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Xavier Dolan

She hadn’t been a bad mother, but like every young adult or old teen, I needed to analyze and dig into my adolescent years to be able to peacefully embark on a new chapter of my life. In three days, I wrote the first draft of “I Killed My Mother”.

As part of our coverage for the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, this month’s IONCINEPHILE spotlight goes to a filmmaker who’ll be premiering his directorial debut in the festival’s Director’s Fortnight sidebar. Part of a strong contingency of Quebecois filmmakers taking over the section (there are three filmmakers in all with three very different films) and at the age of nineteen, Xavier Dolan is probably the youngest filmmaker competing for the Camera d’or (Cannes award for Best First Feature Film).

IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging filmmaker in American independent film (as you can see this month is an exception). We dig into their filmmaking background and look at the nuts and bolts of that person’s upcoming feature film release. This month we feature: J’ai tué ma mère’s Xavier Dolan. To see Xavier’s top ten films of all time as of May 2009 click here.

Eric Lavallee: During your childhood…what films were important to you?
Xavier Dolan: I was a tacky kid : The Secret Garden, The Beauty and The Beast (not Cocteau’s, naturally), Aladdin, Titanic, Ma Vie en Rose (from Belgium director Alain Berliner), Merci la vie and Amélie.

J'ai tue ma mere poster

EL: During your formative years what films and filmmakers inspired you?
XD: Gus Van Sant, Michael Haneke, Jean-Luc Godard and Jane Campion.

EL: At what point did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?
XD: When I dropped out of college, I fell into a cultural bulimia that consisted in renting dozens of movies per week (this nourishment came with late fees). I discovered sublime work from virtuosos, especially from the French New Wave, and decided I’d make movies someday, somehow, even though it was still nebulous at this time whether I wanted to become an actor, a screenwriter or a filmmaker. Having spent the early years of my life as a child actor, I knew I wanted to act. The rest was tempting me, but nothing was settled.

EL: What is the genesis of the project? How did you come up with the idea for the screenplay?
XD: I had written a novella back in High School. An artistic French teacher had talked me into this intimate writing, and the result was interesting. However, the novella, called “The Matricide”, ended up in a drawer, and seemed destined to collect dust. But when I left College, in October 2006, I faced what every drop-out faces: nothingness (which carries many possibilities). Some childhood scars were still on the mend, and even though I didn’t live with my mother anymore, I was still nursing some grievances against her. She hadn’t been a bad mother, but like every young adult or old teen, I needed to analyze and dig into my adolescent years to be able to peacefully embark on a new chapter of my life. In three days, I wrote the first draft of “I Killed My Mother”. It was all very confused and roughly narrated. The characters were Manichean and the structure was disconnected. But it did help me in some kind of way. 

Xavier Dolan J'ai tue Ma Mere

EL: What kind of characteristics/features were you looking for your main characters/during the casting process?
XD: I never really looked for anything specific, given the fact every role was pre-cast or spontaneously attributed to actors and actresses I met. I always wrote the screenplay thinking of Anne Dorval as the mother. It’s only when I became closer to Suzanne Clément that I thought of her for the role of Julie. Suzanne is a free spirit, and her hunger for independence at the time we met perfectly fitted with Julie’s quest of freedom, even though Suzanne is way more rock-and-roll then Julie, who is a rather shy and timorous being. As for myself, I had always thought of “I Killed My Mother” as an opportunity for a leading role, despite the fact it was written with a cathartic purpose. The casting directors leitmotiv “ too small, too young, too old, too tall “ ended up sounding like a broken record, and I desperately needing to act. So when I wrote the screenplay, I thought : “ if this ever becomes something real, there is no way I’m not playing Hubert. This is my story. This is me.”

Xavier Dolan J'ai tue Ma Mere

EL: How did you prep for the performances (was there a rehearsal process?). How did you prep for each scene (was there storyboarding involved?)
XD: From the moment financial institutions in Quebec refused to finance the movie, there was very little time to prepare. I found in August 2008 that I had enough money to start filming, and from that point we rushed into production. We had three weeks of preparation (location research, costumes, etc.). We had no official rehearsals, let alone storyboarding. The 1st assistant director did work hard on the screenplay to create a schedule, but I never really had the time to thoroughly think about my creative approach… Everything was pretty much improvisation on set.

EL: What ideas did you have for the style of the film? What inspirations (other films, location, paintings etc…) did you draw upon for the look/style, aesthetics of the film?
XD: I wanted to create different atmospheres, and point up the contrast between Hubert’s suffocating (and even glaucous) home and Antonin’s luminous house. I had precise ideas for all the oneiric sequences and phantasmagorical visions of Hubert. I knew I wanted a sober kind of acting, to offset the exuberance of the costumes and sets. But the style of the film was discovered as I discovered myself on the set.

EL: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Anette Belley, props and sets designer?
XD: We shot the movie in locations that I had in mine and that didn’t cost a dime, since they belonged to my mother, my friends, my aunt, my father… I acted as the artistic director on the set, placing objects symmetrically, as I liked, decorating, reorganizing spaces. But Anette Belley, a genuine artist and mostly photographer, created the figurines Antonin gives Hubert before the departure for boarding school, the paintings in art class, the backgrounds in Hubert’s visions (the fake exotic environment and the sky with hovering clouds of cotton wool). Together, we made Hubert’s room, which was a huge makeover. She was absolutely indispensable. She had never been on a set before as a prop / sets designer.

EL: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with cinematographer Stephanie Weber-Biron?
XD: Stephanie became my best friend on the set. I think there has to be some kind of ephemeral (and friendly) romance between a director and his cinematographer. Otherwise, all hell breaks loose. I’m glad Stephanie was so patient and sweet. She understood my intentions of style, and helped me stay coherent to that style whenever she felt I was slipping or going astray. She worked well, efficiently and with limited equipment, accepting dubious light conditions, taking risks other cinematographers wouldn’t have taken. Plus, we have many tastes and passions in common (John Fluevog shoes, notably).

EL: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Carole Mondello, line producer and production manager?
XD: I could write a book on Carole. She is a blond and curly roaring tiger. She knows everyone and everything. She convinced all the crew to work in our conditions, talking them into doing overtime and many sacrifices and compromises. She dealt with furnishers, agents, banks, everybody, everywhere. She cried, laughed, screamed and went on her knees to defend my movie. Although she loves elegant stuff, she’s always swearing and raging against bad drivers. She saved the day. She’s like a second mother to me (hopefully, I won’t kill this one). The generations’ boundaries don’t exist between Carole and me. We are colleagues and friends, but never foes. She’s the best. A movie director who doesn’t have a Carole Mondello is an unhappy director, and doesn’t even know it. It’s almost a Jack and Rose thing, you know. Seriously, I hope Carole will be happy with this answer (she paid me 20 bucks to mention this).

I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mère) receives its world premiere on the Croisette on the 18th of May.

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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