“He’s just a young guy from Newfoundland. His name is Stephen Dunn.” – Roger Ebert
That young guy’s exuberant voice beams from California to Newfoundland as filmmaker Stephen Dunn talks to me from his first official office. The office is a perk bestowed by a San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) / Kenneth Rainin Foundation (KRF) Filmmaking Grant he received this past spring as part of the SFFS’ prestigious Filmmaker360 program.
“I’m developing my next feature called What Waits For Them In Darkness,” reveals Dunn. “It’s about the Newfoundland resettlement, and it’s about a family who are forced to resettle from a very far off, fictional island off the coast of Newfoundland called Scorch Cove. They’re the last family on this island to resettle.”
Dunn credits artist David Blackwood as a visual inspiration and describes the film as a “fantasy adventure film about the history of Newfoundland cultural identity” that “harnesses the magic and darkness of that period of time and how difficult and devastating it was for so many people.”
Following a month-long research trip across Newfoundland this summer, Dunn recently completed a first draft of the script. The film is produced by Toronto-based Rhombus Media and is set to shoot in Newfoundland in summer 2016 as a Canada-UK co-production.
Rhombus also produced Dunn’s coming-of-age drama Closet Monster, which was his feature debut as writer and director. This September, the film premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and opens the 35th annual Atlantic Film Festival (AFF) as the Bell Alliant Blue Carpet Atlantic Gala Film.
“I don’t know what to expect,” says Dunn. “I’ve never been to the Atlantic Film Festival, but the fact that I’m at the gala is such a crazy honour.”
Despite his genuine humility, Dunn is no stranger to honours. The Roger Ebert quote above stems from an article praising Dunn as a filmmaker to watch following the renowned film critic’s screening of The Hall at Cannes in 2009.
“I was shocked,” says Dunn as he recalls reading Ebert’s article. “The Hall was a 48-hour film I made with my friends for fun. It gave us a lot of momentum, which we were really stoked about.”
The prolific filmmaker’s momentum and immersion in the arts began early. Born in St. John’s, his parents owned a modelling agency and often travelled to showcase Newfoundland and Labrador models. Trips to New York sparked Dunn’s desire to audition and he became a child actor.
“I kind of realized I really loved storytelling, I really loved theatre, I really loved performance,” says Dunn. “I ended up really loving photography and cinema and started developing my own work through the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival and their FRAMED program.”
Following high school and a year studying creative writing at Memorial University’s Harlow campus, Dunn moved to Toronto to study film at Ryerson University. During his studies, he was accepted into the TIFF Talent Lab and made Swallowed (2010), which won the TIFF RBC International Emerging Filmmaker Award.
“Every project for me is kind of a stepping stone,” says Dunn. “I don’t really get hung up on awards or anything like that. It’s all about what’s next. What is coming next? How can I use this to advance my next project to keep longevity in my career?”
Which brings us to Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (2012), a short film that garnered a host of awards and starred Gordon Pinsent.
“When I first started working with him, I felt like I didn’t have the right to talk to him or to tell him what to do,” recalls Dunn. “It made me push myself and realize what you can do, what you can’t do as a filmmaker. It really opened up a whole new arsenal of performance and experience.”
Dunn graduated from Ryerson and began the Canadian Film Centre’s Cineplex Entertainment Film Program (Directors’ Lab), where he completed the short film We Wanted More (2013) and started to develop Closet Monster, a film that is close to his heart.
“It’s about my experiences coming out as a gay man in St. John’s and how that was a difficult thing when I was a kid,” says Dunn. “When I was growing up, there were a number of horrible gay hate crimes that happened in the city. One of them happened right by my school. I was too young to fully understand the situation, but it instilled a really intense fear of my own sexuality.”
Closet Monster stars Connor Jessup as Oscar Madly, a troubled teenager destabilized by his dysfunctional parents, unsure of his sexuality and haunted by horrific images of a tragic gay bashing he witnessed as a child. A talking hamster, imagination, and the prospect of love help him confront his surreal demons and discover himself.
As Dunn prepares to attend the first festival screenings of his first feature, he is already grateful for the generous support of his second one.
“The San Francisco Film Society recognized Newfoundland’s cultural identity as being something that needs to be preserved and a story that needs to be told. I think that’s really special to come out of this.”