Beyond The Tide

A look behind the lens with local filmmaker Christian Sparkes

By: Dillon Collins

It’s Spring of 2024. Cineplex Theatres in St. John’s boasts the world’s biggest blockbusters. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is sweeping the nation. The Fall Guy with your Kenemy and mine Ryan Gosling and everyone’s not-so-secret crush Emily Blunt is charming audiences. And writer/director Christian Sparkes has not one, but two films screening at his hometown multi-plex. 

“It’s interesting,” Christian says during a one-on-one with Downhome following the theatrical release of his eerie thriller The King Tide and resettlement-focused-drama Sweetland, both shot in Newfoundland and Labrador. “In some ways, it’s very exciting because I grew up watching films in the theatre at the Avalon Mall and at Sobey’s Square. To have your own film play there and to see it on the marquee and have friends and family go see it is very exciting. But at the same time, I’m always kind of looking to the next ones.”

Christian – a jack of all trades in the business who has had a hand in directing, writing, producing and editing – rose to prominence following the release of his gothic fairytale Cast No Shadow and gritty crime drama Hammer, once again finds himself drawn to compelling stories centred around isolation. 

In The King Tide, starring Clayne Crawford, Alix West Lefler and seasoned thespian Frances Fisher, an idyllic island village is disturbed following the emergence of a landwashed child with mysterious powers. Christian masterfully holds a dark lens to island living, capitalizing on the rugged complexities and thrilling possibilities at his disposal.  

“The kind of darker, more gothic side of Newfoundland has always held a special appeal to me,” he says of the production, shot in Keels, which The Hollywood Reporter called “effectively eerie and insightful.” 

“I just gravitate towards slightly darker, more melancholic material and film in general. Like the artwork of Blackwood, and even the writing of a lot of Crummey is fairly stark in representing the texture and how difficult it is to live and survive in Newfoundland, both in the past and in the modern day. For whatever reason that kind of darker or slightly fairytale aesthetic has always really appealed to me.”

In Sweetland, an adaptation of Michael Crummey’s award-winning novel of the same name starring Mark Lewis Jones and Newfoundland’s own Sara Canning, Amelia Manuel and Mary Walsh, the death of a community is at the heart of one man’s struggle against the extinction of everything he holds true. 

“Sweetland in particular is kind of the quintessential modern-day rural Newfoundland story. And most of Canada doesn’t know anything about it,” Christian shares of the emotionally resonant piece which will likely cut to the core of many islanders. “I think Crummey found a simple story to illuminate the idea of resettlement in a beautiful way that resonated with me. I really identified with the character of Moses (Sweetland). There’s a lot of change going on in the world, and I’m kind of resistant to it. I don’t necessarily always want to change. I like living the way I live, and I’m sometimes resistant to adapt. Moses, his struggle resonated pretty clearly with me. And the writing was just so beautiful.”

From an artist who has operated on a micro-budget, to having his films screened at the Atlantic International Film Festival and the much-hyped Toronto International Film Festival, Christian is as big a proponent of supporting his home province as anyone. Indeed, most of his projects are shot and based – in actuality or spirit – in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

“It’s always exciting to bring outsiders in and show off your home, especially people that have never experienced the rugged landscape and beauty of Newfoundland,” he says proudly. “I take pride in casting local actors when I can and when they’re right for the roles, of course, but I don’t feel beholden to that. I want the best performer that I can possibly get for the role.”

More times than not of late, the standout performer in a Christian Sparkes feature has been a child actor. Alix West Lefler, playing the pivotal role of Isla in The King Tide, and the previously undiscovered Cali Turner in Sweetland, are show-stealers in their respective roles. 

“They say don’t work with children. I don’t find that to be true. That hasn’t been my experience,” Christian boasts. “In a way, if you find the right child actor, I will say it’s oftentimes easier than working with adults because they don’t over-intellectualize the material. They just operate on instinct. And if they instinctually understand the story and understand acting, or at least present that way, I often have to say very little to these kids. So it’s really about being thorough with the audition tapes and seeing as many kids as you possibly can to find the right ones.”

Enjoying the fruits of his labours with two critically acclaimed feature films making their way into cinemas at home and across the country, Christian Sparkes is hesitant to rest on his laurels. On the contrary, there’s work to be done and more than a few stories left to tell. 

In a sneak peek with Downhome, Christian peels back the curtain into three of his upcoming projects, one of which is a film set in the 1990s that delves into the Jordan era of the NBA, where grunge music and counter-culture fashion reigned supreme. 

“It’s very much about basketball fandom in the 90s, in the Michael Jordan era when Pearl Jam and Nirvana were on the radio. And it’s all about growing up in that era and a love of basketball, music and culture at that time. It’s three brothers and it’s all about one weekend of three dissecting stories, soundtracked with all the best tracks from that era and all kinds of pop cultural references.”

From there Christian pivots to more high-stakes fare with an adaptation of a thrilling David Adams Richards novel. 

“It takes place down in Mexico. It’s about a jailed heiress, from a very wealthy Canadian family who gets accused of the murder of a young Mexican boy. And it’s about multiple layers of power, corruption and religion down in Mexico City. It almost has echoes of Soderbergh’s Traffic. It’s a very ambitious, multilayered story.”

Finally, Christian delves back into the world of Michael Crummey, co-writing with the lauded local author and collaborator Charles Picco on a new folk horror script titled Sea Change. 

“That takes place in the early 1800s in Newfoundland about conjoined twins who get separated and weave a dark spell upon their parents and their town. So that one will be the most pure horror and really wild and perverse. It’s a really exciting cinematic story that we have a great draft of.”

Diverse, dynamic and driven, watch out for Christian Sparkes as a new name in Canadian cinema.

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