Souterrain Sophie Dupuis

Sophie Dupuis’s mining drama Souterrain finally sees the light of day

We spoke with director Sophie Dupuis and lead actor Joakim Robillard about their new film, set in an Abitibi mine.

Sophie Dupuis’s follow-up to her 2018 debut Chien de garde is set in the Abitibi region of Quebec — the region where the filmmaker grew up and one where the mining industry looms large. Nearly 10 years in the making (with an additional year-long delay due to pandemic concerns — our interview was actually conducted in the summer of 2020), Souterrain skews towards the personal for Dupuis.

“My whole family worked in mines, even my mother who’s a nurse,” says Dupuis. “Everyone in the area — especially in Val d’Or — grew up in that world. It’s very present, even banal. But what’s special about it is that no one really knows what it looks like underground. Miners are the only ones who know what their daily work life is like. We were living around it, we saw mines around us everywhere, but we didn’t know what their lives were like. That’s one of the many reasons I wanted to make this movie. I wanted to talk about something that even people who exist in the periphery of that world don’t really know about. It’s something that’s really a part of my life and my entourage’s life — but the content isn’t personal in the sense that it’s not something I’ve lived through.”

Maxime (Joakim Robillard) is a young miner whose life has been turned upside down by an accident involving his best friend Julien (Théodore Pellerin), who has had cognitive and physical difficulties since the accident. Maxime feels responsible for his friend’s accident – something that he’s constantly reminded of as he works with Julien’s father Mario (James Hyndman). When an explosion in the mine traps five co-workers (including Mario), Maxime and his crew are faced with the challenge of rescuing them before it’s too late.

Joakim Robillard in Souterrain

Souterrain is very much about masculine themes — the sometimes contradictory relationship between the men who need each other to survive but have the hardest time in the world expressing their feelings on any given subject.

“I was really interested in showing how these men are all of the things you expect — strong, macho, doing physical work — but they have no choice but to be attentive to everyone around them,” says Dupuis. “They turn the genuine love they have for each other into a joke, but they will tell each other they love each other. They have to be attentive because everyone’s safety is at stake. If a guy goes down there and his head’s not in it, he might make a mistake that affects everyone. There’s this sensitivity they need to have for each other that I thought was very beautiful.”

“The machines are huge,” says Robillard. “The door on the tractor is enormous; your finger’s in the wrong place for a second and you lose it. If you’re careful, if you’re working consciously, you develop this new sense. It’s a bit like biking in Montreal, where you’re always aware of your surroundings. The first few days were a little rough, but over time, you get used to it. By the end, I was really looking forward to going back underground.”

A significant part of what makes Souterrain work as a dramatic human story has to do with Pellerin’s performance as the aphasic Julien. If Julien isn’t believable as a character and turned into a showy actor’s showcase, then the emotional core of the film doesn’t work.

“It’s what I like the most about making movies, the acting,” says Dupuis. “It’s really what I connect to the most. I went with some less obvious choices. People wouldn’t necessarily have thought of James Hyndman as a miner, for example. Casting was a lot of fun. We saw lots of people — everyone. Theo worked very hard. We weren’t sure exactly what his physical problems would be at the beginning, but I knew how well Theo worked and how hard he prepares for a role.

“We started by going to see a physical therapist and describing to him exactly his character’s accident so we could realistically draw what kind of consequences would affect him. With brain damage, it can get pretty wide, as well. We chose aphasia, we chose the kind of limited movements and the knee problems. From there, we consulted with an orthophonist who had worked with the Théâtre aphasique de Montréal. She linked Theo up with the members of the theatre and Theo did a ton of work with them. There were times where I did question our choices, just because Theo’s character speaks so slowly and painstakingly; I really wondered if audiences would accept it.” 

If Pellerin’s character engenders a lot of sympathy from the viewer, the same cannot necessarily be said about Robillard’s character, who’s so tortured by everything he’s gone through that he lashes out at his coworkers constantly. In one memorable scene, he taunts a coworker for his lack of children in a packed elevator; in the world of Souterrain, having a wife / kids / a house / a truck / a boat is more than a status symbol. It’s a necessity. 

“That’s one of my favourite scenes,” says Robillard. “It was an audition scene, along with another scene that was cut from the film, in which Maxime is mean to others. It’s when I read those scenes that I understood the complexity of the film. They’re my favourite scenes, because they tell you so much about Maxime, about the way he can’t speak about his emotions. It really blew my mind. I don’t really have that problem myself – maybe, sometimes, in a couples’ fight, I might have a defensive reflex that comes close. But that’s not the way Maxime is. It was very interesting to play this vulnerability, because it’s gross. No one wants to come across this way, but it’s so interesting to play.”

The film does ultimately play the day-to-day of miners in a somewhat abstract way; it’s not a documentary, of course, but the how and why of their daily tasks remains nebulous for the viewer.

“I understand it all, but I felt it wasn’t something that needed to be explained to the viewer,” says Dupuis. “I figured the viewer can just pick up on the mood of what it’s like and how it seems to work, but I accepted that it wasn’t going to be so detail-oriented. That’s not what I wanted to transmit to the viewer. I did a lot of research, personally; we even did some training with the actors where they learned how to put on the gear so their moves and reflexes would look realistic on-screen. All of the extras in the movie are real miners. They were extremely generous and spent a lot of time with us. Some were there for a dozen days or even more, because they knew how much we needed them and their knowledge. They became sort of de facto coaches on the movie, and I could turn to them while I was directing to ask questions. They became valuable collaborators that really helped us out with the technical aspects. Without them, the movie would never have been this realistic.”

“There’s no way to even visit, usually,” says Robillard. “Just having the chance to go down there with the team as an actor was crazy. We’re constantly acting against artifice — against fake backdrops, wearing fake costumes and appropriating them as if they were real. So the chance to work in a real setting, so to speak, was incredible. All the tools were real — our boots, our clothes, our helmets. That adds an enormous amount to our job. Even before we started shooting, I was standing there dressed like them, watching them work. It’s a lot easier to develop a naturalism when you’re in that setting.”

Souterrain is also a filmmaking challenge for Dupuis, being shot in actual locations where, as you might have guessed, light is less easy to come by than on a regular set.

“It’s complete darkness, yes,” says Dupuis. “The machines have lights on them and the miners have lights, but that’s usually the only light down there. There’s electricity down there, but not every gallery is lit up, so it would often happen that we’d discover our locations based on the light of the truck that was bringing us to it. It was a lot of fun, because there’s lots of depth and texture. The rock surfaces are humid, which reflects light in different ways; that was a lot of fun for the guys doing the lighting. There were a few challenges, but it was fun — more fun than lighting a place like this, which we do every day. But we also had tons of bad luck underground. One morning, the machinery had been moved; there was half a foot of water around it. The miners can work in that kind of environment, but for us, it was just impossible. That kind of stuff happened every day! (laughs)” ■

Souterrain opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 4. Watch the trailer here:

Souterrain by Sophie Dupuis, starring Joakim Robillard

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