In erotic thriller “Tom at the Farm,” enfant terrible Xavier Dolan delves into new territory with his transition from romantic dramas to genre filmmaking, by sending the titular character on an ill-fated trip into the unforayed Québécois farmland. The psychological horror flick, which made its premiere at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, is finally making its own trip into the abyss: Amplify Releasing has found a place for it in the United States, at screens all over New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Camas, Chicago and Columbus starting this weekend.
We sat down with the internationally-renowned filmmaker in New York to receive a handful Dolan-isms about dark themes in his work, America, and his star-studded project that’s being shot as we speak, “It’s Only the End of the World.”
On the splitting between two selves as an actor and director
When I’m directing I’m thinking of acting and when I’m acting I’m thinking of directing. There are notions that you have to think of when you’re acting, such as the light, or where you’re moving, or where the camera is. One of the perks of being a director as well, and an editor, is I have experienced so many problems cutting movies before with actors and thinking “oh, I should’ve done things like that, I should’ve shot things like this and like that.” When I’m acting I’m also thinking about the editing, so I guess it becomes a very conscious performance.
On his penchant for dark themes
I think the movies that I really like are the movies that start up with a problem. Here’s the problem, and we will try to solve it. “Tom at the Farm” is definitely the darkest one. I think of “Mommy” as a very luminous movie: the colour’s very bright, and it’s a movie that wants to convey hope and light… but this one is very gritty and very dark and very dirty. I think that must appeal for many reasons. Aesthetically, psychologically, I think there is much more depth and interest in darkness. I would love to direct a comedy, but right now it’s not what I’m thinking of. It doesn’t mean there’s no humour in my movies. I love to laugh and I think that’s what life is made of — contrasts.
On the departure from pop-heavy soundtracks
I thought that no music would be worrying, and eerie, and make people anxious and support the picture in a way that it would provide us with tension, but it was just boring. It was long and boring and silent. So as soon as I started cutting the film, I was literally spraying the entire picture with music, everywhere. Every scene had music. I wanted it to be different from the other movies, yes, but the score in “Tom at the Farm” is not at all similar to any of the other scores. First, I have never hired any professional composers for any of my other films before. It would be people whose job wasn’t essentially scoring movies, they were composers but that wasn’t their true expertise. It was the first time I was working with a true professional, and Gabriel Yared gave this film its musicality and its voice, literally.
When I heard the tracks I was completely dumbfounded, I was like “I cannot believe that that score will be my score.” It just sounds so real. You know sometimes when you have that feeling that what you’re doing isn’t real? I can have the feeling every once in a while that I’m not making real movies, that I’m making dilettantish movies, and then one day you cross the line at one point and you’re like: “Okay, I’m finally making real movies.” That was basically the moment where I felt that in my life; when I heard the score I felt like a true director. It wasn’t even because of myself, it was because of him. It’s literally what I love the most in this film.
On straying from the theatrical source work in “Tom” and upcoming feature “It’s Only the End of the World”
Onstage it is a little harder to convey fear, and anxiety and violence — onstage you are watching but you are not feeling such strong things because you can feel that people are imagining themselves and trying not to hurt each other, and it’s like acting anyway. It basically unfolds in 10 scenes in the play; there are 100 scenes in the movie. In order to do that I thought the country house would be much more terrifying as a place and as a character too, if you would leave it. So the fact that we are going to a church, and that we are going to the city, and that we are going to the bar just seems necessary to give a bit of air, to let the scenes breathe and make the house truly terrorize the place you go back to, instead of staying there for an hour and a half.
In “It’s Only the End of the World” it’s basically the same approach, because it’s the same sort of the play where we have no exit. A bit of “August: Osage County” or… I cannot think, I don’t have any sense of knowledge of modern theatre, or contemporary or classic actually. Anyway that ‘no exit’ style is what I seem to be drawn to in terms of plays. I have never seen “It’s Only the End of the World” onstage — I’ve only read it. But it’s so strong emotionally, it’s so stern emotionally you immediately feel drawn to the characters and everything.
On public response to his work
I trust the public to have similar reflections to mine, similar feelings, similar apprehensions, similar expectations toward the story. I have never made any movie for a public thinking “how will the public be reacting?” but I’m thinking of the public because I’m thinking of how my mother will be reacting, and how my dad will be reacting, how will I be reacting. Those are basically the three questions I ask myself: how will my mom react, how will my dad react, how will I react? I believe that the three of us encompass a vast variety of opinions and point of views and sensibilities. Three very different sensibilities. I’ve always done that. I’ve never tried to please anyone else.
I do my own thing without trying to conform myself to standards or more traditional filmmaking. I don’t even ask myself that question, about what’s traditional and what is independent or commercial. I don’t believe in those two categories. That is solely financial talk. There are good movies and there are bad movies.
On constantly being compared to other filmmakers
When you’re sifting through your cinematic Rolodex while you’re watching a movie you are often missing out on what’s essential. Because you are thinking about the hyper-hyphenated article that you will be writing about someone. People have asked for what you felt when you watched it. This is truly what they want to know. Most journalists succeed in sharing that feeling with you, and the balance fails in that they try to educate you and tell you who you are and where you are from while they truly are mistaken on both. I have seen very little movies and I’m most of the time ashamed about it. I have lied most of my life about the movies I had seen, based on the things I had learned in trailers or on Wikipedia. To this day I still haven’t seen “Apocalypse Now.” In the time, at the age where most filmmakers were binging all those movies and building themselves a culture, I was fighting to direct my first one. On the path that I’ve taken and of which I have embarked, there has been little time to catch up on all the movies that exist. But whether I have seen them or not is truly irrelevant to the movies that I make.
On the art that inspires him
I’m not influenced by movies, I’m influenced by paintings. And I’m not influenced — I’m inspired by paintings, by poems, by literature, by photos. This is what my movies are made of: photos and paintings. Because when you are watching a film, the inspiration is so restricted you see an image in motion, and that imagery is what you have to depart from to have your own ideas. But it’s hard because you’re inspired to plagiarize. Whereas when you see a picture, it brings you into another world, a world of your own. You just embark on a sort of stream of consciousness where you leave the concrete thing and go into the abstract. And there ideas really take shape and crystallize. Which is not the case with watching movies.
On intolerance and America
A society is defined by individuals but there are traits that correspond to the vast ensemble. There are facts that stand out by themselves in American society, and intolerance is most certainly one of them. This is a society that is defined by intolerance and violence, sadly. No one can really contradict me, I’m speaking the obvious. Obviously not everybody is intolerant, not everybody is violent, of course there are individuals in this society and many that are different and unique and as much as you have horrifying examples of savagery, you have beautiful examples of people fighting for difference and marginality.
I think this country is more than ever — from a foreigner’s point of view, but a neighbor still — facing very important times. I feel like America will be making choices in the next years that, as always, will be defining the rest of our collective international story. More now than ever, I think. The problem with progress is that we are making decisions and making new laws to allow the vast majority of people to live in a respectful way and in a way that they can fully experience the freedom of their rights and the freedom of love. As much as that purpose is made, there are a lot of people who are rising against such progress.