Philippe Lesage is an internationally renowned, Canadian writer–director who began his career as a documentary filmmaker prior to transitioning into making narrative features. His documentary, The Heart That Beats (Ce cœur qui bat) won several prizes, notably Québec’s Jutra award for Best Feature Documentary. His debut fiction feature, The Demons (Les Démons) premiered at San Sebastian International Film Festival in Official Competition. It has since been selected in more than 70 festivals around the world. The Demons was also included in Guy Lodge’s Top Ten Films of 2015 in Variety and in the Toronto International Film Festival Canada’s Top Ten. It won the Golden Gate New Director Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2016, and won Best Canadian film of 2015.
His second feature, Genesis (Genèse) had its premiere at the Locarno Festival and won a number of awards including the Golden Wolf (Festival of New Cinema, Montreal). Genesis was also selected to be screened at the Museum of Modern Art, AFI FEST and Film Society of Lincoln Center. The film got very positive reviews from The New York Times (Critic’s Pick), Variety, The Los Angeles Times, Hollywood Reporter, The Globe and others. It ranked #16 best films of 2019 by Metacritic and was included in Canada’s Top Ten Movies of 2018 by TIFF. Lesage has also taught documentary filmmaking at the European Film College in 2008–2009.
I (Dora Endre) talked with the strong-willed and strong-minded filmmaker about his inspirations, aspirations, upcoming projects, fascination with coming-of-age stories, views on cinema and mainstream, favorite collaborators and much more. A refreshingly honest conversation with one of the most original and inventive artists out there. Enjoy it.
Dóra Endre: I know you have a strong background in documentaries. How come you have made the transition into narratives, specifically coming-of-age movies?
Philippe Lesage: Well, coming-of-age is not something I would want to tag on my work, it came by accident. I simply thought it was a very interesting period of life. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say but usually the first film you’re making is very autobiographical. However, to some filmmakers it’s not the case. Some make their most personal movie at the very end of their careers. I guess one of the reasons for the transition you’ve mentioned was that I realized there was a frustrated writer in me. I was not completely satisfied so I went and wrote the script for The Demons.
With documentaries I enter a world I didn’t know. I was putting myself in the state of total discovery. It is almost like traveling, exploring a new place. My approach to documentaries isn’t the usual, it is neither journalism nor reporting and not like docus you see on Netflix. And I don’t make any distinction between fiction and nonfiction. It needs to serve one and only god: Cinema. It involves a lot of contemplation, music…and sometimes not much is happening. A succession of mundane things can lead to an epiphany, or an epic journey. Even though documentaries could imprisoned you in the tyranny of reality, this is where I ironically found freedom as a filmmaker. I like to break down narratives in all my films since then, I like to go beyond rules of traditional ways of telling stories. You know, the ending of Genesis is a bit controversial, for example. Some people don’t get it, and I think that is wonderful. I don’t care. I mean, if you like parts of the film, I’m happy. I enjoy messing up with the structure. By filming real people in nonfiction, you see what “being natural” really means. When the characters are camera conscious, you see it. It impacted the way I direct my actors now. For a lot of actors, the most difficult thing remains to be natural. To express themselves like they do in real life. They can get easily corrupted by intentions and performance anxiety.
DE: Where did the story of The Demons come from?
PL: I remember talking to a friend and opening up about my fears as a child. When I was 9 years old, I was hypochondriac, terrified of getting AIDS, horrified by what seems to drive the adults, sexuality, even though they were avoiding talking directly about it. So I was thinking, why not explore that period of my life and reconcile with the kid I was, see where that sensibility is coming from? I believe if shame or fear is coming with the subject you intend to dig into then it’s a good sign, you’re onto something interesting. Genesis in a way, was a continuation of that. Both are stories that are close to my life. Both films share an element of revenge over my youth.
So yes, youth is a period of life I find fascinating. I think in a way we should stay young at heart. The problem is when we are young, we are so defenceless, but we welcome passion without being afraid of getting hurt, for instance. We should maintain that spontaneous, fresh take on the world and not fall into the trap of cynicism. As kids we are allowed to be moody, needy and grumpy but we never are cynical. How can you be cynical when you have the world, all the future right in front of you? So I think it’s a beautiful period. It is like falling in love with the wrong person. You set up a meeting, the person tells you “I’m gonna be there”. You go there, wait, but the person simply doesn’t show up. It makes you very upset. The next day, out of the blue, this person calls and says she or he is free to meet now. You drop everything and just run. You forget every bit of hurt. It’s being loving without trying to protect yourself in any ways. It’s brave and beautiful.
DE: As you have reflected on your childhood while writing scripts, have you learned something brand new about yourself? It must be incredibly interesting looking back at yourself at different ages and recounting your experiences.
PL: Of course. It’s also a big part of psychotherapy.
DE: Right. Telling your own experiences, traumas in the third person.
PL: Exactly. Also, I think there’s a part of me that doesn’t know who I really am. I mean, we are changing all the time. Nothing stays fixed, even our sexuality is in motion, it changes. Both Genesis and The Demons are exploring that. And that’s the beauty of life. As long as there’s movement, there is hope.
There used to be a period in my life when I was a frustrated filmmaker who either could not make the movies he wanted to make or whose movies ended up not having been seen enough. I was really this underground filmmaker without films. I went to see a psychoanalyst. It was very helpful. And recently, I was looking for a psychoanalyst for a friend so I contacted my former doctor. We had a little conversation over the phone and I suggested maybe I should go and see him too, just to go through the last few years. But then we got to the conclusion that through my films (he had seen them) I had already done much of examining, introspecting and processing. We agreed I didn’t have to go back on the couch.
As a filmmaker, it feels like it’s my duty to go back to my own hurt and shame. The more honest I am about those things, the more people can relate to my stories and that’s amazing. That’s another story but there’s always a monster in my films. Hidden somewhere. The violent black beast, the Id. I’m interested in exploring the dark side that lies in all of us. Showing both the dark and the brighter side of my characters, without judging them. We spend half of our lives judging others, hypocritically thinking we are much better beings, but we forget that we’re no stranger to anything that is human.
DE: Was there a moment when you were writing something and felt that the subject got too personal, too hurtful, hit too close to home? Have you ever got blocked by such feeling while writing a story?
PL: Maybe that’s why I go back into my teenage years. I can talk about things that happened to me or to people close to me because they occurred many many years ago. It doesn’t hit too close.
DE: So you can keep some distance from your current life.
PL: The thing is that by growing up, we become more stable and also more boring. Our stories become less interesting. Less honest. It’s a terrible thing to admit but I don’t think honesty is trendy right now. We expect artists to open up about their childhood, share experiences, good or bad, express their sincere opinions, but if they decide to be really honest, it doesn’t always end up well for them. So they keep fabricating a fake and whitewashed image of them on social media and so on. We value collectively honesty, but everything in the society now is telling us not to be honest. Hypocrisy is paying off.
DE: You have mentioned the importance of motion. In a different aspect, I was interested in scenes where you use moving bodies, physicality, even dance. Particularly, as a way to establish your story, for instance, in The Demons. Why movement?
PL: Yeah. There’s also movement in Genesis. The soccer team playing, kids running. I was always fascinated by people in motion, people doing sports. I think a moving body is always gracious. I’m not sporty at all, I have no talent in sports, that’s maybe why I’m so admirative. There’s something absolutely cinematic about framing people running, skating, cycling. One day, I would love to do a film about an athlete. It’s a trained body, but it’s also about the weaknesses of that body. It evokes pain, power, strength, beauty, fragility, a body that is made of flesh and bones can also break at any moment. There is this scene in Genesis where Charlotte is waiting for her boyfriend. She sees a random soccer team running around a nearby field. It is a scene completely unnecessary for the story to evolve. I remember a festival programmer in Taiwan once asked me if that was a random sequence or it was pre-planned. It was all in the script! I just thought it was a beautiful scene. This girl is anxious and sensitive at that moment in the film, and she is looking at these men running around, filled with masculinity. I like that scene a lot. It turns that particular moment into something mysterious but yet very tangible, physical. You cannot explain it, but you intuitively feel it making sense. Like a poem or a piece of music.
DE: I think these sequences bring lots of naturalism to your movies. We, as viewers, see things unfold as they run their course. No manipulation or precise pre-calculation.
PL: That’s nice to hear. I think the best fiction film is the one where you forget you are in fiction. When you are completely drawn into an atmosphere that is different from reality, it is close to being in a dream. I think cinema has the toolbox to go there and it becomes very effective when it does. That’s what I am aiming to do.
DE: By focusing more on the inner lives and inner conflicts of your characters you can draw audiences into your story with much more ease, no? We stop being so aware that what we see isn’t reality.
PL: I’m glad you are mentioning this. I think it’s so important. Tarkovsky says that the inner tension of characters is what’s really important not the transformation. You know, in America and in most film schools they annoy you with a Western way of thinking about the transformation of characters. That’s just so stupid. The most important thing is the complexity of inner life, the internal tension each character has. The way we live our lives is not only by reacting to external elements, we have an inner life that drives us more than anything. Of course, we can evolve and change but only talking about that reaction-triggered transformation is uninteresting. It is a cheap way of depicting unrealistic stories. It’s good that you are mentioning this also because I talk about inner conflict with my actors a lot. They have to find where that tension is coming from, that’s the starting point for their work.
DE: That makes a hero a hero, right? A complex and active inner life. I mean, it is quite a 2D character that only goes with the flow, stays reactive and passive in a way. An active hero is much more intriguing.
PL: That’s true. Also, I used to get comments on my screenplays such as “this character is too young for thinking this way or doing that” or “he’s too old to think this or do that”. I was always like “you don’t get it”. I think you can be very young and lucid, sensitive and understanding of complex things. Or you can be an adult and act stupidly, be incredibly immature. It’s not necessarily a transformative thing. But if we are this complex and “age-independent” as humans then why should we make unrealistic characters? I want to see multi-dimensional characters on screen who are made of flesh and blood, facing complicated human issues.
DE: Talking about multi-dimensional characters. How do you approach building them? Do you have your own process? Do you come up with a lengthy history and description for each character?
PL: I build them through the script. Nothing prior to writing. Sometimes I need to come up with a short synopsis, 20 pages or so, but I don’t specifically work on characters separately. I don’t know where they come from, they slowly take form and guide me. Since you have seen my films you probably realized, I don’t plan the structure. (Laughs)
DE: You say you like to break the narrative. Is that a general approach, something you are conscious of or is it something that comes natural?
PL: Well, it comes naturally. I always make the film I would like to see myself, as a cinephile, as a film lover. In that sense my approach is completely selfish. When I was younger, and even sometimes to this day, I would go and see mainstream movies. I like to be surprised by where the story takes me and unfortunately, mainstream usually makes me feel bored. I have seen conventional notes being hit so many times before. So as a creator I do not want to get bored by my own story. First and foremost, I like to play, play with the structure. Later, I can intellectualize things and say “yes, there I broke the narrative”. A little rock in the shoe of the viewer is good, it makes them feel unsafe and uncomfortable, they don’t know what to expect. But I don’t break the narrative just for the sake of it. I am not trying to be original. It just feels right for me to tell stories that way.
DE: What do you think about the current position of cinema as an art form?
PL: It’s in a strange place. It used to be a real art form that was influencing other art forms. But now TV is influencing cinema. The standard of television is extremely conservative. TV shows are very prefabricated, with only a few occasional exceptions. Cinema has an important mission. It needs to influence other art forms if it wants to stay being an art form itself. Cinema should also be mysterious and ambiguous. It shouldn’t feed us with answers, it should leave space where the viewers can be creative. For instance, I like to think that someone, somewhere is inspired by the ambiguous ending of Genesis. While if you have something very formatted, conservative and conventional then it takes everyone hostage. You leave no space for being creative, you cannot add your own memories and sensibility to the story as a viewer. There is no creative conversation happening through the film. I still believe in cinema a lot. But if cinema attempts to become TV then TV will come out as the winner.
DE: Do you feel any resentment or frustration towards cheap entertainment or mainstream?
PL: I don’t have anything against mainstream. I wish my films were more mainstream. (Laughs) It’s true, actually. I don’t like being taken by the hand and led by a movie though. I don’t like movies that don’t give me anything. But I go and see some mainstream films too. Not all the superhero stuff, no.
DE: I was just about to ask if you were team DC or team Marvel. (Laughs)
PL: No, no, no, absolutely not. But as a matter of fact, I saw the new Batman yesterday. It just wasn’t for me. I don’t think it’s a good Batman movie. I was bored the entire time. However, I enjoy a good, entertaining rollercoaster ride once in a while. Mainstream can do well too. I also saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza yesterday, right after seeing Batman. I had much more fun with that. It was funny, rich, clever, sensitive and entertaining. In comparison, I felt so empty after seeing Batman. I wasted three hours of my life.
DE: Do you want those three hours back?
PL: Yes. Cinema should give us back the time we don’t live. We often hear people say: after a tiring work day, I just want to watch something easy. Or I have no time to watch art house films… I’m sorry but the time you don’t live because you are so busy, you can only getting it back by watching films or reading books that are giving you more than just plain easy entertainment.
DE: There might be preconceptions about arthouse cinema from the side of mainstream fans, no? Maybe they see Batman because they want guaranteed escapism and they have prejudices against independent movies?
PL: Yes. For instance, there’s probably prejudice against my films. Imagine people hearing that there is this coming of age French-Canadian film playing with subtitles, and is two and a half hour long… (Laughs)
DE: Probably some audiences instantly go “Nope, I left my reading glasses home, whatever”. (Laughs)
PL: Probably! I would not blame anyone though. I know my movies are slow paced, they are not very “American”. However, I think they are rewarding, they put you in another state of mind. It’s all a bit more contemplative.
DE: I’ve heard you like being in the cutting room.
PL: Yeah, I always work with the same editor. His name is Mathieu Bouchard-Malo (Nelly, Félix & Meira, Genesis). It’s definitely my favorite part along with writing. I think shooting is the necessary evil. It’s nice collaborating with others, being on set but its nerve wrecking as well. There’s always something unexpected that happens… Struggles… you need a hundred extras in a bar scene but on the day only twenty show up…Find now those 80 ones missing!
DE: How do you cope with those moments, those moments when everything goes wrong?
PL: With a lot of optimism and resilience. I’m one of those people who immediately tries to come up with a solution. I had difficult experiences. For example, I lost two actors right before we started shooting a project. I instantly started telling myself we’d get better actors as replacements. I don’t let bad stress overcome me. Normal stress is positive, it’s part of the game. But the shoot is not as comforting as being in the editing suite. But if you compromise on the shoot, then I doubt you will have a good time in the editing suite.
DE: How about COVID stress? Did it affect your creativity in any ways?
PL: Well, I was supposed to shoot my new film last summer, which had to be postponed. But I cannot complain. Some people had a much more difficult time because of the pandemic. Many got sick, lost loved ones or were trapped alone. I started writing a novel during lockdown and improved my screenplays. I have nothing to complain about.
DE: In a previous interview, you said that you had high hopes in people getting away from old archetypes in movies and media will have a harder time manipulating us. Do you think we are getting there?
PL: I guess we are becoming lazy as viewers. A certain type of cinema takes you by the hand and labels each character as good or bad. But I think there’s lots of inspiring filmmakers out there, for example, Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir) and Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), and Mia Hansen Løve. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I find contemporary female directors to be the most inspiring. These women, for instance, don’t fall into the traps of being too obvious. They trust their viewers’ intelligence.
DE: And leave them enough of the space you have mentioned.
DE: What are you working on at the moment? What are your plans for the near future?
PL: I can’t tell you the title of my new film, as of now, it’s undecided. But I have this feature in the makings. It’s about the world of adults meeting the world of teenagers. It focuses on how teenagers perceive adults. I wouldn’t categorize it as a coming-of-age piece because much of it centres on the lives of adults. The protagonist is this young boy who meets a very successful white male artist. He would like this artist’s mentoring and advice. But you know, we cannot fully trust people who can easily see us turning into their rivals…The story takes place in the woods. It’s a bunch of characters stuck together for a week, up north in Canada, with canoes, rivers and wild animals.
DE: Important question: will any of the characters get killed by a bear? (Laughs)
PL: Nobody is going to be attacked by animals. (Laughs) I think the one you will need to be suspicious in the film is adults. They tend to be cruel. It’s a more integral part of the human species than of animals. Power struggle among humans is much more perverted.