Sarnia, Ontario, 1962
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 on Kissed .)
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 who he works with, including Tom Scholte (who has played Sweeney’s loose alter ego in all of his features to date), Benjamin Ratner, Nancy Sivak and Babz Chula.
Influenced by the quiet films of Jean Renoir from the 1930s, Sweeney’s semi-autobiographical debut feature Live Bait (1995) began as a master of fine arts’ 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 Sweeney 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 — it became the first film from a western Canadian director to open the Toronto International Film Festival.
A vocal advocate for independent filmmaking (as opposed to the consumerist Hollywood mentality infesting Vancouver’s more traditional film sector), Sweeney also acts as a kind of spiritual mentor to younger, equally streetwise B.C. filmmakers, including Reg Harkema and Carl Bessai. Sweeney remarked, “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 and frames cabins on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.