In this dramatic tale set in a junior hockey league, Canadian director Kevan Funk’s acclaimed debut feature Hello Destroyer addresses issues of social violence, masculinity and national identity.
Social responsibility versus personal responsibility is one of Hello Destroyer’s themes, one which you wrote about in a statement on the film’s website. Can you please share some insight about this idea?
That is a common interest and common theme [in] a lot of the work that I’ve made over the course of my career, this is my first feature but I’ve done a lot of short films and they investigate similar territory. I think it comes back to a pretty basic human interest or something that was definitely hammered home to me at a very young age in terms of empathy being a very important quality… It’s always been a lens through which I see the world. I wouldn’t say that I make films that are political per se, but I think having a political view of the world is really interesting.
Often when I look at things, issues that pop up around the world, I think social responsibility or cultural responsibility plays a huge part, in most cases. I’m not really a believer of this idea of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in terms that there are good people and there are bad people. I think there are circumstances that motivate people to do certain things, whether they’re acting in a way because of expectations others have of you, or you have to because of the status of other individuals and that sort of thing… I think generally, we gravitate away from talking about social or cultural responsibility because [we’re] looking for a sense of resolution. Because individual responsibility is clean. You’re good. Or you’re bad. So if you can hand out a verdict about someone being good or bad, guilty or innocent, that’s a clean thing... But the reality is that it’s very, very rare something operates on that level.
How did you learn empathy so young?
I think there’s a part of it that’s hard wired into my personality and disposition, I was a pretty sensitive, emotionally acute kid. More than that, my parents were both environmental activists when I was growing up, they ran a not-for-profit theatre company that put on new plays each year to raise awareness about a certain environmental issue. I grew up in Banff, Alberta. At the time, I can tell you that environmentalism was not in vogue. I grew up watching my parents be in the trenches and fight against a lot of indifference… Also, seeing so many people who sacrificed so much to fight for what they believe in. And as a result, I certainly didn’t grow up wealthy at all – if you want to make money don’t get into non-for-profit environmentalism, not a cash cow! But I grew up in a relatively wealthy town and was privileged in terms of the opportunities my parents gave me, and also, a constant reminder of what we did have as opposed to what other people don’t [gave me] a sense of perspective. And empathy in general was seen as the most important virtue in terms of what I was told by parents. So I really credit them a lot for shaping that world view of mine and putting me in the position to feel that way specifically.
You’ve mentioned writing with restraint and trusting the audience to figure some things out for themselves. Was that something you had to learn as a screenwriter?
It’s maybe an instinct I gravitated towards early on, that also comes from what I like in films. I like work that allows room for me and a sense of agency for the audience to actually engage in it… That’s a delicate balance. I feel two ways about it, in terms of striking a balance in regards to writing: I think you need to create enough room for your audience to have some space to figure things out on their own. Because if you want to try to change people’s opinion or make people think differently about something, I think people sort of arrive at that a lot on their own. You can assist them, but as soon as you tell people they should think or feel a certain way, they tune out and don’t want to engage with it. On the other side, this is something else I struggle with, you also want to give them enough that that information is there and not be too withholding.
Especially with a subject like hockey.
That was a very conscious choice – the film partly is about hockey. You can watch it and be like, ‘Oh this is a hockey film,’ and not see anything beyond that. There was also a bit of a tongue-in cheek decision, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way, but to use it as an entry point to talk about these broader things I was interested in; colonial history and Canadian identity and that sort of thing.
At the same time, I’m a big sports fan and fascinated by the cultural power of sports. Sports is our biggest cultural institution in this part of the world. In terms of different audiences, if you’re talking about critical theory and conversations we have about critical and cultural theory, we don’t really include sports. That’s seen as something we don’t take seriously in that conversation and that’s crazy to me because it’s so tied into nationalism, and really ripe for interrogation and discussion, as well as being an entry point for people who would never be part of these conversations.
One can see that you grew up playing sports! Even in Destroyer, the short that preceded the Hello Destroyer feature, your locker room scenes feel very authentic.
When I was writing the script it was really funny, I was writing a lot of the locker room stuff and that interaction from experience, it was almost horrifying because it was so embarrassing when I think about it now, but I know it was how I would have acted at the time. There’s this remarkable nature to being in those groups… The film is very much about masculinity. [And in terms of] talking about the suffocating aspects of patriarchy and masculinity. I’m very interested in masculinity as being incredibly a fragile and delicate thing, certainly much more than femininity… so many of the problems with patriarchy and masculinity come from this deep-seated lack of confidence and the gross overreaction that often is born out of that insecurity.
How do you approach working with actors and bringing out the best performances? Is this similar to your writing approach?
I feel very comfortable with actors and I’d like to think that I generally write and work in a way that’s very generous and favourable for actors. I grew up acting. When I was 12 years old I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be a director but acting had always been a big part of my life. On that front, it was something that definitely informed the way I wrote.
Jared Abrahamson is extraordinarily good in the film and he’s gotten a lot of praise, and rightfully so. It’s a quiet performance, even though it’s a very big, powerful performance. The majority of the lead actors are trained actors, but often in the shorts and the feature, I use a combination of actors and non-actors. We shoot really stripped-down. I think stripping away [some of] the mechanisms and cumbersome elements that come with filmmaking is really important [to allow] people to really live in the moment in that space and be themselves.
Photo credit: Canada’s Top Ten
Hello Destroyer screens January 14, as parts of Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival.