Christian Sparkes Hails Newfoundland's Stormy Influence on 'The King Tide': "People Are Very Creative in These Remote Places"

"There's a lot of creative people here, and a lot of it comes from those humble beginnings," says the St. John's director

Photo courtesy of VVS Films

BY Rachel HoPublished Apr 26, 2024

A quick nip outside the shuttle bus to grab a picture of the angry shoreline seemed like a great idea in the moment. But standing on the clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as ice pellets attacked my face thanks to 80 km per hour wind gusts proved that, sometimes, it's just not worth it for the 'Gram. (Notwithstanding my picture was absolutely terrible due to a hand that wouldn't stop shaking.)

Settling back into my seat grateful to Margaret A. Wilcox, inventor of the car heater, the prophetic words of director and Newfoundland native Christian Sparkes, spoken just 24 hours earlier, came to mind: "Living here is not easy, and it never has been."

Tourism ads and locally-shot TV shows like Son of a Critch and Republic of Doyle show off the colourful vibrancy of Newfoundland; Sparkes, though, opts to show a different side to the Rock in his latest film, The King Tide.

"When you live in a place like Newfoundland, even though it's often painted a certain way in culture, it's actually pretty harsh. It's a very stark environment," Sparkes tells Exclaim! in St. John's, NL, ahead of the film's Newfoundland and Labrador premiere.

The King Tide begins in tragedy, with glimpses of a child birth gone wrong inside the home of the mayor of a small fishing community, the vivid red of blood emphasizing the surrounding bleak greys. Perhaps in an act of divine intervention for Bobby (Clayne Crawford) and his wife Grace (Lara Jean Chorostecki), an infant is found on a shipwrecked boat shortly after and adopted into their care.

Ten years later, the child, Isla (Alix West Lefler), has grown into a central figure in the community due to her unexplained ability to cure the ailments of individuals within her presence, as well as being able to attract swarms of fish. A village already isolated from the world, the young girl furthers their confinement by removing the need for external support, a reality seemingly favoured by the residents.

However, when another tragedy strikes the island — one that Isla is unable to prevent — their subconscious discontentment threatens their harmonious social order. Issues of religious fundamentalism, poisonous groupthink and the consequences of echo chambers rear their head as villagers begin to turn against one another.

Although the island is never identified, the imprint of Newfoundland is found throughout The King Tide — and not just in its Keels filming location. There's a pride and soul within the film's characters that holds up a mirror to the province, such as the dignity and honour that comes with hailing from a remote area, as well as the close-knit connection derived from people who depend on one another. But with that also comes a desire (and sometimes need) to reach out to the world beyond their shores.

To date, Sparkes has directed four feature films (including The King Tide) three of which were filmed in the province in which he was born and raised. Similar to some of the villagers in The King Tide — albeit for very different reasons — as a young man living in Newfoundland, Sparkes was itching to leave.

"When you grow up in a small town, oftentimes, you can't get out of there quick enough," he reflects. "I grew up in the suburbs of St. John's, [and] I watched mostly American, very Westernized films. I wasn't interested in telling Newfoundland stories."

He continues, "Invariably, you get a bit older and you come back in to where you started. You realize the more you travel, being from Newfoundland is the one thing that makes you interesting. [It] gives you a unique perspective. Newfoundland is such a rich, dynamic place. Its story is worth being told."

Instead of the stories set on Jellybean Row or those that evoke a freshly-laundered-clothes-drying-in-the-ocean-breeze vibe, Sparkes cites the art of David Blackwood and writings of Michael Crummey as his storytelling inspirations — something a little more gothic.

"If you can imagine the life of a fisherman, going out year round, working on the water for very little pay, cut off from the rest of the outside world, it can be very isolating and quite lonely. Those themes and ideas have always resonated with me," says Sparkes. "The King Tide was [an] opportunity to show a dark side of Newfoundland, something I really am interested in myself."

Before my whistle-stop trip to Newfoundland, my perception of the province was mostly inspired by schoolyard jokes, Come from Away and Hudson & Rex. And although the hospitality was warm and the apologies for the weather were many, I left the Rock with the understanding that being a Newfoundlander requires a specific brand of mettle that births a specific brand of artistry.

"Let's be real: for a long time, Newfoundland was the butt of the joke. You get a bit of a steely armour, you turn inward a little," says Sparkes.

"There wasn't much to do on cold winters in 1950. People became really good storytellers, really good musicians. People are very creative in these remote places, just out of sheer necessity to entertain themselves. There's a lot of creative people here, and a lot of it comes from those humble beginnings."

He continues, "What are you going to do on a dark, lonely Saturday night in the Middle of Nowhere, Newfoundland, right?"

Latest Coverage