Age doesn't determine a person's path, situation or approach. I don't see my age.
You got your start in the film industry as an actor. Was your father a significant influence on your decision to go down that path?
I actually started acting before my father, which is sort of funny. My aunt was a production manager in Québec and they were shooting this TV show. They were looking for child actors for a scene or two and my aunt asked my mother if she thought I might be interested in pursuing acting. Since I was constantly dressing up in costumes, singing and dancing, my mother thought that, yes, it would probably be something that I’d be into. That was my first gig when I was around 4. After that, I started auditioning for commercials, films and TV shows. It’s only a year later that my father started acting and his first gig was on a TV show.
Can you recall your first gig? Was it what you had imagined?
Sets have a very peculiar and unique atmosphere. You notice that even as a little kid. A set is the kind of place that doesn’t resemble anywhere else. I was mesmerized by the vibe and dynamic of it. When you’re 5 or 6 and hear people swear and talk about their fuck buddies—there’s a lot of vulgarity on set—you get a fast education on what you need to know and what you don’t need to know. Those are the great memories that I have. By the age of 10, I felt like I was 16 or 17.
What was life like at home during that time? What are the ingredients that helped to build your voice as a filmmaker?
When I was a kid, my father took me to see very commercial films and it wasn’t until I was 17 or 18 that I became aware of auteur films. As a kid, I watched things like Home Alone, Batman, Batman Returns—it was huge when I was a kid—Jumanji and Disney movies. My first movie crush was Titanic. I saw that in the theater in 1997 and I can even remember the theater it played in, which has since closed. It’s during that time that my mother sent me off to boarding school for 5 years. When I came back home at 15, the only connection I had to pop culture was through the WB [Warner Brothers] channel and that was my education. I watched things like Charmed and Smallville, but I wasn’t much of a Dawson’s Creek fan.
I would’ve never thought this about you. It’s refreshing, frankly.
I’m grateful that my first encounter with this form of art lies within a rather commercial context. I wrote the actors and screenwriters of these TV shows hoping they would respond. I remember writing Holly Marie Combs from Charmed. I even wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. When I was 11, I read in a screenwriter book that if you love a certain show, you should try writing an episode of it yourself and I did. [Laughs] In boarding school, we had a TV room where everyone would gather, but the TV was locked on a set channel. I got permission to be excused from those social meetings and stay in my room so I can watch episodes of Roswell by myself.
What did you learn from these films and TV shows that you grew up on?
What I’ve learned from this not-so-traditional education is that the most interesting thing is to tell stories and style is an accessory. I’m most concerned with characters, the writing, dialogue and the psychological logic of a movie. If you don’t address those things, everything else will crumble. I think people have this false impression that I’m really into the aesthetics, but I don’t really think about it that much and everything comes together very quickly on set. I get offended when I read that my films are about style over substance. The stylistic sequences make up 15% of my movies and yet, that’s what people remember and keep coming back to. Viewers sometimes forget everything else.
Well, composition and style comes naturally to you. I still remember shots like the one where Laurence is blowing out his birthday cake and you framed it through a half full wine glass.
You’re the first person to ever mention that shot. At that moment, we’re so so close to someone who’s about to become a woman. I thought it was important to feel the duality that occupies his mind because it’s devouring him. It’s funny that you mention these details because there are a lot of details, both big and small, in this movie. Someone can speak or pronounce a word in a certain way, a character can sing at a certain moment or wear a coat this way instead of another way—every little detail is a way to communicate with the audience. We’re all carrying our entire lives with us when we goto the theater to watch a movie.
You’re so well-versed when it comes to performance, not only when you’re acting, but when you’re directing other actors. Can you walk me through that process?
When I work with other actors, I always get my performance out of the way so I can focus on them. It’s definitely a challenge to direct your performance while directing other actors at the same time. I keep seeing things that someone could do, add to or not do. Sometimes you don’t have time to cut, so we make those crucial decisions while the camera is still rolling. I wasn’t in Laurence Anyways, so that made things easier. As actors play out a scene, I look at the clamshell to see if there are little gestures they could add to enhance the scene. Since I edit my own movies, I see the final result in my head while we’re shooting. This is a very literate illustration of my approach that I’m giving you.
How do you go about balancing fantasy and reality in your films?
When characters lack the words to express their feelings or their emotions get too intense, fantasy will help them express what’s bottled inside. It’s all about knowing when fantasy is essential because it can get superfluous so easily. There’s no real science to it because it’s instinctual for a director. If a scene is complete and the message is clear without the use of fantasy, you should obviously get rid of it. When you do use it for the right reason, fantasy will make a scene explode.
What do your parents make of your movies?
When I make movies, I make them for the world, but I’m essentially making them for around 15 people that I’m trying to impress in my life. I’m seeking admiration and approval from these people, hoping that they will always be impressed. It’s indulgent, but I get so happy when my father or my mother love my work. They give me that validation that I have succeeded in some way. When you send your work out into a world of sharks, they will get great feedback or they will tear it to shreds. It makes you wonder what opinion you should value. Also, what does that say about me and my work? It helps me put things into perspective. It can turn into a real circus.
Do you want people to take away something specific when they watch one of your films?
My movies are so fucking intimate and close to my skin that when people hate them, it’s like they hate me. At the same time, I just want to focus on my work and stay faithful to my passion. I want viewers to see the bond that I have with the actors where I collaborate with my colleagues. I want people to realize that I write stories that will resonate with everyone. I don’t care about appealing to people who watch 400 movies a year with their arms crossed. I’m making movies for people on the street who will stop me and say, “That made me call my mother.” That’s all you want to hear as a filmmaker. Did you laugh? Did you cry? No? Goodbye.
What are your biggest grievances about the industry do you think?
If only people knew… If people could read my mind or hack into my brain, they would realize that I haven’t seen 5% of the film references that they have forced me to have. When I read an article that tries so hard to unmask me as a rip-off or a copy of someone that I’m not even unaware of, they missed the whole point of what I’m trying to accomplish. I don’t wish to make references or even care about influences. I want to touch people and tell a good story. Everything has been done, said and made in 10 years since 1929 to 1939. When you’re 23, you’re not entitled to have ideas because you’re entitled to stealing them. We shouldn’t watch films with a cinema rolodex and quote past work because it’s shallow. That’s not how you’re supposed to watch a movie.
Age seems like a big issue when it comes to you for other people. Why?
I have no idea why. It’s weird that you ask me that question. I don’t have the answer you’re looking for. People like to look at me as this precocious filmmaker still. They’re certainly allowed to do that, but age doesn’t define talent. You could be 23 and suck at what you do. You could make movies until you’re 45 and be absolutely untalented. Looking at it in those terms, age and weight are the same for me because they’re absolutely dissociable. Age doesn’t determine a person’s path, situation or approach. I don’t see my age. Most of my friends are 35, 45, 55 or 60. I already knew what a blowjob was when I was 4… Maybe 6. [Laughs] Age has never been a problem and it’s never been.
When do you think “Queer Cinema” will no longer exist? We don’t have “Straight Cinema”.
Do you mind if I ask you something first? Have you seen Skyfall?
I certainly have.
Don’t you think the scene between Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig was extraordinary? The scene where Javier is sweetly, softly and threateningly caressing James Bond? Do you know how huge that is for a Bond movie? The fact that James Bond says, “What makes you think it’s my first time?” is part of progress. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it and that’s where we’re at now. It made me wonder what the hardcore fans of the franchise would make of that and if it might anger some audiences around the world. But to answer your question, I don’t think the “How?” has been answered yet. People need labels. Even the gay community gives out awards like the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. I have one for Laurence Anyways and I don’t want it! As long as we continue to put emphasis on movies like that, we’ll continue to see certain work as community art. We don’t have the “Straight Awards” or the “Jewish Awards”. It’s so lame!
You want to tell universal stories that resonates with everyone.
Anyone who has ever loved can understand. I’ve had people stop me on the street and tell me, “We thought this was going to be queer. We loved it!” This comes from people as straight as an arrow. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish and obliterate borders. We shouldn’t be talking about these things because there’s nothing to discuss. I don’t want to mention homosexuality in my films. My job, artistically, is to make people forget the fact that there’s a fight to be won. I won’t do it loudly or aggressively. I want it to become invisible. Everyone understands the concept of love. Whenever someone comes up to tell me that they forgot Laurence was a man at the end of Laurence Anyways because they were so fixated on the love story, it makes me think that something profound has changed in that person’s mind maybe.