Cannes: Xavier Dolan on His Competition Entry and His Love of 'Home Alone'

Xavier Dolan Directors Q+A 2 - H 2016
Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

The 27-year-old Canadian wunderkind returns to Cannes for the fifth time with a drama starring Marion Cotillard, Gaspard Ulliel and Vincent Cassel about a terminally-ill writer returning home to break the news to his family.

Xavier Dolan is in the rare position of being both a young, up-and-coming director and a veteran filmmaker with six movies under his belt. After winning the Cannes Jury Prize for his last effort, Mommy, in 2014 (sharing the prize with French cinema legend Jean-Luc Godard), the 27-year-old is back on the Croisette —for the fifth time!— with It's Only the End of the World.

The adaptation of a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, follows a terminally ill writer who returns home to tell his family he is dying. The competition movie is Dolan's biggest to date and his first to feature genuine stars in the form of French A-listers Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye and Vincent Cassel.

The Hollywood Reporter's European News Editor Scott Roxborough spoke to Dolan ahead of the film's Cannes premiere May 19 about his experience on the Cannes jury last year, why he designs his own costumes and his love of Home Alone.

“It's Only the End of the World” is based on the Jean-Luc Lagarce play. He wrote it in 1990 when you were, if my math is correct, just 1 year old. When did you first come across the play and what is it about it that made you want to turn it into a film?

He did write that when I was frolicking in a Quebec strawberry field, dressed in my fanciest Pampers, discovering the joys of pollen allergies and filling my face with homemade tarts and meat loaf. Little did I know that, 20 years later, (Mommy actress) Anne Dorval would bring up that play to me, saying it was basically tailor-made for me to adapt into a film. So I read it in 2010, for the first time, but didn’t connect with the material, oddly enough. Four years later, after Mommy, I loved it. I guess a lot happened in that window of time and changed my way of reading the play. You sometimes grow inclinations and a sensibility you didn’t suspect you’d have for things you didn’t suspect you’d love. I’m talking about cerebral plays, not BDSM or other erotic practices.

What changes, if any, did you make to update the story and to make it your own?

I tried to keep the idiosyncrasies and the singularity of Lagarce’s vernacular as much as I could. That didn’t change much. The play is verbose, the language nervous, and prolix. The characters correct their own grammar constantly, beating themselves up, rewording their own sentences. I kept all that as is, basically - but evidently had to cut down many monologues in size, and some episodes were of course dropped. What was really reshaped is the structure. The second half of the play is almost entirely abstract. Characters talk to everyone and no one, all on stage, yet in different places… It was very theatrical, I guess, and didn’t provide us with a proper build-up. The climax in the play is only between the lead role and his brother, and is 8 pages long… So I had to recycle bits and pieces from earlier scenes, omitted scenes and scenes I invented from scratch in order to write a second half, and the end.

It's Only the End of the World is your biggest film to date, with the most high-profile cast you've ever directed. What's behind the decision to go bigger/more commercial with this film?

There was never such a decision made. It started with the story. The desire to adapt that play, which can only, at least as a movie, be acted by French actors, and in French. Then came the cast. But the size and scale were not determined by a desire to go big or commercial, but by the inherent needs of the story and the talent we sought. The budgets of It’s Only the End of the World and Mommy are basically the same, though.

What sort of pressure do you feel ahead of its premiere in Cannes?

None. I enjoy my work, and I enjoy sharing it with the public and the press. This film is completely and entirely incomparable to any other I’ve shot before. This my first film about family, more widely, and not only mothers and sons, but tensions between siblings, also, bitterness, loneliness, our incapacity to listen to the people we love, and the despair that stems from horizonless lifestyles. Aesthetically, the film certainly isn’t colorful like the others. It is, very exactly, brown and blue, and orange towards the end. But people will see things unlike I have designed them, and that’s okay. What people write and say belongs to them, and from now, this film belongs to them as well. Without their regard, it is invisible. It will live and thrive in the hearts of people as a forgettable effort, or something that can last, and who knows yet which it will be. But I don’t care. I am proud of this film, I love Cannes, it is a good life, and right now, I feel blessed by the fact that I have before my eyes a film that tells me : you are not stagnating as a human being, you are becoming an adult, you are meeting inspiring actors and actresses, so… I feel no pressure from this, but only fulfillment, and bliss.

This will be your fifth film to premiere in Cannes, and you're still just 27. Do you still feel like a novice or an old veteran heading to the Croisette this year?

I’ve been "just 20-something" for seven years, now.

What did your experience on the Cannes Jury last year teach about the whole process behind the Palme d'Or? Does it change how you feel going in this year?

A jury works in mysterious ways… Nevertheless, ours last year operated quite simply : we spoke freely, had no political agenda whatsoever, we had fun, laughed, cried (I did and I know Sienna Miller did), and I don’t recall fighting for or against anything, as we were united in taste, humor and in the emotional work we felt like acknowledging. We also agreed we wouldn’t wallow in hatred and contempt - although I myself couldn’t resist one or two opportunities. It was the most deepening, interesting experience of my entire life. I’ve never had such lengthy, nuanced and humane conversations on films, and for someone like me who has such a limited culture, it was life-changing. It didn’t change how I feel going in this year though, but it did confirm how I wanted to make movies, knowing how people look at them, and with which tools and standards they read them - although the jury members read those movies like the public does, for the most part. Not with their brains, but with their feelings.

In your previous movies, you've always designed the costumes yourself. What insight does costume give you into character?

Everything! I love to think costumes are a character’s first lines. Before an actor opens his or her mouth, the costume has spoken. And the public may not say that or verbalize it, but they feel every bit of it. I don’t understand directors who dismiss the wardrobe department and think it’s some woman’s or gay guy’s job, and do not have an opinion on the matter. Hair and wardrobe are the first things I think of for a character. They can tell you if a woman is seeing herself as an object, or if a man has been raped, or if a child is looking for a sense of structure in his life, if he lacks a father figure, or if a mother has never grown up! Then it affects their gait, their accent, their choice of words. These physical and stylistic choices that they make are always the point of departure.

Any plans for a second career as a fashion designer?

Very unlikely. Now, that’s a stressful job! I guess I get the best out of both worlds designing just the things I love and making them for my own films.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I hardly have any. I just emulate Titanic and Home Alone. Although at this point it isn’t clear whether it’s rip-off or rape. The real answer is that I find most of my inspiration in paintings and photography - imagery of all kinds. But the first part of the answer is also true.

A number of critics saw Mommy as a milestone in your development as a filmmaker. How do you think it compares to your earlier movies?

It compares in too many ways to be enumerated. But how it does not compare, I think, to the first two or three, is in how we decided to solely focus on the storytelling and the characters, and the acting. Everything aesthetic was second position. May be hard to believe, but it’s true. Of course, the light, the cheap songs and the aspect-ratio are what people think stands out the most. But to me, to us, when we did the film, it was all about the characters, and telling their stories right.

You've had incredibly critical success, including winning the Grand Jury prize in Cannes two years ago. How important is commercial success for you?

It’s extremely important. Without the public, your film founders. Only the public can decide whether your work will remain, or disappear. Without the approval of the audience, their laughs, their tears, their applauds, you are making movies to please yourself. I respect artists who do that when it’s not entirely selfish, and when it’s about not giving in to the pressure of conformity, and common taste. I don’t myself think I am common. But I do not think I am an intellectual filmmaker, or a very original voice. I focus on basic themes, I love good acting, good-looking films, and entertaining stories. I don’t pretend I’ll change anything, or invent anything. So I admire whoever claims he or she will, and wants to. I’m just not that person, and to me, the goal of my film is that it is seen, and remembered.

You're next film, The Death and Life of John F Donovan, will be both your first English-language film and the first shot in the U.S.. How is it coming along and what has the experience been like so far?

It’s all very exciting. We are in prep and start shooting in Montreal on July 9th for 40 days. Then, Prague and London in September and October, and New York for a split-second before Thanksgiving. So it’s mostly shot outside of the US. But it’s an American story, to be precise. So far, it’s been great, but we have a huge cast, not only in terms of notoriety, but in terms of the number of actors flying in and out of our set. It’s just very challenging to orchestrate all this, and still not make accommodating choices that compromise the film artistically or narratively speaking. But we’re doing good, I think. It’s been great with all the cast, and I’m excited about working with each of them.