In what many would consider a shocking development, a renowned Canadian filmmaker approves of a Telefilm initiative.
The filmmaker is Peter Lynch, 60, best known for the documentaries Project Grizzly (1996) and Cyberman (2001); his first full-length feature, Birdland, opens in select cities on Friday. The initiative is Telefilm's new Talent to Watch program, which will support 50 films a year at $120,000 (maximum) apiece, and will automatically green-light the second projects of filmmakers whose first features play top-tier festivals, contributing $500,000 per film.
I'm being cheeky, of course, but Lynch is sincere. He's feeding me coffee and pastries at his house on Toronto's west side. His dog scrabbles around. His cat leaps onto the table periodically. Lynch is a talker, but a generous one; he's about enthusiasm, not ego.
"Telefilm's direction with these microbudget features is the right one," he says. "To have more people in the mix, from every kind of background, age, gender, race, history, will create a hotbed of talent. And the idea that a second feature should happen more quickly – that's a key thing, to capitalize on any momentum."
Here he snort-laughs, because capitalizing on momentum hasn't been his style. In the 1980s, as video was exploding, Lynch created and ran an international festival, Video Culture. Sponsored by Sony, it showcased experimental artists including Nam June Paik, Twyla Tharp and Laurie Anderson. As fun as it was for six years – jet-setting to Japan, hanging out with artists – Lynch was facilitating other people's projects. About to turn 30, he optioned Brian Fawcett's short-story collection Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow.
"I raised a lot of development money. Bruce McDonald was going to edit it," Lynch says. "I was cocky. But I over-researched it, to the point where I was avoiding making it. It became a liability."
Instead he made a documentary short, St. Bruno, My Eyes as a Stranger. He made a short feature, Arrowhead, starring Don McKellar. Then he made Project Grizzly, and that took off, playing festivals, earning a Genie nomination. Twenty years later, it's still popular; in the first two weeks of 2018, he received five requests to show it theatrically.
But did Lynch grab that bottle of lightening, run to the United States and amass his fortune? No. He made The Herd, a docudrama about a reindeer drive in the 1930s. He made Cyberman, which presaged Google Glass. "I was having fun. I didn't notice the time ticking," he says. "Some of the things I pooh-poohed I maybe should have jumped on."
He continued to write scripts, though, and a few years ago, he finally committed to just making one already, no matter what it took. He chose Birdland, a moody tale of a detective named Hood (Kathleen Munroe, of Call Me Fitz) who installs cameras around her house to spy on her cheating husband, whose lover is sleeping with someone else, who ends up dead. He calls it post-noir. He uses words such as abstract, existential. The timeline is fractured. The pace is so dreamlike, it flirts with inert.
"I wanted to force the audience to be in the state of the characters' stream of consciousness and feel their loss of control," Lynch says. "I see it more as a psychological portrait rather than a gumshoe story."
He also wanted to explore big themes: the capacity for denial. The unreliability of memory. The ubiquity of surveillance. How people knowingly self-surveil by participating in social media. How we think we're controlling our own personas, when in fact they're controlling us. How, "in the age of post-truth, with Donald Trump impinging on our psyches, people tell what they prefer to be true," Lynch says. There are real birds, dead birds, stuffed birds and characters named after birds; they represent "our uneasy relationship to nature and the fragility of existence."
And because we're "colonized by the tropes of the detective genre," Lynch continues, he gives his woman protagonist both the agency and the lunacy that are "normally the purview of male detectives. We're used to watching men go off the rails, but when a woman does it, it makes us uneasy."
He shot it in a brisk 18 days, for a bargain $1-million. But even then, he had to call in favours: His artist friends got him access to shoot in Cadillac Fairview towers and at the Royal Ontario Museum; an architect pal lent him his condo; his production designer moved into his house; his wife, Caroline Christie, is his film editor.
Which all leads back to why a program such as Talent to Watch is so vital to Canadian culture. "Nowadays, even a $4-million feature needs a big star," Lynch says. "You're either David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan or Sarah Polley, or you're doing microbudgets. To economically survive in Canada, most filmmakers want to get into television. So they make a calling-card feature, but only to get into TV."
Naturally, Lynch thinks television needs to be radicalized, too. "The last vestiges of TV as we know it should be taking risks now," he says. "They should be going, 'Let's apply the Netflix streaming model – we don't care what 80 per cent of people think about this, we care about the 20 per cent that love it.' Instead, they're just paying each other big salaries from the last bit of advertising they can squeeze out. Instead of being game-changers, we're about managing risks.
"It's our biggest crime, in a general sense," he goes on. "Television should help with access and momentum. Why don't our networks show indie dramas that play at TIFF? There's an appetite for them. It's within our reach to nurture filmmakers, the way British TV did for Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, or Germany for Wim Wenders and Michael Haneke. TV could help Canadians create a voice, and not just be a glorified camera jockey/traffic cop. We'll show Fargo, but we disguise Canada. Why are we hiding our voice?"
Quixotic to the end, Lynch is currently cobbling together funding for his next feature, Galveston, based on Paul Quarrington's novel about storm-chasers on a Caribbean island on the eve of a hurricane. "It's a no-exit story, and a love story in the age of global warming," he says. He's also working on a four-part series about Henry Hudson, with Sex Pistols on the soundtrack – "not your dad's history channel," as he puts it.
"Robert Lepage said that so much about the arts in Canada is stamina and bloody-mindedness," Lynch says, "because it doesn't make sense as a business proposition."
So why do it? "I'm just obsessed," Lynch says calmly. "I'm maniacal. I'm deluded enough. I'm so far down the road, I'm beyond the point of no return."