Interview: Writer/director Xavier Dolan & producer Nancy Grant on MOMMY

This interview was originally published on Scannain.com.

A gray but dry London evening greets Xavier Dolan as he arrives for the London Film Festival gala screening of Mommy. The evening is a sharp contrast to most of Dolan’s films to date, defined as they are by a signature style, marrying contentious and emotional material to exuberant and sometimes-subversive filmmaking.

Dolan arrives at the red carpet with the film’s co-producer, Nancy Grant. Speaking with Grant first, we try to see what makes this prodigiously-talented director tick. We get some clues as she explains her involvement; “I worked with Xavier on Tom At The Farm, and then we worked on the music video for Indochine’s ‘College Boy’ together, with Antoine-Olivier Pilon, the male star of Mommy. Right after we finished shooting ‘College Boy’, Xavier started telling me about Mommy. The project existed long before that, but working with Antoine revived it in him. He just said “I wanna do this. Let’s do this in the fall”, and I said “Yes! Let’s do it. Let’s write.”

With this shared enthusiasm between her and Dolan, we ask Grant if that energy extends to the shoot “[Xavier]’s very energetic. He’s super-giving in collaborating. He works with many of the same people over and over again, so there is an intimacy between him and his main collaborators. I think that even when he doesn’t act in a movie, he does act in a movie because he keeps talking to the actors even when we’re rolling. He’s involved in a lot of aspects; he does costumes, the editing, he produces.” How can one man do so much? The man himself answers thus: “The truth is I try to do what I love. I love doing costumes myself. I love editing movies myself. It’s not about delegating; there are so many departments in cinematic production. There’s a place for very talented artists, and I love to surround myself with people I admire, and who challenge me and with whom I’ve grown over the past five years. There are some things which I feel that I may not be the best person to do them in life, but I feel like I’m the best for my movies. When I write them, I already see them edited, and I’m surrounded by people who constantly confront me and tell me “That’s wrong” or “You made a mistake here”, so I feel that I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends who are constantly bettering the work and making me progress towards something more.”

Amongst these friends of Dolan’s are his ‘College Boy’ collaborators Grant and Pilon. That doesn’t necessarily mean Pilon was assured of the role of Steve in Mommy. “I don’t even know if there was a male actor attached to the project when Xavier first thought about it years ago”, explains Grant. “I think he wanted to shoot it originally in English, so I don’t think Antoine was attached, but I think when it was revived by the collaboration on the music video he got the part.” Another aspect Mommy and ‘College Boy’ is the use of a 1:1 aspect ratio. Grant gives credit where credit is due. “I have to say it was the DP’s (André Turpin) idea to do this. He wanted to try this; he thought it was a good format for a portrait. So Xavier went along and shot the music video in that format, and so he decided it was appropriate to use it again for Mommy. I think it was motivated mostly by the shot where Steve opens up the screen. I’m pretty sure this choice is 80% about that shot!” In one of the most joyous scenes in any film this year, Steve prises the black barriers of the screen apart. The effect is well worth the investment in this potentially-alienating technique. Grant laughs off any suggestion they were worried about using this aspect ratio. “We just mentioned it to the distributor who said, “Oh, OK. Do I have a choice?”, and we said “No, you don’t!”

Given this work rate and clear talent, we have to ask Dolan: what’s his motivation? “I have many stories, and I’m worried that I’m not going to have enough time to tell them all. I don’t know, I don’t condition myself to make a film a year; it’s not a goal. I’m not thinking, “Quick, it’s that time of year when you should be making a movie.” I just try to create at my own rhythm and my own pace, and whenever I felt inspired I was lucky enough to be surrounded by the people who allowed me to express myself when I wanted to express myself. I’ve also made that happen myself because I’ve paid for most of my films.”

That being said, Dolan’s need for expression is driven by narrative. “It’s really just about feeling the need to tell a story. It starts with an idea; you can’t force yourself to have an idea. At least I can’t! I can’t just sit down and say “Write! Write down! You must have an idea now.” But when I do have an idea, it goes really fast because I write it down and the whole system starts over again.” So, where do the ideas come from? When asked about how he selected the soundtrack for Mommy (a cheekily upbeat mix including Céline Dion, Dido and Eiffel 65), he offers some insight; “I choose [the songs] very early [in the filmmaking process]. A movie might originate from a song! It might be the real origin of a film, totally. I wrote one script when I was inspired by hearing Calvin Harris’ ‘I Feel So Close To You’. You haven’t heard of it yet; it’s a script that’s sleeping in some drawer. It’s out there waiting for the right time, I guess.” Even with another project currently underway (his first English-language feature The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, with Kit Harrington and Jessica Chastain), Dolan’s already looking to the future.

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Review: A Second Chance (En Chance Til)

Director: Susanne Bier

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com.

Blame Ingmar Bergman. Blame the lack of sunlight. Blame Stieg Larsson. Whatever you pin it on, Scandinavia is in dire need of cheering up when it comes to its cinema output. The most joyous recent example of film from the Nordic countries just might be Headhunters, with its nonsensical plotting and multiple homicides. Perhaps it’s this dour filmmaking sensibility that allows Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to fit in so seamlessly amongst the incestuous insanity of TV’s Game of Thrones. He’s certainly a fine fit for the lead in A Second Chance (En Chance Til), a film that manages to take itself so seriously that it becomes deaf to its own soapiness. Even that title is soapy; it’s thematically relevant, but it’s so broad as to highlight the film’s contrivances.

A Second Chance was director Susanne Bier’s second film of 2014. It’s also the better of the two, though that doesn’t count for much when the other film was Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper dud Serena. Bier’s films are concerned/obsessed with the efforts to which people go to lessen their isolation, whether through reconciliation or the pursuit of some kind of justice. Justice is on the minds of A Second Chance’s characters from the start, as vice detective Andreas (Coster-Waldau) leads a raid on the apartment of lowlife ex-con Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). During the raid, he discovers Tristan and his girlfriend’s (May Andersen) infant son lying crying in his own excrement. A less-than-subtle contrast is drawn between Tristan’s life and that of Andreas. Tristan’s abuses his girlfriend and neglects his son, while Andreas’ marriage to Anne (Maria Bonnevie) and their newborn son is idyllic. Compare the harsh city landscape Tristan inhabits, all blue hues and shaky cameras, to Andreas’ idyllic Ikea catalogue-aping lake house. Director of Photography Michael Snyman delivers some striking images (an opening credits crawl over a fog-enveloped bay is beautiful), but they serve only to contribute to A Second Chance’s thematic obviousness.

Bier and her frequent writing collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen hint at undercurrents of class division and social unrest, but the plotting of A Second Chance undermines their efforts every chance it gets. Having established Andreas’ idyll, the film then rips it apart by having his son suffer a cot death. Driven by grief, Andreas attempts a surreptitious baby swap by kidnapping Tristan’s son. How much you get out of A Second Chance depends on how much you’re willing to accept this and subsequent sub-Eastenders plot developments. The death and kidnapping all happens in the first act, with the film moving so fast that thematic considerations are given short shrift. It doesn’t help that the script doesn’t seem to like its characters enough to care what happens to them. The film visits misery after misery upon them; even Lars von Trier remembers to let his characters have a laugh on occasion. Perhaps the ethical considerations on offer might have rung more true had a little levity been offered; there’s only so much you can focus on when you’re surrounded by darkness.

Describing any more of the plot risks spoilers, but A Second Chance is riddled with twists and turns that sound like offcuts from a Coronation Street Christmas episode. The film is granted a semblance of watchability by its handsome visuals, and a committed cast. Led by a strong, conflicted turn from Coster-Waldau, the actors clearly care more about the characters they’ve been given than the filmmakers. The insistent misery of A Second Chance make it far too bitter a pill to swallow.

Interview: Viggo Mortensen on JAUJA

This interview originally appeared on Scannnain.com.

As Viggo Mortensen approaches from the wings of a London cinema lobby, we’re agog when we see he’s wearing a suit. Onscreen, Mortensen often sports long mud-matted hair, casual duds (at best) and can often be found atop a horse. When we meet him, his haircut is tight, he’s in a handsome grey check suit, and there’s nary a nag to be seen. Proffering a strong handshake, he settles down into a brown leather seat before quizzically inspecting the PR cheat sheet we’ve been given with his picture. We reassure him the stock photo is fine; he has a defiantly-handsome face, with a jaw so well-defined you could carve a roast with it. He’s full of enthusiasm and talk; as star, composer and producer of Jauja, he’d have to be. Again, the image is subverted. Mortensen doesn’t play chatterboxes. His stock in trade is classic strong, silent types; it’s probably why you find him in many period pieces.

On the surface, Jauja fits that period mould, but Lisandro Alonso’s film challenges expectations from the off. We meet Mortensen ahead of the film’s screening at the London Film Festival, and expectations are high. Presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, it’s a meditative piece, with Mortensen in typically commanding form as Gunnar Diensen, a Danish army captain who has been drafted in to offer his expertise to the Argentine army in 1880s Patagonia during the later stages of the ‘Conquest of the Desert’. Mortensen’s father was Danish, and he grew up in Argentina, so this role seemed tailor-made. “On a personal level, it was interesting as an actor to play in Danish for the first time, which I expected to do with a Danish director. But here I am in Patagonia doing it for Lisandro Alonso!” We note the badge depicting crossed Danish and Argentine flags pinned to Mortensen’s suit jacket, and the match of actor and material feels increasingly serendipitous. “Because I was raised in Argentina for most of the first decade of my life, it was nice to be down there in those landscapes that were somewhat familiar, even though I was playing a character who was very much a fish out of water. On a personal level, it was fun to ride a horse in those places where I’d ridden before as a child.”

The film blends not only Mortensen’s own roots, but the complex histories of both Argentina and Denmark. As Mortensen explains, Diensen is a veteran of the First and Second Schleswig Wars. “The uniform this character wears has service medals from these two wars. It was something I knew about, but I learned more about it, as you can when you want to make this sort of story. In Argentine history it’s an important period too, with the genocidal conquest of the frontier.” The Conquest of the Desert saw the deaths of hundreds of native Patagonians and the displacement or enslavement of thousands more. With this weighty history on its shoulders, is Jauja a movie with a message? Mortensen is emphatic, “No, it’s not an ideological movie, and I don’t Lisandro really thinks in those terms. But you could certainly extrapolate and make connections if you want to with any colonial experience, with any imperialistic situation.”

Jauja is purely artistic in intent, and Mortensen is full of praise for Alonso, who channels his talent for telling tales of solitary, driven men into his first period piece. “The first thing I liked [about Jauja] was that it was Lisandro Alonso directing. His movies, I think they’re interesting; they’re not like anyone else’s. He’s truly a singular voice in cinema. Then, I liked the story because even on the page I could see that it was as Danish as it was Argentine, that sensibility. And especially once we got the translations right, as far as the Danish, because it was written by an Argentine poet (Fabian Casas) with Lisandro, neither of whom had ever been to Denmark. They didn’t understand Danish; most people don’t!”Jauja

That sensibility Mortensen mentions, whether Argentine or Danish, is poetic and measured. Jauja’s plot sees Diensen search for his daughter after she’s seduced and elopes with a young Argentinian soldier. Mortensen is quick to dispel the obvious comparisons to John Ford and The Searchers. “I can see why, with the man going off to find this young girl, and the landscape, and it is an existential Western, or whatever you want to call it. People look to compare and compartmentalise things that they can’t get their head around, and I think humans do that naturally. So, as someone who loves watching all kinds of movies, I can immediately see a connection to Sokurov or Tarkovsky or certain off-the-beaten-track Westerns from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. But it’s not really like any other movie. That being said you can make these comparisons, but I don’t think it’s like anything else that I’ve seen, really.”

He has a point. Individual shots and scenes can recall various filmmakers, from Tarkovsky to Lynch, but Jauja’s  woozy atmosphere and unlikely twists render such comparisons moot. “What I think is special about Lisandro is that he’s able to make a truly original movie, remarkably original, without referencing other filmmakers or other movies, without drawing attention to what he’s doing, without showing off. My feeling is that the film is not in any way pretentious, and yet it stands out from all other movies. That’s a hard thing to do.” The film does draw on many film sources for inspiration, albeit never explicitly. Mortensen posits influences even older than film itself; “I think the way the movie turned out is very much as Danish as it is Argentine. It’s as much like a strange Hans Christian Andersen story as it is a Borges kind of story, a very unusual hybrid.” The Andersen comparison is apt; as the film goes on, it becomes more dreamlike and unusual, until a final act that blends a fairytale with elements of Beckett. It’s a potential audience-splitter, but then Mortensen’s never surrendered to any kind of commercial instincts, even after a lead role in the Lord of the Rings juggernaut.

Alonso’s method of shooting, a back-to-basics approach, appealed to this outdoorsy leading man. “It was really fun. We were hundreds of kilometres from any telephone or Internet. Sometimes we were sleeping outdoors and not in the greatest conditions, improvising what to eat and transport and things like that. It was very much a family affair. It was a crew that was at most a little over a dozen, and by the end when we were shooting scenes in a cave in the far south, we were about nine or ten people altogether. Everybody’s doing different jobs.”

Mortensen and Lisandro are obviously more concerned with art than commerce. Even the way Jauja is presented could alienate, the 4:3 ratio looming like a relic of a bygone age. “The Academy frame was something that happened in the process,” explains Mortensen. “When [Lisandro] started looking at the footage the lab had cropped it strangely. He wanted to see more of the sky, and he was concerned about that. So he said, ‘Just send it to me so I can edit it.’ As soon as he saw it, he realised that’s the way it should look, and so he put it together that way.” Mortensen clearly appreciates the role chance plays in filmmaking. “There are a lot of things like that when you make a film like Lisandro does, when you’re open to good fortune and accidents happening, and being prepared to use them and make the most of them, then it’s helpful.”