Xavier Dolan on the set. Photo by Shayne Laverdiere

Xavier Dolan discusses the death and life of his new film

We spoke to Dolan at TIFF 2018 about his English-language debut, finally being released this month after a bad time on the festival circuit.

Xavier Dolan is used to a certain level of scrutiny. 

Thrust into the spotlight at age 20 with his first film J’ai tué ma mère, Dolan has been the golden child of Quebec cinema for the last decade. His films, polarizing as they may be, are always eagerly anticipated. It’s not so much a question of *if* they’ll open at Cannes anymore but rather what prize they might win. To say that his English-language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan was equally anticipated would be downplaying it. 

With an all-star cast and a budget at least three times higher than his highest budgeted feature thus far, it was his biggest gamble yet. Rumours started brewing before anyone had even seen the film: the shoot went on much longer than planned, cast members were announced months after production had reportedly began, Jessica Chastain was cast and shot scenes that were ultimately excised from the final product… Cannes came and went without a premiere. As fall festival season rolled around, many wondered aloud if we would even see the film.

When the film finally had its world premiere at TIFF in September of 2018, its reception was not exactly at the level of expectations. When the festival ended, the film had yet to secure distribution in most territories and even the film’s Quebec distributor had not announced a release date. When I spoke to Dolan during the festival, the mood was not quite as celebratory as in other junkets.

“The weird thing about this is that I can’t help but sense the energy of people who are walking in and asking me questions after having seen the film,” says Dolan. “I’m interested in people’s energy. I write films — that’s what I love. I love to read between the lines. It’s not been the most reassuring 24 hours of my life. And that’s not necessarily something very helpful. But I enjoy talking about the film and being reunited with the cast. I’m happy to be here with them. I very adamantly believe — and I might change my mind — that these films are exercises and challenges that you give to yourself. There are precise things that you want to do and achieve. At the end of the day, when I look at John F. Donovan, I’ve checked the boxes that I created for myself: to go somewhere else, to try and pay tribute to a time in film and to pay tribute to family dramas from the ’90s. These are the films I wanted to pay homage to: Stepmom, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Home Alone, Titanic, The Little Princess, Batman Returns… These films that I was obsessed with as a child — they’re all referenced in this film.”

The film crisscrosses timelines between a young boy named Rupert (Jacob Tremblay), who lives alone with his mother (Natalie Portman) and is singularly obsessed with actor John F. Donovan (Kit Harington), a tempermental star of a teen-oriented TV show who represses his own homosexuality for career advancement purpose and Rupert as a young man (played by Ben Schnetzer), an aspiring actor being interviewed by journalist Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton). The film moves back and forth between the two eras of Rupert’s life as well as John’s own struggles breaking out of his constrictive image — although the title gives you a pretty good idea of where it’s all headed.

Jacob Tremblay in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

It was certainly a different process for Dolan, who works so fast that his next film Matthias et Maxime is set for release less than two months after the delayed release of Donovan.

“For me, it’s definitely new to spend two years reflecting on something — I usually rush things,” says Dolan. “I generally rush things. I even have a problem carrying them to term. I get scattered and start writing new scripts — but it happens quickly. After eight months, it’s just in the can and gone and we’re already moving on. For me, taking all this time for this film has value in that it’s taught me different things — s3.and to do things differently.

Though the film is of a much bigger scope and budget than his previous films, it’s no less personal as it explores notions of child acting and of media scrutiny that no doubt have their roots in Dolan’s own life. In fact, the screenplay was co-written with Jacob Tierney — another Montreal-based child actor who has transitioned into filmmaking.

“It certainly fed our search for a structure and for detail,” says Dolan. “As much as it informed the writing process, I had the idea for John F. Donovan when I was directing J’ai tué ma mère and I never wrote anything down. I’d been thinking about it for four, five years until I was ready to write it. Let’s just say that, back then, I spoke a different English and felt that I needed help. I wanted to write it with someone and really collaborate. I’m assuming that a great part of himself must find itself in this film — there are similarities that he cannot ignore and that probably informed our process. But it’s not the idea that we were both child actors that gave us our idea. I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go with this film, of the things I wanted to explore, and once we met we threw everything in there.”

Ultimately, however, Dolan wasn’t terribly phased (in September 2018, mind you) by the reaction to the film.

“I made the film that I wanted to make. I worked with artists who I admired and who I’m still very fond of in their life and in their work. So… that’s enough for me. After that? It’s not my problem.” ■

See our interview with Kit Harington here.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 23.