This post presents an interview with the brilliant young director of Mommy, Xavier Dolan.
(My next post is an interview with the cinematographer André Turpin).
Xavier Dolan is a French-Canadian wunderkind who directed his first film at the age of 19. Now 25, Dolan presented his fifth film, Mommy, in Cannes’ Main Competition last year, and shared the Cannes Jury prize with Jean-Luc Godard. Mommy’s striking cinematography also earned André Turpin a Bronze Frog at the Camerimage festival last November.
Mommy follows the attempts of, Die, a flamboyant French-Canadian single mother, to cope with her hyperactive adolescent son, Steve, who is expelled from school for violent behavior. Die reaches out to Kyla, an introverted school-teacher neighbor, to home school Steve. This unlikely trio bond and create a family of sorts, an environment that offers the promise of healing each person’s pain and isolation. However a lawsuit in the wake of Stevie’s violence threatens to undo this fragile harmony, and wreak havoc on Mommy, her son and her new friend.
The film’s simple story is presented in a series of emotional scenes, filmed with originality and brio in a unique 1:1 square aspect ratio. When I saw Mommy, I had that rare and wonderful feeling of discovering an important new filmmaker.
Mommy the trailer
watch on YouTube
Benjamin B: I wanted to start by saying how lucky you are to work with André Turpin
Xavier Dolan: I know how lucky I am, I’m so lucky I found him, I’m so grateful !
BB: I think he feels the same way about you. I was wondering how you start out on the process of making a film, because you’re writing as well as directing. Does the story first come in images, does it come with a song?
XD: Honestly music is often the inspiration, and comes before the script or the story. After hearing songs I will see images and visualize scenes or moments in a story. And that’s often how I start to write. I don’t have a routine, I don’t get up in the morning thinking “Oh, I have to write today”. I write when I have an idea, and music gives me ideas.
Once I’ve written the script, I prepare by researching imagery in photography or painting books, or even magazines. Powerful imagery is everywhere and that’s mostly how I prepare for a film. I make a "Look Book".
I gather all these images that really inspire me and I go to this photocopy center where they know me; I sometimes feel I’m their worst nightmare. I walk in with suitcases full of books that I’ve marked with notes and post-its. I’ve marked all these pages, not completely knowing what they would be useful for, just knowing that they are inspirational for now. I bring all that out and they scan them in hi-res and send me PDFs before printing them.
Then I divide the images into categories, whether it’s for characters, locations, or costumes. I get pleasure in doing the editing of this little book and making it myself. I love making these books. I make copies for everyone on the film, maybe twenty copies in all. I give them to André, the production designer, the lead actors... So everyone gets an idea of what I’m seeing for the movie.
BB: Why do you shoot with 35mm negative?
XD: I would never shoot in digital. Never, it’s not an option. I shot my first film on digital and I can’t even look at it. I mean there are beautiful films out there shot on digital. I just had a bad experience, and I’m not interested in what digital can look like, because it doesn’t look like film. I just feel like there’s no emotion in digital. It’s flat, it’s robotic and cold. It works for many things I guess, but I’m not interested in exploring that at all.
We may have film forever, but it will become more and more complicated until it becomes too expensive, exorbitant and rare to shoot on film. If that happens I will feel deprived of the energy, the life, the surprises, all of the organic mystical aspects of film. It will be so cruelly missed. And unfortunately I’m sure this will happen… although I hope it won’t.
If one day it becomes impossible for me to shoot on film, I would continue to tell stories -- because I need to tell stories and that’s my passion and my life and I wouldn’t stop because of that -- but a part of me as an artist would sort of die. I would tell stories with a little less conviction.
BB: The magic of film is mysterious. Do you think it involves the grain, the photochemical process?
XD: Grain and the unexpected. You know, you’ve been shooting film forever, all your life, lighting it and yet when you’re watching the dailies, you’re like: “how did it ever come out that way, so green or so orange, or like that?” There’s always this unpredictable side to shooting film. It’s the surprise, it’s life itself and that’s great.
focusing on the characters
BB: André said that you would go over to his house to prepare the découpage (shot breakdown) in the evenings
XD: Yeah, we would sit at his kitchen counter and go through the scene and the schedule, and try to figure out how we wanted to tell the story. Mommy is really a movie about the characters. We did not want to put ourselves up front, we wanted to focus on the characters. So every choice of lens, every choice of movement or no movement, everything was discussed and pondered: "Is this right? Is this wrong?"
André is one of my favorite persons in the world. What I really appreciate about him is that he understood how important it was to stay focused on the characters... You know, kids will start playing sometimes, and on a set you can become like a kid playing in your little sand box, and get lost in formal explorations. But we knew that this would be unseemly and wrong for this film. Mommy is a movie that’s sort of socially engaged, and there was no place for those kind of aesthetics.
And what’s great with André is that whenever I’m off, I mean when I’m not on, when I’m not right, when I have an idea and I’m digressing, he’ll bring me right back: “Are you out of your mind? Maybe for a student movie in 1998, but now that we’ve all seen Memento, this is a bad idea”. And whenever he would be off, I would be on and I would be like: “No, I don’t think so”. We really completed each other.
BB: André was the one who suggested Mommy's unique 1:1 format. It's true that 1:1 is a portrait format that helps you focus on the character, on the face.
XD: Yes, because you have no distractions left or right. I’ve shot many movies in 1.85:1, and I was tired of it. For me 1:1 was so simple, the idea was to really focus on people… And the audience forgets about the format, at least that’s what most people tell me.
Some people have seen this choice as a device, as something pretentious... I think it would have been more pretentious to shoot this film in 2.35... This movie is in suburbanite Montreal, it’s a working class ethic, it’s so not meant to be shot in 2.35. 2.35 is too Batmanesque.
BB: Can you talk about setting up shots for the 1:1 format?
XD: Portraits always work well in 1:1 -- close-ups of the characters, like the old 6x6 in photography, which was used in for portraits in the early 20th century. I love very wide shots or close-ups in 1:1, but I have a problem with the medium shot. Like full body shots, or semi-wide shots looked banal, they trivialized the 1:1. So we sort of dropped the idea of medium shots, and we just went for close-ups or extremely wide shots.
BB: The 1:1 really works for doorways and windows, there are a lot of windows in the movie.
XD: Yeah it does work well for that, because there’s a rectangle in a square, and that’s always sort of pretty. You’re framing a frame, it’s interesting.
acting with the actors
BB: Can you talk about working with actors on the set, I understand you’re quite dynamic?
XD: Yeah, I have a constant interaction with the actors.
BB: One thing you have in common with both Federico Fellini and Terrence Malick is that, like them, you will talk to the actor during the take.
XD: Really? [laughter]... Since I'm an actor myself, the way I direct actors is that I act with them. So, as the scene goes on I’ll just see what I would personally do as an actor, what I would add or the lines that I would change.
Actually, it’s all the different roles intervening at once: the actor, the screenwriter, the editor and the director. So I’ll notice something that I feel is missing in the dialogue, that would be so nice right now, so I’ll tell the actor: “Say this”. And then I’ll see what the actor in me would do. So I’ll say: “Wait, before saying it, open your mouth as if you were going to say it, now close your mouth. You’re not ready to say it, just wait one second and then go.” And then as an editor I’ll be like: “Oh, there’s a beat here, we need to do something about this”, so I’ll ask for one more little action or whatever. And then as a director, I’ll...
So I do all of the roles at once. I never shut up.[laughter]
BB: It must help to work with actors like Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément who know you well.
XD: Oh yeah, they don’t even hear me any more, well they hear me, but they pretend they don’t. We don’t stop and go. I’ll tell Anne something and then she’ll add another thing, and it inspires me a new thing, so then I tell her this new thing... But in the film, you’ll just see it as a monologue. Obviously we cut out my voice. The actors incorporate the notes in the action without ever breaking out of character, it takes a huge concentration on their end. They’re very good at that.
Suzanne Clément, Xavier Dolan and Anne Dorval work on a scene (photo Shayne Laverdière)
BB: In Cannes when you accepted the Jury Prize you dedicated it to young people... What advice would you give to young filmmakers trying to become a director?
XD: That's a hard question. It’s tricky because I’ve had a singular journey. I was very lonely when I first wrote I Killed my Mother. No one wanted to produce it. But I had money from child acting gigs, and had I not had the money, I don’t know if we’d be talking. And most of my friends are very reassuring, they’ll say: “Oh no, you have such guts, you would have done it anyway”. I’m not sure. How? With what money? How? With what camera? Would I have done it à la Festen, like Dogma? It’s tricky. I can’t think about that too much, because then I start bad-tripping...
I’m very young and I feel like I’m not entitled to give advice. But one thing I’ve learned is that it is very important in this business to never doubt yourself, although it's just as crucial to doubt your ideas. But in the eyes of others, doubting yourself will make you look weak, and won’t give you the quality of the leader that you have to be on the set.
If you are too sure of yourself, too full of yourself so that you never doubt the quality of your own ideas, and what you do, then that is a sign for me of weakness: your ego gets in the way of your storytelling. Believe in yourself, believe in your story, but don't forbid yourself to doubt, because that is a pure lack of intelligence.
You have to be attentive to people, and you have to listen to the ideas of other people, because of course they’re very interesting and you have to work with people who will confront your ideas, who will inspire you. But if you doubt yourself, you are not that person that people can follow. You are not that person that can transmit a vision to people, a vision to which people will add their ideas.
André Turpin and Xavier Dolan waiting on the set of Mommy (photo Shayne Laverdière)
wikipedia: Xavier Dolan
wikipedia: André Turpin
konbini.com : Xavier Dolan's Look Book (in French)
Set photography by Shayne Laverdière - courtesy of Roadside Attractions
My thanks to Xavier Dolan and André Turpin
Thanks also to Scott Feinstein, Rebecca Cook and Kate Rosenbaum at 42 West.
thefilmbook: Mommy - interview with cinematographer André Turpin
thefilmbook: The Elastic Frame