Having made six films in seven years, 27-year-old Xavier Dolan has established himself as one of the most industrious contemporary filmmakers. His first film outside Canada draws together an impressive ensemble cast for a powerful story of a dying writer’s return home, confronting ghosts from his and their past.
It’s Only the End of the World is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce. What made you want to adapt it?
The characters were very flawed somehow. They were loud and aggressive but underneath the layers of verbal violence and the horrible things they said was palpable pain. They’re not easy to love but they conceal many wounds and that seemed like a beautiful challenge. I thought it would be rewarding to explore these flaws and imperfections with actors of this calibre.
How did you approach translating it from stage to film?
The one thing I decided from the beginning was that I didn’t want to lose the vernacular of the playwright, which is very theatrical, precise and sophisticated. I didn’t want to change that because his cultural legacy are these words and that style. One thing we couldn’t keep however was the second half of the play, which was almost entirely abstract in its construction. It’s just the characters all on stage talking to you don’t know who. That couldn’t possibly work cinematically so I took bits and pieces and moved them around and built a new latter half almost from scratch.
We never get a specific explanation for why Louis decided to leave years ago. Did you intentionally want that period to be opaque?
Apparently that’s been frustrating to a lot of people, not knowing what he’s dying from or why he left home. The actors also had lots of questions, and I didn’t always have the answers. It’s not that we didn’t want to look for them, or we didn’t want to make the effort to provide the audience with answers, it’s that what matters is that afternoon they spend together, trying in the very little time they have to reconnect, which they clearly cannot achieve because they don’t really listen to each other. They talk but they don’t listen. Why did Louis leave? Is because he was drawn to the city? It seems radical to leave for 12 years without coming back, and you wonder what can motivate such a selfish act of isolation. How can you leave behind everything, including your loved ones, even if something terrible happened? But it’s actually not the point. By the time the movie is over, the questions you had should be answered by the fact that these people consume each other. You cannot possibly imagine living with these characters. As much as I find them endearing, they don’t know how to love each other or live together. It’s clear that someone who has the sensibility that Louis has couldn’t live in an environment like that and would want to escape.
Their collective failure to communicate is one of the film’s central themes. Why does the family clash so much?
They’re entirely incapable of listening to each other and from that comes constant misunderstandings. We’ve lived it with various members of our own families. Sometimes you’re born in a place with people with whom you have very little in common, and it doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, it’s just that you need to escape or you’re going to kill yourself.
Much of the film is told through tight close-ups, and it’s rare for characters to appear in the same frame together except for some key moments. What was your thinking behind that decision?
When we began shooting we did medium and establishing shots, and in the space where we were shooting it was hard to frame wide shots. Very few would be relevant or aesthetically pleasing. That was the most important reason to focus on tight shots. When we had that distance from the characters it appeared like we were filming theatre on a stage. It felt like a filmed play. Because the dialogue was so theatrical we wanted to compensate by being close to the characters so at least we could provide the audience with a sense of what is going on underneath all that loquacious dialogue. This intimacy showed the subtleties going on in the faces of the actors, which is crucial in the end because none of those words actually matter. What does matter is what happens in the silences and their smiles and how they breathe and look at each other. That’s where the money was.
When a director is six films into their career their visual style has usually ossified – you look at one shot and can tell who made it. By contrast, you show a willingness to explore new things, whether it’s the square aspect ratio in Mommy or shooting an Adele music video with IMAX cameras. What interests you about experimenting visually?
I guess the sense of discovery. When you say explore it seems daunting and challenging, but the whole answer is right there. I’ve been talking about the same sort of dynamics since the beginning, not telling the same story over and over again, although the characters do have the same identity problems. They’re looking for themselves, for a place in society. They’re misfits trying to fit in. They often love someone who doesn’t love them back. It’s often the same problems and themes, so one of the ways to feel that you’re not stagnating is to explore things formally. It’s always interesting to me to try new formats or new ratios. These are subtle choices sometimes, they’re not very apparent to some people, but if you shoot close-ups with a 35mm lens close to someone’s face it’s an entirely different aesthetic than if you use a 50 or an 80mm one from further away. These little choices correspond to the story you’re telling and you try to instinctively make decisions that give the film what it needs.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine issue 60.