Xavier Dolan: Where Life Meets Art
Xavier Dolan is a Canadian actor, screenwriter, and director who, in the past few years, has begun to emerge as a major player on the international film festival circuit. At the young age of 23, Dolan has already made three, soon to be four, films, and won numerous awards, including the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. The films he creates deal with sensitive issues, but their intimacy, relatablity, and honesty have won over film critics and audiences all over the world. Dolan’s early success is the hallmark of a filmmaker that is unafraid of examining the dark nuances of humanity with an unflinching eye.
You started acting when you were only four years-old, before moving into directing and screenwriting as a teenager. What made you want to make that career change?
I never really wanted to make the switch from acting to directing, but after being unemployed for years, it seemed like I didn’t really have a choice. I was living in too expensive of an apartment; I had just dropped out of college and I needed to think about my acting future in a town where I wasn’t in the good graces of any casting directors. So, the only way to do it was to do it myself.
You have said in the past that your first film, J’ai tué ma mère, was semi-autobiographical. What compelled you to tell that part of your life story at such a young age?
It was merely the only thing I had to say, and could say without venturing into risky territory, like a genre movie or some sort of thriller, since I had literally no experience in writing or directing. So I stuck with that notorious motto, “When it’s personal, it’s universal.”
What do you think it is about your stories or style of filmmaking that have allowed so many people to find such a deep connection with it?
I’m in no position to hazard a guess as to what they found in those films. From my completely self-centered perspective, I just kept telling stories that felt true to me, themes I had lived out, things that needed to emerge from the story-drawer, for cathartic reasons. As for the style of storytelling, all three films are pretty different. The voice is mine, but I love to think the style is uniquely theirs.
The films you make are very personal and obviously close to your heart. Do you ever find it difficult or embarrassing to act out something you wrote?
There is no dilemma in acting out personal things. The dilemma occurs when you write them. From the moment it’s on the page, it’s on the screen. It’s deciding whether or not to share a part of your intimacy, whether or not to forgive yourself for whatever it is you’ve done, and that what you’ll be tentatively exorcising through filmmaking, will now belong to the entire world, but not to you. That is a grueling inner debate. Will you hurt people? Will you hurt yourself? That is the moment when I hesitate. But past that step, I have no remorse.
For you, what are the best and worst parts of writing, starring and directing your own films? Do you ever find it difficult to be objective or critical, or is it too easy to be both when assessing your own art?
It’s actually interesting and stimulating to look at cinema from various angles and criticize the job of a director through the eyes of an actor, and vice versa. It’s as if there are a couple of guys in my head having a loud argument about something, and then finally they come to an agreement after listening to what each had to say. And no, this is not a description of multiple personality disorder.
What drew you towards the topic of transsexualism in Laurence Anyways?
Nothing drew me more than the idea of an impossible love story, and the fact that I’d be centering on love and not transsexualism. The identity and authenticity issues within the couple itself and within society as a whole could be easily examined through the narrative thread of transsexualism, since it’s really one of the most extreme expressions of difference and requires such tolerance and open-mindedness from the people surrounding you. But in the movie, transsexuality is what we would call a “MacGuffin,” I guess.
How have you seen your filmmaking and acting evolve from your first feature until now? How do you hope to continue to see it grow and change?
From film to film, there are mistakes you never again make. As an actor, I’ve learned a few, not only through acting myself, but also by watching others act. I learned what do to and what not to do, and I think it’s a blessing so early on in a career to be exposed to scrutiny in filmmaking, even if there’s still so much to learn. Aside from that, I hope to act for other filmmakers. That’s for sure.
What filmmakers or other artists inspire your work? How do you see their influence in your films?
I’m mostly influenced by paintings and photographs. In cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, Woody Allen’s films, Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants, Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, and Cameron’s Titanic are always a reference somehow. These movies are deep inside me and my memory. Wherever I’m going, whatever I’m writing, they’ve given me reflexes and instincts. They taught me everything. There are so many films I admire but those are the few I keep coming back to, whatever it is I’m looking for, they lead me to it in an unexpected way. Except for Titanic, of course, which I’ve been ripping off like a crazy, Kathy-Bates-style groupie for years. Besides that, I keep watching these great family films from the 90s like Home Alone, Jumanji, etc. They’re full of genius stuff. They’re free, they’re honest, and they work!
What is your WILD Wish?
Wishes are for pussies. I’m a dreamer and a go-getter.