'I'm Fine With This Small Territory': Stéphane Lafleur on TU DORS NICOLE And Being A Quebecois Filmmaker
I discovered director/musician Stéphane Lafleur at this year's New Directors/New Films series. His lovely film Tu dors Nicole had me searching for all his previous films. Unlike the above mentioned directors, Lafleur possesses altogether different sensibilities: his droll, absurd humor and portrayal of loneliness are often akin to that of many Scandinavian filmmakers or Urlich Seidl or even early Tsai Ming-Liang.
I had a chance to talk with him on the phone prior to the US theatrical release of Tu dors Nicole on May 29, about his films, his influences and the prospect of ever going Hollywood, maybe.
ScreenAnarchy: So TU DORS NICOLE is your third feature film. The first one was CONTINENTAL, A FILM WITHOUT A GUN and then FAMILIAR GROUND. I noticed that the age group in each of those film is getting younger, not the other way around. How did TU DORS NICOLE come about?
Stéphane Lafleur: (laughs) You are right about that. The group age is getting younger in my films. I guess the idea for this film came with the title. The name Nicole in Quebec is an old name. It belongs to my parents' generation or even older. And it's a name that's starting to come back but it's not a common name for a girl in her twenties.
There are a lot of films about teenagers, you know, that's when they experience everything for the first time. Then there are plenty films about people in their 30s and unhappy about their jobs and unsure about having kids and all that. I thought there was a gap in (portraying) that in-between period. And this gap is actually the gap in life where you are not sure where exactly you wanna be or don't know what you want to be.
You are old enough to have certain responsibility, but you are trying to pull the elastic of your teenage years at the same time. I thought there was something interesting in there. I think it's a film about the in-betweens. In between two age groups. Summer being in between spring and autumn factors in too. I don't know. it started like that.
That's interesting. I was gonna ask you about the summer aspect of the film as well. Because your previous films take place in winter. And you also shot black and white for the first time. Can you elaborate on these choices?
My experiences of wandering around in the summer played the part. I thought there was something interesting to explore there. When I was a little younger, I used to do 'camping in the backyard' thing and just walk around the neighborhood at night. I wanted to recreate that feeling. It's not nostalgic feeling but there is certain melancholy of it that I wanted to capture.
The idea of shooting in black and white came during the writing of the film. First it was supposed to be in color and my cinematographer, Sarah Mishara (who shot all my films) showed me a book of Robert Adams, an American photographer. He did this wonderful book called Summer Nights, Walking. The mood and the emotion I was looking for was all in there. The emotions I was talking about- of walking at night and seeing, peeping through the windows of neighbors who are still awake... it was all there. Even the warmth of the summer was in those pictures. so I thought there was something interesting about it, especially the film about...as we were talking about, in-between - two states of minds one being awake and one being sleeping. So the idea of shooting black and white formed from those pictures.
Was it difficult to portray summer in black and white?
Of course it was a bit of a challenge. I like to control what's in the frame. But in the summer you lose those control because there's so much stuff everywhere and so many different colors. So shooting in black and white sort of took care of those problems. (laughs) So I could put my effort in other things like, texture and light. We didn't want want to do a classic - sunshine and saturated colors, we wanted to shoot summer in a different way.
It looks really beautiful though. Black and white photography really captured those mood of insomnia really well I thought. I really loved the scene of Nicole walking around at night and hearing that whale sound.
How did you find Julianne Côtè for the role of Nicole? Also you do these bitter sweet ensemble pieces and I wonder how you keep everyone on the same tone.
The casting of Julianne was... well the whole casting process was a really long process. First I wanted to go with non professional actors, like I did before with my previous films. For the band aspect of the film, I wanted them to play for real. So I started by casting musicians from Montreal I knew. At the same time I was casting some girls who had no film experience in front of camera at all. Then I quickly realized that it wasn't good for me because the way I'm directing everything is so planned and placed that I needed professionals. There was no improv, everything was written and all precisely planned. It would've been very hard (with non actors) especially when you don't have much time to do a film. So slowly my casting process was shifted to seeing people with experience.
Julianne was one among the actresses I saw. She started acting when she was 11 or 12 years old and she's been acting in TV and small parts in films. So this was her big role as a lead in a film. And she is great.
And the same thing for musicians- I kind of shifted my gears to look for actors who play instruments and that's how I did the casting. But in the beginning we've seen so many people and realized that it's not a good way.
As for directing, of course it was not a film where we did a lot of rehearsals. It's mainly simple actions- be there, place that microphone there, and so on. What I wanted to make sure was that everybody was acting in the same film. So what I'd done was having lengthy discussions around the table, answering all the questions they had and tried to explain as much as I can, letting them know what I expected from each scene and how I saw each scene. There were a little bit of suggestions from the actors while we were talking about them before the scenes but there were little to no improvisation at all.
For the humor part of the film, the rule was always the same. If the scene would be funny, it will be. The actors didn't have to overplay to be funny. Everything was written. If the joke didn't work it was because I wrote it badly. (laughs)
It was funny to me. Among all three of your films, I thought this definitely has the most humor.
Yeah I think it's the most accessible one of my movies. Maybe it's because of the subject and the age of the characters. I think people are getting this film more than the other two, I dunno....
Music, as you explained that you wanted to find people who could really play in the film. You worked with Francis La Hay before. He plays a drummer whom Nicole becomes attracted to. Is he a musician?
Well the thing is, how he came to play that part is quite funny. I was casting and looking around for finding the right guy for the drummer part. I saw many many people, and was getting frustrated because I couldn't find the perfect person. And some one told me, "You know Francis plays drums." I was like, wha? So I called him. And he said, "Yeah I knew you were casting everybody in the city but I didn't want to disturb you, I don't know...." So he did the audition with Julianne who was already cast at the moment. And the relationship between them was so great. He did a wonderful audition and we decided to go from there. Because you know, playing drums you can't really fake on screen. So I really wanted someone who could play for real.
The music they play is quite different than what you play with your band (a folk band, Avec pas d'casque). did you write those music in the film yourself?
You are right. It's really different from what I do. But I didn't want it to be mixed up with my music. I wanted the music in the film to be much louder than what I usually play. I decide to work with a guy I knew (musician Rémy Nadeau-Audin) who has been in several band in Montreal who play that kind of music. So it came naturally to him for the film. My only reference was of Fugazi, the band from DC.
Oh, of course.
So that was my reference. I asked something that is loud but melodic at the same time that we can enjoy you know. Rémy wrote twelve pieces in a month and I think we kept 7 for the film. And the actors learned the songs.
All your films in one way or another deal with alienation in the post-modern society. Your films remind me of the works of Urlich Seidl, Michael Haneke and Roy Andersson or even the works of early Tsai Ming-Liang. Can you tell me if there were any particular influences you are drawing these themes from?
Those filmmakers you mentioned definitely have influences on me. Also some independent filmmakers from the US of course. I guess we are all sum of everything we've seen or heard, good stuff and bad stuff as well. We kind of sum it up and filter it.
For some reason with my three films I was interested in aimlessness of characters, in a way, you know. I don't know why exactly but I think it's got to do with where I am coming from, the country I am living in. I don't know it's really hard for me to analyze everything I'm doing. I try to give a lot of room to my instinct while I'm writing. With Nicole I think I am closing the chapter of a triptych. When I look at the three films as a whole, it feels like they are talking to each other. The characters are really similar in a way. And I feel like I reached the end of something. I feel the next film will be...not totally different but...there will be something different.
Tell me about your next film.
I have no idea. To be honest, I've always been interested in Sci-fi for a long time. As you know there are always surreal moments in my films.
Like 'the man from the future' from Familiar Ground?
Yeah, you can always name one or two from each of my films. But I want to go a little further, but without a big budget. It will still be a lo-fi affair in a Sci-fi setting but I'm still looking for the right idea.
It seems there is a Quebec cinema boom with Denis Vlillenvenue and Philippe Falardeau (Lafleur served as editor in his film, MONSIEUR LAZHAR) going to Hollywood doing big budget films. I am wondering if you are following the same step as those directors.
Honestly I don't think that's what's going to happen for me. I do films and I have a band. I try to spread my time doing all these different activities. I still want to do films and getting financing here. I feel my audience is getting larger with each film and the fact that we are talking together right now, Nicole getting released in New York are proof of that. So from film to film hopefully people will be more interested in what I do and we will see what happens with that.
So you are not flying to Hollywood and make a film with Reese Witherspoon (who stars in Valée's WILD and Falardeau's THE GOOD LIE) anytime soon?
(laughs) The thing is when I was in film school we didn't have those model directors going abroad and doing those big films. That was not something that we thought of. I'm glad that there are those successful directors that today's young directors can look up to. I remember my first class in film school, the teacher asked us, "Who wants to be a director?" and many of us raised our hands and he asked, "What do you want to direct?" and some said Jurassic Park and he said, "Forget it, it will never happen." (laughs) That was the thinking back then. It's kind of changed now. I think it's a good thing for many young filmmakers, but I've always been a filmmaker with small ideas. I like those small films. I like this small territory I occupy. So I think I will keep doing this.
Tu dors Nicole opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, 5/29. For more information and dates in other cities, please check Kino Lorber website.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com