Uncomfortably Numb:
An Interview with Kazik Radwanski, director of How Heavy This Hammer
by Jordan Cronk

How Heavy This Hammer plays Sunday, January 15, with Kazik Radwanski in person, as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2017.

Toronto’s Kazik Radwanski has emerged as one of the most exciting young voices of a new movement in Canadian independent cinema. Following film school and a run of short films produced around the turn of the decade, Radwanski confirmed his considerable talents with the premiere of his first feature, Tower (2012), an anxiety-laced comedy concerning a balding, thirty-something sluggard whose gauche way with women is matched only by his professional pigheadedness. The director’s follow-up, How Heavy This Hammer (2015), is equally attuned to limitations of communication and the inscrutable nature of the human condition. The film follows Erwin (Erwin van Cotthem), an overweight Bulgarian immigrant living in Toronto with his wife (Kate Ashley) and two young boys. An avid rugby player addicted to a medieval-themed computer game, and seemingly numb to a rudderless marriage, Erwin one day decides to leave his wife and explore the frontiers of middle-age dating and single-parent living. With an uncommon sensitivity to the plight of his characters and a feel for unspoken heartache that brings the viewer into direct communion, both visually and thematically, with the nuances of unmoored psychology, Radwanski has crafted a humorous and moving portrait of a good-natured man whose wayward path prompts an unintended reckoning.

Following its premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, with stopovers at the Berlinale and Melbourne International Film Festival in 2016, How Heavy This Hammer arrives at First Look as fresh and inviting as ever. Radwanski and I spoke in the lead-up to the film’s New York bow about his work with actors, the writing process, and the new generation of independent Canadian filmmakers that he represents.

Reverse Shot: Erwin is a unique character––not a protagonist you’re likely to see in many North American films. And he’s certainly a far cry from what I know about you, which is something that seems to apply to most of your characters. I’m curious what draws you to characters so seemingly dissimilar from yourself.

Kazik Radwanski: If I’m being totally honest, the films emerge from a very introspective place. A lot of Erwin’s character is based on my own father, or catching a glimpse of my father at his worst. I had a pretty great dad, but everyone has their moments. Seeing my dad getting addicted to a video game, for example, was pretty fascinating for me. Erwin’s an exaggerated version of that, but in many ways [his story] is extremely personal. It’s almost embarrassingly introspective, so I really count on finding unique people, like Erwin, and then renegotiating it as a way to sort of ground the character. I’m really used to rethinking the character in the casting process. With Erwin there were so many things that I never would have written or planned for––his accent for instance. In fact, through the casting process my instinct was not to work with Erwin––maybe Belgium’s just not a rugby-playing country, I don’t know. But as I got to know him it started to morph into something different. So it’s a mixture of something very personal and completely foreign. I like that juxtaposition.

RS: That’s interesting because despite the dissimilarities––beyond what we just talked about, your leads also tend to be either much older or much younger than yourself––your work still does strike me as very autobiographical. Many of your films deal with family. Your short film Cutaway (2014) is dedicated to your father.

KR: I had started working on Hammer when my father passed away. So I made Cutaway [as a tribute to him] during the making of Hammer. As for the characters’ ages, I guess that really emerged with Princess Margaret Blvd. (2008). I made Assault (2007) first, and liked the idea of trying to do the opposite of that. All my grandparents had passed away, and my grandmother lived on a street called Princess Margaret Blvd., so I think I must have wanted to be around an older actor. I do like working with people who are different than me.

RS: Your films do have an intimate, somewhat casual feel to them. But I get the sense that they’re thoroughly plotted. What is the writing process like?

KR: The screenplays for Tower and Hammer were quite different. It is true that they are quite plotted. I think if you look at the actual outlines for the films they stay pretty true to the initial treatment. Hammer was the closest to a conventional screenplay, in that it was 70 or 80 pages of script. But Tower was just a skeleton of a screenplay. I mostly just wrote scene descriptions that I hoped to fit into the film, knowing we would have to drop some. I was really afraid with my first feature of writing a screenplay and getting overwhelmed in the production and then just falling back on a mediocre screenplay. But with Hammer I was more confident, and it was always very plotted in the sense that I always separated it into three acts throughout the writing process. Not that it’s a conventional three-act structure, more that I always imagined there would be three parts: a period when Erwin is in the marriage, a period when he’s not living at home, and then the final sequence, when he visits the family at the end. But the words written in the script are really just for my reference. I never show the actors the screenplay. I find I always get better results with the dialogue if we do some improvisation and run through the scene a few times. And then once I find the tone that I like I’ll insert some lines. In Hammer, there are a few key lines [that were added] that are almost too on the nose, like Erwin saying he’s “in the middle of a battle,” or that he’s “an old man and [he’s] tired.”

RS: So throughout the process the actors do bring ideas or dialogue to the scenes?

KR: Yeah, I never rehearse without the camera present. I always have the camera either rolling or ready to film. We’ll always run through scenes on location with the camera. It’s not necessarily a peer process. I work however I can get the best results from each actor. I typically shootlong takes––much longer than I need, to sort of ease into the scene, to find the right tone. AndI’ll shoot multiple takes as well––probably a very high ratio compared to most directors. Initially the scenes feel more like rehearsals, kind of like we’re workshopping it with the camera, but I really like to get to a point where I don’t have to talk to Erwin, for example, about the character, and only give him slight adjustments. A big part of How Heavy This Hammer was the total amount of time it took to shoot the film. We shot it over the course of a year––sporadically, almost like you would a documentary, whenever it was convenient for the actors. And that allows a lot for me creatively, to be able to edit and rethink things. But it’s good for the actors too, for them to feel more and more comfortable with the character. I think that’s why I like always having the camera there––we end up just doing the scene rather than talking about it.

RS: You’ve developed a pretty distinctive visual sensibility: close-ups, shallow focus, what seems like a lot of handheld camera work. Can you talk about how that style developed, and how it seems to play into the piecemeal deployment of your narratives?

KR: The elephant in the room when I was in film school was, you know, being too focused on camera and aesthetics and not thinking enough about performance. So I always felt like the camerawork and lighting and editing would evolve naturally, that it would be a skill that would progress. But I always wanted the actors to be at the fore of it. So that’s why even with the early films it feels almost formal, like there’s a rigor with it always being in close-up and always being focused on the actor. I like the feeling of always being so close to one person, especially when we’re unsure why, or curious if there’s a problem with this person. I like that mystery of being so close to someone who probably doesn’t want you to be that close to them. So there’s this feeling of intimacy and authenticity and realism, but I also like the tension of the audience being uncomfortable with being so close to someone––to not allow such a privileged position, for the audience to have to somehow negotiate that distance.

I think a lot of the aesthetic choices are ways for me not to get too distracted with the camera. I’ve always thought of the camera as pretty practical, especially since there are so many variables when shooting with digital. When I started making my early films it was around that turning point where a lot of film students were still shooting on film––it was a real question whether to shoot on film or digital. And I thought because of the digital we should be shooting in close-up. It’s so much more visually pleasing. And when you shoot wide there are just so many other considerations.

RS: You’ve been making films for a number of years, and are now thought of as one of the leading lights of a new generation of Canadian independent filmmakers. It may be impossible to talk about the whole of Canada, but as far as in Toronto, are you guys aware of this growing visibility?

KR: Yeah, it’s great, especially within English Canada. There have always been great French Canadian films, with pretty consistent waves of young filmmakers, with everyone from Denis Villeneuve to Denis Côté to Xavier Dolan. So French cinema was always a bit of a distant influence on me, in as much as wanting English Canadian cinema to be as good as that, or at least feel of similar importance. There are a lot of great filmmakers currently studying or living in Toronto that are from other countries: Nicolás Pereda, for instance, who’s definitely an influence and someone I look up to. But now there’s a real bedrock. In fact, on Tuesday the Toronto Film Critics Association is giving out a prize for best Canadian film and it’s me, Matt Johnson (Operation Avalanche), and Hugh Gibson (The Stairs) up for the award. [Gibson would ultimately win the prize. —Ed.] It feels like a turning point that we’re all around the same age, and we all made these films without the help of our major national funding body, Telefilm. So it felt like a statement for the critics to nominate three directors who weren’t a part of the previous generation of English-Canadian film history.

RS: You’re making films at a pretty consistent clip, despite the well-documented funding issues currently plaguing Canadian filmmaking. In fact, this whole new generation is somehow thriving despite the hurdles. How have these funding problems affected your work, if at all?

KR: It’s interesting. You can look at it a few different ways. For me, I know a lot of U.S. filmmakers who have access to a lot less funding than I do. We do have a great arts council system, which funded my first two features. Tower had a budget of about $40,000, and Hammer was about $70,000 or $80,000, which for a lot of people is a small amount of money, but for me is a huge amount of money, more than I could ever personally invest in a film or even begin to ask for via Kickstarter. So I’ve always welcomed that, and considered it a huge advantage to living in Canada. But at the same time, there is a lot of funding going through Telefilm––they spend one hundred million per year on what sometimes feels like just a handful of directors. So it’s a funny debate, the state of Canadian cinema, which always turns into a long, painful argument. A lot actually has changed in the past year: Telefilm made an announcement that now 50% of its funding will now go toward female directors, which seems like a really healthy step.

RS: Tell me about the production company you work under, MDFF (Medium Density Fibreboard Films). You guys––meaning you and your producer Dan Montgomery––have recently taken the organization from a small production company to something a bit bigger, with a local screening series, among other projects.

KR: It started in the wake of Tower, after it had begun to screen at a lot of festivals. I had always watched a lot of films––I was a cinephile before I was a filmmaker. I worked at a video store and just consumed a lot of films. And that didn’t go away once I started making films. So once I started to travel and meet a lot of these filmmakers, they all seemed interested––they all wanted to screen in Toronto, but there wasn’t always a pathway to make it happen. This was also around the time that the Lightbox opened, which is an incredible venue that has brought so much culture to the city. But it has also kind of led to a restructuring of all the other different cinemas. There just weren’t enough films making it up here, and that really felt like a shame. The first screening we did was for Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act (2012), which we screened at a place called Double Double Land, which is more of an art gallery and performance arts space––just forty foldout chairs. But Dan travelled up for it, and we screened it with Ted Fendt’s Broken Specs (2012). That was three years ago, and now we’re screening Ted’s feature Short Stay (2016). We screened for a time at a place called Camera Bar, but now we’re at the Royal, which is a proper theater, one of Toronto’s old rep houses, where we’ve been for almost two years now I think. I started organizing the screenings on my own, but now some other people help out: [experimental filmmaker and critic] Blake Williams does a lot, and [TIFF associate programmer and critic] Kiva Reardon helps out as well. We were talking earlier about this new wave of Canadian filmmakers––a lot of these people attend the screenings. And more and more New York-based filmmakers are flying up to present their films. It’s been a great way for people to meet each other.