Xavier Dolan admits he hasn’t seen his film “Tom at the Farm” in ages. It’s hitting American theaters now, but the dramatic thriller — about a young man (Dolan himself, in ratty blond locks) who visits the family of his dead ex-boyfriend, only to discover they didn’t know he was gay — debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September of 2013. Since then he’s shot two films, including last year’s “Mommy,” with the Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington-starring “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” slated to film next year. But the young French-Canadian filmmaker, still only 26, looks back on it as an outlier among his five completed features, and one that taught him key lessons.
How do you look back on “Tom at the Farm”?
This is sort of the first movie I can watch. It’s weird for me to say, I guess, but when I watch this film I feel absolutely comfortable with the choices and the filmmaking. I’m not ashamed of some shots. I don’t have major regrets. I can watch it without freaking out. It’s short, it’s simple; it’s not overthought or overproduced. It’s not over-. I remember it as being something of a control exercise. I had to ask myself more questions on the significance of choices — choices of lenses, that sort of thing. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before or after. It stands alone.
Did you view it as, in a sense, a technical exercise?
You know what? “Heartbeats” is a technical exercise, because it’s very stylized and it wants to be very lush — all the slow motion and the songs and music montages. It purports to be a technical and aesthetical exercise. With “Tom” the tone, the style, the pace, the mood was unlike anything I had done before. When you want to create a mood of anxiety, there are codes you cannot escape, involving things like sound and music. “Tom” is the movie where I discovered the meaning of sound and score. Sound and score is what a thriller is made of, right? To me the best thing about “Tom” is the sound — not to take anything away from the actors.
Have you found yourself more focused on sound in your movies since then?
Since then, yeah. I just understood that, in a subliminal way, it helps you tell a story and get a point across in a way that no other department can. I fixed so many problems with sound. I hadn’t been aware of that. I didn’t understand the importance of sound editing and mixing. I guess I’m a neophyte. I have no schooling. I come from nowhere. I never did any shorts or was a P.A. for anyone. I started alone. So the only way I could find out who I was was by making numerous mistakes.
You’ve written your own scripts, but this was adapted from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard. Did you find that somehow freeing?
When I write scripts I generally have problems with wrapping up the third act and getting into the fourth one, which is always shorter than the others. This is where I f— up, generally. I have a hard time bringing clarity to people’s quests. Since I was adapting this from a play, it was the first time the script was strong enough, that was ready to shoot. The other movies I made, the scripts were never perfect. They were highly flawed, and I was naive enough to think things would get better on set. And if we didn’t fix it on set we’d fix it in the editing room. Those are a bunch of lies. This was the only time I felt the script was strong enough to shoot.
I also felt that with the one I just shot, which was also adapted from a play. I guess I find it easier to work from people’s previous work. It’s hard to write a script. It’s really, really hard. I guess I’m really impatient. Some people work on scripts for years, literally years, or decades. And I cannot give it more than a couple weeks of my life, because I go crazy and I feel an idea has an expiration date before you move on to other endeavors. If I want to express myself I need to do it quickly and regularly, and if it gets stuck I feel like I’m stagnating. I suppose this is extremely immature.
There is the story of the Coen brothers, and how they ran into a block while writing “Miller’s Crossing.” They decided to move onto another script, which became “Barton Fink,” a film about writer’s block, then they came back and found the inspiration to complete “Miller’s Crossing.”
I could never let something sit and then get back to it. I would be obsessed with getting it right. If I have writer’s block I get stuck. I can’t move on. I have to fix the problem.
Still, it can be easy to get so bogged down in something you’re writing that you might not even realize if it’s bad, even when it’s clear to outside parties.
I try not to lie to myself. I know when things are bad. I know when I’m bad. I know when something’s wrong in a film. And then I hate myself. In the independent world, at least, we don’t have the luxury of reshooting things. We do, to a certain extent. But when you’re in the editing suite, there can be problems that cannot be solved. It’s frustrating. And then people who’ve seen it say, “Well, in the movie there’s this [problem] and this [problem].” I’m like, “I know, I know.” There’s nothing you can do. [Laughs]