Director Sébastian Pilote and actress Karelle Tremblay discuss their award-winning coming-of-age story, The Fireflies Are Gone (La Disparition des Lucioles).
“Remember how it used to be,” says Léo (Karelle Tremblay), the teenage protagonist of Sébastien Pilote coming-of-age story, The Fireflies are Gone (La Disparition des Lucioles). A month away from graduating high school, Léo is already cynical about the world she’ll be entering as an adult. Her parents split up, and her stepfather, the local right-wing radio personality, helped push her union organizer father out of his job and out of the city; he now works up north. The city of Saguenay where the film is set is in transition, and so is Léo. Once a manufacturing centre, but has recently become more of a tourist destination and a centre for energy research. Léo sees her world and family crumbling around her, and the local economy is doing much the same, uncertain about what that means for her future.
When Léo meets local guitar teacher Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant of C.R.A.Z.Y. fame), a quiet soul more than double her age, she decides to take lessons as a means of discovering more about him. The pair form a platonic bond as two drifting souls. Steve is gentle and kind, much like Léo’s father, though Steve lacks ambition. Both men project a kind of masculine ideal that feels like a relic, a strong contrast with Léo’s brash and conceited stepfather who now holds local power. The three men in Léo’s life reflect personality types and values currently in conflict — both for Léo and the city itself.
Pilote has a rare gift for gently depicting alienated characters. Léo spends much of the film on her own, walking around town, escaping her mother and step-father, and trying to figure out what she wants. Even when she is with her friends, she feels apart from the group. Tremblay’s extremely charismatic performance and Pilote’s direction captures the loneliness and helplessness of adolescence. Tremblay, who previously co-starred in Anne Émond’s wonderful Our Loved Ones, gets to take centre stage (and centre frame) in this film, proving she is one of the most exciting and talented emerging actors today.
Back when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, I talked with director Pilote and lead actress Tremblay about the film’s political context, crafting Léo, and how Saguenay has changed since the film was made. Since then, The Fireflies are Gone picked up the Best Canadian Film prize at last year’s TIFF and was listed in Canada’s Top Ten Films of 2018. It is now screening in a limited run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and is available on VOD on Canadian iTunes.
Seventh Row (7R): Where did the idea for The Fireflies are Gone come from?
Sébastien Pilote: I do not remember. Often, when I begin a film, it’s with little ideas, images, or intuitions, but it’s rarely with the need to tell a story. I think I tell a story to express those images or intuitions. Of course, here, I wanted to make a more accessible film. I wanted to make a film like you can write a song.
If I make an analogy, I think my other films were more like chamber music. And here, I wanted to write a good pop song. An international hit, if possible, but at least something with the structure of popular music. It’s a bit like if I’d wanted to write a novel but with simple sentences, a bit devoid of lyricism or poetry. Compared to my other films, I think it’s less poetic. It’s more like prose. The images say what they have to say, and that’s it. There’s no double meaning.
The idea was to have a young woman — I transpose myself a little in that character — in a situation of a power vacuum. She lives in a world where there’s the stepfather, omnipresent, and a father who’s absent, in exile, and that she idealises. In between, she discovers another person, Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant), a substitute for a father figure. In the story, he gives her guitar lessons.
To me, the music in that film is synonymous with naivety and with a carefree attitude, with innocence. The fireflies are like sparks of innocence. At the beginning of the film, there is nothing innocent about Léo: she’s very cynical and sarcastic. I think we live in a society where cynicism dominates. It prevents us from seeing the small beauties, the things that should be seen with children’s eyes. Steve, on the other hand, he’s remained a bit of an adolescent; he’s not very critical of things around him. He doesn’t ask for much.
It’s a situation a bit like in Hamlet. I wanted to place this character in a situation where she is forced to live with the stepfather who has pushed away her father. This was an idea that was there at the beginning, and I think it’s interesting from a dramatic point-of-view. It’s a topic that can seem very serious, but which I wanted to play in a lighter way.
7R: Where did the title The Fireflies Are Gone come from?
Sébastian Pilote: It’s a long story. It’s the title of a political article written by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the filmmaker. It was about neo-fascism and the power vacuum, how the powerful lights of neo-fascism prevented us from seeing the opposition to that power: the artists, the activists, the poetry in everyday life. He referred to the same idea, that the fireflies had disappeared. But actually, when we say that the fireflies have disappeared, it’s because we’ve stopped looking at them, either because we’re looking in the wrong place, or because it’s too bright. We have to turn off the lights of fascism and hate. We need obscurity to see the fireflies.
It’s a kind of paradox, like in cinema: in order to see the image on the screen, we need to be in the dark. That’s what the film is about: Léo had to go away so that we could see again a spark of innocence and hope. In Italian, ‘firefly’ was a slang term for prostitute, women who hide in dark alleys, but it also defined the young women working at the cinema who would show you to your seat with their flashlight. The title, in a way, brings poetry into a film that avoids lyricism. It’s a key to read the film.
7R: Karelle, how did you get involved with the project?
Karelle Tremblay: He called me, we had a coffee, and he asked me to read the script and if I liked it. It wasn’t complicated.
Sébastian Pilote: I’d seen Karelle in small roles. I hadn’t yet seen her in Anne Émond’s Our Loved Ones. My daughter, who was about 13 years old, told me she had an actress in mind for the role, and she showed me a TV show starring Karelle. I immediately saw in Karelle a presence, a strong interiority. She clearly has an actor’s intuition, something innate; charisma and interestingly photogenic. I watched a few episodes, but only for that reason. That’s how I found her.
7R: It’s so rare to see such a smart and thoughtful female character at the centre of a film. What drew you to telling a story about a young woman as opposed to that of a man?
Sébastian Pilote: It was new for me, because my two previous films told the stories of men in their sixties, who really were at the end of something. And here, we have a character who’s at the beginning of something. But I didn’t know the coming-of-age film; the intention wasn’t to paint the portrait of a generation, or to write the psychology of an adolescent. Some films do that very well, but that’s not what I was aiming for. I wasn’t very interested in adolescents. I decided she would be an adolescent because I thought that would make for an interesting situation: she’s at the end of school…
I think that the idea, with the character of an adolescent who lives through that, is to talk about us, the adults. At the societal level, we have the same problem that Léo has: we live in a world where everything is polarised, where there is no medium ground. When you’re an adolescent, you don’t have that much power. You’re a bit powerless, and you feel like you can’t do anything. And the future…
In the ‘60s, young people were full of hope for the future. But today, when we talk about the future, it’s less bright. It’s very cynical to say, “Don’t think about the future,” but the future really is rather hopeless. I hope the film is a lesson of love, but love in the sense of goodness, of a kind outlook on things, as opposed to an attitude of judgment, of bad faith, of criticism. Because that’s what I’m naturally like, and sometimes, I’m tired of seeing life through snake eyes.
7R: What was the process for preparing for the role and developing the character? Did you work together for that?
Sébastian Pilote: The character is quite close to Karelle. Her energy is exactly what I wanted for the role. I didn’t require her to go for something else. It’s not laziness; it’s a choice to pick actors for what they are rather than ask them to change. It was the first time I was giving so much freedom to the actors. All the tics and little things that the actors brought, I tried to integrate as many of them as possible into the film. It’s not a cold, controlled, or limited type of acting. It starts from a type of naturalism.
7R: You’ve made the stepfather into the most hateful person he could possibly be. Even if he hadn’t pushed the father out of town, he would still be despicable because of his job as a right wing radio presenter.
Sébastian Pilote: There are many populist radio stations like that in Quebec. Twenty years ago, it used to be Léo’s father, a left-wing man, who was the king of the place. It used to be the left-wing that was important in that small industry.
The stepfather was quite a difficult character to write. He’s a bit of a caricature. I think that if he’d been realistic, he wouldn’t have been a believable character.
7R: There are is a great dinner scene in the film at the beginning. It’s very funny, and there’s a lot going on there. Lots of relationships to manage. What was your process for putting that together?
Sébastian Pilote: We had to do it fast. That’s the kind of scene I’d like to do in five days, but we did it in half that time. So I had to make choices. The idea with the first scene was to give the sense that this was going to be a single room film. I wanted to give the feeling that the whole film would take place at that dinner table, for the birthday celebration.
But this character being as she is, she suddenly and unexpectedly exits the scene. In doing that, with the music that rises up, it’s as though she was giving birth to the film. Thanks to her, because she left the dinner, we are given a film and a story. Same thing with the ending: when she leaves, she creates something: a possibility that we don’t see.
Karelle Tremblay: The fireflies are back!
Sébastian Pilote: But this first scene is a scene of presentation, to show her sharp cynicism, as well as the cynicism of the adults, of the uncle and aunt. Nothing said at that table is sincere or kind. It’s all sly and implied.
7R: Could you tell me about the costumes?
Sébastian Pilote: We chose to have a very colourful wardrobe.
Karelle Tremblay: After the movie, I went home with a huge bag with all of my clothes in it.
Sébastian Pilote: My daughter sent me a picture this morning; she was going to school with the red coat that Karelle wears in the film. She was wishing me good luck.
I wanted colourful clothes, even though the topic isn’t very happy, to create a contrast. But at the same time, I wanted this sort of nostalgia for an older world. I didn’t want clothes that are fashionable today. I didn’t want it to look like a specific time. In reality, it’s a mix of lots of different eras, of course.
In fact, all the locations are places that are in difficulty today; they’re more like places from my own youth. People these days don’t play guitar as much; guitar companies are going out of business. In my little industrial town, the guitar was a sort of salvation, but it isn’t anymore.
God’s Own Country
God’s Own Country is also a film set in a dying, changing town and is about a protagonist who feels, in a way, trapped, and unable to think about his future. We wrote a book about the film, interviewing the director, cinematographer, lead actor, and including a pair of essays.
7R: How did you collaborate with the cinematographer to develop the aesthetic for The Fireflies Are Gone?
Sébastian Pilote:: The artistic director was very involved. The costumes were a separate thing, but for the decoration and the set, I wanted something more expressive and that would stand out. For the cinematography, it was the first time I shot digitally. That was a big change for me.
We decided to change everything. The aspect ratio is different — I usually shot in Cinemascope, but here, I wanted 1:85. I decided to have a very frontal kind of mise-en-scène. For example, I didn’t want to see the character in the foreground during shot/reverse-shot sequences. This absence made the framings look a bit more artificial, like paintings, with the character always in the middle. By the end, I was exhausted of always framing in the centre. I think there must be only one image in the entire film that isn’t centred in the middle. It gives a more flat, direct look to the image. But of course, with our limited means, naturalism and realism found ways to catch up with us. There are things we couldn’t change — the trees, the grass…
7R: Could you tell me about how you decided to shoot the town of Saguenay?
SP: It’s my town; it’s the region where I live. Of course, the place is like an actor in the film: we recognise it, but it’s also an imaginary place. It’s a cinema city. In reality, it used to be an important industrial town, and with the decline of industry, it became more touristic. All of this is a kind of neo-fascism. Consumerism, cultural leisure, tourism have made the country world vanish, the working class disappear. Now, it’s the small bourgeoisie and the middle class that dominate. It makes for weird cities that look like big shopping centres.
Since we shot there a year ago, the restaurant has been demolished. The production studio where we’d get ready has been demolished. The paint shop, as well. The music shop has closed — after 50 years in business, the 92-year-old owner decided to close it down. The place for the show has closed, too.
7R: How long did the shoot last?
SP: 27 days. It’s not enough!
7R: Given that you didn’t have a lot of time, how did you make the most of that?
Karelle Tremblay: In Quebec, we shoot in 30, 33 days all the time. It’s just the way it is.
SP: Sometimes, that’s a good thing, because it means you can’t have that many locations. But for this film, it was a real problem because we had more than 40 different locations. We had to go very fast. The idea to do it very simply was a strategic choice.
7R: You mentioned that you thought of the film as a pop song. Can you tell me more about the music in the film?
SP: There are many popular songs in the film, but there is also the score. For that, the idea was for the music to be a bit off — a bit too much, too beautiful, too expressive. It was there at the beginning; I was imagining harp melodies, like in the melodrama. We were inspired by Bernard Hermmann’s music for Vertigo. It was a complicated and expensive thing to do. We had to hire an orchestra, but I really wanted it. When Léo leaves the dinner table at the beginning, the music kicks in, and that’s when the film starts. And the film ends with music.
In the world of auteur cinema, it can be perceived as a bit vulgar to use popular music, because it’s associated with mainstream cinema. I find that too dogmatic, so I wanted to use popular music. I find it generous and beautiful. And the people who really love cinema, they should just block out their ears.
7R: How did your experience vary between the different projects you’ve worked on?
Karelle Tremblay: I was working on a TV show for teenagers that I decided to quit in order to focus more on cinema. I think I’m in need of more challenges. Maybe I’m a bit tired of playing roles that are very close to who I am. I’d like to play a really feminine woman, who’s maybe a bit bitchy. That’s what I’d love to do right now, and I’m excited about what’s next. I’m working on a movie in Montreal right now, and after that, I’m doing my first movie in English. It’s shooting in Montreal and in Ireland, with Gabriel Byrne. I think I have four days in Ireland and five days in Montreal, so I’m very excited about that.
7R: Are you also doing theatre?
Karelle Tremblay: I will be, in 2019. It’s at the theatre in Montreal, the NMT theatre. I have one year to practice, so I’m very stressed about that. I’ve never done theatre before; it’s my first time. But I’m excited about it.
Sébastian Pilote: It’s easy to act in NMT [an-emp-ty] theatre!
7R: Sébastien, what are you working on now?
Sébastian Pilote: It’s an adaptation of a very well known novel. There are already three films of it. It’s a French novel called Maria Chapdelaine.