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VIFF 2013: Bruce Sweeney, Local Hero

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DICK KNOST SHOW
Publicity Still

My favourite film to deal with life in Vancouver -- maybe even my favourite film to be made here -- remains Bruce Sweeney's 1998 offering, Dirty. Workshopped in a way informed by Sweeney's experiences at a VIFF forum with Mike Leigh, the film digs into the muck of the city's damaged psyche, offering characters that are unforgettable and all too familiar in their dysfunctionality -- including a pot-dealing dominatrix (the late, terrific Babz Chula -- memorialized this VIFF by the films Chi and Down River); a painfully lonely schlub from Port Alberni with anger-management issues (Ben Ratner, Down River's director); a student saddled with massive student loan debt and an eating disorder (Nancy Sivak); and an anal, preening UBC student with a secret need to be spanked and humiliated (played by the great local actor, filmmaker and UBC professor Tom Scholte).

The film means enough to me that I've hung on to my VHS copy of it (it has never been released on DVD), and have a poster for it on my wall; every now and then I plug my VHS player back in to share the movie with someone new to my life, though not everyone seems to understand why I think it's so terrific. With apologies to my girlfriend, who might suffer a fit of paranoia on reading this, the failure to appreciate Dirty once helped me decide against pursuing a romantic relationship with somebody... Not that that gal was all that interested in me, either, once the film was over.

Though Sweeney's subsequent film, Last Wedding (2001), also got him noticed, it's no secret that things have changed for the filmmaker -- and for BC film in general. When I interviewed Sweeney last year for CineAction (vol. 89), apropos of his 2012 film The Crimes of Mike Recket, he acknowledged that the landscape was not what it was fifteen years ago. "For me, personally, in the relationships I need to have to function, with the festival and the programmers, I feel a lot of love, with people at Telefilm and Terry McEvoy at VIFF... [but] there is some sense that with West Coast cinema, with Lynne Stopkewich and Mina [Shum] and myself, we got some attention, and it was really quite marvelous; but there's also this sense that it's very much over." Sweeney was even prepared to consider the possibility that the decline in enthusiasm he'd witnessed was due to his own limitations, saying offhandedly at one point, "maybe my work is just insignificant or something?"

Sweeney's new film, The Dick Knost Show, certainly made an impact on this year's "BC Spotlight" judges at VIFF -- the film took the award for Best B.C. Film on Sunday.

Before the announcement, I had emailed both Sweeney and Scholte and fired off a few questions to both men about the film, which stars Scholte -- looking markedly like his director -- as the "prickly, acerbic and chronically impulsive host of a sports talk show," according to the VIFF guide. (Bruce Sweeney reassures those who don't listen to sports talk, like myself, that liking sports talk "isn't necessary at all" to enjoying the film).

1. Tom Scholte Interview

Allan: Tom, I know Bruce is a sports talk junkie, but does that condition apply to you? Did you have to do anything special to prep for this role?

Tom: Absolute irredeemable and unrepentant sports/sports talk junkie! All I had to do was roll out of bed, put on the wig and shades, and convince someone to drive me to set! ...The other way I approached the character was to think of him as a kind of Duddy Kravitz figure; a man who ALMOST learns something but, ultimately, is unable to change his spots. Plotting out that journey and trying to make it readable to the audience was a big part of what I was trying to do.

Allan: It sure LOOKS like you're channeling your director, in terms of your appearance at least. How did that feel?

Tom: I don't ever think about channeling Bruce because we've basically been locked in a Vulcan mind-meld since the summer of 1992. I'm sure he's sick to death of people calling me his alter-ego but even way back at UBC, our instructor, John Wright, said that Bruce was one of those rare lucky auteur directors that had found his on-screen doppelgänger. How "lucky" a person is who's got ME for a doppelgänger is debatable but, for better and for worse, we really do seem to inhabit a startlingly similar artistic/philosphical/aesthetic space which comes in handy when making the kinds of films we've tried to make.

Allan: What's your general feeling on the state of B.C. film these days? Have you personally seen the amount of work available decline? Are you focusing more on teaching, or...?

Tom: I deliberately weaned myself from the teat of American service-production a number of years ago and in many respects I have the life I always dreamed of teaching at UBC, acting in theatre occasionally, and remaining highly active in the Vancouver independent film scene. What we're witnessed in B.C. over the last several years is the inevitable result of being overly invested in a branch-plant economy built on skilled but relatively cheap labour and a weak dollar. What did we expect was going to happen; a stirring demonstration of loyalty from the American media conglomerates? We need to stop complaining about our current provincial government's unwillingness to rejoin the the race to the bottom in terms of tax breaks for rich American corporations and start actually building something that can truthfully be called the B.C. Film Industry. This is only going to happen by federally mandating, or at the very least incentivizing, the booking and promotion of Canadian films in theatres operating in Canada. Until we do that, we're just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Allan: Do you read reviews of films you're in? There have been positive and negative responses to The Dick Knost Show - do these effect you?

Tom: I've read them and they don't really effect me a great deal. I've never thought that any film I've ever done has been perfect. I always have my own ideas about what a film's relative strengths and shortcomings are and other peoples opinions (including those of critics) just become an interesting part of a conversation that I'm already having with myself anyway.

Allan: I gather your character in the film gets in trouble for an ill-advised tweet. Are you a social media user? Do you like Twitter and Facebook and such -- or just accept them -- or try to avoid them...?

Tom: I don't use them but my wife does so, occasionally, I peek over her shoulder for a voyeuristic thrill while still maintaining a holier than thou sense of being above the fray.

Allan: Your position is a bit different from most people, but since the decline of video stores, how do you consume movies in your free time? It used to be that the general public could find a couple of copies of films like The Dick Knost Show on the wall at Rogers or such, but obviously that's different now... Have you embraced those changes -- do you use Netflix or such -- or are you resisting them?

Tom: These days, the bulk of my movie consumption consists of trolling the specialty movie channels for Canadian films between about 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. The fact that CanCon rules apply to these stations is the only thing currently maintaining anything remotely resembling a market for Canadian films. As a result, my PVR is humming all night long capturing the Canadian gems that have been stuffed into those godforsaken hours to fulfill that obligation. I encourage everyone to do the same!


Bruce Sweeney Interview

Allan: I was glad to see The Crimes of Mike Recket nominated for two Leos (congratulations to Agam Darshi). Do awards like these make any practical difference to you as a filmmaker, either in terms of securing funding from Telefilm, or...?

Bruce: I'm no awards hunter -- as always, the best buzz in the process is shooting and making the film with people you like -- but if awards raise the exposure of the film and it's stars, it can't be all bad.

Allan: It seems to have been a very fast shoot for The Dick Knost Show. I don't think you've ever had two films two VIFFs in a row before... how did this one fall together so quickly?

Bruce: I've wondered about that as well, but I guess the easy answer is that this is a light-toned film, and in a way wrote itself. You see I'm a sports talk junkie, so I didn't have to do any research, I just had to wake up and put pen to paper.

Allan: Any particular inspirations in the way of sports shows?

Bruce: Sports 1040 here in Van. And I PVR Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown. I find listening to sportstalk soothing. Relaxing. It's on in the background all the time.

Allan: I haven't seen the film, but Tom Scholte looks a lot more like you in the photos I've seen than I've ever seen him look before. He even seems to have your shades. So is he an alter-ego? Do you share any of Knost's traits/ vices/ opinions? Is his trajectory in any way a comment on your own as a filmmaker?

Bruce: Well Tom is basically a director's best friend. Because he's THAT good. (And he's also one of my best friends). But Tom can play it any way you want. He's got all the tools. And for The Dick Knost Show, we got on the same page almost immediately. He took what he needed. I took what I needed. And we got on with it. It was effortless. And that doesn't happen very often. Holy synchronicity!

Allan: Are you a social media user? Do you use Twitter, Facebook and such? I gather The Dick Knost Show has a Twitter page....

Bruce: I don't tweet. At home, we have a rotary phone. I don't think you need more information than that. But one of the film's characters is Jane, played by the zesty Alexander Staseson. She is in charge of The Dick Knost Show's social media and does a bang up job. Which I think is necessary.

Allan: How do you feel about the reviews that you've gotten? Do they affect you as a filmmaker?

Bruce: About reviews. I read them. And if one believes the good ones, one has to believe the bad ones. So it all evens out. But as a filmmaker, you can't control what critics say, you gotta take it either way. And just get on with it. And not be a suck.

Allan: Anything else you'd like to say?

Bruce: We had soooo much fun making this film. It was a real high point for me. Basically Dogme-esque in terms of production, but with music (by the awesome James Jandrisch) . But NOT to be concerned with artifice, look, lighting, was really freeing. And hey, let's face it, The Dick Knost Show isn't a brooding, resonant feature, it's an irreverent and light toned satire on sportstalk. We shot it in 12 days. Got what we got. And moved on.

In addition, I gotta say, I knew Gabrielle Rose was awesome, but I didn't know how awesome. She was an executive producer on the show and I leaned on her heavily. She always said the right thing, and put me at ease when I was flipping out. Gabe and the wonderful Qelsey Zeeper (who plays Dick's assistant) were instrumental in making the production tick along without any major hiccups. So a big thanks to them and everyone who helped make DKS. I found it an intoxicating and reaffirming experience.

The Dick Knost Show plays VIFF October 9th and 11th