Xavier Dolan On ’I Killed My Mother’
Editor’s note: This interview was first published in August, 2010. It is being rerun today upon the release of Dolan’s I Killed My Mother in New York.
After almost a year on the film festival circuit, 21-year-old filmmaker Xavier Dolan is getting ready to transition. His first feature, I Killed My Mother, made its debut last summer in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and picked up three awards. The film has since run the festival juggernaut, garnering more awards at tried-and-true festivals like Toronto, but also hitting far-flung locales like that other TIFF, Romania’s Transylvania International Film Festival. And over the past months, I Killed My Mother added a few gay festivals to its itinerary, from London’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival to those in Philadelphia, Provincetown, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
One wonders if Dolan’s film, the story of a teenage boy and his funny and touching love/hate relationship with his mother (played by well-known Canadian actor Anne Dorval), has finally gone gay? "Jesus," Dolan exclaims when we get together this past spring while he’s in town for the New Directors/New Films festival, "absolutely not. No, no, no. I’m not big with the whole labeling thing." Okay, post-gay? Check. But surely Dolan, who, like the lead character in his film, is also gay, has some expectation for the film’s gay festival run? Perhaps, but high season for the gay festival circuit finds the prolific filmmaker back in Cannes with his follow-up feature Heartbeats.
On the Cannes red carpet
If I Killed My Mother is the French Canadian’s gloss on Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, then Heartbeats looks to be his Jules and Jim. "It’s a film on the love duel between two friends who become infatuated with the same person," Dolan explains, "and develop all kinds of methods to concur the object of their desire." The trailer, set to French icon Sheila’s très French version of "Bang Bang," tells a slightly less dry story. In it, Dolan and actress Monia Chokri battle for the affections of Niels Schneider, the tow-headed, Blue Lagoon-era Chris Atkins ringer, whom Dolan’s character in I Killed My Mother passes on sexually after a night of ecstasy fueled dancing. Thank goodness that injustice, at least, has finally been addressed and Schneider is now a bona fide object of affections, both male and female.
Dolan, for his part, seems as set on dismantling the Cannes status quo as Truffaut was when he brought The 400 Blows there more than 50 years ago. The formality of Cannes, most outwardly evidenced by the ubiquitous tuxedos, comes up and Dolan’s not having one. "I don’t wear tuxedos," he says simply. " I wear bow ties. The only dress specified is bow ties." If the looks he cycles through during his New York stay for New Directors are any indication, the dress code will not be a problem. He’s a flurry of skinny jeans with ankle boots, form-fitting naval sweaters and that trademark mop of hair, currently styled in a more vertical direction than in the film. His wardrobe looks like it just walked off of a John Hughes set, so much so that one must remind themselves that Dolan wasn’t even born when Molly Ringwald was pretty in pink.
The way he goes on to describe Cannes could also be applied to Dolan, himself, particularly the seaside festival’s "bipolar ambiance." Dolan goes onto to detail the bifurcation he found along the Croisette. "It’s an encounter between two different universes," he explains. "You have glamorous thing: the red carpet and the flash bulbs. And then you have some of the finest works of art on Earth. It’s one of the greatest cinematographic rendezvous on earth so it’s thrilling to see these two world’s collide and be a part of this whole artistic hysteria."
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Watch this trailer for I Killed My Mother:
The question of gayness
One thing that’s changed since Dolan visited Cannes last year with I Killed My Mother is the festival’s new award for the best gay film: the unfortunately named Queer Palm. Before the first Queer Palm was handed out on May 22 of this year, there was much speculation that Dolan’s latest Heartbeats was at least in the running, if not the odds-on favorite. One can only imagine the edgy director breathing a sigh of relief when Gregg Araki’s name was called for his latest, Kaboom.
The question of gayness, at least in regard to his first film, puts Dolan on the defensive. "I believe it’s just a film," he says, "and it’s a film about a son hating his mom. It’s on the mother and son bond. The gay content in the film is, I don’t want to say artificial, but it’s just a trait of the character. He could be blond also. It’s not a big deal in the film not because I’m ashamed of anything, but if he had been heterosexual, he would have had the same relationship with his mom. It doesn’t change anything for me. Of course, some of the turning points are oriented around this sexual identity and it allows me to build my plot, but at the same time it’s really not something I think of as an essential element of the film."
Okay, perhaps, except for the part where Dolan claims he would have had the same film if his lead were heterosexual. He would not. And it’s fair to say that any gay person watching this film will find that statement rings just as false. I would even hazard that a heterosexual writer/director could not have captured the nuances that Dolan manages in the relationship between mother and son. "Okay," Dolan relents, "he’s gay, but that’s it. I don’t believe in claiming things today. Now days, the more we talk about it, the less it evolves. Ghettoizing things and labeling them is just an anti-evolutive process and I don’t want to go there."
So where did the film come from? Dolan explains that it’s based on a novella he wrote in high school. We begin to discuss the built in cringe factor whenever something penned at that early an age is revisited. "Well, I never said it was good," Dolan laughs, "but I think it was charming. It was very clumsy, could you say that? I’m sorry, I don’t have a lot of words to express myself." With that, he whips out a French/English dictionary and begins to look for the word. His English is quite assured, but this dictionary detour speaks more to Dolan’s precision. "So yeah," he continues, his nose still buried in the book, "I wrote this in high school and it wasn’t that terrible, actually, but it was pretty short. And my teacher told me that it was great and that she loved it. It was called Matricide." With that, Dolan’s eyes light up and he places the dictionary on the table. "Yeah," he says, beaming, "I was right. Clumsy. I don’t know if you can use that for writing, but when you are not necessarily slick, what could define a style?"
It’s not really something Dolan needs to worry about. His films drip with style and are consistently visually compelling in a way that can’t even conjure a novella as source material. These tales are filmic at their core and simply couldn’t be told any other way. And while it’s tempting to poke around for a Svengali behind the wunderkind, Dolan is pretty clearly a one man band. Early on I make the mistake of asking him if the woman who popped into the apartment where we are conducting our interview to give him a squeeze, addressing him as "Cherie," was his mom. "Absolutely not," he quickly corrects, "that was my line producer."
Still, one can’t help but notice as the credits roll that Dolan has set himself up on the receiving end of a lot of squeezes and "Cheries." The names in the end credits are mostly female. "Yeah," he shrugs, "feminine figures are sort of omnipresent in the lives of young homosexuals, I guess." When asked if his directorial style emerges from this nurturing female world or if his style is more autonomous than that, he quickly asks, "Why does one necessarily exclude the other?" He takes a moment and then admits, "I do have this feeling of adoption by elder feminine figures, but at the same time I still know what I want in a very precise and radical way."
Directing own sex scene
That radical approach can’t be clearer than is his first, on-camera sex scene. First off, there’s the tricky nature of directing yourself in that type of scenario. Just ask Paris Hilton or Colin Farrell. Ratchet that tension up a bit as Dolan was still a teenager when he shot the scene. And then take a look at his unorthodox approach to putting it together. The first thing he did was to tell his editor that he’d be cutting the scene himself. "I had by far one of the most precise ideas of what I wanted for this and there was no way I would just start arguing with my editor. I said just give it to me and leave. I told this to her from the beginning. I said, ’I’m telling you, I don’t want you to edit this scene.’ And she said, ’Well, maybe what I can do is make suggestions.’ I said, ’No, I don’t even want to try this. I’m telling you, if you accept that you will edit this movie, you have to accept that I will edit this scene.’ And she said, ’Okay.’"
Getting back to that pocket dictionary, it should again be noted that English is not Dolan’s native tongue and were we to have conducted the interview in French, it would have been much less coherent. Plus, he’s got bragging rights to the voices of Rupert Grint in the Harry Potter franchise, Taylor Lautner in the Twilight films and Jay Bucharel in both How to Train Your Dragon and The Trotsky providing his native French tongue for the Canadian voice-overs of these popular films. He’s even done Stan on South Park, but classifies that experience as "boring" and "badly promoted, no one heard about it. We just did one scene and now it’s off."
So with two films that have had noteworthy debuts at Cannes, one begins to wonder if Dolan will prove a triple threat with the film he’s about to take into production called Laurence Anyways. The story takes us back to where we started: transition. It’s Dolan’s tranny movie and concerns itself with an ostensibly heterosexual couple and what happens to them when the male partner decides to swap genders. It again features Niels Schneider, the only actor Dolan has put on camera more than himself, and one can only assume Schneider has landed the plum roles as IMDB is billing his character as "Baby Rose."
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Watch this interview with Xavier Dolan from the Toronto Film Festival about I Loved My Mother:
A true auteur
I think I’m going to flip over into a direct transcript of our conversation because it explicates a few things that are germane. First and foremost is that I like and admire Dolan immensely. It’s not every interview subject I interrupt by cautioning, "You don’t want to say that" when they’ve unspooled just enough rope to hang themselves. The other points are that Dolan is working without the net of a translator during our interview. It’s quite possible that he didn’t mean his words to incite as much as they may, not realizing just how GLAAD media alert-ready what he’s actually saying is. And the third point is Dolan is an auteur, in the truest sense of the word, and while the politics behind his filmmaking, and certainly his casting process, may be slightly murky, I have no doubt that the end result will be no less sparkling than his debut. And based on what I’ve seen so far, I do believe Dolan’s ends justify the means.
Me: Have you thought about the casting issue around your tranny movie?
Dolan: You mean is it going to be a man or a woman?
Dolan: Oh, it’s going to be a man, of course.
Me: Why do you say of course?
Dolan: Because it is a man becoming a woman.
Me: Okay, but there have been other casting choices with similar material. Felicity Huffman in Transamerica comes to mind.
Dolan: I don’t know why we should do this.
Me: I guess I actually agree with that, but have you ever thought about casting an actual trans person in this role?
Dolan: No, I want an actor, someone to play emotions. You know, the movie will not be oriented on the transsexual issue. It’s a love story and the transsexual theme is really on the back burner, but no, I have never thought of casting a woman because there is a whole part of the film where he is still a man and I want a man who doesn’t look like a woman. It is more stirring to see a man struggle to look like something he will never look like. It is more touching for me to see a very masculine man acting like a woman. I mean, is he a drag queen or something? No, the guy really believes that he is a woman, that he is born to be something else and that he’s just been given birth in the wrong body. Transsexuality is not being a transvestite. It is not the same thing. Most people think that transsexuals are homosexuals. This is absolutely false. Transsexuality is something that happens, I believe, in the fifth or sixth week of gestation. It is a genetic mistake, or...
Me: Oh, come on. You don’t want to say that.
Dolan: I don’t know how to say it in English, but it is something abnormal that happens. And that makes the child, and eventually the adult, think that he is in the wrong body and meant for something else which is correct with me. And that’s it.
I Killed My Mother is being released in the United States by Regent Releasing. A scheduled release date on July 30 was postponed. A re-scheduled date has yet to be announced. Heartbeats is presently being screened at various international film festivals. A release date has yet to be announced.
Watch this interview with Xavier Dolan: