Three service elevators, two stairwells, and one cautious yet friendly hotel employee later, Xavier Dolan locates what he and his “Laurence Anyways” actress and friend Suzanne Clément discovered the previous afternoon: A barren hotel floor halted mid-renovation, drenched in sunlight amidst stripped columns and walls, and a cloud of dust lifted with every step through it. “This floor technically doesn’t exist, if you just use the main elevators,” notes the 23-year-old director of “J'ai Tué Ma Mere (I Killed My Mother)” and “Heartbeats” as we wander around the space.
He and Clément are both stationed here in one of Los Angeles’ historic hotels to promote "Laurence Anyways" -- the TIFF award winner which received a standing ovation at its AFI Fest premiere earlier this month -- and he suggests the abandoned floor as a perfect location for our interview. This proves only half-accurate. The next hour plays out in fragments; answers are given until the peculiar surroundings catch our eye, a well-concealed prescription bottle of “Skywalker Kush” here, or a three-legged antique chair somewhere else. Still, the measured pace allows the Québécois native to skip past immediate sound bites and to instead speak assuredly on “Laurence Anyways,” the misinterpreted qualities to his career, as well as his recently-wrapped fourth film, which he deems “completely different to anything I've ever done.”
Even with the lower-key atmosphere though, to interview Dolan is to noticeably contend with his relationship to the press accumulated thus far. Hyper-conscious of the many labels and criticisms thrown his way, he now speaks with passionate yet careful clarification, having grown quite conflicted with the publicity side of his work. “There are great moments in promotion, great conversations,” Dolan told us, “But… there's a part of this world that I dislike, and it’s the part of justifying what I'm doing. Justifying that I'm 23 years old, or the fact that I said I was disappointed not to be in Official Competition in Cannes.” The prestigious festival’s decision this past year to place 'Laurence' in Un Certain Regard is one that greatly controlled Dolan’s life afterwards (more on that later), but for him, it was always simply the film’s ambitious approach that made it a worthy endeavor.
Aiming in Dolan’s words to “tell a 'Titanic' love story,” the drama charts the relationship of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Clément) as he breaks the news that he wants to become a woman. “How does a transgender coming out happen?” asks Dolan, noting the immense emotional and experiential range he wanted to portray. “There's no way of doing it ‘progressively’… what does that even mean? If I'm going to go watch a movie about a gay guy coming out of the closet, I'm not going to impose the way that I came out onto it. I'm going to open up and widen my experience.”
At first glance, 'Laurence' looks to have its own roster of justifications as well -- a near three-hour runtime, period setting, and decade-spanning storyline, to name a few -- but Dolan is adamant that every element had its purpose, especially the length. “We knew from the very beginning that if you want to talk about a love story like this, it's not gonna happen in two hours,” he says, “Even if you're Harvey Weinstein it's not going to happen. No one bullied me into cutting it.” Continued Dolan, “It's important in order to bond with [Laurence and Fred] to follow their rituals, their inside jokes. To know their family and environment, and to see that change, and feel that destructive work of time. And that's where the emotion happens.”
Part of that overwhelming sensation Dolan is after comes through enormously in his intuitive blend of image and music. His career has been one marked by visual storytelling coupled with that perfect song, from the use of Crystal Castles’ "Tell Me What To Swallow" in “J’ai Tue Ma Mere” to The Knife’s “Pass This On” in “Heartbeats,” and 'Laurence' shows a massive progression in terms of exploring character through these flourishes. However, for Dolan, the cinematography is rarely the point of most input. “You know, people talk about my visuals, which, of course, is flattering, but it’s not what I’m really focusing on,” he says. “You don't spend -- we don't really care about that. We care about the acting and the dialogue, and psychologically thinking about the scene. Some people will say of a frame, ‘Oh it’s calculated, it’s so pretty.’ It took a second. A second. ‘Put the camera here. No, here. Tilt up, thank you, now let's talk about the scene.’ ”