“Monsieur Lazhar” is an Oscar-nominated Canadian film about an Algerian immigrant who takes a job as a substitute teacher even though he is not qualified and ends up learning a great deal from his students and teaching them more than either they or the school expected. I spoke to writer/director Phillippe Falardeau about his remarkable, if almost accidental, start in film-making, how he worked with children to create such sensitive performances, and the challenges of adapting a one-man play to tell a story on film.
How do you work with children on such a sensitive and difficult subject? The film opens with two of the children finding that their teacher has committed suicide. Ho do you take children to whom nothing bad has happened and help them create that performance?
There are some important things in what you’re saying. First of all, how do you work with children to craft a film that’s saying that and the fact that you’re saying we want to protect the children from that. I think the school [in the film] wants to do the same thing. The school has all kinds of protocols and rules and regulations trying to figure out all kinds of possible situations, but the film is saying no matter how many protocols we have and how many rules, we won’t be able to prevent stuff from happening, because life happens, period.
And some of those rules have the opposite impact, like saying that a teacher cannot touch a child for any reason.
Exactly. So, working with the children—it’s interesting, because, we see the film and we see the stuff happening through the children’s characters. But you have to remember that when you’re crafting the film, these things happen over a period of three to four months so they see the stuff coming. There’s an audition, and then you talk about the subject with the parents and with the children, and so it’s slow in happening. It’s never a traumatic experience for the young actors, because it’s an abstract idea on paper, first, and when we’re on the set, we’re at three months later and we’ve talked about it a lot. And I found out that at that age, ten eleven, twelve, they’re often dismissed as too young to talk about it, but that is not true. Even though none of these events happened to me when I was a young kid—I hated it when adults were saying, “It’s not a subject for you. We can’t talk about it. You’re too young for that. You’re too young for that.” Especially when I had a question about something. So, I wanted a film that would say, “No, they’re not too young for that, actually,’ and Bachir Lazhar is not treating them like that—he’s treating them like equals.
Even when he makes a mistake in thinking they’re capable of more than they are.
Exactly, and I think life finds a way—or the children will find a way—of saying, well, this is just a little over our heads. Because there is the issue of competence: are they able to do a dictation taken from Balzac? And there’s the issue of life and the questions that are raised by some events; you cannot hide them from children, even if they’re ten years old. So for me, it’s just a long process of audition, taking your time, not just throwing them in front of a camera and saying, “OK, read your lines,” and then, “Bye.” It’s meeting the person, giving them 15, 20 minutes—and if I like them, I invite them back for another audition that’s more complex, and then I work with a coach—she’s an actress also—but she’s good with kids, so, she rehearsed with me and she knows where I want to go in terms of tone, so when I’m off on other tasks, she keeps working with the children. We never leave the children alone. And the third part which is probably the most important, I tried to make the set a summer camp. They know it’s work—but if they have fun, I believe that they trust you, and if they trust you they can reach into their own emotions to give you some personal stuff, like the cathartic scene with the boy. I wish I could say I have a director’s trick I can use on children. I don’t. It’s just life happening there, because I think the children feel comfortable. With the young girl, it’s a little bit different because she’s a very good actress, and she could snap out of the emotion and just look at me and say, “Do you want another one? Do you want another take?” and she could get back into it. The boy was a slow process and difficult process. But in any case, I think trust is the key to work.
And they seemed to develop a very nice relationship between the two of them—a trust relationship.
Yes, yes, absolutely. And all these kids became friends for the duration of the shoot. At the end of the shoot, it was really emotional—it was like the end of a full school year–and they had this nice experience. I wish I would’ve been them when I was young, living through that experience. Some of them probably won’t become actors. I think they she will, the young girl named Sophie Nélisse who plays Alice, if she wants to, but she’s a gymnast and she’s a gymnast at a very, very high level—and that’s her goal in life, so I think she’s an accidental actress.
You took quite a challenge to adapt a one-person play into a movie and can you talk a little about that? You worked with the playwright, I think?
A little bit. She was the first person who read my different drafts and we bounced ideas, although I didn’t want her to co-write, and she didn’t want to co-write either. She knew the play had to transform and become something else. On stage, there’s one man interacting with people who are not there and that we don’t see or hear, but by his reaction we can make them out in our minds. As members of an audience, we’re actually making a film in our head while we’re watching the play. so it’s not that difficult for me to make that into a screenplay.
Tell me what is important about making your main character an immigrant.
In Canada, we have so much land, so much space, and so few people. Now we’re up to 32 million. We’re a country of immigrants. First of all, French immigrants and then the British immigrants, but soon after the Confederation in 1867, you need to colonize all the West, the farming land; so Ukrainians, Polish people—they all came from Eastern Europe to the west, there’s Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, and then the new wave of immigrants, the Chinese immigrants, and the west of to Vancouver. And in Quebec during the 1990’s, there were a lot of immigrants from Algeria because of the civil war there. Because they speak French, it’s more natural for them to go to France, but they have a difficult relationship with France because it was an ancient colony, so it makes sense for them to come to Quebec. America is so good at integrating and assimilating culturally and identity-wise with people because it’s such a strong political melting pot. In Canada, it’s a tapestry. It’s really something that immigrants can continue being immigrants for at least one generation without really embarking on what is Canada. You know, because, I don’t think Canada has a strong identity, except for some political choice we make, like health-insurance, for instance. We have a hard time defining ourselves…we often define ourselves negatively, we are not Americans.
In Quebec it’s different. We don’t have that identity crisis because we speak French, but we have this crisis of “will we exist in still 50 years” because we have linguistic assimilation. So, in the past ten years I’ll have to admit that our policy has been aligned to the U.S. politics in the post 9/11 era—we’ve been closing our doors to immigrants and refugees.
I was interested in having an immigrant character, but for me the most interesting thing that I was able to revisit who we are through his eyes. You have this guy who comes to school, he knows nothing about the rules and protocols, and he’s kind of clumsy, and he’s not a teacher. I like the fact that he’s lying to get his job, and he’s telling the truth to the immigrant officer—so it’s a nice way for us to look at where we’re at and it allows us to ask ourselves, is that a comfortable place? It’s like the Polaroid of where we’re at, and on certain issues like touching or not the children, I think we’ve gone too far…but by using this man who knows nothing about our values here, he’s like candid, in a way—he just does what he does we see ourselves through his eyes.
One thing that I thought was really strong in the film was the look of it. Can you talk a little about what your discussions were with the cinematographer and what you were trying to say? I thought the look of it matched the emotional tenor of it very well.
The first decision I had to make was with the format. Was it going to be the normal rectangular format or the cinemascope? Since it’s not an action movie or there’s no landscape, you don’t think of cinemascope. Then my director of photography, said, “I think you should shoot your first cinemascope format,” and I said, “Why? I want a documentary feeling.” He could not tell me why rationally, yet he had this instinct. So I said, “Ok, I’m going to do some tests.” So, we’re testing, and we have children in the classroom, and it’s two weeks before shooting, so I’m testing the different formats and I’m holding the camera at the height of the desk, and I’m realizing that with the cinemascope format, you have a feeling that you have more children, because you’re horizontal. You’re skipping the roof and the bottom. You don’t have more children, but you have the sense that there are more children. So that was the first decision. The second decision, I wanted only natural light from the exterior, I wanted it to be very bright, very luminous, colder at the beginning, just bluish at the beginning, and as the season progressed and as the film progressed, just a little warmer. So the premise of that film is so dramatic that I didn’t want the film to drown and be heavy—so I used the photography to pull the film towards the light. I also used also the music to do that. The music is not dramatic; it’s Mozart, it’s Scarlatti, and the music composer—when I pitched him the film, I said, “There’s going to be Mozart in there, so, bring your A-game on that one!”
I so admire the work of the National Film Board of Canada.
Unfortunately, they’ve been struggling and the conservative government has done some major cuts. It is ironic because we just had three films at the Oscars and the Minister of Culture was proud to announce that Canada had funded a film that was nominated for an Oscar at the same time they were making cuts. The National Film Board is still way up there in terms of animation, but for documentaries they are struggling and they have not financed a feature film since at least 18 years. It was a nice place to do films without engagement from distributors and television for financing a film so they could take risks. But I was influenced by them when I was younger.
Most directors say that they were inspired to make films by the movies they watched as children, but that was not what got you started, was it?
I knew I would make a feature film only at the age of 27. I studied political science and international relations and had the intention of becoming a journalist or work in foreign affairs. I had no intention of making a film. The first person to make me realize there was someone behind the film was Steven Spielberg. I saw his name on “Close Encounters” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” and said, “I want to see what he does next.” He was my first influence but it is ironic because he is everything our film industry is not — big Hollywood movies. And then I saw “Amadeaus” and what Milos Foreman did and it brought me into another spectrum of what film could do. And then then I participated in a contest from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the French side, a contest called “The Race Around the World.” Every year they would chose eight amateurs and give them cameras. We had to travel alone for six months and do 20 short films in 26 weeks in 20 different countries. The movies were shown before a panel of judges live on television. When I came back from that my life had changed and I wanted to make documentaries. Ken Loach and Mike Leigh became my real inspirations.