Atlantic Filmmaker Focus: Christian Sparkes


Newfoundland director Christian Sparkes

The Atlantic Film Festival is a champion of Atlantic Canadian filmmakers. In keeping with this promise, every month we profile some of the most incredibly talented people in the filmmaking industry today. This month, we look at Newfoundland director Christian Sparkes.

Christian's most recent project Cast No Shadow, screened at the 2014 Atlantic Film Festival and was the big award winner taking home Best Atlantic Feature, Best Atlantic Director (Christian Sparkes), Best Atlantic Screenwriter (Joel Thomas Hynes), Best Atlantic Cinematographer (Scott McClellan), Outstanding Performance by an Actress (Mary-Colin Chisolm) and Outstanding Performance by an Actor (Percy Hynes White). Cast No Shadow continues to garner accolades as it has been nominated for 4 Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

We caught up with Christian after Cast No Shadow screened at the Available Light Film Festival (Whitehorse, Yukon), to talk about this Telefilm Canada Micro-Budget Production and filmmaking.

Christian Sparkes 

Birthday: April 24, 1979
 
Where are you from? St. John’s, Newfoundland 
 
Where do you currently reside? The west end of St. John’s
 
What are you currently working on? I’m editing a series of videos I directed for NL Tourism and writing the next feature – a thriller.

SPARKES ON FILMMAKING

What got you first interested in film?  My older brother Ian was big into horror films. He had a subscription to Fangoria magazine and his walls were covered with in-lay posters. Critters, C.H.U.D etc. I followed suit and covered my walls with posters from the local video store. We used to write our names on the back of the posters but you had to be crafty about it - people would scribble your name off so you’d have to check regularly with the kid working the counter to see when the posters were being taken down. And every now and then you’d be lucky enough to score a cardboard standup – which was the 'Holy Grail'. I remember the day Ian came home with the Dream Warriors stand-up. My head almost exploded.
 
When did you first decide that filmmaking would be a career for you?  I was in the cafeteria at NSCAD and someone came up and said they were getting a film program the following semester. That’s when I knew.
 
What, in your opinion, makes a good film?  The cast primarily. And a good script. Then you need enough time to shoot it properly.
 
Is there anyone you would really like to work with, that you haven’t yet?  I was in Whitehorse a few days ago for the Available Light Fest, which was great, and there was a throat singer there named Tanya Tagaq. I had never heard of her but she recently won the Polaris Prize. She sounds like she’s possessed by the devil, in the best possible way. I’m developing a film that takes place up North so it would be interesting to work with her on the soundtrack if that ever comes to light.
 
What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker?  Go left. 
 
ABOUT CAST NO SHADOW

How did you first encounter Joel Thomas Hynes script for Cast No Shadow?  I had read a bunch of Joel’s work and pitched him on the idea of re-purposing several story threads and adding fantasy elements.
 
When did you begin to envision the story as your first feature film?  It was sometime when I was reading Say Nothing Saw Wood – the richness of the flashback sequences really piqued my interest. They’re beautifully written, and reminded me of a couple of my favorite films, Kes and Ratcatcher.
 
You’ve directed several short films that have won awards and screened at festivals all over the world, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Cannes Not Short on Talent program. Cast No Shadow is your first feature film. What did you find was the biggest difference between making shorts versus a feature?  The number of shoot days. I found it pretty grueling. Especially towards the end – I was running out of steam a bit.
 
What was the biggest challenge in developing Cast No Shadow as part of the Telefilm Canada Micro-Budget Production Program? The development process was relatively smooth considering the turn around time. I had heard of the program through my old prof at NSCAD, Sam Fisher. This was three months before the deadline. I hadn’t spoken to Joel about working together at this point. So in three months we went from chatting, to having the script more or less ready to shoot. We busted our ass, Joel especially, and we got great notes from Sam, along with my producing partners Allison White and Chris Agoston. The biggest challenges came in prep and then during production obviously. It’s trying to find that middle ground between ambition and budget. I think the film turned out well, but it easily could have went the other way. Making a film for this amount of money puts a lot of strain on everyone involved.
 
What was the highlight of filming in your home province of Newfoundland? We flew in a lot of crew from Toronto (or they flew themselves) because Republic of Doyle was shooting at the time and they tend to eat up most of the crew in town. And to see the way this crew reacted to Newfoundland, the landscapes, and the people… that was a real highlight for Allison and I. We were like proud parents.
 
What is your favourite memory of filming Cast No ShadowIt’s hard to say… but there’s a scene where Jude’s friend Ricky, played by Gavin Snow, is pushed off a rock ledge into the Atlantic Ocean. And the waves are crashing, the sea is raging etc. And god love Gavin, that kid has 'balls' cause he jumped into the Atlantic – twice! And this was late September. We were really behind on the day, and I was arguing with Scotty to put the camera in the water, and everyone was just hating me, I could feel it – but Gavin throwing himself into the sea like that was the adrenaline shot we needed. I remember everyone cheering and Gavin beaming and suddenly we were back on track and everyone was lovey dovey again. Except for Agoston, he was still annoyed with me.
 
What was your reaction when you found out about your Canadian Screen Award nomination for best feature?  I was chatting with Allison over Gmail cause she was streaming the press conference live. At first she told me about the screenplay nom which was great. Then a couple of minutess later she typed in BEST PICTURE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and I thought she was f**king with me. Though the number of exclamation marks she used gave me reason to pause. I wrote back, "NO." And we continued this kind of back and forth a couple of times where I kept typing, "NO," to whatever she said. But she kept writing in 'ALL CAPS' so I knew her excitement was genuine.
 
THOUGHTS ON THE ATLANTIC FILM FESTIVAL
 
The Atlantic Film Festival is celebrating it's 35th anniversary, this year. What does the Atlantic Film Festival mean to you as a filmmaker?
 
I think the AFF is integral to the careers of east coast filmmakers. Getting that first acceptance letter is huge. It’s the push you need to keep going. Suddenly it all feels real when you go to the fest, the screening, the after party etc. You don’t feel as alone anymore. And for us this year, I have no doubt that the Canadian Screen Awards nominations were affected by the love we received from the AFF. They helped to shine a light in our direction. So many thanks to the whole team.
 
Good luck at the Canadian Screen Awards, Christian. We'll be rooting for Cast No Shadow to win!

You can watch the 2-Hour Live CANADIAN SCREEN AWARDS BROADCAST GALA on CBC, Sunday March 1, 2015. You can find out more about the awards and the broadcast, here online!