Xavier Dolan’s Original ‘Death and Life of John F. Donovan’ Cut Was Four Hours Long

The Canadian filmmaker’s epic drama is still seeking U.S. distribution.
Xavier Dolan, Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington
Xavier Dolan, Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington
Shayne Laverdière

Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s epic drama “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” has been sitting on the shelf, at least stateside, since its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival. Boasting Dolan’s most ambitious cast to date — including Kit Harrington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton, and Susan Sarandon — “Donovan” was met with jeers at the festival, including by IndieWire’s critic Eric Kohn. In a new interview with the Globe and Mail, Dolan now says that the film originally ran a lengthy four hours long. As it stands, the film currently runs a cool two hours.

“I shot the film that I wrote, but the film that I wrote was a 160-page script that made no choices,” Dolan said. “You now want to focus on something [the editing] that I’ve been focusing on for two years and I don’t know how inspired I can be to talk about that. I usually edit movies in two months, not two years. It was at times brutal and invigorating to rediscover something you think you know by heart.”

Dolan opted not to take the film to Cannes after critics savaged his 2016 chamber drama “It’s Only the End of the World,” which ended up winning the festival’s Jury Prize and is, actually, quite good. Originally, “Donovan,” which centers on a pen-pal relationship that develops between a young boy and a closeted TV star, was set to star Jessica Chastain. But at the last minute, Dolan cut her role entirely from the film, stressing that it had “nothing to do” with her performance.

Allegedly, the four-hour cut included a prologue involving Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” which, like the premise of “Donovan,” chronicles a correspondence between an established artist and an eager acolyte. There was also said to be narration from Michael Gambon’s character, who appears as a vision in the version that screened at TIFF.

The genesis of “Donovan” came from Dolan’s early interest in Leonardo DiCaprio. After seeing him in “Titanic,” Dolan ended up sending the then-rising actor a fan letter. “‘Titanic’ is not just the film I loved as a child, it’s the beginning of many things,” Dolan said. “Probably a sexual awakening, but also a cultural awakening, a cinematic awakening and a life awakening in that I realized how ambitious the film was. It inspired me to consider all the options I had artistically — that I could act, design clothes, even shoot films. None of these options had ever seemed possible before.”

Dolan’s latest film, “Matthias & Maxime,” earned acclaim at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and, like “Donovan,” still awaits a U.S. release. But Dolan has previously exercised patience when it comes to distribution, as his 2013 psychosexual thriller “Tom at the Farm” took two years to make it to U.S. theaters.

“The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” hits Canadian theaters on August 23.

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