Antoine-Olivier Pilon Target Number One

Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Target Number One

Target Number One is an ambitious political thriller

“I came across this story, and it definitely shook me.”

Filmmaker Daniel Roby and actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon on bringing a true, Canadian story to life

Daniel Léger (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a former junkie who racks up manual gigs in British Columbia in order to eke out a meagre living for himself. Though ostensibly well-intentioned, he seems to be constantly backed up against the wall by his life choices, which is what leads him to Picker (Jim Gaffigan), a fisherman and ersatz drug dealer who “befriends” Léger and gives him a job while also getting him back on heroin. What Léger doesn’t know is that Picker has devised a scheme in which he’s setting up his new “friend” to take the fall for a job involving heroin imported from Thailand; Picker has a straight connection with the feds (including one played by Stephen McHattie) and has no qualms about feeding his friend directly to them, which results in Léger being jailed in a Thai prison for eight years. Somewhere along the way comes investigative journalist Victor Malarek (Josh Hartnett), who comes across the story and suspects that there’s foul play involved and Léger isn’t the all-powerful kingpin the government has pinned him to be.

A quick assessment of Target Number One’s logline suggests that the film is a variation on Midnight Express: a prison film featuring an innocent (or unprepared) man in horrific conditions. In truth, Target Number One is a much more layered and ambitious film.

“It’s funny you mention Midnight Express,” says Roby. “There had been that and another movie with Claire Danes (Brokedown Palace) which were about more or less this topic. That was exactly the thing: I didn’t want to re-do Midnight Express. We could easily have done a movie that was only about his prison experience. But that wasn’t the subject. It’s a portion of the story, but I was even more interested in the cause. A lot of the set photos that were released while we were shooting and promoting revolved around what we shot in Thailand, but the majority of the film is set in Canada.”

Roby has been working on a version of this film since 2007 — almost immediately after his debut, La peau blanche. In doing a bit of background research, I found mentions of Roby discussing his plans for the film as early as 2009, before the release of his second film, Funkytown. 

“I was indeed talking about it when I was preparing Funkytown, since I was sort of doing the research for both films at once,” says Roby. “When I found the subject of Target Number One in 2007, I was coming straight out of La peau blanche. I wanted to make a movie that spoke to something important in our society — that was my explicit goal. I was all over the newspapers trying to find a topic. I came across this story, and it definitely shook me. I was marked by the way investigative journalism affected the life of this guy who had been the victim of an abuse of power by the police. They messed up four or five times, they knew they were on the wrong track and that they were making a mistake, and yet they kept at it in order to save face. This leads to the life of a Canadian — a life that has no great value in the eyes of many because he used to be a junkie — his entire life is just whisked away and ignored. Without investigative journalism, he would’ve died in Thailand. That stayed with me. 

“The fact that it happened in Canada, as well — when you think of coverups and abuses of power, you don’t tend to think of Canada,” Roby continues. “Seeing that something like that can happen and that people who work for the government have power over people that others do not, and knowing that without freedom of the press and the work of investigative reports, anything can happen? It affected me. I wouldn’t say that I was scandalized, but I did think it was something that was underrepresented. There aren’t really any movies about controversial political situations made in Canada. It’s common in the United States, but not here. It’s a genre that I like a lot — the films of Oliver Stone in the ’90s, I’ve always loved those. Erin Brockovich — even if it’s very classical in its form, it’s a very powerful film.”

True to that assessment, it turns out that financing that type of movie in Canada was one of the main hurdles to getting Target Number One made.

Daniel Roby (Target Number One starring Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Josh Hartnett)

“I finished writing it in 2009 and I didn’t touch it much after that,” says Roby. “My position and my analysis, all of the research I had done and all of the travelling was done then. My opinion was set. I spent three months in court following the case. I had all that information, I wrote the script… and that’s when the real hard work began. It was about setting up the mechanics of financing, of casting, of selling international rights in order to be able to even shoot the film. That became the puzzle. Once we had the money and we were ready for prep, it was about figuring out how to make a movie of the scope that I wanted with the money I had. Target Number One has my smallest budget since La peau blanche. We had $7-million, but I reinvested 100 per cent of my wages as a director into the film. I was paid as a screenwriter but not as a director; the producers did the same thing. At the end of the day, I had less money to make this movie than I did for Funkytown.”

For Antoine-Olivier Pilon, access to the “real” Léger (whose real name is Alain Olivier) proved an invaluable tool towards his performance.

“When I first heard about the story, I was told it was about a guy who was still alive,” says Pilon. “Daniel then told me he had been following the trial and its aftermath for at least 10 years and had even been consulting with him while writing the screenplay. I asked to meet him and he was very eager to do it. He said he was happy to share with me and help me out. We had a beer a few days before I left for Thailand, which was the first stuff we shot. I had about a dozen questions prepared for him, mainly about scenes in the script that I had no idea how to approach. I sat down with him and he answered all my questions; he didn’t come with us to Thailand, but he was on set for almost all of the shoot after that. I had access to him at pretty much all times. I could ask questions or he’d add things from his life to what we were shooting. In terms of other preparation, Daniel suggested I watch Trainspotting both for the visual look of the character and for the approach to the heroin scenes.”

The difficulty with the character of Léger is making him both plausible as a big-time gangster (on paper, at the very least), naive enough to get caught in such a scheme and yet conniving enough to be the kind of guy who would willingly put himself in that world.

“He definitely had his demons,” says Pilon. “I’m pretty sure the part where he robs the gas station at the beginning of the movie is real, and he definitely used heroin. He was a junkie. I imagine that as a junkie, he’d end up in pretty gnarly situations where stealing things was a method of survival. I don’t think he was the cleanest guy in the world, but also not dirty enough to wind up doing eight years of prison in a foreign country. I think perhaps some amount of community outreach or even some jail time in Canada would’ve been more appropriate — one thing that’s certain is that he wasn’t into organized crime.” ■

See our interview with Josh Hartnett here.

Target Number One opens in Montreal theatres on July 10. Watch the trailer here:
Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Target Number One by Daniel Roby

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Filmmaker Daniel Roby and actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon on bringing a true, Canadian story to life