Canadian filmmaker Andrew Cividino might be making his feature debut at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival but, in some ways, he’s returning to the festival with the same work he had at TIFF last year. Sleeping Giant (which had its debut earlier this year at Cannes, as part of Critics’ Week) was remarked upon last year, eventually earning a place on TIFF’s Top Ten Canadian Shorts list. But as the Ryerson University alumnus is quick to point out, Sleeping Giant was always intended to be a feature.
It was a simple story then and a simple one now; it’s more fleshed out, with greater depth for its trio of main characters: teenagers spending a summer together in Northern Ontario cottage country. Fourteen-year-old Adam (Jackson Martin) looks to have the perfect family in passing, but his eyes have been opened widely, and suddenly, to his parents’ struggling marriage. Sweet and troubled Riley (Reece Moffett) lives with his grandmother and his pot-smoking, almost constantly angry cousin, Nate (Nick Serino). Nothing like each other, the trio form a bond that grows increasingly uneasy, thanks to peer pressure, competitiveness and noticing girls.
We chatted with Cividino prior to the start of the festival at a downtown Toronto office, discussing transitioning from a short to feature, why he identifies with his characters, his film’s battles with the elements and the connection to another coming-of-age film playing at this year’s festival.
Considering how quickly the feature version of Sleeping Giant came on the heels of the acclaimed short it spun off from, was it always the intention to make it as a feature?
Andrew Cividino: The film was always intended to be a feature; I tried going the traditional route with it. I had a script that I thought was great but, turns out, it wasn’t. I was really trying hard to go out and get financing for it, but it’s really hard to go out and say, “Hey, I’ve never made a feature before, and I have this great idea for a coming-of-age story about three teenage boys over the course of a summer in Northern Ontario.” It’s not the easiest sell, if you don’t know what we’re trying to get at. We got so close: we cast and were ready to go. Then the financing didn’t come through. We thought, “Well, we’re here, so let’s make a short.”
I think, in some ways, the short ended up being more of an experiment in process than a complete work, but what it did was help create a process of working that I could count on going forward into the feature. When I saw how the short was coming together, I realized that what I originally had in mind wasn’t the same film I initially envisioned. There was a lot more that could be mined from these boys and bringing this adult world into their lives was something we couldn’t really do in the short. I had all through the fall and winter to rewrite the feature from the ground up, using what I had learned from the short.
In fact, the short wasn’t even completed until we were two-thirds of the way through production on the feature. We had our world premiere for the short at Locarno while we were working on the feature. The time for the turnaround was so small that I don’t think it had the kind of life it deserved until we were into post-production on the feature. The short was wrapped almost too quickly, but it provided great proof of concept for the feature, secured us post-production financing and opened a lot of doors once the feature wrapped, which was great because we spent literally every penny we had on the production of the feature.
The relationship between these three teens seems to be a friendship of convenience, and if they weren’t all in the same place at once, with few other teens, they likely wouldn’t have become friends. Was that something you thought about while writing the material?
I actually grew up spending a lot of my summers on the shores of Lake Superior, so I do understand these kinds of friendships of convenience. I had some true friends up there, but also some that I probably never would have approached otherwise. We would be friends for that summer, but if you look back on the trajectories of our lives, that was only a brief intersection. I think that’s true also of high school and middle school as microcosms of everyday life. We’re always going in so many different places, in terms of our interests, values and behaviours, but you’ll intersect for that one moment in time, with a chance to impact each other, sometimes rather profoundly.
Was there any one of the three main characters that you could personally identify with the most and was there anything specific you looked at for each character in the casting process?
There’s a part of me in each of those three characters that I was able to identify as a core motivator. I knew that if I could be true to those three characters and what they needed, then the rest of it would take care of itself. I cast actors that could represent those aspects and it was most important that it would seem real, in terms of what they were looking for as people. When you put all those kinds of dynamics together, this energy starts to emerge.
At the TIFF Canadian press conference, you alluded to weather issues that nearly killed the project. What was going on up there?
We had about six shooting days planned on a remote, uninhabited island on Lake Superior, which is the mightiest and angriest of all the Great Lakes. We would often wake up with a plan for the day and find these five- to six-foot swells and realize there was no way on Earth we could go out. On some days out on the bay, we would be faced with such chop that we would have to turn our boats around after we loaded them up with all of our equipment and crew. Then, during the final week of shooting, when we were supposed to film the climax on this remote island, we got turned away by weather three days in a row. You reach a point where you wonder if you’re actually going to be able to shoot anything. Also, we would have these storms roll in; they don’t call it Thunder Bay for nothing! There was always the threat of incurring the wrath of Mother Nature throughout the production, but I think it’s reflected in the flavour of the film in a great way. The tumultuous nature of that landscape does reflect what these boys are going through. I think these 14-year-olds have scarier stories than the lake does.
I also talked earlier this week to Fire Song director Adam Jones, who also has a teenage coming-of-age story at the festival this year. I didn’t know you guys were former classmates at Ryerson and that you were in the same area shooting at the same time. He told me you guys talked a little bit during your productions.
Yeah! We were classmates! Adam and I Facebooked a bit throughout the whole shoot. I told him to stop stealing my crew [laughs]! It was great knowing someone who was going into production in the same place. We were sending each other supportive messages throughout the process. That was really nice, knowing that someone else was doing something similar in the same place at the same time, and it’s rare for them to both be coming-of-age stories. There was definitely camaraderie there.