The Great Darkened Days is an expansive and expensive movie

Filmmaker Maxime Giroux and actor Martin Dubreuil on getting an ambitious and strange film off the ground.

Maxime Giroux’s Félix et Meira was a surprise success. It won awards all over the place (including the coveted Best Canadian Film award at TIFF and the FNC’s Louve d’or) and made $400,000 in the U.S. — a faraminous sum considering the size of its release. It’s the kind of success that doesn’t come easy in Quebec, and you’d think it would open doors for Giroux, but his next project couldn’t find financing. In trying to find another project, he came across a synopsis for a movie that seemed even unlikelier to be made: a historical fresco set in America, with a hapless Charlie Chaplin impersonator at its core. The Great Darkened Days was an expansive and expensive movie.

“The screenplay hadn’t been written yet,” says Giroux. “Simon Beaulieu pitched this to me, and when I read the synopsis, I could plainly see that it was a true period piece that would cost between $8-million and $11-million. In Quebec, of course, if your project isn’t one aimed at the widest possible audience, you can’t even dream of getting $8-million for it. You can’t even dream of $4-million! I don’t make movies with that kind of budget, and so this project seemed unthinkable. I cast it aside until another project fell through and I needed to get something started pretty fast. I told Simon I was interested in his idea, but I needed to make it on a shoestring budget, almost DIY, with producers Sylvain Corbeil and Nancy Grant. Telefilm and the Harold Greenberg Fund eventually got on board — we still had a very small budget, but we did get some help.”

Martin Dubreuil plays Philippe, a Québécois draft dodger who waits out the war in the United States, travelling the countryside as a very middle-of-the-road Chaplin impersonator. He travels the lonesome American landscape alone, sometimes meeting strange and unsettling characters who stand in the way of his quest. The Great Darkened Days is somewhat abstract narratively, constructed around these encounters with violent figures of the hazy American dream (played by Romain Duris, Reda Kateb, Sarah Gadon, Buddy Duress, Cody Fern and Félix et Meira’s Luzer Twersky).

When Giroux took on the movie, one of his only conditions was that the lead had to be Martin Dubreuil. Without his Félix et Meira lead, there would be no The Great Darkened Days.

“I had been in Montreal working on À tous ceux qui ne me lisent pas,” says Dubreuil. “And Max told me not to read anything, not to think of the movie at all. He told me to concentrate on what I was doing now and worry about The Great Darkened Days later. I think I had two days off, then I was off to Nevada to shoot.”

There’s a great sense of aesthetic and creative freedom to the film, which is in most ways the complete opposite of the classicism found in Félix et Meira. Early on in the film, Kateb (who plays a sinister would-be talent agent who gives Philippe a ride across the desert) flicks on the car radio and the tinniest, most lo-fi rendition of R.E.M’s “Everybody Hurts” rings out. “I discovered this guy; he’s come a long way since then,” says Kateb, prompting a dance scene from Dubreuil which also represents the most explicitly Chaplin-esque sequence. Both Dubreuil and Giroux say this is the scene that gets the most attention — both negative and positive.

“There are quite a few fake-outs in the movie,” says Giroux. “We’re playing with cinema. It was really important for me to make a movie where I could play with the very idea of cinema. At the beginning, you don’t really know what movie you’re in. Is it really a period piece? And yes, that scene is there to tell the viewer, ‘Oh, you’re not in that kind of movie. You don’t even know what kind of movie you’re in!’ (laughs) The R.E.M. song brings people in or it takes people out of it; either way, it causes a reaction.”

The cover of Cult MTL Dec. 2018

Despite the presence of big names and the wide-open vistas of the American Southwest, Giroux worked with a tiny crew. He even claims that the producers went out and blocked traffic from the shot themselves. For Dubreuil, who came out of shorts and no-budget films, it was familiar territory.

“I really like working in this sort of looser way,” says Dubreuil. “I like working with a small crew. It makes it feel more like us against the world. It depends on the project, though; on À tous ceux qui ne me lisent pas, we had a pretty big team and a decent budget, but we were still a tight crew. That being said, I was the lead. When you’re the lead, you’re closer to the centre; when you’re a supporting actor in a bigger machine, they kind of leave you to your own desserts. When you’re on a smaller production, everything feels more important. As the lead in both kinds of production, I always feel like everyone is really on the ball — but a small team, small budget, there’s a real gang mentality. It’s like a hockey team — us against the world!”

What The Great Darkened Days reminded me of the most is a sub-subgenre of American movie that popped up in the wake of Easy Rider, where American studios were so eager to court the young counter-cultural audience that they threw budgets at rock stars like Frank Zappa or iconoclasts like Dennis Hopper to make movies. These movies almost all wound up being more shambolic and experimental (and, in many cases, harder to watch) than The Great Darkened Days, but they all had this sort of absolute, unaffected freedom.

“When I started on the project, I really had this idea in mind,” says Giroux. “We weren’t being financed by SODEC, we weren’t going through the usual routes. We had foreign investors who wanted to put money up for the movie, but I told Sylvain, ‘They can invest all they want, but I don’t want to hear anything about the screenplay.’ I wanted to do what I wanted. It’s a free movie, and it’s the kind of movie that I’ll never be able to make again. It was my chance to make something that was ‘thrown together,’ so to speak. I wanted to make a movie with total freedom that was working in a sphere that we don’t see anymore.

“These days, the economics of cinema dictate what movies are — we have to sell tickets, we have to sell the movie. That’s partially what this movie is about, in fact. But because of these economic concerns, we’re always telling the same kind of story. It always brings us to character evolution, a little dash of hope at the end… We might not even notice, but we’re always telling the same stories. I wasn’t really interested in telling a nice story, or a story that touches viewers. I wanted to shake them up. I wanted to show them that cinema can be this, too. I’m not saying I reinvented the wheel — movies like this existed in the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s… but we’re losing that.”

I ask Dubreuil if he felt that kind of freedom on set — if it ever felt like the freedom might be too much. “I see what you mean,” says Dubreuil. “With a lack of structure, he could just tell me, ‘Hey, listen, this isn’t in the script but can you get naked and balance on this tree branch?’ (laughs) No, but that would be great! Maybe that’s what he meant by, ‘I need Dubreuil and no one else!’ (laughs) He knows I’m up for anything, especially for him!” ■

The Great Darkened Days (as La Grande Noirceur, with English subtitles) opens at Cinéma du musée on Friday, Jan. 25.