Interview: Writer/director Xavier Dolan & producer Nancy Grant on MOMMY

A gray but dry London evening greets Xavier Dolan as he arrives for the London Film Festival gala screening of Mommy. The evening is a sharp contrast to most of Dolan’s films to date, defined as they are by a signature style, marrying contentious and emotional material to exuberant and sometimes-subversive filmmaking.

Dolan arrives at the red carpet with the film’s co-producer, Nancy Grant. Speaking with Grant first, we try to see what makes this prodigiously-talented director tick. We get some clues as she explains her involvement; “I worked with Xavier on Tom At The Farm, and then we worked on the music video for Indochine’s ‘College Boy’ together, with Antoine-Olivier Pilon, the male star of Mommy. Right after we finished shooting ‘College Boy’, Xavier started telling me about Mommy. The project existed long before that, but working with Antoine revived it in him. He just said “I wanna do this. Let’s do this in the fall”, and I said “Yes! Let’s do it. Let’s write.”

With this shared enthusiasm between her and Dolan, we ask Grant if that energy extends to the shoot “[Xavier]’s very energetic. He’s super-giving in collaborating. He works with many of the same people over and over again, so there is an intimacy between him and his main collaborators. I think that even when he doesn’t act in a movie, he does act in a movie because he keeps talking to the actors even when we’re rolling. He’s involved in a lot of aspects; he does costumes, the editing, he produces.” How can one man do so much? The man himself answers thus: “The truth is I try to do what I love. I love doing costumes myself. I love editing movies myself. It’s not about delegating; there are so many departments in cinematic production. There’s a place for very talented artists, and I love to surround myself with people I admire, and who challenge me and with whom I’ve grown over the past five years. There are some things which I feel that I may not be the best person to do them in life, but I feel like I’m the best for my movies. When I write them, I already see them edited, and I’m surrounded by people who constantly confront me and tell me “That’s wrong” or “You made a mistake here”, so I feel that I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends who are constantly bettering the work and making me progress towards something more.”

Amongst these friends of Dolan’s are his ‘College Boy’ collaborators Grant and Pilon. That doesn’t necessarily mean Pilon was assured of the role of Steve in Mommy. “I don’t even know if there was a male actor attached to the project when Xavier first thought about it years ago”, explains Grant. “I think he wanted to shoot it originally in English, so I don’t think Antoine was attached, but I think when it was revived by the collaboration on the music video he got the part.” Another aspect Mommy and ‘College Boy’ is the use of a 1:1 aspect ratio. Grant gives credit where credit is due. “I have to say it was the DP’s (André Turpin) idea to do this. He wanted to try this; he thought it was a good format for a portrait. So Xavier went along and shot the music video in that format, and so he decided it was appropriate to use it again for Mommy. I think it was motivated mostly by the shot where Steve opens up the screen. I’m pretty sure this choice is 80% about that shot!” In one of the most joyous scenes in any film this year, Steve prises the black barriers of the screen apart. The effect is well worth the investment in this potentially-alienating technique. Grant laughs off any suggestion they were worried about using this aspect ratio. “We just mentioned it to the distributor who said, “Oh, OK. Do I have a choice?”, and we said “No, you don’t!”

Given this work rate and clear talent, we have to ask Dolan: what’s his motivation? “I have many stories, and I’m worried that I’m not going to have enough time to tell them all. I don’t know, I don’t condition myself to make a film a year; it’s not a goal. I’m not thinking, “Quick, it’s that time of year when you should be making a movie.” I just try to create at my own rhythm and my own pace, and whenever I felt inspired I was lucky enough to be surrounded by the people who allowed me to express myself when I wanted to express myself. I’ve also made that happen myself because I’ve paid for most of my films.”

That being said, Dolan’s need for expression is driven by narrative. “It’s really just about feeling the need to tell a story. It starts with an idea; you can’t force yourself to have an idea. At least I can’t! I can’t just sit down and say “Write! Write down! You must have an idea now.” But when I do have an idea, it goes really fast because I write it down and the whole system starts over again.” So, where do the ideas come from? When asked about how he selected the soundtrack for Mommy (a cheekily upbeat mix including Céline Dion, Dido and Eiffel 65), he offers some insight; “I choose [the songs] very early [in the filmmaking process]. A movie might originate from a song! It might be the real origin of a film, totally. I wrote one script when I was inspired by hearing Calvin Harris’ ‘I Feel So Close To You’. You haven’t heard of it yet; it’s a script that’s sleeping in some drawer. It’s out there waiting for the right time, I guess.” Even with another project currently underway (his first English-language feature The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, with Kit Harrington and Jessica Chastain), Dolan’s already looking to the future.

Mommy is in cinemas now. Read Scannain‘s review here.