Much has been made about Xavier Dolan’s age. There’s a reason for that: The Canadian actor and filmmaker is only 25 and yet “Mommy,” his latest, is his fifth feature. Not only that, it’s long — if not as long as “Laurence Anyways,” his three-hour study of a transgender woman and her longtime girlfriend. And not only that: many of his films, including his first (“I Killed My Mother”), debuted at Cannes. But Dolan insists age shouldn’t be a factor in judging his work. Though he’s said he considers himself more of an actor than a director, he’s not in “Mommy,” which hangs with a temperamental teen (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), his harried mother (Anne Dorval) and their new friend, a meek neighbor (Suzanne Clement). Next up: "The Life and Death of John F. Donovan," in which he'll direct Jessica Chastain and Susan Sarandon.
You’ve said that your biggest inspirations don’t come from other films but from photos, music, other mediums.
For me, movies being sort of the sum of all arts, it makes sense that you can seek inspiration wherever you like, whether it’s an image or a shape or a costume or music. Everything can inspire you. I don’t find inspiration in watching other people’s films because that reduces you to being influenced rather than being inspired. It sponsors plagiarism and imitation. It’s better if you’re inspired by an image or a painting in a more discreet and private way.
What I’m seeking in these photos are extremely small, sometimes miniscule details that might make me think of something else. It’s like Chinese Whispers, where in a crowd someone whispers something in the ear of someone else, and by the time it’s been passed along it’s been paraphrased so much that it’s evolved into something else — a new idea. That’s what true inspiration is to me. Otherwise I watch other people’s films and there are so many good ideas that the only thing I feel I’m left with to do is to ape them.
Does that stem from being worried about being original? Or do you think it’s just about finding new ways to say the same things?
Cocteau said, “Everything has been done — except by me.”
Technology, it seems, could be one factor that can inspire genuinely original work.
I think what hasn’t been done is what we haven’t invented technically. Those are the true revolutions. But they’re not essentially the ones that appeal to me — like projecting in 48fps. I’m not a huge geek. I am, I guess, but I’m somewhat of a very traditional person in terms of filmmaking.
That said, your film is in an unusual format: It’s shot in a box shape, 1:1, where as most films are rectangular.
When you think about, it’s the oldest thing. People have been shooting portraits in that aspect ratio forever. Filming movies are like taking pictures, except you’re taking 24 per second. I wanted to shoot portraits and be close to people, and force the audience to look into my characters’ eyes. I wanted it to be very intimate, and that format, for me, achieved that.
Your films are meticulously composed, though you’ve said that while shooting actors is your number one priority. How do you make both sides of filmmaking work?
I plan out everything ahead. Once I’m on set, acting is what dictates how every idea stands, or if everything collapses and you just go for something else. Until you look in the face of an actor you don’t really know. The way I direct a scene with actors is I don’t direct as a director. I direct it as an actor. They do what they do and they improv. Together we really do find the scene. Sometimes I call on them to do something right now and make it look spontaneous. They had no planned that, so the adrenaline of that becomes the energy of the scene — this very humane thing that comes from the rush of an actor taking what he’s just heard and trying to incorporate it seamlessly into the scene. And I love that.
Do you feel connected to your age group? Do you think of yourself as a young filmmaker, or even connected with your generation?
I don’t believe in generations. I don’t believe in age. I believe it exists, but I feel that people are not defined by age. They’re defined by their feelings and tastes. There are a ton of interesting voices out there. I have not sat down lately to reflect on what this generation is about and is up to right now. I do see some similarities between some creators and artists who are my age or a little but older, but those are pretty naïve and elementary lines to draw.