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Even though The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is the seventh film for 29-year-old Canadian director Xavier Dolan, it marks a lot of firsts. It is his English-language debut, his first cast with majority Hollywood actors and the first time the Montreal native will debut a film at TIFF.
Starring Kit Harington, Natalie Portman and Jacob Tremblay, Donovan examines the death of a onetime TV heartthrob based on his correspondence with a pen pal, an 11-year-old boy. The movie was on track to premiere at Cannes in May, but Dolan pulled it from the festival before the schedule was announced, citing the need to continue editing. “I’ve never taken my time for anything, so far,” he says of Donovan, which, by his count, he has been editing for two years. “I’m glad I did.”
Despite his youth, Dolan has a long history with the Cannes fest. He premiered his feature directorial debut, I Killed My Mother, at 19 in the Directors’ Fortnight, screened his following titles in Un Certain Regard and cracked the Official Competition in 2014 with Mommy, which won him a shared jury prize with no less than Jean-Luc Godard. But Dolan’s last release, the Marion Cotillard starrer It’s Only the End of the World, was aggressively booed at its Cannes press screening, leading Dolan to accuse the festival of fostering a culture of trolling and bullying. He has spoken about developing stress-induced eczema on his hands that persisted for months after he left the Croisette.
“Cannes has its own tiring way of making everything dramatic and extreme, positively or negatively,” says Dolan, adding that TIFF is the better fit for his latest release. “John F. Donovan isn’t at all a film that should elicit that kind of radicalism, nor claims to be an A-list effort that should stand next to the likes of Competition directors.”
At the time of Dolan’s Cannes debacle, one of his John F. Donovan stars, Jessica Chastain, came to his defense on Twitter, writing, “Critics should inspire artists to evolve and grow. Bullying hobbles creativity.” Roughly nine months later however, in February 2017, Dolan took to Instagram to announce that Chastain would be cut from the film entirely. The move fueled speculation that the project was troubled, but the director insisted that the choice came after “a long period of reflection,” adding that “it was an extremely difficult decision to make. I feel, toward Jessica, a very sincere love, and a great admiration.” In a response on Instagram, Chastain said, “This has been handled with the upmost respect and love,” going on to praise Dolan for his artistry. (Dolan and Chastain both have been cast in New Line’s It sequel.)
Dolan will get back to his roots with his next film, Matthias & Maxime, which he began writing while shooting a supporting role in the gay conversion drama Boy Erased — also headed to TIFF. He insists the decision to return to more intimate, French-language fare had nothing to do with his experiences on Donovan. “It wasn’t really the need for a smaller picture that made me decide to do it, but rather a need to go back to basics,” he says of the project, currently filming in Montreal. “And the fact that I’d seen so many gay love stories in 2017 that deeply marked me that it made me want to write one myself.”
Dolan will return to set the day after Donovan‘s Sept. 10 premiere. After two years of toil on his first foray into Hollywood as a director, he says he’s ready to see how audiences respond, no matter the outcome: “The only thing left to do now is learn from what people will see and say. I’ve come to a point where I need to share the film with the world.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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