Sook-Yin Lee is an institution to young adults in Canada -- her presence has been woven through our lives ever since we were teens watching The Wedge on MuchMusic. We're all grown up now, and so is Lee... well, sorta. She hosts "alt" show 'Definitely Not the Opera' on CBC Radio and is very active in the Canadian independent music community, and she's still pushing buttons and bucking trends, but now it's channeled into a medium: directing movies.

Lee's latest offering, 'Year of the Carnivore', definitely has all the Lee-isms you'd expect: the film hits on sexuality, gender, relationships and love, and is satisfactorily quirky the whole way through. Lee possesses this uncanny ability to capture herself and show us every last detail onscreen. 'Carnivore' follows the tribulations of Sammy Smalls (Cristin Milioti), a sexually-immature young girl on a journey to master the art of sex. Needless to say, we meet many interesting bedfellows along the way.

Moviefone sat down with Lee to discuss her teenage proclivities and adventures, why everyone's so uptight about sex, and how she manages to stay out of the box.
Sook-Yin Lee is an institution to young adults in Canada -- her presence has been woven through our lives ever since we were teens watching The Wedge on MuchMusic. We're all grown up now, and so is Lee... well, sorta. She hosts "alt" show 'Definitely Not the Opera' on CBC Radio and is very active in the Canadian independent music community, and she's still pushing buttons and bucking trends, but now it's channeled into a medium: directing movies.

Lee's latest offering, 'Year of the Carnivore', definitely has all the Lee-isms you'd expect: the film hits on sexuality, gender, relationships and love, and is satisfactorily quirky the whole way through. Lee possesses this uncanny ability to capture herself and show us every last detail onscreen. 'Carnivore' follows the tribulations of Sammy Smalls (Cristin Milioti), a sexually-immature young girl on a journey to master the art of sex. Needless to say, we meet many interesting bedfellows along the way.

Moviefone sat down with Lee to discuss her teenage proclivities and adventures, why everyone's so uptight about sex, and how she manages to stay out of the box.

What was the inspiration behind this film? I've heard that you have demons you needed to exorcize?


[Laughs] Someone asked me about that yesterday. They're like, "Demons??" I thought to myself, great, now I've proffered the idea that I'm Linda Blair. No, it's more about, oftentimes, I wrestle with love. Love has been a conundrum in my life. Love, romance, sex, connections. When I step away from all of my movies, I realize that I continually tell different kinds of love stories from different points of view. I guess with this one I was inspired by my first love.

Did you find your first love in the suburbs?

This goes all the way back to the suburbs of Vancouver. I was really a shy person, unable to speak. I had a perm, what can I say? I was super-square, and I fell in love with this guy in a band. He was really charming and amazing... we became friends and I kept my secret from him. At the time, the only way I could express my feelings was to get totally drunk to the gills and fall down a really high flight of stairs. I then proceeded to go to his house and throw rocks at his window. I went up to his room where he was in his bed. I confessed, and then fully barfed all over him.

No you didn't. That's almost cliché.

It is cliché! We very rarely see those kinds of stories in movies. They're always tied up in a much prettier bow. People don't get soiled in their own vomit, they don't do stupid things. When was the last time I saw Ryan Reynolds writhing in his own vomit? Never, that's when!

So what ended up happening with this guy?

We tried having a tussle in the hay, and I was very inept. I pretty much operated from my ears upwards. I was terrible in the sack, just like Sammy Smalls. [My first love] and I both agreed that we should go out into the world and get better, because lovemaking takes skill and practice. We did end up falling in love eventually, but that was after many mistakes and crazy situations. So I took that situation and married it with my imagination, and went from there.

In a way, then, it's autobiographical.


Yeah, I usually write from that which I know, or that which I've experienced. Telling stories through movies is a very personal thing for me, so I can only write what I'm familiar with. The movie is a work of fiction, but it's inspired by real life.

I like when directors stay close to home.

Some directors have a gift for conducting other spirits from 20 centuries ago. I don't. [Laughs]

This film is also perfectly cast. Every character seems to fit their role amazingly. Any interesting tidbits about the casting process?

I cast everyone. I'm very particular, from the tiniest roles to the starring ones. I knew I wanted to work with specific Canadian comedians. When I set out to write something funny, it ends up serious. When I set out to write something serious, it becomes funny. That seems to be the most accurate interpretation of reality that I know... so sometimes it can be hard to get a comedian to play a more serious sort of role. In 'Carnivore', we have Kevin McDonald ['Kids in the Hall', 'Less Than Kind'], Will Sasso ['MADTV'], and Sheila McCarthy ['Little Mosque on the Prairie'].



The world (in general) still seems pretty uptight about sex. Have you received any critical backlash from this film?

For sure. Somebody said to me, "Why do you have to talk about sex? It's so awkward, so uncomfortable!" In an Exclaim review, the reviewer said it was fun to be surrounded by stuffy critics watching the film. There was a palpable discomfort from the critics, even in cultured circles. We like to think of ourselves [Canadians] as being more open and free, and we are, but it's still very tender. I mean, when's the last time you took a really good look at your genitals? Probably not for a while. For a woman, ever! You have to get the mirror out.

Even beyond sex, I'm dealing with it as a metaphor for love and connection. We're all very befuddled about that. I think we're all still reeling from the mythology of romantic love that has been shoved down our throats for centuries. It's in the media, it's in everything we know. We're all under this illusion that love is this super-idealistic thing without flaws, without human foible, and without end. Don't get me wrong – I believe in love, unconditional love, but I don't think many people get to the point where they can love someone else unconditionally. It's territorial, and it can get ugly sometimes.

Do you think people's reactions to the film are at all influenced by their feelings about you?

I realize that I'm a creator that's divisive. People love me or they hate me. Many people feel threatened by me, too. That's the way I create. It was the same at MuchMusic. People were like, "Yay! Freak Sook-Yin! I feel less freakish!" or they were like "Ew! Who is that weird Asian woman? And why is she showing me her armpits? That's rude!"

How have you managed to maintain that? How do you stay out of the box and still have a career here?

Actually, for me, I have a natural repellent against staying inside the box. I've tried to read a teleprompter, can't do it. It's really bad! I've tried to put on shoulderpads, they don't look good on me. They pop off me. I'm shite at staying in the box, believe me. I'm lucky to have been raised in an artistic environment – I left home when I was 15, and was pretty much raised by wolves. The wolves were the artists in the Vancouver underground community. Those were the people who reared me to find my individual voice. I feel like that's really Canadian, that voice. That was an attitude that was fostered in Canada. Whether or not that voice gets through in the mainstream media, that's not as likely... there's often that compulsion to compare ourselves with someone else, i.e. our hugest neighbour, the one down south, America.

It's a major fault of ours... always comparing.

And here's the thing: When we try to emulate, when we try to copy, it usually just results in a "meh". It doesn't usually work. If you look at the biggest stars in the United States, you see Oprah, Howard Stern, those kinds of people. They all have distinct personalities. But there's also the mediocrity. In terms of Canadian cultural icons, like David Cronenberg, Sarah Polley, Glenn Gould, all of these greats, they have a distinct world view. They know what they want.

So what does it mean, then, for you, to work in Canada? A lot of people bail out to LA or New York.

I feel like I'm really blessed to have found a place to be me, where people encourage me to be me. People here appreciate the work that I do. I also appreciate the way of life here, and the attitude. I feel like I could go to the States, but it's such a larger rat race, and I don't want to give up my quality of life for that. I also love, collectively, what Canada stands for, and many of the ideas generated here. We're good people.

What projects are you working on next?

I'm working on my next feature film, 'Ferraté Is Dead', and it's a ghost story. It's about a young woman who encounters the ghost of her dead dad. She's scared at first, but then grows to love him. It's also sort of a love story, but it addresses gender issues as well. See what I mean about the love stories?

'Year of the Carnivore' opens in theatres in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal on June 18, 2010.