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Director Christian Sparkes on the set of The King Tide.VVS

I once watched the director David Fincher, on the set of Fight Club (1999), spend 40 minutes shooting a tight close-up of a bar of pink soap being slammed down onto a silver soap dish. Cut! Not forceful enough. Cut! The soap slid too far to the side. Cut! The soap was too dry, he wanted some suds. Cut! Too many suds! The shot wasn’t even in the movie; it was for a teaser. But it explains why Fincher’s films gleam as pristinely as they do. “Everyone else’s perfection is Fincher’s mediocrity,” Helena Bonham Carter, who co-starred in the film, told me.

It also explains why most films, including most Canadian films, lack that gleam. Forty minutes on a movie set is staggeringly expensive; you can practically see the flurries of money evaporating in the air. Coverage – shooting a wide shot, a medium shot, a two-shot and a close-up of the same scene, from different angles; or in the case of a Fincher, shooting something over and over until it looks on the monitor the way it does in the director’s head – is time, and time is money. A typical Canadian budget, under $5-million, does not allow for time.

“Everyone asks, ‘What was your vision?’” Christian Sparkes, the Newfoundland-born director (Hammer, Sweetland) said last September, when his new movie, The King Tide, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. (It opens April 26.) “But in independent film, you usually can’t afford a vision. You’re just holding on by your fingernails trying to get the thing made – just trying to have enough stuff to put together an intelligible edit.”

On The King Tide, however, Sparkes had his biggest budget to date: $10-million. He had a script, written by Albert Shin (Disappearance at Clifton Hill), that the producers, William Woods and Allison White, had developed painstakingly for years. And he had 30 days to shoot it. Money plus time. It shows.

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Alix West Lefler in The King Tide.VVS

As the film begins, a small boat washes ashore a Newfoundland outport island, its sole occupant a baby girl. The town’s mayor, Bobby (Clayne Crawford), and his wife, Grace, who recently suffered a miscarriage, adopt her and name her Isla. Cut to a dozen-odd years later: The town is now a cult led by Grace’s mother, Faye (Frances Fisher), voluntarily cut off from the mainland and modern life. Because, you see, Isla (Alix West Lefler) not only can heal any physical human ailment, she also can call animals to her – including enough cod to keep the village thriving. But the growing unease of the town’s doctor, Beau (Aden Young, currently starring in Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent), coupled with a tragic accident, signals that for this idyll, time’s up.

“With more time and more coverage, you can really expand and contract time,” Sparkes says. “You can speed up or slow down scenes and events the way you want, so you can hold the audience in the palm of your hand.”

I ask for an example. “When two people are sitting having a conversation, you might shoot an insert of a teacup, and that gives you a baseline of information,” he replies. “But if you slowly track in on that teacup, and the tea is rippling to reflect the character’s unstable mindset, that has its own depth and meaning that is rich and cinematic. Normally there’s not enough time to do things like that. But the more you can find interesting, fresh ways to express visually what’s going on with the characters internally, that’s the next level of filmmaking. That’s inspired art. That’s what I want to do.”

Sparkes grew up next to a public park in early 1980s St. John’s, with three brothers who spent all day roaming outdoors and an artist father who bellowed their names at dinner time. His bedroom was papered with film posters; he knew which new releases were arriving at the video store, and he’d skip school to watch them. He absorbed a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and as much Fincher, Stanley Kubrick and, later, Denis Villeneuve as he could find. But he’d never seen a film camera, so he enrolled at NASCAD in Halifax to do graphic design. When a film program arrived his second year, he dived in, followed by a stint at the Canadian Film Centre. At last year’s Atlantic International Film Festival, he won both best feature (The King Tide) and best director (Sweetland).

The King Tide has a deliciously eerie, unmoored-in-time feeling, helped tremendously by its location: the remote fishing village of Keels in eastern Newfoundland, population 30 in summer and about 12 in winter. Shooting so far outside a city eats up money, but the residents pitched in: They housed and drove the cast and crew, and worked as background performers. A local hot-dog truck provided snacks. “It’s an ancient and fascinating culture that not even a lot of Canadians know about,” Sparkes says. “Bringing that landscape to the rest of the world, that’s something I’m proud of.”

Newfoundland is “so often depicted as a cute, colloquial parody of itself – Republic of Doyle, colourful houses and all that,” he continues. His sensibility is more gothic, pulled toward the shadowy side of insular towns where “all for one” becomes “conform or else.” “I have a cynical edge. I like art that’s sublime. There’s beauty in the darkness that speaks to me for reasons I don’t know.”

The King Tide’s costumes are deliberately out of time, as is its production design – all wooden clapboard, chipped paint and faded wallpaper. Production designer Adriana Bogaard (who has worked on The Handmaid’s Tale) referenced Andrew Wyeth paintings and old Newfoundland photography, and Sparkes enhanced that fable quality with a lush score and formal, sweeping camerawork. “Money allows you to dream bigger,” he says. “For example, having a Steadicam operator for the length of the film. There’s a fluidity to Steadicam that you just can’t get hand-held.” The arrival of a 21st-century vehicle mid-film causes a jolt, as does the deep, dark ending.

“I love a paradise lost story, where you give human beings something beautiful and invariably they find a way to pervert and destroy it,” Sparkes says. “The only thing better is watching those same people get their comeuppance. Yes, we’re living in a selfish moment, everyone staring into their phones. But when it comes to self-preservation, people have always been capable of almost anything. Would you give Isla her autonomy, even if it hurt you? That’s an interesting question to leave the audience with.” And a timeless one.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to one of Christian Sparkes' films as Sweetgrass. The correct title is Sweetland. This version has been updated.

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