When his first film, “I Killed My Mother” (J’ai Tue Ma Mere), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, few people had heard of Xavier Dolan. As an actor in his native Quebec, Dolan was perhaps best known – if known at all – for his roles in Roger Cantin’s “La forteresse suspendue,” or for providing voice work in French-dubbed versions of “Twilight” and “South Park.” But amidst a storm of media attention placed on cinematic giants like Lars Von Trier and Quentin Tarantino, Dolan managed to steal headlines at Cannes when “Mother” – after receiving an eight-minute standing ovation at its first screening – won every award it was eligible for. The press jumped on Dolan’s story, not simply because of his impressive award count, but because of an unexpected item in his biography: He was only twenty years old.
Anyone suspicious of the attention Dolan – who also wrote, produced, and stars in the film – has received due to the fairytale nature of his backstory should soon find themselves shamefully mistaken. Dolan’s sizable maturity and self-assurance as a filmmaker is clear in every frame of “I Killed My Mother,” which has since screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, been selected as Canada’s entry to the Academy Awards, and tonight, makes it U.S. debut at AFI FEST in Los Angeles.
The film details the intensely volatile relationship between a gay sixteen-year old, Hubert (Dolan), and his mother, Chantale (the extraordinary Anne Dorval). The film builds itself through a series of richly hysterical conflicts that find these two characters exceedingly incapable of living with or without one another. Perhaps a viciously honest love story more than anything else, “Mother” gives us an acute and compassionate portrayal of both sides of this complex human interaction.
Dolan wrote the script for the film when he was seventeen, and fresh from a decision to drop out of college. Meant more as a “cathartic exercise” than anything else, in just three days he managed a first draft. “Then I put it in aside and waited,” he told indieWIRE in Toronto. “A then friend ended up reading it randomly and wrote me an email after she’d read it and said ‘oh my god, i love this script.’ She told me I should really focus on it and make it concrete, so I fine tuned it and sent it around.”
The film is largely autobiographical, but Dolan is hesitant to fully give it that distinction. “Of course, it’s greatly inspired by sixteen years of souvenirs and memories I had with my mother,” he said. “But I didn’t want to go the documentary-style, ‘Tarnation’ route. It’s fiction, and I added a lot of elements to it to have a dramatic narrative. So there’s an imaginary input. But that’s definitely the genesis of the project.”
The film ran into significant problems in development. Cultural funding agencies Telefilm Canada and SODEC (which services the project of Quebec) both initially refused the project, leading “Mother”’s initial distributor and producer to back out.
“All of a sudden I was alone with it,” Dolan recalled. “So I decided to just invest all of my savings and reached out to my family and friends and colleagues, asking them for a little money to invest in the movie. And they really helped me. I had this whole, what I like to call “love money” thing going on. And I gathered something like $25,000, just from love money.”
Dolan’s “love money donors” were well aware there was no guaranteed return on their investment. “No one could foresee what would happen,” he said. “And I didn’t think it would happen. I mean, I wanted to go to Cannes and I dreamt of it. But when I asked them for their help, it wasn’t written in the sky that the project would ever work or that it would ever be distributed in theaters or even go to festivals. It could have just been a little project, but they still believed in it.”
But as we know now, “Mother” did become much more than a little project, and with that Dolan is giving audiences what could be seen as a generational shift in gay-themed filmmaking. His on-screen persona is never particularly preoccupied with his sexuality, and it essentially serves as background information for the film’s more dominant themes.
“I feel like we’ve reached some point of evolution where we don’t need to claim things,” he said. “I don’t take for granted that people accept homosexuality, but I didn’t feel the need to put that much importance on Hubert being gay… I think that movies that discuss gay identity are often too explicative or demand too much from society. I didn’t feel the need to put so much emphasis on it. This is not a movie about a ‘queer boy’ exploring his ‘queer life.’ It’s a movie about a son and his mother.”
These ideals derive – as one would expect from a semi-autobiographical film – from Dolan’s own experiences. “For me personally,” he said, “it wasn’t that hard. My life isn’t that complicated. I’m not from a Baptist church in Tennessee. When I told my mother and my father and the people close to me, it never felt like it was going to break their heart or they were going to spray cold water on me. Since I didn’t live things that way, I didn’t feel the need to put that much importance on it in the film.”
When asked about what sorts of films he watched as a child, Dolan joked that his viewing habits mostly just worked as a “foreshadowing of his homosexuality.”
“Like ‘Matilda’,” he laughed. “Or this film ‘Ma Vie En Rose,’ which is this Belgian film about this young boy Ludovic who is six years old and disguises himself as a girl and is clearly homosexual. And I was putting on my mom’s dresses and high heels at the time, so it really resonated with me personally. But you know, I was just watching bad movies. I was a big fan of ‘Batman.’ It’s funny, as a child I went to Los Angeles and looked through the phone directory for Danny DeVito’s address. I looked for him vainly and then after a few years, it became pretty clear I wouldn’t meet with him.”
As the Academy shortlist and the film’s U.S. release approaches, Dolan is somewhat apprehensive about the attention he’s been receiving. “It’s happened too fast.” he said of the time since Cannes. “I mean it’s unreal, but it’s real at the same time. It’s like I couldn’t live it. There was so much going on in so little time, it felt like this very rapid storm. And, yes, my life’s changed. I’m not sure I’m made for this world yet… But I still want to make art, and see movies, and just try and be a cultured person… I’m just trying to shovel my way through young adulthood.”
“I Killed My Mother” screens tonight at AFI FEST, and will be released through Regent/Here in U.S. theaters next year.