MONTREAL – The producers of the Oscar-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar” admit they had their doubts that a one-man play about an immigrant schoolteacher could be turned into a movie.
Luc Dery and Kim McCraw had gone with director Philippe Falardeau to see the theatre production, titled “Bachir Lazhar,” and they remember his enthusiasm for a big-screen adaptation.
“We were really surprised, Luc and I,” McCraw recalled in a telephone interview. “We were surprised because it was one character in the theatre and we were like, how is he going to do that?”
The producers did see a compelling story in the tale of an Algerian immigrant who helps a class of young students cope with the shocking suicide of their teacher.
It’s a tender, multi-layered tale as Lazhar negotiates the cultural divide at the Montreal elementary school while grappling with a tragedy of his own.
“The subject was really interesting,” said McCraw, citing the exploration of grief as well as the immigrant experience. “It’s really human, that story, and touching.”
“Monsieur Lazhar,” which is produced by Dery and McCraw’s Montreal-based micro_scope production house, is nominated in the best foreign-language film category at the Oscars, which will be given out in Los Angeles on Feb. 26.
It is the second time in as many years that one of micro_scope’s films has been nominated in the category. Last year, it was “Incendies,” directed by Denis Villeneuve.
“We want to win this time,” Dery joked. “We’re starting to like this.”
Both Dery and McCraw laughed when it was pointed out their last journey to the Oscars began with a trip to the theatre as well.
“Incendies” director Villeneuve had been amazed by Wajdi Mouawad’s searing play and had urged Dery and McCraw to see it, insisting he had to make it into a film.
Dery said while they wondered about how Falardeau was going to flesh out “Bachir Lazhar,” it was the opposite with “Incendies.”
“Monsieur Lazhar’ (is) totally minimalistic — a guy alone on a stage,” Dery said. ‘Incendies’ is a four-hour epic that actually fits two or three movies into the stage play.
“When we actually saw that play, our reaction was how are you going to adapt that? There are so many things to cut and it’s so complex.”
Villeneuve, like Falardeau, pulled it off.
Dery and McCraw have a longtime relationship with Falardeau and working with him again was another reason they wanted to put “Monsieur Lazhar” on the big screen.
“We’ve worked on all of Philippe’s films and it was a natural,” Dery said. “We want to do all of Philippe’s films so that was a primary incentive.”
This year’s Oscar nomination was a bonus for the experience.
“It’s a great mixture of shock, great pleasure and excitement,” said Dery, laughing as he recalled how Falardeau had leapt into his arms upon hearing the news.
“He took me by surprise,” Dery said. “I almost fell.”
The producers recalled how everyone watched the early-morning announcement from Hollywood over the Internet, the tension building as the films in the category were announced.
“Since we were there last year, we knew a little bit what to expect,” Dery said. “I thought I wouldn’t be as thrilled but we’re just ecstatic.”
Both producers said the Oscar nomination would give the film a boost, coming just days before “Monsieur Lazhar” was released in English Canada. It also goes into limited release in the United States in April.
McCraw said the nomination also says something about Canadian films.
“I think it’s a sign that our industry is in good health,” she said.
Dery acknowledged “Monsieur Lazhar” faces stiff competition in its category, particularly from Iran’s “A Separation,” which has garnered stellar reviews and a Golden Globe.
“They’re also nominated in the best script category, which is a bit outstanding and actually quite rare,” he said.
McCraw said the producers are not taking anything for granted.
“But we still have a chance,” she said, “and we have our fingers crossed.”