Vancouver’s Bruce Sweeney is an anomaly in the Canadian film industry. While working in relative obscurity, his past eight features – a collection of sex comedies and family dramas with the odd genre picture – have all premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sweeney’s pictures see low box office sales, get poor distribution, and spark reviews containing grudging praise, or, in the case of 2009′s Excited, about a man coping with premature ejaculation, comments like “Canadian crap, an absolute embarrassment to our country’s cinema. Awful, terrible performances, sloppy direction, and yet another example of just how terrible a film of this ilk can be.” Few outside of the industry seem to watch his films, and yet, he continues to flourish. The saddest thing of all is that even Sweeney admits it’s true.
“I feel like I’m played out, for sure,” he says. “When we got into TIFF in 2018, an actor from my film asked me, ‘What section are we in?’ And I said, they have a new section, it’s called ‘Spent White Male.'"
Now 57 and working as a film instructor at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver (Hello Destroyer’s Kevan Funk was one of his students), Sweeney might represent the enemy to a young, hungry cohort of micro-budget filmmakers, desperate for the funding and the festival slots he’s enjoyed for the past several decades. And he agrees.
“If I were a young filmmaker, I would think all the same things about me, too. But as an old filmmaker, I think, ‘Well who are you to say I can’t make a movie?' It’s such a privilege to do this, so obviously you want to keep doing it as long as possible.”
Let’s talk about the privilege of that so-called “Spent White Male” filmmaking, then: What it means, is it dangerous, do we care? In an increasingly competitive media landscape where TIFF’s Canada’s Top 10 list points to the most innovative, experimental and diverse crop of feature filmmaking yet, does the country still crave boomer representation on screen? Is there a place for Bruce Sweeney’s work?
Sweeney’s latest film, Kingsway, finally opening in theatres after its 2018 TIFF premiere, is a medium-funny but well-acted family drama about a matriarch (a fearless Gabrielle Rose) dealing with her two neurotic adult children, Jess (Camille Sullivan) and Matt (Jeff Gladstone), who has a suicidal breakdown. The episode comes after seeing his wife’s motorcycle parked outside a motel on Vancouver’s seedy Kingsway strip, where she’s having an affair.
That winding frenetic street soon becomes a metaphor for the different directions all three characters take. For Matt, stuck in an exhausting plot line that shrouds Sweeney’s bigger story in severe cuckdom, the betrayal pushes him to question whether he wants to live as he lashes out at his estranged wife. For the mother and daughter, in the far more compelling plot line that speaks to the director’s strengths in working with actors and shaping fun, energetic moments, it awakens the two women to explore their sexuality, leading to several scenes in which the family members walk in on each other having sex.
Kingsway walks a very weird tightrope, somewhere between a French sex farce and the dark but quirky Canadian fare that TIFF has been programming since the early 90s. But Sweeney also made it alone, without funding from Telefilm, and with the same crew and people he’s been working with for the past 25 years.
“I’m an old guy,” says Sweeney. “My films started playing in the 90s. Back then, everyone knew each other. There was this sense that there was more money and support, that you could puff your chest out. I have a lot of anxieties and insecurities, so coming to Toronto and doing press about my film is nerve-wracking. The time when the movie comes out is just as punishing as you can imagine.”
So, Sweeney is satisfied to carve out a career making films with trusted collaborators – that, eventually, audiences have the opportunity to see. “I’m just happy this movie is coming out of at all now,” he says. “When you have projects with humble origins, you’re happy even get to post production.”
Essentially he sees his career like this: “There’s two sides to being an independent filmmaker. One side is the business side. It’s like a party you need to go to, and you have to go alone, and you know nothing good will happen to you and you only go because you’re desperate. You’ll go home with anyone who wants to be with you. But then there’s the other side, the human relationship side of making movies, which is actually really rewarding.”
“I just want to keep grinding out movies,” he adds, "so at the very least, I can say to myself, ‘Dang, now that was a moment.’”
Kingsway opens Dec. 13 in Toronto
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