Xavier Dolan talks about ‘Elephant Song’

First Weekend Club’s Katherine Brodsky got a chance to sit down and interview Xavier Dolan for AICN at the Toronto International Film Festival, below is an excerpt: 

In cinematic circles, Quebec-born XAVIER DOLAN is known as a bit of a wunderkind filmmaker. At just 25-years-old, he has already accomplished what most filmmakers rarely do in a lifetime.

His directorial debut in 2009, the largely autobiographical I Killed My Mother, won him the Art Cinema Award, the Prix Regards Jeunes and SACD prizes at Cannes, and he continued the trend with Les amours imaginaires (10) and Laurence Anyways (12), which earned the Cannes Prix Regards Jeunes and Queer Palm, respectively. Last year’s Tom à la ferme won him the FIPRESCI Prize at Venice. 

Then once again, this year, he returned to Cannes to win the Jury Prize for his latest film, Mommy – which also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been announced as Canada’s official entry into the Oscar race.

Dolan is most certainly on fire, and he’ll soon have Jessica Chastain on his side as he makes his English language debut with The Death And Life Of John F Donovan, a satire set in the gossip magazine business.

But, this year, at TIFF, Dolan has been performing double duty. He stars as the lead in Charles Binamé’s big screen adaptation of an award-winning play, ELEPHANT SONG, opposite Catherine Keener and Bruce Greenwood.

In it, Dolan gets to play a little cat-and-mouse game:  When a colleague goes missing, a psychiatrist (Greenwood) gets tangled into a complex mind game with a disturbed patient (Dolan) who may have the key to the disappearance.

Even though over the years we’ve gotten used to hearing about Dolan for his filmmaking accomplishments, he’s actually been acting since he was just 4 years old and considers himself an actor first and foremost.  His role in Elephant Song allowed him a chance to play outside of his own movies, and bring his fiery, charismatic personality to the screen.

It’s hard not to fall for Dolan’s quirky, off-kilter, playful demeanour. Not often do you meet someone who completely lights up the room with electric energy, travelling at a million miles a minute. But wherever he’s taking you, you know it’s going to be an interesting trip getting there. 

KATHERINE:     Usually, I see your name attached to movies that you’ve directed. I hadn’t originally realized that you also have an acting and voice-over career…

XAVIER:     I used to, way before I started directing movies on my own. I started to direct movies on my own to act in them and then I got caught up in the whole filmmaking storm or whatever – the rhythm and pace of it, but originally I was an actor.

KATHERINE:     So was your intention originally just to make films so you can act in them so that you would have your own projects…?

XAVIER:     Yeah, yeah. Because when I was a kid, I was a child actor and everything worked. I was on a roll and I was like…Let’s say in the good favors of mostly, like everybody.  I mean, it’s Montreal, it’s local, but still, there was a lot of things, a lot of shoots, lots of TV shows and I was one of those child actors. And then my mom sent me off to boarding schools… 

KATHERINE:     Did you get kicked out…?

XAVIER:     I did not. I got kicked out of schools when I was super young because I would fight constantly.

KATHERINE:     Did you win at least?

XAVIER:     Yes! 

KATHERINE:     Okay.

XAVIER:     Yes, because I was cruel and weird.

KATHERINE:     Did anything change?

XAVIER:     Sure. Sometimes I thank God that I am small in size because I think that if I’d be tall, I’d be one of those fucking bastards in the bars who always stirs the fucking brawls and gets into the fights or whatever.  I’m sure I’d be in jail.

KATHERINE:     Out of anger?

XAVIER:     Yeah. I have anger, I have a lot of anger and I do channel it through the movies. That’s how I evacuate it.

KATHERINE:     So I guess it’s good for all of us that you’ve chosen to channel it through film.

XAVIER:     Probably, I guess. Good for me too. But when you leave for like a week on vacation or whatever, casting directors, people, whoever, forget about you. So imagine when you leave for like six years. So I came back to town and I was completely this has-been-act at 15. And it’s hard because shooting movies as a kid, it’s like a hard tough drug. 

The adrenalin of movie sets and then the ambience and the people…They treat you like an adult and they’ll mention their abortions and snorting coke in front of you – And you’re like 6 thinking, “Oh my God, this is real life.” So there’s something trashy in it and there’s something extremely real and adultish about it and I missed it. I wanted that back. All the auditions that I wouldn’t pass, it would always end up the usual, classic, too young, too old, too small, too tall, too Arab – because I am.

KATHERINE:     Yeah?

XAVIER:     Egyptian, actually. Anyway, so, I was like, the only way is to direct a movie and produce it myself and no one will have the authority to tell me that I’m not good for the part or that I’m not cut out for it. Well I was cut out for the part. It was the story of my life in I Killed My Mother.

KATHERINE:     It seems to me that you were meant to make films, you’ve got this mastery, especially over visual storytelling, that’s rare. Especially at such an early stage. It seems like that’s what you were destined to do.

XAVIER:     Yeah. I really feel that my real passion was really acting. Even when I direct movies, the real thing that really animates me to the point where I become hysterical is when we shoot a scene and the performance is great and I’m like, “Yes! Yes!” And that’s really what drives me and the focus is on. So even as a director, even in those boots, wearing that director hat, I’m still the actor.

KATHERINE:   How did ‘Elephant Song’ happen?

XAVIER:     …Nicolas Billon who is the playwright behind all this… His father is a friend of mine and he mentioned the fact that this play was being made into a movie and there was an adaptation in the makings and I was like, “Really?’ And he said, “Yeah, my son is working on it, there’s a producer and everything. There’s no director attached.” Yada, yada, yada. 

So I read the play and fell in love with the character. It was obviously a very playful and painful character for an actor and I really wanted to do it. So I called the producer and we went for lunch with my agent and I told him, “This guy is me, it’s got to be me.  Whoever directs this, please put your faith in me for this part. I want to do it. I will have so much fun doing it and I know I can do it.” And he said, “All right, that’s a good idea.” And everybody he would talk to about this idea didn’t seem to be repelled by the idea, so it made its way from director to director and when Charles finally inherited this project he loved the movie and loved the idea that we could work together and I loved it too and that’s basically how it happened.

KATHERINE:     And how did you go about getting into the mindset of a mental patient exactly?

XAVIER:     I didn’t really have the time to, I was shooting Mommy three days before getting on set, so…

KATHERINE:     So you just…

XAVIER:     He is not mentally ill. He is, but he is not…there’s no real mental challenge. So it’s not like I’ve got to work on the sort of composition of someone who’s mentally challenged. He’s not handicapped, he’s not schizophrenic, the whole preparation is a little less time consuming and thorough than for any other form of mental illness. 

Now it’s just about this guy who is very manipulative and who loves to do impressions of people and who’s an actor himself. So the only real concern I had was, whatever you do, don’t forget to have fun because he is an actor. But the line can be thin between overacting, as the actor you are and overacting as the character you are. You understand that?

KATHERINE:     Yeah, yeah. What did you enjoy most about it?

XAVIER:     Well, he’s everything. He’s the fun. He’s got all the funny lines, he’s got the funny looks and Charles just embraced all the ideas, all of them. Not the text, but the ideas, you know. He loves to have fun and he respects & loves actors. He would remind me if I was too much or whatever, but he mostly felt that my ideas were funny and he accepted them and embraced them. I had a lot of freedom. I wouldn’t say I had utter and complete freedom because that would’ve been wrongful and ultimately negative, but he was very generous with me.  

 Click here to read the full interview!

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