Bruce Sweeney is hoping to spin his new feature film – about a sports talk radio host – into a TV series. King of all media? Maybe not, but Mr. Sweeney is most definitely film royalty in this town.
He's back at the Vancouver International Film Festival – which opens Thursday – for a seventh time this year with his seventh film. They've all screened at the Toronto International Film Festival as well. But for Mr. Sweeney, TIFF, though prestigious, is intense – the meetings, the pressure – while VIFF is home.
"It's way more relaxed here, worlds more," says Mr. Sweeney, who was born and raised in Sarnia, Ont., but has lived in Vancouver for many years. "And I'm not wound up. At TIFF I get a little wound up. Here I just show up and enjoy myself."
Showing up for VIFF more than 20 years ago had a profound effect on Mr. Sweeney's career. He attended a workshop with famed British director Mike Leigh (who has since made films such as Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake and Another Year) and walked away with ideas about what a director can achieve by giving a small troupe of actors creative freedom – something Mr. Sweeney, an actor's director, has always practised in his work. (You can particularly see Mr. Leigh's influence in the 1998 film Dirty.)
"Bruce Sweeney's very near and dear to our heart," says VIFF director Alan Franey. "I think he's a great example of what the festival can mean to a filmmaker."
In his latest, The Dick Knost Show, a smart but acerbic shock jock (Mr. Sweeney's long-time collaborator and alter ego Tom Scholte), gets listeners riled up with his take on concussions, and also gets into some major Twitter trouble. Behind the scenes, his long-suffering and level-headed producer (Gabrielle Rose) tries to save his career, and her own.
Even to those just vaguely familiar with sports talk radio and TV, Dick will seem instantly recognizable: the sunglasses, the swagger, the disdain for soccer and for player interviews. The character is clearly based on Prime Time Sports host Bob McCown.
"It's an obvious visual homage to Bob," Mr. Sweeney said this week over coffee.
Mr. Sweeney, 51, is a self-described sports-talk junkie. He PVRs Mr. McCown's show daily, and figures he has listened to hundreds of hours of the program.
So imagine his delight – and fear – when he was invited to be a guest on Prime Time Sports while in Toronto for TIFF.
"I was quite nervous off the top and you know how you say a bunch of stuff and then it's over, you don't know what happened? It was that kind of routine."
It must have gone well, because after the interview, Mr. McCown gave Mr. Sweeney his business card. "He said 'I have a development company,' " recalls Mr. Sweeney. " 'I would love to talk about a TV series. Call me.' "
Though inspired by a Toronto sports radio god, the film otherwise has Vancouver written all over it: shot at the University of British Columbia, it features local acting stalwarts such as Mr. Scholte and Ms. Rose (who is also an executive producer), who worked for next to nothing – $100/day – to get this low-budget labour of love made over 12 shooting days.
"I haven't had this much fun since my first film," Mr. Sweeney says.
It will have its Vancouver premiere at a screening at Simon Fraser University's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, one of VIFF's new venues, with the closing of its former hub, the Granville 7, last year. The migration eastward (which includes International Village and the Rio Theatre) is a move Mr. Franey acknowledges may initially challenge festival goers who were used to the convenience of the multiplex.
"It's going to be quite different, of course, because they'll be bustling around between venues," he says, noting that people who attend film festivals elsewhere (he goes to a lot of them) are used to walking between venues, or even taking transit. "Here, we've been spoiled by having so many screens under one roof. That's not really normal. It'll be an adjustment time but I think people will be willing to accommodate it."
The new configuration has made for a steep learning curve; festival officials are busy getting everything into place, including digital projectors for a number of its venues. Mr. Franey notes that of the 341 films in this year's festival, only four are 35 mm. That's way down from two years ago, when the number was about half, and last year, when it was about one-third.
The festival opens with a splash: the Canadian premiere of Alexander Payne's Nebraska Thursday night, followed on Friday by the Vancouver premiere of All the Wrong Reasons, starring Cory Monteith, who died here in July.
There's also a huge amount of interest – internationally, too – in a VIFF Film and Television Forum event Friday, when Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan takes to the stage to talk about the series, and screen his favourite episode, just two days ahead of its highly anticipated finale.
For Mr. Gilligan, who worked on the Vancouver-shot series The X-Files, it's a sort of homecoming, perfectly timed. And as he has demonstrated repeatedly over five tension-filled seasons of Breaking Bad, timing can be everything.