Xavier Dolan Writing His First American Film ‘The Death & Life of John F. Donovan’ & More from MoMA

Last night, the charming and unfathomably talented Xavier Dolan took to the stage at MoMA in conjunction with their Modern Mondays and Canadian Front 2013—which not only premiered his debut feature I Killed My Mother in the US, but screened his sophomore effort Heartbeats, as well as his incredible upcoming epic love story Laurence Anyways. The 23-year-old actor/director/writer sat down last night for a conversation with MoMA’s Raj Ray and Indiewire’s Peter Knegt for two hours, covering everything from his voiceover work as Taylor Lautner’s character in the French-dubbed Twilight films, the importance of childhood on his cinematic mind, and his next feature, his first American film.

And for someone so insanely gifted and young who makes these films that are not only aesthetically and atmospherically engaging and dynamic, but extremely intelligent with great emotional weight and complexity, you might assume when asked to give his influences he would throw around some movies from Truffaut to Malle to van Sant. But no, the clips he chose to show from some of his favorite works that echoed the absurd and playful yet genuine and honest sensibility that’s alive in all of his films. The videos he showed were from films that he fell in love with either in childhood or recent years, projects that fulfilled their mission to excite, engage, and entertain and have stuck with him. Jumanji, Batman Returns, and Titanic were three of those, with Magnolia and the beloved television series Friday Night Lights there too, of course. 

Dolan spoke about appreciating the Michelle Pfieffer’s performance in Batman as completely free and totally going for her character. He also went on to say he admired Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia for its sense of freedom as well, fully commiting to its absurd and wild nature—especially the scene of Julianne Moore in the drug store telling off Pat Healy because of how emotionally unfettered it is and how PTA allowed a character to be so raw and honest—a scene which Dolan says he stole in I Killed my Mother and Laurence Anyways (in a monologue which Suzanne Clement defends herself and Laurence, screaming at a older diner waitress, a moment so wonderful and powerful that when she finished speaking the entire audience erupted in applause when it screened this past Sunday). 

Friday Night Lights Dolan says he watched with Clement recently over a holiday break "all at once, while eating a lot." He admired how authentic and real the emotion and acting was, as if it wasn’t something to impress but to show you exactly what life is life. 

He also spoke about his follow-up to Laurence Anyways, Tom à la ferme, a "psychological thriller that is worrying and scary–I hope." Although we had assumed it would be, it turns out the film will not premiere at Cannes this year and is currently in the sound-mixing, color-timing stages. However, his follow-up to that, his fifith film and first American feature, he says is to be titled The Death and Life of John F. Donovan and tells the story of a "Dean or Brando"-esque moviestar whom "America has been waiting for," who becomes penpals with an 11-year-old boy. Dolan went on to say that the film follows what happens when the correspondence with the boy is exposed. He will be acting in he film as well but not as the titular character.

But for now, Laurence Anyways will be crawling into theaters this June and if you’ve loved his work in the past this is sure to knock you over. And if you’re unfamiliar with the young auteur’s ouevre, get ready to fall in love.

Filmmaker Xavier Dolan Doesn’t Mind Sounding Pretentious

At the age of 21, Canada-born Xavier Dolan has already directed two films that were met with standing ovations at the Cannes Film Festival. Dolan, a former child TV star in his native Montreal, made the transition to acclaimed auteur with I Killed My Mother, an award-winning exploration of mother-son dynamics. His latest creation, Heartbeats, stars Xavier and his close friends, Monia Chokri and Niels Schneider, as three people who find themselves entangled in a love triangle and its corrosive effects on their relationship. We caught up with Xavier at New York’s Mercer Hotel, where he talked about his influences, how art can back up pretention, and being “a Truffaut guy.”

You grew up as an actor. Did you always know you wanted to try your hand at directing? I didn’t know I wanted to become a movie director, that came later. I always wanted to be an actor, that was my first passion, my first love.

How did that come about? I was unemployed as an actor, so I wrote the script for I Killed My Mother, and thought it would be the perfect opportunity for me to act. But I was afraid producers or directors would not want me for the role and try to employ some six-foot tall hottie that was famoust. So I thought, if I produce it or direct it myself, no one could impose their choices.

Did you have trouble getting funding or getting people on board? I actually financed it privately because we didn’t want to wait for the funding agencies to give us what we needed.

Is there a role you prefer in terms of acting, writing, or directing? Acting, because it’s my first love. It’s the first thing I knew. I’ve been doing this since I was four years old.

So where did Heartbeats come from? Why this story? It seemed appropriate, Moni, Niels, and I on the same set. We wanted to act together, and were looking for a story that would make it possible for us to be together. So the love triangle seemed like the perfect thing.

Music is something that seems very important to you. Why did you chose the music you did for this film? The music in the film is important, because when we’re in love we’re listening to a lot of songs, and we associate songs to feelings and specific moments. Like here at the Mercer, where we are, I met someone and it was a great encounter in my life, and I remember what song we were listening to in this lobby, or when we were in the room, or in the stairway. or outside smoking a cigarette.

The film is very stylized. Is it really important to you to make a film that’s rich in content, but equally as aesthetically pleasing? It’s not my taste and it’s not about my style — it’s about the style that I think is appropriate for the film. The film is about the way we magnify people when we’re in love — walking down the street feeling like we’re floating, hence the slow motion, the music, the costumes, the colors. A lot of people said it was a case of style over substance, but being in love is often a case of style over substance.

Did you envision what the film will look like while you were writing it? Some visions came while I was writing, some of them came after in the editing, but most came on the spot. The slow motion was actually written in the script. A lot of things happened on the set in the turmoil of creation.

Were you listening to the music you played in the movie? Yeah, or music I’m not necessarily putting in the movie. I often listen to instrumental music. I’m a fan of Craig Armstrong. I always listen to him when I’m working. Clint Mansell, who works with Darren Aronofsky, I listen to him and a lot of Brian Eno. Also Nirvana, which really ignites something in me.

Do you ever feel like you have to try and prove yourself because you are so young? No, I just try and forget about it. I don’t want to prove anything, I don’t want to force people to love me or love my films. I don’t have any kind of attention or love dysfunction. There are haters, they are lovers, whatever works. I just want to do my films and get better. Ideally, I would become more and more interesting and not the opposite way.

So who inspires your work the most? Mostly literature or visual arts, more than cinema. I’m a nerd in certain things, like music, names, dialogues. There are movies that I that know every line by heart.

Like what? Husbands and Wives, Titanic, Children of Paradise.

I read that you loved Pierrot le Fou. Yeah, but I’m not so fond of Godard’s work, I’ve seem a couple of films but I don’t like everything. I’m more a Truffaut guy.

Is exposure something that’s important to you? I don’t dislike the attention and the spotlight. There are enjoyable perks of this business. But none of them will keep you from being a bad artist or a self-indulgent person. When you’re young, your mother and father keep repeating, “Don’t become pretentious, stay down to earth.” I don’t really give a shit about who’s down to earth or pretentious or not, who’s humble and who’s vain – whatever. I wouldn’t be ashamed of myself if I said something pretentious. Being self-conscious is not that bad. What’s bad is being this and being a bad artist, and not having the talent ever to compensate pretension. So the problem is when you reach a moment in your career where you just start listening to yourself writing, and you love what you direct, and you love your shots, and you’re very content and satisfied with yourself, and you don’t have judgment or perspective anymore. I’m very proud of certain things in my films, but I mostly hate them.

Your next film, Laurence Anyways, is about a transsexual man? It’s more about love. It’s a love story between a man and woman, and the man wants to become a woman and asks his girlfriend to support him.

Is sexuality your main concern, as opposed to love? No, love is really a theme that I want to talk about. Love, human nature — I’m not a thriller guy. Although I would love to direct one good thriller. Everybody dreams of directing something like Se7en or Silence of the Lambs. I want to try different things and test my limits.