Ivan Grbovic on Drunken Birds and a Funny Thing Called Love

An interview with the director of Canada's Oscar bid

“A love story is a key to feeling things,” says Drunken Birds director Ivan Grbovic. “The movie is not telling you what to feel. It’s inviting you to feel.”

“Yes, I like how it plays with that idea of being ‘drunk in love’,” I reply.

“Like the Beyoncé song?” asks Grbovic.

“I was thinking more metaphorically…” I laugh.

“The biggest motor to life is love, right?” says Grbovic. “I think that’s why Sara [Mishara] and I chose this theme because love is the only thing elastic enough that you can stretch in so many different directions. I’m personally a big romantic. My favourite films are ones where I filled in the blanks with my personal experience.”

A Romantic Quest

Drunken Birds invites audiences to go on a romantic odyssey with Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a young Mexican migrant who lands at a Quebec farm while searching for his love, Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega). The film, which is Canada’s official submission in the Oscar race for Best International Feature, unfolds Willy’s journey through a contemplative series of impressionistic scenes. Drunken Birds offers a dreamy trip through the lengths to which one goes for love. It’s a beautifully realized and visually stunning consideration of universal truths within a specific milieu.

Grbovic notes that he was first imagined the odyssey of Drunken Birds by a sight he encountered years ago. Around 2005, Grbovic says he discovered the presence of migrant workers in Quebec. He notes that while driving near Saint-Rémi, he saw over one-hundred Mexican workers lined up outside a bank on a foggy day. “I had no clue that there were migrant workers in Canada. I felt like I was in a dream for a moment,” notes Grbovic. “That initial image prompted the story. That dreamy element is why the film works more as an impressionistic portrait.”

Willy and the Bécottes

Drunken Birds weaves in and out of the waking days of life of the farm. Willy’s sweaty afternoons in the fields and nights relaxing with his fellow workers are interspliced with the romantic yearnings of Julie (Hélène Florent) as she reminisces about rojo caliente encounters with a former flame. Another storyline connects Willy’s fate with the edgy extracurricular work of Julie’s daughter, Léa (Marine Johnson), who tries life as a call girl in the city. Drunken Birds asserts each storyline with strong images that place each narrative in a unique timeframe. They’re connected, yet suspended in their own realities.

For example, this rupture might appear as Julie daydreams about romance in the fields with a worker before the camera pans back to Florent standing at the edge of the field, gazing longingly at the greenery her character has just trampled. Similarly, Drunken Birds witnesses Léa experience an exhilarating high as a Formula-1 racer whizzes through the abandoned streets at dawn. Each image—beautiful, impressionistic, and enigmatic—invites one to question the reality before one’s eyes.

Grbovic says he doesn’t necessarily draw upon his background as a cinematographer while connecting such images. Instead, he works with cinematographer and co-writer Mishara to create a compelling story that connects them. “You carry a lot of visual ideas your metaphorical script idea bag,” explains Grbovic. “When you start writing, you put the pieces together. That’s how I work. There may be odd relationships between things, but we wanted to create an immersive cinematic experience.”

The Look of Love: Shooting on 35mm

Drunken Birds looks especially striking as Grbovic and Mishara shot it on 35mm, which is rare for Canadian films these days. Offering images the evoke Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and will inevitably invite comparison to Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Drunken Birds favours magic hour cinematography. The film flows through the cycles of a waking day, favouring periods of repose that bookend the labour. Grbovic says that his producers, Kim McCraw and Luc Déry of micro_scope, who helped bring Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar to the Oscars, supported the idea of shooting on film to accentuate the story’s dreamy impressions. Grbovic and Mishara experimented with old-school lenses and warm lighting patterns for close-ups.

“There’s something very magical about shooting film because don’t see what you shoot. You see a video representation of what you shoot on set. It has to be very intuitive,” notes Grbovic. “Most films we love are shot on film. It’s a statement of intent: ‘I care.’ “You don’t shoot films because you don’t care.”

Love is in the air as Drunken Birds observes Willy and the workers on the Bécotte farm during their off-hours. “One of the reasons why we wanted to shoot at magic hour, i.e. around sunset and sunrise, was to show these fleeting moments of daylight,” explains Grbovic. “There’s obviously a camaraderie and we all know that their work in the fields is hard, but the story was more about Willy’s quest to find someone. It wasn’t about exposing the hardships of coming to Canada and working on the fields. That being said, I’m not minimizing that at all. I’m just saying it wasn’t my focus.”

Creating Willy’s Story

Grbovic says that his research for the experiences of migrant workers included visits to several farms. The details from the visits inform the nuances of the characters as they take pride in their work and appearances. “So much of understanding what they’re going through is about seeing what’s behind closed doors in these small living quarters,” notes Grbovic. “On my visits to farms, I would see guitars, pictures of family, romantic novels, and especially a lot of grooming products. It struck me as romantic and we were looking for ways to dignify them.” Willy, even when working the fields, is always immaculately coiffed. The dashing sight underscores his hope to find Marlena as his quest yields productive clues.

Audiences might be surprised to learn that early drafts of Drunken Birds focus not on Willy, but on Léa. Grbovic says that the process of reshaping the story and bringing Willy to the foreground emerged as the character continually piqued his curiosity. “When I wrote the first draft around 2010, I was in more of a nihilistic French-style Bruno Dumont kind of world,” admits Grbovic. “Then I had two kids, and all of a sudden, I wanted to make something more hopeful. Every time I reread the draft, I’d be like, ‘This guy in the background seems so interesting. Where’s he from?’ As I rewrote, and reread, and rewrote, all these stories popped up. I also read the novel Visit to the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan—it’s a beautiful, criss-crossing novel that goes in every direction with different points of view. It was very liberating.”

Latin-Canadian Representation

As Drunken Birds follows Willy from Mexico to Quebec, and then as circumstances force him to leave the farm, the film sees him caught in a cycle of flight. Willy’s always on the run, whether from Mexican drug lords or from the wrath of his Montreal boss, Richard (Claude Legault), who accuses him of a grievous crime he didn’t commit. Guerrero commands the story and brings a mix of toughness and innocence as Willy. It’s a striking performance after his breakthrough turn in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Grbovic says that Guerrero’s work in Roma made him an immediate choice. He also came recommended by the Mexican casting director Luis Rosales and executive producer Nicolás Celis of Pimienta Films, who produced Roma.

“Jorge brings a lot to Willy” says Grbovic, noting the actor’s work as a street performer gave the character a certain edge. “For the Mexican actors, too, the theme of migrant work is not front and centre in their experience every day. The story really moved Jorge.”

Grbovic adds that Drunken Bird’s border-crossing narrative represents Latinx stories on both sides of the production. “A lot of people who participated in the movie are Latino Montrealers. I think it’s been a struggle for immigrant actors to find a voice in Quebec’s art scene,” says the director. “This movie is about migrant workers, but let’s not forget that behind this movie are a lot of Canadian-Latino people who worked on it.”

International Scope and Visual Language

Drunken Birds, like micro_scope’s Incendies, inspires audiences to expand their idea of Canadian storytelling as it traverses nations and languages. But it’s also a migration story that resonates with new Canadians who came here for work. Grbovic says he’s had some positive responses from audience members who relate to the story. “I think as Canadian filmmakers, our goals are to express Canadian stories. But a Canadian story doesn’t have to be within Canadian borders,” observes Grbovic. “Many people need to open up to that reality that a ‘Canadian film’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s in English or French. I think we’re seeing that.”

Grbovic adds that the impressionistic visual language of Drunken Birds invites audiences to fill in the gaps with their own experiences as Willy finds his way home. “It’s really asking people, ‘Who’s your Marlena?” says Grbovic. “Hopefully, when people watch the movie, they have a ‘Marlena.’ When that door opens, I’m sure 100% everybody in the room can close their eyes, and think of the person they love the most. There’s an image that pops in—and sometimes it’s not the one you thought.”


Drunken Birds opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Nov. 15.