Andrew Cividino on Being Open to the Power of Nature in ‘Sleeping Giant’
Adapted from a short film that played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, Sleeping Giant quickly turned into a Canadian indie success story when it was selected to play at the Cannes Film Festival in the Critics’ Week sidebar. Several months later, Sleeping Giant finally came back home to have its North American Premiere at TIFF in September 2015.
The film takes place over the summer in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where teenager Adam (Jackson Martin) spends his summer vacation with his family. At the start of his trip, he befriends Nate (Nick Serino) and Riley (Reece Moffett), two cousins from the area living with their grandmother. It’s immediately apparent that the friendship between the three boys only makes sense in the context of this vacation, with Adam coming from a sheltered, upper-middle-class life, and Nate and Riley coming from a lower class background. As the summer continues, tensions rise between Adam, Nate and Riley until they tragically boil over.
It’s been said many times already, but Cividino has made an impressive directorial debut with Sleeping Giant. As someone who has made similar trips up north as a kid, it was surprising to see how accurate Cividino portrays that unique feeling of spending your days away from home as an adolescent. In advance of Sleeping Giant’s North American premiere at TIFF, I had the chance to talk to Andrew Cividino about his film. Read on for the full interview below, where Cividino talks about his personal connection to the film’s location, learning how to work with young, nonprofessional actors, his feelings on finally bringing the film home and much more.
Sleeping Giant is currently out in limited release in Toronto, Ontario from D Films.
I never thought of the trip up to Northern Ontario as a rite of passage for kids in Ontario until I saw your film. I did it, my parents did it…I’m assuming this film had to come from a personal place for you.
I grew up spending my summers on the shore of Lake Superior in the exact locations that the film is set in. Every year at the end of the school year [my family] would go up the day school ended, and we could come back on Labour Day. It was like that well into high school, until I had to get a job. I made friends up there that occupied a kind of a special place because we grew up together but separate from our other lives. I think it was a chance every summer to go up and, as your identities form, have this separate group of friends that you’re spending this intense amount of time with. But you’re free from all the expectations of whatever hat you’re trying to wear in your high school in Southern Ontario.
To have that kind of an unsupervised playground hanging out with friends over the summer, you’re really just left to your own devices. You’re in the middle of nowhere. All of the sorts of risks that are associated with living in a more urban setting aren’t there. You just have to come for dinner basically, and that’s about it. You’re free to roam and explore, and that was kind of the genesis for me, wanting to capture what it was like to spend those years up in that place.
Your film feels more about capturing a specific sense of time and place than focusing on a narrative.
I think tone was something that was very important to me from the genesis of the project. There’s something that I saw mirrored that’s inherent to the landscape up there. It’s beautiful, but it’s also foreboding. If you know Lake Superior well, you know that you never feel fully at ease because it’s called Thunder Bay for a reason. There are always storms that could be rolling in, and it’s like the ocean in how the waves will whip up out of nowhere. There was this tension between it being like a romantic postcard view of nature and something much more, if not menacing, certainly indifferent to your existence. I thought was really well mirrored with what adolescent boys are like, the kind of tumult, the lack of empathy and that energy.
I feel like the editing is vital to the film because you’re combining intimate shots of nature, but you’re getting bigger macro shots as well. How did you find that specific rhythm going back and forth between the two types of shots?
I think it was in our philosophy from shooting it on the outset that we wanted to capture the grand scope and the intimate details, from sweeping aerial vistas to fighting insects on bark, and to do the same thing with our characters. It was important to step back far enough with our visuals to get a sense of space and location. It totally affects your understanding of what this story is, what it’s like for these characters to be here, and to get a sense of how isolated they are. There’s something under the surface. Like I mentioned before, [there’s] this idea of the romantic, European version of nature as this inviting thing, and there’s this other side of it which is more nature as a state of chaos. I really wanted to play that duality, both in terms of nature and how we shot it close and wide, and mirroring that with the two sides of the human story.
I’m assuming you had to have a lot of patience while making this in order to capture some of those shots up close, like the insects fighting on the bark.
I think, more than patience, it was about an openness to what’s around you. To recognize that you may be shooting a scene, but if you happen to see two bugs fighting on the tree, you have to run across the island and get your crew, and have them understand that it’s important enough to run with the camera on their back and to stop everything to shoot it. On the day [of shooting] it sounds totally insane, but you need people who can bind to that understanding and philosophy. For instance, we wanted to do a lot of stuff with crayfish. I used crayfish in the short film. We spent a day and a half trying to catch crayfish, but it was not a good year for them. We caught one in total. We couldn’t do it, and we had to re-envision the material. On the other hand, the bugs fighting on the tree was something that was just noticed, and we were able to stop and pay attention and actually capture it.
Did that openness apply to the rest of the production?
The narrative was nailed down, but what happens within scenes, and certainly where scenes happen, was something we had to be very much open to because the weather would repel us from the island. We were constantly having to adapt and reorganize our schedule, but the real openness was within scenes. To be open to allowing the actors to bring their own voices, and being open to explore possibilities while making sure that we don’t get off track of the number of narrative threads and character arcs that have to come together.
How did you approach working with these young, nonprofessional actors?
I was fortunate to do the short and develop a strong relationship with Nick Serino and Reese Moffett. There was a familiarity there, and I learned a lot about working with younger actors. I think the biggest thing of all was casting people who felt close enough to the characters. Not necessarily in terms of the details of their lives, but in terms of their personalities. [It’s] finding those people, and then being willing to change your own understanding of your character to allow them to bring their own element to it. You’re not going to get amazing craft performances out of young actors who usually don’t have any experience, but if you set things up properly, you may have put yourself in a situation where they feel comfortable to bring themselves to that role, to lose themselves in that scene or moment, and to draw on their own experiences if you can find those relatable things. It was about making sure it was a collaboration, and for them bringing their own perspective to it was important.
I wanted to ask specifically about Jackson Martin who plays Adam, because his role is so pivotal.
Jack was the most experienced of the three actors going in. We cast him in a traditional casting session out of Southern Ontario.
Did you deliberately choose a more experienced actor for the role of Adam?
I deliberately wanted a professional actor to play the role of Adam because I felt that the character was going to have to shoulder a lot more of the burden in that way, especially in the earlier drafts of the story. And I also wanted to cast someone who would be a fish out of water. For the other boys, it was essential that they were up there naturally and that was their environment. But I wanted to bring somebody up who felt like this was not their natural habitat.
I did want to talk about the homoerotic aspect between Adam and Riley. What made you decide to put that in the film?
I didn’t want to make a standard love triangle specifically, but I wanted to make something that kind of explored the complexities of sexuality coming online in a person. To me, Adam is not somebody who is necessarily going to land at gay or straight or who knows where on that spectrum. He’s somebody whose sexuality is just coming online, and who has a great deal of…pressure. Not intentional pressure, but expectations around heteronormative behaviour from everybody. There’s nobody in the film that’s homophobic, but the entire world assumes heterosexuality of him. That makes his admiration for Riley confused with [his] affection for Taylor, who’s his female friend as well. All of these things create this intense confusion for him as he’s trying to find his way.
2015 has been pretty exciting for Toronto-based filmmakers. There’s you, Kazik Radwanski (How Heavy This Hammer), and Adam Garnet Jones (Fire Song) to name a few playing at TIFF this year. It feels like a whole new generation of Canadian filmmakers is finally arriving.
I feel like it’s an incredibly exciting time to be making films in Toronto. I feel like I’m part of a community of people who are making really incredible and unique pieces. We share crews, we support each other’s work, we’re inspired by each other’s films, yet the voices are all quite distinct at the same time. I’m not sure exactly why it’s happening right now. I’ve been told by others, and I certainly feel it myself, that it’s something that hasn’t happened in a while. It’s this generation of filmmakers poking through at the exact same time and getting this kind of international recognition. I don’t know what the common threads are, other than the fact that it’s like “by any means necessary.” We go out and we find stories that compel us, and we’re not going to be constrained by financial resources. I’m really excited about where it will go.
You’ve made a film that feels very specific to an experience for people in Ontario, yet this is the first time your film will screen for audiences in Canada. You’ve screened the film at Cannes and Karlovy Vary already. Have you been surprised by the reaction from international audiences, and what do you expect from audiences at TIFF once they see it?
I was really surprised by the international response to the film. I always felt that the location for the film was incredibly beautiful but worried that was always just because of my personal bias towards it. I was really surprised to see how much the setting seemed to speak to people strongly when the film premiered internationally, and it how seemed exotic to them in a way. The colloquialisms, the way the boys speak in the film is so regional in a way that I wondered if that could have ever registered internationally, and I couldn’t believe it fully could. So I’m really curious to bring the film home. I hope that it rings true to people. I hope that it’s more than nostalgia too, I hope that the story connects. I’m curious and a little bit anxious to see how it goes over at home because, for us, this is the home crowd. I’m hopeful and a little bit scared. [Laughs]
A version of this interview was originally published on September 7th, 2015, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.