It’s the opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival and the basement level of the downtown Intercontinental Hotel feels a lot like a locker room. It’s quietly buzzing downstairs; certainly a lot less chaotic in this area near the underground parking area than it is upstairs around the meeting halls and reception areas. It’s a scene both familiar and strangely removed as people scuttle about, looking to compose themselves for a moment, many of them stopping to change jackets or switch out dressier footwear for more sensible options. Everyone on this level of the hotel at this chaotic point in the city’s cinematic calendar year seems to be putting their “game face” on, making this a perfect place for me to sit and talk with Canadian writer and director Kevan Funk about his debut feature, Hello Destroyer, which debuted at the festival this past September before being named to Canada’s Top Ten, garnering four major Canadian Screen Award nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor), and opening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox March 10, 2017.
For his first feature length effort, Funk, who has already made an impact on the Canadian film scene as a prolific, highly regarded short filmmaker, tells the story of a young man who made a poor decision and now might spend the rest of his life in regret and suffering. Jared Abrahamson stars as Tyson Burr, an up and coming junior league hockey player for the Prince George Warriors. A taciturn young man of few words, Tyson has become an enforcer-type for his team, leading to an incident where an illegal hit on an opposing player during a lopsided loss leads to severe repercussions. Tyson suddenly finds himself indefinitely suspended from the league, and slowly everyone who once supported him and his burgeoning hockey career begin to distance themselves. Tyson knows what he did was wrong, but he also knows nothing else about the world around him because he devoted so much of his life to becoming a professional hockey player. Part of what led to Tyson’s situation was the young man’s inability to question some of what he has been ordered and trained to do.
For Vancouver native Funk, Hello Destroyer wasn’t only a chance to look at masculinity and the dark heart of Canadian cultural institutions, but to start a discussion about the lost art of recognizing nuance in messy, emotional situations. Lounging on a couch just to the side of the Intercontinental parking garage between various film festival meetings about Hello Destroyer, the thoughtful and eloquent Funk – who identifies as a hockey fan – says that the sports movie aspect of his film actually arose from a different set of influences entirely. Sure, part of it was hockey related, and steeped partially in the infamous NHL incident between Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore in 2004, but a lot of the simmering emotional subtext for Hello Destroyer comes from ideas spawned from one of the most underrated films by one of our generation’s greatest documentarians.
“When we only talk about personal responsibility when it comes to violence, that’s when we really miss the point of how to look at these things and have conversations about them.”
“I’m actually a huge Canucks fan, so the Todd Bertuzzi incident and the fallout with that was something that I was always interested in. Todd was, and still is, my favourite hockey player of all time, and I remember thinking about how much that incident bothered me,” Funk begins, perhaps somewhat controversially, briefly explaining the film’s most direct connection to the sport depicted within. “In Vancouver, there was this bloodlust after the hit that happened on Markus Naslund, and there was this expectation that someone would retaliate for it, and then Bertuzzi does exactly that, and then suddenly he’s thrown to the wolves for doing it. When you talk about people following a sort of ‘eye for an eye’ ethical code in hockey, that’s a very real thing, and while that incident was always on my mind, it wasn’t really the complete inspiration for this.”
“The biggest inspiration was actually the Errol Morris film Standard Operating Procedure,” Funk says of Hello Destroyer’s unlikely primary influence, a 2008 documentary about the abhorrent and controversial Abu Ghraib prison, where U.S. soldiers were captured on film torturing, abusing, and humiliating prisoners in their custody. The documentary is told from the perspective of the guards that partook or were complacent in these actions. They were branded as “bad apples” by the U.S. government, but if one were to look closer, they would see that these male and female soldiers were products of a system that implicitly condoned such behaviour.
“I found that approach so compelling, and if you’ve seen any of my short work, you know that I like looking at sort of broader sociopolitical and cultural themes told through these kinds of intimate stories. I was so fascinated by that Morris film – which is criminally underseen in comparison to some of his other work– and how deftly he handles it. You start watching this incident from the perspective of the people who were actually involved with it. We know from having seen the reports of Abu Ghraib that it was this disgusting place where these terrible human rights abuses took place, and we know the faces of the people who committed these acts, but the film looks at how they could have gotten to the place where they could have done these things in the first place. What I think is fascinating is how Morris holds these people accountable for what they did on a personal and ethical level, but he also understands how much they are victims themselves. They became scapegoats because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time as a light was shown specifically on their misdeeds and not the misdeeds of the people giving the orders or others in similar situations. You can still argue that these people are only sorry because they got caught, but the broader issue of what you define as an ‘evil’ act – which I think in the case of what happens in Morris’ film can be classified as such – sometimes comes down to what the people carrying out have been led to believe.”
“I have to give audiences a lot of credit because this film is a bit of a grind, and it’s almost oppressive by design. The audience feels the feeling that Tyson feels. There’s a weight to what Tyson feels, and if you don’t feel any of that weight by the end of the film, then I don’t think the film would be particularly successful.”
While many will see Hello Destroyer as a sports film depicting the repercussions of breaking the rules of an already violent game, Funk hopes to make viewers realize that such incidents are the result of social constructs first and foremost.
“The question about violence in sports has been fascinating to me because I really believe that maybe outside of the 0.001% of true psychopaths on Earth who go out to commit murders and violent acts because they can’t function without it and you can’t insulate the world from it, most violence is very much a product of social conditions,” he begins when explaining how his film approaches the subject of violence. “When we only talk about personal responsibility when it comes to violence, that’s when we really miss the point of how to look at these things and have conversations about them.”
“It could have been about any sport, really, but I wanted it to be hockey because I wanted this aggressively Canadian kind of disdain towards this notion that English speaking Canada has this kind of timidity to it. Hockey made sense because it’s the biggest cultural institution in this country. If I were doing this in the U.S., I probably would have actually made this take place in the military,” he continues, getting back to his earlier statement about being inspired by Morris’ film. “They’re both based on following orders in this stripped down hierarchy of power. They both tie into nationalism, and both trade off each other a lot. They both require a blindness of faith. Tyson even suffers from PTSD after what he has carried out on the ice, and yet he’s also the perfect soldier because he has bought into everything he has been fed without question. In every country, you could pick a different thing.”
It’s a subtly carried out approach to filmmaking, and one designed to provoke viewers to thoughtful contemplation about what they’re watching as opposed to a passive dramatic experience unspooling in front of them. At the same time, Funk admits that the film can also be viewed specifically as a film about hockey without much being lost. For the filmmaker, it was a balance of emotions, sensibilities, and influences that had to be rigorously thought out during the decision making process. A great part of finding the film’s emotional core was to find a way to implicate the viewer in what was happening in Tyson’s life without alienating the people watching it unfold.
“I have kind of this satisfaction when people look at it like a hockey movie that’s not really a typical hockey movie, especially since most films that we make about hockey are either inspirational true stories or comedies,” Funk says about how Hello Destroyer has been received by receptive audiences and critics thus far. “I think that some folks who view hockey on broader terms because they’re fans of the game can enjoy this at face value, but it was important to me that we asked larger questions because I didn’t want to spend two years of my life wondering aloud if hockey violence was a problem or not. That’s a boring thing to do, and I think we’ve already established everything that can be said on that front. What does interest me is that, as viewers of the sport, we are implicated in that violence that’s carried out. We are witnesses to something that if you were to do it in any other form of polite society, the perpetrators would be in prison and we’d be asked to testify in court about what we saw. That idea of implicating an audience – which is something a filmmaker like Michael Hanke does really well, although I would in no way compare our film to any of his (laughs) – is something that has always fascinated me. There’s a relationship there, and I think that’s a dynamic that’s underused in film. You can have an activated audience, and if you want to hand some agency back to them, you can do that. Way too often, the audience is one separate thing and whatever happens on screen is just an object that sits there. That’s something that I have been super interested in throughout my practice as a filmmaker, and this was a perfect way to play with those kinds of viewer and filmmaker expectations. I’ve wanted to make something like this for a long time. I have to give audiences a lot of credit because this film is a bit of a grind, and it’s almost oppressive by design. The audience feels the feeling that Tyson feels. There’s a weight to what Tyson feels, and if you don’t feel any of that weight by the end of the film, then I don’t think the film would be particularly successful.”
“At the heart of Tyson, his problem is that he doesn’t know how to communicate except through hockey and through violence. A lot of the violence of the second half of the film are things he acts out upon himself.”
Funk admits that his answers are long when talking about Hello Destroyer’s potentially unlikeable and unsympathetic protagonist and his thorny situation, but it’s in the service of trying to get viewers to understand the context of Tyson’s predicament and how to understand that this is a fictional case that belies real life hypocrisies about what people define as acceptable behaviour.
“Context was something that my parents were always big on instilling in me as something necessary to understanding how the world works,” Funk says about his desire to create thoughtful, challenging narratives. “I think that a lot of the time shaming someone – be it in the press or online or in person – often loses that sense of context. You should know that your history book was written by someone, and that writer shaped it. Know that everything has a bias. I can be really longwinded sometimes in Q&As and interviews sometimes, but that’s because I really believe that you need to have context about things, and to have any sort of understanding about something, you have to be rigorous about that context. That disappears so often because news cycles are short, people want news instantly, and people want clear answers. I can understand that. It’s natural to always want to be able to understand what you’re being presented with, but establishing a clear answer quickly leaves out so much ambiguity that’s necessary to understanding what’s happening. This extends way beyond sports and entertainment.”
“This fear of not knowing everything immediately is a part of this misunderstanding in a situation like Tyson’s, and I feel like fear is the most destructive weapon we have. If you start talking about ‘the war on terrorism,’ so much of that is propagated by fear that has been built up to a frenzy. Fear builds that heightened awareness, but it also distances you from humanity while it takes hold. If something bad is happening to you, and you become afraid of it, then it becomes very easy to forget about something terrible that’s happening to someone else at the same exact moment. In this film, I didn’t want people to be cruel to Tyson just for the sake of being cruel to him. I’m not trying to be a sadistic filmmaker who only wants to punish their main character, but for everyone around him to act with a certain degree of believability. People turn their backs on him in a certain way that’s motivated directly by their own fears. In some ways, how Tyson is treated speaks to a sort of cowardice on the part of others to not take responsibility for how they allowed for such an incident to take place. No one wants to take a look at this slowly regressive point of view. Everyone wants one specific moment that they can turn to and say, ‘what the f**k just happened,’ and that’s not the best way to go about something like this.”
Similarly, the punishment and ridiculed faced by Tyson don’t seem to fit his crime, amounting to a drawn out situation that feels more harrowing and stressful for the young man than a prison sentence; especially for a someone who has difficulty expressing himself and how he feels whenever he isn’t on the ice.
“It’s not a prison sentence, but it’s a lot like that here in terms of the isolation that Tyson faces when he has to return home,” Funk says of his protagonist’s uniquely distant situation and state of mind. “I know I’ve had a night or two where you feel like you just had too much to drink, and you wake up the next morning and you just fear that you just did something really stupid. You go through that day with this cloak of shame where you feel like you’re walking around and everyone’s judging you for various reasons, and I think in Tyson’s case it’s those same kinds of feelings, but they’re amplified by circumstance. It’s a thing he can’t get off his back, and how do you deal with that? That’s just as bad as being punished legally, and that was something I wanted to get into. Part of dealing with that is through communication, which is something this character doesn’t really have the ability to do, and it’s part of why the film is so quiet. At the heart of Tyson, his problem is that he doesn’t know how to communicate except through hockey and through violence. A lot of the violence of the second half of the film are things he acts out upon himself. He doesn’t know how to ask for help, and the only way he knows of doing that is to enact terrible things upon himself.”
“I think that a lot of the time shaming someone – be it in the press or online or in person – often loses that sense of context. You should know that your history book was written by someone, and that writer shaped it. Know that everything has a bias.”
But the quiet, delicate tone of the film and the larger societal issues contained within its sports movie trappings wasn’t the only obstacle that Funk had when it came to getting the film made. It was also a film that featured a reserved, shy, socially awkward protagonist that was designed almost exclusively with Abrahamson in mind, making the tandem of the character and the leading man set to play it a tough sell.
“I’ve often written passive characters as my leads in films, and that made it tough to get producers, broadcasters, and studios all that excited before we made the film,” Funk says about the difficult road that brought Hello Destroyer into production, but how his debut feature is indebted to the shorts he made previously. “People would look at Tyson and think that not only was he not sympathetic, but that he doesn’t do anything, and that was frustrating. To be fair, I understand that on paper the film is very execution dependent. If you don’t execute it properly, of course you won’t give a shit about Tyson, but I felt I could confidently achieve it because I had previously been able with my shorts to build stories around these internalized characters. It’s weird because you can really get recognized for your short film work, but once you start talking about making a feature and you start taking those meetings, almost all of that gets thrown out. (laughs) It’s frustrating because the only reason I was in those meetings to begin with was because they liked the work I had done before, and it feels like they don’t trust that the same kind of work will make it to the final feature. I think in the case of this film, the DNA of all three of the shorts that came before this have definitely shaped the voice of this one, for sure.”
“I pretty much wrote the film for Jared because we had worked together before,” Funk says of how his choice of leading man was integral to his envisioning of the story. “We actually got lucky because our funding fell through for this a year ago, and we had to push production by almost a full year. We started talking to bigger studios and bigger distributors, and there was kind of a push by some to not use Jared because he wasn’t seen as a big enough star. It was tough because you’re put in a position where I want to make this movie, and I want to make it with Jared in it, but if I don’t have a larger person in this role, do I get to make the film? Pretty much everyone kept deserting us on the money front except for Telefilm, who was actually phenomenal with us. They stuck around when they could have run away, but they made it easier to say that Jared was our guy because then we had no other expectations to anyone else. It was honestly a case where if we had no money, we might as well just make the film we want to make. (laughs) There’s such a creative freedom that can come from not having as many resources, and I would take that any day.”
“Jared and I have always had a really good relationship,” he says in conclusion with reverence towards his award nominated closest collaborator on Hello Destroyer. “He trusts me a lot, and I trust him. We both sort of come from a similar approach in terms of how we like to make movies. I think we both feel like outsiders in a way; like we aren’t a part of a certain filmmaking club. He’s not a primadonna. The scene in the film where he smashes a window with his fist was something he just went ahead and did. He cut up his wrist, and we had to take him to the hospital. I never forced him to do anything like that, but we can have conversations about it because he always wants to jump in and get his hands dirty. I hate having to coddle people, and here I didn’t have to do any of that because this cast was a dream to work with. Jared just has that kind of authenticity that the role needs. I like to also think that my directing style is kind of actor friendly. My cinematographer, Ben [Loeb], and I never wanted to create these huge set-ups so the actors could have more time and space to feel things out. We always wanted time to be in this space without a ton of lights or motion, and we wanted to be sparse. I like to slow actors down instead of speed them up, and Jared and I really work well within that kind of dynamic. I’d love to work with Jared for the rest of my career. He’s so effortless, and if he feels something, it translates instantly on camera. I was confident in his skills from day one. It was just up to me to create an environment where all these great performers could be successful.”