'Sleeping Giant' Comes Home: Andrew Cividino Talks About His Award-Winning Festival Hit

Andrew Cividino with a Sleeping Giant audience at Karlovy Vary
Sleeping Giant marks an impressive leap for director Andrew Cividino as his first feature finally hits theatres after being one of last year’s biggest Canadian success stories from the festival circuit. It made waves at Cannes, won Cividino the prize for Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF, and continues to wow audiences beyond Canada and the Croisette. Sleeping Giant brings back characters from Cividino’s short film of the same name as three boys come of age during one warm, wild, and eye-opening summer on the shores of Thunder Bay. The boys, played by Jackson Martin, Reece Moffett, and CanadianScreen Award winner Nick Serino give authentic down-to-earth performances in a film that brings comparisons to Stand By Me and Boyhood, and finally gives Canada a great coming-of-age tale to call its own.

Cinemablographer recently sat down with Cividino at the Cineplex Varsity and Varsity VIP Cinemas before a sneak peek screening to chat Sleeping Giant, festivals, cottage country, the state of Canadian film, and more! (Read the Sleeping Giant review from TIFF here.)
PM: Pat Mullen
AC: Andrew Cividino

PM: You’ve had quite the journey with Sleeping Giant from Cannes through to now, so how does it feel to be releasing the film into the wild?

AC: You know, we’re going to have our promo screening tonight and open in the “very real world” tomorrow and I’m really excited about it. I’m excited to actually have a chance to show non-festival audiences the film and have people engage with it. It’s mostly exciting and it feels like it’s the culmination of the journey. It’s been almost a year since finding out that we got into Cannes and we’ve been riding a wave since then, and for us to now be home and doing a domestic release in Canada and to bring this film to the places where we shot it and the community it originated from, all of that feels like the perfect way to end the journey.

PM: Has Thunder Bay seen it?

AC: No, they’ll be seeing it on April 22. It starts in Toronto [April 8] and it’ll be rolling out to different parts of the country from there.

PM: That’s exciting. You also mentioned festival audiences. Especially as a first time feature filmmaker, how did you measure the success of your film from festival to festival? How did you use different festivals to take the film to new places?

AC: The film played at 45 festivals in 29 countries and I had a chance to go to about half of them, so it’s been really fantastic to see how different cultures respond to the movie. You know, you’re in Mumbai in a city of 20 million people and you’re wondering, ‘Are they going to connect to this film that’s set in Northern Ontario?’ Being able to connect and share it and experience the film with different audiences, demographics, and audiences with different backgrounds from around the world has been really fun and I think it’s actually changed my understanding of the film.

PM: How so?

AC: I think my understanding of the film has evolved in that I thought it was so specific and I guess I realised that by being so specific and focusing on the details of experience that was familiar to me, there was something really universal about that. Seeing how people connect with that has been really rewarding and has made me comfortable in a way that I wasn’t when I first put it out there.
Actors Jackson Martin, Reece Moffett, and Nick Serino
PM: It really has such a strong sense of place and character. I like the observational style in the film. How did you work with your cast and crew to make the most out of your setting?

AC: For me, the story and the setting were always going to be intrinsically linked because I felt it was the perfect place to set this story about these young men. There’s a tension to the setting between the lake that is serene and ‘beautiful summer,’ but is also foreboding with these giant cliff faces and a lake that can whip up with these giant storms. I felt that that tension and potential for violence really mirrored what was going on in these boys’ lives and that I needed to marry those two things and have the story play out in a very specific way.

PM: I also really like how the film conveys the restlessness you feel spending a long summer at the cottage, too. Going off with the setting, you open both the short and the feature film with the same image from the VHS, of the jump from the cliff. How does that image help frame the films?

AC: I think the archival footage of the jump is in both films because framing it in that way makes it feel very real, but I think it also conveys the sense that there’s a performance to the male bravado and the idea that there’s a pressure to it. If you have kids that are down below and are egging you on and they’re filming, then there’s going to be a lot more pressure. I think that’s embedded in the culture of these kids who are constantly pushing these boundaries in these crazy ways.

I also happen to have filmed that archival footage myself when I ways sixteen years old—

PM: Oh, really?!

AC: I was the one at the bottom of the cliff, filming and looking up, so it’s very much connected to my own experience.

PM: Did you make the jump?

AC: I’ve jumped many cliffs, but I would not jump Todd’s Cliff. It’s over 100 feet tall and I’ve never jumped over 64. That’s the top height I’ve ever jumped.

PM: And the friend in the movie, he comes up, right? He was fine?

AC: In real life? Yes, in real life. He was fine—he wasn’t totally fine, but he ended up being fine. It’s a long fall.

PM: You’d probably be in shock.

AC: Yeah.

PM: I like how the films have very different music, especially in the intros. I remember that the short had “Electric Pow Wow,” was there any reason that the song changed?

AC: With the feature, I wanted the music to have a sense of unity. I wanted the film to have a sense of unity. I think having all the music be composed and scored originally would help do that. So I worked with Bruce Peninsula, a band that I really adore, whose music is the credits music for the short film, and I used it in the trailer for the short film as well. They and Chris Thornborrow, who I’ve done all my shorts with, got together and we all collaborated on the score. There were some places even that I found towards the end of editing where I really liked the temp music that was there, but the choice was always, if the two things are equal, to have this music that we made. It becomes part of the DNA of the film. It carries with you throughout the film so when the next musical cue comes, and there aren’t that many, you really get a sense of the through line and the world being complete and not compartmentalised.

PM: And what about the different actors? You had Nick Serino and Reece Moffett in both films and then Jackson Martin coming in for the feature, so how did the dynamic work with sort of like an outsider and the two friends? How did they grow from the short to the feature or work together with a new castmate?

AC: Having worked with Nick and Reece on the short film, I really got to know them very well as human beings and we developed this great relationship, and that in turn really inspired me to flesh out their characters in the feature film. In the original draft, they were more like foils to play opposite Adam, but after knowing them, I think that there was so much more to mine there. And I think that’s how it ended up feeling more like an ensemble between the three of them. It gave me an understanding of the way I could tell the story that would be much more rich. They really gave a lot. We workshopped and they continued to give feedback on the story throughout the process and even shooting, which was really helpful. For the role of Adam, it was important for me to bring in somebody who didn’t have a shorthand with them, who wasn’t friends with them, who wasn’t familiar with the area, and who wasn’t comfortable with the way they were speaking. That oil and water of backgrounds the characters have would be better served with the actors that I cast.

PM: It lets the film have very natural performances.

AC: Thank you.

PM: Critics with Sleeping Giant especially embraced the film as a “Canadian film,” but I find that a lot of the time we’re fairly ambivalent about our own movies, so why do you think this film specifically struck a nerve with Canadians for seeing the film as Canadian?

AC: I think it’s kind of being defined as a Canadian film as a positive in the sense that it’s not “Canadian” through Canadiana. It’s not, you know, maple syrup and flag waving. It’s not a maple-gazing identity crisis. It’s Canadian because it’s unabashedly set in a particular place and has an experience that is very particular to a lot of Canadians, but it is still telling a strong narrative. It doesn’t shy away from what it is; it’s not set anywhere else. It’s set here. Its story is here. But its value is not derived from the fact that it is Canadian. It’s not hoping to hang its hat on the fact that being Canadian gives it inherent value.

PM: That’s very true. And there’s so much familiarity to the story. I’m an avid cottager—a lot of the scenes of the kids on out on the water, hitting sticks, etc., are really familiar to me. I’ve totally done that. But how have audiences outside Canada, in, say, the US, embraced the film? You recently went to New York with the See the North thing as part of Canada’s Top Ten…

AC: Our release in the US is at the beginning of its life. We had Palm Springs and the New York screening at the IFC Centre, and both were really positive and our reviews from the US when we played Cannes, the trades that reviewed us there, were positive. I think it remains to be seen how things will go as it rolls out in the States, but I think it’s very relatable on both sides of the border. I’ve had people from Arkansas who’ve seen the film say things like “I didn’t have a cottage or anything like that growing up, but I grew up in a small town and knew three kids who were the exact same,” so for better or for worse, we’ve all kind of lived it.

PM: And is the film doing TIFF’s Film Circuit?

AC: It is.

PM: That seems like the perfect audience for the film.

AC: I’m excited that small towns across the country get a chance to see it and I hope they come out.
Cividino accepts the award for Best Canadian First Feature at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. WireImage/Getty for TIFF

PM: And sort of maybe looking at what’s next, Sleeping Giant came out in a big year for Canadian movies that were more, say, “internationally Canadian.” How do you feel about being a rising filmmaker in the Canadian film scene as our idea of Canadian film might be changing?

AC: I think the idea of what it is to be in Canadian film is evolving in many ways and one of them is the definition of that based on international co-productions, which are common and a very smart way to get movies made. I don’t know where one draws the line between what is Canadian and what is not; I don’t know if it’s helpful to really champion films that are creatively maybe not Canadian and, you know, minority co-productions, but on the other hand, I guess I don’t know the answer to how we should define what is “Canadian.” I’m more comfortable doing my own thing and letting others figure out how I fit into that creative niche.

PM: I think that’s a good way of looking at it, being open. Now, would you continue the story in another chapter? There have been a few Boyhood comparisons with the film.

AC: Yeah, you know, the idea of doing chapters is interesting. I would love to catch up with these characters in ten years, but I don’t imagine I’ll know if that’s something I’ll think is a good idea in ten years, so I’m certainly not planning any sequel or related story right now, but I guess we’ll see what happens over time as the story continues to evolve.

PM: That’s fair. And what’s next for you?

AC: I’m working on a few projects. I’m adapting one of my short films, We Ate the Children Last, a sci-fi, into a feature, but the ink isn’t dry on the others.

PM: So when you make your shorts, do you have the idea to adapt them into a feature?

AC: This one, Sleeping Giant, was always going to be a feature. We Ate the Children Last, I didn’t know at the time. When I was done it, I had spent so much time making the short that I was ready to leave that world for a while, but I felt that the short was a world that I loved and I felt that there was an opportunity to explore characters in that world. I’ve been re-inspired by it.

Sleeping Giant is now playing in Toronto at the Cineplex Varsity and Varsity VIP from D Films.
It expands in the weeks to come, including a stop in Ottawa at the ByTowne on April 29.