In an early scene in Philippe Falardeau’s “Monsieur Lazhar,” a young child discovers that his teacher has committed suicide, hanging herself from the rafters of their classroom. Rather than become the starting point for a dreary psychological examination of the relationship between teacher and student, this controversial action serves as the impetus for introducing the film’s title character as her replacement.
Adapted by Falardeau from a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, “Monsieur Lazhar” does not shy away from the emotionally scarring action of the children’s former teacher. Rather, it follows the process of Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar acclimating himself to a new classroom environment, all the while fighting for his ability to remain in Canada as a citizen.
This is Falardeau’s fourth feature, following “The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge,” “Congorama,” and “It’s Not Me, I Swear!” However, “Monsieur Lazhar” is far and away his most successful film; in additionto today's Oscar nomination, it was nominated for nine Genie Awards.
Falardeau spoke with Indiewire at the Palm Springs Film Festival earlier this month about finding the right Lazhar, adapting a monologue into a feature-length film and auditioning 250 children for an intimate classroom setting.
Where do you see this film in relation to the others that you’ve made?
I know that I couldn’t have done it before the other ones in terms of maturity, in terms of taking your time and leaving the unnecessary things out. It’s a film that, when you think about it, not much happens. It’s not that it’s slow-paced, but we have a sense that we’re living with these people and accompanying them. I was confident enough that the power of the story and the richness of the characters would do the job, but I had to be sober in the way I approached it. When you’re younger and you do your first or second film, you want to show everyone what you can do. This one was more emotional.
This story is a loose adaptation of a one-man show. What did you think when you first encountered the source material?
When I saw the play, I was not looking for a subject for a film. Because the play was just one person on stage, I needed to imagine stuff around it. I started working while I was watching the play. I saw the school, I saw some part of my childhood in the elementary school. It was a lot about this character, but a lot about my own recollection of the importance of that time in our life. When you’re nine years old, you don’t give a damn if it’s important or not. If we say to you that one day, you’ll realize that these were the best years in your life, you don’t want to hear that. While watching the play, I was realizing that those were the best years of my life. I really enjoyed being at school. There was a potential. So, I went back to school. I asked teachers if I could go in their classes and just watch how the kids move and talk. I grabbed pieces of stuff here and there to build the film.
After you saw the play, did you work from the original text or did you go off of the story that you remembered?
I wanted to be true to the main character. I asked the playwright [de la Chenelière], “Can you be my first reader and be the guardian of the integrity of your character? I don’t want to steer away from what you intended the character to be.”
The play was a monologue that lasted an hour and 10 minutes, so I had to find other stuff for it to become a movie. The other stuff was mainly the two children, so for me, it became three points of view in the film instead of one. At first, I wanted the three point of views to be equal. But I realized, especially when we were shooting, that it was going to be Mssr. Lazhar first and that the film couldn’t sustain an equal balance between the three. For the film to be successful, the emotional outburst had to come from the kids and not from him, because he’s the opposite of that. He doesn’t even want to say what happens to his family.
So what do I do? I’m stuck with a character that is interesting for me because he tells the truth to the state, he lies to the school, he doesn’t show his true feelings. But how do you get the audience to connect with an emotion? It had to be with the children. I remember the first draft included a lot of unnecessary stuff, like flashbacks to Algeria, which I realize today was not important.
The original play was not based on any specific, real Bachir Lazhar, correct?
It is not. She, as a playwright, when she started working on it, she wanted to see if she could write something about someone that she didn’t know anything about, like an Algerian, since she’s a Quebec playwright. It’s something, for me, that is very difficult to do. I would love to write a script where the main character is a woman. I know I can direct a film where the main character is a woman. I cannot write that film. But she could do that. Once she was able to tap into this character, even though it was totally fictional, I could take it and do some research around it. I even went to Algeria to research where the character comes from, which was perhaps not useful when you watch the film, but it was useful to me because I needed a license to talk about these people. I was wondering, “Do I have the right to talk about this experience? I am not an immigrant, I was never a refugee. I’m not an Algerian. I never lost my wife and children in a terrorist attempt.” It was totally fiction, but I get a lot of immigrants, not only Algerians, telling me, “This is my life story.”
Did that make it easier, knowing that it was based on a fictional character, that you had a some freedom to add in your own things, knowing that you weren’t beholden to something in particular?
Because I come from documentary and I’m obsessed with details, I asked a friend who knew an Algerian refugee to introduce me to him. We spent three days and he just told me his story. I took notes and notes and notes. When the girl tells Mssr. Lazhar that Montreal is just grey and slush and he says that the first thing he sees is the green of the trees and the parks everywhere? I didn’t invent that. I stole that. I needed details like that because I live in Montreal and I don’t really see Montreal from an outside point of view.
Casting the right Bachir Lazhar was going to be important. How did you find him?
I had heard about him. YouTube was the first time I saw him. If you type in Fellag, his name, you’re going to see that he’s very different. But I really liked his face.
The play had an actor who was not Algerian. We don’t mind in the theater, but on the screen, I didn’t want to battle with the audience. And he’s also the kind of guy that you know is inherently good. You can’t see him as a bad guy. I had a feeling that the children would also feel comfortable around him.
I went two times in France to try to find the right actor. Even when I met Fellag the first time, we did a reading and we took some images and I came back home. I wasn’t sure, so I made a second trip to meet him. I want to use actors that aren’t well known, especially for a film like this, so you instantly have a character onscreen and not an actor, not someone you know. They don’t have the baggage of all their other films or characters.
From a structural standpoint, you had the ability to explain Bachir’s story at the beginning, before anyone else meets him. Was that something from the original material or was that a choice on your part?
In the play, you learn only midway that the former teacher had committed suicide. What I did for many versions of the script was have the film begin a week after the hanging. I didn’t want the film to be about that, especially that we don’t know that woman. But I realized that if I wanted the kids’ emotional scenes at the end to be pertinent, we had to discover the body with them and live that moment. So, I brought back that scene.
In the theater, everything is abstract. The hanging was abstract. So it becomes something that you figure out in your mind. Now you have to show it. That was the most critical part. So I used a long shot without editing, two minutes and a half. It’s my favorite shot of the film because you have an empty hallway, you see him run back and you hear the children are in the school. So, after that, you have to build on that tension.
You don’t cut away from that opening scene. Was there some apprehension about shooting it that way, considering you’re working with children?
It’s not more difficult or less difficult. It’s not the fact that they were kids, it’s the fact that there were 200 kids coming in. They were wearing winter clothes and it was 35 degrees Celsius outside. That’s over 90. That was tough. It was 18 takes and it was the first shot of the film, the first day. That’s how the story begins, so I wanted the children to be in the same mood.
When you’re casting children, are you looking primarily for strong personalities or strong actors?
I’m trying to find people I want to work with. And this is true for adult actors. Of course, there’s “talent,” “responds well to direction,” but also, “Do I want to work with them?” All of them auditioned for the same role of Simon, and then I gave them other parts. The only other part I had was a guy from Chile, but he didn’t look anything like a Chilean, so I said, “What the fuck? I don’t care. The guy was good!” So I invented that, somewhere, his mother was from Quebec and his father was from Chile.
Same thing with the little girl. She was two years younger than everyone else. You would see here in person: she’s not in sixth grade. No way. But her eyes, she has something precocious about her. I knew she could do the job.
During the audition, I take a painful amount of time. For this, I saw 250 kids, then down to 25 kids, then I did some lab. I said, “OK, you and you! We’re going to try a scene.” Then I left the others behind closed doors. They have fun together, but they know they’re going for the same part. Imagine doing that with adults! I ended up giving roles to pretty much everyone. The ones that didn’t have any roles, I asked them to be in the class as extras.
You said you didn’t want the film to be about the hanging. Some of the characters do condemn her, while others sympathize. The film doesn’t pick sides. Was that by design?
It’s pretty nonjudgmental. Actually, Mssr. Lazhar is more judgmental. For him, because of his culture, he will not say, “I condemn a person that hangs herself.” But why in the class? We’ll never know. Personally, I don’t think it’s because of the accusations of the boy [that come later in the film]. When you have a character that commits suicide, it’s the living after. How do they feel? How do the boy and girl feel?
Were the school politics as much of a part of the original play or was that a subtle element that you wanted to add in yourself?
I poked at the system for underachieving and for over-codifying everything, like how you should not touch a child. It was important for me to do that. I think I hit a nerve there that is pertinent here in the States and in Europe. But, doing that, I still wanted the film to be an ode to teaching, while scratching a little bit at the system.
You said that you had two separate shooting sessions with the kids. How did you deal with the break in filming?
The summer was the main shoot, all the exteriors for the winter shoot were in January. Four days in January and 26 in the summer. It was like a high school reunion. For them, six months is like six years for us! It’s a lot of time. We hit it off. Because we were shooting outside, I put on my ski boots and my outfit and I was playing with them in the snow. It really felt like winter camp.
You’re currently working on a political comedy. Because you wanted to take the obvious, explicit political message out of this movie, will you put it in that one?
I studied political science. I think it’s a way for me to realize both at the same time. This is going to be political in the sense that the main character is a politician. It’s going to be a comedy because I can’t see any other way to tackle this. There’s so much cynicism around politics that I want to be able to hit on everyone, including us, the voters. I don’t want the film to be too specific to Canadian politics. That’s the tough part.
My other films, the humor was more punchy, but this one would be the first one I’d call a comedy. The other one, I didn’t. It has its own logic when you’re writing comedy. While writing it, I realized that, if people see a comedy, they’ll expect to be laughing at least every five minutes. I’m not too keen on jokes that are one-liners. I want the situation to be funny. You can’t have three of those on one page. It’s not possible.
After working with scripts in French, would you consider doing an English-language film?
I might be doing a film in Spanish before English. I know I want to do a film in Latin America. I’ve been toying with some ideas for years. I wouldn’t be able to direct actors in Spanish and find the right word for what I’m trying to achieve, so I need to go one step further. It’s all about the script: Am I the particular person for that script? Does it appeal to me? I would do French, English and Spanish and I could probably do Italian also. So it’s not about trying to reach a wider audience by shooting in English. If the story takes place in Kentucky, it’s going to have to be in English.