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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “The Salesman” Director Sebastien Pilote

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "The Salesman" Director Sebastien Pilote

Marcel Lévesque is a dapper, silver-haired, silver-tongued car salesman. Perennially anointed “Salesman of the Month” at his dealership, he takes great satisfaction in the ritual of persuasion. Selling is his calling and preoccupation—that and watching over his beloved daughter and grandson provide his sole raisons d’être. But in the humble working-class town of Lac Saint-Jean, Québec, where the impending paper plant closure is immobilizing the economy, car buying seems utterly absurd. As more men are laid off, precariousness and flux swoop into Marcel’s life, too, and he must come to terms with the consequences of his obsession.

An astonishingly assured first feature, “The Salesman” elegantly applies restraint and precision to mount subtle, quotidian moments into an emotionally crushing story. A heartbreaking, exacting performance by Gilbert Sicotte, one of French Canada’s greatest actors, becomes the exquisite engine driving forward this meditation on our need for safety and routine in the face of life’s inevitable instability. [Synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

“The Salesman”
World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Director: Sebastien Pilote
Screenwriter: Sebastien Pilote
Cast: Gilbert Sicotte, Nathalie Cavezzal, Jérémy Tessier
Producer: Marc Daigle, Bernadette Payeur
Cinematographer: Michel La Veaux
Editor: Michel Arcand
Music: Pierre Lapointe, Philippe Brault
Sound: Gilles Corbeil, Olivier Calvert, Stéphane Bergeron

Responses courtesy of “The Salesman” director Sebastien Pilote.

A film education…

My first clear memory about my desire to make movies, besides enjoying going to the theater to watch them, came at school, during a class projection of “Hour of the Wolf,” directed by Ingmar Bergman. It was a revelation… From that moment, I had to get a movie encyclopedia and I wanted to see every movie in the book. It was like an obsession. Since then it is still there but I have channeled it.

It always surprises me to see film students who want to make movies but stay in a spectator-like comfort zone. I believe, as Francois Truffaut said, “it is by watching movies, that you become a filmmaker.”

The film schools are here to educate technicians, professionals… And make friends.

Drawing from Poetic Realism…

I directed a lot of TV segments, small documentaries, with a small filming team.  Sometimes, I was my own cameraman. I wanted to keep the same flexibility for my first feature, even though I had a much bigger team. I still wanted to stay attentive to what was happening on the set, to use it, to exploit it. I wanted to stay close to the “real.” If “Poetic Realism” did not exist, I wish I had created it. It is my dogma. It describes so well the cinema I want to make, poetic and natural, which with simplicity attempt to express complex feelings, to show who we are as human beings, instead of diverting us, making us forget for one hour thirty minutes.

Going beyond the narrative…

My biggest challenge was to make the car salesman more approachable, touching, clever, despite his flaws. I wanted to avoid falling into cliches. Gilbert Sicotte, the lead actor, understood extremely well what to do and how to do it.

Another challenge was to juxtapose the natural with the daily poetry. It was sometimes difficult. And I did not want the story, the narrative, to take over the movie. I did not want to let it take over me. The story was important, but it is not the movie. The story is too often imposed upon the spectator, who then sees only that…

You know, it is a bit like a proverb: “When a wise man is pointing at the Moon with his finger, the crazy man looks at the finger”. For me, the story is the finger.

Reality intervenes…

Everything in the movie about the factory, the closures, etc., was echoed in the city where we were shooting. The city was experiencing the same events as the ones depicted in the film. Some days it was so unbelievable and sad to see how fiction was mirroring reality. For example, access was denied to a location at the last minute as a bailiff just took over ownership…

The workers in the film were real workers affected by a plant closure.

Coming to America…

It will be my first time at Sundance. The economic crisis touched people in the U.S., making the theme of the movie close to some people. I wanted to use my American influences in this movie, my childhood memories: the music of Lucinda Williams, Dylan’s “Romance in Durango,” texts of Woody Guthrie, Steinbeck, Springsteen’s “Brand New Used Car.” Sadly I couldn’t use the Springsteen.

I have more experience with European film festivals. My short movie “Dust Bowl Ha! Ha!” did the circuit over there, but not at all in the US. I participated in the Toronto International Film Festival, but Toronto is not really a US festival… It is so strange, I live in Quebec and it is still North America, after all. But I still don’t know the American cinephile. For this reason, I am looking forward to Sundance.

Inspiration from other films…

There are a lot of movies that inspired me. They are kind of melded together in my mind and I’m not sure I could order their importance to me. Often the most inspirational and striking movies are very different from the ones, we make. “A Woman Under the Influence” by Cassavetes is a great example for me. There is as well [Cimino’s] “The Deer Hunter,” “Gerry” by Van Sant and “Modern Life” by Raymond Depardon.

Going back to Balzac…

I am finishing a script, freely inspired by “Le Pere Goriot” by Honore de Balzac. It is the story of an old farmer who sells the family property, his land, in order to provide for his daughters whom he loves so much.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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