The strains of “O Canada” faintly emanate from a television set towards the end Hello Destroyer, Kevan Funk's bold, and boldly Canadian, feature debut, which recently premiered in Toronto and will play in the BC Spotlight program of the Vancouver International Film Festival. That it takes place in the world of (junior) hockey makes it recognizably, unmistakably Canadian; that it puts that hallowed institution under an unsparing microscope is what makes makes it daring. Red background—white lettering. Hello Destroyer—hello, Canada.
From its opening frames—an intense on-ice scuffle, shot in tight, almost abstract closeups—the film is steeped in the hyper-masculine milieu of professional hockey that Funk first explored in his 2013 short, Destroyer (which shares the same setting, but charts a standalone narrative). But it would be inaccurate to call the feature (or the short film, for that matter) a “hockey movie,” much less a “sports movie.” Early scenes have the rigor of a military film and the intensity of a prison drama. A harrowing hazing—which leaves the film's chief subject, a junior hockey enforcer Tyson Burr (Jared Abrahamson), with a shaven head—and the team's MVP locker room ritual speak volumes, amplified by Eugenio Battaglia’s accomplished sound design. Throughout, Funk’s camera alternates between aggressive mobility and almost alarming stillness, largely filming Tyson in claustrophobic close-ups. Canny compositions, courtesy of cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, distort, fragment and isolate Abrahamson, whose terse physicality—shifting between bottled intensity and violent release—anchors the narrative. “Good amount of aggression,” whispers a coach to Tyson during practice. But in the space of a moment—Tyson’s in-game act of violence against an opponent—the story pivots. The player is seriously injured, and suddenly, that aggression is unconscionable. The team (the Prince George Warriors) quickly distances itself from Tyson, who is suspended indefinitely and forced to return to parents’ home in Prince George. The deafening hypocrisy resonates far beyond his immediate sphere.
Charting Tyson’s attempt to (re-)acclimate himself to his former life, the second, much quieter half of the film fulfills the “ringing silence” he speaks of early on, both sharpening and expanding the film's concerns beyond the world of junior hockey. (“It would feel like what a black hole would feel like, or something. I can’t explain it.”) The chilly, contemplative approach that Funk favors in this section gives Tyson’s actions—a job at a slaughterhouse, a teardown of his grandfather's derelict property—a more abstract dimension. The narrative works on a social level—via the commodification of (masculine) bodies, as well as a historical one—explored through the character of Eric (Joe Dion Buffalo), an ex-hockey player with a First Nations background. But it’s in the sharp, observational rigor of Tyson’s increasingly fraught situation that the film’s tragic force resides. By the end, after everything has been stripped away, once the echoes of the national anthem have faded, there is only the immediacy of that closing passage. A horn in the night; a cut to black; ringing silence. O Canada.
NOTEBOOK: You’re a Canadian filmmaker making a film with hockey in it, so there’s an impression that the film is about hockey. But from watching the film there’s a sense that it’s not the game, necessarily, that interests you, that if you were working in a different setting, you’d have made the same film, but about, say, football or the military instead of hockey. Would you say that that’s an accurate assessment?
KEVAN FUNK: Yes. I’ve actually literally said that before... The inclusion of hockey has much more to do with its presence as a cultural institution, because the film is very much about institutionalized violence—certainly much more than it’s specifically about the violence of hockey or anything like that. I have this frustration with English[-language] Canadian cinema’s lack of boldness in terms of embracing our identity and placing ourselves in Canada. So I knew I wanted to make something that was very Canadian, and so hockey just sort of ended up being that.
I’m also a sports fan. So I do have this ongoing interest in that area, since I think a lot of critical and cultural theory really underestimates the power of sport in terms of how it plays into the broader conversation. I think there should be a lot more discussion in cultural theory around sport than there is. But outside of that interest, which is my own, choosing hockey was largely because it is, I'd argue, our largest cultural institution. If it was set in the United States, this film would probably have been set in the military or maybe college football. And again, if you go to Australia or the UK, or any other place, there would definitely be different institutions that would take the place of hockey in this film.
NOTEBOOK: The presence of hockey definitely makes it very Canadian. As an outsider of that world, I can’t speak to how accurate the sports culture portrayed in the film is, apart from that it feels very authentic. Is this an environment that you’re personally quite familiar with?
FUNK: Yeah, for sure. Apart from rec level stuff, I never actually played hockey. I was never a particularly strong skater. Hockey is also an expensive sport and my parents were not particularly wealthy when I was growing up. But I did play a ton of sports—that was always a big part of my life. I grew up in Banff, a small town in Alberta. Because of the size of the town, there’s this freedom to not have to exist in one clique. The school is small enough that you can be an artist, an academic student, and also a jock. It wasn’t divided in that way. So I played rugby for a long time, and also basketball, volleyball... And there are differences in all those sports, but there’s this cultural through line—a strange machismo that is a part of any locker room mentality. I was reflecting a lot on it while making this film, because it does sort of transform you as a person. You shift into this strangely performative mode as a way of fitting into the surrounding culture, which is something that has a universal truth to it regardless of the sport.
Coming back to the hockey movie idea... Hockey movies are super interesting in that they’re associated with being very Canadian, but most of them—the majority of them—are goofy comedies that say very little about either Canada or the sport of hockey itself. So again, even though Hello Destroyer wasn’t a film about hockey per se—certainly more the setting than the subject, having that locker room culture be reflective of an actual reality was very important to me, because I don't think that it’s represented properly in most work.
NOTEBOOK: One of the most interesting things about the film is how it approaches the bodies of these young hockey players. They’re treated like meat, essentially—valued for their physicality. There’s that line the father of Tyson’s host family says about the players just being Rottweilers. And of course there’s slaughterhouse Tyson works at... What was your approach to capturing that on film?
FUNK: Stripping it down to some of its basic elements, a lot of this story is about how disposable people are, about how we have systems that make people disposable, and about the impact on those people who are cast off. So there is this objectification that's important to the film, which surfaces a formal quality. For me, there’s an interesting duality to it. In some ways the players’ physicality is fetishized, which is why we shot the shower scene the way we did, in painterly compositions with their bodies presented as almost sculptural, like Greek gods. There’s a dimension where this physicality is elevated and celebrated, which is what defines these kids. But then there’s also the flip side of it, where that objectification also makes them commodities, which are stripped of or absent of a lot of their humanity. If you’re just looking at people at that way, it makes them that much more disposable or easy to cast off—that was a pretty central conceit in terms of the narrative itself and my approach to the story.
NOTEBOOK: There’s also a generational aspect to it. Or maybe not generational, but age, perhaps? There’s Tyson’s relationship with his father, and his father's relationship with his own father, but also the way that shot of the young players in the change room is repeated later on, but with a group of middle-aged men.
FUNK: Less so about age… There’s that time element that’s really important to me. In a large way, one of the thematic interests in the film is about history, and that goes to personal histories, in terms of legacies of violence and abuse, but also in terms of cultural histories. That was always something that meant a lot to me. We comment so often about how Canadian identity is so hard to define… It’s a constant conversation, and I think a large part of the reason is that we’ve just avoided looking at Canadian identity. A lot of that has to do with our inability to reconcile the colonial experience and that particular history that’s never been properly discussed in a serious way. Yes, you have things moving in the right direction with the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission of Canada] and things like that, but they exist in their own bubble and aren't really part of a mainstream cultural narrative.
So the idea of history in general was a founding principle in terms of my interest in telling this story, which I then applied to a personal narrative with Tyson. A huge struggle for Tyson is that this [family] history has put him in a position where he's not able to communicate... His only means of expression, really, is violence—that’s just what he’s just been taught. As a specific example, the end of the film, with the idea of the horn, is really like a call for help. That’s why I wanted some ambiguity as to whether the ending is a fatalist one or whether there's this dark silver lining, a chance for those things to be reconciled.
NOTEBOOK: That really comes through in that scene where Tyson torches his grandfather's old house as part of the teardown. It gain a whole other level.
Let’s talk about your actor, Jared Abrahamson. He’s such a physical presence in the film, and as you mentioned, a lot of his communication is nonverbal. It's a performance that's very internalized, but still very emotionally intense. How did you go about directing him?
FUNK: That performative craft is something I've developed as a way I like working with actors. In the three preceding short films that I did, all the characters are very externalized and have issues with communicating. I'm very interested in those types of characters. So if you’re telling their stories, you need to find ways to make that work… Yes, you need to work with good actors and Jared is a tremendous actor. What you see on-screen is not his personality at all. He’s actually a really boisterous dude and has a big presence. But for me, in terms of directing and working with actors, especially in this film, it’s so much more about setting a tone and atmosphere in environments you’re shooting in. You create a space for these actors to just kind of exist in, as opposed to a blunt force approach where you’re pushing people to certain areas and forcing them into something.
I try to strip down all of the elements in filmmaking as much as possible... You allow those actors to live in the moment and really experience the moment. That benefits this type of really subtle performance because there’s already a level of intimacy in terms of the way we shoot things, in terms of a lot of the claustrophobic closeups. So you get to then just watch people be, which I think you need to do for that type of acting to really work. Often a lot of my direction is just to get Jared or other actors to slow things down or to take more time or to really just experience something. I would often tell Jared—and this is a mantra I certainly repeat a lot—if he feels it, we’ll see it. He doesn’t need to show it to us, ever.
NOTEBOOK: The film seems to alternate between these buildups of pressure and then these moments of explosive, often destructive release, the closing scene being the final iteration of that. How did you go about writing and structuring the film? Did you start at the endpoint and work backwards? Or did you have an idea of the general trajectory that you wanted to go and then just fill in the details?
FUNK: It’s more of the latter. I’m someone who always works in… broad strokes, broad thematic issues or ideas that I’m really interested in. Then the writing process involves finding characters and a personal narrative that can articulate these ideas. I start with a pretty specific notion of what I want to express and what I feel about the subject. Even though the film is very much a character study and feels very personal and intimate, in a lot of ways, my characters are almost always just devices to express my thematic interests. I’m not someone who starts with a character and thinks: “I’m interested in this character. I want to explore their world and see who they are and discover them.” I don’t actually have a particular interest in that, in most of the work I make. It’s much more deliberate and focused.
NOTEBOOK: I wanted to talk about the sound design, because it's definitely one of the most striking things about the film. How did you approach that?
FUNK: I have a crazily talented sound designer, Eugenio Battaglia, who is very brave and deserves a lot of credit. He really ran with the ideas that were important to me. I also had a really incredible teacher at Emily Carr University, Brady Cranfield, who is probably the person who had the most profound impact on my practice. He really introduced me to the enormous possibilities of sound. I’m really interested in sound design, because even more so than image, it shapes us so strongly, but does it in such an invisible way… Invisible seems like a bad word to use because obviously it’s invisible, but just in the way that we don’t notice how it’s affecting us other than we just start to feel it. I really liked that because so much of my work deals with subtlety and nuance. I have a lot of big ideas, but I don’t really want to be heavy-handed with them because that turns people off. So you have to find this way to kind of massage the audience, and sound is a really powerful tool for that.
I also liked using sound design over score because the latter has such deliberate meaning attached to it. It’s very hard to use score and not directly shape a person’s emotional journey, whereas sound has this incredible ability to play with ambiguity and leave the experience a lot more open for the viewer to engage with the work. In this film specifically, the sound design is significant as it relates to silence and isolation, especially given that the main character is so internal. The film is a lot busier and a lot louder in the first half, though there are some moments of silence, but it gets quite quiet in the second. For me, sound design is a way of articulating a lot about a character that I can’t do through dialogue because it would be untrue for the character to be that expressive. It allows you to do that without hammering it down people’s throats. It’s something that I’ve always loved and appreciated. My favorite film and a massive influence on my work is Todd Haynes’ Safe, which is a masterclass in using sound to shape perspective and character in a film. I mean I’m pretty much just ripping off Todd Haynes in terms of sound design [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: So you made the short film Destroyer in 2013, which also explores the world of hockey. Was it always your intention to expand it into this feature?
FUNK: It’s the opposite, actually. I already knew I was going to do the feature, and I had the opportunity to make another short film of any kind for the RBC [Emerging Filmmakers] Competition with TIFF Talent Lab. So I wanted to do something that would paint a picture of this world, because we were already working towards the feature, but I didn't want it to just be a trailer for the film. The short is a completely different narrative and stands as its own story. That was really important to me, because I really like the medium of short filmmaking and I want to keep making short films. I have a lot of disdain for this trailer type of short film that doesn’t stand alone and is just really a demo reel for a feature. I definitely wanted to show the world my approach in terms of tone for that world, but I wanted the short to be uniquely its own.
NOTEBOOK: Was there anything that you learned from that film that altered the course of the feature?
FUNK: I wouldn’t say so. That short film, Destroyer, along with two other films—Yellowhead in 2012 and Bison two years ago—form a trilogy of sorts. They’re not very connected, apart from the fact that they take place in Western Canada and have a lot to do with Canadian identity, but if you watch those three shorts and then watch Hello Destroyer, you see the DNA of that feature across the films. It’s not so much a specific touchstone moment as it is working for three years on three consecutive short films to refine a sense of style, find a cadence and an authorial voice in terms of how the feature would then play out... It’s a very natural progression.