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Bruce Sweeney

Director, Producer, Writer
(b. January 1, 1962 Sarnia, Ontario)

An unassuming behaviourist who laces his films with a healthy dose of acerbic wit, writer-director Bruce Sweeney has earned the reputation as the trailblazer of what some (mostly Ontario) critics have dubbed the “Pacific New Wave.” However, this quintessential Vancouver filmmaker, who relishes including tidbits about leaky condos and pot dealers as local colour in his “small people films,” was, in fact, born in Sarnia, Ontario.

Sweeney went out West in the 1980s to study visual arts with the internationally acclaimed photographer Jeff Wall at Simon Fraser University, where he received a B.F.A. in 1987. His move from photography to narrative filmmaking, which he claims is a result of being “social by nature,” happened while working on John Pozer’s seminal West Coast work The Grocer’s Wife (1991). Around the same time, he completed his first short film, Betty and Vera Go Lawnbowling (1990). He did the sound recording on Mike Hoolboom’s Valentine’s Day (1994) and supported himself as a boom operator on various fly-by-night projects he dismisses as comprising “a bunch of cack.” (However, he did later record sound for Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed, 1996.)

A true actor’s director, Sweeney’s Archimedean moment came in 1991 when he was one of a few students lucky enough to attend a directing class with British director Mike Leigh at the Vancouver International Film Festival. In Leigh’s improvisatory method, which combines a vigorous rehearsal process with a highly defined sense of realism, Sweeney found the appropriate means to depict contemporary urban stories in a manner true to the West Coast. Sweeney has a talented stable of craftspeople and theatre-trained regulars with whom he works, including Tom Scholte (who has played Sweeney’s loose alter ego in several of his features to date), Benjamin Ratner, Nancy Sivak and Babz Chula.

Influenced by the quiet films of Jean Renoir, Sweeney’s semi-autobiographical debut feature Live Bait (1995) began as his M.F.A. project at the University of British Columbia. This low-budget, black-and-white comedy about the cock-eyed romantic relationship between a twenty-something slacker and a woman old enough to be his grandmother went on to win the Citytv Award for best Canadian first feature at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival.

Based on a one-act play by Scholte, Sweeney’s following feature, Dirty (1998), also dealt with romantic relationships, but in a blacker, more obsessive manner. The reason for this shift to a darker perspective may be personal: shortly after completing Live Bait, Sweeney had an operation to remove a blood clot from his brain. For Dirty, Sweeney replicated Leigh’s process, developing the East Vancouver–set scenario through extensive rehearsals. Dirty debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Telefilm Canada Award for best emerging feature film director from Western Canada at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Sweeney’s next feature, the scabrous Last Wedding (2001), an anti-romantic comedy about the nature of relationship disintegration, retains an improvisatory feel, but was deliberately scripted and honed in rehearsals (similar to the work of John Cassavetes, one of Sweeney’s idols). Despite Sweeney’s modest ambitions and budget, Last Wedding went through three years of production hell before an eventual triumph, becoming the first film from a western Canadian director to open the Toronto International Film Festival.

Sweeney followed Last Wedding with a very different, somewhat larger film, the satirical thriller American Venus (2007), which featured Rebecca de Mornay in a key role as a gun obsessed American stage mother who travels to Vancouver to “rescue” her daughter, a former ice skating protege who has turned her back on the sport and run off to British Columbia. Cut adrift from the culture she knows (her gun was confiscated at the border), the mother falls apart and struggles desperately to get her bearings and reconnect with her daughter – or more accurately, reassert her control over her. (There are hints that she planned to bring her daughter back at gunpoint.)

American Venus confused some critics perhaps because of its use of quasi-generic devices, but is notable for de Mornay’s icy performance and, perhaps more significantly, because it remains one of the few films to directly address Canadian attitudes towards their southern neighbours. (See also, Don Owen’s Partners and Sandy Wilson’s My American Cousin and American Boyfriends.)

Sweeney’s most recent film, the fractured romance Excited (2009), marked a return to more familiar ground. Shot on a micro- budget, the film follows Kevin (Cam Cronin), a successful businessman who hasn’t had a date in nearly a decade for reasons he’s mortified to disclose. His overly solicitous mother (Gabrielle Rose, in a tour-de-force performance) is hounding him – much to the amusement of his unflappable father (Kevin McNulty) – because she wants a grandchild. Then there’s Kevin’s brother Randy (Paul Skrudland), who spent most of the early part of his life on a binge. When Randy hooks Kevin up with Hayaam (Laara Sadiq), it looks like Kevin’s love life is finally on track, but his strange aversion to physical intimacy derails their budding romance.

A muted, subtle comedy about embarrassment, Excited has been compared to Woody Allen, but one can also see traces of Mike Leigh’s early work and Luis Bunuel’s more bemused attacks on the bourgeoisie. (In some ways, it’s not dissimilar to recent work by Noah Baumbach.) It may also, paradoxically, be his most upbeat film in terms of relationships (given that Kevin spends most of his time mortified by his problems in the bedroom and his family’s behaviour). The film premiered as a Special Presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win Leos (the British Columbia film awards) for best film, best direction and best supporting actress (Rose). Rose also won the Vancouver Film Critics Circle award for her performance.

A vocal advocate for independent filmmaking (as opposed to the consumerist Hollywood mentality infesting Vancouver’s more traditional film sector), Sweeney has also acted as a kind of spiritual mentor to younger B.C. filmmakers, including Reg Harkema and Carl Bessai. Sweeney has remarked that “Canada needs a cinema to call its own, that mirrors our culture, our society, and that doesn’t defeat itself by passing as another.” In his spare time, Sweeney golfs, fishes, teaches and frames cabins on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.

Film and video work includes

Betty and Vera Go Lawnbowling, 1990 (director; co-writer with Vicki Maunsell; co-editor with Kathy Garneau; producer)
Valentine’s Day, 1994 (sound)
Live Bait, 1995 (director; writer; co-editor with Ross Weber; producer)
Dirty, 1998 (director; writer; co-producer with John Dippong, Linda Hay)
Last Wedding, 2001 (director; writer)
American Venus, 2007 (director, writer)
Excited, 2009 (director, writer; co-producer with Catherine Middleton)

By: Mark Peranson
Additional notes by Steve Gravestock

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