Culture & Conversation

The Klein Files

Jesse Klein seems such a nice fellow in person. Upbeat, endowed with a sharp wit and always ready with a tangential anecdote, he doesn’t seem too glum in casual conversation. But like many in the Canadian film milieu, when Klein sits down to write, things enter into a harsher dimension. Since 2011, when he made his first feature, a confident debut film called Shadowboxing, Klein showed a clear ability to lay the human condition bare. 

In that film, a young man returns after a stint in college to find his home life a mess. Shadowboxing showed us the inner turmoil of its central character and his tortured relationships to damaged parents, while also hinting at the rather dire obstacles faced by a generation told to reduce their expectations dramatically.

Last year Klein followed up with a smart short film about nocturnal alienation, titled simply Night Out. At this year’s Les Rendez-vous, he presents the premiere of his latest, Mother’s Day, a short film about a man who considers suicide but has second thoughts upon being reminded that it’s Mother’s Day so he’s due for a visit. Klein has again created an engaging film, with a style caught somewhere between humour and despair. He sat down to talk about his latest and the challenges facing young filmmakers today on the eve of Les Rendez-vous.

What was the inspiration for this specific film?

It’s funny to use the word inspiration for a film that’s so downtrodden. The subject of depression has come up in my films before. I wanted this character’s (Gary) depression to be undefined. Instead of explicit back story like a death or a divorce or something, I wanted to just state the fact: This person is depressed because he is, because some people are depressed. Then the way in which he interacted with his family would place him in the world and force him to engage. So, like a lot of the stuff I look at, I was starting from his aloneness and how that related to his world, in this case, his family.

Like a lot of great filmmakers, you seem to have some obsessions. What would you say your primary ones are?

I think my work hovers around the subject of miscommunication and the resulting alienation. My characters are never saying what they mean, or if they are they’re not doing it very well, or the other person can’t hear them. They can’t make themselves understood, and the harder they try, the more frustrated they become. And they never stop trying.

Who would you say your main influences are?

I find that it’s the work that I don’t immediately respond to, the one that challenges and pushes, that I most often return to and learn from. It’s the films that upset me but in a way that offers a new perspective, even if it’s aggressive or even ugly. There are a bunch of films of the past few years among them Frownland, Ex Drummer, Our Day Will Come and The Comedy that really divided viewers and though I found them tough in some ways, I felt it was that confrontational aspect that made me look harder, and each time I found there was just so much going on.

What first led you to filmmaking?

I wrote about film and made a few shorts during my undergrad but wouldn’t say that I was totally committed at that point. Then, I wrote a feature, one that I knew I could make super low-budget. From there, I went to film school where I finished the feature, made shorts and worked on sets in a lot of different positions (everyone works with everyone in film school). Now that I’m done, I’m still working on sets in a lot of different capacities and writing a new feature.

What insights did you gain from film school?

People like to put film school down and say you can learn just as much from a video store membership and working on a lot of sets. I find that to be pretty reductionist. Film school gives you time and space to work on your own stuff. That luxury is not necessarily afforded to you if you’re just gigging. The atmosphere can at times be negative, it’s hard for MFA programs not to get competitive, but I found the community aspect, the  opportunity  to teach (which also made it affordable), and the time to focus on your own work invaluable. I think it comes down to choosing the right program in each individual instance.

What is the shift to digital doing to the art of cinema?

I would put it in the past tense at this point, I think the shift has occurred. And though I personally prefer the look of film, I see the shift to digital as a totally positive thing because it liberated the indie filmmaker, and really anyone who wants to say something with a camera. In innumerable contexts, it’s provided the chance for someone to have a voice who would not otherwise have had one. It changes the way we shoot, just by the difference in texture and color, but again, there are so many advantages that digital filmmaking has brought about that the aesthetic drawbacks (which are at this point negligible) pale in comparison.

What’s the toughest thing about being an aspiring filmmaker right now?

Really, the toughest thing is also the most encouraging: there are just so many great movies being made, even compared to five years ago, that if your work does not set itself apart in some way, it’s hard to find an audience. There are dozens of features and hundreds of shorts that play at film festivals yearly that no one ever has the chance to see because there isn’t a platform, or platforms, to satisfy the new volume of material. But if you seek it out, it’s there.

Jesse Klein’s new film, Mother’s Day, screens as part of the Different View program at Les Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois (RVCQ)

Monday, Feb. 25 at 9:45pm at the Cinémathèque québécoise, 335 de Maisonneuve est 


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