Robert Cuffley - A Singular Vision

By Kelly Roche

Robert Cuffley is Alberta Bound. Originally it was the title of his feature Walk All Over
Me. But distributors convinced him international audiences would not understand the pun, since it is a provincial tourism slogan. Making the film, which took four years to come to fruition, almost put him in an asylum, he says.

It was co-written with Jason Long and stars bombshells Leelee Sobieski and Tricia Helfer. Ex- Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein purchased the U.S. distribution rights to Walk All Over Me at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival for an undisclosed amount.

cuffley
Courtesy shot, Illustration by Laura Cicchirillo

Whips, chains, and lots of leather are the focal point of this crime thriller. Drawing outside the lines of conventional cinema, Cuffl ey weaves a dark, sexually-laced script into a sweet coming-of-age tale. The protagonist is a young, awkward woman who unexpectedly finds herself while donning a dominatrix getup and stumbling into a search for a half-million dollars.

“There’s no nudity,” he says, “except that guy’s ass.” With the explicit, kinky theme driving the film, it’s not exactly suitable for family viewing – or is it?

“My mom is a Mennonite . . . she doesn’t know what S & M is,” he says. “It made her laugh. She was happy that she didn’t have to explain to people that I’m not insane.”

Sobieski, Helfer, and Weinstein are all recognizable names, but who is Cuffley? A Calgary native and the eldest of three children, he always knew he would be a filmmaker. “It didn’t seem there was any choice,” he says. “It was a calling to me. Some people have four or five interests. I only have one.”

When Cuffley was 12, he took his brother’s toys, doused them in lighter fluid, set them on fire, and captured it on Super 8 mm film.

“He was not a happy-go-lucky child,” says his sister Lisa Cuffl ey, 29, adding that he was interested in Star Wars, George Lucas, and epic films. “Now I think he’s some sort of genius.”

If he could go back in time, he says he would burn his sister’s toys as well. He abandoned pyromania and attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and the National Screen Institute. He began his career directing music videos for Veda Hille, Bob’s Your Uncle, Huevos Rancheros, Tariq, and Big House. In 2002, Cuffley released his first feature, Turning Paige. It garnered four Genie nominations.

At 40, Cuffl ey is relishing his success. Married for three years with a 20-month-old daughter, he has finally broken through the confines of the Prairies, although he admits his weakness is his inability to  leave Calgary.

While he doesn’t consciously model his directorial style after anyone specifically, he is a fan of Stanley Kubrick, and labels 2001: A Space Odyssey the most groundbreaking film he has seen. “For its time, it revolutionized science-fiction and special effects,” he says.

Cuffl ey found himself a little star-struck when Sobieski signed on to play the lead role of Alberta in Walk All Over Me, since she worked with Kubrick in his 1999 film, Eyes Wide Shut. From day one Sobieski made it clear that she was there to take direction, which he says, “was very nice, very gratifying, very appreciated.

“I hear stories about directors that have difficulties with actors. I never encountered that, thank goodness,” he says. “There’s so little time to set up a shot and film a sequence. To have someone question you would be a disaster.”

The cumbersome four-year timeline for the project was stress enough without sassy actors. “Getting a film funded in Canada is a laborious experience,” he explains. The process tends to deter independent filmmakers who will go as far as using credit cards to bankroll their work. Despite the hardship, Cuffley says getting the film picked up by Weinstein made it worthwhile.

It took three years to finance and cost $3 million to make. But even with the funding, there are other complications. “As the budget goes up, the director’s power shrinks,” says Cuffley. “Producers put their faith in me just like an actor puts trust in a director.”

Carolyn McMaster did just that when she cofounded CHAOS, A Film Company Inc. with Cuffley in 1997. A Toronto native, McMaster is an Emmy-award-winning film, television, and multimedia producer.

“I gave him the freedom to create,” she says about the partnership. “He knows what he wants from the start to the end.” McMaster believes his strength lies in his extensive knowledge of music, and raves about the film’s soundtrack. “He’s directed over 45 music videos, and visually, he’s able to see and hear what he wants from the score.” Then there’s his humour. McMaster describes him as unassuming. “A lot of people don’t pick up on his humour immediately,” she says. “He has a dry wit.”

Ken Filewych, who has known him for 12 years, agrees. He edited Walk All Over Me and knew precisely what Cuffley’s vision was throughout the cutting room process. He says Cuffley’s personality resonates in the dark, yet comedic tone of the film.

“When I read an early draft, I thought it was funny,” says Filewych. “I gave the shooting draft to my assistant editor, and he said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to be a very good movie.’” Filewych says only those who know Cuffley will spot his idiosyncrasies on paper.

Power struggles often ensue on set, where there is a clash of egos between actors, directors, producers, and the editors, who decide what goes in the final cut. Filewych says he did not encounter issues with Cuffley, describing him as an “actor’s director.”
“It’s his leadership and vision that ultimately gets the movie to the theatre,” Filewych says. “His fingerprints are all over this thing but he gives me freedom to do the job and make it better.”

Cuffley emphasizes that it is not his film, but rather the collaboration of 140 people. “It’s not so much about a power trip as it is trying to distil a singular vision on film,” he says. The gruelling timeline nearly broke him but he would not have had it any other way. “It’s like when I was a kid with the paper route,” he says. “My friend asked his parents for a VCR and got one the next day. It took me four months to save up for one, and it’s the same thing with the film.”

Walk All Over Me is slated for DVD release in July. Toronto-based Mongrel Media is the Canadian distributor. Cuffley says marketing the release via the Internet, as opposed to television, reflects current technological trends.

“What’s changing is the way we watch films . . .video stores won’t be around in four years,” he predicts. If the future of the film industry is online, what does this mean for directors?

“It’s a good thing,” he says. “Filmmakers are limited by distributors and how much things cost. It’s putting the power to the filmmaker.” He is also anticipating digital projection, which he says will save both filmmakers and distributors a lot of cash.

Walk All Over Me has joined the Facebook phenomenon. The self-titled group has more than 400 members. It features behind-the-scenes clips and links to media reviews. It also updates screen times when the film opens in a new city. Cuffley receives daily e-mails from people who want to screen the film in their festivals. “Some of them [festivals] I’ve never even heard of,” he says.

“It’s indicative of how many people are making movies. . .for $100 on video.” He is currently working on two thrillers and a comedy titled Chokeslam: A Love Story. It centres on a deli clerk who falls in love with a giant female wrestler. He hopes the link to Weinstein will make it easier to finance these projects.

After having Sobieski star in his breakthrough film, Cuffley has realized the impact of name recognition. “Before I used to say ‘I don’t care who’s in it, as long as they can act’. . .but it makes a difference between 1,000 or 30, 000 people seeing it.”

Will Cuffley ever be more than Calgary’s Kubrick wannabe? He realizes a one hit film does not guarantee future box office success. “One never knows, whether you’re Spielberg, George Lucas, or Kubrick, what’s going to work with an audience.
You’re just guessing,” he says.

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