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“I’ve Always Been Cautious of Measuring Success”: Kazik Radwanski on How Heavy This Hammer

Erwin Van Cotthem in How Heavy This Hammer

After premiering on home soil at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, Canadian filmmaker Kazik Radwanski’s second feature film, How Heavy This Hammer, screened at the Berlin International Film Festival to critical acclaim. A New York premiere, as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s annual winter First Look series, wouldn’t surface until a year later where, in anticipation of its Gotham debut, it was deemed by the Village Voice as “striking, clear-eyed, and very, very funny” and “justly celebrated as one of the best Canadian films in years.”  A microbudget film about an overweight Canadian father saddled with a combative attitude and love for computer games (well, one computer game in particular), Radwanski’s latest is a film led by an impatient, complex character.

As How Heavy This Hammer opens for a week-long run in the Screen Forward series at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, I spoke with Radwanski about his interest in improvisation, merging his characters with the actors he casts, editing while in the midst of a shoot, and how he supports his fellow filmmakers through a unique screening series in Toronto. 

Filmmaker: A good place to start is to ask about MDFF (Medium Density Fibreboard Films), what it is and how How Heavy This Hammer, your second feature, is a representation of the company.

Radwanski: MDFF started with my longtime producing partner Dan Montgomery, and I. We started making short films out of film school and then made two features, Tower and How Heavy This Hammer. They’re microbudget films primarily funded through the Toronto Arts Council. We sometimes ask for funding through other Canadian initiatives too. While MDFF mainly consists of my films, we’ve since collaborated with a few other filmmakers and organize a screening series at The Royal in Toronto. How Heavy This Hammer is a pretty good representation of MDFF: microbudget filmmaking, a barebones crew.

Filmmaker: Does your screening series at The Royal further that mission of supporting other filmmakers who share the same style?

Radwanski: Yeah, and that grew out of traveling with Tower, my first feature that screened at festivals. We ran into so many filmmakers who made films we liked, films we wanted our friends to see. And while they wanted their work to screen in Toronto, there wasn’t really a pathway to make that happen. It started pretty organically in small town venues, but now we’re at The Royal, a fairly big theater in Toronto, and it’s become a lot more organized. We like the featured filmmakers to be in attendance for their screenings, and so we feature a number of New York filmmakers because it’s a cheap flight up [to Canada]. We try to get a lot of foreign films as well. We’re screening Philippe Grandrieux’s  Malgré La Nuit next month. We have a small programming team now, and the featured work is mostly festival hits. A nice little community has formed around it and it’s become a good monthly/social thing.

Filmmaker: You met co-founder Dan Montgomery at Ryerson University where you both studied film. Was there a collaborative process between the two of you as undergrads that lead to pursuing a career-focused partnership?

Radwanski: Yeah! We went through the four-year underground program and made our first short film together in our third year. My thesis film played at TIFF and had a pretty good festival life, such as Berlin and a few other bigger European festivals. That provided some motivation and made us feel like we could keep doing this outside of school. Aside from Dan, I’ve worked with the same editors since film school and we share a lot of collaborators too. A lot of people were in Toronto and starting to make films around the same time as us. It built upon itself until we felt confident enough to make a feature. Making those short films, I think, led to us making features and allowed us to slowly learn how to produce and organize ourselves.

Filmmaker: Whittled down to its simplest description, How Heavy This Hammer is a character study of a father who’s worn down, frustrated, competitive, and a nightly creature of habit. I cringe a little bit using the term “character study,” but the film is about this man who can be a real son of a bitch to his children, his wife, and everyone who attempts to get to know him. Did you approach the film from more of a character perspective or a narrative one?

Radwanski: I suppose character. I guess that’s a term that gets thrown around a lot that people start to cringe at. All of my films are pretty character-centric, starting with the short films. It came out of an interest in figuring out how to work with actors and experiment with performance. I really struggled with screenplays early on and had an interest in improvising and working with non-actors. We’d shoot these short films and want to keep going. We’d shoot for a month and it would feel like a shame to cut them short. With How Heavy This Hammer, I thought of the lead character abstractly when I was writing him, and relied on finding someone to tailor it to and grow from there. I’ve made four or five shorts very similarly, character-centric and focused on one person. Stylistically, they’re all very focused on closeups too.

Filmmaker: And you never show your screenplays to your actors?

Radwanski: That’s true. Hammer had an eighty-page screenplay with dialogue, but I never showed it to the actors. That could just be my directing style, but I like to workshop the scene before giving them the dialogue. I’m always afraid of stumbling over the dialogue, and so I like to rehearse for a while and then feed the actors lines. There are a few lines in Hammer that are clearly written, like when Erwin (played by Erwin Van Cotthem) says “I’m in the middle of a battle” or when he provides those viking analogies. It’s definitely “written” in a lot of ways, but I enjoy the rehearsal and improvising process. I get a lot of inspiration from the actors and enjoy working with natural-sounding dialogue, looking to learn how the actors speak and then twisting the dialogue to suit them. 

Filmmaker: The film keeps coming back to this image of Erwin sitting in front of his computer, transfixed by a crude medieval video game reflected back into his eyeglasses. As operatic music swells over the image, a serene gaze takes hold over the zombified actor. It would take hold over the audience too, if not for the fact that the monotony of violence carried out in the form of pixelated ogres and warriors is more of a warning sign into Erwin’s psyche than a tranquil moment of relaxation. What was it about making this Erwin’s obsession that was so important to you? 

Radwanski: I was attracted to the video game thing because I wanted him to be addicted to something that wasn’t obvious (like alcohol). The addiction teeters between being funny and being serious, and that’s the nature of Erwin’s problem. It could be seen as a problem that’s easily dismissed as unserious, but maybe it actually is quite serious. I also liked the whole virtual aspect [of Erwin’s addiction]; it could serve as his headspace. I wanted to film a character alone, sort of procrastinating, and I liked this world he could enter into. The music you described came later, and it’s the only nondiegetic music in the film. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with music that way. Perhaps the nondiegetic music [represents] Erwin’s opera, this weird phase he’s going through, and at the same time, that juxtaposition is contrasted in a funny way that’s almost absurd.

Filmmaker: I’m curious about your subtle use of dark humor. The film has a number of uncomfortable moments throughout, but there are some that are rather hilarious, such as when Erwin bounces an exercise ball on his exhausted dog’s head or when he knocks his son down while participating in a game of rugby. The film’s humor comes from the repercussions our main character never appears to see coming. How did you balance sympathy for your characters with an unflinching look at how awful they can occasionally appear to be?

Radwanski: I feel like there’s an inherent sympathy for characters that I’m always playing with, especially with male characters. It’s something I think about a lot, and each scene focuses on how the character sees himself and how we, the audience, see him. I rely on the handheld aesthetic too. A lot of the time I’m worried that we’re judging the character too much, and other times I think there’s an inherent sympathy already [present] due to that handheld aesthetic. There’s a constant push-and-pull to find the right tone, to balance all of these elements to the point that it’s something interesting to watch. I like being close to someone and featuring an intimate portrayal of trying to understand these moments, but at the same time I like it feeling claustrophobic and alienated and being uncomfortable due to being too close to this person. It goes hand-in-hand with the morality of the character, how we empathize with him. There’s something inherently human about him but also something questionable too. 

Filmmaker: I’m also reminded of a lovingly crude and sentimental moment where Erwin, feeling sorry over his son’s disappointment in his earlier actions, pantomimes urinating through a coffee cup in public. It’s an odd moment but one that feels like the most authentic act of bonding and friendship this character can demonstrate.

Radwanski: In a way it’s a nice moment and in a way it’s kind of immature. Erwin’s a good father, he’s a good guy, but on the other hand, you’re a little unsure of him. I like that scene a lot too. I was thinking of that scene in A Woman Under the Influence where Peter Falk is in the back of a pickup truck giving his kids beer to help them relax after that scene on the beach. Mine was a scene meant to show the dad figuring out how to look after the kids when the mom’s not there. It also allowed me to build in a chance to make fun of Tim Horton’s.

Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned getting in really close with your camera. What kind of camera did you use for the shoot?

Radwanski: We used the Canon C300.

Filmmaker: I ask because the film resists the urge to comfort its audience with familiar film language, such as shot-reverse shot, two shots, master shots, etc. Many of your scenes are framed with a part of Erwin’s head out of frame (which adds to our conception of his large physical presence) or with several edits that, experienced together, establish a visual coherence but individually are almost their own segmented moments of character detail (the son who has soap in his eyes, the nervous adopted dog). Does this style stem more from your collaboration with your DP or your editor? How do they merge?

Radwanski: Well, I’ve worked with Hammer editor Ajla Odobasic on all of my films. I’ve always loved working with her because she’s a filmmaker in her own right. She’s great with rhythm and pacing and she helps with these kinetic moments, helping the images to become more lyrical. I suppose it’s worth pointing out that we edit the film as we shoot. I shoot over quite a long period of time and we shot Hammer over the course of a year. We started editing about a third of the way through the shoot, gauging what scenes are working and conceptualizing what to shoot later to complement those. 

Filmmaker: Are you filming during the day and editing during the night? Or are you taking a break and coming back to the material to edit at a later date?

Radwanski: We shoot sporadically throughout the year. We shot maybe forty days over the course of the year. We’ll do spurts of shooting, review the footage, and I’ll do sessions with Ajla and then a week later shoot another scene. That’s something we developed with the short films I made. We only had access to people at certain times and so we had to spread out the shooting. It’s something I’ve grown to rely on now. I love the feeling of shooting something, having the time to think about it, and then going back and shooting more. Ajla’s definitely a part of that process, and I trust her eye and how she responds to performance and knows what scenes are working and which scenes aren’t. I’ve always been a digital filmmaker. I’ve always fully embraced that. I’ve never been ashamed of shooting pickups. That’s always been a part of how I think about filmmaking. 

My relationship with my cinematographer Nikolay Michaylov is different [than my relationship with Ajla] because he’s always on set with me. We have a really tiny crew, sometimes consisting of just myself, Nikolay, and a sound recordist. Nikolay likes to react to the moment and I always like to let a performance or a moment drive the scene as we much as we can and then react to it. I’ve worked with him on only two films, just Hammer and the short film I made just before. As I mentioned, my body of work always focuses on a single character and is character-centric and focuses on a person’s face. There’s a certain Dogme aesthetic to it, and then it becomes about breaking that aesthetic to catch the soap in the son’s eyes, for example. Or it becomes about figuring out how to shoot the stuff on Erwin’s computer. That was probably the biggest challenge in terms of cinematography. I’ve tried doing stuff like that before, where a person is alone and working on a computer…it’s such a boring shot. We spent a lot of time trying to figuring out a way for that shot to have the weight we wanted. It ended up being us playing with the reflection in Erwin’s glasses and trying to find a bit of depth. 

Filmmaker: I really enjoyed the scene where Erwin goes to a hotel room with a blind date. Erwin’s intentions in this scene are quite different than that of his date’s, and as the two actors lie in bed together, your camera’s proximity to the actors creates an intimate discomfort that we correctly suspect will end in dissatisfaction for both. How did you discuss staging Erwin’s awkward advancements and come-ons?

Radwanski: The key to that scene was the scenario, the hotel room. Whenever I work with actors, I always talk to them separately. We never talk about the scene as a whole. That sequence consists of a first date that ends up back in a hotel room, so there’s enough to imply that something might happen. It’s an awkward scenario. In terms of improvisation and rehearsing, I always have a camera with me. I never rehearse or doing anything without it and so I like the added presence of the camera, to just let things happen and allow us not to talk as much. Erwin has quite a thick skin, but that scene was really the first moment where he was a bit unsure. We had longer conversations inbetween takes to figure out the right approach for the scene.

Filmmaker: The characters in your film share the names of the actors playing them. Is that something you use as a technique to break the fourth wall down?

Radwanski: It’s not, and that’s something I may reconsider doing [going forward]. I always get that question in Q&As, but really it’s just done for convenience. Maybe I should be more aware of that. I’m not signaling that the real-life Erwin is anything like the character he’s playing. There are some similarities, of course, but it’s not a film about the actor. His name isn’t some sort of indication that this is a documentary.

Filmmaker: But you did find an actress by the name of Liz Taylor for the hotel room scene…

Radwanski: That’s right! [laughs] That’s her actual name. I always give the actors the option of choosing their own names. If they’re comfortable using their own name, I like it. It just feels like they will react to it more. For me, it’s about getting rid of any pretense on set. However, after all of the Q&As with people asking me about this, I’m starting to see that it does seem to indicate something to the audience that I didn’t really intend.

Filmmaker: The film’s final dialogue back-and-forth, between Erwin and his wife, becomes a little more traditional in its use of shot-reverse shot. The moment stands out due to its break from the rigidness of the film’s first two-thirds. What was it about that moment between Erwin and his wife that affected how you chose to shoot it?

Radwanski: I think that’s a good observation. I don’t know how thought out it was on my end, but I think in that moment Erwin doesn’t totally realize [the situation]. I feel like if there is a conclusion to the film or a point to the ending, it’s that maybe Erwin has a sense of what happened. I feel that throughout the film he’s in his own bubble and doesn’t realize his behavior or the extent that it’s having an effect on his life. Returning to his house and being around his kids and hearing what his wife is saying makes him a bit more aware of the predicament he’s in, that he’s created for himself. I think his wife is heard more [than Erwin] in that scene and controls that scene. Even though Erwin is depressed and weak in many ways, he’s still pretty powerful in every conversation he has. People try to help him but he’s powerful enough to push people away. That scene you mentioned features a dynamic where a person other than Erwin is more firmly established than he is. It’s less heavily weighted on Erwin. 

Filmmaker: I really liked the title card that appears at the end of the film. The font you use is also used on your poster and in all of your marketing materials. When I see it I think of some Hammer films from the Vincent Price era. That’s what I associate it with in my own head at least. Could you speak about how you chose that font and how the marketing materials reflect that look?

Radwanski: For me it was more about my liking of mythology, or maybe Lord of the Rings, something that looks like genre a little bit. I was talking earlier about opera music, and I like that the idea of the title (which is meant to sound like a warrior retiring from battle, i.e. “how exhausted I am from this battle”) is also somewhat tongue-in-cheek. For a film so loose in many ways, it’s nice to have these more epic-sounding genre aspects to pin on it. We’re aware of the contrast. 

Filmmaker: In a recent appreciation of the film for the Village Voice, critic Calum Marsh remarked that How Heavy This Hammer, much like your debut feature Tower, may unfortunately be fated to live on in distribution limbo. How do you measure the success of your films? 

Radwanski: I’ve always been cautious of measuring success. I’m sure it’s something I’ll think about more and more as I make more films. I’ll have a better sense of being able to predict or gauge the success with an audience. I really try to ground it in the aspects of cinema I love, the dialogue that comes from a film screening or festival and from people writing about the film. That means more to me than box office numbers or distribution sales. I guess I’m lucky enough to live in Canada. How Heavy This Hammer was funded by the arts councils and that was an amazing opportunity. I just wanted to be as true to the film and its ideas and craft [as I could be]. When I’m making the film, I’m not making any considerations about distribution. However, once the film’s finished, I’ll do anything I can to try and push to get it out there. I do as much as I can for other filmmakers too, through the MDFF series in Toronto, to get unusual films out there, find a home for them, and find a dialogue that people can engage in. 

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