One of my favorite things about going to the Toronto International Film Festival is finding the time to see the smaller movies that aren’t on everyone’s must-see lists. While the gamble sometimes turns out to be a dud, the risk is easily justified when you’re able to discover a work as genuinely memorable as Keith Behrman’s Giant Little Ones in the process.
A film about adolescence that isn’t afraid to delve into sexuality’s ever-broadening landscape of experimentation and fluidity with still violent repercussions, this story of two best friends falling prey to the social implications of such puts toxic masculinity in the spotlight. Behrman looks at the herd culture of kids desperate to conform to some archaic ideal before then bullying those who don’t in order to uphold their sense of superiority. And while he focuses mostly upon a boy who’s bearing the brunt of that backlash, there are also many authentic examples of the internal struggle the bullies endure as they rip themselves apart at the seams.
We talk with writer-director Keith Behrman about his return to the big screen after spending the fifteen years since his debut in the world television and outside the industry entirely. It’s a project that itself took a few years to develop, but the time and effort proves well worth the wait.
The Film Stage: To start I thought we could talk about the cast a bit. I had seen Kat Candler’s Hellion a few years back and really enjoyed it, so seeing Josh Wiggins’ name on the cast list was a big reason I put Giant Little Ones on my TIFF schedule. How did his casting come about?
Keith Behrman: So the producer of Giant Little Ones, Allison Black — when we were in the early stages fine-tuning the script, she saw a picture of Josh around the time Hellion was coming out. She just thought he looked really amazing and intriguing and was taken by [his performance] as many people were. So she just made a little note.
When she started to produce another film that her husband Nathan Morlando shot called Mean Dreams, they used Josh because we weren’t quite ready to go yet and they had a great experience with him. He was wonderful and she strongly urged me to see him for this film. I had a phone conversation with him and then we met him and offered him the role.
Was it a similar process getting Taylor Hickson and Darren Mann onboard or was that through auditioning?
Yeah. For them we did auditions. We auditioned everybody else — besides, of course, Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan.
We auditioned out in Vancouver and LA and Toronto and were really taken by Darren and Taylor’s taped auditions that they sent us. Once we saw them in-person and did some work with them they [rose] really high on our list of people to consider for those roles. We went back and auditioned other people to make sure we saw everyone we needed to see, but they really stood out for us. They really wanted the roles and they really worked hard and felt connected to the work.
The other actors were all found in Toronto — the younger actors. Taylor and Darren come from Vancouver.
Did you then send Kyle and Maria scripts? Were you looking at them early in the process?
We cast Maria earlier in the process. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but she was — Allison has representation at UTA [United Talent Agency] and Maria had just moved to UTA, so we got a script to her. She told us she read it in one sitting, which is not usual, and was so taken by it. She got ahold of us the next day and we had a conversation because she was wanted to be involved. She came onboard early and championed the film — it’s a parallel to her own life in regards to exploring her sexuality, falling in love with a woman, and considering herself to be fluid in that regard. We didn’t know that at the time actually until after we talked to her.
With Kyle a similar thing happened. He had just moved to UTA — he changed agents. And again we sent him the script and I called him and had a really great conversation. We agreed it would be amazing to work together.
So they both jumped on that way.
Going back to Josh’s character Franky, you really kind of throw the kitchen sink at him with themes ranging from consent to sexuality to abuse to toxic masculinity. The way you present it all works so naturally, but did you ever worry it might have been too much?
I think I never worried about that. I thought as long as we had a really strong center of a character that really anchored things with a sense of heart and being — which Josh obviously pulled off real well. I thought as long as that was really well anchored, almost anything could happen.
It started out as being about two guys and their friendship and the loss of their friendship. That was really the anchor, the initial sort of kernel. That then expanded into being an exploration of sexuality.
The father having come out to decide to live with a man [arrived] maybe halfway through the writing process — initially he was just an absentee father. So it all kind of evolved in an organic way. We didn’t have all those ideas in the beginning to have to try and juggle them. It just evolved that way. It sort of all became harmonious.
It really does all come across naturally. There are so many looks and expressions early on that set-up the drama to come. I found it really interesting to watch a second time because it almost seemed even more affecting knowing the secrets before they’re revealed. Everything is set-up visually and emotionally so well.
Allison and I talked a lot in the early stages about wanting this film to feel like a really good pop song. It seems familiar — you’re like, “Okay. It looks and kind of feels familiar.” It’s enjoyable and feels kind of easy — it’s not really challenging in the beginning. And then when it’s over you’re like, “Holy smokes. There was something going on there that I didn’t realize.” That’s what we were going for.
Definitely that first, I don’t know, twenty or so minutes up until the night of the birthday felt like it really — we really worked in the edit to make that as tight and trim as possible so it really just flew past. Up until that moment it was something we were consciously trying to do.
And there’s a lot of ambiguity in play — I’m sure you’re hearing that word a lot on this press tour — with the love and sex overlap and the decision to not label these men. Was that always an intention? Did you have earlier drafts where things were maybe more spelled out?
No, it was always that. Right from the beginning I really wanted to tell a story that defied labels. Labels are obviously important for people at some point in their life. People who are different and have always felt that difference can go, “Okay, well I’m this.” “I’m gay” or “I’m bi” or whatever. I think that would be a future leap for that person.
I think it’s also true that we can be very limited by labels — labels that we put on each other or that people put on us. Labels like all words are indicators of something, but they can also become sort of prisons. I really wanted to make a film that somehow bypassed that and somehow showed another experience where it was okay to not have things really defined.
Franky’s whole journey really is one that goes from being pretty whole to then being fragmented and then to again achieving wholeness. At the end when he’s riding his bike, he’s overcome a lot. But also I think a part of his joy and wellbeing is the fact that he’s whole again. Labels can end up fragmenting us. So it was always our intention to create something that moved towards that wholeness of being.
So much is happening to him in such a short period of time too, but it never feels false. I had heard that you did some script testing with high school teenagers. Did that help to bolster this authenticity?
To be honest, not too much changed. I guess I have a knack for writing dialogue. People often ask how I represent these young people in a way that feels authentic — I don’t know. I’m just able to do that.
I did in the early stages — even before I started writing the script, when I had some idea of what the story was going to be about. I knew it was going to be about two friends who have an unexpected sexual encounter and was still writing notes about all that. So I did go to a high school and talk to just find out what would happen in a school these days [when something like that happens]? You know? How were they treating sexuality and people who were out?
Like even the one character on the swim team [Carson MacCormac’s Michael] who’s open and harassed before standing up to the bully like, “What are you going to do about it?” I didn’t know. I had no idea how that would happen — how it would play out on a high school swim team or any sports team. So I went to a high school and talked to the teachers and learned from them a bit.
And then once the script was done, I did show it to a bunch of high school kids. They gave me a few little notes. Sometimes they’d say, “Oh this word would be used instead of that word.” You know? But really for the most part they just said that it seemed true. It wasn’t a huge thing to try and accommodate their reality — I think it was pretty spot-on in the early stages. It was more actually being relieved that they were telling me that what I was writing made sense to them. That was obviously very important. I didn’t want to make what people looked at and said, “Oh this is so antiquated and written by a guy who’s way older than us.” Fortunately that wasn’t the case.
And that works for the drama and also the humor. You can’t come away from watching the movie and not think about the scene between Franky and Mouse — the penis scene. It’s like this moment of broad humor, but it’s really rooted in the heart of their friendship.
I’m glad you feel that way. Mouse was one of my favorite characters to write. It was such a pleasure to write that character. I love her and love her in the film [Niamh Wilson is the actress].
That scene — it was definitely one that people were kind of confused by in the early stages when they were reading drafts. People weren’t sure it would work and questioned whether it should be in the film, but I really felt like you were saying. I think it’s really funny too because it’s an interesting turn of the tables. But you’re right. I thought it always really needed to be a reflection of their love and friendship. That he would do that for her and the fact that she would be comfortable asking. It’s a pretty special sign of love.
The film is really about love and the expressions of it between various characters. We’re always looking at this sort of gem of love from various angles.
Yeah. There’s the sex and violence throughout the film, but to me that hug at the end between Franky and Tash is the real cathartic release. It’s rooted in so much history. Her trauma — you foreshadow it nicely and speak about it a couple times, but Taylor Hickson’s performance is so good that you don’t need to elaborate on it more than that.
I think Taylor did a great job. She really embodied that and conveyed so much. I think also, you know, we’ve all seen enough stories that people can piece together pretty quickly what’s going on there. I like that kind of storytelling. I like watching those kinds of stories. People often express gratitude from being given that much room to piece things together themselves and not be spoon-fed things.
Shortly after TIFF there was an interesting article in Seventh Row where Alex Heeney went through and counted the number of reviews the Canadian films screening there received. It showed a huge discrepancy when compared with the bigger titles that played. Did you see that? Do you think the festival can do anything to combat it?
It’s probably a combination of many things, but I think it’s really just that it’s such a huge festival that’s tied into the industry and the market. There’s such an orientation there around the US market and so much business happens. I think it’s easy to get lost for any film that’s smaller or not standing out in a huge way. There are all those celebrities there that people naturally focus on.
I don’t know what they can really do about that. You can’t make people pay attention. You can’t force people to write three Canadian reviews before you get to write on something else. There’s nothing you can do about that.
There have always been a lot of people trying so many ways to somehow shift the balance, but I think all we can do is do our best to make really specific and particular and accomplished and meaningful work that touches people in a profound way. And if we do that then we will be seen and heard in some meaningful way somewhere.
I know it’s been a few years since your first film [2003’s Flower & Garnet]. Do you have anything ready to follow-up this one now or are you just taking things as they go?
No. I’ve got lots of things I want to do actually. When I decided to start writing the script I wasn’t sure if I would make another film because I was doing other things in my life. I had to go through a process of really finding a good reason to spend years to make a film and I did come to that conclusion.
So now that I’m back doing it and really enjoying it and committed to doing it and have good reasons to do it, I have several projects I’m working on. I have a TV series I’m writing and developing and I have a couple features that are in various stages of drafts and waiting for me to get back to them. So I hope to get more material out in the next little while.
Giant Little Ones is now in limited New York City release with a scheduled expansion into Los Angeles and select cities nationwide on March 8th.