"In the film business, everybody licks everybody's ass. It's time for people to say what they really feel." The 23-year-old Laurence Anyways writer/director sets the record straight.
French-Canadian actor and filmmaker Xavier Dolan has been making films since he was a teenager. Which was only four years ago. In that time the former child star has seen both his semi-autobiographical debut feature I Killed My Mother and 2010 follow-up Heartbeats premiere at Cannes to critical acclaim. His latest film, Laurence Anyways, a 165-minute romantic epic about a man’s desire to become a woman, also debuted at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard strand and not In Competition, much to Dolan's dismay. LWLies sat the 23-year-old down recently to set the record straight on his remarkable rise to prominence.
LWLies: You’re credited with writing, directing, editing and designing the costumes for Laurence Anyways – and you wrote and designed the press kit too. Are you determined to put everyone else out of work?
Dolan: That’s right. Around the twentieth film, we won’t need any rolling credits, there will just have a picture of me. I did the press kit waiting for the answer [for selection] from Cannes. I just had to keep busy.
You’ve spoken about how your first two films, I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, are highly autobiographical. Given that Laurence deals with a man’s desire to be a woman, have people made any assumptions about your personal life?
I don’t really know. I’m not offended if they do. I was never scared that I’d have to explain that. I don’t want to become a transsexual.
So where did the inspiration for the film come about?
I actually started writing during the shoot of I Killed My Mother. Driving home one night early on, a wardrobe assistant told us about an ex-boyfriend who wanted to become a woman. I started imagining what it might be like to have someone you love do such a thing, and how it can make you suspect every moment you previously shared. I wrote thirty pages that night.
And yet Heartbeats came next?
[Laurence] was so expensive. My producer said I don’t want to do this movie with the money we have, I want to do it with the money we need. But I would die if I didn’t shoot a movie, so I wrote Heartbeats at the Toronto Film Festival, where I screened I Killed My Mother. I knew if I was to write and shoot a little film that quick, it had to be very personal. And with matters of unrequited love, I have a shitload of anecdotes.
It’s definitely a recurring theme in your films so far.
Not unrequited love so much as impossible love. I Killed My Mother was impossible love between a son and his mother. Heartbeats was impossible love between two friends and a beautiful stranger. And Laurence is impossible love between two idealists who can’t live without love and love without living, for one of them. Now the next one is going to be about impossible love between a man and cinema.
I mean, that’s where I am, right? I don’t have a life outside of this business any more. That’s what inspires me now. I don’t have anything else.
You starred in both your previous films – did you ever think about writing the part of Laurence as a younger man and playing it yourself?
Yes, I would have been amazing in that role! No, I think it’s the role of one’s life. I would’ve dreamed of doing that role, it was painful sometimes writing it and knowing I couldn’t play it. Because it had to be Suzanne [Clement] in that role [of Fred], that was from page one. And the age gap would be a useless addition to the variety of problems for the film that weren’t necessary. There was already an age gap with [the originally cast] Louis [Garrel], who’s 25. So when Melvil came in, he sort of filled in the blank for that, because they’re the same age, Suzanne and Melvil.
Speaking of Louis Garrel, how difficult was it when he dropped out shortly before shooting?
We have a saying in the business, I only know how to say it in French, 'Un mal pour un bien' – a bad thing for a good thing? It doesn't diminish Louis’s acting ability at all but it’s true. Maybe it wasn’t the right time for me and Louis to work together. I don’t hold grudges. Ever. Except for that guy who didn’t give me a good review two years ago. No, I really don’t. And Melvil was perfect.
It’s an extraordinary – and extraordinarily demanding – performance.
I think that Melvil did the leap in the way that Laurence did. He bettered himself with such humility and he’s so erudite about cinema and music, he’s seen everything. And he’s been in, like, 60 films. The difference between someone who’s been in 30 films or 60 films, after 60 films they’re like, 'Bitch, please, let’s just do it, whatever you want as long as I’m good.' They don’t come with their requests and egos, because they know this never serves them or their performances, and that’s what matters.
A lot was made of your dissatisfaction at being put in the Un Certain Regard strand in Cannes and not In Competition.
This became some sort of polemic. I said I was very happy to be in Un Certain Regard, which is a great category. I was disappointed not to be In Competition. But I’ve been told by French reporters that I bitterly and childishly complained, when all I did was say, 'Bitches, you wrote about [my film] in five blogs a day for a year, saying it was one of the four films that should be In Competition.' So of course we were hoping for that. I’m a filmmaker and I have ambition. Every filmmaker in Cannes, you think they’re not thinking of winning the Palme d'Or?
I don’t understand how people took it as an unacceptable reaction. I’ve always been honest. People have told me, 'Aren’t you afraid that your relationship with [Cannes Festival Director] Thierry Frémaux will be ruined by your frankness?' Absolutely not! I think that in the film business, everybody licks everybody's ass and it's time for people to say they really feel. I’ve always done that on my sets. So if the scene sucks, come back from France and let’s do it again and try something new. It doesn’t mean we have to be mean, but we have to be honest.
I’m a human being, not some cyborg. Give me a fucking break. Once you’ve grieved, the disappointment will be eternal. I felt this film had a destiny with this [year’s Competition] jury. It’s in the past now. There will be other films – maybe not as ambitious as this one, though, and that’s the problem. But I respect the festival's choices.
You've mentioned James Cameron’s Titanic as a major influence...
Titanic changed my life. It’s epic drama. The most ambitious film of its time, even more than everything that’s been made ever since. 'We’re just going to rebuild the boat.' Cameron is a visionary. Not in the sense of creating cinema, but he’s a master of storytelling. And nobody gives a shit about the Picassos that are sinking on the ship – those are IMDb nerds. Who cares? The thing is that they meet, they fuck, they sink and there’s this double narrative that’s so impressive, with the old Rose, and this dolly shot and we get closer to the ship underwater and then it’s the real ship? I love everything in that film.
Even the Celine Dion song?
I was deeply in love with that song when it came out. Hey, I was nine.
Laurence Anyways is released 30 November.