Sitting relaxed and cross-legged in a downtown Toronto hotel room, French filmmaker Laurent Cantet is the epitome of business casual relaxation. The top half showcases a very serious man – shirt, blazer, tie – while he shows off being a kid at heart from the waist down with jeans and tennis shoes on. It’s actually perfect attire to be talking about his latest project, Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (opening this Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox with special appearances from some of the cast members). The material has its feet planted firmly in the realm of teenagers and it’s brain and heart are dealing with some very tender and deep adult conflicts.
Foxfire is the second filmed adaptation of famed writer Joyce Carol Oates’ 1993 best seller about a group of upstate New York teenagers banding together in the face of 1950s injustice. Told from the perspective of the shy narrator Maddy (Katie Cosini) and featuring a great leading performance from Raven Adamson as the group’s brash authority figure Legs, it’s a coming of age story set against a backdrop of a growing American movement showing people no longer tolerant of sexism, racism, and other forms of intolerance.
It was no easy task despite material that should be an easy sell. Unable to make the film in France as a follow up to his Academy Award nominated work on The Class in 2008, Cantet cast a group of largely untested first time actors to fill out his cast and shot the movie in Canada (Sault Ste. Marie, for the most part) to give the film a decidedly North American spirit and feel.
We talked to Cantet while he was in town for the film back when it premiered at TIFF in 2012 about wanting to tackle Joyce Carol Oates, balancing the personal and the political, and why the film’s core group dynamic took so long to come together.
Dork Shelf: Joyce Carol Oates is a tough author to tackle, especially one of her most iconic books. What was it about the material that drew you to want to work on an adaptation of it?
Laurent Cantet: A friend of mine gave me the book for my birthday and I started to read it, and this was while I was making The Class. After only two chapters I had this really deep desire to see it on film. Maybe it was because I already liked some of Joyce Carlo Oates’ early writing, but this one had something really organic, something kind of rough. There’s a lot of things that can happen at this moment in your life that she’s writing about and I wanted to show that. All of the writing she does has that rough edge to it, but there was something about this one that drew me in immediately.
It’s a time of innocence, but also a time of great revelation. You don’t have all of the tools to understand life just yet. You just go out and try something and hope that you can take some kind of lesson from that.
DS: This is also a period piece where the characters are very much affected by the period that they live in…
LC: Well, yes, in one sense, but I think what impressed me the most was how you can almost feel the rumblings of where we are today. You can hear it in things like records or things like the language being used. When you hear guys talking about girls in the streets today, it can have that exact same kind of worrisome feel to it.
I like the political aspect of the book, too. People in the book can do these lectures on things like Communism and there are all these characters who are trying to tell young people what to do, but you also have someone like Legs who moves in the opposite direction from everyone else, which can be just as dangerous. I don’t think Legs’ really understands these things that clearly. She can only go on what she’s read and she’s written and she’s heard to. For her, it’s more a question of empowerment, I think, than making a political statement, and that’s a very important thing to do, too, but I think at that point in our lives we can all get those things mixed up until we can make our personality and our politics match.
DS: When you’re a teenager there’s the tendency to read things very literally and to believe in everything that a text is trying to teach you, especially if you have such a visceral or emotional reaction to it. Do you think you necessarily make films like this one and The Class to speak to younger audiences or to older audiences with hopes that they can remember what it was like to be young?
LC: I never really think in those kinds of terms, but I do remember that when I made The Class, I was very surprised to realize that many young kids really liked the film. And these kids would come up to me and say that they saw so much of their own lives in the film and it was able to help them open up to their parents and talk about. To show young people on film, you need to show that they are more than just how they relate to the adults on screen. That’s important to work for both sides. If it’s too much on the adults, it’s a lecture. If it’s too much on the teenagers, then their problems don’t seem as realistic with nothing to compare them to.
DS: Putting together a cast for this film couldn’t have been easy, so how did you find your two leads, Katie and Raven, and make the decision to use newcomers? What kind of dynamic did you want them to have?
LC: For Legs and Raven it was harder because she was the one everything kind of had to fall in behind. She had to be strong enough to play the character and smart enough to pull the group together. Sometimes we would bring in people for both roles and sometimes Legs would be stronger than Maddy, or vice versa. It was very touch and go for a long time there, and it took me about six months to put the group together and be sure of them.
So we went all over the place: high schools, community centres, shelters, everywhere we can. We would actually start by having them improvising certain situations for a little while, and then if we liked that I would ask to see them with someone else. Usually by the third time I brought them in I would know if they were going to be a good fit for a group or a character.
Once we did get them all together, we spent about two weeks talking about the situations in the film, and hanging out, and improvising, and also just having fun together. That was very important to have that going in, as well.
Here, everything was quite complex, not only in the forming of the group, but also in all of the technical things. In the 1950s, they couldn’t speak the same way they are speaking now. They were also all Canadian, so the accent was quite problematic for them. We tried to create a way of speaking that wasn’t anachronistic, but also not like it had this, how would you say, museum like quality to it. We tried to make them avoid all of those stereotypes that came really easy.
And I also knew that I would have problems directing them with that kind of dialogue in English, even though my English is not that bad. As long as I could understand what they were saying and I was able to hear the right movement from them. You know how sometimes if you watch like a Chinese film and there are several sets of subtitles in different languages and dialects and sometimes they don’t quite match up with what the actor is doing? That was difficult for me, to judge that letter of the language. So that’s why I also needed people who could be very confident with their character, so I had to trust them, too.
I never work word for word, so I had to trust them on how they were speaking. I understand English as it’s spoke now and they understand that, too, but we all had to work on how it was spoken in the 1950s. It can be a bizarre challenge at times reading the lines, but they all worked together with me on that, and the feel had to really come from the collective.
DS: Did you encourage them all to read the book when they signed on?
LC: Yes. I think it was very important for them to understand what they were doing because she put it better than I ever could. It also helped with their own appreciation and their own patience for how the story should be told.
DS: You’re also making an American period piece in Canada, which I assume came with its own set of challenges.
LC: We had a nice co-production between Canadian and French producers, so it thankfully didn’t take much to convince them that we could find these kind of locations in Canada rather than the States. Really with Canada, it really was as I said, a place where the accents were what I was most afraid of. Finding locations was not very hard, but at one point I did try to make it in France, but I realized that wasn’t possible. France just doesn’t have those kinds of landscapes, and I think the social control on kids was so different there that we couldn’t have found the same kind of cast and group in France.