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Director Joey Klein, seen here during the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 5, 2019, says filmmakers are left wondering how to launch their work amid the coronavirus crisis.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

In late February, Canadian filmmaker Joey Klein had every reason to expect that 2020 was going to be his year. His second feature, Castle in the Ground, a multimillion-dollar crime drama about a bereaved young man who gets pulled into the opioid crisis by his troubled neighbour down the hall, had made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews praising the textured performances of Alex Wolff, Imogen Poots and Neve Campbell. He’d signed with Hollywood powerhouse agency WME and, like all ambitious Canadians, had temporarily relocated to Los Angeles to take a raft of meetings, eagerly anticipating Castle in the Ground’s U.S. premiere at the SXSW festival in Austin, Tex. And then came COVID-19.

“It was exactly around [the SXSW cancellation] when all my meetings started to fall apart,” Klein says, speaking on Zoom from his Toronto apartment, where he’s been quarantining alone since mid-March.

“At first, it was just jokes like, ‘Do we shake hands?’ and then it was, ‘Let’s not shake hands.’ Then it was Jessica Biel and her producing partner cancelling our meeting the day of, saying all their meetings were postponed to April. I was staying with Tatiana [Maslany, the star of Klein’s 2016 debut The Other Half], and I started thinking, ‘If something happens, I’m going to put her at risk, and I don’t have proper health care here.'"

Review: Canadian opioid-crisis drama Castle in the Ground will haunt long after the credits roll

As news of the pandemic started to intensify, Klein convinced Maslany and his cinematographer, Bobby Shore, to book a sudden red-eye flight back to Toronto on March 15. “It felt like every Canadian actor and director was on that flight,” he says. “And it felt like a lifetime of work that was gaining momentum – of me being an actor, making two features – which, while I don’t think it is over, had now been redirected.”

Forced into a mandatory 14-day period of self-isolation, Klein found himself, not unlike many of us examining our bubbling sourdough starters with equal parts hope and desperation, in a period of deep introspection. He had dreamed of SXSW’s cinephile audience, of eating breakfast tacos with his cast, of touring film festivals around the world and finally seeing his film on screens across North America. Instead, the journey of Castle in the Ground ends May 15 with a digital release on video on demand. It is a little bittersweet.

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Castle in the Ground tells the story of a bereaved young man who gets pulled into the opioid crisis by his troubled neighbour.Courtesy of Game Theory Films

“To be able to show at a place like TIFF or SXSW is ineffable; it’s life-changing,” he says. With COVID-19 derailing the festival and others like it, filmmakers are left wondering how to launch their work, Klein says. "As artists, not to be able to share your work with other humans [in the theatre] feels like there’s a piece missing, even though I know that’s a privileged problem.”

In what now feels like a parallel universe, I’d interviewed Klein and his cast on a high-rise patio overlooking an infinity pool somewhere deep in Toronto’s King West last September. It was the day of their TIFF premiere (his film had just locked eight days prior), and it was easy to see how Klein, who first cut his teeth as an actor studying at New York’s Circle in the Square, was able to obtain the achingly heartfelt moments that made Castle in the Ground such a festival standout. He simply knows how to treat his actors with respect.

“Certainly the fact that Joey is an actor helps massively,” said Campbell, who delivers a career-best performance as a mother suffering from cancer relying on her son (played by Wolff) to administer her daily painkillers. “He understands character development, human nature, and I feel like he directs primarily from the heart. I would say probably in the 30 years I’ve been doing this, my acting has been directed, in no exaggeration, six times. It’s always camera, cinematography, technique.”

An excitable Wolff chimed in: “I felt like the journey was always super intimate from the very start. I told [Neve and Joey] from the beginning that I have a very, very close relationship with my mom. My father had cancer and almost died, and I kinda took care of him in the same way. This was a very personal film for me.”

Added Klein: “The truth is that my life is defined by grief more than anything. I lost someone I loved and in one way or the other, all my projects deal with loss. They’re about how we deal with trauma and what comes out of that, how trauma affects intimacy and human connection.”

Talking now in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, these themes resonate greatly for the artist.

“Out of the gate, I found it hard to focus, and I felt a bit overwhelmed and depressed,” Klein says. “I was scared for the planet; there was this whole thinking of ‘What’s the point?’ Now I’m finding it’s work that’s bringing me a certain kind of foundation of quiet and meaning, and outside of that, I feel anxiety.”

While he’s grateful to be working on a new script, filling the rest of his time has become difficult for Klein, who admits to framing his days with coffee and wine, as well as endless amounts of streaming entertainment.

“Going to the cinema and watching films in the dark with strangers was the most beautiful public experience in my life,” he says. “My favourite films have all saved my life a little bit; going to the theatre keeps me mentally well. I feel so grateful to the cinema for the space that it provided me, and I don’t want to just sit at home and do this all day.”

Castle on the Ground is available digitally on-demand beginning May 15

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