foot prints

independent filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée has a positive take on the future of film, faith & even Hollywood

photo by erica blair Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest film, C.R.A.Z.Y., has been hailed as one of the best films to come out of Québec in the past twenty years. It’s a story about a young man from Montréal discovering his true nature and then spending a good part of his life avoiding it. It is a classic coming-of-age story, but what makes Vallée’s film unique is his use of faith, prayer and prophecy as elements of life no more religious and no less affirming than singing and dancing in your bedroom when nobody’s watching.

Despite the obvious spiritual premise – a young Zac is told by his mother that he has been given a gift from God – Vallée’s touch is subtle, universal, and ultimately entertaining. And that’s what makes this film so special: it manages to explore a deeply spiritual and personal journey without sacrificing the audience’s need for an engaging story or tantalizing eye-candy. It’s the kind of film that is both soul-twistingly familiar and like nothing I have ever seen. How do great films do that? What is it about this medium of art and image that can bounce us around all points between ecstasy and suffering for two hours and then keeps us coming back for more? Do movies have the power to transform us? If so, how about the filmmakers? Are profound film experiences and entertainment mutually exclusive? Is there wisdom in film? Why do so many films feel completely devoid of it?

We met Jean-Marc Vallée for an intensive film lesson at a restaurant in Montréal’s Plateau district. He brought along his son Emile, who also wonderfully plays Zac as a pre-adolescent in the film. Emile is not in school today, so this interview is the first stop of what seems like a highly-anticipated outing for him and his Dad. Dad is a bright-eyed, amiable man who is surprised that a yoga magazine would want to talk to him about film. We tell him it will all make sense by the end. He smiles and nods. I press record. – Anurag Dhir

Ian Cant The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard said that any potential that film once had to benefit humankind and society is gone. Do you believe that is true?

Jean-Marc Vallée   I think it’s pessimistic to believe that. I was a member of a jury last week at a short film competition. I saw this ten-minute film, a very good film by a student. I brought it home and watched it with my thirteen-year-old son. It changed our lives for five minutes, maybe not forever, but for that day. I think that’s the purpose of music, and art. So, I like to believe that film makes a difference, and that’s why I make films. I think that Goddard is pessimistic. I’m an eternal optimist. I like to say that, just for the children’s sake – otherwise, why have kids?

IC   Why create?

J-MV   Maybe it’s out of a kind of selfishness. I like to create and explore life through film. With my latest film C.R.A.Z.Y. I told another person’s story – [co-writer] François Boulay’s story – how his father finally accepted his homosexuality when his brother committed suicide. The father realized that he didn’t want to lose another son.
We built the film from his story, but the film was also my story. The spiritual aspect of the film, the faith, was mine and some of the characters were based on my family. The mother’s character in the film was similar to mine: my mother taught me to believe in what I do and to have faith. She’s a very religious woman.

Maybe it’s a little egotistic to tell your own story, but it’s also very scary. I feel vulnerable because the film is me and maybe it isn’t anyone else’s business to see it. I feel like I shouldn’t show it, because it’s my life and now it’s on the screen, and people are seeing it.

IC   Do you feel exposed?

J-MV   Yeah, and this is the interesting part: we create these self-centred stories, but at the same time the most touching stories are the ones that are close to life. Every artist, consciously or unconsciously, somewhere in their career, wants to tell their own story.

IC   In many films, we identify with characters that we really have no shared experiences with in real life. How does that work – is there a universality in film that the audience responds to?

J-MV   Yes, there is a universality in film. That’s why we’re moved by films that come from all over the planet, no matter their language. A film is universal because of the story and the emotions it generates and transmits.

I believe that in a lot of cases these films are personal films: films written and directed by creators who tell their own stories, who take their living memories, their past, their happiness, their misfortunes, and decide to share them. It is courageous and maybe even a little shameless. Who are we to share these private moments with the rest of the world? Is there a lack of decency or humility in doing so? Or is it an act of courage to tell, to lay bare without sentimentality or pretense?

I think that by virtue of being personal, these stories become automatically universal. They display truth with such genuineness that, despite a film’s setting and time, crosses borders and touches people’s hearts.

IC   Do you feel that your characters have a similar universality to them?

J-MV   Well, in C.R.A.Z.Y., the protagonist Zac is a complicated character. He lives a paradox: he wants to be like everybody else, he wants to fit in, but at the same time he knows that he’s different. His asthma is symbolic of his difference in this film. Whenever he uses his inhaler or talks about asthma, he’s talking about his difference – his homosexuality.

IC   He is also similar to all of us, in that he grapples with big questions and trying to balance what he has inherited with what he has cultivated…

J-MV   He tries to detach himself from the spiritual background that his mother gave him. When Zac’s a teenager, he says that he doesn’t believe in God, but when things go poorly he resorts to his spiritual thoughts and to prayer.

 IC   Do you think seeking refuge in God during a time of need is faith or fear?

J-MV   I think it’s fear in one way. Zac doesn’t want to believe, but he can’t help but turn to God when he’s afraid and needs help – it’s his way of seeking, of seeing, of hoping that God exists. There is the scene when he’s told the story of a man who dreamt that he was walking in the desert with the Lord and the Lord was showing him parts of his life in the sky. Every time the man turned around he saw two sets of footprints: his and the Lord’s – except in the most difficult moments in his life when he saw only one set of footprints. So he says to the Lord, “Why did you abandon me when I needed you the most?” and the Lord said, “It’s because I was carrying you.”

This story is Zac’s story. When he thinks that everything is bad, and it’s hard, there’s somebody… God is there. That’s what I like to believe. It might be very naïve.

IC   The story of footprints is told using dialogue, which is important to film, but also used in other art forms to tell a story – how does film as a medium create meaning with visual symbols?

J-MV   Editing. Editing is everything. An interesting example is called the “Koulechov effect.” This guy did some editing experiments in Russia in the 1910s. His results were very significant: he shot this close-up of an actor with a neutral expression. No fear, no joy, no pain, no expression. In the editing room, he cut a scene with the close-up of the man, then he put a shot of a huge, angry dog and then he cut back to the same close-up of the man. Then he showed the sequence to an audience and asked them what they thought of the performance. Everybody said that the actor was very good, that he looked really scared.

Then he went back to the editing room and replaced the shot of the dog with a shot of a beautiful woman. He didn’t replace the actor’s shot. He came back to the audience and everybody said that the actor was very good, that he really looked amorous, in love. Editing creates meaning. I like to say that editing is everything.

IC   How did you come to film?

J-MV   When I was twenty, I felt I was pretty much alone. I was lazy and took this “Cinema and Society” class because I thought it was going to be easy to watch films and easy to skip class. I didn’t care much about films at that time. The teacher was an ex-Jesuit, Yves Lever. The guy was so passionate and had a way of quoting famous directors to stimulate our imagination and make us dream that we, simple and humble students from Montréal, could also make a difference. As Marguerite Duras once said, “Every time you make a film, you hope and wish to change the world.” That class changed my life.

IC   Do you think his Jesuit background brought anything particular to your education?

J-MV   He was a spiritual man. He used to be, but he quit it and got out of the Jesuits and became an atheist. I saw him recently, and we talked about that, and I don’t agree with him. I have my way of seeing God and I like to have faith, and to teach my kids to believe in something. It’s not that he was always speaking about spirituality and God in his classes, but he was so passionate that I think the faith he once had in God and religion came through in his teaching about film and about life. He became like a confidant, a mentor.

IC    I’ve heard some cynical reports from people who have lived in Hollywood. What was it like for you? Why did you go there?

J-MV  For the love of the art. To learn my craft, my medium and the language of images. I had an opportunity to do a thriller and a spaghetti Western for Mario Van Peebles and to learn to try to do it well, even though I wasn’t planning to start my director’s career with those types of films.

Hollywood is an industry town where everybody talks about film. Yes, it can be superficial, money and scene oriented, but, bottom line, it’s all about people. So was I lucky to meet nice, devoted and interesting people? I don’t think so. There are nice and interesting people everywhere. You don’t have to be optimistic for that. There is hope in Hollywood. We have to go beyond the image. There are some great men and women who believe in the power of film to make a difference. I don’t want to waste my time bashing Hollywood. It’s too cliché and easy to do.

IC   What recent films have interested or inspired you?

J-MV   I really like Hong Kong films right now. Films like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon invented a new genre. They are like spiritual–poetic–martial art films. Why do I feel peaceful, calm and quiet when I watch people fighting in those films?

The way I felt when I watched Hero, with its beauty and magic, reminded me of how I felt when I first watched The Ten Commandments as a kid, and later on, Jesus of Nazareth. I like to believe that I’m not alone, that we’re not alone.

I tried to give C.R.A.Z.Y. that peaceful and mystical feeling. I took five years writing the script. Taking that amount of time to write something and not give up makes you doubt a lot, particularly in our society where everything is fast. But at the same time, the process was like a meditation, something you repeat and repeat and repeat until you’re at ease with your meditation, with what you’re writing. The meditation makes you feel confident, starts to make sense, and the whole begins to look stronger than the sum of its parts. It’s as if you needed to take all that time to understand and appreciate the meditation. This is what C.R.A.Z.Y. is about: a man’s mission that takes twenty years of his life to understand and appreciate his meditation; to accept the fact that he’s different… and not alone.

IC   What do you think is missing from cinema these days?

J-MV   Well, one thing, I like to say that this film is like a prayer, and it’s rare today to have a film, and a filmmaker who says, “This film is like a prayer and it deals with faith.” That’s one thing, one thing you don’t see that often. You don’t see it often enough.


Ian is a poet and fiction writer from Newfoundland who is currently living in Montréal and trying to learn French.

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