Film Discussion Interviews & Profiles

VIFF 2019 – The Twentieth Century – An interview with director Matthew Rankin

Winnipeg filmmaker Matthew Rankin is already making waves on the national festival scene with his debut The Twentieth Century, a darkly amusing gut shot to everything Canada.

Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay sat down with the writer-director at VIFF 2019 to find out what drove him to take the piss so emphatically out of his nation’s identity.

NICHOLAS LAY: Congrats on The Twentieth Century and the Best Canadian First Feature Film win at TIFF; how’s the festival circuit been and what sort of reaction have you had from audiences?

MATTHEW RANKIN: The circuit has been wonderful. It’s been amazing to show the film in festivals across Canada, especially considering how much of a piss take it is. No-one from Canada gets a break in this movie, but the reaction has been great. The film walks a fine line between cerebra and viscera, so at Midnight Madness the crowd was very rowdy and responsive, which makes sense as that audience is there to see something strange. We delivered on that. I figured if the walkout quota was less than 75% then that would be an achievement!

NL: The film is certainly a unique take on Canadian history and national identity, centred on former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. How did you come up with the idea and what influenced you during its development?

MR: It began with Mackenzie King’s diary, which I was excited to read and saw as something that could be reprocessed through film. I describe it as a nightmare that he might have had, which expands and delves into a subconscious, parallel Canada. I wanted to burrow into the fine woodwork in which Canadian identity has been very ornately and smugly enshrined, and expose its rot. It’s a film about youth that ultimately plays with the universal narratives of love and longing; it’s a little bit of a melodrama, a little bit of a rom-com, and certainly a pisstake of Canada and the self-gratifying, self-pleasuring ways that we represent ourselves. In short, I wanted to get into the perverse underpinnings that lie beneath the surface.

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NL: Blind political ambition, social division, corrupt discourse; these are just some of the themes explored in TTC. What message were you trying to put across?

MR: I think of Mackenzie King as a centrist, a sort of radical moderate. He walked these lines between fanaticisms during the twentieth century, which itself was a process of confrontation between utopian visions of the future and an all out nightmarish apocalypse. Mackenzie King landed in the middle of all that, and the film raises the question of that radical centrism. What does it mean? Is it a space for us to listen to each other and to compromise, or is it simply protecting a complacent system and our own political power?

NL: This is your debut feature following several shorts; how did the production come about?

MR: I love making short films, but I had been working on this for a while and really wanted to make a political epic. I’ve long existed in this subhuman class of independent Canadian cinema, so it was a battle to get things off the ground, but I was ready to fight that fight.

NL: Which filmmakers or cultural figures have influenced you the most over the years? Are they present in The Twentieth Century?

MR: Monty Python and Kids in the Hall are big influences. I’m from Winnipeg, so of course Guy Maddin is a master to me. Lars von Trier’s Europa is another example as it’s a film that gets into mischief with artifice and explores the related themes of Europe and its history. Each of these has a presence hovering over The Twentieth Century, as do the likes of Metropolis and The Scarlett Empress by Josef von Sternberg.

NL: I’m surprised Daniel Beirne (Mackenzie King) and the cast were able to keep a straight face long enough to finish the shoot. What were they like to work with? Which character got the most laughs on set?

MR: The cast was incredible. Everyone adapted to the strange frequency of the film, in that they were able to play it straight while walking the required line between irony and earnestness. Dan Beirne is hilarious and was already one of Canada’s great comic actors. He is able to summon such a deep well of emotion, feed it through a comic prism, and still be really funny, which is such a particular and interesting talent. Everything he does is great, even something as simple as taking off a jacket, which is one of my favourite moments in the film. He cracked me up a lot on set, as did Brent Skagford (Arthur Meighen) and Sean Cullen (Lord Muto).

NL: What was the most memorable part of the shoot?

MR: There’s a scene in which someone is decapitated with a skate, which for various reasons didn’t work on set. Eventually I ran out of time, but it was such an important scene that I ended up re-shooting it in my apartment, which involved pouring 12 litres of fake corn syrup blood onto my bedroom floor. It took forever to clean up and it must have seeped into the floorboards, as when spring came I had a huge ant infestation. It may still be ongoing… I’m not sure as I moved away soon after!

NL: You give Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver humorously dark makeovers, but save the film’s real debauchery for Winnipeg. Like most people I assume you found it easy to lampoon your home town?

MR: That’s true, I did. There is a competition amongst Winnipeg artists to see who can make the city seem as weird as possible. It’s a very ironic city, and it’s hard to have a coherent or literal-minded relationship with it. People try, but most artists there take more of an anti-establishment approach. What they really love about the city is how strange and mutant it is. I’m the same, so it comes across as this sub-earthly trash heap. Some folks back home might not like that, but towards the end of the film Lady Violet expresses how much she hates Toronto because it is full of “normals”. That’s why she lives in Winnipeg. For me, that is Winnipeg’s triumph.

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NL: The film has been well received on the festival circuit; when can we expect a commercial release date?

MR: I don’t know the exact date, but there will be a commercial release in Canada and the United States sometime this winter.

NL: What’s next for Matthew Rankin? Do you have a new feature in mind? Any long term ambitions as a filmmaker?

MR: The last several films I’ve made, including the shorts, have been studio films, so my next project will be shot on real locations and will be entirely in Persian. The vision is of an Iranian meta realism piece, which I’m very excited about. I want to make something slow after such an unbridled and dense slice of melodrama. For several years I’ve also been shooting these very meditative 16mm propaganda pieces for Parks Canada, though I think after The Twentieth Century comes out my days may be numbered!

NL: Finally, you’re deeply entrenched in Canada’s indie film scene. What other filmmakers should we be looking out for?

MR: That’s a cool question! The most amazing Canadian film I’ve seen this year is Tito by Grace Glowicki. It’s an incredible, unendingly strange piece of outsider art that has possibly the greatest vomit scene in cinematic history. Seriously, she’s changed the vomit scene game; the way she filmed it was perfect. There’s also two guys from Winnipeg, Milos Mitrovic and Fabian Velasco, who just made Tapeworm, which in my opinion is a total masterpiece. Both films are defiantly weird and singular, and just made by incredible artists, so I’d encourage film lovers to seek them out.

NL: Matthew, thanks for taking the time.

MR: My pleasure.

Catch up on our coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2019 here.

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