I saw Mommy at the Telluride Film Festival. It was my first Xavier Dolan film, but it was his fifth. He’s only 25, which gets a lot of the publicity, but I’m not surprised a young person is ambitious enough to make films starting as a teenager. Impressed, yes, but not surprised.
I got to speak with Dolan on the phone for the release of Mommy and share with him an odd personal connection I had to his earlier film after I came back from Telluride and did my homework on him. Mommy takes place in a future where children with mental and emotional problems are committed to mandatory institutions. When Die (Anne Dorval)’s son (Atoine-Olivier Pilon) is expelled from the institution for burning another child, Die has to take care of him herself. Mommy opens January 23.
Nuke the Fridge: This is going to sound weird, but I have to thank you for helping me discover Bojack Horseman. After I saw Mommy I watched I Killed My Mother on Netflix, and when it was over it suggested I also might like Bojack. So I watched it just to see if it made any sense, but I loved it and binged the whole series.
Xavier Dolan: Great. Well, one thing leads to another.
Nuke: Have you seen Bojack Horseman?
Xavier Dolan: No, I haven’t.
Nuke: Then let me recommend it too.
Xavier Dolan: Okay, I’ll write it down.
Nuke: Now, the 1:1 aspect ratio looks to me like it’s more vertical than square. Why might that be? Is it an optical illusion?
Xavier Dolan: You mean it doesn’t look like a square?
Nuke: Yeah, it looks taller than it is wide.
Xavier Dolan: Well, I can assure you it was done on the Smoke digital post-production software. It’s a perfect square, mathematically perfect. I have no idea. I have no idea why it feels more like a rectangle.
Nuke: So this is the first you’ve heard that?
Xavier Dolan: No, it’s not the first. It’s not the first. A lot of people have brought it up, but I don’t know the answer.
Nuke: I completely believe that it’s 1:1. I just wonder if it’s something about our eyes that makes it look different. Then you change the aspect ratio twice. Does that divide the film into three chapters?
Xavier Dolan: I guess so. Exactly, yes. I think at every very important turning point, I don’t know if it’s three or four to be honest with you. The script is constructed in a very formal way. It’s very much Syd Field page 11, page 25, page 49. It’s very nerdy. It doesn’t take a lot of liberties in terms of script construction, but I guess at every turning point the aspect ratio changes, so twice. But then there’s a fourth act in terms of resolution of conflict and everything. I don’t want to speak with these words. I feel like a dork.
Nuke: Why did you decide to open with a sort of science fiction premise for this world where children with problems are taken away? Could it have just as easily been a woman living with a difficult child today?
Xavier Dolan: No, it can’t. It can’t because legally speaking, sociologically speaking, the story didn’t make sense when confronted to how people and things really work in life. Many people told me, “Well, he would never be expelled from this correctional facility.” No, no, no, no. So at one point I had to make a decision and it was do I want my film to be realistic or do I want to tell the story I want to tell? Which is a tale of love and friendship. Or do I want to have narrative obstacles of having a social worker coming in for a useless scene, and going to the police station to do this and that. I didn’t want to deal with these things, so I thought let’s get rid of all this by having it take place in a fictional space. And, moreover, let’s give this character a moral dilemma in terms of when you can’t do thinks, you’re saying out loud, “Oh, if I could do this. If I could, I would never do this.” But then she can. She can abandon her child. It is legal. She has the right to do it. And will she take it?
Nuke: That is a great way to cut out, as you said, all the useless technical scenes.
Xavier Dolan: Well, I’m not shooting a documentary, you know what I’m saying?
Nuke: One whole scene was on Anne Dorval’s back while they have the dialogue. Why did you choose that framing?
Xavier Dolan: I’ve always loved that. I’ve always had back shots. I think that it gives the characters the audience a vulnerable vision of the characters and it also let the audience embrace the point of view of the characters. I love necks. I love the backs of people’s heads.
Nuke: The English subtitles had a lot of colloquialisms like “I’mma” and “Ya’.” Were they speaking in the French equivalent of those colloquialisms so they were translated that way?
Xavier Dolan: Yeah, absolutely. I did the subtitles myself. I asked a friend whom I dearly love to help me with the subtitles and we wrote them all together. I love dialogue and I can write dialogue in English, but I wanted to have someone because I’m not always sure. I’ve not been brought up in an Anglophone suburb, so I don’t always know the right slang or what’s modern or less modern. It was so important to me that people have a real sense of what the dialogue is, not what the translation is, the dialogue. Dialogue is dialogue. Words are words and I didn’t want to make sacrifices or compromises or shortcuts because we don’t have enough time with the subtitles and people won’t have the time to read or whatever issue. That is of very little interest to me. What was important for me was for the audience to understand how these people defined themselves through their jokes and their words, because words are so important to these characters. It is how they express themselves and how they fight their fight. So yeah, I thought that whatever existed in French needed to be exactly the same in English, so I went out and looked for all these colloquialisms.
Xavier Dolan: I’m glad you noticed.
Nuke: People make such a big deal about your youth and that you’ve made so many movies already. Why do you think people are so surprised you could be so ambitious at a young age?
Xavier Dolan: Because they don’t see it anywhere else I guess, or often. I can’t really answer your question without sounding like a prick. I don’t ask myself these questions. I just carry on with my projects and I’m just trying to improve my craft and be a better artist and tell engaging stories. I don’t really worry about how people see me. I do, actually. That’s really not true. I do. I don’t know why they are surprised. I’m not surprised. I’ve always been striving for this sort of life.