“Mommy”‘s Daddy: Interview with Xavier Dolan

Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script.

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How long can an enfant terrible stay an enfant? Judging by 25-year-old filmmaker Xavier Dolan, the shelf life is pretty protracted. The Canadian phenomenon has produced no fewer than five feature films, some of them starring himself, each of them more ambitious and interesting than the last. No wun-hit wunderkind, he, and the surprises keep coming.

Sitting down with him to chat in December regarding his newest and most controversial work Mommy – which opens across the U.S. today (Jan. 23) – the lean, supple auteur seems poised but a little edgy, exactly the sort of temperament you’d expect to produce a Mommy.

This film is a searing study in super-close-up (it’s mostly shot in a claustrophobic 1:1 ratio), focused on a toxic triangle involving a disturbed, possibly sociopathic youth, his blowsy, enabling mom and a sympathetic neighbor. Tensions escalate and eventually go nuclear as the unpredictable Steve threatens to burst the bounds of propriety, law, and even common decency.

xavier dolan mommy

Though it’s hard to turn your eyes away from it, and as I discover weeks after a screening at the AFI Film Festival, equally hard to forget, we’re not exactly talking about a feel-good, sure-thing award contender. And indeed, when we meet he has just heard that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has passed over his film for a Golden Globe nomination. (He will be disappointed again a month later, when Canada’s submission for the Oscars fails to make the 9-film nomination shortlist.) Disgruntlement is clearly in his makeup this morning.

Or maybe it’s more than a passing emotion? He is impatient with questions he finds foolish, and downright irked when I confess I haven’t heard about The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, his forthcoming first U.S.-based project. (“You haven’t heard about it in the past five days? It could hardly go unnoticed, but we announced Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates last night…I’m psyched.” I later learn Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington are also on board.) But who can say?: maybe one needs a measure of overconfidence and anger to get as far as he has, and produce as much amazing work. We settle in to talk about the genesis of Mommy, his process, and his surprising screenwriting influences.

“I had the idea when I read an article about a mother’s dropping her son into a hospital for real. It happened in Utah or Arkansas, or….I don’t remember where, but I read that article in the Reader’s Digest in, like, 2008.” A promising premise, but other projects intervened; still, “you always carry a drawer full of Post-Its in which you’ve scribbled log-lines, and you don’t know which is next.” Once he made the personal commitment to the story, things happened quickly. Writing began in June of 2013; he completed the script a month later, and the final movie premiered at Cannes this past May. (Such speed may or may not be “normal” for him, Dolan concedes. His first, I Killed My Mother, was “written in one night. I hurled it!”)

Dolan admits he doesn’t get up every morning to write a certain number of pages, as screenwriting books and gurus recommend. “But I do when I have an idea…When I have an idea and it’s there, I’m excited. I don’t have to try to sit down and work – I want to work! So I go into cafes and write all day,” sometimes at a computer or sometimes in the old-fashioned way: “When you don’t want to look at a screen, you’ll take a sheet of paper and write ‘Act I,’ ‘Act II,’ ‘Act III’….” He also writes scenes on Post-Its and creates a storyboard outline – “a little more visual than the usual 12-page outline or treatment. When you put the scenes in a rectangle like that, you have a sort of movie. You can see the gaps, the blanks to fill, the redundancies; what’s superfluous, the inequities….That’s always an exciting moment.” The Post-Its stay in place till he’s done.

No sooner has he outlined this unconventional but logical process than he admits, “Often I just skip many of those steps altogether, because I’m too eager to get to dialogue.”

Any writer’s block? “Where I hit a wall is always at the ¾ mark of the script. That’s where I’m, like, ‘Fuck, there’s a problem. There’s a missing turning point; there’s a role that feels like an accessory; or a scene’s missing. That’s always panic for me, because I hate, I hate to run in circles. I don’t want it to last long.” He emphasizes, “I’m not stuck with the scene. I’m stuck with what comes before it. So I must retrace my steps and pinpoint where things went wrong.”

An alternative Rx in such situations is – interestingly enough – to go to the movies.

“Not to be inspired, you understand, but just to change your mind. To break free from the imagery you’ve secluded yourself with.” That had better work, because he is adamant never to begin shooting if a writing problem has gone unattended. “I never say ‘I’ll fix it on set.’ Never! I know that’s deadly. Deadly.”

Dolan’s most surprising responses come when asked about cinematic influences. “For Mommy, there are a couple of links to Home Alone I guess – when she drops her groceries, when the bags just rip and everything gets scattered on the street. That’s Home Alone-ish. There’s a lot of Titanic in there too, some mechanics and some tricks….”

John Hughes and James Cameron? With such a sophisticated cinematic sensibility you expect to hear he’s absorbed Renoir, Ray, Truffaut – at least Scorsese. Not so.

“The movies that have marked me left a very deep impression as a kid. Most people are influenced by what they saw in their 20s because they started making movies when they’re 35. But I started making movies when I was 18, so if you use that logic and go back, that’s when I’m 8, 9, or 10. That’s Jumanji and Batman Returns. Matilda and Home Alone.”

Turning to the traditional cinema masters, he sounds more rueful than defensive. “I don’t have that culture. I’ve seen no Fassbinder movies, though I’m eager to. I have seen a couple of Bergman films, though more Tarkovsky. No John Huston. No Leone. I’ve seen Scorsese movies, but I haven’t seen Raging Bull. You’re basically talking to someone” – he pauses – “ignorant.”

Another pause, and then he brightens. “Imagine all that fun I’ll have, down the way!”

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