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In April I had the chance to meet with director Benoît Pilon for an interview in Montréal. His first fiction feature film “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre” / “The Necessities of Life” had made it onto the shortlist for the Oscar for “Best Foreign Language Film” and had just received 4 Genies (Canada’s most important film award), including “Best Director”, and 3 Jutras (Québec’s most important film award), including “Best Film”.
KinoQuébec: First of all, congratulations on the Genie-Award for “Best Director”. I guess it must have been pretty busy but also exciting weeks lately?
Benoît Pilon: Yes of course there was a bit of a media buzz but it was actually mostly eMails from family, friends and people that I know. I’m still busy responding to them all. There has been indeed a lot of excitement!
KinoQuébec: Did you expect anything like that at all or was it a total surprise for you?
Benoît Pilon: That is a difficult question to answer if you want to answer it with real honesty, because it is neither a total surprise nor is it something that you really expect. When you are in the process of making a film, there are certain moments when you realize “Oh! I think we really got something here!”, you have a good feeling, you are shooting, you are looking at the rushes, the actor is great, the shots are good. And then you get to the editing and there are one or two weeks when you think that you did things the wrong way, that you scrapped everything, that you never gonna get it. But Richard Comeau, the editor, was very good with me, he would say “Benoît, all the fundamentals are there, don’t worry! We’ll get there!”. And then you keep working and the project is slowly but surely taking shape. You do a couple of test screenings with a few people and you see their reactions, people start to be impressed and then you say “Right! I guess it is worth something!”. But what I’m getting at is that it is a slow process, you’re living with your film for so long. And then when you finally lock the picture and do the sound and work with the lab, you get more reactions from other people involved in the post-production and the reactions we got from them were very strong all along the way. So it is not a total surprise that people generally liked it when it came out. What is harder to anticipate is the level of appreciation. Therefore we were pleased to see the very positive reactions we got from both the critics and the public. It will not become a blockbuster, nor will it make millions and millions but the reactions from everywhere we went – be it Europe, the States or here in Canada – were very strong. And we got pretty much the same reactions everywhere. So that’s why I said it’s neither something you expect, nor a total surprise, it’s something in between.
KinoQuébec: This blog also wants to reach people who are not or only slightly familiar with Québec Cinema and Québec in general, so I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about where you come from in Québec and how it was to grow up there?
Benoît Pilon: I was born and I grew up in Montréal-Nord where there have been a lot of social tensions with the Haïtian community lately. When I was a kid it was mostly French-Canadian, with a certain amount of Italian immigrants. It is a neighborhood that has changed a lot in the last years. My parents were not born there but they grew up there as teenagers. When I was 11, we moved to the suburbs, to Varennes on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River that passes Montréal. And I guess that somehow determined the experience of my teenage years. When you live there you have like two busses in the morning and two busses at night to the city. You feel like being not so far from the city but still away from it. When you are a teenager you want to go to the city with your friends. So it was something special to go there and you always had the problem of how you get home at night. I think this idea of the suburb is something very American.
KinoQuébec: How did you become interested in film and how did you get into film business?
Benoît Pilon: One thing that I did when I was in grade 5 in high school in Varennes was to put together a theater piece by Michel Tremblay. I had the main part in it and I also ended up directing it. And that was something that changed my life. Before that I was interested in reading and writing but I was mostly just a kid who wanted to have fun. I was good at school, I was good at science and I was really good in Maths and so my parents always told me that I should go to CEGEP in science because it keeps all doors open. But I had done this theater piece and I had really liked it and I really wanted to do art and theater. However, at the same time, I listened to my parents and I went to CEGEP in science. I did some extracurricular theater activities and started to do some photography. After CEGEP I didn’t really know what to do and because I had always wanted to travel I went on a one year trip to Europe, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. When I got back I was again contemplating what to do and I started to study acting in order to go to a theater school as an actor. I was already thinking about doing mise-en-scène, about directing in theater, that’s what I was aiming at, but I also thought it would be good to have a formal training as an actor as a basis. Unfortunately, I didn’t get accepted at the theater school and I thought “Well, you are coming from a family without any artistic background, you are not an artist, so maybe you should better stick to science because that is what you are good at!”. So I ended up going to the Université de Montréal doing chemistry but on the very first day of my initiation I also thought that this was a stupid idea and I dropped it. I then started selling La Presse on the phone for one semester and did some photography. Some time later I decided to go to McGill University and do bio-chemistry and I actually did one semester of classes in chemistry and physics. I met some people who were really passionate about science, very very passionate and it made me realize that the ones who are going to succeed are the ones that are really passionate about it and I wasn’t. I was passionate about something else. I registered for four classes at the Université de Montréal. Two in Film Studies, one on experimental film and one on documentary film. And two in art history, German Expressionism and another class. That was fantastic! When I started doing film analysis it was like a revelation for me and I thought “Oh my god, this is so cool!”. And then I went on into the Film Production program at Concordia University in Montréal. I got into the program just with my theoretical papers, a series of pictures that I took and by talking to them about my passion for film and filmmaking. So I did my three years at Concordia, graduating in 1987 with a BFA in Film Production. One short film that I had made there, “La Rivière Rit”, “The River Rit”, won a prize and was sold to Canal Plus in France. It was a 23 minute long 16mm short film with professional actors. But after I had graduated from Concordia I wasn’t ready yet to say “Hey, I’m a filmmaker!”. Some of my friends started to found production companies, doing commercials and video clips mostly. But I am the guy who really needs to understand everything about what I am doing before I am going at something. So I thought I really want to get into film business but I want to learn it from the inside and I decided to start working as an assistant director trainee, 3rd, 2nd and then finally 1st AD. But I also – with some friends from Concordia – put together “Les films de l’autre” which is a small independent production company and I was one of the council members for many years. In 1993, I produced, wrote and directed my first out-of-school short fiction film “Regardes volés”, “Stolen Glances”. I guess it was in 1995 when I met my great uncle Rosaire and that got me into the process of making “Rosaire et la Petite-Nation”, which was really like a turning point in my career. After making this film I was approached to do a fiction TV series, “Réseaux”. The work that I did as a director, assistant director and producer had been recognized by some people and they thought I was ready to direct a TV series. I did that for two years and I guess that really got me grounded in the business and I could go on making films.
KinoQuébec: Let’s talk about your latest film, “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre” / “The Necessities of Life”. Did the story find you or did you find the story?
Benoît Pilon: The story found me actually because at that time I was writing a script of my own, a project I was developing with the production company ACPAV. I was developing that while I was shooting another documentary, “Roger Toupin, épicier variété”, but we never succeeded in getting the funding for it. But at the same time, producer Bernadette Payeur, who wanted to do a film with me, had the script by Bernard Émond. She also produces Bernard’s films and she knew that Bernard didn’t want to do the script himself. It was a script that he had written during the early 90s and he was somewhere else now. So she asked me to read Bernard’s script which I did. I thought it was a wonderful story and felt very close to the writing. Bernard Émond also comes from documentary filmmaking and I like his work very much. So when “Roger Toupin” came out, I had another “No” for the financing of the other project I was working on and I thought I should just put that aside for a while. I came back to Bernard’s script and Bernadette Payeur said “What about this one?” and I said “Yeah, sure, let’s do it!”. So I started doing some research of my own and changed a couple of things in the script, but very little.
KinoQuébec: Many films from Québec seem to be about the question of identity, be it personal or on a national or collective level. Is “Vivre” a contribution to the idea that the Inuit are also an important part of Québec’s history?
Benoît Pilon: They are certainly an important part of Québec’s and Canada’s identity. I think our relationship to all the First Nations is still very problematic here in Québec and in all of America. It’s amazing how little we know about them and their culture. We are in a very tense relationship with them because I think we have some kind of bad conscience and that this bad conscience strongly colors all the films that we make about them. So very rarely do we see real efforts to go towards them and just understand who they are. Very often when we make films about them, it’s about that bad conscience of ours. It’s like saying “Look what we did to them!”, so it’s basically about ourselves. Which is also OK in a way because that’s what conscience is about. But what I really liked about Bernard Émond’s script for “Vivre” was that it wasn’t so much like what I just described. Of course there was a little bit of it in it because it was dramatic what happened to the Inuit at that time but what I loved about the script was that we were just with Tivii, that we had sort of a look on ourselves through his eyes. I think it was a real effort to go towards these people and try to be in their shoes. I believe that it’s important that we in Québec and Canada make an effort to really get to know them, who they are, and not always be in a relationship of tension. You know, people say “They don’t pay taxes!” and they do this and that and the First Nations say “We have been here first!”. Well, of course they have been here first but we are all here now. So what do we do? What do we want to know about each other, to learn, to share? How do we listen to each other? It’s important that the Inuit and the First Nations are more present, for instance in the schools. We never really learned anything about them, maybe a little song or a few words but that was all. We never learned the basics of any of those languages.
KinoQuébec: Language is another important theme in the Cinema of Québec and it seems to be closely linked with the question of identity. In “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre” things for Tivii only begin to look up the moment he finds someone who speaks his language and who he can share his feelings with. Is language, the need to be understood and the need for cultural preservation a thing that both Québeckers and the Inuit share? Is the Inuit community within Québec maybe a little bit like Québec within Canada?
Benoît Pilon: Yeah, sure, I think it is. But I also think that it is more than that, I believe it is a question of basic communication. When you are stuck somewhere and nobody understands you and you don’t understand anybody and there’s no real effort to go towards each other, you almost don’t exist as a human being, you are just not there. So I took it on that level, not so much on a socio-political level. Of course you can look at it in this way as well and say what you said about the importance of being recognized as a social group. And on a socio-political level one can also talk about immigration and language. I think it’s crucial that immigrants learn the language if they want to integrate themselves into society and that is what should be desirable for both sides. But on the other hand it is also important that we acknowledge where they come from and who they are. Of course we are not going to learn all the languages of the people who come here but there is a need for a basic understanding of who they are. And I think “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre” is talking about that, too. Tivii only really starts to exist when he can share his stories and where he’s coming from with someone and people start listening to his stories and get to know who he is.
KinoQuébec: “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre” was your first fiction feature film after doing only (feature length) documentaries so far. Documentary film also has a very strong tradition in Québec and even fiction films are often grounded in realism or real events like the tuberculosis issue in “Vivre”. Are you changing sides now or would you still see yourself as a documentary filmmaker?
Benoît Pilon: It’s funny because I never thought of myself as a documentary filmmaker. I started doing short fictions and a TV series and even when I was making documentaries, for me it was telling stories about real people, about real life. So it’s still about a narrative and it was not a big change for me actually. For me it’s more about the persons, both in documentary and fiction. When I do documentaries I am also always thinking about how to make use of the means of cinematography, of editing, of music, of filmmaking in general to tell the story, which is the same when you make a fiction film. What I like about fiction is that you start from scratch and you invent a whole world. Another kind of challenge. What I like about documentary is that you really have to interpret the life of the people and try to make sense of it, your own sense. It’s also easier to just go and start shooting a project in documentary than in fiction. So it’s not a question of siding, about taking one side or the other, it’s about what is available to you, what’s possible. All the documentaries came to me by accident more or less. Like with my great uncle Rosaire whom I met because my parents moved into that area and then Roger Toupin because I lived across the street from him in Montréal. And while I was doing “Roger Toupin” I met Nestor, a good friend of Roger Toupin and I became interested in his story that I think reveals something from the Québec of the 40s and 50s. So I later made “Nestor et les oubliés”. So it’s not that I’m running after subjects for documentaries. But it’s funny that everytime I think about doing a film myself, it’s always fiction. Documentaries come by accident.
KinoQuébec: Natar Ungalaq gives an amazing performance in “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre” and I think it’s great that he wins all those awards. How did you find him, is he a professional actor and how did you communicate with him on the set?
Benoît Pilon: I had seen Natar in “Atanarjuat – The Fast Runner”, he had the lead in this film and I thought his performance was really great. When I read the script for “Vivre” I immediately thought “he is the man to do it”. It’s not an easy story for the audience when you read the synopsis. A sick Inuit man who is coughing all the time, who wants to die, who is in a sanatorium – you really need someone who can carry the film, someone the audience can feel for. I was sure that Natar could do that because I remembered his bright eyes, his charisma in “Atanarjuat”. So I wrote to him and I sent him the script by eMail because he lives in Igloolik way up north at the end of the world. It took about a year and a half before I actually met him. He read the script and right from the beginning he wanted to do it, he liked the script. But we waited until we had the financing. And I had this concern about how I would be able to communicate with him. Not so much in terms of language because I knew that he spoke English, but in terms of culture and sharing. “Atanarjuat” was a film made by Inuit people about Inuit and now I come there, the white guy, making a film about an Inuit man and I thought how is Natar gonna receive this? But it was fantastic the first time I met him in Iqaluit. Natar was very very open, friendly and helpful, because I also met the little boy there, Paul-André Brasseur, just by chance. I had a little scene that I did with both of them. Paul-André didn’t speak Inuktitut and I said to him he should just learn three words for tomorrow. It was the scene in which Tivii wakes up in the hospital and the boy is there by his side and he sees him for the first time. Natar was so helpful with Paul-André and I saw right away my two characters were there. So yeah, right from the start it was very nice and we built this relationship and trust that would grow even more during the preparation of the film.
KinoQuébec: This also leads to my next question about the little boy, Paul-André Brasseur. So he didn’t speak the language, his name also doesn’t sound Inuit …
Benoît Pilon: His mother is Inuit, his father is a Québecker.
KinoQuébec: So he was already there in Iqaluit when you met with Natar. Did he play in any other films before?
Benoît Pilon: He didn’t appear in any films but in a commercial. I think that’s why he was on the list of the casting agency. So what happened way before we met in Iqaluit was that the casting agent for “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre” had made a tape of him and I saw this tape in Montréal. He was in his kitchen, kind of far away from the camera, a long shot, the lines he was supposed to say in Inuktitut he was saying in French and he was pretty shy. I thought no that can’t be it, so I rejected him. A few months later I was in Iqaluit to meet with Natar and do some scouting for locations. I was asking people if they knew a little Inuit boy who speaks French. And someone told me “There’s this little boy on vacation here with his mother. Maybe you should meet him, he’s from Montréal, he speaks French!”. So I met this boy. I was talking to him, explaining and he was listening and very quiet. Then I told him the story and he was like “I auditioned for that!” and I said “What do you mean, you auditioned for that?”. Suddenly it clicked and I remembered the tape. So that’s when I told him that we would set up a little scene with Natar and he should learn a couple of words until tomorrow. At this point, I was already convinced that he could play the part. In the scene with Natar, Paul-André was very natural and calm, not trying to do too much. I told him that I would meet with him again in August (it was June) and that he should learn three scenes that I gave him that had a significant amount of dialogue in it. I told him that I would make my decision then. So I met him in August and he had learned the lines, they were not there completely yet but I could see that he had worked a lot and he was getting there and I said “Let’s go!”. But then what happened was that when Natar came for the first day of shooting in October, he came about two weeks before the day of the shoot and we met with Paul-André. Paul-André’s mother was there, too, and the dynamic didn’t quite work anymore. The mother was there being really proud of her son but Paul-André was kind of shy in this situation, not free in his acting. He was saying the lines but he was saying them without the naturalness I had hoped for. Natar was supposed to go back home to Igloolik after this one day of shooting and come back for the main shooting at the end of November. But he offered to stay in Montréal for the five weeks so that we could work with Paul-André. We then asked the mother to stay home and we worked two or three days a week with Natar and Paul-André together and then just by rehearsing and Natar helping him with the language it worked. I asked him to try different things to ease the process of how the lines would come out. It was a lot of work but he finally got there.
KinoQuébec: So did Paul-André learn the language?
Benoît Pilon: He learned the lines, you can’t learn a language in a couple of months. But he had it in his ear because his mother had taken him on vacation to Iqaluit many times and there he was exposed to the language so he was used to it in a passive way, not like the actor who played the priest. He had to learn everything from scratch and it was really hard for him.
KinoQuébec: We already talked a bit about “Atanarjuat – The Fast Runner”. Zacharias Kunuk has been at the forefront of what might become a “Cinema of the Inuit”. How are in your opinion the prospects for these films and how important is it that the Inuit and other First Nations not only keep producing their own films but that they are part of other films from Québec and Canada?
Benoît Pilon: It’s very important. I think all the people from the First Nations should be able to tell their own stories and I also think that we as white people are inspired by their history, by their stories. We should definitely keep working together on projects now and in the future, we can learn a lot from each other.
KinoQuébec: Do you think that Kunuk’s films could be the ground work for something like the “Cinema of the Inuit” and is there a future for those films, a market? I am talking about films like “Atanarjuat”, “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” and another film called “Le jour avant le lendemain” / “Before tomorrow” …
Benoît Pilon: It’s funny, we tend not to mention it, but with all the films that you mentioned you can find a white person at the origin of the project. We always tend to say the film “of Zacharias Kunuk” because Norman Cohn likes to put Zacharias in the spotlight. But Norman is actually one of the producers and the initiator of the project. He works with the people of the Igloolik community, he lived there for a while and became a member of the community. He is strongly connected with the idea and realization of “Atanarjuat” and also “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen”. And talking about the other film you mentioned, “Le jour avant le lendemain” / “Before tomorrow” by Marie-Hélène Cousineau, she used to be Norman Cohn’s wife or partner and she also lived in Igloolik for a while. She works with the Inuit women, they work very closely together and their contribution to the projects is immense but it should also be mentioned that Norman and Marie-Hélène are involved in the process. They are crucial to the birth of those projects. They all work together, which is great. A really good thing is the IBC, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, they do a lot of documentaries and other programs. They are mostly Inuit but they also hire some white people. All this technology came to them not so long ago, so they are still in the process of getting their hands on this medium and how to tell stories with it. They have been storytellers for centuries, that’s for sure, but not with this kind of medium. But they are developing their own skills with this medium, they have a lot of talent. Like in acting, Natar is fantastic and they have other actors who are just great. They are natural actors. Of course it’s also a question of means of production but digital technology is making it easier for them to catch up.
KinoQuébec: We are coming towards the end of this interview and I would like to return from the “Cinema of the Inuit” to Québec Cinema. Who would be the most important figure in the history of Québec Cinema for you and why?
Benoît Pilon: That’s kind of a tough question! Québec Cinema is very rich but there is a strong documentary background as you said and so Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault did something just fantastic for our cinema, not only regarding to their own films but also how it influenced the landscape of Québec Cinema. And Michel Brault is just a huge figure both in documentary and fiction, he is like the father of our cinema. Other than that, there’s one film that I really like a lot, “Les Bons Débarras” by Francis Mankiewicz. It’s one of my favorite québécois films ever. It’s a very important piece of filmmaking and of Québec culture in general. But then again, there’s also Claude Jutra, so it’s really hard to pick one person. I personally like to think of myself as someone in the tradition that has to do with reality but is also able to dream and get out of the realm of pure realism. I think Mankiewicz did that with “Les Bons Débarras”, he added a lyric and poetic dimension to his film.
KinoQuébec: This brings us to our last question: For someone who has never seen a film from Québec, which three movies would you suggest to see? I think we already got one, “Les Bons Débarras” …
Benoît Pilon: That’s for sure. That’s for the period of the 70s and 80s. To understand the roots of our documentary filmmaking, I would definitely suggest “Pour la suite du monde” by Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault, that’s the foundation of a very strong tradition. And if we can make it four I would say “Léolo” by Jean-Claude Lauzon and “La Grande Séduction” by Jean-François Pouliot. “La Grand Séduction” is an intelligent comedy, again rooted in some Québec reality but with many aspects of fantasy. I guess that would be a good scope of what we have here in Québec.
KinoQuébec: Merci beaucoup!
Benoît Pilon: Avec plaisir!
The interview was conducted and transcribed by Florian Reichart.
Picture: © D. Chartrand
Next interview guest on KinoQuébec: Richard Comeau, editor, “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre”, “Polytechnique”, “Maelström”, “An American Haunting” …