By Christine Leonard
“A pro wrestler’s coup de grâce, the so-called ‘chokeslam,’ is an impressive looking power-manoeuvre that involves grabbing your opponent by their throat and lifting them into the air before driving their body into the mat in a single-handed display of artistic violence.”
CALGARY — From turnstile to turnbuckle, Calgarian screenwriter/director Robert Cuffley is no stranger to the choreographed spectacle that is the film festival circuit. Over the course of the past decade and a half, the CIFF veteran and Alum of Canadian Film Centre has debuted his independent works at Toronto International Film Festival, The Palm Springs International Film Festival and the SXSW Film Festival, amongst others.
“All my films have played at CIFF,” says Cuffley, who is already forecasting red carpet fisticuffs at his upcoming world premiere. “There’s something strange about the editing process,” he explains. “I’ve probably seen the film 50 times, but the first time you see it with an audience you’re feeling the eyeballs to the left and right of you looking at it and you’re looking at how they react. It is a weird experience, but a good one.”
Perhaps chief amongst Cuffley’s manifold talents is his knack for carving out compellingly meaty roles for actresses to sink their teeth into. This skill set has been showcased his previous films; Turning Paige (2001), Walk All Over Me (2007) and, Ferocious (2013). The latter, starring Kim Coates, was filmed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Thus it was only fitting that the award-winning filmmaker returned to that rough-and-tumble prairie province next door to realize his latest vision, the romantic-comedy Chokeslam.
Produced in Regina in the fall of 2015, prior to being polished off in Alberta, the ambitious coproduction of CHAOS A Film Company Inc. and Karma Film received additional support from Creative Sask., the Alberta Media Fund and the Telefilm Canada Feature Comedy Exchange initiative in association with Just for Laughs. Although slightly daunted by the inherent challenges of bringing a sport/romance/comedy feature to life on the silver screen with Chokeslam, Cuffley is gratified to finally be able to share his timeless yet uniquely Canadian narrative.
“I would never call it a wrestling film; it’s more in the spirit of a perverted rom-com with wrestling,” says Cuffley. “You don’t have to be a fan of professional wrestling to enjoy it. The theatrics of wrestling is a performance that is hard to take your eyes off of. Even more so you’ve got a personal connection with one of the characters. It makes the experience a little more visceral psychologically.”
Throwing over a life of endless cold cuts for a surreal hot pursuit, Chokeslam’s everyman-protagonist, Corey Swanson (Chris Marquette – Bad Country, Broken Horses), is an underachieving deli clerk who seizes upon his ten-year high school reunion as a second chance to win the affections of his high school crush Sheena Halliday (Amanda Crew – Silicon Valley, Charlie St. Cloud). A pro wrestler and all-around ass-kicker with the reputation of being the Lindsay Lohan of the sports entertainment world, “Smasheena” is a prime example of the non-traditional female archetypes and resultant perspectives that Cuffley excels at exploring.
“It honestly never occurs to me to say, ‘Okay, what’s my next movie with a female character?’ it just ends up that way. Someone pointed out to me that one thing that I do unwittingly with them (the female characters) is that in one way or another they’re performing in the film. You get to see the character they inhabit and then you get to see who they really are. In Walk All Over Me it was a woman trying to become a dominatrix, in Ferocious it was the life of a semi-famous television star. And that fascination is the key here with Sheena; in front of and behind the camera.”
Tag-teaming with co-writer Jason Long and producer Carolyn McMaster, Cuffley, who studied film at SAIT and the National Screen Institute, capitalized on the proximity of Regina’s local High Impact Wrestling Canada promotion. The professional wrestling phenomenon contributed some true grit and their signature impactful “Saskatchewan Style” to the director’s fourth outing. Authenticity definitely didn’t take a backseat to humour, as Cuffley enlisted real-life wrestler Chelsea Green (Queens of Combat, WWE Tough Enough) to portray Angel, an up-and-coming fighter with Smasheena in her sights. Likewise the expertise of former WWE wrestlers Lance Storm (Green’s trainer) and Harry Smith, son of the late British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith, not to mention three-time WWE champion and WWE Hall of Famer Mick “Mankind” Foley, brought some serious cage-cred and a flare for the dramatic to the project.
“I had to come up to speed with my co-writer Jason Long,” Cuffley explains. “I grew up with Stampede Wrestling as well, but he kept with it and to this day really enjoys it. I was lucky enough to have a crew of real wrestlers, with the exception of Amanda Crew. And she was the type, thank goodness, that got a trainer and started seven-days a week and came pretty ripped. We also had Chelsea Green come in a week early and she just gave me tonnes of insights, like always playing to the 20th row,” he continues. “Mick Foley was such a pleasure. He’s such a kind guy, but not only that he’s now a stand-up comic. He’d riff a little bit off of some of the lines and his improv was so good that I could not cut it out!”
Only time will tell if WWE fans and general audiences respond favourably to the battle-scarred charm of Cuffley’s wrestling-centric romp (please, don’t bring your homemade crowd-signs to the movie theatre). But, I ask you, who could resist the allure of an uplifting depiction of the resiliency of the human heart when pitted against the threat of ignominious defeat, or deny the glory of small-town dreams painted in sweat and neon body-paint and projected into the stratosphere like a Roman candle on steroids?
“I fully embraced the ridiculousness of it. And it is ridiculous. People falling through tables and getting hit 42 times in the face and not bleeding. Jason and I are both John Hughes fans, so the romance aspect is definitely inspired by Some Kind of Wonderful and Breakfast Club, amongst others. Which means taking those moments and squeezing every drop from them, but in a way that’s endearing, not cheesy.”
See Chokeslam as part of the Calgary International Film Festival at the Closing Gala Oct. 2 at Theatre Junction GRAND.AB, Alberta, Calgary International Film Festival, Chokeslam, Chokeslam movie, CIFF, CIFF 2016, Theatre Junction GRAND