Contemporary World Cinema: High Life

Yates returns with hapless heist comedy

• Director: Gary Yates
• Writers: Lee MacDougall, Gary Yates
• Producers: Robin Cass, Gary Yates
• Production companies: Triptych Media, Buffalo Gal Pictures
• Key cast: Timothy Olyphant, Stephen E. McIntyre, Joe Anderson, Rossif Sutherland
• Interprovincial copro: Ontario/Manitoba
• Distributor: Union (Canada, U.S.)
• International sales: Shoreline International
• Budget: $3.4 million

Gary Yates’ latest film is a crowd-pleasing, crazy heist movie, about four hapless outsiders who decide to feed their morphine habit by knocking over a couple of ATM machines. It boasts what is easily one of the best ensemble casts of the past decade -Timothy Olyphant, Stephen E. McIntyre, Joe Anderson and Rossif Sutherland – and a nostalgic, ironic ’70s soundtrack.

But while watching High Life, what’s perhaps most surprising is that it was adapted from a stage play by Lee MacDougall. The writer has managed to open up the action and create more back story, adding dimension to the script and making none of it feel stagy.

Yates says the idea to make a film from the play happened when producer Robin Cass saw a production of it in Toronto. In the sharp, witty dialogue he immediately saw the possibilities for a solid movie.

‘Robin had seen my previous film Seven Times Lucky,’ says Yates. ‘He approached me, and by coincidence at the time I was working on my own heist script,’ he recalls, ‘but it wasn’t really working. I immediately saw how rich these characters were. Adapting it almost felt like writing a sequel, because we were adding a lot to the original play.’

There’s something comic about the four characters that populate this $3.4 million-plus feature, but there’s something tragic about them, too. (They fit into Canadian cinema’s litany of damaged anti-hero protagonists quite nicely.) And Yates uses his soundtrack (including April Wine and Three Dog Night) to great effect.

‘The film is set in the ’80s, but they are clinging to this classic rock from the ’70s,’ Yates explains. ‘It really drives home the idea that these guys have been left behind.’

The film has already received a warm response at some European festivals.

‘Audiences really love the film; they get all the humor in it,’ he reports. He adds that he’s especially proud of his cast: ‘They say 80 percent of it is in the casting. I started with Timothy and then built from there. These are tremendous actors.’

‘I’m very excited to be bringing the film to TIFF. This is the first time Canadian audiences will have a chance to see it.’

Matthew Hays is a programmer in the Canadian features section of TIFF.