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Overachieving wunderkind

Provocative Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan gets back in front of the camera with Tom at the Farm—and even predicts his own untimely death

It’s been four years since Xavier Dolan made his first appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival. At the time, there was a remarkable curiosity in the air of the festival about the Quebecois filmmaker. Just 19 years old, his first film, I Killed My Mother, was making its way back to Canada after premiering to rave reviews—and a couple of major awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Dolan had written, directed and starred in the film, which details an extraordinarily tumultuous relationship between a gay teenager (Dolan) and his mother (Anne Dorval).

Who was this overachieving wunderkind, people wondered, and was he here to stay?

This month, Dolan brings Tom at the Farm to TIFF, which should pretty much confirm—if it wasn’t already the case with 2010’s Heartbeats or last year’s Laurence, Anyways (which won the Best Canadian Film Award at TIFF) that the now 24-year-old filmmaker is indeed a great Canadian keeper.

It’s his fourth film in just five years to screen at the festival, and Dolan has no intentions of taking that ratio down; he’ll likely be done shooting his next film by year’s end. At this rate he could very well have had 10 films screen at TIFF by the time he turns 30, which surely will be some sort of record. Until then, though, there’s Tom at the Farm, which will be high on the to-see lists of many a festivalgoer.

Adapted from award-winning Quebecois writer Michel Marc Bouchard’s play of the same name, Tom at the Farm follows the titular young man (played by Dolan himself) as he travels to the Quebec countryside to visit the family of his recently deceased lover. After realizing the family was unaware he existed—or even that their son was gay—Tom is sucked into a dark and twisted game that begins to unravel, care of his lover’s psychotic brother.

Tom at the Farm is a departure from the unofficial trilogy of impossible love stories that precedes it, which the filmmaker was quick to point out when he sat down with IN Toronto. Discussing his new film and offering a hysterical, and hopefully not too prophetic, take on his own future, it made clear Dolan’s many talents also extend to answering interview questions.

Let’s talk about Tom at the Farm. What makes it stand out from your other films?

Tom at the Farm is a psychological thriller. I think that pretty well sums up everything there is to say in terms of newness for me. My previous films all talked about love… impossible love. I mean, Tom is quite severe when it comes to the filmmaking. It’s adapted from a no-exit play, and basically takes place in a kitchen, in a barn or in the corn fields.

How did you approach this new territory?

I remember watching a making-of [doc about] Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Lumet was talking about the restrictions of locations, time lapses, etc. His way of marking progression and building tension was to get closer and closer with every scene. Wide shots would slowly become American shots, and then framed from the shoulders up, until you choke at the end in extreme close-ups. I thought: So this is the sort of approach I should be looking for in this movie. Nothing flamboyant, nothing “me,” nothing noticeable. What was cute was made banal, what was too Latin in terms of acting was calmed down, what was too hipsterish in the production design was burned… I don’t really know how that worked out for me. Time will tell.

The film marks a return to you being in front of the camera after a break with Laurence Anyways. How did that feel?

It felt good. I had withdrawn from that part of moviemaking since [Dolan’s 2010 film] Heartbeats. And Laurence Anyways was an amazing acting workshop for me. I got to stare at actors all day long, learning from their method, their strengths and weaknesses. Not that they had major weaknesses, but interesting tics and instincts I could try to tame and then use in a specific way once I’d noticed them. It was like a very unique lab for me.

My name not being in the actual credits doesn’t mean I didn’t act in that movie too, though, trust me. I was talking to the actors constantly off camera, asking them to suddenly say an improvised line, or add something, touch their chin, look up, sing, etc. I admire actors; they are what make me want to be both a director and an actor. So going back to acting on Tom was a sweet homeward-bound experience, but this time with the knowledge, the observations I made of the actor’s journey on Laurence Anyways. I felt like I could both think and feel more, that I was becoming more and more an honest actor.

So you’re 24. You’ve made four feature films that have screened at the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Where do you go from here? Say, in 10 years… where do you see yourself?

This is exactly what I’ve planned, and I wouldn’t want it to happen in any other way: In 10 years, I’ll be dead. I’ll have worked with the great actors of our time, the new ones, the older ones. I’ll have bought my mother a cottage somewhere and continued to invest all of my money in my films and be constantly broke, pretending I can afford an exuberant lifestyle. I’ll have been a regular on a teen show like the ones that used to run on The WB —esoteric, sexual ones. I’ll have been spokesperson for a fashion designer, preferably a Belgian one, and will have ended up being the face of Dries Van Noten for free—yes, I’m just like that.

I’ll have asked Anne Dorval [who played Dolan’s mother in I Killed My Mother] to be the godmother of my child. I’ll have been in a stable, married relationship with Ben Whishaw and will have had a scandalous affair with straight-turned-gay-for-two-minutes Logan Lerman. I’ll have proven, ideally, that I can act, and acted for directors that inspire me, and whom, hopefully, I’ll inspire. Then I’ll die from cancer like everybody who was brought up in the 1990s and if I’m lucky my face will be in the Academy Awards [in memoriam] montage.

In the meantime I’ll keep aiming at dreams and things, and doing everything in my power to make them concrete and come to life. I know I’m the one who choses to be happy, or successful, somehow. So I won’t just seize the day, I’ll try to write it, and turn it into what I want it to be, and do it alongside the highest possible amount of extraordinary, intelligent, talented people. I’ll have all this gift-wrapped and to go please.

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