Three service elevators, two stairwells, and one cautious yet friendly hotel employee later, Xavier Dolan locates what he and his “Laurence Anyways” actress and friend Suzanne Clément discovered the previous afternoon: A barren hotel floor halted mid-renovation, drenched in sunlight amidst stripped columns and walls, and a cloud of dust lifted with every step through it. “This floor technically doesn’t exist, if you just use the main elevators,” notes the 23-year-old director of “J’ai Tué Ma Mere (I Killed My Mother)” and “Heartbeats” as we wander around the space.
He and Clément are both stationed here in one of Los Angeles’ historic hotels to promote “Laurence Anyways” — the TIFF award winner which received a standing ovation at its AFI Fest premiere earlier this month — and he suggests the abandoned floor as a perfect location for our interview. This proves only half-accurate. The next hour plays out in fragments; answers are given until the peculiar surroundings catch our eye, a well-concealed prescription bottle of “Skywalker Kush” here, or a three-legged antique chair somewhere else. Still, the measured pace allows the Québécois native to skip past immediate sound bites and to instead speak assuredly on “Laurence Anyways,” the misinterpreted qualities to his career, as well as his recently-wrapped fourth film, which he deems “completely different to anything I’ve ever done.”
Even with the lower-key atmosphere though, to interview Dolan is to noticeably contend with his relationship to the press accumulated thus far. Hyper-conscious of the many labels and criticisms thrown his way, he now speaks with passionate yet careful clarification, having grown quite conflicted with the publicity side of his work. “There are great moments in promotion, great conversations,” Dolan told us, “But… there’s a part of this world that I dislike, and it’s the part of justifying what I’m doing. Justifying that I’m 23 years old, or the fact that I said I was disappointed not to be in Official Competition in Cannes.” The prestigious festival’s decision this past year to place ‘Laurence’ in Un Certain Regard is one that greatly controlled Dolan’s life afterwards (more on that later), but for him, it was always simply the film’s ambitious approach that made it a worthy endeavor.
Aiming in Dolan’s words to “tell a ‘Titanic‘ love story,” the drama charts the relationship of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Clément) as he breaks the news that he wants to become a woman. “How does a transgender coming out happen?” asks Dolan, noting the immense emotional and experiential range he wanted to portray. “There’s no way of doing it ‘progressively’… what does that even mean? If I’m going to go watch a movie about a gay guy coming out of the closet, I’m not going to impose the way that I came out onto it. I’m going to open up and widen my experience.”
At first glance, ‘Laurence’ looks to have its own roster of justifications as well — a near three-hour runtime, period setting, and decade-spanning storyline, to name a few — but Dolan is adamant that every element had its purpose, especially the length. “We knew from the very beginning that if you want to talk about a love story like this, it’s not gonna happen in two hours,” he says, “Even if you’re Harvey Weinstein it’s not going to happen. No one bullied me into cutting it.” Continued Dolan, “It’s important in order to bond with [Laurence and Fred] to follow their rituals, their inside jokes. To know their family and environment, and to see that change, and feel that destructive work of time. And that’s where the emotion happens.”
Part of that overwhelming sensation Dolan is after comes through enormously in his intuitive blend of image and music. His career has been one marked by visual storytelling coupled with that perfect song, from the use of Crystal Castles’ “Tell Me What To Swallow” in “J’ai Tue Ma Mere” to The Knife’s “Pass This On” in “Heartbeats,” and ‘Laurence’ shows a massive progression in terms of exploring character through these flourishes. However, for Dolan, the cinematography is rarely the point of most input. “You know, people talk about my visuals, which, of course, is flattering, but it’s not what I’m really focusing on,” he says. “You don’t spend — we don’t really care about that. We care about the acting and the dialogue, and psychologically thinking about the scene. Some people will say of a frame, ‘Oh it’s calculated, it’s so pretty.’ It took a second. A second. ‘Put the camera here. No, here. Tilt up, thank you, now let’s talk about the scene.’ ”
Luckily, within these scenes contain the revelatory, explosive performances of Poupaud and Clément at the film’s center. As Laurence, Poupaud – a tremendous actor in both Raul Ruiz and François Ozon’s work – faced an almost instantaneous immersion into the film’s demanding role after Dolan’s initial choice of Louis Garrel fell through. “He came in two weeks before, and had almost no time to — I mean, we did fittings, did costumes, waxed his chest, and a couple days later we were shooting,” says Dolan. “Melvil is a very courageous man, and not afraid to give you what you want. He’s aware of the fact too, that you might not be satisfied with what he’s giving you, and willing to try over and over again to correct that.”
He also praises Clément, the Cannes award winner for Best Actress with whom he’s shared a close bond since his first film, where she played the schoolteacher role to Dolan’s teenage character. She first fielded the script seeds of ‘Laurence’ back then, and she’s contributed to Dolan’s work as alongside helping him personally. “It’s a lot of focus and work and Suzanne has been witness to that. She’s seen the script change but she’s seen me change as well. I know what I want more, and how to fight for it. I don’t want people to be abusive. I’m able to protect myself more.” And on the matter of protection, we return to Dolan’s Cannes controversy, ignited over such a seemingly minute choice of words. After having both of his previous films debut at the festival, first in the Directors’ Fortnight and then in Un Certain Regard, it seemed for Dolan a natural advancement for ‘Laurence’ to appear In Competition.
“I would read every morning on every blog that I was there, that I was sure to be there, and I didn’t believe it because these things were rumors and speculation, but — yes. When we heard that we were not in Official Competition, I was sad and disappointed, and who exactly wouldn’t be? What sort of person wouldn’t be? All I said was I’m disappointed because the film is an ambitious work; whether people hate it or love it, it feels like it could be competing in something, even if its a piece of shit. It’s as if, as a journalist, you’re going to Cannes. But oh wait, you’re not going. Actually it’s the Calgary Film Festival instead. That’s what you’re going to cover. And if you dare say you’re disappointed…”
He pauses a moment, before continuing, “I’m not a machine and I don’t know what to say and when to say it – or maybe I do. There was a response from Cannes that I felt was perhaps destined for me to read, where [Festival Director] Thierry Fremont said, ‘We appreciate that filmmakers express their disappointment or angst when they’re not selected, because for us, it means we have invited filmmakers who believe in their work.’ I mean… I have a lot of doubts, I have my fears and interrogations every day, but I have faith in my work, and in myself, and in the goals that I’ve chosen.”
Next in line for those goals is indeed another ambitious undertaking: “Ordinary People,” a hexalogue which Dolan describes as “the story of a family of heirs. They’re hour-long films that we’re going to release in cinemas.” He continues, “We might release them one by one, two by two; we’re still conferring on exactly how to do it.” Aside from that project, which is still in the script stage, Dolan has also just completed his fourth film two weeks prior. An adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard’s stage play “Tom à la Ferme,” the psychological thriller toplines “Heartbeats” actor Eric Bruneau in the titular role and concerns his dangerous dynamic with the family of his deceased lover (played by Dolan) when their relationship is revealed. “Antiviral” star Caleb Landry Jones also recently came on board, but Dolan plays down his involvement, saying, “He’s got such a small role. I don’t know how that leaked, and it was fun working with him, but he has such a miniscule part.”
Dolan describes the film as “[Sartre’s play] ‘No Exit‘ in a kitchen, and also a barn. We get out of there, like, only three or four times. It’s the opportunity to try something else. A film about the ever-growing gap between province and the city. It’s worrying, it’s gory…not that we want it to be, but because it requires it. It all happens in the country, so the décor is just… ordinary. 2000-ish, the period of no taste. A mix and match of no ideas and weird transitioning, There’s no indulging into, ‘Oh, here are people from the middle-class world, and here is some artwork from Urban Outfitters…’ No, they don’t have access to any of this. I’m from the country originally, so I don’t think that it’s funny to make people look like rednecks,” he grins. “Even if there are quite a few out there.”
“I don’t know what [the English-language version] is going to be called though — this is such a mess, finding this title — and I’ve always loved finding titles before, but this time the process is not hospitable.” Dolan then bursts forth with a half-dozen different titles, testing and re-organizing with each new draft before selecting two titles from the batch, and Poupaud’s previous account of Dolan as one who can adapt easily and “sell it to you with complete passion, always,” comes immediately to mind.
Simply from this brief devotion to basic syntax, it’s abundantly clear the filmmaking process indeed remains singular in Dolan’s life, as does the film set represent, he says, “really the only place where I feel safe and secure.” As we then circle back one final time around the hotel floor, taking note of a wall and mirror with “HELP ME” and “STAY” humorously scrawled in graffiti, he seems primed to remain in that mindset. “[When] I’m working with Suzanne and Melvil, my friends and when I’m editing the film and working with Olivier Goinard — who’s my mixer in Paris, and such a creative guy,” he explains, “When I’m doing these things I’m not doing a job, I feel like I’m living my life, I feel like I’m creating something, and then afterwards, it’s all ‘funny voices.’ ” And with that, Dolan excuses himself towards the service elevator — he’s being called away to speak to more across town.
“Laurence Anyways” will be released in the U.S. in 2013 via Breaking Glass. It is now available on DVD and Blu-ray in Canada.