Made in MTL: Montreal takes the spotlight in Beau Is Afraid

We spoke with local cast and crew members from Ari Aster’s epic about shooting in Montreal, everywhere from a dilapidated corner of Ste-Catherine E. to Senneville to Cap Saint-Jacques.

Though entirely shot in the Montreal area, there’s really only one third of Beau Is Afraid that’s set in an urban environment — the warzone-like surroundings of Beau’s sad apartment building, teeming with junkies, murderers, zombified vagrants and other unsavoury types that make the idea of the outside world particularly unappealing to Beau. These scenes were shot at the corner of Ste-Catherine and Ste-Élisabeth, a once-busy strip that’s now mainly boarded-up businesses patiently waiting to be scooped up by a Davidstea or Lululemon type business. The outside of Beau’s apartment building, for example, is played by the space that once housed the Empire boardshop; a long-defunct peep show can be glimpsed in the background, while the space used to portray the dep where Beau fights hard to obtain a bottle of water from clerk Manuel Tadros was most recently an art gallery.

Beau Is Afraid Montreal dépanneur
Montreal dépanneur scene in Beau Is Afraid

“We had a hard time finding the spot where that could be done,” says art director David Gaucher, whose many tasks included finding what Aster described as “a dilapidated zone in a big city, somewhere on the East Coast.” “We have some dilapidated zones in Montreal, but you never get the scale of the buildings or the kind of booming life that would happen in New York or Chicago. We went around a lot to find that spot until we settled on a corner that’s quite humble, at the corner of Ste-Catherine and Ste-Élisabeth, near Sanguinet. (…) The other challenge that we had was to create the portion of the movie that’s happening in Beau’s mind. We don’t know if he’s dreaming, if it’s a neurotic collage or what have you — where he goes back and sees his own life through a play. 

Ste-Catherine Joaquin Phoenix
Downtown Montreal in Beau Is Afraid

“We went through different phases on that one,” he continues. “We started with the idea it would be all animation, then it became theatre scenery that brings in the world around Beau. It turned out that that was really demanding in terms of space and machinery and manpower. We went back to a mix of animation and a bit of machinery. It was… an interesting challenge!”

Karl Roy, a tattoo artist from Sherbrooke, plays one of the many unsavoury types lurking outside Beau’s apartment. Roy’s body is 90% tattooed — even his eyeballs — which gives him a unique look that stands out even in the utter chaos that is the first hour and change of Beau Is Afraid. When the film’s PR told me I would be interviewing “the guy with all the tattoos,” I knew exactly who they were talking about.

“It was my first role,” says Roy. “I was originally just an extra, and I was given the opportunity to take this bigger role. I did audition for Ari Aster, but I think he was really looking for atypical faces and interesting texture in those roles. It was a real honour to be called for that — I ran towards it!”

Joaquin Phoenix Ari Aster Beau Is Afraid
Joaquin Phoenix and Ari Aster on Ste-Catherine E.

“It was almost incomprehensible to me,” says Roy when asked about the controlled chaos necessary to convey the early scenes in which the marginal and dispossessed move from the dilapidated city into a frenzied bacchanal. “I had no idea how powerful it could be to recreate this kind of magic everywhere. I was like a kid in a candy store! I couldn’t stop looking around, because things change so fast even when you’re in it. Everyone was really happy to be there and happy to collaborate.”

According to Gaucher, pre-production on the film lasted about two months. “Looking for locations, deciding what is going to be built or visual effects…” he says. “There’s the whole theatre portion that happens before the animated sequence, in which we discover that these orphans have built a theatre in the middle of nowhere. When we started thinking about that, we started searching for the woods that would serve that scene. You always have these parameters to respect. If you’re looking for woods on the island to shoot in, you have very limited options, but if you’re looking for woods off-island, then you have to think about the extra costs of moving the whole team outside and the extra time you’ll need for transportation. We’re always trying to find something around, but sometimes you just can’t.”

Ari Aster Beau Is Afraid Cap St-Jacques
Ari Aster on the set of Beau Is Afraid, Cap St-Jacques

“In the end, we settled for Cap Saint-Jacques, in a zone that was going to become used for rehabilitation and replanting,” he continues. “The Cap Saint-Jacques administration was keen to let us use the locations, and as soon as we were done filming, they started replanting the trees. If we had wanted to shoot there this year, we wouldn’t have been able to, because it’s all sprouts and things being regrown.”

Gaucher’s job also involves a lot of modifications — not just to a place like Cap Saint-Jacques, but to peoples’ homes. “It doesn’t always happen, but we always try to leave a place in a better condition than when we arrived,” he explains. “Sometimes, we call people to find a house that fits with the character. If we have a paint job to do to a house because we need to change the colour, we’ll repaint it back to the colour they want and we’ll offer to fix whatever they need fixing, whether it’s a plastering job or something else.” 

Joaquin Phoenix Senneville
Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid, Senneville

Another prominently featured location is the ultimate destination: the house where Beau’s mother lives, which is actually located in the West Island suburb of Senneville. Gaucher and his team happened upon that house entirely by happenstance. “We were three doors down from the house in Senneville, scouting a location on the river,” Gaucher explains. “Someone from the team took a walk around and wound up on that lot. We could even see the house in the background from the location we had scouted on the river and it was the closest thing to what Ari had in his mind.”

Even finding the perfect location doesn’t necessarily mean that everything you need is there. Soundstages were built for scenes that take place inside the house as well, such as a bathroom that appears in a flashback and eventually in the present (those who have seen Beau Is Afraid may understand that temporality and reality is not necessarily easy to relay). 

“When he leaves the bathroom and goes to the attic, in the movie there’s a straight connection between the two,” Gaucher explains. “There’s a room, a little hallway and a room that leads to a ladder that goes up to the attic. This little room was actually directly connected to the mother’s bedroom, which means that in order to have the geography right, we had to recreate that little room on a soundstage and create the attic somewhere else. The attic was in a big barn, somewhere on the South Shore, the little room was both a little room in that house in Senneville and a reconstruction of the same room onstage. And they were all connected in the editing room!” ■

Interviews were conducted by Sarah Foulkes.

Beau Is Afraid (directed by Ari Aster)

To read our interview with Ari Aster, please click here. Beau Is Afraid is currently screening in Montreal theatres.

For the latest in film and TV, please visit our Film & TV section.