Canadian actor-writer-director Xavier Dolan is only 26 years old, but his growing list of achievements is as vast and accomplished as filmmakers three times his age. His 2009 debut, “I Killed My Mother,” won the Art Cinema Award, the Prix Regards Jeunes and the SACD Prize at Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight. His second feature, “Heartbeats,” earned the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2010. After a two-year hiatus, his nearly three hour romance, “Laurence Anyways,” won Suzanne Celement the Cannes Best Actress Prize, and last year’s heralded masterpiece, “Mommy,” tied for the coveted Cannes Jury Prize.
These days, Dolan is at various stages in completing two star-studded dramas: “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” starring Kit Harington, Jessica Chastain, Kathy Bates and Susan Sarandon, and the Marion Cotillard-headlining “It’s Only the End of the World.”
Given Dolan’s international recognition, it’s downright shocking “Tom at the Farm,” his drama opening in theaters and VOD this weekend, isn’t remotely new at all. Starring Dolan as a grieving young man who travels to the country home of his late boyfriend, the film premiered almost two years ago at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Despite winning the festival’s FIPRESCI prize and Dolan’s increasingly high profile, the psychological thriller was never acquired for U.S. distribution until Amplify Releasing picked it up two months ago. Speaking to Indiewire at Amplify’s headquarters in New York City, Dolan seemed more shocked than anyone that it has taken so long for “Tom” to find a stateside home.
Finding Meaning in the Film’s Long Road to U.S. Distribution
“What seems unfathomable — and why it sounds and seems unfathomable to me — is that everybody has the same discourse on this film. Everyone tells me, ‘Xavier, this is your most accessible film.’ And I agree with them. It most certainly is,” Dolan said. “As the filmmaker behind it, I couldn’t fully warrant my confusion because it’s my movie. I’m the one who made it. So for the past two years I was like, ‘Ok, there’s something that I don’t understand and it’s not accessible.'”
The film certainly has its psychosexual themes — the late boyfriend’s older brother (the smoldering Pierre-Yves Cardinal) forces Dolan’s character into an unstable mental head game — but any explicit undertone is merely hinted at, which is part of what makes the experience so intense and the argument that distributors didn’t want to risk distributing such provocative subject matter so ludicrous. Compared to Dolan’s other features, “Tom” is as tame, uncontroversial and straightforward as it gets. It may have taken “I Killed My Mother” three years to hit the states after its Cannes premiere, but that film was nowhere near as globally accessible as “Tom” is.
“It’s a short movie. It’s a psychological thriller, and we know genre movies perform very well in theaters, or at least that they have a legitimate place in being released in theaters. They are of a known group, and they travel incredibly well internationally. I couldn’t understand why it never found a home here,” Dolan said. When Amplify acquired the picture earlier this year, they told Dolan they had thought it had already been purchased, which made the director “unsure if everybody’s perception of things was that the movie had been sold and that it was just old news.”
A more reasonable answer is something Dolan and his fellow foreign filmmakers have been facing for decades now: American apprehension towards foreign films, regardless of genre. “The scene of independent cinema is already a large scene in America, and not in a negative way, but it’s cluttered,” he said. “It’s very populated with just American films, so the room left for foreign movies is not extremely vast. The American public also does not really read. They don’t read subtitles. But we’re like that in Canada too. French audiences are one of the only audiences in the world who like to go to the movies and actually read.”
Ironically, Dolan is now embarking on his English language debut, “The Death and Life of John F. Doonvan,” which stars Kit Harington as an actor whose life spirals out of control after a gossip columnist (Jessica Chastain) exposes his private dealings with an 11-year-old fan. While the film couldn’t be more coincidently timed — “Tom’s” delay clearly proves that a cinematic darling like Dolan deserves way more American attention — Dolan vows it has nothing to do with gaining more clout in the states. “The reason this English debut exists is because this story could not have been told in any other milieu or language than English,” he said.
The Power of Adapted Screenplays and the Errors of Originality
As for “Tom,” the film is based on a stage play by Michel Marc Bouchard that Dolan first saw in 2011 while doing pre-production on “Laurence Anyways.”
“I was sort of half in the theater watching the play unfold on stage and half in my mind daydreaming about the movie. It was so replete with possibilities,” he said of being drawn to the project. “The first thing I was thinking about was how much more creepy and suspenseful and violent it could be on film. Obviously to convey violence and distill feelings like fear and anxiety on a stage is very tricky, so I knew that it could be much more weird and creepy and stirring on film. Plus, I’ve always been such a fan of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and I had always dreamed of directing a thriller, and I immediately saw that possibility in ‘Tom.'”
Committing to the project meant Dolan would have to brace new territory, for “Tom” is the first film the writer has adapted from pre-existing material. “It’s so much easier,” Dolan said when asked how the adaption process compared to writing an original. “Easier is probably not the best word, I don’t want to say it’s easy, but sheer creation is so hard and complicated. I’ve fucked up so many original scripts and I’ve tried to fix them in the editing room and on set and I’ve realized that there is no such thing as ‘fixing’ in post. The script is the finality of everything. You are lying to yourself if you think you are not concerned by that equation. It is the same for everyone.”
“Of course things are modified on set and in the editing room — and of course there is the acting that makes or breaks the film — but on movies where I entirely signed the script and started from scratch, it’s always been complicated to give closure and wrap up things,” he continued. “The end of act three and start of act four has always been my weak spot. The problems I have with a flawed script are always revealed in the editing room. You feel four months later that you fucked up your writing — that you’re completely missing a scene or that you have way too many.”
Dolan recalls editing “Mommy” as an example. “If you watch all of the deleted scenes — and I don’t know if you can do that here because I’m not sure the U.S. DVD has the deleted scenes — all of the scenes that have been deleted all come from the end, and it’s four consecutive scenes that all had to be cut because there were just too many fucking scenes in act four!” he said. “I always have the same problem! It’s always wrapping up and giving closure to characters. And most of the time I’ve already concluded things that I then feel the need to conclude further.”
Adapting a preexisting work provided Dolan the ability to understand the ideal structure of a movie from an outsider’s perspective, something he never felt he got to fully comprehend in dealing solely with original work. “When you’re adapting, you are working on someone else’s problem that they have already solved,” he explained. “The work has been fine tuned and read countless times, and you’re just arriving at the end and taking what you want, so of course it is the regal way to moviemaking. Plays are just the ideal scripts — the structure is there and waiting for you.” Dolan has adapted a play once more for “It’s Only the End of the World,” and similar to “Tom,” he feels the script is “more solid and strong and rigorous” than anything he’s ever written from scratch.
The Comfortability of Being An Actor and Collaborating
Less challenging than writing his own scripts is starring in his own movies, which Dolan does with command and psychological nerve in “Tom.”
“I don’t find it hard to direct myself,” he admitted. “I can easily think of me as a horrible performer or a good performer. I work with actors who cannot stand watching or looking at themselves, which is not my case. I can have an eye and perspective on whether I’m terrible or good enough for me. But I prefer to be directed by others, because then you want to please somebody else. To please yourself is not fulfilling.”
More surprisingly, Dolan revealed that he considers himself first and foremost an actor, and that director is not a moniker he necessarily identifies with. “I am always in acting mode. Even when I’m only directing, I’m still an actor,” he said, clearly a shock to anyone who has seen his stylistic aesthetics become more commanding and confident with every feature. “This is how I direct movies — I act around them, I act with people, I act with actors, even when I’m not on camera,” he continued. “My entire idea of how to be a director is based on acting because that’s what I am, and I think actors I work with respond to that, or at least I hope they do.”
Also of comfort for Dolan has been his budding relationship with French director Andre Turpin, who has been the cinematographer on his past two projects and will continue to be so on “It’s Only the End of the World.” “He is so pure and sweet and funny and unpretentious,” he said with a smile. “We can call each other out on our weaknesses and our bad ideas. He doubts himself and I doubt myself — we doubt ourselves, but never at the same time. I’m there for him when he’s off, and he’s there for me when I’m off. The best collaborators have a synchronicity in their competence and incompetence, and that’s what we have.”
It may have taken “Tom at the Farm” two years to reach domestic audiences, but it’s clearly an experience Dolan continues to take from as he mounts projects that are bigger and packed with more star power than ever. If anything, let the film’s long road to distribution be a wake up call for cinephiles hungry for foreign auteurs to a make a name for themselves on U.S. soil. In other words, don’t dare miss “Tom at the Farm” when it opens in select theaters and on VOD tomorrow.