Xavier Dolan on Mommy, Art, and His Harry Potter Tattoo

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Xavier Dolan. Photo: Ernesto Ruscio/Getty

At only 25 years of age, Xavier Dolan already has the sort of filmography that some slow-to-shoot directors would spend decades on. Playful and prolific, the French-Canadian writer-director has debuted four of his five movies at the Cannes Film Festival, including his first effort, I Killed My Mother (which Dolan made and starred in while still just 19), and his latest feature, the acclaimed Mommy, which won the fest's Grand Jury prize last summer. Starting this weekend, U.S. audiences will finally be able to check out Mommy, which stars Anne Dorval as a fierce working-class mother raising her whirling-dervish teen son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), with the help of her shy neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). Last month in Los Angeles, I sat down with the flirtatious auteur for a freewheeling talk about Mommy, clothes, creativity, and tattoos.

Do you come to L.A. very often?
You have such a great, deep voice. It's like velvet. Um … I've been here twice in a month. Wait, I've been here, like, ten days and ten days, and in the meantime I was in Montreal, I went to Italy to do press for Mommy, and I was in New York for an overnight thing.

Do you like being a vagabond like that?
Well, when we were in Italy, we did the premiere in Rome, and then we were in Toscana for two days doing sweet nothing on a private ranch. So as long as you get those breathers … what I'm not doing anymore is flying in on a shitty red-eye flight where you get there at 7 in the morning, you're stuck in traffic on the way to the hotel, then you rest for an hour and a half, introduce screenings all day, and premiere the same night. And then during the premiere you have this dinner with officials and ambassadors and whatever. Seriously, it makes me want to kill myself. You're completely off for everything! You don't want to engage in conversation with people, you are not interested in what you're seeing or people's questions, you're jet-lagged, emotional. It's awful. I'd rather stay longer in a place, because people deserve your full commitment. They expect you to be as professional as they are.

I saw Mommy in Cannes, and there's a moment in the film involving an aspect-ratio change that prompted some of the most joyous applause I heard at the fest.
I was told! That happened the night before our premiere, and I was in my room with Nancy, the producer of Mommy, and a friend of mine called Ludo, doing the seating chart for the Palais, the Grand Lumiere.

Do you usually get involved with the seating chart for your premieres?
You cannot not be involved in a seating chart! It's too political. You're seating Daddy, Mommy, Daddy's mommies, directors, financial agencies, financiers, producers, agents … so we were doing that, I was looking at the seating chart, and it was a fucking Chinese puzzle. And then the movie ended, and our French publicist called me crying — and I could hear other journalists talking to her, crying too, and she mentioned that applause moment. You know, I think Cannes can be pretty harsh, and journalists can be pretty tired. It's an orgy of movies and improbable schedules, and there comes a point when you have no patience for a certain sort of film — so hopefully, your film is not that sort.

Having gotten all sorts of reactions to your movies over the course of your career, how did it feel to get that sustained, prize-winning praise at Cannes?
How do you think? It feels great! It's very rewarding. You're not looking for the journalists' disapproval, obviously — you're looking for their affection and validation. I don't personally do movies for myself and a faction of very cerebral cinephiles — I do it for everybody, and wish for the largest amount of people to relish whatever they find they can relish in.

When you're writing a new film, then, do you have an ideal viewer in mind? Or would that be too specific?
There's a variety of people, and they don't even know they're part of that group. There's a friend, there's someone from my family that I always think of, there's a critic who's a great, great friend of mine, and it's a conflict of interest but we've worked around it … I'd say there's like five or six people, and I wouldn't want to disappoint these people. And they're all so different from one another.

What did you learn from those people when you made Mommy?
I haven't even talked to them all about it. It's not about what they actually think of the movie, it's about what you think they're going to think when you're writing it and shooting it. They encompass the widest scope of the audience's DNA. You have one intellectual critic, one cousin, one teacher, one accountant, one lover. To me, they represent a very large sample. A very hetero … heterocli … what is the word? It's a word that exists. Let me look it up for you.

Maybe non-homogenous, because it draws from so many different sources?
That works, but the word I'm looking for exists, and I'm gonna find it. [He checks a dictionary app.] I have Wi-Fi, but I've just turned it off because it's so slow. Okay, it's heteroclite. It means mixed and varied. [To the app] I have an internet connection, you piece of shit.

Your visuals in Mommy are very composed and controlled, but the performances within the frame feel so spontaneous. With such an exacting eye, do you always leave room for your actors to surprise you?
Every moment was surprising with these actors. These two ladies, they were so creative, and we did improv all the way. I have a monitor and I see the scene as it goes, and I suddenly think this new line is necessary but I don't want to cut, so I say it out loud and they incorporate it into the scene. "Suzanne, say that! Don't answer now. Hold back." It's like we're dancing, or like it's a music sheet and every note must fall in the right place, but the actors were free to bring their own notes to that music sheet.

And I would think you'd know what notes they're capable of, since you've worked with Anne and Suzanne before.
I do, but they're creative, and they don't want to keep walking in their steps or in mine. The thing is that they're never wrong about anything. They're never bad, these two. It's impossible.

Would they agree with assessment?
An actor who would say that about himself is an actor I don't want to work with.

Some actors can be that vain.
They can go fuck themselves. No, [Anne and Suzanne] would never say that. They're ever so dubious about their own work, and so paranoid and nervous — especially Anne, in a very extroverted way. She's very talkative and verbose and worried, while Suzanne is very enigmatic and cryptic in the corner, listening to her music almost in an autistic way. But the truth is that they're always so creative, and they created characters, not performances. I'm there for them, and I'm an actor, but as a young man, the ideas I would have for them and their characters are not necessarily the ideas they would have as women their age with their experiences. So I share with them my ideas as an actor — how I would act it myself, even if I'm not a woman or their age — and together, with their ideas and mine, we try to make it refreshing and keep it spontaneous.

You also did the costumes for this film. Does that give you a lot of satisfaction?
Oh, a lot of satisfaction. I love doing costumes. The costume is an actor's first line, so it's gotta be right! Here's the thing with the costumes for Mommy: Given the background and social strata that the characters come from, you can't really imagine that they've gone shopping lately, so we went for that very normcore, fashionless era in history, the early 2000s, which was completely transitional. The early 2000s were a pure catastrophe in terms of taste — it's just a nightmare — but Anne could have been wearing stuff from as early as the '90s, and I didn't want to go there. I thought that would have been mocking her character, and I don't mock. I wanted her to be sexy, very Teen Mom, very MILF, but there's a line you can't cross with these characters or you become very indulgent, like one of of those costume designers who's on safari in the suburbs: "Oh my God, love the kitsch, love how tacky it all is!" For me, that's poverty porn, that's being cheap with these characters. In the same way, I didn't want to treat the sets as depressing and dismal. I said to our cinematographer, "Always yellow or orange, very warm, very Nan Goldin. And the fill lights: red, pink, purple." He said, "It doesn't make any sense." But I don't care. I want it to be like a dream, like it was shot always at sunset on Venice Beach.

I keep getting distracted by this snake tattoo running down your arm. What is it?
[He unbuttons his shirtsleeve.] This is the Dark Mark, my friend.

From Harry Potter? When did you get it?
When Voldemort recruited me!

How long did it take to get?
Too long. It was painful.

You have a great many other tattoos, I can see. Do you feel like you'll keep getting more and more?
You do keep wanting more, but you learn to wait for significant moments and significant events. You know that you're going to use the space that's left over the years, so you'd better use it well. I know I'm not gonna stop.

Did Mommy prompt one?
[Without hesitation, Dolan rises, unbuckles his belt, then pulls his pants and underwear down to reveal a fresh tattoo of roses running from his pelvis to well down his thigh.]

Wow.
[It's from] when Steve says, "Her ass smells like roses — it's written in the sky." That line inspired that tattoo.

Did you know, when you wrote it, that it might?
Actually, I said that about someone one day, to my friend. And then immediately wrote it down! I thought, "Who could be that vulgar? Steve!" [Laughs.]