Films that never age. Films of no generation, no decade, no school of thought.
Xavier Dolan, the 24-year-old filmmaker, recently made headlines after premiering a music video for French New Wave act Indochine’s “College Boy” in which a gay teen is bullied, beaten, harassed, crucified, tasered and shot multiple times in a brutal fashion. Filmed in the playground of a downtown Montreal school, the black-and-white video was almost instantly banned on Quebec’s MusiquePlus channel and censored on YouTube. Dolan says the video has an anti-bullying message and should be seen. We couldn’t agree more. With each new output, we grow incredibly envious of his intellectual and emotional substance. Scroll down the page to check out the video at hand and read on for our in-depth conversation with the Cannes veteran as we retrace his still-infant career. Laurence Anyways, Dolan’s third feature, is set to hit select theaters in June 2013.
What were your early impressions of professional acting? Did it suddenly begin to feel like work once playing make believe was taken out of the confines of your bedroom?
It never felt like work before it stopped for a while around the age of 11. I would be on sets on a monthly basis, if not weekly. Until then, it was all about missing school and hanging out with adults who talked about their sex lives and crack addition. I might romanticize things a little, but if my memory serves me well, everybody had a drug problem in the ’90s. I just got to put on a show and called attention to myself endlessly, which was fun. Then there was boarding school and I wasn’t available anymore, or at least not without involving the complexities of travel and school schedule bullshit that would piss off casting directors and producers. My mom told me my first career was to be school. She was very fond of that gem of an idea, which is why she unfalteringly repeated it to me and everybody else we knew. But boarding school basically put me in MIA status amongst the agencies and I was literally forgotten like Julianne Moore’s son in that movie. When I started to work again around 17, I had to learn it all over again. Then it felt like work.
What was it like at boarding school?
I was forced to go. My mom couldn’t take care of me. I was too high maintenance as a kid. A rambunctious, belligerent, yet very mature–that’s what they said–autistic boy who played dress up and fought at school. I wouldn’t live with my dad because we didn’t get along back then. My mom knew it. So she would offer me to either go live with him or go to boarding school, knowing it meant putting me between a rock and a hard place. The first years were amazing though and I wasn’t resentful at all. But freshman and sophomore years in another school was no fun. I told my mother she had to take me back because, otherwise, I’d take legal action to emancipate myself. I came back home, but she ended up sending me to my uncle’s house to live with my cousins because she still couldn’t deal with a kid at home. And I had the best time of my life. Win win.
You once mentioned that your aunt first exposed you to the industry. Do you think you might have found your way toward film on your own?
Yes. I would have found my way to the business even if I had to run to it on a highway of razorblades or swim through a sea of shit, or drive to it in a royal blue Smart.
Your father got his start in acting after your career took off. Did your career inform his own in any way?
No. My father was already in the industry dubbing. He worked on Aladdin, for instance! He just hadn’t had the chance to break out then, even though he was already an actor and had attended many acting classes.
You talk a lot about having grown up on commercial, mainstream films like Batman and Titanic before moving onto the works of auteurs in your late teens. Do you see the kind of influence that these films have had on you when you watch one of your own?
It’s almost all I see, to be honest. The more I grow, the more I get older, the more I work… The more I start following my own path and walk my own line. But what remains imprinted in me forever, deep down, is what came first. The instincts and the reflexes that will surface or surge up when I’m on a set, or when I’m writing or editing, are the ones that I have been marked with around the ages of 7 to 10, I’d say. Batman Returns, Titanic, Silence of the Lambs, Disney movies, Matilda, Home Alone, Jumanji, etc. Films that never age. Films of no generation, no decade, no school of thought. These are movies that work, movies that leave their mark in terms of tone, storytelling and efficiency rather than in terms of fashion or genre.
I’m still intrigued by your obsession with Titanic in particular, which you’ve admitted to seeing many times in the theater. Why is that film so special?
Titanic is an impressive movie. It’s not an unfathomable mystery why it would make such an impression on an 8-year-old. Its chopper shots, its sumptuous décor, the endless sea, the exquisite costumes, the technically impeccable direction, the delightful acting, the voice over, its complete mastery of rhythm and layered narrative. It’s such a well-produced picture, so ambitious, so big, so intimidating. It literally taught me that nothing is impossible, that no dream is too crazy.
I revisited I Killed My Mother the other day. What were the circumstances that inspired you to write that story? How did your parents, particularly your mother, receive the film?
I think it was easier for my mom to think it was just about somebody else. She said the only thing that woman and her had in common was that they were both stuck in traffic on a bridge every morning. Years later, we talked about it and she said, “When I saw the film, the first thing I said to myself was, I didn’t know he hated me that much.” But making that film, for me, was such an effort of modesty in terms of accepting what a brash, hysterical, egotistical kid I could have been and embracing the fact that I needed to be honest so the movie wouldn’t be one-dimensional. Making that movie was all about making that woman a hero and the moments mocking her are so largely outnumbered by the moments glorifying her, while demonizing him–me. So for me, it was all about saying, “Didn’t you know I loved you that much?” That movie was never a declaration of war for me. It was the exact opposite. But we see things through a self-protecting glass and reject patent truths. Oscar Wilde said that what art reflected wasn’t life, but the public itself. So I guess what we see in a movie, a painting or a photograph reflects the way we see ourselves and who we ultimately are. My mom chose to see a story of hatred and intolerance, while I chose to see a ham-fisted attempt at saying, “I love you.” Some people just saw a narcissistic endeavor to be noticed. We all have different interpretations.
The characters in your films tend to skirt the edges and exist on the fringes of society, which is perhaps most apparent in Laurence Anyways. Do you feel like an outcast yourself?
I love you. I don’t see myself as an outcast, though. I think it would be self-indulgent to do so. I don’t like people who are like, “I’m weird, so you may or may not understand me.” I will not indulge in marginality. I’m a pretty common guy, but that’s my point of view. I like small animals, cat GIFs on the Internet, I wash my hair with FIJI water and eat rat liver terrine like everybody else. You know what I’m saying. Time for a champagne bath now. See ya!
These days, when you cast yourself in your own movies, does it have much to do with efficiency? Are you motivated by a different kind of desire when it comes to acting as opposed to directing?
I’m an actor first and foremost, so it’s the need to express myself. I hadn’t acted in a movie in years when I wrote I Killed My Mother and the idea was to basically cast myself and direct it so no one above me could decide to hire another actor. Plus, no one else knows this character better than I do because it was me. So it didn’t feel like too much of a stretch and I didn’t have the ability to judge weather or not I was cut out to play a part like that.
We continue to put movies into neat boxes. There are genres, sub-genres and genres within those sub-genres. Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where things like sexuality and race becomes so diluted that we’re able to escape those confinements altogether?
I think our generation is trying very hard to eradicate that automatic, deleterious, retrograde ghettoization. But the problem isn’t the artists, it’s rather the critics and the analysts. No offense, but we’re not the ones putting labels and tags on things. People feel the need to put things into boxes as much as they feel the need to identify every single reference to an old movie when they’re watching a new one. As much as it is comforting to indulge in your own culture and the ability to make associations, it is comforting to label things in order to confirm in which box you find yourself. But watching a movie is about projecting yourself onto the lives of the characters on screen, eventually in the brain of a director, and to decide if a movie is good or not based on whether it fulfills its original goals and respects its promises. Watching a movie is about forgetting yourself and your own complexes. It’s an act of generosity. So labels, boxes, auteur or commercial, gay or straight–none of that exists anymore. There is a movie in front of you and you’re not in control of it. Just forget yourself. Just stop thinking in order to feel things. Just become Enya!
Are you very conscious of your core audience when you sit down to write a screenplay or does that not matter?
I don’t write for one specific audience, but I do think about the public when I work. I think about the public all the time, at every step of the way. I am the public, too. What will the public like? What will make him roll his eyes or smile? What will move him? What will make him laugh? What joke is he tired of? What sort of emotion is he willing to feel? Will he follow me in that shot or will he give up? I’m making movies to impress my mom and dad, my friends, and the public. It so turns out that they are all the same person that’s looking for a good laugh, a good cry, nice shots, dialogue that will hit close to home and, above all, good acting. And I’m that guy too when it comes to whatever I’m seeking through films. So the public does matter. The public is everything.
What’s coming up next?
Well, next… Tom at the Farm, my fourth feature film, which will be released this fall. I’ll be shooting feature number five shortly after in October. It’s called Mommy and stars Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément and Antoine Olivier Pilon, the young lead in the “College Boy” music video I directed for the French band Indochine. It features mother and son dynamics, but this time, Anne’s on top. It’s possibly my trashiest movie ever and I’m not saying that to boast. Trash is no fun and not aesthetic to me, but turns out that it’s the story I want to tell next. And after that, in about a year and a half, I’d like to be shooting The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, my American debut feature co-written by fellow director/actor Jacob Tierney. If only the title could be longer!