiority complex and just set stuff in Canada. I think it’s great that Denis Villeneuve plainly set Enemy in Toronto. You could easily argue that it could have been set in LA but I’m saying it didn’t change the story in terms of its success to be set in Toronto, and I think a lot of Canadian filmmakers think “okay if, my film is set in Toronto, we just can’t sell to America, it’s not going to be successful.” That’s one of those myths that maybe has held some truth in the past but that I don’t think is very true anymore.
If there was one solution it would be solved. There are systemic issues that need to be worked away at but the thing that I still think is the most important — and this goes to the line that they chose as the headline of my article about there being an incentivized path to mediocrity — is don’t just prop up an industry for the sake of having an industry. Fight and push for the most distinct, strong, voices that we have. And strong doesn’t mean loudest, it means people who are showing us our world in the most powerful way. As opposed to this stuff that almost has no opinion about the world. That would be my wish for it. I think that gets proven out in time in terms of the people who are successful whether you like their films or not, and I have varying degrees of how much I love them. Jean-Marc Vallée, Denis Villeneuve, Xavier Dolan, even someone like Denis Côté, whose definitely more of an art star, but a star. Those are people who all made a lot of films with distinctive visions. Even if people think of the English Canadian filmmakers, the ones who are probably most relevant outside of this country are people like Guy Maddin, who makes remarkably distinctive films. Distinctive doesn’t need to be in terms of your form, but just having something to say.
TFA: What boundaries do you think make it difficult for these types of stories to be told and what support do filmmakers need in this country to continue to champion or to begin to champion these distinct stories?
KF: This is probably opening the boundaries to — which I think is starting — a more diverse set of voices. There’s a reason we only see a certain kind of story on screen and that’s because there’s certain kind of people making these stories. I guess when we think of boundaries we always think of it as a negative thing. I would go the opposite way and say I think we need to create some more boundaries in this country to create space for Canadian content to reach Canadian audiences. People recognize Canadian television much more than they could Canadian movies. That is partially because of a regulatory factor, where 30% of the content broadcasted needs to be Canadian. They killed MuchFACT, the [grant] that I got to make that Tribe Called Red video with. [MuchFACT] ended up launching the careers of tons of filmmakers, tons of musicians, or taking them to another level. [Bell Media] had to spend that, but they still had control. You had to go through a process and there was still this balancing act of what the corporate entity in Bell wanted and what you wanted to do. There’s a reason we have policy for certain things, because [otherwise] some of those things are just completely monopolized. It’s why we have antitrust for corporations: to create a healthier, diverse economic ecosystem and that’s something that we should think about as we step into new space in terms of streaming. You can have rules in place that are going to help support the production of content and the viewing of content that comes from this country while still having a free market.
The other boundaries thing that I started out with is opening it up to diverse voices. I think that’s a more obvious thing and if you don’t then you’re probably just a white dude who’s afraid that your piece of the pie is going to get smaller. But you already have the whole fucking pie so you should chill out a little bit.
This article has been edited for style and length.