Canadian writer-director Denis Villeneuve lit up the festival circuit last year with his searing domestic drama Incendies, adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s play of the same name. Now, with the film currently enrapturing UK audiences, Villeneuve talks to LWLies bout war, women and the challenges of reworking a complex story from stage to screen.
How did you first encounter the play version of Incendies?
Villeneuve: I saw it a few years ago in a small theatre in Montreal, and I was astonished by how powerful and disturbing it was. The way it talked about anger, it described the movement of anger inside a family, inside society, and it really deeply attracted me right at the beginning. It’s such a strong story, I just took my two legs and ran as quick as possible in order to get the rights. For me it was delightful to hear such a story, it was like a dream.
Did you know instinctively that you wanted to make it into a movie?
The thing is, the dramatic structure was quite amazing, and despite the fact that it was a four-hour play, it was very theatrical with a lot of strong images on the stage. The dramatic structure was suitable for a film. I made a lot of changes, [playwright] Wajdi Mouawad gave me a lot of freedom to make changes and additions.
Was that not a massive, daunting challenge, to make a four-hour play into a feature length film?
It was a lot of work, yes. First of all, Wajdi gave me total freedom. He said to me, ‘No matter what happens, as long as you make it your own, I will love you.’ He meant that as long as I stand responsible, it will agree with him. I kept the dramatic structure and the characters, but I removed a lot of secondary elements to it, and I simplified the story. There was a lot of stuff with mathematics and the trial, I removed a lot of it to make it more simple.
Your other films Maelström and Polytechnique are female-driven stories as well. Is that something that appeals to you?
That is about inspiration, and at one point I decided not to try intellectualising what that is, it’s something very weird for me to realise. First of all, my first feature was about women, and then after that I took a break. And I realised when I chose my next two projects that they were again dealing with a female lead character, dealing with the female condition and women struggling with power against men. So it’s something that inspires me, but I cannot explain why. It’s just something that touches me.
Do you feel there are enough films about women being made?
That’s a good question. I’m not an expert, I never did any research about movies made with a female character. I think what’s more important is we should have more female screenwriters, but that will come slowly more and more.
How did your lead lady Lubna Azabel get involved with the movie?
I was looking for an actress who could portray the mother all across Canada, and I didn’t find her. Then I went to Europe and Paris, and the casting director there said to me, ‘You really want Lubna Azabel.’ I met her in Paris and I was really amazed by her; she had this kind of strength, a fire inside her that was necessary in order to portray the mother. She had this face that was able to go through time – straight away through the camera she looked 22 years old without any make-up. I was amazed! I knew that I would be able to age her. Before I met Lubna, I thought maybe I would use two actresses, or even three. But after I met her, we decided to go with one. It was quite a challenge because we didn’t have a lot of budget, but I’m very happy about it. Lubna Azabael, I owe her a lot.
Did Lubna have any ideas on how she wanted to create the character, or was it all cued from the script?
She took the cue from the script, but she’s a very intuitive actress. Basically, it was a long screenwriting process and the script was quite precise and clear. I gave her some reading to do, she read some plays and books. In a way it was tough because there were a lot of tough scenes, but at the same time it was very easy to direct her because she was very daring, she doesn’t ask questions, she just jumps.
Were you aware of trying not to swamp the human story with overly stylistic visuals?
I did try to, maybe I failed, I tried to be as humble as possible with the cinematography in order to tell the story with less shots. It was a big film crew but we did try to keep authenticity and spontaneity in front of the camera. Honestly the art direction, we tried to be as humble as possible and concentrate on storytelling. I consider myself a student, each film you try to focus on one aspect of the filmmaking and for me it was the storytelling for Incendies. From the screenplay to the shot list, because it was quite a sensitive dramatic equilibrium in order to not fall into melodrama. It was a lot of work with the actors.
The story can be quite melodramatic, was that a concern for you to not let it just become ridiculous?
It can be quite ridiculous, so it was like walking on a wire, it was really scary.
The film’s had a great response, it got nominated for the Oscar. How was it getting that acclaim?
When you’re making the film, you’re not thinking about that. In fact the thing that surprised me most was the reaction here in Toronto, it was quite a box office success. For a film like this with a lot of subtitles and a dark story, it had a strong response among the audience here, we were overwhelmed by that. Very surprised and very happy.
Were you sad you didn’t get the Oscar?
Not at all, just to be there was a big honour for me. To be honest, it was already a very huge honour to be there, I still forget or don’t believe it. [laughs] It was quite a ride and we feel very proud just to have been nominated.
Is that success going to lead to any English-speaking or Hollywood movies?
I love to work with people abroad, that is the thing that I love. I would love to work just one time in the American system just to try it, like a game in a way. I did receive a lot of offers, but I have to strongly believe in what I’m shooting in order to be able to direct it. It’s very difficult for me to find a script that I would love to do. There is something that landed in my hands a month ago called Prisoners that I thought was fantastic. Maybe I will do that in a few months.
Did you feel that you wanted to comment on war and tragedy in Incendies, or was that just part of the story as it was?
For me I wanted to do a movie about family, how a family deals with stress. And anger driving from parents to children, and the children have to get rid of this anger in order to become adults. About war for me, I’m not a war expert at all, I didn’t have the ambition to talk about war, it’s more a background for the film, I think. The author of the play is from Lebanon, he was raised in a war, he knows what he’s talking about. I see it with a lot of humility. I’m a war movie fan, but we did try to inspire our film from life, from photojournalism instead of cinema. It’s quite tough, of course I am influenced by other films, but I try as much as possible to draw inspiration from reality.