Mommy: Q&A with Screenwriter/Director/Co-Producer Xavier Dolan
By Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Member
Mommy (Canada; 2014) was shown in September 2014 at the Toronto International Film Festival. This is a discussion with the French Canadian wunderkind director Xavier Dolan about the film. Mommy won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and later the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2014 Venice Film Festival and it is Canada’s submission for best foreign language Oscar. It is a story of a mother and son’s sometimes volatile relationship. Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a very troubled teenager with what appears to be ADHD. He can be calm and angelic one moment and extremely energetic and violent soon after. His mother Diane (Anne Dorval), a working class Quebecois single mother with some major personal issues of her own, tries to deal with her son who has been discharged from a care facility into her care and she is now responsible for him and his actions and reactions. Anne Dorval plays the mother Diane, a widow making ends meet by doing odd jobs or borrowing money and eventually even with cleaning jobs. Her Diane is feisty, sassy, sexy and dresses much younger than her age. After being kicked out of school and moving to a new neighborhood they meet the shy housewife Kyla (Suzanne Clement), who has her own crosses to bear but is willing to try to homeschool Steve and also open herself to the wild and over-the-top life and parties of Diane and Steve. Cinematographer Andre Turpin uses an experimental 1:1 screen ratio and films it with great color, movement, and lots of emotion. Clement had a large role and Pinon a small role also in Dolan’s 2012 film Laurence Anyways.
Left to right: Producer Nancy Grant, Actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Director Xavier Dolan, and Actress Suzanne Clement at the Toronto premiere of Mommy.
(Warning: this discussion may contain some spoilers.)
TIFF Moderator: Xavier, you are one of Canada’s youngest and most important new filmmakers and I’m interested in this project and where the inspiration for the story came from.
Xavier Dolan: I read several years ago a story about a mother with two children. One of the children since he was a 7-8 year old had become increasingly more violent to deal with. She also had a little girl and was a single mother living in the States with minimal or no health care. There was a bill that had been voted on that would allow parents to institutionalize their usually older problem children for periods of time. I am ashamed that I can no longer find that news item or story. So much for my thorough research methods. However, in the story the mother described the drive through the country she was taking to drop the son off at one of these hospitals or institutions. She described the guilt and shame she felt then and later about the whole incident. She also dealt with the judgment of her relatives and neighbors and if she was a bad mother. The bill or law was not maintained I believe later, but her story immediately grabbed my interest. This was when I was also filming I Killed My Mother, and obviously I have done other movies since that, but I still wanted to go back to this mother/son dynamic or really what is a triad story.
Audience Question: This was a very complex story. What were some of the major obstacles in making the film and how did you overcome them?
Xavier Dolan: Well the film is shot in 1:1 or you may say a square 4:4 type format which some people think is a gimmick or trick, but I feel it forces the audience to see what the characters see or look them right in the eye for most of the movie without other distractions. It was really tough sometimes to get everybody in the damn frame (laughter). It force us to do refractions to stay within the narrow frame and think and rethink especially the group shots. I also shoot a lot with actors. Mommy and its narrative really requires a great deal of shots. I remember the director Visconti was once asked when he was rehearsing a play how much longer it would take and he always answered, “It will take one more week.” That sums up how I feel about the question of time needed to prepare and shoot a film also.
Audience Question: In the film we mostly see Kyla spending time with Diane and Steve and very little time with her own family. What does that say about her own family relationship and about her strange relationship with the new neighbors?
Xavier Dolan: It is not overly stressed in the film that Kyla has lost a son. We see a picture of a little boy in her home and a little girl. It is implied that he is dead. Families that have to go through those kind of traumas can sometimes come to terms with their grief, but many others can’t and have been really changed by that trauma. I think we know Kyla sees her husband and daughter are somewhat happy, but she also still remembers them in this time of trauma and grieving. She doesn’t dismiss them but sometimes you just need something more, some kind of escape. She needs to reinvent herself and in Diane and Steve she sees this chance to do so. She sees they are strange, but she sees the freedom and wildness that Diane and Steve represent. She is not just this angel but she needs them as much as they need her. It is a strange triad. At one point, her family almost seems sinister, and she needs the light.
Audience Question: How did you pick the songs for the film?
Xavier Dolan: This is the only concrete participation the public can bring to the film once it is made. You bring your own memories and associations of the music you hear. There is a communion of the music and your own private emotions that you bring to it and the film. When you heard one of the songs, where were you when you first heard it or associated it with a prominent time in your life? Were you at a dance, a prom, were you the prom queen? All your memories that suddenly surface now belong to your experience with the movie. I consider the music the soul of the movie. I consider many of these songs that I have enjoyed and that feel good and make the characters feel good. Even White Flag we hear at the beginning of the movie, when Steve finds the mix tape, you can see the name and Dido on the tape. It is a didactic use of music. So I guess I’m saying if you don’t like the music, it’s not my fault.
Audience Question: I see that you subtitled the film yourself. Was that a learning experience?
Xavier Dolan: Yes and also because I had others do the subtitling before and wanted to check and do it myself this time. There are many great subtitle artists (translators or whatever the word would be). I don’t want a Canadian or American audience to hear a watered down version of what is said by the characters. I don’t want the vernacular of the dialog and what is happening to be lost. I want you not just to understand the words but what is also going on. So to the limits of my capacities from my French, I have a friend help me and tell me when I misinterpret the terms, and in France I do the same thing to make sure it is properly done. I just can’t let go of that feature.
Audience Question: I’m intrigued by the character Kyla. When did you begin seeing the story was more about just the son and mother?
Xavier Dolan: At the very beginning, because I didn’t want any shallow comparisons to my first film I Killed My Mother. Given the difference of social classes and tone, I knew there would be some comparisons made, but I don’t want to repeat myself. I especially wanted the third character to make the film more compelling and not just a third wheel. I think Suzanne was somewhat scared of being a planted character. She was right because the character has a slight stutter and also seems at times mute. For an actor who sees how Steve and Di are so active and loquacious, she and I needed to evaluate--is Suzanne needed and being used enough in each scene? Near the end when we see Kyla spying on her neighbor Di, she is very distant and cold because of the actions Di has taken with Steve. When Kyla and her boyfriend or husband are packing and she picks up the photo of her son we originally had a great deal of dialog about finishing what had been started etc. We also had bad lighting and other issues with that scene and Suzanne came up to me and said I don’t think I want to say those lines. I said just say the lines, sounding like Julia Roberts screaming to Meryl Streep in Osage County, "Just eat the damn fish.” In the end however, she was right. That scene didn’t need any dialog. We always think we need to provide characters with some kind of closure. We have to follow some unspoken rules of screenwriting. But they are also made to be broken to fit your film best. I really love the Kyla character in the film.
Audience Question: What research did the actors do for the condition that Steve has in the film?
Xavier Dolan: None really, I did some research. Antoine didn’t feel he needed to spend time in an adolescent psychiatric facility. I agreed. I was the only one that did a modest amount of research. I’m not a very rigorous researcher or student. But the actors did not have to do research.
Mommy opened January 30 in local DC theaters.
Red Army: Q&A with Director Gabe Polsky
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
A preview screening of Red Army was held on January 21 at Landmark's E Street Cinema. Red Army is a documentary about the Soviet Union's Red Army hockey team. Director Gabe Polsky answered audience questions after the film; Lindsay Moran was moderator.
Lindsay Moran: My name is Linday Moran, I'm a former CIA operative. I saw Red Army in October in New York and just fell in love with the film for a number of reasons, not least of which because I felt like it had implications way beyond the world of hockey and also because one of my salient memories from coming of age during the Cold War in the 1980s was that game at Lake Placid which was probably the first hockey game I ever watched. And I definitely remember it as being a really seminal moment for all of us in the U.S. during the Cold War.
Lindsay Moran: The movie spoke to me in so many ways beyond just the world of hockey. When you set out to make the movie what did you think you were going to be making a movie about? Was it going to be about Soviet hockey, was it going to be about Slava Fetisov, was it going to be as political as it ended up being?
Gabe Polsky: I've shown it to a lot of different crowds. I've been talking to the art world in festivals all over the world and sports audience but I think this might be a more political oriented audience. My parents are from the former Soviet Union, from the Ukraine and I grew up in the U.S. as a very serious hockey player. It wasn't until I saw the Soviets play for the first time, what you saw on the screen, and I was mesmerized. I couldn't believe the creative contribution they brought to the game. The memory we have is the Miracle on Ice. The dominance and creativity and what they did for sport was a creative revolution in sport. Partially because of the time period, we pushed that to the side and made the story of the underdog the prevailing story. But we forgot what they did for sport which is important not just for sport but beyond that. I was also perplexed with the idea that under such oppresive conditions and brutal society how could such free hockey exist. And supposedly the U.S. is a free society and for some reason our hockey was the opposite: it was brutal, simplistic and aggressive. And that perplexed me. But I was curious about this team, how they lived, I wanted to know more about that and it brought me closer to my own heritage. I studied it and did some research and realized that the story of this team was really the story of the Soviet Union and the people and it nicely paralleled the rise and fall of this country with the glory heyday of this team and then the collapse. I found that really interesting and thought it could be a story that transcends sports and hockey and brings in other elements, sports and politics were intertwined. Stalin had created this sports system specifically to propagate the ideas of socialism and to prove the dominance of the Soviet Union. I found it interesting, the idea that sports communicate ideas, just like films do, literature, architecture. It all communicates to us about our selves and our society and sports does just the same. We watch sports and it's almost like a cultural event. You ask how do they do this? That's the purpose of it, to look into this and I find that very interesting. Politicians can use that to their advantage or not. It's just another tool in the toolbox.
Lindsay Moran: I was able to meet Slava at a screening. He is such a charming, witty guy. You see it on the screen and you see it when you meet him in person. He really emerges in the film as a hero, as someone who really stood his ground almost like a sports dissident for the resolution for which he refused to back down. But fast forward and he's now a part of the system. We're seeing a lot of resurgence of cold war rhetoric and we're seeing Putin beyond imperialistic gesturing. How do you think Slava reconciles that or thinks about his place within the system now?
Gabe Polsky: I think the idea of home is an interesting idea, where we grew up, the people we know. It's hard to shake that off. Especially Slava, one of the most famous people in Russia, he's one of the most decorated athletes in the Soviet Union. He has a lot of power capital to make change. In the U.S. nobody really knows who he is. But there everybody knows. People see him on the street and freeze because he's such a hero. With that comes a lot of responsibility. When you are asked by the leader of the country to come back and help a country that is in need of help, especially at that time too with the collapse, he has the ability to make a change. He took that seriously and went over there and tried to do what he could to achieve the agenda. I don't know the details of what he's done but I know there's a sense of duty, so it is the system that betrayed and abused him to a degree, but at the same time, the system changed. It's a so-called different system.
Lindsay Moran: As a filmmaker can you tell us about the process of getting all that archival footage?
Gabe Polsky: I did have great researchers, people here in the U.S. and Russia. I wasn't getting anything from Russia. They usually send you footage and you review it. You give them lists of what you are looking for. They'll never get it exactly right but they send you a lot. But I wasn't getting anything. So I asked the guy in Russia, "What's going on, I'm not getting anything, I think there's more than what you are giving me." He said, "Then you come out here yourself." I did go out there for another interview. I went into these old archives, state owned, poorly organized, everything manual on handwritten cards. I told them what I wanted and they took me to the area where they thought some of it could be. They would pull film cans out and I would sit at a machine and scroll through and look for old film footage. Initially I was excited but it was never ending. The issue was trying to get through all of it and being anxious that I'd only seen five percent of what was actually there. There's tons of stuff. It's just that someone's got to look through it all. I did find things that no one has seen here in the U.S.
Lindsay Moran: One of the things I noticed on the hockey playing aspect: it seemed that they played so well together as a team almost because they endured the gulag conditions of training and not having access to their families. Do you think that's why they were so good?
Gabe Polsky: You have to work really hard and sacrifice a lot for success. You ask any athlete or anyone succeeding in anything. They make huge sacrifices. This just happened to be a whole system. "Whether you like it or not you are going to be here, you're not going anywhere." Versus making that choice yourself: "I'm not going anywhere." It was a more systematic organized way. Whereas here it's about the individual making that decision instead of the state making it for you. But one thing they did different from our sports teams and our system is that by isolating the players together they built a really strong chemistry and for sports it almost the most important thing. The reason we haven't seen this performance creatively equal to what you saw is because of chemistry. Players these days, they go their separate ways after the game, they're not together enough, they're not talking or communicating. And then they're traded the next year. It's not conducive to that. The athletes perform individually, to score the most goals, individual performance. Coaches say it's a team, but if an individual is performing well, they'll get the better contract. It's incentivized that way. Whereas in the Soviet Union, they got bonuses for winning Olympic medals, no one got more than the other guy. So I found that interesting.
Lindsay Moran: Has Red Army shown in Russia yet and if so what has been the reaction of the public or government?
Gabe Polsky: After the film showed in Cannes, I was invited to the Moscow Film Festival. It turned out they were inviting me to open the festival with the film. There was a big ceremony with 3,000 people. I was surprised that they invited it because I didn't know if some of the material in the film was going too far in the negative way. I was so nervous because if they didn't like it it would have been a failure for me. Because it's their story about Russia, the people and their whole experience. So that was terrifying. It was full, the minister of culture was there, famous filmmakers, athletes, actors, everyone. It was a big red carpet event, bigger than Cannes even. When the credits started to roll, everyone stood up and started clapping, had tears in their eyes; it was a really emotional experience. For me it was one of the most important experiences. They experienced it in a different way than you did. This is so personal for them, what they went through. It's bittersweet, it's just really personal. I think they were confused about how an American could make a film about us, it's almost over their heads. Some of the people commented afterwards, that it's a shame that we don't have filmmakers that made a film like this about our team, about our country. I think part of the reason is censorship and when you make a film it's always censored, it feels like propaganda, it's not authentic, it just loses its soul. That might be the reason. I do know there's one film out there today also Sony Classics called Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev) which is a very strong film, a genius film that is a metaphor for this Russian soul. It's getting mixed reviews in Russia. I think they're nervous about it, it might be too negative. [Leviathan is on the short list for the Oscars Best Foreign Language Film and is currently plaing at the Avalon Theater].
Audience Question: What was Werner Herzog's role in the film? And what happened to Viktor Tikhonov?
Gabe Polsky: I produced Bad Lieutenant (2009) that Herzog directed and developed a relationship with him. I watch a lot of his films and the films really speak to me. He's one of the funniest guys I've ever met, but it's funny in a really dark way. I think he gets straight to the human soul. His films have made an impression on me. I showed him the film and he was one of the first to tell me that I had something special and it's very powerful, it's about men and friendship among men and the deep Russian sadness. He gave me a sense of confidence and peace that I could live with this film and even if I didn't get into certain festivals not to worry about that. So that was important and I wanted to honor him by putting his name on the film. And it helps the film in the marketplace. Same with Jerry Weintraub, also an executive producer. He's a big Hollywood guy, sort of the opposite of Herzog, a commercial Hollywood bigshot. I knew Jerry because I produced a documentary His Way (2011) that was on HBO. Tikhonov died about a month ago [November 24, 2014, age 84]. He knew the film was coming out but didn't want to be interviewed.
Audience Question: With the stress on Soviet superiority, how were losses treated. After the 1980 Olympics a lot of the players were sacked and there were changes. But what about minor losses like the Flyers in 1976. Did media report on that in the Soviet Union? What was the effect on the players?
Gabe Polsky: It would be wrong to say they were sent to a gulag or thrown out or beaten. That didn't happen. They don't take losses very easily. It's not the cliche you often see--that they're heartless, bad people. These guys rarely got to see their families; they couldn't see their girlfriends. They were punished. Igor Larionov, one of the Russian Five wanted to have a dinner with his family before getting married and asked Tikhonov and he said no. Basic stuff like that. It's just going too far. The media reported the loss. Even internally, people feel superior and proud. They tend to not focus on losses. There is little pr about it. Even when they lost the Miracle on Ice the news agencies were closed, they didn't report on the Miracle. We lost the gold medals, just one tiny paragraph, hidden. This isn't in the movie but Larianov was banned from traveling for one year because he talked to a western journalist.
Audience Question: What about Tikhonov's coaching in Latvia?
Gabe Polsky: Before this, Tikhonov was a coach in Latvia. He had problems there. There was a player in Latvia [Helmut] Balderis. They hated each other. Tikhonov wanted all the credit. The player knew that and quit the national team because he didn't want to deal with Tikhonov. There were perks to being on the national team, you could travel, better food, but you were isolated.
Audience Question: How are the Russians using sports now?
Gabe Polsky: They spent billions of dollars on the Olympics. The Olympics is a political event. It's a place where a country can promote itself. That's why countries bid for Olympics or World Cup, they want to show off, "Look at us, look at our country, we're modernized, we're powerful. Come travel here." It's publicized all over the world, there's cameras everywhere. Putin spent a lot of money on the Olympics and wanted to show the modern Russia, look how far we've come. And win as many medals as they can. And they did win the medal count which was impressive, considering years prior which were terrible. He knows the power of sports, building national pride which is a huge thing for sports. It helps unify a country. I'm not making generalizations, it really does. It's an easy thing to relate to, you bring people together, get them excited about their country. You see in Russia, when teams are playing everyone's getting excited, coming together, going to bars. Look at Brazil. The country's held together by soccer.
Red Army is scheduled to open in the DC area soon.
The 25th Annual Washington Jewish Film Festival
The Washington Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 25th year with 11 days of film programming – accompanied by cultural and educational events – exploring the best of international cinema through a distinctly Jewish lens. February 19 through March 1, audiences can see more than 100 screenings and related events across the Washington area. This year’s milestone festival features world, East Coast and mid-Atlantic premieres, filmmaker and cast appearances, and 12 WJFF retrospective film screenings curated by former festival directors in honor of the 25th year.
The Opening Night film is Magic Men (Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor, 2014), a road trip from Israel to Greece, shown at the AFI Silver Theater on February 19, followed by a party at the Silver Spring Civic Building. The Centerpiece Evening film is the documentary Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem (John Lollos, 2014) followed by a Q&A with Theodore Bickel. The Visionary Award goes to Carol Kane and Joan Micklin Silver and Carol Kane will be present for a screening of Hester Street (Joan Micklin Silver, 1975) for which she received an Oscar nomination. The Spotlight Evening film is East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem (Erez Miller and Henrique Cymerman, 2014) with a Q&A following. The Closing Night film is Mr. Kaplan (Alvaro Brechner, 2014), Uruguay's pick for Best Foreign Language Film.
Other films of note are Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, 2014), Israel's entry for Best Foreign Language Film; Next to Her (Asaf Korman, 2014), a selection for the 2014 Cannes Film Festival; two silent films with live music Breaking Home Ties (Frank N. Seltzer and George K. Rowlands, 1922) with Donald Sosin on piano and Joseph Morag on violin and The Golem (Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, 1920) with Gary Lucas providing music. Local filmmaker Aviv Kempner will present her new documentary The Rosenwald Schools (2014) and Yael Luttwak's documentary My Favorite Neoconservative (Yael Luttwak, 2014) will be shown.
Other programs include the 5th Annual Community Education Day on Arab Citizens of Israel, a panel discussion, a state of the cinema address on Israeli documentary film and a cinematic bar event--Two Jews Walk into a Bar.
See the website for ticket information and a complete schedule.
Calendar of Events
FILMS. More in March.
American Film Institute Silver Theater
"In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund" is a series of feature films and shorts. Play (2011), Involunary (2008), the U.S. premiere of The Guitar Mongoloid (2004) and the short films Incident by a Bank (2009)and Autobiographic Scene Number 6882 (2005).
"Screen Valentines: Great Movie Romances" starts February 6. Titles include Brief Encounter (1945), One Hour With You (1932), Pretty Woman (1990), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), In the Mood For Love (2000), Love and Basketball (2000), Harold and Maude (1971), and The Apartment (1960).
Part II of the Tim Burton series includes Edward Scissorhands, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Batman, Batman Returns, Mars Attacks and Big Fish.
The AFI Silver Theater is one of the venues for the Washington Jewish Film Festival, with some of the most important films: the Opening Night film Magic Men, the Centerpiece Evening films Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem and Hester Street, the silent classic The Golem with live music accompaniment by Gary Lucas, and a dozen other titles. See the Washington Jewish Film Festival website for more information.
"Leading Ladies of Hollywood's Golden Age" is a series showcasing Hollywood's most glamourous actresses. Jean Arthur is represented by A Foreign Affair (1948) and Easy Living (1937); Louise Brooks is seen in Beggars of Life (1928) with live music accompaniment by Donald Sosin; Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Imitation of Life (1934); Marion Davies in The Patsy (1928) with live music accompaniment by Donald Sosin; Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama (1948); Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Bringing Up Baby (1938); Myrna Loy in Double Wedding (1937) and After the Thin Man (1936); and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944). Lots more in March and April.
The series "Hollywood Exiles in Europe" is inspired by the new book Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture by Rebecca Prime. The series begins with Red Hollywood (1996); Christ in Concrete (1949) and Time Without Pity (1957). More in March and April.
"Frank Capra in the 1930s" includes Platinum Blonde (1931), Rain or Shine (1930); It Happened One Night (1934); Dirigible (1931); and American Madness (1932). More in March and April.
The AFI is one of the venues for the series "Discovering Georgian Cinema." All have directors present for Q&A: The Day is Longer Than the Night and Several Interviews on Personal Matters with Lana Gogoberidze. Two more in April.
Special Engagements include Count Gore De Vol's presentation of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy William Neill, 1943); The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973); Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) with live music accompaniment by Gary Lucas; two silent films directed by Oscar Micheaux The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) and Body and Soul (1925) with Paul Robeson, both with live musical accommpaniment by William Hooker.
Freer Gallery of Art
The Freer's 19th annual Iranian Film Festival continues in February. On February 1 at 2:00pm is Bending the Rules (Behnam Behzadi, 2013. On February 6 at 7:00pm and February 8 at 2:00pm is the documentary Fifi Howls From Happiness (Behnam Behzadi, 2013)
The Freer takes part in the "Discovering Georgian Cinema." On February 13 at 7:00pm is the silent film Eliso (Nikoloz Shengelaia, 1928) with music accompaniment by Trio Kavkasia. On February 15 at 2:00pm is Salt for Svanetia (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1932) shown with Nail in the Boot (Michael Kalatozov, 1932), both with music accompaniment by Burnett Thompson. On February 20 at 7:00pm is Paradise Lost (Davit Rondeli, 1938) and on February 22 at 2:00pm is Repentance (Tengiz Abuladze, 1984).
National Gallery of Art
While the East Building is being renovated, films are shown in the West Building and in other locations. Please check the locations for each show.
"Discovering Georgian Cinema" (January 12-March 26) surveys a century of filmmaking from Georgia with films shown at the Goethe Institute, the American Film Institute, the Embassy of France and the Freer Gallery of Art. Films are 35mm from international archives. On February 2 at 6:30pm is Pirosmani (Giorgi Shengelaia, 1969) shown at the Goethe Institute. On February 4 at 7:00pm is Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird (Otar Iosseliani, 1971) shown at the Embassy of France with two short films Akvareli and Sapovnela. On February 6 at 7:00pm is Pastorale (Otar Iosseliani, 1975 shown at the Embassy of France with the short film Tudzhi. On February 7 at 4:00pm is The Day Is Longer than the Night (Lana Gogoberidze, 1984) shown at the American Film Institute. On February 8 at 3:00pm is Some Interviews on Personal Matters (Lana Gogoberidze, 1979) also at the AFI. Lana Gogoberidze will be present for both films at the AFI. See above for the next five films