In the world of Canadian theater, Robert Lepage needs no introduction. The ambitious writer/director has worked in seemingly every theatrical form and genre and brought home pretty much every award possible (including this year’s Glenn Gould prize). He’s a more than a little bit of a legend and a trailblazer in the field. In the world of film, things are a little different.
Though LePage has made some fascinating films over the years, it’s always been more of a side gig that’s often left off his resume when people talk about his accomplishments to Canadian culture. However, Lepage can be a damn good filmmaker when he sets his mind to it, which is why the TIFF Bell Lightbox has decided to launch a full retrospective of his films starting this week titled Robert Lepage: Possible Worlds, showcasing all 6 of his feature films and a special screenings of his mounting of the opera La Damnation de Faust that he did for the NY Met in 2008 (Saturday, March 29th, 2:00pm) and a documentary about his process, Wagner’s Dream (Sunday, March 30th, 12:30pm).
Ranging from the semi-autobiographical (The Far Side of the Moon, Tuesday, April 1st, 9:00pm), to sci-fi/mystery hybrids (Le Confessonal, Thursday, March 27th, 6:30pm), to outright farce (No, Sunday, March 31st, 3:30pm), Lepage has crafted a small, but eclectic variety of films to rival his work on stage.
At the center of the retrospective is the English Canada premiere of his latest feature Triptych (Friday, March 28th, 6:30pm). Adapted from Lepage’s infamous 9-hour play Lipsynch, it’s a challenging and moving exploration of human communication. Narrowing in on a few characters from Lipsynch (a brain surgeon, his patient, her sister, and a few stragglers), the film is a visually sumptuous and emotionally devastating experience littered with sprinklings of Lepage’s sneaky comedy. Never particularly comfortable behind the camera on his own, the film also marks Lepage’s first collaboration with a visually minded co-director in Pedro Pires. Together, they created something that both honors and subverts Lepage’s original play.
We got a chance to chat with Lepage and Pires recently about their unique collaboration when Triptych premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and we’d like to present their braindroppings to you now in advance of the Lightbox’s latest retrospective. We also specifically talk about Lepages’ differences between his cinematic and his theatrical work and his relationship to Quebec.
Robert Lepage will be on hand to do introductions for screenings of Le Confessional, La Damnation de Faust, Triptych, Possible Worlds, and Wagner’s Dream. For a full list of films, showtimes, and tickets, please visit the TIFF Bell Lightbox website.
How did you come to co-direct this?
Robert Lepage: Well, we’ve known each other for quite a while. We’ve been friends since way back and would always hang together, never thinking that we would work together on the same movie. But we did in the past do some collaborations either on short films or when I did Possible Worlds, he did some work for me. But we always appreciated and were respectful of each other’s work.
At first we didn’t intend to do a full feature. Lipsynch, the play our film was inspired by, is a nine hour play. So, we chose to focus on just one set of characters. Initially it was going to be a short film about a single character, but the world that character inhabits was very similar to some of the work that Pedro had done before in Danse Macbre or Hope. So it was very natural for us to collaborate on that. Then as we were developing it, we started to extract other characters from Lipsynch and it turned into this hour and a half story that seemed right for both of us.
What is it about your partnership that works?
Pedro Pires: We are very complimentary. I can take the script and spend a couple of days thinking about what we should remove and that sort of thing. Then we meet, we shoot, we edit, we reshoot. It’s a non-linear process. Sometimes we were together on the set. Sometimes I was alone.
RL: And I’m not really a filmmaker. I’m from the theater world with filmmaking intentions and pretensions. So it was always easy to come together and see how to give the play filmic life. He’s from that world and just knows, “Well this character has to shut up.” (laughs)
You know, in the film world an image is worth a thousand words, whereas in the theater world a word is worth a thousand images. So it’s a very talkative art form and when a theater guy tries to translate that into the film world, it doesn’t always work. So he (makes a whip cracking motion). He doesn’t stifle me, but he says, “Why not shoot this in this way? She doesn’t need to say it.”
PP: We’ll show it, we’ll feel it.
RL: Yeah, so in that sense it becomes very clear what our collaboration is. I don’t have any intentions of being recognized as a filmmaker. (laughs) I just enjoy the process. So it’s a good collaboration. The example I always give is that it’s like opera. In the opera world, the singer listens to two voices. He listens to the conductor and the stage director. He doesn’t favor one to the other. He listens to two different directions and you hope that if there’s a good understanding between the two guys, it’ll make the performance work. So this was pretty much what happened between us.
PP: And I try to add things that aren’t there as well, I don’t just remove. (laughs) Like the brain surgery. In the play there was a scene that was very simple, but for the film since I’m a very macabre guy, I suggested that we see a real brain. So we shot that in a hospital and hopefully that will be accepted.
RL: There’s a threshold that he crosses as somebody who does film that I wouldn’t as a theater director, even in less violent examples. For example, the story takes place in London. On the stage there were few set pieces to suggest that it’s London. But, he would say, “If we’re shooting in London, the London that we shoot has to represent the mental state of the character.” That’s a completely different way of telling the story that I would never have thought of. Well, maybe on Broadway with a $60 million budget (Laughs). But you have to open to that on film. There’s a threshold that theater people just wouldn’t cross because we’re used to being contained. In theater you evoke something, you don’t show it. In film, you have the great luxury of saying, “:et’s show part of Montreal that’s cracked and being reconstructed like the character.” That’s a language that could only be brought in by someone like Pedro.
So what are you interested in exploring in film as opposed to theatre?
RL: The dramaturgical aspect and the construction. For example, when we edit I would eventually say, “Ok, I know what the structure of the movie is!” And I’d fuck around with the structure, because that’s what I do in my plays. But Pedro would say, “Oh we can’t do that!” But eventually, we’d get there. That’s one of my strengths. My audacity would be at that level.
Was there a particular reason why you decided to focus on this particular section of Lipsych in a film?
PP: First it was the Michelle character. The darkness of her.
RL: But she’s a close cousin of two other characters. One is her sister and the other is a guy who operated on her sister and eventually marries her. Lipsynch is a trilogy of trilogies. So, we could only excerpt one of the trilogies.
It’s interesting that so much of the film is about language not representing thoughts and the challenge of trying to express things and now you’re talking about how film is a visual medium where language is less important. Is there a connection there?
PP: Well there’s a lot of showing things we can’t hear. How you make sound in studio—
RL: That’s also why it’s a Quebec set film. This whole identity crisis of Quebec. It’s not just a French/English language thing. Claude Gauvreau, the poet that Michelle quotes, developed this language called Exploréen because he wrote in French but he felt that language imprisons the mind, it doesn’t liberate it. Language should be a liberating thing, so in order to liberate yourself you have to develop your own language. So in Quebec, the identity thing is always connected to language. “Je me souviens,” I remember, is written on license plates. Well, I remember what? Where does that come from? People don’t know. So language is a very important theme in Quebec. Much more important than the politicians suggest.
What were you hoping to achieve with the film visually that couldn’t be done on stage?
PP: Well, the idea of a triptych always made me think of a fresco. So, I wanted the film to kind of resemble a painting. Everything is crafted. Every shot is a reflection or a split screen or something. It’s my way of working with raw materials. For me, it goes with the idea of Italian Renaissance and paintings, so that’s what I hoped to achieve.
RL: And there are references to that period in there for the characters. So it felt appropriate.
When you look at the film now, do you still see it as part of the original play or does it feel like something completely different?
RL: It’s its own thing now, I think. Even though the actors are the same actors from the original play and they helped write their dialogue, it turned into something else. That was the goal. I know that if ever one day I remount Lipsynch, it will probably be influenced by what we discovered making the film.