The 27-year-old director Xavier Dolan packs more into his years than most people — after all, he’s already helmed six movies, and his lovely and galvanizing 2014 entry Mommy was an award-winning Cannes Film Festival sensation — but even by his own high standards, 2016 was quite the annum. He returned to Cannes this past summer with It’s Only the End of the World, a drama based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce about a dying writer (Gaspard Ulliel) reuniting with the awfully fraught family he left behind ages ago. After the film’s contentious press premiere, Dolan scrapped with its critics online and threatened to quit filmmaking, though the Cannes jury awarded Dolan the Grand Prix days later in a move that stunned festival oddsmakers and gave Dolan the last laugh. Since then, Dolan (who also recently directed Adele’s video for “Hello”) has has started shooting his first English-language film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, which has a sprawling, starry cast that includes Kit Harington, Jessica Chastain, and Natalie Portman. It was during a break in that film’s production that I met up with him twice in Los Angeles to discuss It’s Only the End of the World — Canada’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film — and so much more.
I want to start with something small. There’s a moment in It’s Only the End of the World where our protagonist has come home after so long, and he goes to sit with his sister in her bedroom, and “I Miss You” by Blink-182 plays. It’s a song I have not thought about since it came out, and it works so damn well. Boom, instant nostalgia.
I love Blink-182. What I generally look for in music is this sort of happy, sad, nostalgia-filled texture … or, otherwise, it’s this empowering sexual vibe. It’s generally either-or — it’s gonna be sad and melancholic and you want to literally kill yourself and jump out the window, or it’s going to be this sort of crazy, sexy thing.
You’re not afraid to pepper your soundtracks with big hits that never quite found favor with critics.
When we were in prep for Mommy, I asked my producer Nancy Grant, “Do you think I have the right to use Dido’s ‘White Flag’ for the opening credits?” I love Dido, legitimately, but I was afraid that some people would sour hearing it and be like, “Oh my God, what’s that choice?” And I remember Nancy looked at me and she said, I remember, “What do you mean, ‘the right’? You have the right to do anything. People will be pleased to hear that song, they love that song.” You have the right to stop being afraid of people who look down on these choices as being too commercial or accessible. The snobbery comes from the fact that they refuse themselves the legitimacy of pleasure. Like, some people write me on Twitter and say, “I loved your movie, but ugh, ‘Natural Blues’ from Moby? You really disappointed me. How pedestrian of you.” And I’m like, “Thank you. Duly noted.”
Is it any coincidence that you draw so many of the songs on your films’ soundtracks from a more uncomplicated time before you became a director?
I’ve literally never had the opportunity to explain that. Movies are about what I’m missing. Not what’s missing from my life — what I’m missing in a nostalgic way, what I miss from when I was a kid. The textures, the colors, they’re all things that I miss. All these movies are poured out of nostalgia, and so are these songs. They send us back to the precise moments where we first heard that song, where we made out to that song, where we had a breakup to that song. You soak it in and you never forget these things and suddenly you’re in a dark theater room with all these people and you have nothing to do with this film, you didn’t write this film. But here’s our chance as the creators of the film to have you contribute to the story that we’re telling because suddenly when you hear this song, it’s your emotions, it’s your sensibility, it’s your memory of when your dad was rough, it’s the pleasure you have when you think of the aunt who would always give you candies and that song would be playing in the background. It’s all of these things and suddenly, you become a writer of the film and we’re writing it together.
Unlike the main character in It’s Only the End of the Word, you haven’t moved away, or gone to Hollywood. You’re staying where you still have those roots and those nostalgic feelings.
I’m not going to entertain buying property in Venice, or something — I’m not moving here. I love living in Montreal. I love being with my friends, I love being with my family, I love going every Sunday to my aunt’s, where I lived for three years with my cousins who were like my brothers and sisters. I play badminton with my mom, I’m not gonna give up on that, I’m not gonna lose that. You eat well in Montreal, and at the McGill campus there is cradle of all the hottest people on earth. And they’re all there wearing their sportswear and wearing their little McGill hoodies and you’re like, “Oh my God, I want you to do sport on me.”
What was it like to deal with the reviews of It’s Only the End of the World at Cannes? Your last film to play there, Mommy, got across-the-board raves.
Well, it was a bittersweet experience. I’m an emotional person, and I came to Cannes emotionally open, as I had every time before. Mommy was such a high and there was so much love, but this film, for some reason, has provoked so much bile, so much fire, so much hatred and violence. We had a hard time believing what was going on.
Did you think it would be so polarizing?
Not at all. It hasn’t been ever since. It hasn’t been polarizing with the public. In Europe, we’ve had extraordinary experiences with people.
So what do you attribute that Cannes reaction to?
Oh, God, that’s dangerous. I’ve never been smart about it. I feel like the wisest thing to do would be to go tabula rasa on that and pretend it never happened, but it did. If it would have been typical reviews, that would have been one thing. Through the years, I’ve devoured negative reviews. I’ve even highlighted things from them.
And you agree with some of the criticism you’ve gotten in the past?
Not agreed, but reflected on. And after a while, I’d be like, “Hmm, yeah, I guess there was too much slow-motion in Heartbeats.” Or “I guess there was too much music and too many useless characters in Laurence Anyways. Yeah, okay.”
But this time, you took the criticism differently?
This time, before I read any of the reviews, I read the tweets. I was like, “Oh, this is going to be one of those hateful things.” I just put it aside, but I was sort of torn, and I wanted to read the reviews. So I read one or two — one in Vanity Fair and one in The Playlist — and they were such important misreadings of the film I had made that I thought whether these people were right or not, our divergences would be irreconcilable. It wasn’t worth it to me to destroy myself or consume myself to read them.
You say that, but clearly they did affect you.
They did affect me, yeah. I went home with my entire body whiplashed. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t sit on a chair without feeling my entire body had been bruised. I was told that what happened to my body is what happens to someone during a car accident when they see a truck coming through the windshield and brace for impact. My hands have been plagued with eczema for the last six months, and it’s not going away.
This only happened after Cannes?
It appeared during the summer. Acupuncture, creams, cortisone, pills, steroids, sports … nothing works. Natural products, essential oils, nothing works.
Cute McGill students don’t work either?
I haven’t tried that. [Pause.] Actually, I have, but …
One critic conflated you with the main character, which really bothered you.
I’m not dying. I’m not misunderstood by my family. I have a great relationship with my family — we play games, cards, I see them often. I certainly never saw an alter ego in this character, and to be quite honest, I put a lot more of myself in the older brother, or the mother, or the teenage sister. I guess it’s a rather poor interpretation to think that because I have a career, a movie about a son coming home to his family is essentially my story. It’s just quite evidently the play.
What do you see of yourself in the overbearing older brother?
Rage. The violence. When I was a kid, I would fight a lot in the schoolyard. I got expelled from summer camps and schools, and at one point, it disappeared. I keep thinking it’s a bit of a blessing that I’m short, because had I been taller and bigger … I don’t know. Maybe I would be in jail or something. The inclination for violence and impetuosity has been channeled into filmmaking instead of physically assaulting people. But there are some memories, when I start thinking about them, where I’m so uncomfortable or so embarrassed by my own behavior that I have to start singing, if I’m alone.
Your actors seem very protective of you.
I want to be very close to them, not because I’m a groupie, but because I worship all these people’s work. I admire them. In order for me to befriend someone, I need to admire them, and I need that respect to be mutual. I love Jessica, I love Susan Sarandon, I love Kathy Bates. Clearly they are here because they have a purpose, and they’re also gracious and grateful about being a part of this business. They’re very complete artists who are not wallowing in whimsical extravaganzas and stupid requests.
You mean they could become divas and haven’t?
Well, some of the idiosyncrasies of that lifestyle are sort of inevitable. You have an entourage, you have crews. That’s okay. What I mean is that the priority is the work. Jessica became my friend way before we started shooting Donovan, so the relationship had time to be fed and nurtured before we actually got on set. Same for Marion, I love her with all my heart.
You haven’t cast yourself in one of your own movies in a while.
I will, very soon. I will never force my presence in a script where it doesn’t feel organic or natural. I’m not gonna play that kid in Mommy, and I’m not going to have one of those annoying cameos where it’s like, “Hey, it’s me, I’m the delivery man!” I find that very irritating, unless you’re Hitchcock. But I miss acting a lot.
What do you get from acting that you don’t get from filmmaking?
Acting is liberating. Filmmaking is not liberating — the loneliness and the responsibilities consume you. When you’re acting, you’re letting something out, and when you’re directing, you’re absorbing everything.
You do seem very uninhibited as an actor. I can’t recall another director who bottomed onscreen in his first movie.
You know what? I don’t think I would do that now. And I’m not even a bottom, actually, if we want to go there.
Let’s go there.
Okay. What outlet is this for again? [Laughs.]
Your film Tom at the Farm, to me, feels like it’s about a bottom. Even the way it’s shot is this dance between a submissive protagonist and a domineering top.
It is a dance. I don’t have a problem with putting myself in a submissive position. [Pause.] Are you trying to make me confess? Are you trying to make me come out as a bottom here?
Come out however you’d like. There’s also “vers.”
You’re strictly …
It must be satisfying that “Hello,” the video you directed for Adele, was watched by nearly the whole world.
Yeah, but I had nothing to do with that.
You didn’t feel like your stamp was on that video?
I did, and obviously I was extremely happy, but that’s a measure of how appreciated an artist Adele is. She’s been so generous with her fans, but she’s also been so mysterious about her life and her choices. I love that artistic routine she has where she disappears and lives. I don’t know her that well and I wouldn’t want to talk shit, but at a certain point when you’re in this business and you don’t do anything else and you don’t live and go out into the world and watch and absorb life — smiles, laughter, idiosyncrasies — you become self-obsessed, or obsessed with a micro-climate you’re involved with that is irrelevant to the rest of the world. I don’t think Adele is likely to be writing songs about show business — like, “Jesus, I’m so famous now, what am I gonna do with all that money?” Instead, she withdraws and lives, and I find that brilliant.
Did you cast Tristan Wilds as her love interest?
I did, yes. I suggested him to her and she agreed.
Well, I like him and love what he did on The Wire …
Well, what is your question?
What is your answer? Because I can tell there’s more to what you said.
It was her desire that we wouldn’t cast a Caucasian male in this, which I thought was great. She called me and said, “This is what I think we should do,” and if my memory serves me right … I’m going to be honest, it’s tragic not to be able to remember what exact conflict was on the news at that moment, because there are so many incidents of police brutality. She called me right after one of those incidents of police brutality, and I wish I could remember the name. I wish it wouldn’t be as hard to remember because there wouldn’t be so many different instances of those incidents. They’re disgusting.
So Adele suggested this to you?
She said it in such a natural way. It was not opportunistic, she didn’t want to be hip or anything. She was just like, “I’m concerned with the reality of the tensions between authorities and the black community, and I want to send a message out there.” I thought it was beautiful. I wish that it was my idea, but it wasn’t.
There was a rumor that you cast Adele in your next film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. True?
How is that film going?
We’re halfway through now. We’re taking a break because I didn’t want to do it all in one shot. I was afraid I would get sick, which I have.
Do you usually get sick when you’re making a movie?
No, but that one was especially grueling. It was a very tough experience.
What was so grueling about it?
How we organized it, how we prepped it. There was a lack of preparation there that had implications throughout the whole summer. It’s a tough movie to piece together, it’s a lot of worlds colliding and intertwining. It’s easier when you’re doing a film like It’s Only the End of the World, which spans an afternoon. This one is tough because I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna be shooting part of this scene with Natalie Portman in five months, and that’s gonna have to be a dolly. And I know that the transition out of this scene ends statically so I’m gonna have to find something in the next scene so that it works.” It’s just hard. You’re all over the place.
Donovan is about a male movie star, played by Kit Harington, whose career is thrown into jeopardy when people discover he has this correspondence with a much younger male fan. Didn’t you write fan letters to Leonardo DiCaprio when you were little?
Oh, many, many, many.
So perhaps that was the germ of the idea?
Yeah, I guess it echoes. It was an almost systematic pastime I had as a kid to reach out to stars and tell them how much I loved them. I wrote to Danny DeVito, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Leo, the cast from Buffy, the cast from Roswell, the casts from Charmed and Smallville …
Was Kate Winslet just as important to you as Leo?
I’ve been a fan from the first hour. Kate Winslet has inspired me to become an actor, a director, a costume designer … she’s helped me to grow as an artist and as a human being in a way that she will never know. When I saw her in Titanic, I was 8 years old. I saw the film and I was like, “Oooh, look at that.” Big ideas, ambition, greater than life. It showed me that there were no limits to the things you could dream. I couldn’t believe the production design. Do you know the accuracy and the rigor of the research James Cameron did for it?
Down to the fine china.
Down to the doorknobs. The accuracy of every detail is nothing short of autistic, and it’s very impressive. But from the age of 8 to 16, Kate Winslet was the spokesperson of my teenage-hood without ever knowing it. She’s been the face of my wildest artistic dreams. The way she walked, the way she talked … she’s defined the person that I am in so many aspects. And I know that it’s extremely weird to be talking about this. Some artists do that to you. For me, it was her.
You’ve been working in film for so long, but you’re still so enamored by movie stars and big movies.
The beautiful thing about directing films is that people take the work and insert it into their own lives in a moment of need, or in a moment of growth. The movie does not belong to you anymore — it become their property. Titanic became my property as a kid, and I used it in every possible way to become the man that I am today. I’ve been busting everyone’s balls about Titanic for the past few years.
You felt you had to defend it?
Yeah. Because people are smug.
This interview has been edited and condensed.