Philippe Falardeau on Political Comedy and the Lighter Side of Stephen Harper

Québécois director Philippe Falardeau has been making films for over 20 years, but it was 2011’s Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar that brought him to the attention of international audiences. He followed that up with his first American project, The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon, which premiered at TIFF last year. He then returned home to make the new political comedy My Internship In Canada, starring Patrick Huard as a small town politician who ends up being the swing vote and deciding factor in whether or not the country goes to war in the Middle East. The story is mostly seen through the eyes of his Haitian intern, Souverain, played by newcomer Irdens Exantus.

As a student of politics who often makes films about the immigrant experience, My Internship in Canada is a perfect fit for Falardeau. We sat down with the talented writer/director following the film’s premiere at last month’s TIFF. He was very candid about his thoughts on Canada’s political system, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the next project he’s developing south of the border.

How did the idea for My Internship in Canada come about? 

Philippe Falardeau: A long process of thinking about making a political film. Yeah, but who will would want to see that? Okay, let’s make it a comedy. Yeah, but comedy’s tough. Let’s try to do both at the same time! André Turpin, you know him? He’s a cinematographer, he did the images for the last three Xavier Dolan films and Incendies from Denis Villeneuve. He also directs, he had a film this year called Endorphin. We were having a beer and he said I have a subject for you, it’s the story of a politician and he has a swing vote on abortion and all the lobbyists come to his riding. I said okay, what happens next? He said that’s your problem, I just gave you the idea, do something with it. 

I was thinking about it for many years and I didn’t have the proper angle until I had the idea of the Haitians coming in with this naive concept of what democracy is. All of a sudden for me it began to make sense, because it would be a film on how fucked up our democracies have become and how we can pervert the process of policy making and it brought a light and humorous angle to the project. 

Would you say it’s an accurate depiction of how the political game is played in Canada? 

PF: I think so. I think it could also be transported to any Western democracies where it’s give and take. Where the average politicians don’t have real powers. They’re elected to represent a region or a group of people but they don’t because it’s really the party that decides ultimately which way they’re going to vote when it comes to vote at the congress or at the parliament. I decided let’s create a laboratory in which the politician, the elected representative has a swing vote, he has power, what is he going to do with it? If he decides to do the philosophical right thing to do which is ask the people what they want, is that really democracy? Will that make things better? Probably not because people will start thinking about their own needs. 

I had an audience member yesterday, she was a Japanese student, she came to me and said I came to see your film, I didn’t know what it was and I thought that story was happening in Japan because I relate so much to how politics are done back in Japan. I didn’t see that coming. 

That answers my next question, which was do you think it could have been set anywhere in Canada?

PF: I told my producer, you know we could have done the film in English and it could have been Northern Manitoba. Completely. Geography, a big riding, contradictory interests, the logging industry could have been the farming industry. I think it could have been shot anywhere in Canada really. I didn’t want it to be about English Canada versus Quebec, that was out of the question. 

Do you see Guibord’s character as a very indecisive politician or just a very democratic one? 

PF: You need his indecision or else there’s no film. If he knows what he’s going to vote then it’s settled. You need him to feel that he’s completely overwhelmed by that, doesn’t know what to do, which probably a lot of people would feel. You want power, when you get it what do you do with it? When the intern says consult your voters, he’s buying time with that but he also believes it’s the right thing to do. And then there’s the wife, who’s for the war, and there’s the girl (his daughter) who’s against the war. It’s much more interesting to have a character that’s torn between all these angles than someone who knows exactly what he’s going to do. 

My Intership in Canada featured

Irdens Exantus plays the intern. It’s a big part for someone who had never acted before, where did you find him?

PF: A tribute to the casting director back in Montreal (Lucie Robitaille) who turned every stone in the community back home. We Skyped with people in Haiti and Dominican Republic and ultimately the guy was working the nightshift at a corner store. He wanted to be an actor but hadn’t played in anything. He came across as really funny and also very charismatic, so I called him back a few times, did a reading with Patrick to see if there was some chemistry, and the rest is pretty much history. He was born in Canada, his parents were born in Haiti and he could pick up the accent by just listening to his parents. 

Given that the intern’s name, “Souverain,” gets the direct translation to “Sovereign” in the English subtitles, I assume this was an intentional choice you didn’t want English audiences to miss… 

PF: It’s the same word. It’s weird, it was a tough decision because ultimately it means sovereignty. ‘Souverain’ or ‘Sovereign’, it’s the right translation, although Souverain as a name doesn’t really exist, Haitians have these wonderful, colourful names, so it could exist. Like I said before, I didn’t want to go and talk about Quebec sovereignty in this film, it didn’t interest me, regardless of the importance of the issue, but I wanted there to be some sort of nod. In English it’s “Sovereign” but ultimately what I’m saying here is sovereignty is not about independence, it’s about the legitimacy of power. 300 years ago, who was the sovereign? The king. Now it’s the people and it’s more about that then anything else. 

Aside from being a Conservative, how much was the Prime Minister character based on Stephen Harper? 

PF: I cannot deny the reference. Harper does play music and he’s intelligent and he’s clever. Obviously I didn’t vote for him and I won’t vote for him but that’s beside the point. I thought he would make an interesting character because he’s not the Darth Vader we want him to be and it’s kind of cool of dad to play the double neck guitar. That was fun for me and I think Paul Doucet did a good rendition of what’s fun and dark at the same time with that politician. 

Any plans to make another American film? 

PF: I’m prepping a film with Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. It’s called The Bleeder. It’s about a boxer in the 70s who fought Ali and went all 15 rounds, lost, but his fight inspired Stallone to write Rocky. So when Rocky came out the guy started thinking he was the real Rocky. His life kind of spiralled down, but he found the right woman to snap him out of it. So I always say, The Bleeder is not a boxing film. 

So your experience with The Good Lie was a positive one?

PF: It was good because it was a story that I loved. I had been to Sudan during the war and it was important for me to talk about that and I knew these people and I had met them as children refugees, so that’s why I insisted when I did The Good Lie on using real refugees to play the roles. It was a learning experience also, working in a different environment. I was happy to come back and do my own stuff back home which I’ll continue doing. It’s all about is my script ready? If it’s not ready and I have the opportunity to do other stuff… ironically I get more offers from the United States than I get from Canada. I get very few. 

Would you say the Canadian films are your personal projects, and the American stuff is more for hire?

PF: I don’t like the word “for hire” because if it doesn’t make sense, I wouldn’t do it for the money. I’m certainly not doing the next one for money, it’s a low budget film. It has to make sense. I look at the script and I sleep on it. I have to wake up in the morning and go, there’s something there. I don’t know what, let’s find out. I think I’d be the right person for that script. It has to be a combination of things. 

What’s on your Dork Shelf? 

PF: Aside from the obvious of DVDs? They’re not on shelves, they’re in a suitcase, but I used to collect Swatch watches. I have tons of those because I was obsessed with time I think. I collected them in airports when I was travelling in the 90s. It’s a beautiful collection, it’s probably worth a lot of money but it’s in a suitcase in one of my closets (laughs). I thought they were so cool, I don’t think they’re as cool today. 

Read our review of the film here.