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Whistler Film Festival 2012 Interview - Mars & Avril director Martin Villeneuve

Mars & Avril at Whistler Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“In the history of Canadian cinema, there has never been anything quite like it. A visually sumptuous sci-fi movie set in a not-too-distant Montreal, this brilliant story eschews army battles and conflicts, and looks instead at a world in which creating art and music and beauty have taken over the collective consciousness. Caroline Dhavernas plays a beautiful photographer who wants to do a photo essay on an aging musician who designs his own instruments inspired by the bodies of women. She agrees to model for such an instrument, and the younger-instrument maker becomes infatuated with her, but she falls instead for the aging composer who admits to never having made love to a woman. On a journey to Mars, she gets lost in a form of cosmic consciousness that makes this film truly one of a kind.” Director Martin Villeneuve on his film “Mars & Avril” which screens at the Whistler Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the Whistler Film Festival? Where else has this movie played?

Yes it’s my first film in the Whistler Film Festival, and I’ll be attending the event along with the lead actress of the film, Caroline Dhavernas. It’s the eighth festival that we’re attending. Mars & Avril had its world premiere at the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last July. Since then, it has been selected in many other major cinema events where it received a warm welcome, including the Calgary International Film Festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma and the Mumbai Film Festival. Other international festivals are confirmed but are yet to be announced.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to wanting to make films?

As far as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with images and stories whether it’s comic books, theatre plays or movies. In 2002, after studying film and graphic design in Montreal, I started working in advertising as an artistic director, mainly for Cirque du Soleil. In my spare time, I directed short films and music videos, and designed film posters. I also wrote three award-winning graphic novels, two of which were optioned in 2005 by genius theatre maverick Robert Lepage. The idea was to turn them into a sci-fi movie, which I ended up writing, directing and producing over a period of 7 years. So, in a way, the opportunity of directing a first feature film came by initially doing something completely different…advertising and books!

How did this movie come together?

Robert Lepage strongly encouraged me to direct “Mars & Avril” myself, while he would remain involved as actor and creative producer. In 2007, after I had written the script, I contacted the famous Belgian comic book artist François Schuiten, who accepted to work on the film as production designer since he liked my books! Then I went to Cirque du Soleil, whom I had previously worked for, and asked their help to build the imaginary musical instruments that I needed for my film. By 2008 I had completed my initial budget of $1.25 million through public funds that would barely cover for preproduction and shooting, but not for postproduction. Since the film was to be shot almost entirely on green screen, in only 25 days, I created a detailed, 2 hours long ‘animatic’ and mapped out every detail before shooting. This tool came very useful – if not necessary – in this very abstract process of dealing with a green screen, but also with Robert Lepage’s character, who appears as a hologram in the film. By the end of 2009, the editing of a first cut was assembled, but I still had to at least double my initial budget in order to complete the 550 VFX shots involved in the film. Other producers, seeing the quality and the potential of what I had shot, came to help me get the production back on track. In 2011, Montreal-based post-production company Vision Globale started the visual effects and sound design. Also, the beautiful score was composed by Oscar-nominated Benoît Charest. Mars & Avril was a long time in the making, since no one had done that kind of film in Quebec before. At the same time, because it was the first one, many talented people joined the team and gave the film their best, which really is what made it possible.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

The film was one of the very first Canadian productions to be shot using the RED digital camera. We had chosen this format for obvious budgetary reasons, but also because the images that we shot while testing these cameras were gorgeous and, creatively speaking, very convincing! The cinematographer of the film, Benoît Beaulieu, was first hired as a line producer on “Mars & Avril”. But I soon discovered that Benoît is also a very talented director of photography, so I offered him another job! It was also his first feature film, so just like me he wanted to outdo himself, which he did. Like the rest of the team, Benoît had to work on a ridiculously tight budget, so he had to use his creativity to make each shot as beautiful as I wanted them to be. Again, the key laid in the best possible preparation, and Benoît was involved at the very beginning of the process and until the very end. So much so that he actually came back as a producer to help me refinance the film in 2011! He’s an amazing artist, a gifted producer and a good friend, one of those who will never let you down.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this movie? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

The most difficult aspect was obviously the financial one. For many years I had to carry the weight of an ambitious project that nobody had undertaken before in Quebec, and that I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to complete. I had to constantly fight to get all my creative ideas on the screen, without a realistic budget to back them up. I went through a real nightmare, even having to remortgage my house at some point! On the other hand, I was blessed to work with so many generous and talented people who never abandoned the project. There were so many pleasurable moments that it’s hard to pick one up, but I would say the highlight for me was to work with the visual effects team: 60 amazing artists worked full time for 6 months, so that I could finally see the images that I had in my mind’s eye, for all these years, coming to life! After the nightmare of refinancing the film, this light at the end of the tunnel came as a real blessing.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Directors like Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam inspire me a lot, but I didn’t try to copy my approach on that of any specific established filmmaker. Instead, I tried to find an approach that best suited the content of the film. My visual influences came primarily from comic books, especially that of François Schuiten, whom I approached as production designer. I wanted the source of my inspiration to play a direct role in the creation of the film rather than try to mimic his style.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Trust your instinct, believe in your ideas for as many years as necessary, and don’t let anybody tell you that what you aspire to do is impossible.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or making noise at a screening of your movie?

“Do you have any idea how much time, effort and talent went into each frame of this film? Obviously you don’t, so why don’t you go talk or text elsewhere more appropriate?”

What is the single, greatest movie that you've ever seen at a film festival?

I really liked Leos Carax’s latest movie, “Holy Motors”, when I saw it at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Mars & Avril screens Saturday, 7pm at the Whistler Conference Centre. Ticket and information page can be found HERE.

This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Whistler Film Festival. For show information, tickets and for other general information on films and events, point your browser to the official website HERE

Be sure to follow instant happenings of Whistler Film Festival on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a photo or two.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 12/01/12 23:51:44
last updated: 12/03/12 04:09:30
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