The Incendies writer/director talks landing a dream project and getting more than he bargained for
Published: June 1, 2011
By the time City Paper spoke with writer/director Denis Villeneuve from his Montreal home in early April, Susanne Bier’s In a Better World had already won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards, in which his Incendies was also nominated. Fortunately, Villeneuve keeps amazing company among the other passed-over nominees, which include such impressive non-English movies as Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside the Law, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, and Giorgos Lanthimos’ unforgettable Dogtooth.
Even in such a formidable field, Incendies perhaps delivers the most crippling gut punch. It follows a pair of twins who, after their mother dies, discover her frenetic life story. Cutting across time and place, religion and culture, piling wartime atrocity atop of human cruelty until you almost can’t take it anymore, the film manages to find the unspeakable even beyond that. It’s a rough ride that Villeneuve pulls you into from the very first scene, and it’s to his considerable old-fashioned storytelling credit that you sit rapt, following an arduous cinematic journey that would be difficult to take were it not so artfully achieved.
City Paper : I’m sadly unfamiliar with the play, so if you don’t mind, could you tell me a little bit about your own experience with it?
Denis Villeneuve: I saw in the newspaper one morning, there was a play from Wajdi Mouawad, and there was the last tickets that were about to be sold. And I bought the last two tickets of the very last show—it is not a joke. They were very bad seats, in fact. I was sitting in the front row, you know? The actors were spitting in my face. And I said to myself, Oh no, it’s supposed to last three hours and a half—it’s going to be a nightmare. And after 10 minutes I was in the most impressive theater experience of my life. It was so intense that at one moment I forgot I was at a play—I was too much into the story. You know it happens sometimes with movies—you have to pinch yourself or the wife has to tell you you’re happening in real life right now, you don’t have to be afraid? It was a very, very intense and beautiful theater experience.
And when I went out of the theater my wife looked at me and said, “Oh boy—you’re going to make a film.” And I said, “Yup.” I was properly astonished. And I remember hearing the audience response to the play. There was a kind of huge silence in the room. And there was a lot of emotions at the same time. And since then, I said to myself, If I am able to have 10 percent of that power in the film I’ll be doing OK—because the play is a masterpiece.
CP : What about it did you respond to that made you want to adapt it? And talk a little bit about the adaptation process. Does it crosscut between time and place as well?
DV: Several things appealed to me. First of all, it was one of the most difficult stories I have ever heard, and what it says about anger, the cycle of anger, the cycle of violence, in society. And the way Wajdi Mouawad is able to talk about it through a contemporary story mixed with Greek tragedy, I just thought it was brilliant. And there was also this very beautiful dramatic structure, quite original, where it is a kind of dialogue between past and present, going back and forth between the daughter and mother experience. And I thought the film would be a different treatment but this same idea of going back and forth like this, and I did try to do my best to translate it to the screen.
CP : Were you familiar with the Middle East, its history, and Arab culture prior to making this movie? How did you go about approaching the subject matter?
DV: A little bit. I had been there before because I had made a short documentary, but I was not an expert. When I did get the rights, I realized that it was a very bad idea to make this movie, because I will be talking about something that I didn’t know. It was something that’s so far away—I’m French Canadian. But still, we did our homework, and it was a long process of adaptation, we did a lot of research and a lot of trips over there—because my main challenge was to find an authenticity about Arabic culture in front of the camera. And that was very important for me.
Another thing, in order to do so, and I don’t know if I will answer your question, but I did need the help of a lot of people. Arabic culture is a mosaic, there is so much to learn and I am not an expert—I know just a little bit about the Middle East. So I did need a lot of people over there. I had my actors, the film crew, a lot of advisors from Lebanon and from Jordan, from a lot of places in the Middle East who helped me to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite the screenplay and help me to also make the mise-en-scène. I was directing the actors, but I was also always asking questions. We did a lot of workshops with actors over there, because there was a lot of amateurs that were working on the film and in order to find a kind of truth and authenticity, which was very important to me, but it was a collaboration. A lot of listening.
CP : I want to ask you in particular about two scenes and just to talk about your approach. The first is the very opening scene of the young boy getting his head shaved: Why this moment?
DV: It’s a sequence that has been part of the film since day one. Before I wrote the screenplay I wrote this sequence, and the sequence was written in order to convince Wajdi Mouawad that I was able to inspire myself from his play and not just make a dumb translation from stage to screen. It was very difficult. This play is so theatrical, but how do you make cinema out of it? That was my goal—to inspire myself from his ideas instead of directly from the play. So that was the kind of image that went out very quickly about little kids losing their identity as they become soldiers that I likened very quickly with the Radiohead song as an opening sequence that will have the kind of impression and haunting feeling that I was looking for. ”Haunting” is not the right word. There is a saying in French that means that the audience goes slowly into the movie. This idea to go into a world, an alien landscape, from a Westerner’s point of view—to come to this world that we’re going to enter into. That has been there since day one. Because Wajdi Mouawad said to me that he was giving me the rights on the condition that I do whatever I want with it—he gave me total freedom. So this was the kind of thing where I saw I was really making my own artistic trip, you know?
And the thing is, the place where we did shoot it, I was looking for an abandoned school. And we did find a real one, and it was just a few meters from the Syrian border with Israel, a place called Golan [Heights] that is a war place right now—it is a part of Israel now. But it is a place that has been, how can I say, it’s a small war zone that has been invaded through years from one side and the other for 2,000 years. When I was writing Incendies, I said it was inspired by southern Lebanon but it is not southern Lebanon, so it could be the Golan Heights. And when I was looking around the Golan Heights to find a house or something to make the opening scene looking at the Golan Heights, then I found this place that was so perfect.
Sometimes life gives you so much big gift when you make a film. And that’s the thing—Jordan was so generous with us, and this is a perfect example. Perfect location, perfect place—and what was great about it, our young boys? They traveled in a bus for two hours in order to arrive. It was a very faraway and long trip to get there, so I didn’t have a lot of time to work with them. But what was good is that those young boys were quite numb and exhausted, so they did exactly the feeling that I was looking for because I wanted them to look tired. And those boys are between 6 and 7 years old, which is the worst age to have [on set].
CP : The other is the scene between Simon and Jeanne after he comes back from speaking with Chamseddine. I ask because it’s an uncomfortably powerful moment played out with very, very little dialogue.
DV: The scene where Simon says to Jeanne one plus one equals one? It was in the play. It was not written like this. It was longer, and there was a huge mathematical explanation from Jeanne. It was more theatrical, it was beautiful in the play. I just kept the essence of it and the meaning, and I made it as simple as possible. And I did try to find the right emotion with Jeanne for how she reacts. I don’t make a lot of takes most of the time, but this time, I made a lot in order to find exactly what I was looking for. [laughs] And when she allowed herself to do it—I love Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, the actress, because she did it and did it. She was a real paratrooper. She was willing to do whatever I want without ego. She is a very real actress. And I was looking for something specific and then at one point, she did what you see. And I was just so happy because it was exactly the kind of reaction I was looking for.
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