The mercurial Mommy writer/director talks candidly about love, life and superheroes.
Mommy is Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature film (following I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm) and is released in the UK on his 26th birthday. Set within a claustrophobic 1:1 frame, it charts the sometimes joyful, sometime abusive relationship between a mother and her wild teenage son. Consistent Cannes recognition has not neutralised Dolan’s obsession with raw and painful emotions. The Québécois auteur spoke to LWLies last October after just getting off a plane about the personal feelings of rage and unrequited love that seep into his films and make them so passionate.
LWLies: There’s a lot of love in all of your films but also a lot of spite. For you, what’s the connection between those two emotions?
Dolan: A lot of love and a lot of what?
What’s ‘spite’? How do you write that?
S-P-I-T-E. It’s like cattiness.
I didn’t know that. Sorry.
That’s okay. I’ll put it another way. There’s a lot of love but characters probe each other’s weak points. It’s not just nurturing love.
There’s attack in there. It’s aggressive love.
Can you explain how you’ve come to this vision of love as being aggressive?
I’ve almost never experienced love as something that was really calm and tender and peaceful and beautiful. It’s always been intense and emotional and aggressive – maybe even abusive. It’s always been these impossible stories of unrequited feelings and chasing people for years, and I’m only 25 so my conception of love is very dramatical. I think that sort of love is also very cinematic. We could sit in front of people calmly – and I don’t want to say boringly because that would be contemptuous – loving each other without any form of problematic for two hours but what would be the movie? That’s part of the answer but I don’t know. I’ve never asked myself the question.
That’s a good answer especially as you’re jet-lagged.
I am, completely, and I didn’t get to sleep. Normally I always sleep. It didn’t work this time. I had all my sleeping pills. It didn’t work. Not one minute. It’s a night flight. You’re supposed to sleep so that when you wake up in another country you’re like, ‘Oh my god! It’s like I just had a solid night of sleep!’ Anyway, it didn’t work.
So are you in survival mode now?
Sort of and I’m very worried about the answers that I’m devising. English is not my first language so whenever I’m tired it’s the worst because I can’t find the words, let’s say the cool words that I’d be using in French. Or not cool but the right words and I’m always afraid that people will get it wrong when I speak in English and especially when I’m tired. So hopefully you won’t tell.
I can’t tell. Also, it’s interesting to speak to people when their socially constructed barriers aren’t up. Maybe you won’t sound as cool as you would like to but maybe you’ll be more raw so that could be cool in a different way.
I’m always rather raw. It’s been a problem.
People have misinterpreted that rawness in the past. I’m rather honest. I don’t bullshit.
Do you mean personally or in your work or do you mean both?
In interviews and in public. I’ve never really been into performing. I was always myself and I guess myself is something that can irritate people or irk them.
I think that goes for all of us though.
It’s true. The only problem is that… no, okay, whatever. I don’t want to go there.
Fair enough. But this neatly goes back to one of the themes of Mommy because it has two people living together winding each other up and irritating each other all the time.
Would you say you identify more with Steve or with Diane?
That’s a tough one. I don’t know. I’ve written both characters so of course I identify to them. Well, I understand Steve’s rage and violence. I have that violence in me and I have that rage in me so I understand that. But he’s also mentally ill. He’s mentally ill. I don’t think I’m mentally ill so that is where my identification stops. I would tend to say that I relate more to Diane yet she’s a mum, she’s 45. We have very few things in common and but then we have everything in common. I just feel for her. I understand. I just, I do.
You took a lot of pride in dressing her too. Who and what inspired her incredible wardrobe?
There’s a lot of of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. But then Erin Brockovich is very sexy. Die dresses up like a teenage girl and Anne Dorval doesn’t have Julia Roberts’ breasts so it takes us on another lead, I guess. There weren’t that many influences apart from Erin Brockovich. It was mostly the 2000s. You know there was a fashion faux pas that lasted for, like, nine years between 1999 and 2008. I love to think about Die as someone who wanted to be sexy but didn’t have the money to change her wardrobe for quite a bit so we’re in 2015 but all she’s wearing is 2001, 2002, 2003s, the patterns that are very associated with the turn of the century, the millenium that is.
You said that she’s not that sexy but the way that she’s shot and maybe she doesn’t have the boobs but she has the hair…
Oh she has many other things. I love what she’s wearing. I love her style. This is not a game for me. I’m not like, ‘Oh, that’s funny’. I’m thinking that if there’s no way that her character would think ‘that’s pretty’ or ‘that’s sexy’ for real then she’s not going to wear it.
You mentioned that you’ve felt rage from a young age. Have you identified the targets or the cause of your rage?
No. If I had I wouldn’t be talking about it. I guess I’m talking about it because I’m looking for answers. I think I have those answers but they’re too easy and not satisfying so I keep digging. I had that violence in me when I was, like, five. I would fight in the schoolyard during recess and beat the shit out of other kids for no reason at all.
So you were a little terror?
I was. I was awful. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to think about it.
Maybe this is too cliched and neat for you but do you think that when you started making films it diminished your rage?
Of course. It’s not cliche. I mean those big cliches are called cliches because those big cliches come from what’s true. I think we can all say, empirically speaking, that ways of expressing yourself have always channeled violence or inner problems. Can we agree on that? Certainly. So that’s not a cliche. It’s true. No, I’m lucky and privileged to have found that luxurious hobby and passion that cinema is because that’s how I got to evacuate my own violence while Steve doesn’t have anything to evacuate his.
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I read that you were already saying you were a screenwriter at the age of 15. How early did you start?
I started writing scripts when I was 11, 12, 13, maybe.
Do they still exist?
Are you going to do anything with them?
They are all on floppy disc so I’d have to bring them to the specialty store and have them transferred onto USB or DVD or whatever. Old Microsoft Word.
Have you any interest in doing that or are you all about the future?
I don’t know that there would be anything suitable for actual consideration but it could be funny. I remember quite well, actually, what might be on those discs.
Care to share?
Superhero films. Back then there had only been one X-Men movie and I think I had a mix of mutants and guardian angels who were inserted into society to protect people. It was probably ridiculous but it was one of the things that I had been working on.
As you mentioned, you’re 25 and you’ve made five films and you travel the world with your films and you go to film festivals and you have an international stage. Do you imagine that life is always going to be this way? That you’re always going to be so prolific?
I imagine I’m always going to be that prolific but will the response always be like that? Will I always have the privilege of showcasing my work in international festivals? Will I always have the mediatic attention and scrutiny in a positive way? That seems rather unfathomable. I can’t see that. How can I be sure of that? And that’s something I’m thinking about. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, the response to Mommy has been great and it’s been so satisfying and rewarding and it’s made us so happy’ but I can’t afford to think that it’s going to be like that for every movie and I’m afraid that people may resent me for not doing movies that… because I know that Mommy has touched people a lot but I can’t tell that story over and over again. I’ve done it now so I feel like they’re going to be disappointed with the next one because it’s not going to be as emotionally engaging.
What is the next one going to be?
It’s a movie called The Death and Life of John F Donovan. It’s a movie on movies, a sort of take on modern show business and the hardships of fame, mostly how family deals with the fame of their loved ones, how mums deals with the fame of their sons. Should I say it’s modern take on show business a take on modern show business?
It works either way.
I’d go modern take on show business.
It’s a take on modern show business, not a modern take on show business.
Well, you have this precision that I think I don’t have. I hear the same thing with the words just switched around.
But it’s not the same thing.
Okay, you’re right.
I don’t know what my take will feel like and look like and be like but I know it’s on modern show business.
Your films always feel like they couldn’t be made by anyone else. They’re very emotional but there’s attention to detail and a style and style of speaking and the interest in queer relationships. Does it draw people to you like a flare up into the sky for those with the same interests as you?
That’s tricky. It would be very pretentious for me to think of my work as that but I do receive an unfathomable amount of messages and poems and letters. I don’t mean from actors or people who want to work with me. It’s people who want to tell me ‘thank you for this’ ‘thank you for that’. It’s extremely touching. I do think that these movies are important to some people for reasons that we don’t necessarily understand from a cinematic point of view. I don’t think it has nothing to do with the cinematic value of these movies but it has more to do with their emotional value and that’s to be defined by every single individual who’s watching these films with their own private lives and their own memories. I don’t even know how responsible I am for the fact that they like the films and that they actually reach out afterwards but I do appreciate the fact that they reach out to me. I don’t know if that answers your question at all.
It does. What do you love about movies?
Freedom. Whether it’s the freedom that emanates from them or whether it’s the freedom that they give me, they give me freedom anyway. You watch a film or you make one and it means something in the moment that you’re either watching it or making it.
Does it have an affect afterwards or is it a self-contained experience?
No, it has to affect afterwards. It affects me in every probable way. I also think that a movie should have you grow as an artist and as a human being in proportionate ways, equally as a human being and as an artist. Once I’m done with a movie – I don’t know, am I ever really done with a movie? For me, the movie’s been done since April but we’re in October and I’m talking about it. The movies grow in me and with me way after they’re finished so yeah, they change me. They keep. Their spell still works on me, after months I’m still thinking about them and understanding more things about me.
This is interesting thing about interviews because even though sometimes it’s exhausting and there are a lot of them, every once in awhile, one conversation with a journalist or someone who is just talking about the movie will have you think about things that you would have never thought about. You do realise that the questions you’re asking me, I don’t have the answers already? Sometimes I have to make them up because I’ve never asked myself those questions except, obviously, the usual questions like, ‘Why are you obsessed with mums?’ and ‘Why did you shoot in the square format?’ and ‘Where did you have the idea for that movie?’ which are – by the way – questions I’ve not heard today so that’s great.
Apart from that, when you have to devise an answer and you’ve never thought about it, it’s an interesting exercise. In the way that they force me to develop some theoretical thinking the movies have an impact on my life way after they’re done. And they have an impact on my life too when I walk into a theatre to present the movie in a small village in Germany and everybody is crying and they’re asking questions and those are brilliant questions so this has an impact on me. Many things, yeah. Movies are forever. It’s like a painting done thousands of years ago, still there.
Published 12 Mar 2015