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Falardeau says Oscar hype won't change his work

TORONTO - Philippe Falardeau says he strove to create an intimate but low-key portrait of grief, loss and innocence with his tender school tale "Monsieur Lazhar."

TORONTO - Philippe Falardeau says he strove to create an intimate but low-key portrait of grief, loss and innocence with his tender school tale "Monsieur Lazhar."

And so no one was more surprised than he when the dramedy exploded into a thundering awards show darling that has suddenly pushed the modest Quebec writer-director into the international spotlight.

The past few months have brought stellar reviews, global acclaim and an Oscar nomination, but Falardeau dismisses any impact such glowing attention could have on his career.

"I have to ask myself: What do I want to do with all that?" Falardeau said during a recent stop in Toronto to promote the English-Canada release of "Monsieur Lazhar."

"I'm writing a script that takes place in northern Quebec so it's not going to make any difference for my next projects.... I'm not expecting too many offers and I'm not looking for them, either. I wish I had a project right now — a specific project where I would be needing to call upon an actor that is more famous. That kind of (Oscar) leverage could get me to that actor or actress, or at least have them read my script, but now I have nothing for them.

"It's like the timing is a little odd for me, but I'll take it."

Actually, the timing couldn't be better for the impending theatrical rollout of "Monsieur Lazhar," about an Algerian immigrant who helps a class of Montreal elementary students grapple with the sudden death of their teacher.

The francophone film hits cities including Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Edmonton this Friday — just days after scoring an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film and a week after nabbing nine Genie Award nominations in Canada. It expands to more Canadian centres in the following weeks.

Falardeau jokes in a followup interview from the Sundance Film Festival that Oscar hype "is the best marketing campaign" he could hope for, referring to the uphill battle most homegrown productions face in luring Canadian audiences.

But he also says he wishes Canadian films didn't have to rely on foreign validation to drum up interest in homegrown talent.

During the Toronto press stop two weeks ago, he spoke highly of the film's young stars — Emilien Neron, whose tough-talking Simon discovers his teacher's body, and Sophie Nelisse, whose intuitive Alice finds comfort in the unconventional teaching methods of a new instructor, Monsieur Lazhar, who harbours a private grief of his own.

Neron was just 11 when they shot the film, while Nelisse, who earned a Genie nomination for her performance, was only 10, says Falardeau.

Each of them is responsible for some of the more devastating scenes in the $3.5-million film, which builds slowly in emotional intensity as shell-shocked students eye their new teacher warily.

Falardeau says his directing technique involves plenty of rehearsals and a delicate handling of his young thespians.

"You try to establish on the set a playful atmosphere and an atmosphere that they'll trust," explains Falardeau, who also coaxed moving turns from the young stars of his last film, "It's Not Me, I Swear!", where an emotionally raw hellion is sent reeling when his mother leaves the family.

"This is very important because a professional actor will be expected to go into his own emotion, to tap into his own emotion to produce something. The kid, you cannot expect them to do that. So if you want him or her to do that you have to make sure that they trust you and you have to make sure that they know it's their own decision — that you will not force them."

"With the young Simon, I wanted (Emilien) to cry but I didn't force him to cry. I said to him, 'If you cry it's OK. If you don't cry it's OK, too.'"

Casting the part of the kindly Monsieur Lazhar — whose old-world approach to education, discipline and compassion clashes with students, teachers and parents — presented unique challenges.

Falardeau says he was intent on finding an Algerian actor for the part. His search brought him to France where he found another rookie performer in Mohamed Fellag — a longtime standup comic better known for telling jokes than dispensing sombre movie dialogue.

Falardeau says he knew he had found the right man to embody Lazhar's quiet resilience.

"What he does (onstage) is very different from what's in the film and so I went to meet him," recalls Falardeau, whose script was drawn from Evelyne de la Chenelière's one-man play "Bashir Lazhar."

"He had this physical aspect I was looking for — this sense of dignity. And when you see him you kind of feel reassured that he's a good man."

Fellag is up for a best actor trophy at the Genies, which will be handed out March 8 in Toronto. Falardeau is competing for best director and best adapted screenplay, while "Monsieur Lazhar" has been shortlisted for best film.

The Oscars take place Feb. 26, when Falardeau's film competes against features from Iran, Belgium, Israel and Poland.

Falardeau says the festival and awards show circuit — which has already netted him prizes in Switzerland, Spain, Toronto and Whistler, B.C. — has been fun but demanding.

He worries about not having enough time to work on his new script, a political comedy set in northern Quebec based on a fictional member of Parliament for a large rural riding.

Although it will touch on Canadian federal politics, Falardeau says he's also making sure it can appeal to a potential audience beyond our borders.

And it's not the kind of thing that would likely benefit from his current Oscar cachet.

"It's really local in a way so I don't need Hollywood for that," he says.

These days, Falardeau says an unofficial Oscar campaign has kept him tied up with media interviews and event appearances, all geared to make sure the right people see his film.

It's a glad-handing exercise the unassuming filmmaker says he grudgingly goes along with at the prodding of producers Luc Dery and Kim McCraw, who also produced last year's festival darling, "Incendies."

That searing war drama, from Quebec director Denis Villeneuve, also rode a wave of acclaim to the Oscars where it competed in the best foreign-language film category.

"They know what's important or not," Falardeau says of his partners, noting that other media tours include stops in Japan, France, Germany and Spain.

After learning he had clinched the Oscar nomination earlier this week, Falardeau repeated his intent to stay focused on personal projects, no matter where his career may take him.

"I still think I want to make the films I write and that my place is in Quebec," he says. "I'm going to take my time."

"Monsieur Lazhar" opens in select cities Friday before expanding across Canada.

It's set for a limited U.S. release in April.