VICE Sports Q&A: We Talked to the Director of 'Hello Destroyer'—a Film That Critiques Canada's National Pastime

Kevan Funk spoke with VICE Sports about his debut feature film before its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Sep 9 2016, 9:15pm

Image courtesy Benjamin Loeb

Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we'll talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.

In Hello Destroyer, junior hockey enforcer Tyson Burr (Jared Abrahamson) authors a dirty hit on an opponent and gets tossed out of a game; the rest of Kevan Funk's debut feature is about the ways that Tyson gets ejected from nearly every other aspect of his previously stable life trajectory as a result. Far from a movie about violence in hockey, Hello Destroyer is more simply a movie about how violence is cultivated, showcased and then punished within a set of institutions that require its presence to be profitable, and as a result, its release is a volatile proposition in a country that views its national pastime with religious fervor. Anchored by Abrahamson's solid, painfully internalized performance, Funk's film is absolutely unsparing in its critique of the hard-headed, hyper-masculine values peddled by commentators like Don Cherry, who has long used his CBC bully pulpit to preach counterintuitive ideas about "toughness" and "fair play"—in fact, it's easy to imagine Tyson as a kid watching Coach's Corner and hoping to one day be in Grapes' good books.

Funk spoke to VICE Sports from Vancouver before the film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

VICE Sports: It's probably wrong to call Hello Destroyer a "sports movie," but it seems steeped in an understanding and appreciation for sports, and of the sorts of experiences an athlete might have.

Kevan Funk: It's a personal experience thing. Sports has always been a big part of my life. Growing up in a town like Banff [Alberta], it was nice because I didn't feel pushed into one clique or another in terms of being an athlete or being an artist. It was easy to have fluidity between those spaces. From a young age, even though I was dedicated to film, watching and playing sports was a way for me to relax a bit, because it had an objective outcome. I can get invested in watching an NBA game or an NFL game, but it's also a relief because there's no need for a conversation. Whoever wins, wins. You can debate about sports but at the end of the day, there's a result. It's a more passive experience than watching a movie, because I'm in my head when I watch a movie. But there's another aspect, too, because in all of my work, I'm always trying to do cultural critique, and I think that critical and cultural theory avoids sports, or underestimates it. The intellectual community doesn't understand the cultural power it has. It's profound to me that the only riots in Vancouver in the last few decades happened when the Canucks won the Stanley Cup! Sports is so tied to nationalism, it has power and weight for people across the world, and we don't think about it critically. It's a blind spot, and it's one I'm interested in.

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The sorts of athletes who get written about in the circles you're describing are people who stand out or speak out, like Jesse Owens or Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick, all of whom have implicitly or explicitly called out the business or politics of sports—and been criticized for not being "team players" and keeping their mouths shut, which is a big part of team-sports culture.

That construct is fascinating to think about, and it's part of Hello Destroyer for sure, the idea of individuality and identity. It's a strange expectation that we have that athletes are meant to be non-political actors, and when they step out, it's an exception not a norm.

I thought that you got at that visually in the first scene where we see all the rookies on the hockey team having their heads shaved—they're being indoctrinated and robbed of their individuality. It reminded me a bit of Full Metal Jacket.

There's definitely some Full Metal Jacket DNA is this movie. The hazing and the head-shaving wasn't something that happened to me, but to a friend of mine who played junior hockey. And it wasn't just head-shaving—these guys had their balls shaved, too. Which is also undeniably sexual assault. It gets blurred into this act of tradition, or whatever it is, and the assault becomes invisible. I did want to be careful in the film of always having things seem real to the world instead of inventing or conveniently showing brutality. In my own experience as an athlete, there are things I've said and done as a guy in a locker room, and they feel unrecognizable to me now. You get swept up in the culture, and trapped in the bubble, and it's easy to stay there, or to change your behaviour in a way that aligns with the expectations of that community. That doesn't make you a bad person. My interest is in how cultural and systemic conditions shape these things. I'm not a believer in good and evil as inherent qualities. People do good and evil things. We're not born with it.

Lead character Tyson Burr. Image courtesy Benjamin Loeb

Of course when Tyson hits the other player, he's immediately branded as evil, and becomes a symbol of that sort of absolutist thinking even though he's been shaped by the people around him to fulfill that role. There's this atmosphere of hypocrisy in the movie that's just stifling.

When I was writing it, I was walking that line. Hypocrisy is a good word to use when we're talking about the movie, because that's what frustrates me the most in these situations. The coach in the film... he's an archetype, but he's also very real. There was this reality TV series about a junior team in Saskatchewan, and the coach had these explosive fits of rage, but it was sort of just normal, like he's one of the boys. One scene that took a long time to write is when the main character talks with the father of the family he's billeting with, and the guy tells him "I won't put you on the street tonight, but you need to be packed up tomorrow." This guy is justifying himself as reasonable while he's making an impossible request.

I was interested in the very subtle sexual tension between Tyson and the woman whose family he's staying with; she's maternal with him but also seems to be excited by his presence, and that's tied to how potent he is physically, and that he's a bit dangerous, too. And then that changes to total fear and suspicion.

That also came from reality and from research. It's a rampant thing, apparently, these junior hockey players sleeping with women at their billet places. Besides it being an anecdotal thing, though, that character Wendy is important. I love working with Sarah Canning, she's great, and we used her character's gaze as a tool to understand Jared's standing in the town—the way people look at him before and after what he does. At first, she looks at him intensely and intimately, and then she can't even look at him. We used that instead of bigger scenes showing him out on the town.

Did you play hockey at all?

Not really, I'm a very bad skater, although not as bad as Jared. I played basketball and rugby, and volleyball, and I ran cross-country. But I have watched a ton of hockey and known a lot of hockey players. I'm amused by the idea that this is a "hockey movie," and there are capsule reviews that have popped up that describe it as such. I embrace it but I also hope people see there's more there. The "hockey movie" thing is sort of tongue in cheek, because often a hockey movie is the worst sort of English Canadian movie that you can make, and which trades on the most clichéd tropes of all. It masquerades as something super Canadian and then says nothing about Canadian identity.

Chances are you're going to get a lot of attention for making a movie this grim and critical about junior hockey—it's probably not something a lot of Canadians will be OK with.

If I made this film in the US, it wouldn't be sport-related. I would probably set it in the military—I guess that's close to Full Metal Jacket. The choice of hockey relates to systemic issues of violence. Hockey happens to be a powerful institution in Canada, and one which operates in a patriarchal way, very top-down in terms of its power structure. One thing that I was thinking of the whole time was to have it all be aggressively Canadian in a way. I get annoyed with the timidity or apologetic aspect of movies in English Canada. I wanted to do something unabashedly Canadian, and embrace it, so hockey seemed reasonable.

There's the scene where Tyson is sitting with a former player with a First Nations background and they're talking about Wayne Gretzky and it's just so devastating—this white West Coast kid has been marginalized in his own way and now there's this continuity between them. It's a very bitter, funny, suggestive moment, and it seems to take the movie way beyond the rink in terms of what it's talking about.

First of all, I hope the film is divisive, as long as it creates conversation. That point about the scene is important because it's totally at the heart of the movie. If you make a movie about violence in Canada, and the difficulty we have reconciling that violence, having a character there who is Indigenous is crucial. I don't think you can discuss the subject in Canada without addressing the elephant in the room, or a history we refuse to recognize. The coach has this speech about history, and it's all garbage and clichés he's spewing, but if you listen closely there's stuff there about the history of the country, and a failure to deal with some legacies that are in there. That's the politic that I'm addressing—not 'is fighting good or bad for hockey?' I have some opinions on that but I wouldn't spend two years of my life making a movie about that.

Burr's hockey team. Image courtesy Benjamin Loeb

The hit itself is shot so that it's very hard to see what actually happens. We know it's bad—we all remember Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore—but it's also not like you go in for a close-up, or stage it so that Tyson is pummeling him on purpose. That seems to be pretty significant, the idea that this is a bad thing that, had it turned out differently for reasons beyond anybody's control, wouldn't get him in any trouble at all.

We shot it to happen quickly, and that's partially because we didn't have a lot of time at the arena, and also as I said, Jared is a very bad skater. We had to cover his abilities a bit. I was nervous during editing that the hit doesn't have enough impact, or that you don't really see it, but it had always been written in the script as ambiguous—that it was a violent hit, and that something bad happened, but that it could have gone another way with no issue at all. It's interesting that you bring up Todd Bertuzzi because there are nods to him throughout the film. I haven't wanted to talk about it too much in case someone takes the quote and runs with it, and because it's an easy comparison. But to be honest, Todd Bertuzzi has been and is my favourite hockey player of all time. I'm a Canucks fan. There are things I thought about when that incident happened that found their way into the movie. I remember being in Vancouver before the game, and there was this bloodlust in the city for Steve Moore. Not just at the bar, [but also] in the papers. Articles about "taking care" of Steve Moore, and veiled threats, a pulse in the city and a sense of retribution for the hit on Markus Naslund. It was so hypocritical what happened in the aftermath. Todd needs to be held personally responsible for the hit, but you can imagine him hitting the guy, not falling on him, and getting suspended for two games instead of it being the defining moment of his life or his career. There are a lot of people who'd say not to cry for Todd Bertuzzi, but that incident destroyed his career.

The difference is that Bertuzzi had had a lot of success (and earning potential) before that. Tyson is a character at the beginning of a life path, and I think what's devastating about the movie is that it's about how disposable he is to the people around him.

People see hockey enforcers as disposable because it's such a violent thing, and it takes a toll. Or linemen in football. There's a broader idea of disposability, too, though. You have these kids where you either make it to the pros or that's it. You have to do it full time—you can't really cultivate an education that way. Other things in life atrophy because of this singular focus. And success is still basically like winning the lottery, it's only a few people who make it. You're trading on dreams. You have an opportunity to have money and be famous while doing the thing you love. And then there's a cut-off date, and if you don't make it you have very little. Think of all the people we leave behind to fulfill our needs for this kind of entertainment.