In Focus: Xavier Dolan
The celebrated Canadian film director makes his TV debut with The Night Logan Woke Up
WORDS BY ZOE CLELAND | MONTRÉAL | VISUAL ARTS
JUN 12, 2023 | ISSUE 11
Xavier Dolan by Kalya Ramu
As a fledgling director in Canada, there are few artists I could choose to aspire to as much as I do Xavier Dolan. At 16 years old, he wrote the script for J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed my Mother), which he directed, produced, and starred in at only 19. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 to an eight-minute standing ovation. Since then, the Québec-born director has been internationally celebrated for his diverse body of work, characterized by emotional depth, dynamic characters, and a poetic visual style. He has birthed multiple cinematic gems, including Les Amours imaginaires/Heartbeats (2010), Laurence Anyways (2012), and Matthias et Maxime/Matthias & Maxime (2019). Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World), starring Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, and Léa Seydoux, won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2016.
Recently, while in post-production on my own film, my editor suggested that I re-watch Dolan’s Mommy (2014) for inspiration on how to imaginatively shift between aspect ratios. Mommy tells the story of a widowed single mother living with her teenage son, Steve, who struggles with his mental health. Most of the film plays out in a 1:1 aspect ratio: in other words, through a small square in the middle of our screens. The effect invokes a claustrophobia that suggests just how much the characters feel trapped inside their own lives. At one point during the film, in a brief moment of freedom, Steve pushes against the walls of the square and our screen expands to a wider perspective, perhaps inducing a sigh of relief from the viewer as we viscerally feel Steve’s world grow bigger. It’s a great example of how visual and emotional storytelling can work together in a perfect cocktail of pure movie magic.
His latest venture, La Nuit où Laurier Gaudreault s'est réveillé (The Night Logan Woke Up), is a miniseries about the reunion of a family after the death of their mother, years after a traumatic event ripped them apart. The psychological thriller is Dolan’s second adaptation of Québécois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s work. They first collaborated on Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm) in 2013. Already on the heels of his next project, Dolan took a moment of respite to speak with smART Magazine about The Night Logan Woke Up, the complexity of his female characters, and the intersection of trauma and storytelling.
From The Night Logan Woke Up
ZC | You have an on-screen role in this miniseries as Elliot, which is the case for many of the projects you’ve been involved in. How were you able to enter the subjective realm of this character, while simultaneously maintaining a less subjective role as a director?
XD ── I don’t have a very sophisticated theory about this because it’s mostly instinctive. A lot of actors cannot stand to look at themselves because they become too harsh, noticing imperfections and flaws, mostly physical. I’ve had to make the decision that I cannot hate myself or love myself. And the people I surround myself with, we’ve been working together for so long, and the reason for that is that we confront each other on artistic visions and opinions. They can really advise me and can be brutally honest with me and just say, “You were bad. Let’s do it again.” And I’m not shocked or offended. I am there to work. I’m there to make the best possible scene, so my acting should never be an obstacle or an impediment; it should always be complementary to the task of directing. I could be listening to music and withdrawing and focusing, getting prepared and being more professional about my acting job. But I can’t. I’ve got to fix a dozen things that didn’t work. There’s a light there, and there’s that accessory, and there’s that piece of furniture and that curtain on the window. It’s just all these things that I have to deal with. And I’m often wondering, if I weren’t directing, would it take as much time to get into the character? Or would I already be into it?
ZC | This is your second project based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard. What is it about the world he creates in his plays, and his characters, that draws you into his works?
XD ── Michel Marc loves to write about estranged people coming home, and I love that setup. I identify with that dynamic of someone coming home and in need, to communicate and discuss, revisit the past, ask for answers, ask for forgiveness, ask for apologies. The theatre space is a space of creation and a different workplace than film. It’s got much more freedom and the limits are different. When I saw the play The Night Logan Woke Up, it was sort of like a hot room with no exit. It took place in only one location. It’s a very powerful play that’s built almost entirely on dialogue, and it’s based on evocation. They mention things that happened, but you don’t see them happening. But when I watched the play, all these images came to life in my mind. The storyline was great, but for me the potential lay in what was mentioned that you didn’t see. I hadn’t seen Michel Marc in many years, and when I saw the play, I was like, “Oh my God, I want to do this.” So we met for dinner at his place, which is a beautiful place. And we talked about what I wanted to do. And I said, I think I’m going to start writing this on my own, if you don’t mind. And I did.
FOUND IN TRANSLATION?
ZC | The Night Logan Woke Up stars several cast members from the original theatrical production in 2019. How has their pre-existing history with these characters and this subject matter interacted with your own creative process? XD ── It never really factored in because we had our own challenges. But subconsciously, it’s true that they had characters they had been living with for years. That work can never be undone. The more you work on something, the more you understand it. And so of course it probably had an impact, a positive one, which I benefited from, but it was never a starting point for our conversations. They understood it was another workplace, another space and time. I also feel like it is an automatism of the industry to buy rights from plays and then cast super-famous people in them, what they call — super vulgar — “bankable.” The actors in this play were bankable already, but had they not been, I would’ve still taken them because they were just perfect for the parts.
Xavier Dolan by Shayne Laverdière
ZC | One characteristic of your work has been your consistent and dynamic exploration of female characters and maternal figures on screen. What drives you to mine these characters for complexities, arguably more than other male-identifying filmmakers of your generation? XD ── I started writing when I was so young that I never really questioned the gender of my protagonists. It seemed like an instinct. I was just drawn to writing female characters, whether they were central or peripheral. When I was young and found out that I was gay, you realize that it’s you against them. You feel like you’re alone and it’s going to be hard. You put the entirety of society in a box, and you feel that it’s going to be you against your family and against everyone who’s straight, because back in the early 2000s, we lived in a very different world. And the only references that I had on TV were gay people who were tortured and suicidal and battered to death. In my life I didn’t really have any gay men or queer people at all, so I turned towards other figures that seemed to be allies. Single mothers stood out, like mine. Even when I was fighting with my mother, I think I was already starting to watch her and maybe unbeknownst to myself, I started to study her. Her friends were all these strong females who would talk about men and smoke and play cards, and they had these extraordinary tempers. They were funny and sometimes bitter or snappy or jealous, but I could see resemblances in how they were treated by society, and how I thought I would be treated as an outsider because I was gay. I think I project my difference on them, and through them I can speak my mind and I can defend them, defend myself, and avenge them.