Festival Daily

By Elizabeth Beddall

When you call Joel Hynes’s home and catch the muffled squeak of a child’s voice – and hear a patient father suggest that his son go draw him a picture of a grizzly bear – you may, at first, wonder if you have the right person on the line.

His body of written work may have you expecting something quite different. In fact, legend has it that the 37-year-old author-actor is partial to rage and mass destruction; that his persona could reach through the phone and sock you in the face.

“Well, you know, it follows me around,” Hynes says of the infamous reputation he has developed since penning the rough-and-tumble novel Down to the Dirt. “It was autobiographical for a period of my life, but nowadays, it’s so different. I have a small child and sobriety is a big deal to me.”

“Christ,” he adds. “I’m a homeowner.” And above and beyond his domestic responsibilities, Hynes has recently taken on the lead role in the film adaptation of his very own novel, set to premiere at the Festival today. What’s more, Hynes will play the part of Keith Kavanagh – the hard-drinking, fast-living protagonist he so candidly based upon himself. 

“The first time that I read [Joel’s book], it was still only a manuscript,” says Down to the Dirt film director Justin Simms, from his home in Newfoundland. “My first reaction was, ‘This guy can really write.’ It was one of those experiences where you aren’t conscious that you’re reading at all.”

It was around the same time that a close friendship began to form between Hynes and Simms, who had first met at an audition for Simms’s short film, The Audience. From that meeting, the pair began to collaborate on a number of artistic projects, until the novel idea came up over a cup of tea with fellow pals Sherry White and Anna Petras.

“Predominantly, [the film adaptation] came out of a conversation we had around a dining room table,” says Simms. “We all agreed that we were at the point where we felt we could live up to the size and the scale of this project.”
 Soon after that conversation, production began on an adaptation of Hynes’s novel – the pages of which are laden with unvarnished depictions of small-town Newfoundland. But not every element of Down to the Dirt’s original plotline has remained rooted to its foundation. 

“Joel was one of the biggest cheerleaders in terms of our not feeling completely tied to the source and material,” Simms says. “He was on board for anything, and he really wanted to try pushing the envelope when it came to Keith’s character.”

Among the most prevalent of page-to-screen modifications was that of upping Keith Kavanagh’s age from early 20s in the book to early 30s on camera. Both Hynes and Simms agreed that this change would only help to strengthen the authenticity of the narrative. 

“Fundamentally, it’s a story about the need for personal evolution, and I don’t think anyone ever outgrows that,” says Hynes. “I think you can be 50 and experience that sort of deal. I know people that age who are drinking themselves to death.”

Such frankness of spirit is evident in the author’s prose and his onscreen performance. In both, Hynes conveys the story of a man whose only escape from a dreary, sheltered lifestyle is booze, sex and reckless behaviour. That is, until the day he meets his match in the ferocious and beautiful Natasha (played by Mylène Savoie), and his world begins to change for the better and for the worse.

In its novel form, Down to the Dirt has received widespread critical acclaim, and has been recognized with a number of literary honours – including winning the Percy Janes First Novel Award and being shortlisted for the coveted Winterset Award.

Simms admits that dealing with the hype surrounding the film has been a challenge, but one that he and his crew have welcomed. “That pressure is ultimately an inspiration to work harder, and not because we want to subvert people’s expectations or get them to compare the film directly to their memory of the book,” he says. “The bar is just set a little higher in the case of an adaptation, and we’ve always tried to focus on that as a motivator.”

Evidently Hynes and Simms have also drawn motivation from each other throughout the filmmaking process – a necessity in such a unique artistic environment where the performer is ultimately being advised how to, and how not to, act like a previous version of himself. 

“Over the years, we’ve gotten to know each other as friends and collaborators,” says Hynes. “There’s a sincere level of trust behind our relationship, and I think that comes across in the film.”

And as for any opening-night anxiety, “I don’t feel that much pressure about it at all, really,” says Hynes. “I’ve been through the wringer. Praised and hailed and slammed and bashed all over the country and back.”
 “One of the things I’ve been learning over the years is once I’ve signed off on a book or a story, then it’s no longer mine,” he continues. “It belongs to an audience and a reader to see it how they may see it.”

Simms is keen to release Down to the Dirt to the world. “More than anything else, I’m pumped,” he says. “I’m very proud of this film, and I think it’s a fast and funny movie and I’m really just excited to see what people are going to make of it.”

“It sounds corny,” he says, “but I look forward to the moment when the lights go down.”

Sept. 9, 8:45pm, Scotiabank Theatre 4      
Sept. 11, 3:00pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3