Interview: Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar)

Interview: Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar). By Simon Miraudo.

Philippe Falardeau‘s filmmaking career began with the tantalising opportunity to travel the globe as a contestant on Canada’s Race Around the World. Two decades later, and he’s an Oscar nominee walking the red carpet alongside George Clooney and Glenn Close.  His Monsieur Lazhar lost the Best Foreign Language Film prize to A Separation at the 2012 Academy Awards, but he’s still reaping the benefits of his successful little feature, and making a case to stop the Canadian government’s cutbacks in the art sector. Based on Évelyne de la Chenelière’s play Bashir Lazhar, the picture tells of an Albanian immigrant (Mohamed Fellag) who takes over a grieving classroom following the suicide of a much-loved teacher.

Check out Jess Lomas’ review of Monsieur Lazhar here.

We spoke to Falardeau about opening with such a haunting image, making the kids in the cast – as well as the rest of the crew – feel like they were at summer camp, the state of education today, and the moment in the movie he thinks “went too far.”

SM: The movie opens with a particularly striking image, and that’s of a teacher having hung herself in a classroom. Now, even though it’s the inciting incident of the entire film, I understand that shot wasn’t in the original shooting script. When did you decide it was necessary to feature?

PF: First of all, I thought that if I showed the body, the film would be about that. About suicide. I was certain that the interest of the film was elsewhere, so that’s why I struggled for a long time deciding to put it in. After a few drafts I realised that if we want to really feel the emotional outbursts of the young kids who discover the body, especially in the cathartic moment at the end of the film, my thought was that we had to discover the body through their point of view. So, I decided to put that scene in and it’s also why I decided to shoot it the way it’s done. It’s done from a distance and always with the young kid who discovers the body. Through his point of view and not in the classroom, close to the body.

SM: Interesting. Well, you had to make a lot of choices like that, because it’s based on the play Bashir Lazhar, which is a one-man show. There is obviously more than one actor in this film. Were you tempted when writing the script to feature more narration and preserve the original form as best you could, or were you happy to run free with it?

PF: No, I was happy to run free with it. I think it’s more problematic when you have a book or a play that’s rich in character and then you have to make choices. Which character do you keep, which character do you leave behind? I had a lot of manoeuvring space as a scriptwriter for stuff that was inspired by my own childhood, and other themes I wanted to explore, but I guess the most important thing was to draw from the emotion I had when I first saw the play and keep the main character intact. That’s the whole reason why I wanted to do a film around him. Because I thought it was moving; I loved his humanity, his complexity, his sense of dignity, and I really wanted to build a story around him.

SM: Absolutely, and he’s played by Mohamed Fellag in the film, and he’s best known as Canada and in the world as a comedian. Did you approach him for the role?

PF: Actually, he’s not known at all in Canada. He lives in France.

SM: My apologies.

PF: He’s from Algeria, and he had to flee his country in the civil war in the 1990s. I didn’t know him at all, but the playwright [Évelyne de la Chenelière] said she had seen him in his one-man show a few years back, and told me I should check him out. I go on YouTube and I discover this artist and what he does is stand-up comedy; he invents these candid characters that have a sub-political text. It’s very funny, but lyrical and poetic at the same time, and very far from what I had in mind for the character at the time. But,  because of his past, because I liked the way he looked, I wanted to meet him and I went to meet him in Paris and he did a small audition and I immediately fell in love with him.

SM: He’s definitely great in the film and his performance isn’t the only great one. There are some striking performances from the young kids, particularly Sophie Nelisse and Émilien Neron as Alice and Simon. How do you approach kids and ask them to convey these very dramatic, emotionally complicated, and serious feelings on screen?

PF: You have to take your time, particularly in the audition process. I’m not a big fan of putting an ad in the newspaper and asking for thousand of kids for very short auditions. I see fewer kids and I take my time; an hour with them. It’s a meeting, making sure what they’re capable of, or just trying to get to know them. If I like them I invite them back for additional auditions. That’s the first part and the most important part. The second part is rehearsal. I work with a coach; she’s very good with kids. She’s there when we rehearse together, and she knows where I want to go in terms of tone, in terms of play. When I’m off on other tasks, she can continue working with the kids. Thirdly, it’s about setting the right atmosphere on the set. These kids know that it’s work, but they want to have fun. I try to install a playful atmosphere, like it’s summer camp. It’s not only good for them, but I have to tell you it’s also good for me and the rest of the crew.

SM: Well, I’m glad to hear that, because most people wouldn’t like the idea of going back to school or camp. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

PF: [Laughs]

SM: On that note, did you grow up with a teacher that did have a profound effect on you the same way that Bashir Lazhar does on young Alice?

PF: Not one teacher. It was a combination of teachers. Some really developed my curiosity; some taught me how to work; some other teacher taught me how to respect other people. I guess Monsieur Lazhar is like a hybrid character of all these teachers who influenced me. I remember when the film came out in Quebec, a journalist asked me that very same question, and I just picked one teacher that I remembered from high school, and he was my history teacher and I loved him very much. The next day, all the media went to his home in my home town, and all of a sudden he got the attention of national news. Now I just answer, “It’s a combination of many teachers.”

SM: You know what, I’m sure he appreciated that. I think it’s getting rarer that teachers are appreciated these days, so I’m sure he enjoyed that to a degree. And I guess the film does deal with that: the increasing constraints on teachers, not just in Canada but the world. It’s almost a struggle to both comfort and punish children. Lazhar warns the kids not to look for the meaning of death when they’re dealing with the grief of their teacher. My question is, was the suicide in the opening moments sort of a statement on the shackles placed on teachers? As if the only way this teacher could punish her student was to harm herself.

PF:  Well, it definitely says a lot about the pressures the teachers are feeling. I struggle with the suicide thing in this film because I thought I went too far dramatically, but reality goes way beyond fiction. I heard of a teacher who set herself on fire in the schoolyard in France, protesting against abuse she was feeling, and she died. My intention was to go beyond that and explore what happens to the living; what happens to those left behind. The psychological violence it leaves behind with the children. In this particular movie, there are two violences mirroring each other: the violence of a country like Algeria that had a terrible civil war that produced a lot of tragic deaths, so this Algerian refugee has that in his background, and he faces children that are dealing with psychological violence, and intuitively he knows the only way to get through this is to talk about it, but he’s in a new system and in this system we have a tendency to not talk about it. Death and suicide are taboos and you just sweep them under the rug. This man comes from another culture, and he’s like a fish out of the bowl, and he insists on talking about it with the children.

SM: Of course, and I think  that’s why the film has connected with so many people. Congratulations, it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature at this year’s Oscars. Can you tell me about the experience of going to the Oscars? Were there any kind of clichéd Hollywood moments that you got to participate in?

PF: I learned the news on the 24th of January, and on that day I had like forty-five interviews, and I kept saying, “It’s a dream come true, but it’s a dream I never had!” You make films in French, in Montreal, you don’t dream about going to Hollywood; you don’t dream about going to the Oscars. But once you’re there, you’ve got to play the game and I’ll tell you, there are two things that are amazingly impressive about the United States: the first one is the Grand Canyon, and the second one is the Red Carpet.

SM: Both terrifying, I’m sure.

PF: Both of them, people will tell you, “Wait ’till you see that,” and you go, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure.” But it’s really impressive to walk with your girlfriend right behind George Clooney and Rooney Mara, and right behind Glenn Close. Even though I don’t feel I belong to this community, it would be lying if I said it didn’t impress me.

SM: Well, you were originally a contestant on Race Around the World, which is a show we also had here in Australia.

PF: Yeah, yeah. I think you guys picked it up from the Canadian version.

SM: I’m sure we did. We have a habit of doing that with things from overseas. But 20 years later you’re an Oscar nominee. At that time, did you see this as becoming your career? Was it something you were just trying out?

PF: No, no, I studied political science and international relations, and when I was watching the show on television, I just saw it as an experience to go around the world and make this trip. I didn’t have any experience with a camera. It did change my perspective on life, on the rest of the world, and it got me interested in world issues and also immigrants. When I was doing this trip, I went in 20 countries in 26 weeks to do 20 short movies, I was travelling alone, so I was the immigrant; I was the one trying to fit in these different countries. I went to Burundi, Peru, Libya Syria. So, when I came back home I was very aware of the immigrant experience, and that’s why I think I make films. I’m interested in these themes and subjects.

SM: Interesting. Well, besides stealing your TV shows, Australia and Canada have a similarity in the funding of movies, in that government funding is significant in getting films off the ground. Now, I understand there have been cutbacks in Canada. Here in Australia, there is certainly a lot of pressure on films to succeed, and when it doesn’t, everyone asks why the Government would fund it in the first place, as if you could predict that outcome. Monsieur Lazhar was a success, but did you feel the pressure in the lead-up to release?

PF:  I don’t need external pressure. I put it on my shoulders myself. My previous film [It’s Not Me, I Swear!] was a critical success; it was not a box office success. It was a middle sized budget, and I felt I had a responsibility to the public, but at the same time I will not just sit down and try to please the public and pretend to think I know in advance what the public wants. Besides, I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it. You have to write about the things you have inside yourself. But, because films cost a lot of money, there’s a lot of responsibility you have to put on your shoulders to make the best film possible. In this case, this small intimate film became my largest commercial success, ironically. Not only in Canada, but around the world. So, you never know what’s going to happen. What I like about the way we fund films in Canada is we try to find a balance between commercial films that will appeal only to the local public here, with the big stars and comedies, but we try to make more demanding films, and these films tend to travel well around the world. There have been a lot of cutbacks recently, and the conservative Government has been cutting; not only in cinema, but across the board in culture, but also in science and environment and research. It’s a terrible feeling.

Monsieur Lazhar arrives in Australian cinemas September 6, 2012.

One Response to “Interview: Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar)”

  1. Great content! I love your posts. You should consider submitting interviews like this to Digititles.com

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