Deep Sleep (1990): Family Ties

Dave shines a light on a compelling Canadian drama. Featuring an interview with writer/director Patricia Gruben!

Chicago born and Texas raised, Patricia Gruben studied film and anthropology at university. She moved to Toronto in the ‘70s and worked in the props department of iconic sketch show SCTV which evolved into a job as a set decorator on a pair of Canadian Film Development Productions in the early ‘80s: the Margot Kidder comedy Heartaches (1981), and William Fruet’s Spasms (1983). Having already crafted a few shorts, Gruben’s feature bow came with Low Visibility (1984) which was selected by judges as the Best Dramatic Film at the 1985 Atlanta Film and Video Festival. It was a unique first movie for the filmmaker, blending both narrative and documentary techniques to tell the story of an insane man found wandering along a mountain road.

Throughout her film career, Gruben retained a lecturing position at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia – which, when you consider the themes of her debut, hints that if you’re screening DEEP SLEEP (1990) expecting a derivative slice of Canuxploitation, then this Vancouver shot drama will be an unexpected curveball in your general direction.

“The story of Deep Sleep came from some political concerns I had about the U.S. military in Third World countries,” says Gruben.  “Also it’s about the role of religious fundamentalism in family life and based on some reading I had done about recovered memory of sexual abuse, which was just coming into public consciousness. I believe we were the first fiction film to address it directly.”

For the last four years, Shelley McBride (Megan Follows) has been confined to an institution by her family. Now seventeen and plagued by vivid nightmares about her formative years, Shelley manages to escape from the facility and hitch her way back home. The welcome party is less than hospitable, chiefly because her return coincides with an engagement bash for her mother (Patricia Collins) who’s set to wed her late father’s best friend, Bob (Stuart Margolin). Such household manoeuvres do little for Shelley’s mental wellbeing, which in tandem increases her determination to solve the meaning of the night terrors that seem fixated on the night that her dad was killed.

Imperialism, abuse, and human trafficking aren’t necessarily where you’d think the cherubic star of Anne of Green Gables would head next, but here we are. For Gruben, though, Megan Follows was always a leading candidate for the role as she told Kerry Moore just prior to Deep Sleep‘s release:

“I had her in mind when I wrote the film, and it was a choice that the producers like because she was known. Megan kept us on the hook for a while, although when she finally agreed, she remarked how attracted she was to the complications of the role of a troubled young woman. She even talked to doctors at a sleep disorder clinic in preparation.” [1]

Shelley is a wonderfully written part. It bursts with intensity and builds to a crescendo that reveals unimaginable horror – all of which Follows is adept at conveying. It’s a tough watch, with Gruben’s script skirting the fringes of American occupation in foreign lands and the pious worship of a family in denial, before heading into a black hole of wickedness. Nevertheless, Deep Sleep is a compelling feature, and one that deserves more than the ignominy of never being granted a home video release.

Perversely, for Gruben, the obscure status of her film is a blessing considering the challenges she faced while making it.

“I’d always had creative control over my work, and the producer was a friend, so I was naive about what could happen if I didn’t have final cut,” the helmer sighs. “We had some investment from the Canadian funding agencies, and I believe the producers wanted to use me as the figurehead – women directors were more of a novelty in those days – but to control the film completely behind the scenes. They hired other people to rewrite the script without telling me, and when we were shooting they told the DP and production designer not to meet with me.  The distributor insisted the film should be sexier – ‘more penetration!’ – which was a little disturbing because it was about incest, and they recut it to eliminate all the political undertones.”

“It was pretty miserable promoting the film and appearing with it in festivals, representing it as my work when I felt it had been gutted.  The redemption was that several times women came up to me after screenings and talked about how deeply they’d been touched by the family drama and Shelley’s mental illness. It made me realize what a huge responsibility it is to make a film that can have an impact on people’s psyches or affect their perceptions of the world.“

“After that experience I swore I would never give away creative control again, and except for a couple of small projects I didn’t make another film for twenty years. I worked in other media, taught, and ran a screenwriting workshop where we focused on supporting writers and giving them a voice.  I’ve recently come back to filmmaking, just finishing another feature film. Though the budget is much smaller, it’s been a much happier process.  I did learn a lot from making Deep Sleep, but I haven’t watched it in many years, except for a few clips of scenes that were close to my original intent.” 

[1] Gruben’s Direct Approach by Kerry Moore, The Province, 25th May 1990.

3 thoughts on “Deep Sleep (1990): Family Ties

  1. Thank you Ryan. As always, your finicky remarks are graciously received as a blunt footnote to an essay written in tandem with the filmmaker of a forgotten movie who has barely uttered a word in public on this picture since its production. So yes, stem your effusive praise, and instead gloat over what you consider to be an oversight. ACTUALLY, 95% of our audience is based in America and the UK, and we phrase all our essays with this readership in mind. However, if there’s a growing revolt over such minutiae being omitted, then I’ll be sure to underline the precise release history for every country. I’m sure it will be time well spent.


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