It was only seven years ago that a 20-year-old Xavier Dolan brought “I Killed My Mother” to Cannes, where it premiered in Directors’ Fortnight, won three awards and launched the young actor’s surprising career as a filmmaker. Five feature films later, Dolan is now 27 years old and has firmly established himself as one of the auteurs we expect to be premiering a film in Competition at Cannes (“It’s Only the End of the World” premiered on Wednesday), while he also gets ready to tackle working with Hollywood stars in his first English-language film, “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.””
Indiewire recently chatted with Dolan via email [as per his request, we’ve left the answers unedited] about where he sees his career headed, completely rewriting his “Donovan” script after it was torn to shreds by a producer, and why after he’s finished directing that film this summer he’s vowed to put his acting career first.
As the scale of your movies gets bigger, has it changed the way you make films?
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What does change are the mistakes you make, because you try not to idiotically repeat them. Some have been so egregious, so annoying that you can’t possibly forget about them and just do it again the same way. Your way of seeing style and storytelling changes. The more I go, the more it’s about characters and the narrative – the colours, the aesthetics… picking up a fabric, working on a fill light with [cinematographer] André [Turpin], choosing one of these kitsch songs people think is entirely characteristic of who I am and what I do… these are all inherent actions that we almost organically perform.
What’s much more complex is making decisions when it comes to… who is a character looking up to? Who is it looking down on? Is this one line necessary? Is this the right lens for this particular scene? Is the motion indispensable here or are we overshadowing the actors? How many shots do we really need here? Are we cheap because of schedule, or are we too generous because we are self-indulgent? The fact a movie looks this or that way doesn’t mean we haven’t asked ourselves the real questions.
“The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” has been pushed a couple of times, which in the world of bigger movies with an all-star cast is completely normal. Has this been frustrating for you, or are you looking to take more time between projects?
It’s not been frustrating. It’s been a blessing. There always is a reason to things happening or not. You make your own fate in the proportions that you can, but some things are out of your control. In the meantime, I got to shoot “It’s Only the End of the World” because of Donovan being pushed back. And when I come to think of it, I was not ready to shoot “Donovan” before, and the script wasn’t ready either.
Last summer, I went to New York to meet with a producer that I love. He told me he had notes for me, and that I would perhaps dislike hearing them, but that he didn’t want to spare me. I said, fine. I sat in front of him, and for four consecutive hours, I listened to him question or dismiss almost every aspect of the film, from skin to core, doubting the actual point of the film itself. It was great, honestly. When no one wants a movie, there is a reason. We got back to work with Jacob Tierney, my friend and co-writer, and rewrote the entire thing. The movie was picked up two or three weeks later. All the cast agrees that this version has nothing to do with the one before. So it was meant to be that way.
You’ve been very open about how your art comes from deep inside you and is based on your personal experiences. What aspect of your life were you drawing from in making “It’s Only the End of the World?”
Very few aspects, to be honest, and many, many details. Fundamentally, Lagarce’s play hit close to home without having any serious connection or similarities with my own life. I don’t have siblings, I love my family, whether on my father’s or mother’s side. You have to look in between the lines to find things that truly intersect my own life or past. But if you do, you’ll find a myriad details crossing and matching.
As for “Mommy,” I guess. I’ve never lived the life of Steve, and my mother isn’t Die. My movies have always been personal, and with no father figure, cause I cannot write them. They’ve featured strong female characters, and then what? None of this is particularly autobiographical. The only movie that would be inspired from my life really is the first one.
In just seven years you’ve gone from being the 20-year-old “wunkerkind” to one of the established auteurs who we expect to premiere films in competition at Cannes. What do you want from the next seven years of your career? In the back of your head, do you have a bunch dream projects you know you want to tackle?
I try to always have a lot of things going on at once. I have a couple projects on the burner, cause I never know which will go or not. So at the moment, I’d say there are two to three different projects, two in English, one in French, and at least one of them should be the next! But I do know that, after “Donovan,” which we shoot this summer, I’ll need to act. I’ve sacrificed acting for directing, and I just can’t do that anymore.
I work so hard with actors, and give them my all. I enjoy watching them acting, and acting through them, and being inspired by them, but it’s not enough. At some point, I grow envious of not being able to perform my own ideas myself, and act with great actors too. After 2016, I’ll only do projects as an actor, or direct projects in which I can act. When an actor doesn’t thrive, he withers, and as much as directing is interesting, it is not liberating. Only acting is, to me. You find a lot of actors wanting to direct because they crave control. I want to relinquish it.
Last time we talked you discussed how important having Montreal as a base, both personally or professionally, was for you. Is that still the case? Or is the pull of Hollywood, or other filmmaking centers, become harder to resist?
What isn’t hard to resist is the Juan de Fuca subduction zone. It will rupture imminently, and when it does, the ground will liquefy to a 9.2 magnitude earthquake, and a 100-feet tall tsunami will submerge the entire West Coast, from Vancouver to San Bernardino. I read that article in the New Yorker a year ago and I haven’t slept ever since. And anyway all my family and friends are here in Montreal. This is, for now, mental health to me, and peace, and security.
I just bought a house here, and in a year, when everything gets a little calmer and I’ll have settled down, I think I’ll buy a dog. I love not being in the heart of the action. The last place I want to live in is a filmmaking center. I’m just a visitor. I always go back home in the end, and every time I get back, I realize how much I’ve missed it.
For more from Dolan, watch the “Tom At The Farm” trailer:
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