Monsieur Lazhar: An Interview with Philippe Falardeau
Since his first feature film, La Moitié gauche du frigo (2000), Philippe Falardeau has proven that he is among Quebec directors and screenwriters to keep an eye on. Working in a variety of genres, such as mockumentary, comedy, drama and the coming of age story, Falardeau addresses different issues pertaining to Quebec society in a sensible, honest and intelligent manner. His latest film, Monsieur Lazhar (2011) has been presented in different festivals around the world, winning prizes in Locarno and at TIFF, while also being chosen to represent Canada in the Best Foreign language film category at the next Academy Awards. Based on a play of the same name by Évelyne de la Chenelière, the film tells the story of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamad Fellag), an Algerian immigrant in Montreal who decides to apply for a teaching position left vacant after the previous teacher committed suicide. With the children and the school personnel still mourning, Bashir tries to adapt to his new job and home, while also dealing with his own troubled past.
Offscreen: First of all, what attracted you to the play by Évelyne de la Chenelière on which the film is based?
Philippe Falardeau: Well, I guess I didn’t choose the play, it chose me (laughs). I wanted to go to Algeria in 1992, when I was shooting La course destination monde.  As I was getting ready to go there, a bomb exploded at the Alger airport, so I had to cancel my trip. The war started right after that; I followed the events from a distance and, for some reason, it really affected me. Years after, when I saw the play, it is as if Algeria was coming back to me. I was really touched by the character, an Algerian immigrant who is forced to come here. I was interested in him first because of his background, but also because his loss was mirroring the one of the students he was teaching. So, I told myself, “maybe there is also a good film in there.” The play is basically a one-man show, so the audience has a lot to infer. So, as I was watching it, I was imagining stuff, asking myself some questions and basically already “writing it in my head”. I thought, “I’m going to ‘kidnap’ this character, bring him into a film, trying to write a story that is a bit more developed and can hold the attention of the viewer for a couple of hours.”
Offscreen: How did the adaptation go? Did you collaborate with Évelyne de la Chenelière to write the screenplay?
Philippe Falardeau: I wrote it myself, but Évelyne was always the first one reading each new version of the script, giving me feedback, the two of us working together on all the different possibilities regarding the new characters I had to write into the film version. I also did a lot of research. I spent some time in a classroom to see the dynamics, how children behave in that environment, what kind of questions they ask, etc. I also went to Algeria to see where that character was coming from. That research and adaptation process took me two and a half years. It was not, “ok I’m going to take four months off and adapt this play.” It doesn’t work like that. Well, not for me anyways (laughs).
Offscreen: A lot of films have been made about the subject of education throughout the years, including more recently Être et avoir (Philibert, 2002) and Entre les murs (Bégaudeau, 2006). Did you look for inspiration in any of them or other films about the subject while writing Monsieur Lazhar?
Philippe Falardeau: I saw them, but not really as a way to find inspiration per say. I was really trying to find my own take on the subject. I saw Entre les murs as I was starting to write M. Lazhar and it made me so depressed, because it is such a great film (laughs). I was analyzing it, the way it was written and shot, the subject matter etc., when I finally realized the tone of the film I was trying to make was different. Same thing for Être et Avoir and Half Nelson (Fleck, 2006) that I also saw and liked a lot.
Offscreen: Why do you think a lot of filmmakers and writers are interested in that subject matter?
Philippe Falardeau: I guess it is because school is a microcosm of society. You learn to count, read and write, but at the same time, you learn how to make friends, experience feelings like hate, jealousy, competition, etc. A class is like the laboratory of what happens in “real life”; I think it’s the reason why so many artists go back to it, the richness of it.
Offscreen: How did you choose Fellag for the role of Bachir Lazhar? He is not really well known here in Quebec. Had you seen some of his work before?
Philippe Falardeau: No, not at all. It’s Évelyne who suggested him. I went to France to audition French-Algerian actors and I really liked him, particularly his presence. Even though his stage work is habitually more burlesque, absurd and highly political, I really thought he would be perfect for the character: he is an immigrant, he’s different from them, but the kids find him reassuring and affable. So basically, I went to one of his shows and we met. He knew the work of Évelyne, which I felt reassuring. I asked him if he could read a few lines from the script and if I could film him with a small camcorder I had with me and that was it.
Offscreen: I found there were nice little touches, details here and there that were adding to the character, for example the folded copy of Le Monde diplomatique slightly protruding from his suit pocket. Were these small details scripted or added during production?
Philippe Falardeau: Those details, that he read Le Monde diplomatique, classics of Quebec literature, Balzac etc., were all written in the script beforehand; I wanted to show that he was a highly cultured and literate man, not really the kind who would be interested in reading Le journal de Montréal! (laughs)
Offscreen: The opening scene where the two child protagonists find their teacher, Martine, hanging in the classroom, is really affecting. It also sets the tone for the rest of the film. It is not done for the shock value and it is really presented in a low-key manner. How did you approach this scene?
Philippe Falardeau: I resisted and really waited a lot before writing and including this scene in the movie. At first, the film begun after the suicide of Martine. Then, I understood that if we wanted the viewers to be emotionally involved in the journey of the kids, we needed to experience this moment with them. So, then, I asked myself, “how should I write this?” I knew I needed to show the event from the point of a view of a kid who didn’t expect to find his teacher hanging dead in the classroom. However, I didn’t want it to be “spectacular” or shocking. I wanted the whole thing to be almost banal and quiet. In fact, I thought the commotion following the discovery was more interesting: the empty corridors slowly filled with the sounds of the other students arriving for class unaware of what happened, one of the other teachers making the discovery, telling the kids to go away, etc. All of this for me was even more important than the hanging itself. I also decided while doing the blocking that I wanted to do it in one take and that it would be more effective that way. It is also the only long-take during the whole film and the first thing we shot, right at the start.
Offscreen: Was it done on purpose?
Philippe Falardeau: In some ways, yes, because I really wanted to shoot most of the film chronologically. The opening scene takes place during winter, but we started production during summer. So, we had to skip the few exterior pick-up shots and instead shoot that part of the sequence, the hanging, which takes place inside, first.
Offscreen: Did it help the kids with their performance?
Philippe Falardeau: I would say yes. I think it helped setting the right tone and gave them something on which they can base the rest of their performance on emotionally.
Offscreen: Speaking of the kids, I guess since the play was a one-character performance, you had to write them from scratch?
Philippe Falardeau: You could say that the character of Alice (Sophie Nélisse) was in the play somehow, but only in name, since Bachir reads to the public a text written by her. The character of Simon (Émilien Néron) was also mentioned, but only briefly. Other characters, such as the gym teacher and the janitor were not in the play at all. The principal was mentioned, but was presented in a different manner, more as an antagonist. A lot of the fun during the screenwriting process came from fleshing-out these characters, creating their back-stories.
Offscreen: I found that the kids’ acting was really natural. Was there any improvisation involved?
Philippe Falardeau: No, everything was scripted and they learned all their lines. Even in the scene where Simon has a breakdown in front of all his classmates was scripted, every word of it.
Offscreen: It is a deeply emotional scene. Was it difficult for him?
Philippe Falardeau: Yes and no. It was done on the first take. However, we had been walking on eggs all day. He wasn’t feeling good in the morning and I had to go talk to him, to see how he felt about it. However, we shot the scene and all the people in the crew looked at each other like “Wow!” I was surprised at how far he went with his own emotions. He had worked hard preparing for that scene and I know he used some stuff from a tough personal experience that happened a year prior. It was not only him acting; those were real emotions from his own life.
Offscreen: You address a lot of themes in the film, like suicide, mourning, immigration, the bureaucracy of schools and the fact that teachers nowadays cannot even have the slightest physical contact with children, etc. Was it hard to stay on course and keep the viewer emotionally involved and not feeling like lecturing them?
Philippe Falardeau: You have to be aware from the beginning that you are not going to devote the film to the themes, but the people, the characters. So basically, you try to address issues, but through the emotions of the characters, what they are living. The problem is when you try to put words into the mouth of characters as if they were spoken for a specific issue. For example, I’ve abandoned some scenes that I had written because I felt they were too heavy-handed and were only there to push the issue about the education system.
Offscreen: I think a good example of that was Martine’s suicide. It is not only a thematic element, but also a device helping the viewer understand Bachir’s personality. He seems to be somehow judgmental towards her and the negative affect her suicide had on the children, contrarily to the rest of the school’s personnel.
Philippe Falardeau: Yes. He is the only one who seems to address the issue, saying, –“Sorry, maybe she was unhappy and had problems, but why did she do that in the classroom?”– while the others defend her and judge him for asking such a question. It’s also the clash of two worlds: Bachir comes from a society where people are victims of atrocious acts on a daily basis and now he is faced with children that are victims of emotional violence inflicted indirectly by their teacher. It is two different forms of violence and their affect on people: on one side fundamentalists murdering people because of their faith or lack thereof, and on the other an extremely sanitized education system where a teacher kills herself in the classroom for reasons we don’t know, affecting everybody around.
Offscreen: On a more technical side, it was the first time you were working with Ronald Plante as the director of photography. How was that relationship?
Philippe Falardeau: It went really well. He is a guy who works really fast and he is great with natural lighting. Speed was really important since we were working with children; you can’t leave them waiting for too long while you are making adjustments. He is also really intuitive instead of cerebral. From the start he told me that I should use cinemascope, which I didn’t think was appropriate, since I thought it should only be used for epic type of films. So I told him that he had to convince me and tell me why it was a good choice. But he is not interested in the “why”; he had the intuition that it was the right thing to do (laughs). So during the camera tests, I found out that using cinemascope was great, since when you place yourself at the height of children, you have the impression of having more elements in the frame, since you are working and concentrating more on the horizontal aspect, while losing vertical elements that you don’t need anyways like the ceiling, the floor, etc. So, he was totally right, but like I said, for him, it was totally intuitive, while I had to rationalize that choice. So, we really completed each other that way. I would work with him tomorrow again with no second thoughts.
Offscreen: Regarding the editing, you worked with Stéphane Lafleur,  who is also a director himself. How was your collaboration like?
Philippe Falardeau: It was great. We had never worked together before and I really admire his work as a filmmaker. I also wanted to break this barrier in the Quebec film industry nowadays where filmmakers are working on their stuff, alone, separate from each other. I kind of miss the spirit of the NFB of the 60s and 70s where people were collaborating on each other’s films. People don’t do that as much nowadays.
Offscreen: Were you afraid that since you are both directors that some creative differences would occur, creating tension?
Philippe Falardeau: No, not all. Stéphane knew that, for a lack of a better term, it wasn’t “his” film. However, he had complete freedom to contribute and suggest ideas, of course. Furthermore, being a filmmaker himself he understood that in the end, the person making the final choice is the director.
Offscreen: M. Lazhar addresses themes and issues close to Quebec’s society. The film played at many festivals around the world: Locarno, Toronto, Namur, to name only a few. Did people come to you and say they related to the film?
Philippe Falardeau: Yes, a lot. I think it’s because education is such a universal theme, wherever you are from. Same with immigration, it touches almost everybody nowadays. I was surprised though; it is a small and modest film. I didn’t think it would travel that far and also that it would touch both the public and the critics. Each time it won a prize from the public, it also won one from the critics, which is sometimes hard to accomplish, but always welcome (laughs).
Offscreen: Finally, you are really busy promoting the film right now, but have you already thought or started working on your next project?
Philippe Falardeau: Due to the nature of the industry here, you always have to start working on a future project as you are finishing or promoting your last one. So, I have been working on a couple of projects, one of them a comedy set in the world of Quebec politics. That should be the next one, but you never know how things turn out. I don’t work in TV or shoot commercials, so I don’t have a choice, I always need to keep on working on new film projects. Also, I’d love to be like Woody Allen, write and shoot one film each year, but it is never going to happen unfortunately. I find writing really hard; you are alone and there are a lot of doubts. Then, when you think you are done and the script is good, you have people read it and they tell you, “It’s really good, but it still needs work” (laughs). I think I’ve never written less than nine different versions for each film, sometimes even going 12 or 13. There is no way around it. Some people say “enough with the writing, you have to shoot,” but at the same time I think that screenwriting is an important tool and step in the filmmaking process.
1 La course destination monde (1988-1999) was a documentary TV series broadcast by Radio-Canada in which young filmmakers were traveling the world, making highly personal short reports detailing their experiences.
2 An accomplished filmmaker himself, Lafleur directed Continental, un film sans fusil (2007) and more recently En terrains connus (2011), winner of the Ecumenical Prize at the Berlin Film Festival.