Un Entrevue dans le Plateau

Two directors with Canadian premières at the World Film Festival

by Michael Crochetière Volume 5, Issue 7 / December 2001 27 minutes (6623 words)

It’s August 26th, 2001. I’m here in the plateau area of Montréal with three film professionals: Johanne Larue, a teacher of Film Studies at Concordia University, Roy Cross and Robin Schlaht, filmmakers who have the Canadian première screenings of their first dramatic features at the World Film Festival this week.

The films:

So Faraway and Blue, 78 minutes, 35mm., b/w, sound. Written and Directed by Roy Cross. Produced by Flatland Films (faraway@aei.ca). Distributed by Cinéma Libre (www.cinemalibre.com).

Synopsis: Julie, a Montréal teenager who lives alone in a vacant swimming pool spends her days following strangers. Abandoned by her father, she searches for the meaning of courage, love and desire in her observation of others. A longing for her father leads her to Hank, a lost guy from Alberta, who is seeking Véronique, an ex lover he ditched one night in Mexico. Intrigued by Hank’s obsession and the possibility of finding her father; Julie helps Hank in his quest.

Julie (Nicole Eliopoulos) in Roy Cross’ So Faraway and Blue, photo by Cheryl Bellows

Solitude (2000), 89 minutes, 35mm., colour, sound. Directed by Robin Schlaht.
Written by Robin Schlaht and Connie Gault, based on a short story by Connie Gault. Produced by Zima Junction Productions. Distributed by Edge Entertainment.

Synopsis: An exploration of the fleeting interconnections that arise, one summer, between two women retreatants and a monk at a rural monastery. Each is looking for answers to questions of faith and purpose, love and identity.

MC: Maybe we could begin with introductions. Roy…

RC: My name is Roy Cross. I’m originally from Yorkton, Saskatchewan. I studied undergraduate cinema at the University of Regina. I left Regina in 1989-90, moved to Alberta for a few years and arrived in Montréal in 1994. I completed my Masters degree and I’ve since gone on to produce two films here: one short and So Faraway and Blue, my first feature. And my son Flynn was born here. So I’ve produced three oeuvres…

JL: My name is Johanne Larue. I teach Film Studies at Concordia University. I’ve been doing that for about 16 years now. That’s my real passion… to teach cinema to the young, eager people who come into our program. I’ve also done some screenwriting and editing consultant work. I’m a film critic. I’m a programming evaluator for Télévision Quatre Saisons …and I’m a mother.

RS: My name is Robin Schlaht. I’m a filmmaker. I was born and raised in Alberta. I moved to Regina in 1989 to study in the film program at the University of Regina. I graduated in 1992 and I’ve been making films ever since, mostly documentaries and experimental films. Solitude is my first feature length drama.

MC: Roy…you’re from Saskatchewan but you’re presently living in Montréal. What makes you want to stay here (as opposed to going back home)?

RC: When I came out here in 1994, it was on a five-year plan: I’d get a Masters degree, then produce and direct a feature film. Then my partner Cheryl and I would re-evaluate. Well…of course, the five year plan turned into a seven year plan because I produced a low budget independent feature film in Canada. It took me seven years to complete my five year plan.

Now that my son is getting older we have to decide about schools and so on. Right now, Montréal seems to be most conducive to my way of thinking. I feel at home here. We won’t move to Toronto. Our only other option would be Saskatchewan.. Every year when we go back, I get very homesick. But that only lasts about two weeks. And then I start to miss my home in Montréal. Saskatchewan doesn’t seem to feed me in the way that Montréal does.

MC: And for funding your films…is it advantageous to be in Québec?

RC: I spent a few years in Alberta, where there is absolutely no support for independent filmmakers. I would consider both Québec and Saskatchewan to be friendly places at the moment. The only difficulty here is that I’m producing all my work in English. There is only a certain amount of funding allocated for English production each year. I haven’t received any Canada Council money since I moved here, but the Québec Arts Council and SODEC have been kind. So I’m generally supported here as an anglophone. I’m hoping that my next film doesn’t take four years to make. And I hope that there’s more money. But I’d like to continue working with the people that I’ve developed relationships with here.

MC: Robin…maybe you could approach the same two parts of that question, from the perspective of someone who resides in Saskatchewan..

RS: Sure. I arrived in Saskatchewan by default, actually. I had been in Edmonton working as a newspaper photographer. I took a screenwriting class and decided that I wanted to drop everything to study film. The two programs that interested me were Concordia in Montréal and the University of Regina because both provided production, theory and the opportunity to look at documentary, experimental and dramatic films. Concordia wasn’t taking people in January, so I ended up at the University of Regina. I thought that I would stay one semester and then I would transfer. Why would I want to live in Regina? But…I was in a fantastic class with a bunch of really good students. And I fell in love with the city and the people. I found there to be a vibrant arts community in Regina. The city was a comfortable size for me. So I’m not looking to leave Regina, even if I did arrive by default.. The province is very supportive of the arts and I certainly have been treated well by the Saskatchewan Arts Board and SaskFILM. I have no six month plan, let alone a five year plan. But I hope to keep making films in Saskatchewan.

MC: Roy, do you think that the province has influenced your work in any way?
An earlier film (Mirrored Homescapes) has a lot to do with landscape…

RC: For sure. And the landscape of this city really inspired So Faraway and Blue. When I moved here in September 1994, I ended up living in St. Henri, a working-class French neighbourhood. It’s essentially an industrialized area that has outlived its usefulness. Everyone was unemployed. As I walked to the Metro, through this tundra that was the Lachine canal, I was amazed that there was so much decay, so many abandoned and forgotten places. So when I started writing a film set in Montréal, all those first experiences were there in the bank. The film was about two things: a personal story of a girl looking for her dad …and a man coming from away, getting lost in Montréal. I was able to integrate some of my own personal experiences in St. Henri into his character.

JL: In watching some of your earlier work, one gets the sense that you have this contemplative vision. And while So Faraway and Blue doesn’t contain any prairie-like vistas..you’ve shot these empty, industrial, sorrowful places as if they were landscapes. It’s interesting that you were talking (previously) about how you should be making a film about your experiences in Montréal. It’s very apparent to me that this is a film made by someone in exile, someone who’s in between. All of your characters are in limbo, everywhere and nowhere. They’re all looking for someone or someplace. And they all have their own mode of transportation. There is a sense of restlessness which can be linked to the notion of going through a landscape. We don’t see any Montréal landmarks. The film could take place in any urban wasteland. …until they start to speak French. Then we know that we’re here.

MC: The presence of landscape is perhaps less essential to Solitude…though there is a spareness or economy in the way the film is shot. Is this somehow related to your background?

RS: Well, Solitude came about, to a degree, because I wanted to make a film in Saskatchewan ..but I couldn’t find a documentary subject that excited me to the extent that I would be willing to spend three years on it. So, I started reading short stories by Saskatchewan writers, with the idea of moving into drama. I felt that The Fat Lady with the Thin Face (by Regina writer Connie Gault) could become a very simple film, with resonances that seemed very much to come from Saskatchewan. Some of these had to do with landscape. There are more landscape references in the short story than there are in the film. In the short story, the characters can think about landscape…whereas in the film, they think but we don’t necessarily know what they’re thinking about.

JL: In Solitude, the faces are the landscapes. I could simply gaze at your characters gazing…forever. You film them as they reflect, as they are feeling and thinking ..and you don’t cut away. We see time pass on their faces. I was looking forward to this moment when I could tell you that one of the final shots in your film is this incredibly beautiful long take of Michele’s face as she walks in the woods. We cannot know exactly what she’s thinking or feeling…or why. But, as the shot progresses, she starts to cry. You come to understand that these are tears of redemption or transcendence. There’s this epiphany, a wonderful transformative moment which you capture. And it takes its time. She comes towards the camera, the light is perfect. There is some landscape too, as she is surrounded by nature. But, to get back to my earlier thought, I think that in your film, the landscapes are the faces. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

RC: That’s the best scene in your film for me. I was thinking “don’t cut away”. Johanne, I like your comment about the faces but, coming from Saskatchewan, my comment about landscape in Solitude would be a bit different. You have characters moving through the landscape, often alone, far away and moving away from us. There’s often a road, but you can’t always see where the road leads. A lot of loneliness, melancholy. The landscape isn’t hostile. It’s safe and warm. And I was immediately aware of the wind. When I finished my sound mix, I said to the mixer: “There’s too much wind in my movie. I’ve got wind everywhere. I’ve got wind underwater”. He said “Well, you’re from Saskatchewan. Of course there’s going to be wind in your film”. And then Robin’s film starts up…and there’s wind…in the leaves and in the trees. It became a bit surreal at times: the garden, the scene where she chases the rabbit. Like Alice in Wonderland. It wasn’t a typical prairie landscape with wheat fields. But it felt very familiar to me. And it seemed like the characters felt safe, as I always do whenever I’m home in Saskatchewan. Part of it is that you can see so far. If there’s any danger coming, you have lots of warning. You can see a storm coming miles away.

MC: There’s a slowness in the pace of both films which, to me, is very prairie-like. The events acquire weight and become somewhat iconic, surrounded by so much empty time and space.

RS: Well, my approach in Solitude was to see what the characters reveal through hesitation, mis-steps and negative space. What is revealed by them not moving instead of moving. That’s part of it. When you start to explore that, then suddenly when a character does start to move through the landscape, the impulse is to read something into it.

RC: There’s a great scene in the kitchen where Bernard comes in with the tray. The line isn’t moving. Its kind of claustrophobic. You move in on him. He’s going to have a panic attack or freak out. Nobody really acknowledges that he’s there. That was one of those moments.

JL: Yes. He’s trying to think and there’s all this chatter around him. He looks quite annoyed to be part of this human “jam”.

RS: I think that Brother Bernard escapes into the prairie, perhaps. When he’s looking for Michele towards the end of the film, he sort of comes into his own because he’s on his own. In the dining hall, in that big crowd…the intention was that he would be feeling that everyone else falls so easily into conversation and he simply can’t. I think that we associate the wide open spaces of the prairies with the absence of crowds. And the city would be the opposite. But Roy’s city looks as empty as the prairie.

JL: Michael, you were talking about the pacing. Though there’s more “action” in Roy’s film…the pacing of the dialogue scenes and the use of close-ups is similar to what you see in Solitude. I liked the shots of Julie when she spies on people. She just takes it all in.

RS: So much of both films has to do with one character observing another. These are people who aren’t interacting, but observing, interpreting. The other characters are often unaware that they’re being watched. Perhaps that leads to a slow pace.

RC: Your film is so deliberate: the editing, the framing. I kept thinking: “I am in a monastery”. I thought “he can’t keep this up”. Something is going to happen. There’s going to be a chase scene or… (laughter).

RS: There’s a badminton game…some fast cutting there

JL: A lot of suspense too. But… I find the characters in both films to be enigmatic. They have a mystery to them. Usually, in a more conventional film, you learn about everybody in the first 15 minutes. In your films, it’s more of a journey of discovery. It’s a bit like life. You are with people, as they evolve and emote in front of you. You don’t necessarily know them. But you’re there with them and you can be moved by whatever is happening to them. We get to witness important changes in their lives.

RS: For Solitude, that strategy of ambiguity was very deliberate. It was partly due to the nature of being on retreat at the abbey. People are sometimes there on silent retreat. The asking of questions is not encouraged. Very few questions are asked in Solitude and even fewer are answered. The characters are so involved in the process of observing and interpreting or misinterpreting ..that it seemed appropriate to invite the audience into that same process. Explanations aren’t given. Audiences are invited to speculate on what a character’s background or motivation might be. Not knowing keeps one engaged, I think.

JL: Yes. Especially in the case of Michele. You think that you know what the filmmaker is going to do with Michele. She’s the rebel, she’s going to snap…as you might expect in a more action-oriented film. But she doesn’t. She is the one person at that retreat who will learn something about herself, who will go into herself. She’s not about explosions. She gets transformed in a very profound but tranquil way.

MC: Robin, could you talk about casting the film…and about the evolution of the characters in the writing and rehearsal process.

RS: Well, the basic characters came from the short story…and we didn’t have specific actors in mind for them. Maybe its partly because I’m a documentary filmmaker. I’m used to being very flexible and adjusting to what reality throws up on the day of shooting. So…the characters were designed to be adaptable to the actor. This was especially true with Brother Bernard. I needed someone of the right age, with the right presence for a contemplative film. Lothaire Bluteau came to mind, partly because of his roles in Jésus de Montréal and Black Robe. He can play these very internal characters and there’s a sort of timidity to him which is appropriate for Brother Bernard. But the character in the film is very different from the character found in the short story. Lothaire loves doing research and he continued to do so throughout the production. We filmed at a functioning Benedictine monastery (St. Peter’s Abbey) and he was constantly pulling the monks aside and asking them questions about how they had arrived at their decisions to become monks, what they had they given up, what they had gained. I had a lot of faith that these actors would come up with something interesting and truthful. I tried to avoid being fixated on the movie that had been in my head for the few months previous. Instead, we went out and captured what nature provided in terms of weather and what the actors provided in terms of their interaction and inspiration in the moment.

MC: Roy, what was your process like?

RC: This was my first time..so this film was a big step. Like Robin, I wrote the story without actors in mind. I found a young actress to play the role of Julie. We began doing little scenes on videotape. But her agent got her a job on a big movie which was going to conflict with mine. So…she bailed. Rightfully so. I couldn’t stop her because I wasn’t paying my talent any money. Then I happened to stumble on a film (“Burnt Eden”) at Le Festival du Nouveau Cinéma here in Montréal. There was scene at the end with this young girl (Nicole Eliopoulos) in it, and I said “That’s her”. She didn’t really have any experience ..but there was something gentle and naive about her which I liked. So…Julie was in place for about a year. Hank (played by Daniel Giverin) was a guy from Alberta who crashed my audition. A non-actor with a great face and a motorbike was set to play Gus. And an experienced actor, Sonia Vigneault would play Véronique. I said to her “If you are going to do the role, then I don’t mind putting a non-actor with you and you can help him”. So that’s how the cast came together. Then ten days before the shoot, Sonia got a job on a TV series and she backed out. I had to let the non-actor go, because I couldn’t ask somebody new to work with someone who had never acted before. So…ten days before shooting I didn’t have half my cast. But I did some quick auditions, found a new Véronique (Julie Ménard). Then I called in a favour from my friend Bradley Moss to play Gus. It all came together. But Nicole (“Julie”) was the one that I had worked with the most.

Originally the script was a story about a guy who comes from Alberta looking for a woman that he’d left (because he had this dream that she was going to die so he had remorse etc). That’s what I wrote…and that was my movie right up until we started shooting. And then the camera fell in love with this young woman (“Julie”). We were rushed. I wrote 87 pages and we shot about 59. And when we only had a couple hours left, I would say things like “Let’s get Julie on her bike”. The camera just kept going towards her. In sort of a weird cinematic way, I started becoming infatuated with the character. This character was really more interesting than I had thought. So the movie changed but the script didn’t…which made for a mess in the editing, of course.

MC: I thought that the scenario for this film might have evolved in the editing…

RC: Absolutely. I hired an editor. I let her read the script and she tried to cut together a movie which followed the script chronologically. It was horrible, about 140 minutes long. A boring story with all these characters blabbing away. She worked really hard for two and a half months to make it work. We got it down to about 98 minutes, but it never had the spirit of what I had set out to do. So we took three months off. I went out to Saskatchewan, took a little retreat. On the flight back, I wrote a 12 page script, based on the footage that I knew we had.

RS: So…did you enjoy the production process?

RC: Absolutely. The best 15 days of my life in Montréal, except for the birth of my son.

RS: It was exactly the same for me. I was so full of tension throughout pre-production. The cash flow wasn’t there. We were going to run out of money in the second week. But once we got into production, it was just a joy. If people were doing their jobs, you could focus on working with the actors.

RC: Yeah… but I didn’t have a producer. I was producing right up until the day we started shooting. But I had a good production manager. She would run by, saying everything is okay (but I have some stories to tell you after). I knew that we were over budget. I wish that I had a little more time in pre-production.

RS: You mentioned that you didn’t have your cast in place ten days before shooting. We didn’t have our money in place. We got the word from Telefilm (about one third of our budget) two weeks before shooting. And so…we had a two week prep. We had to confirm all our cast and crew. We had made commitments to cast…to pay out some money if we didn’t go into production. The cinematographer (Patrick McLaughlin) flew out to work on the look of the film. We had to cram all that into 2 weeks, when normally it’s more like a 5-6 week process.

RC: I had met with my DOP (Michael Wees) for a year before we shot. We did a five minute demo. We’d watch movies. So when it was time to go, he was pretty much up to speed. I think that our budgets might have been a little different…

RS: Mine was a low-budget feature by most standards: $684,000., shooting 35mm. film.

JL: With professional actors.

RS: Yes. But the actors worked for a fraction of their usual fee. At least this was the case for Vanessa Martinez and Lothaire Bluteau, the name actors.

RC: Well, I shot mine in Super 16 for 40 grand.

RS: Wow. (laughter).

RC: Then I raised the back end to go into post. But when we ran out of money, we stopped. My crew also ran out of gas after 15 days. It was like “I’m glad you’re broke, man. We can’t shoot any more of your movie.”

RS: I’m really surprised to hear these stories, because it turned into a great film.

RC: Yeah. It worked out great. Before this one, I had never finished a film and been proud of it… until about five years later. Yeah, it’s been hard work and I’m still dealing with adversity at the lab. But it will end. I set out to make a film that I hadn’t seen before. And I really think that I got the spirit of what I wanted. Would I do it again? No. Am I glad that I did it? Absolutely. But next time, the money will be there. I’ll get paid and I won’t have to spend all my own money, get credit cards and go through all that again.

MC: Robin, what effect would having an actor like Lothaire Bluteau have on financing your film?

RS: His involvement in the film helped. It gave people confidence that I (as a first-time feature director) would have a strong performance at least from Lothaire, if not from the other actors. But everyone worked hard to meet his level of professionalism. He works incredibly hard as an actor. Lothaire is a real presence on the set, and everyone works harder when he’s around. For an established actor to take a chance on a first-time director is something we need to be grateful for. Not all actors (or their agents) like to do that. As Lothaire said, if you don’t do that first film for a director, you might miss something really special. You miss that director’s first film. So he goes on the merit of the script, the character and his conversations with the director. When funders look at financing a film, they look for an ability to work with actors, the ability to tell a story visually. But also, in Canada, we look for a distinct voice and an interesting style.

MC: Are there stylistic traits or structural aspects of Solitude which will sustain through into your next film?

RS: I’m working on the next script right now. One of the unusual things about Solitude is its structure. Like my documentaries, it’s episodic. It doesn’t really have an inciting incident ..where the audience recognizes that something has to be achieved by the end of the film. And then the story arc moves towards that end. In Solitude, you’re presented with characters that have dilemmas, objectives, motives that we’re not clear on. We watch them interact and eventually get the feeling that some sort of transformation will or will not take place.

With the new script, I feel that the characters are more enlivened, less contemplative. The situations that they’re involved in are more lively and comedic (comedic may be a bit of a stretch). But the structure nonetheless is an unusual one. I think of it as a story about love without it being a love story. It’s about two people who don’t quite intersect. They glance off one another and we cut back and forth between their stories. Both of their lives are caught up in contemplations about love…research about love, for instance. But this is hardly a conventional love story. So, as with Solitude, my next film will have an unusual structure. But as with conventional narratives, the stability or foundation of my structure will be integral to the flow of the film.

MC: You use a lot of shallow focus in Solitude

RS: The shallow focus in Solitude is partly a reference to the film being set in a monastery. For me, it was a reminder of the archaic use of view cameras. It gave the film an old photographic feel. Also, I wanted to heighten the sense of immediacy. To me, shallow focus increases the feeling of tension ever so slightly. We decided to go without close-ups (or cutaways) for most of the film. Often when a filmmaker wants to draw your attention to a certain part of the frame, he/she might cut to a close up …e.g. the gun on the table. In Solitude we did that through a shift in focus, so as to not break up the continuity of time within a shot.

MC: There isn’t a lot of rack focusing…but I did find myself being drawn to a certain area of the frame because of the focus, especially on the wide screen.

RS: Well, the aesthetic is one of wide shots, not close-ups. By having the shallow focus generally on the face, it allowed us to have it both ways. We could keep the viewer’s attention on the face without having the face fill the screen.

MC: Roy…are you drawn to a certain visual aesthetic? If one were to study you as an auteur years from now, would they be able to find consistent tendencies in your use of the camera etc?

RC: Our choices were pretty much limited by our budget. We had three lenses, nothing above 50mm (that was our close-up lens), no crane, no dolly. We did movements by the DOP putting the camera on his lap and opening the van door. We usually went with the most efficient way of shooting the scene. In the dialogue scenes with Hank and Julie in the car…the car didn’t move. That’s because we couldn’t afford a camera car or ADR . It might also have something to do with my own confidence level now. I don’t mind just holding on a face, if there’s something going on there. I don’t feel that I have to cutaway or get a lot of coverage.

Roy Cross directs Julie Ménard and Bradley Moss in So Faraway and Blue, photo by Cheryl Bellows

MC: The film is in black and white. Who were your influences?

RC: My influences are early Antonioni (L’Eclisse, L’Avventura), early Wim Wenders (Alice in the Cities, The State of Things)

JL: I also thought of Jean Seberg in Breathless, when we see Julie on her bike and the sun falls on her hair. There’s a kind of visual poetry there.

RC: I’ve watched that film probably 20 times. Low-budget, shoot it in the street…black and white.

MC: Robin …you’ve shot most of your films in black and white. Do you have a comment on Roy’s use of b/w in So Faraway and Blue?

RS: I think that it heightens the feeling of quiet despair, of resignation. Colour can take over. Black and white gives you more emphasis on gestures and facial expressions. A movement becomes more prominent when there isn’t colour present to distract one’s attention.

JL: The colours are very subdued in your film, Robin. Even when there is sunlight, its very soft. There isn’t any violent colour. Its very sensual.

MC: Robin…could you speak about the ending of your film? It differs from that found in the short story. In a way, Michele and Brother Bernard have redemptions…

RS: Well, the film involves three characters who are uncomfortable with being alone. By the end of the film, two of the characters reach a point where they can be alone comfortably… at least momentarily. On the path, Michele has an emotional moment by herself, which bodes well for a change in her. She’ll become less of a defiant youth …

MC: Is her ability to change a function of her age ?

RS: Well, when you’re on retreat, you’re in between. Michele is also in between high-school and college, girlhood and womanhood perhaps…at an age where she is defining who she is to become. She has a body image issue, in that she is quite short. People don’t treat her like an adult, even though she’s nineteen years old. So she wears make-up, she dresses relatively provocatively. As part of her search for identity, she adopts the guise of a nun. She dresses very plain and dark, wears a large cross, her hair is tied tightly back. Towards the end of the film, she comes to a place where she’s ready to move on.

RC: The sexual tension in your film is interesting. Very subtle. The guy in the grocery story. The cut to his hand on her back…

JL: Or Michele with Brother Daniel and the rabbit.

RC: What’s up with that?

JL: Roy, I’m so happy that you thought the same thing that I did…

RC: And the scene in the bar. I thought something was going to happen. And then she gets into the truck with him!

MC: One of my favourite scenes. Shooting Michele through the windshield, with the rain and windshield wipers…

RS: It’s all based on this notion of misinterpreting. Michele misinterprets the touch on the back, the offer to show her where the drug store is, the storekeeper’s glance toward her in the bar, his glance at his watch as he’s leaving. And it leads to a moment where suddenly she seems like a little girl, in over her head. That’s the scene where the three of them are driving at night in the rain. We shot through the windshield, with the windshield wipers passing through our view. The storekeeper and his wife (on either side of Michele) are almost cut off by the frame. We just hold on Michele’s face as she’s …

RC: Crying. It foreshadows the last scene in the woods. I just waited for the moments when the wiper took away the water so I could look at Michele.

MC: Roy, in your film, the ending is very much about the coming together of the two couples. Julie finds Véronique and says goodbye for Hank.

RC: The ending is really ambiguous. Dreams within dreams. You’re never really sure of the sequence of events (does the kiss happen before the motorcycle crash?). The scene was about Julie saying goodbye to someone…it could have been her mother, her dad. It is about her turning the page and moving on. Hank is perpetually leaving…and he leaves again at the end of the film. For Julie, that’s OK. She doesn’t need him to come back.

RS: What struck me as unique about Julie’s goodbye to Véronique…is that she’s saying goodbye on Hank’s behalf. She becomes a surrogate. It’s an act of forgiveness. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a film with that kind of odd, complex undercurrent in a scene. It was virtually unspoken.

MC: That scene also has the strip of photographs torn in two. I wanted to ask both of you about the use of visual metaphor in your films. Roy, you have many fragments of objects: the disconnected bathtub, the piece of a music box, the broken mirror…

RC: It’s really about fragments of memories, nostalgia. Originally, I had Julie as a photographer following people and taking pictures of them. But I thought that this was a bit too contrived or stereotypical. So I had her collect things. When she meets someone, she takes something from them. The match from the couple in the Jag. In another scene, she takes a penny from a box. The music box was supposed to be what she takes from Hank. With a photograph, you can always see what a person looked like…but if you only have an object to remember them by, it gets harder to define the person. The spirit of whatever relationship you had can be magnified. Personally, I enjoy indulging in that kind of nostalgia.

MC: Robin…you use metaphor, as well, in a very spare way: the train tracks, various kinds of enclosures or cages…ideas that are drawn very naturally from the background.

RS: The characters in Solitude are often very aware of the metaphor that they’re using. For example, Michele take the cross off the wall and puts it on her chest. So we’re both using the metaphor. But part of what you do as a filmmaker is telling the story visually and that means reliance upon visual metaphors. You end up using metaphors and allusions to reinforce the emotions that the characters are experiencing. You mentioned the rain on the windshield. We just happened to have rain that night and it felt right, so we went with it. I guess that it is a metaphor for tears. Tarkovsky has said that a white horse is sometimes just a white horse.

RC: And Freud said that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.

MC: Filmmakers don’t like to have their metaphors defined.

RS: In my film, I was trying to create an atmosphere and texture which was appropriate to the abbey. It’s such a symbol-laden location. Metaphors were constantly creeping up throughout the production.

RC: . A lot of our locations were chosen because they were beside water. The original script had drowning and suffocating. At first, I didn’t have Julie living in an empty swimming pool…but its perfect. Something just works for me or it doesn’t.

MC: What has your experience been like at the festival?

RC: I hope that someone at the film festival sees my film and wants to produce my next film. I don’t think I can produce again. It’s too much. I hope that our next films have twice as much…well, in my case twenty times as much money.

RS: The real joy of film festivals (as opposed to having a film in release) is that you get to travel with it. You get to meet the audience, answer questions. I’ve noticed that each audience responds differently to a film. Each audience brings up new questions or a perspective which I hadn’t considered. I always feel that I learn something about my film from how the audience responds.

MC: Do you think that there is an audience for your films?

RS: I guess my films are rather serious, and quite demanding of the audience, but hopefully also quite rewarding for attentive viewers. I’m certainly not interested in adding to the volume of escapist product which dominates cinema today – the cinema of wish-fulfillment, of diversion, of mind-numbing plastic sensation. Instead I tend to view the motion picture screen a cognitive space, as a realm of exploration and discovery for both the artist and the viewer.

MC: Is there a chance of making a living at this?

RS: My chances of continuing to make these films depends largely upon my ability to continue making fully-realized films on very low budgets. This type of serious cinema is somewhat marginalized today . So…I have to keep my budgets so low that even a comparatively small box office return is considered a triumph. During the production of Solitude we actually considered posting a banner in the production office saying “With a budget this low, who’s going to care if we screw up?” The intent was to encourage each and every person on the production to feel free to experiment, to throw caution to the wind. We had no funding agency or broadcaster looking over our shoulders to monitor their investments, so we had only ourselves and our audiences to answer to. Viewed in this light, a small budget, despite its hardships and restrictions, is actually very liberating. Whether this type of cinema survives is entirely up to audiences – if audiences limit their spectrum of experience to the cinema of diversion, to the exclusion of the cinema of exploration, who can blame funders, broadcasters and exhibitors from supporting only escapist films?

MC: Johanne…some last words?

JL: I hope that the government agencies continue to recognize the importance of regional cinema. Not everything comes out of Toronto or Vancouver or Montréal. I’m not talking about your experience, Roy. Your film is unique in that it provides an outsider’s look at Québec society. There’s a definite need for support, so that young (and not-so-young) artists outside the main cities can create…

RC: …and don’t feel that they have to move away.

THE END

Click here for review of Robin Schlaht’s Solitude.

Volume 5, Issue 7 / December 2001 Interviews canadian cinemaquebec cinemarobin schlahtroy cross