The Werewolves and The Destroyers
A conversation between Canadian filmmakers Ashley McKenzie and Kevan Funk
When The Review approached Canadian filmmakers Ashley McKenzie and Kevan Funk with the idea of interviewing each other, they were both excited and relieved. “Kevan and I met at TIFF Talent Lab in 2012 and have kept in touch over the years,” wrote McKenzie in an email. “We make a point to share our work with one another, so we’ve already watched each other’s features. I definitely feel some commonalities. Actually, we chatted recently about how we prefer to discuss and get enthusiastic about each other’s films (more so than our own ha ha), so this conversation should be perfect for us!”
Both of their first-time features at TIFF 16, which have been selected for Canada's Top Ten Film Festival, involve young protagonists pushed to their breaking point. In McKenzie’s Werewolf (playing January 15 and 17) it’s a methadone-addicted couple trying to survive in Cape Breton, brandishing a lawnmower like a weapon. In Funk’s Hello Destroyer (playing January 20 and 21), it’s a permanently benched hockey player (beautifully played by TIFF Rising Star Jared Abramson), recuperating on the fringes of Prince George after accidentally nearly killing another player during a game. Both films are devastating and ambitiously-filmed portraits of the next generation of Canadian youth. Here’s Ashley and Kevan on why directing is like coaching a basketball team, fragile masculinity, and tiny magic moments on set.
Ashley McKenzie: So I was wondering, when you were younger, were you an athlete or were you like, a “nerdy artist” type?
Kevan Funk: I was a hybrid of both. I definitely had a curious jock thing.
Ashley: I think sports can force you to be in the present moment.
Kevan: Yeah! I actually like the analogy of coaching players as a way to talk about how to direct actors as well. Like, you can’t ask a player in a basketball game if he can score a 100 points, or hit the game-winning shot. But the job of the coach is create conditions for people to be successful, particularly based on their strengths. It’s so weird that I actually find this a useful metaphor.
Ashley: Yeah, I think it would be good advice to be like, “Go to a basketball game and listen to what the coach says on a time-out to the team.” My brother-in-law, he’s a basketball coach and I had a moment where I was watching him coach and I was like, “Whoa, that is what I feel like on set, like I’m in front of everyone and I need to deliver directions and a strategy.”
Kevan: Did you play sports ever?
Ashley: Yeah, I’m similar. I was more like a former athlete, definitely a big nerd (laughs) and also, academic, I guess. I don’t play as much now, I want to but I just can’t find time. But it’s funny that you do have that background because I think you’re like an “athletic” filmmaker.
Kevan: That’s an interesting description!
Ashley: Because you’re so prolific. I remember thinking, “I wonder what Kevan’s regimen is” in the way of an athlete or say, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
Kevan: I’m like a notoriously intense binge-worker. Most of the script for Hello Destroyer was written in spurts where I would do a draft in 48 hours?
Ashley: Oh, wow.
Kevan: I share a studio with three other people. They would literally come in and I would be like scorching from the night before, delirious and exhausted. In high school, I was a smart kid, but kind of a disengaged kid. And a bit lazy, frankly. I would do things last-minute and I would do well and it created this bad habit in me. Or maybe not the healthiest habit. As someone who is kind of fueled by the intensity of those things, I like to work a lot.
Ashley: I think watching Yellowhead, Destroyer and even some of your earlier stuff… The images that I think of are like muscles and beers and SUV’s and cattle and bars. I’m curious what’s driven you to this terrain, again and again?
Kevan: I think some of my earlier work is unrecognizable now to me. I’m from Banff and it is not like the rest of Alberta. It’s this surreal town, kind of like Disneyworld. We were a small school and we had to travel a lot to play other teams, so we would take four-hour trips for a basketball tournament over a weekend. My parents also had a theatre company that toured around. So, I’ve seen so much of rural western Canada. I feel like when I left Alberta and went to art school, I was not interested in anything that was part of that world. And then, just having some time and distance from it, I felt driven back there. The biggest thing that feeling a part of an identity in this country that is really underrepresented. Like, the most accurate film about Western Canada is Fubar and that is not necessarily...
Ashley: A good thing?
Kevan: So much of the identity that makes up Canadian film is dominated by tropes and clichés that are actually super detached from any reality. The more I thought about that, the more I actually gravitated to something that was like, super Canadian, but in a way that was actually representational of a reality that nobody has articulated all that much. In Hello Destroyer, there was from the get-go, a perverse satisfaction of having it be a hockey film because it’s like, the worst type of Canadian film you could possibly make.
Ashley: So, Hello Destroyer is your answer to Fubar and Werewolf is my answer to Trailer Park Boys.
Kevan: Yeah! Wonderfully perfect.
Ashley: Nelson, my producer, and I were definitely talking about the film canon in Canada when we were making Werewolf. On the East Coast, the whole narrative is always the “goin' down the road” narrative. Getting off the island, going to Toronto. We were like, “let’s make a film that’s about people who don’t get to leave.” Because the story that we know growing up and living here is about all the people who are stuck here. Maybe, they might not even get out of their town to go see the highlands of Cape Breton, let alone go to Toronto and live that dream of a road movie.
Kevan: I have a question for you. Where did the genesis of Werewolf come from? Did you find there was a bigger idea or was it more based on character?
Ashley: Yeah, I think we have an opposite process.
Kevan: Yeah, I thought we might. Which is why I’m really curious, actually!
Ashley: I knew you started on a more conceptual level and I think I do the opposite. I start on the microscopic level. And I think it’s usually just a character, just a person that I get interested in. I guess all my films start by being inspired by particular people I know or meet or see or get to know. But at some point, I usually start working my own personal stuff into that?
With Werewolf, the original genesis was that I actually saw a couple in my town pushing a lawnmower around. The guy and girl went to my neighbour’s house and the guy was knocking on the front door and the girl was knocking on the side door, and no one was answering. Then, they walked into the house and there was an altercation with someone inside. I started telling a few people about seeing that and a bunch of people in my town were like, “Oh yeah, they’re the lawnmower crackheads.” Everyone had a gossipy story. I was super intrigued and I wanted to know who those people were and what their everyday life was like.
Kevan: I remember you telling me about that at Talent Lab in 2012! A lot of what is in the film is what you told me about, way back then. I remember being like, “that’s such a compelling set of characters.” But in terms of “this is going to be my story,” why did you choose that idea over anything else you were working on?
Ashley: I guess it’s an organic thing where the thing that I’m most interested in just rises to the top. It was when I moved back to Cape Breton and I was talking it about this friend of mine and he was like, “You should put me in a film.” I had just finished doing When You Sleep and I wasn’t quite ready to make something else. When I was coming home to Cape Breton, I thought this friend of mine would be great in this “lawnmower crackhead” movie, which is what I was calling it at the time.
Kevan: You should’ve kept that title.
Ashley: (Laughs) Yeah. I started to really write the role for him because I was excited by that idea. Then, I don’t know, I always have this weird double discourse thing that happens with my films and real life. They always end up intertwining in all these ways. I think when I was talking to you in TIFF, I was probably talking about that friend of mine. The day I came home to Cape Breton, I got a phone call. Because this friend of mine was struggling with a lot of issues that were similar to the characters in Werewolf and the day I came from TIFF, I got a phone call that he had taken his life.
Ashley: It was the beginning of this moment where this project stood still for a few months. But I think it solidified having to tell this story at that particular time. I don’t really know what it is, but it just seems like you just get signs. I guess I just didn’t question it that much. It just felt like, “this is what I have to do” and I just went down that path. I’m just coming out of it now and realizing what it is that I’ve made and what it means and how it relates to myself and Cape Breton.
It’s weird talking about our own work.
Kevan: I know, I know.
Ashley: I had a similar thought when I think about Tyson and Hello Destroyer. All the male leads in your films always seem like this kind of quiet observer in this masculine, normative world. It’s like they are immersed in the world but not fully in it, almost like they are masquerading a little bit. Are the lead characters in your film surrogates for you?
Kevan: No, for sure! I’ve realized that the work that I’ve done so far, the archetype of the character is really rooted in a lot of myself, my personality, my experience. It is someone who is immersed in this very heteronormative culture, but they have this kind of perspective... I don’t know, this quality that I’ve always felt, of being in the middle of things but also not being there. It’s been an insecurity of mine. Even my films are too straightforward narratively to be really embraced by the real cool kid, arthouse guy. And they are too patient, expressive and driven by bigger ideas to be appreciated by -
Ashley: By the TSN. (Laughs)
Kevan: I’m really proud of the work that I’ve made. I think it gets challenging sometimes when you are trying to reach out to festivals. That is a horrible experience. It’s like, is this film a “Cannes film,” a “TIFF film,” and like, what the fuck does that even mean?
Ashley: Yeah, it can totally pollute your mind. Even in the edit, we were more than careful with Werewolf to show the cut to only a few people. We didn’t want to invite too much of those thoughts about where is this film going to go? Who is this for?
Kevan: It’s a weird thing, which comes internally and externally…
Ashley: With my female characters, with Nessa, in Werewolf, I have an insecurity about how quiet they often are. And I think the reason they are so quiet is that they often are surrogates for me. I’m always like, “oh, my female characters, they need to say more, they need to speak up, they need to have better lines than the male characters!” (Laughs)
Kevan: Is that an expectation of yourself?
Ashley: Yeah, it’s definitely an inner battle. Definitely when I made Werewolf. Do you feel like Hello Destroyer is sort of the bookend in this chapter… Do you ever get sick of the boys? (Laughs)
Kevan: I’m really happy with the film, but I’m satisfied with taking a break from this world, to be honest. I have other films I want to make in Western Canada and about Western Canada. Now I want to go out and do something radically different from this world. I feel pretty confident now, in style and those type of things, of taking the approach of a thematic point but making it into a much more specific thing. God, such an inarticulate thing I just said, but —
Ashley: (Laughs) No, that made sense to me.
Kevan: I’m used to boys and the idea of like, fragility in men. Obviously, it reflects where I come from. I have a keen, strong interest in exploring Canada, but it is kind of a weird position to be stuck in. Being a white, middle-class man in the First World who is making work that wants to be engaged with social issues... I find it like a frustrating thing.
I’m really interested in this film being talked about critically. From a very young age, I felt very strongly about the inequality and the very problematic ways our history has worked with the Indigenous population in this country. But I think when you are putting it from my position as a white guy on the outside, where you’re very much a part of this oppressive tradition... Sometimes, we have a more problematic paralysis on the left where people are afraid to engage with issues because they don’t know how. They want to create safe bubbles where they can support things, but not actually critically engage with them.
I don’t think that answered your question at all.
Ashley: Well, it made me see your work in a clearer way, though. Now I see your approach, which is an interesting one, which is to take the familiar thing, the middle-class white guy. And you throw a rock and you watch the cracks emerge. In doing so, dismantling the idea a bit, you get at the other issues. I think people are going to go see Hello Destroyer thinking it’s a certain kind of film and then they’re going to be delivered something else.
Kevan: I don’t know, that is exactly how I would like to operate.
Ashley: Last thought: I think our films are really heartbreaking. I was wondering if you had anything beautiful that happened on set, was there any magic? (Laughs)
Kevan: I mean, most of our films are heartbreaking by design.
Ashley: Yeah, the werewolves and the destroyers.
Kevan: There were like a million. The six weeks we were in production were the best six weeks of my life. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I was 6 years old… I can honestly say I love every person deeply who was on my crew. And having that kind of love and respect for everyone that was there was so important. Because film is like a lifestyle choice. I think it’s ridiculous, even selfish, to make it a miserable experience. You, as the director, have control over that.
Ashley: So you didn’t cry once? (Laughs)
Kevan: No! I cried with joy a few times. We had 2,000 extras and all three actors showed up and they were lined up outside the stadium. They wore their own gear. I walked onto the ice and they all started cheering for me. I started crying like, “This is so crazy and amazing.”
Ashley: My magic moment, it was like this microscopic moment when Nessa is working at the ice-cream shop and she’s in the kitchen and she’s leaning over the sink. She’s sick and her coworker comes to her and during the middle of the scene, her coworker just picks this hair off her back. And I remember when we did that take and she’d just taken the hair off the back, I was blown over. Just this tiny, tiny moment was like magic on set. It was a tiny thing like that.