Québécois writer-director Philippe Lesage discusses how he upended our expectations about sound design, framing, and editing in his first feature The Demons.
Writer-director Philippe Lesage’s marvelous narrative debut, The Demons, opens on a children’s gym class doing “mundane exercises…in a very choreographic way.” Set to a loud orchestral piece by Sibelius and shot in primary colours, the children’s “fragile bodies” move gracefully, “almost like a modern dance.” It’s a bold and striking opening that upends our expectations about sound design, framing, and editing, announcing a strong new talent behind the camera. And it subtly prefigures the film’s preoccupations with the fragility, the dangers, and the beauty of childhood.
Opening films with a poetic, movement-based sequence is a strategy Lesage has used before in his documentary films. In The Heart That Beats, about doctors in a hospital, Lesage began the film by showing “university students in a ski club who were in the park doing physical exercises. There was something about these healthy bodies moving and running and going backwards and forwards. Here, there was this verticality; the rest of the film is patients in their beds, which is very horizontal.”
The classical music that scored the opening of The Demons is another carryover from his documentaries. “[Classical music] is the cheapest music to evaluate and use in films, in general. I also find it timeless. It’s rich. It still exists for a reason,” noted Lesage. He actually decided to include the Sibelius track here while he was writing the screenplay. “It’s a real pleasure to try to put music you like in a film,” Lesage continued. “When it works, it’s one of the things I enjoy the most about making films.”
On Lesage’s approach to naturalism in film
Lesage’s filmmaking approach in The Demons recalls his work in documentaries. “I got fascinated by natural sound,” Lesage recalled, “because this is all I was working with.” Shooting entirely with natural light, he favours long, uncut wide shots, which allow for the action to unfold naturally and in real time. There are many scenes in The Demons that he shot and cut very observationally, exactly as if it were a documentary. “I’d rather simplify things than make them complicated. Why cut or change the angle of the camera when it’s working?”
“What I like about wide shots,” Lesage elaborated, “is that it gives the kind of freedom for the spectator to look where he wants. It allows me to give a sense of reality to it. When the actors are moving in and out of the frame, they seem to be moving in a very natural way.” In The Demons, these long, wide shots were crucial to building the tension. “You’re afraid that something will come up and destroy this mundane scene and transform it into something tense. The film is a lot of expecting bad things to happen, but things don’t necessarily happen in the way that you were expecting.”
Natural light, natural sound — and natural movement contribute to this sense of the unexpected. “I give my actors a lot of space. There are no marks on the floor, especially since I was working with kids. I didn’t want them to feel imprisoned or have to check their marks on the floor in order to get the light. This allowed a kind of freedom to move how they want. I never do pickups. If the scene works like this, I would rather do 25 takes of long conversation until I’m very satisfied with the way the whole scene goes, the timing and the acting — if it’s real, if I believe in it.”
Lesage maintained that believability by keeping a light touch in the cutting room. “We over-cut films. I feel a little upset about this fashion. I think the best editor is the one who doesn’t want to cut too much.” Instead, Lesage edited for pace “using strategies of slowness instead of strategies of speed.” Similarly, he left much of the violence in the film offscreen. “Sometimes, it’s much more strong and harsh for the viewer not to see things but to imagine things.”
On radical sound design
In an effort to create a totally unique soundscape, Lesage took a lot of risks, which lead to some unexpected problems. Using natural, direct sound was paramount. “I didn’t want to do sound effects in post. I’d rather record a lot of sounds. We recorded with a mid-side (MS) microphone, which is like a stereo microphone, very close to the camera to take in the sounds of the environment. I wanted that to be very present in the film. There were the wireless microphones on the actors. And there was a boom, which was mono.”
His approach was so radical that his sound editors weren’t expecting such a change of practice. “Every time I went to the sound editing room, I would always ask the sound guys to remove the things that they added, because I like the natural thing. I’m a bit of a purist about that. If they added some police sirens or residence sirens, which at some point they will always do. They all do it. Then, I would ask them to remove these sounds because [the natural soundscape] was already rich.”
Lesage isn’t coy about his thoughts on sound design in films these days. “The other big thing that I didn’t like, in films in general, is I think that the dialogue is so loud in comparison to all the ambient sound and the music. The dialogue in most films is the loudest thing. If you look at the films in the ‘70s, you don’t have that feeling that it’s as loud as now. I think that directors are very afraid that we’re not going to hear something. But I don’t mind if a bus is passing by and we lose a couple of sentences from the dialogue. I think it gives it a certain kind of reality. In the mix, I wanted the dialogue to be at the same level as the ambient sound. So I came up with a very dynamic mix.”
“The idea was to put the dialogue a little bit lower than what we’re used to hearing in films in general. It’s supposed to be played at a certain level, the natural level.” But not all cinemas are used to handling that. “The risk is that when you show it in commercial cinemas, they don’t really check it,” Lesage explained. “Sometimes, they just look at the first scene. My first scene has music, and the music is quite loud, so they put everything down, not realizing that my dialogue is low. Even if you write notes to the projectionist, they normally don’t really follow these notes.” For the film’s future commercial run, there is a new cut in which the dialogue is a bit more standard — still low, but less at risk of getting lost from projection errors.
On movement, dance, and the film’s tone
There’s a second sequence of music and movement toward the end of the film: just as Felix is concerned that he might have AIDS, his siblings bring him out of his funk with a dance. Lesage noted, “It’s kind of the peak of joy in the film. There’s this explosion of joy and then we get into something that is terrible.” Still, Lesage doesn’t consider The Demons to be a dark film. “There’s a lot of love among the siblings. Felix has the love of his parents and siblings. There’s hope even though there’s a lot of horror.”
The Demons screens April 2 at 9:30 p.m. at the IFC Center in NYC as part of the See the North program. It will also screen at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Lesage will be present for a Q&A at all screenings.