You Can Live Forever Montreal

We spoke to the Montreal filmmakers behind queer love story You Can Live Forever

Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky told us all about their film, 10 years in the making, set in the 1990s in an anglo Jehovah’s Witness community in Saguenay.

You Can Live Forever, the feature debut of Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky, finds love in unexpected places. Set in Saguenay in the early 1990s, the film follows Jaime (Anwen O’Driscoll) on a journey of self-discovery. After moving to live with her aunt and uncle, devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jaime meets Marike (June Laporte), a church member. The two high school students develop a friendship that soon blossoms into something more, but the pressures of conformity and faith interfere with their love.

An intimate and naturalistic portrayal of young love, You Can Live Forever explores the tensions of growing up as an outsider as well as both the challenges and joys of being raised within a religious environment. Using the awe-inspiring natural landscapes of Saguenay, the film carefully crafts a little slice of heaven on earth as the two main characters fall in love. 

Anchored by incredible performances by O’Driscoll and Laporte, the film examines compromise and heartbreak in the face of earthly passion. Avoiding the obvious pitfalls of demonizing faith, the movie navigates challenging questions with incredible understanding and generosity. Rather than merely anchored in the earthly, the film tackles the question of spiritual love and how that might drive the character’s choices. You Can Live Forever never takes the easy way out, pulling us deeply into the world of its characters.

Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky, the film’s co-directors and co-writers, spoke with Cult MTL over Zoom. 

Justine Smith: The film is based partly on Sarah Watts’s experiences growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness. You’ve both also been friends for a while. What was the writing process for working together?

Sarah Watts: It’s not based on something that happened to me specifically, but I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. That’s the connection. The writing process started a very long time ago. What is it now, Mark Slutsky? Ten years? 

Mark Slutsky: Yeah, it would now be 10 years from when this process started. 

Sarah Watts: We just went out for a drink and talked about the idea. Mark Slutsky was always fascinated by the culture of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and my insights into it. Over the years, we built a story. We would write at my house and restaurants and coffee shops. It was a long process but super fun. It just took years because we had regular full-time jobs.

Mark Slutsky: We mostly sat on the couch at Sarah Watts’s house. I’d have a tiny laptop on my lap. A lot of the original vision for the film is on the screen, but there was a lot of taking inspiration from the community and turning it into a story that was the story we wanted to tell. The project grew as we wrote it and mutated and took on all sorts of forms. It took some time to hammer that out and figure out exactly how we wanted to do it.

JS: One thing that’s immediately striking is how naturalistic the dialogue feels. How did you achieve that? 

Sarah Watts: I was looking at an early draft of the script the other day, and it’s incredible how much we pared it down and got more and more efficient with every draft. We lost like 30 pages over the years, just like excess dialogue. We tried to make the dialogue as natural as possible. (We wanted to write it) how teens talk, from what we could remember anyway.

Mark Slutsky: Being writing collaborators was a huge part of that because when you’re writing on your own, you can fall in love with your own words a little bit. Sarah Watts and I both have strong bullshit detectors and would call out if something sounded fake or “movie-like.” It was a positive and generative relationship because we would go back and forth, and sometimes Sarah Watts would write a line, and I would write a line, and we’d look at it, and we’d be like, “Does that sound fake? Is that terrible?” We were harsh on ourselves in a way that you really have to be.

JS: Did you always intend to shoot in Saguenay? 

Mark Slutsky: It evolved because neither of us had grown up there. When we decided to set the film in Quebec, we looked at various regions where it would be realistic to have a small anglo community and a Jehovah’s Witness community within that. So we looked at Gaspé, and we looked at Saguenay. We also wanted a place where we could shoot that wasn’t Montreal or the suburbs with a visually striking look and represented that paradise they dream of. We scouted a lot of places, and we just thought Saguenay was perfect for so many reasons. 

Sarah Watts: It was a real home run. It had a real mystical, otherworldly quality to it. Especially that giant beach. Very beautiful.

JS: When you’re shooting on the beach, with the light hitting the water, it almost looks like they’re walking on water. 

You Can Live Forever Montreal
Anwen O’Driscoll and June Laporte in You Can Live Forever

Sarah Watts: We were very moved when we first saw it and knew we had to shoot there.

Mark Slutsky: I first went there in August, and we were at the top of the dunes. I don’t know how tall it is, but it feels like 10 storeys. We could see the tide and these little dots on the beach from really high up. Then we realized they were these little tiny silhouettes of people. It was so visually striking that we looked at each other and said, “This needs to be an image in the film.” 

We went on a day when no one was there, and we see the two of them as tiny little figures in this vast, luminous landscape. That wasn’t in the script. That was us scouting locations and working the script around them. We brought this to our editor, Amélie (Labrèche), saying we know this is amazing and want it to go somewhere. We told her, “do something crazy with it. Put it in the film in an unexpected way,” and she delivered. We felt like we had a nice creative synthesis with her.

JS: You shoot a scene at the Cyclorama of Jerusalem in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. How did that come about? 

Sarah Watts: Mark loves to tell this story. 

Mark Slutsky: We had heard that (the Cyclorama) had closed, and our friend drove by it and sent us pictures. I just wanted to see it. When we were driving up to Saguenay, it was on the way. We stopped by and looked, and it was just closed down. It had been for at least two years at that point, if not more, for complicated reasons, mostly just the expense of keeping this place open. We saw a sign on the door that said, “got any questions?”

We just got our producer, Rob (Vroom), to call the number and ask if they could let us in. We expected it to be completely falling apart, but it was so well preserved. We just went for it and had our producers ask them, and they somehow agreed. And we had one crazy day of shooting in there. 

Sarah Watts: We had one crazy day of rewriting a whole scene, too. 

Mark Slutsky: Five months later, we realized we never got a good establishing shot of the inside. So Sarah and Rob and Barbara (Rosenstein) drove back to Saint Anne to get one shot in the cold but made it into the trailer, so I think it was worth it. 

JS: The film has a very nuanced depiction of religion. There’s a lot of tenderness in the depiction of religious belief. You aren’t doing a takedown. How did you approach bringing the religion to the screen?

Sarah Watts: From the very get-go, we did not want to make the religion the big bad of the movie. It was too obvious a route to take. From my own experience growing up, even though it wasn’t for me, these were not terrible people. They were just people who were indoctrinated at a young age or really had strongly felt beliefs. It was very important to us to have these characters be sympathetic and not take the easy route of demonizing a religion. 

Mark Slutsky: The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religious minority. They have been heavily persecuted. We did not want to treat them like they were the church all-powerful, you know? It would not have been an ethical way of treating it, and it certainly wouldn’t have been interesting storytelling. 

JS: I read that the casting process was long, partly due to COVID-19. How did you choose the two leads and work with them toward such natural performances? Did you worry that, in person, their chemistry would not register? 

Sarah Watts: They’re on different sides of the country, and even throughout the audition process, their chemistry reads. They were always on Zoom. Everything was on Zoom, so they didn’t meet until a week before we started shooting. In terms of chemistry, we just went with our gut, and it paid off because they had a natural chemistry with each other right away. They are those characters in many ways, naturally. June (Laporte) grew up in a strict religion in Texas, and Anwen (O’Driscoll) is like a free spirit. We were tense, waiting to see them together on screen, to see how it would work, but right away, I felt like, “I think we’ve nailed it here.”

Mark Slutsky: We were lucky to have that week of rehearsal, which not everybody gets. That was instrumental in getting them comfortable with each other. They were so enthusiastic about throwing themselves into it. They were really a joy to work with.

JS: I love how you recreate the 1990s because it’s all in these little details that add up to a big picture of the decade. 

Sarah Watts: We had a great costume designer, (Kayleigh Choiniere), who was very helpful in setting the right tone. Jamie’s outfits are classically early ’90s grunge wear but getting the outfits of the Jehovah’s Witnesses right was a whole different ball game. It’s challenging because it’s not a look. They’re not Amish. It’s dressed down, not expensive, and lived-in clothing and having a whole lived-in vibe for everything was important to us because that felt more ’90s and more realistic to the era. Music was a big part, as well as video games.

Mark Slutsky: I really wanted Sega Genesis and the movie posters like Heavenly Creatures and Dracula. It was a shout-out to what was around when Sarah Watts and I were teenagers in the ’90s. ■

You Can Live Forever (directed by Sarah Watts & Mark Slutsky)

You Can Live Forever opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 31.

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