Impetus straddles fiction and non-fiction, grief and forward motion

We spoke to Jennifer Alleyn and Emmanuel Schwartz about offering a rare portrait of the creative process in her new documentary.

Pascale Bussières in Impetus

Breaking down the line between creative process and creative product, Impetus is a singular film that defies categorization. After its world premiere at RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film  festival, it will be screening at Slamdance in the Feature Film Competition. Treading a line between fiction and non-fiction, this freeform movie is about grief and finding the impetus to move forward. Rooted in the narrative of a young man housesitting a loft in New York, over the course of the film’s running time, Rudolf (Emmanuel Schwartz) is recast as an older woman, Pascale (Pascale Bussières). Beyond that, however, the movie is a puzzle in competing artistic processes and narrative directions.

With frequent breaks in the continuity, Impetus is interrupted by interviews with subjects close to director Jennifer Alleyn’s heart. Certain scripted scenes are narrated, while others are discussed among actors and director and entire passages of the film explore the filmmaking process itself, featuring character auditions and location scouting. A rare portrait of the creative process that captures the frustrated and often chaotic spirit of creativity, the film is as rewarding as a portrait of overcoming grief or stagnancy.

In a conversation with director Jennifer Alleyn and lead actor Emmanuel Schwartz, I discussed the film’s origins and allowing the creative process to guide you.

Justine Smith: I would love to know the story behind Impetus because it has so many layers of complexity.

Jennifer Alleyn: The genesis, I would say, was the meeting of John Reissner, a local guitar player who actually stopped playing after 40 years. I met this man and I found him very serene in his immobility. I was like, “Wow, in this era of performance and constant achievement, this man at a stop in his life seems pretty serene.” I asked him why he had stopped. He said, “I’m waiting for the right impetus.” He wanted to play but didn’t have that force of movement that pushed you into action.

That resonates for me because I was also in a limbo towards cinema and the way we produce films. He just misses this little spark to put himself into action. And I started filming him just because I was fascinated by this character. As we went along, I sort of had this idea of the fiction film where this character would be at this stop in his life and just in this period where he’s trying to get himself back on track.

Because John has this long silhouette, I was looking for an actor who could play him. I suddenly thought of Emmanuel [Schwartz], whom I dreamed of working with for years. So I called him up and asked him if he wanted to embark on an adventure with me. Some people told me he was open to the creative process, and in a leap of faith, we were working together.

A first it was really just a tiny film. I thought we would shoot a weekend in New York and then come back and maybe shoot a few scenes in Montreal and it would not be too much work for him. We had no money and wanted to do it with friends and borrowed equipment. I just wanted to jump into filmmaking again in a way that was spontaneous and free of constraints. That was the big impetus when Emmanuel said yes, now I have to do it!

There’s another origin. Three years before he passed away, I met Michel Brault, a pioneer of direct cinema. We had a long conversation and at one point he told me, “Jennifer, you have to stay artisanal.” Don’t try big budgets, just stay very close to the gesture. That’s where you’ll do the most singular, maybe personal projects. But that’s probably where you express your voice.

Justine: At what point did it transition from a short or a spontaneous film over the weekend into something that’s so layered?

Emmanuel Schwartz: It was always a feature, but we kind of couldn’t get to a point of finality or even close parentheses. I felt that it was kind of running away from us. In a way, when we started, it felt like we would eventually find out what it’s about.

Jennifer: When we finished the first block of shooting, I was so happy with what we had gotten and I knew that what we had was just the beginning of the film. Then I went writing and I wrote a script. I wrote a full feature script that I deposited to both the Canada Council and Quebec Arts Council, and they both said yes immediately, which was an extraordinary impetus. And then I started to try to shoot the rest. Then Emmanuel was really in demand, shooting four films, and it became really hard to just find a few consecutive days.

I had this idea of a constant context of production where we would be free to improvise and then I was suddenly forced to get acrobatic with the agenda. We were fighting to find time and I wanted to shoot more scenes. It became chaotic. Slowly I thought, “I might not have to shoot all the scenes, I might be able to tell some scenes in a different way.” Try narration, try shooting with a different actor. The creative brain opened up and I was like, “That’s it, that’s the story!” It’s the film being made under our eyes. Sometimes there were doubts and hard decisions. The departure of the main actor opened up the door for an actress to follow up.

Justine: Why did you set the film in New York City?

Jennifer: Since it was starting from a personal story, there is a limit of how transparent I wanted to be. First I’ll try to put it in a male character but if I put it in a male character, it is also a way to be dépaysé [directly translated means disoriented but is closer to meaning out of context, out of your element, “un-countried”]. A very good friend of mine had recently lost a friend, a life-long friend, and I called her three days later and asked how she was. She said, “I’m still dépaysé.” She was not in the same country anymore because her friend was gone. I thought that was a really strong way to describe mourning.

Justine: So much of the film is about capturing the abstract. At one point you tell Pascale, “I want to capture your intelligence.” Without using specific signifiers, like a character reading a book or making a specific action, how do you translate those emotions or values?

Jennifer: If everything is scripted, then the actor is sort of reduced to some actions. Of course, he can still be inventive, but if it’s very directed he can lose something. I wanted to let things just happen, like at the bookstore, Emmanuel has this exchange with the book-seller that is really amazing. Both actors knew where the scene was headed for their own character but did not know what the other person was going to say. For me, that was a way to film in Emmanuel’s intelligence because I was really letting him be that character.

Emmanuel: How do you tell these stories of feeling, intelligence or reflection without actually showing, a character writing down something like “I’m so sad”? I find that the process brought to the table a certain amount of layering. Like a mosaic tells more than just one piece or another, we are seeing how all these things are connected to the thought of the character and the thought of the filmmaker. Having the filmmaker present bleeds through the character. Then, if he’s reading about lizards and talking about solitude against this backdrop of the creative process, we understand how it is motivated by pain. All these different elements work together to create something more. ■

Impetus opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 18. Cinéma du Musée (1379A Sherbrooke W.) is screening the film with English subtitles.