With Nadia, Butterfly, Pascal Plante used his own experiences as a competitive swimmer to make a psychological character study about the sport where all the swimming is real.
With Nadia, Butterfly, Québécois writer-director Pascal Plante aims to do for competitive swimming on screen what Fred Astaire once did for dancers in musicals: make it all real. Astaire pioneered filming dance scenes in wide shots with long takes so that you could see the dancers’ entire bodies and know that they were really doing it themselves. “It’s very clear that it’s Ginger and Fred who are dancing for their own pleasure,” Plante told me. “And then we see them act before and after and we’ve connected with them through their dance numbers. In many ways we treated those swimming scenes in the way those musical numbers are captured in those musicals.” The way Plante talks about shooting swimming reminded me of how filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman and Alla Kovgan talk about shooting dance, to make it real and present, so you can see what the dancers are actually doing.
Having spent his youth as a high level competitive swimmer, Plante wanted to actually show real swimming on screen and get it right. He didn’t want to use any camera tricks; he wanted people to understand what these athletic bodies look like and how they move. So he cast real Olympic swimmers as his two protagonists: Katerine Savard as Nadia, and Ariane Mainville as her best friend, Marie-Pierre. That also helped him to create a realistic imagining of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, based on their experiences at past Olympic games and behind-the-scenes footage he found of these events.
Aside from showing us the art of swimming in Nadia, Butterfly, Plante has upended the sports film genre by starting the film with the big competition rather than ending with it. Instead of telling the story of the rigorous preparation required to swim at the Olympics, Plante is interested in the psychological journey of his characters. The film thus begins on the eve of Nadia’s final swimming competition ever, at the Olympics, and then follows her for the few days she remains in Tokyo afterward. After devoting more than a decade of her life to being one of the world’s best swimmers, Nadia has decided to quit to go back to school and become a doctor.
Between Nadia, Butterfly and Plante’s first feature, Fake Tattoos (2017), Plante has become an expert at depicting turning points in his characters’ lives and how they deal with major upheaval. In Fake Tattoos, it was the story of a summer romance with a baked in expiration date when one of the characters would be moving away. Here, it’s the story of someone grappling with giving up the one thing they’ve trained to do, leaving behind a community, a lifestyle, and a now seemingly obsolete skillset. It’s a tough moment for Nadia, and we watch her navigate her grief over leaving the life she’s built for herself, and especially, what it means to leave behind her best friend. Featuring some of the best athleticism you’ll ever see on film, Nadia, Butterfly is also a nuanced character study about what it means to be on the precipice of change.
I spoke to Plante by phone about how he envisioned capturing swimming on screen, how he approached creating the (since cancelled) Tokyo Olympics back in 2019, shooting in Tokyo versus his hometown of Montreal, and how working as a sound designer has made him obsess over getting the sound of swimming right.
Seventh Row (7R): What made you want to make a film about competitive swimming?
Pascal Plante: I used to be a swimmer myself. I did it pretty intensely although I stopped 12 years ago now, after the Beijing Olympic trials in 2008. I did it at the national level, but I didn’t do international teams or the Olympics. But it used to be my life. As a teenager, I considered myself more of a swimmer than an artist. Those two words collided after I did film school. I moved from Quebec City to Montreal, where I did some school and got really into films. I guess the swimming side [of my life] took a backseat. I’d go swimming for leisure, and sports is still a big part of my life, but I don’t do it at the same level as I used to.
It’s only after film school that I considered [a film about swimming] as maybe a first feature. I wouldn’t necessarily tackle that subject in a short film format. Then I found out I’d need more substantial means to do it justice, so in the meantime, I did another short, and I did a feature, Fake Tattoos, which could be done with a way more modest budget. That feature had =good momentum. We were very lucky with funding for the next project [Nadia Butterfly], which had been in my head since 2013 or 2014.
The idea was very much to portray the sport [of swimming], because I think it’s very under-portrayed in narrative films. We see people swimming in movies, so the art of swimming is very much there, but not the competitive aspect of things. Not the psychology of an athlete doing an individual sport and the way they approach victory and defeat. It’s way more nuanced and intimate and complex. So for all of these reasons, this film was the film that both the cinephile and the ex-athlete [in me] was missing.
7R: Were there things you had seen in sports or swimming films that you thought were wrong and wanted to do differently in Nadia, Butterfly?
Pascal Plante: Most films that feature swimming! (laughs) A lot of sports movies have a very clear narrative structure, where it culminates with the main event; it’s about triumph or overcoming hardships. I have nothing against it. But it wasn’t what I wanted to show.
I wanted to do a psychological, intimate portrait of an athlete that is very human and that has her paradoxes. She is not a hero in the way most movies usually portray athletes. She is very much human: she has her faults, and she’s complex.
I think that when athletes have a goal in mind, they are not that interesting, psychologically speaking. You basically act as a robot. We wanted to get that out of the way fairly early in the movie so she could become human, even if it’s a messy process.
She wants to enjoy everything in a very bulimic and immature way. In that messy process, she understands herself and what her decision [to leave competitive swimming] means to her and to others.
7R: What was the process for writing the script for Nadia, Butterfly? Were you doing research or were you more looking at your own experiences?
Pascal Plante: It’s a bit of both. It’s not autobiographical though it’s a world that I know very well. I stopped [swimming] early. I didn’t gamble my 20s on swimming. It’s a weird process for these athletes because they know it’s an ephemeral venture. If you do swimming into your late 20s, you’re pretty much doing it to the fullest extent. Then your life only just begins in your late 20s [after you retire].
It’s also based on observation. A lot of my friends at the time kept swimming. Some of them did the Olympics, and some of them had retirements that were way harder than mine. For all of these reasons, Nadia is a culmination of a lot of feelings and observations.
I did research for the Olympics component of it. Katerine Savard, who plays Nadia, started out as a consultant. It was very loose. She didn’t sign a contract. I was asking questions; she read the script. I would invite her to dinner, and we would just discuss. Through this informal consulting, I saw something interesting in her. When we started the casting process, she auditioned and won the part.
We had access to a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of the Olympics, from another ex-Olympian, so that was a goldmine. You can get images from all the main cameras at the Olympics pretty easily; it’s on YouTube. But what is behind the curtain is not that easy to document and to have access to. By having friends in the milieu, we had access to that goldmine.
7R: What did you find in that behind the scenes footage that was useful?
Pascal Plante: We found out that it’s not as glamorous as what the main cameras shot. It’s a little Las Vegas: the glam is only there if you look one way, and if you look the other way, you see the limitations. That made it more accessible for us to recreate it because we were shooting in a lot of those behind-the-curtain environments.
7R: You have more than one actor who is an ex-Olympian in Nadia, Butterfly. What was your process of working with them to craft a performance?
Pascal Plante: They’re non-professional actors, true, but not all non-professional actors are born equal. They can have a closet acting talent. Some people had it more than others. We found that they were at ease with the camera and engaging with performing with their bodies. So they already had a natural level of talent.
That being said, of course, I needed to erase the machine of cinema, which is a bit heavy. I didn’t necessarily want to talk to them that much about focus pulling or the way they would move in space. I wouldn’t talk to them much about continuity because they would be self-conscious of whether they were playing with their hair in one shot and not another, or things like that. I have a lot of respect for trained actors. It’s a craft, a skill, an art.
For this movie, it’s pretty obvious from the first shot of the film why we chose real swimmers. I wanted people to connect with those swimmers through physical performances. When you think of it, it’s pretty rare that you see an actual sport performance in a narrative film. Usually, filmuse all the tricks to not show the sport performance. You edit more or compensate with camera movement.
We wanted to treat those sports in a way where it is obvious that they are the ones performing the skill and doing this for real, to the highest of their craft. It becomes artful. When you see someone swimming butterfly, it’s so graceful, it becomes art. We wanted to show that, and the best way to show that, in my opinion, was to not put too much cinema in the way, to just be minimalistic in the way that we capture those images.
7R: How did you think about shooting those swimming scenes so it was clear that there wasn’t artifice in them?
Pascal Plante: We didn’t want to have one aesthetic for every time we see them swim. I’d say the more extravagant or intense one is the race, when she does the 100m butterfly swim uncut [in one take]. For that scene, I wanted to be in her subjectivity, very close to her. We even, at one point, wanted, in my wildest dream, the camera going in and out of the water, but for so many reasons, it was impossible to do. But at least we captured sound in almost the way I wanted to use the image in that scene. The sound is pretty tailor-made for her subjectivity, which makes it intimate.
I wanted the camera to be in the pool. The camera was rigged on a pulley system so we [could] capture both ends of the pool. The director of photography was physically in a swimsuit on a paddle board so she could operate the camera. We knew we had only one take for this, because you don’t ask someone to go 100%, and then do it eight times.
7R: I want to know more about how you used the sound and score in Nadia, Butterfly, because they really help you get into Nadia’s subjectivity.
Pascal Plante: Parallel to my filmmaking career, I do sound design for other people. [Nadia Butterfly is] the first time I didn’t do it all myself. In my short films and my previous feature, I did the sound design. This time around, I had a very talented sound designer, Olivier Calvert, on board. I was very particular with the sound of swimming. It’s such a geek thing, but I was like, “The splash is all wrong, it doesn’t sound like this,” or “It’s butterfly, so I want to hear the kick.”
Olivier has done a lot of sound in animation. In animation, you go off the wall a bit more because you’re not tied to reality. I enjoy his work for that. It was important for me that Nadia Butterfly was not a film that was just naturalistic. We embrace a lyricism and a magical component.
Sound is one of the best tools to play with in a subliminal way. That’s the only feature in all moviemaking where you can be literal in what you want the audience to be [feeling]. Say you want the audience to be sad, you can treat the sound to subliminally create [that feeling]. You can create the right ambience to make the audience feel lonely or excited.
7R: How did you get the right sounds for the strokes? Was it all foley?
Pascal Plante: It’s a mix of everything. We had a foley artist, but obviously, the foley artist couldn’t do all the swimming. He did a bunch and created a bank. He also worked off a sound bank, but in a very creative way. Sometimes, a kick would be a rock dropping in the water, for example. We would work with pre-existing sound and then fashion it in a creative way.
7R: How do you feel about capturing location sound?
Pascal Plante: It’s very, very important. I’m conscious about allowing the proper time for sound. I don’t do it anymore, but I used to do a bit of sound recording on sets after film school. There’s always that frustration where you allow all this time for the image, and then after, it’s like, “Nope, no time for this [the sound]!” And it does have a cost, sometimes. You don’t get the wow take that you needed, or you don’t get footsteps in context, for example. We wanted to allow that time.
For instance, sometimes, for the big race scene there was no sound [on set]. You want a clear sound of them [the swimmers] shouting [encouragement at each other] or talking [to each other], but it was hard… not hard because they couldn’t project very well, but it was weird for them to scream their lungs out and everybody else around is silent, and there’s nobody in the crowd.
So they really did a good job, because they’re very intense. When everything was tied in together with the crowd in CG and the whole sound, [the scene had] the right energy.
7R: How did you work with your production and costume designer to create this 2020 Tokyo Olympics aesthetic, which I guess now is science fiction?
Pascal Plante: From the get go we knew it was an alternate Tokyo in many ways because we shot the film in 2019, way before anyone could foresee [the cancellation of the Olympics]. The Olympics had only ever not happened in World War II! You don’t foresee the Olympics not happening.
We did an alternate logo, the costumes, all the way to the mascots. We also had to make sure we were legally in the clear, too. It’s such a legal labyrinthe. We knew we were walking on thin ice there. We had access to so much behind-the-scenes footage, and that turned out to be a goldmine for the production designer and costume designer. They really dove into that world.
It’s a long process. There were a few challenges, for instance the medals. You don’t just do medals with that size and thickness; it’s so specific to an Olympic medal. We 3D printed them. Then, they were spray painted. That turned out to be the best option, but it was a process.
For the fluffy mascots, all of them were handmade. The bigger mascot was handmade. They did such an amazing job.
7R: Could you tell me about your collaboration with cinematographer Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron on Nadia, Butterfly. How did you work out the film’s aesthetic?
Pascal Plante: Being an ex-swimmer, I was always talking about the feelings of the water. You know, when you’re wearing goggles, and you remove the goggles, and you have this blur of water in your eyes? We used vintage lenses — not for the film to look vintage, but to play with those imperfections in the image and the blur that is a bit off. The image is not that sharp. We wanted to have those imperfections.
We were also embracing bold colours. Canada is very red [shown in the costumes the Olympic swimmers wear when representing their country], and the water is very blue. We wanted to have those sharp, chromatic contrasts, really embracing the colourful environment.
If I were to appoint a few contemporary filmmakers who influenced me, maybe Andrea Arnold. Her film American Honey is a good example, because it’s so realistic on one hand, but on the other, it’s so magical, so bright and colourful and playful in its cinematic language.
7R: There’s this dream sequence in the middle of Nadia, Butterfly where Nadia is swimming. How did you think about that?
Pascal Plante: I was talking to my cinematographer about the recurring dreams I had when I was swimming. I would go to bed, and when I was asleep, I would very often dream about me swimming endlessly in dark water. And then I’d wake up at 5 a.m. and have to go swim. That was my life for a long time. So that was literally based on my own dreams.
Stéphanie, the cinematographer, had a blast in designing [the shots in this sequence]. For instance, she designed a glass she could fill with water in front of the lens, and then she would play with droplets of ink in front of the lens. That’s not something we rented; it’s something we built. There’s a lot of analog effects in the film.
7R: You really feel how Nadia feels alienated from her peers as soon as she starts to leave her life as a swimmer.
Pascal Plante: I actually [wrote] the screenplay to follow the stages of grief. She starts in denial, and then there’s anger towards herself and others. It’s an anger that comes up clumsily in the movie. She almost purposefully sets herself apart. She embraces the fact that she’s the black sheep so she can talk unfiltered about everything she doesn’t like about her life, her teammates, and that world. But at that point in the movie, there’s confusion, too, in the way she speaks. She’s conflicted. It’s not a well-digested, fully-formed opinion. It’s a very messy attitude.
Nadia doesn’t change her mind, but at the end of the movie, I think she leaves for better reasons than [why she was leaving] at the beginning of the movie. It’s a [small] evolution, but it’s an evolution regardless.
The film has such a condensed space and time: it’s all happening within three days. It’s not this Shakesperian dramatic arc where you go from one extreme to the other. It’s a slice of life setup. But since we look at her evolution in such microscopic detail, it felt like enough.
Going back to the idea of showing athletes as humans rather than demigods: Nadia is not a perfect character. We wanted that.
7R: It strikes me that both Nadia, Butterfly and Fake Tattoos are films that take place over just a few days when a character is on the cusp of a major life change. What draws you to that kind of storytelling?
Pascal Plante: It’s a fun question because I have to psychoanalyse myself. I like films where you have a main character but the main character evolves within a strong relationship. In Fake Tattoos, it’s a brief but intense summer love.
In Nadia, Butterfly, the friendship is very core to the whole story. What she [Nadia] will miss most is competing with her friend, Marie-Pierre. And the grief is both ways, too. Marie-Pierre acts like the sidekick, but she’s very aware of Nadia’s hardship; she’s very observational throughout the whole film. She understands what Nadia experiences. She’s in that dance with Nadia from the very beginning. I like films that deal with a relationship: two characters that reflect each other’s facets.
When you have a life change, you’re forced towards introspection. You can live your life not thinking too much about yourself or your actions, but you’re [suddenly] forced to [at a turning point]. In Fake Tattoos, it’s by a heartbreak, and in Nadia, Butterfly, it’s a different kind of heartbreak, with her friend. In light of those heartbreaks, you’re forced to think more about how your actions radiate to your entourage.
7R: Fake Tattoos is shot in Montreal where you’ve lived, whereas Nadia, Butterfly, is set in Tokyo. Did you mostly shoot in Tokyo?
Pascal Plante: No, but I take that as a compliment! It’s three quarters shot in Montreal. Pretty much all the indoors are locations we shot close to home. All the outdoors were shot in Tokyo.
It’s a big challenge of location scouting. We talked before about art direction, props, and costumes, but finding the locations was a big part of it. And finding the athletes’ residence that needed to look like the Olympic village. And then the bus [the athletes travel on together].
We did the bus scenes in Montreal. It’s very seamless in the film, but for instance, there’s a shot of Nadia looking outdoors in the bus where it’s obviously Tokyo, and then there’s a shot indoors, in the bus, that’s shot in Montreal: the outside is blurred enough so it looks seamless and it blends. There were lots of those challenges, to make Montreal look like Tokyo and Tokyo look like it would fit Montreal.
We did the Montreal shoot before, and then three weeks later ,[we went to Tokyo as] a very tiny crew, and we even hired some Japanese locals to help out. We could only bring the producer, myself, the two actresses, the cinematographer, and the assistant camera. So even the sound was a locally-hired sound guy.
7R: Aside from the technical challenges, was there a difference in depicting a place you know very well versus telling a story in a foreign country?
Pascal Plante: There’s a responsibility filming in a country where you’re not a resident and you don’t necessarily know it from the inside. Producer Dominique Dussault and I did a solo location scout before the shoot in April. We came [to shoot] back last October. You’re there two weeks; you’re not living your life there. There’s a big difference.
I felt that pressure and responsibility. I kept asking my local teammates, what are the cliches? What should I not do? Tell me all the don’ts.
What helped is we experienced the film through Nadia’s subjectivity, and she is a tourist. She looks at the city with very naive eyes. That helped a lot. We were not pretending to shoot Tokyo as someone with a deep, inner perspective on the city.
7R: How did you think about creating the rhythm of the film in the edit?
Pascal Plante: There are a lot of long takes which sometimes makes it easier [to edit], but sometimes makes it insurmountable. It was a really challenging way of filming because I knew it had to work. Every single day and scene, the way we would shoot it, it had to work. We couldn’t work around it. It was a lot of pressure on the shooting day. And sometimes, it makes it hard in editing to fix some problems. But there weren’t that many major problems in editing.
We did do a super-quick assembly of the Montreal shoot before the three-week shoot in Tokyo. We had a structure, with all the Tokyo scenes missing. That helped so much, because Tokyo ended up being almost a reshoot without being a reshoot.
There were a few scenes or things that weren’t super well understood. I went to the costume designer and said, “Well, this scene we’re actually planning to shoot before other scenes, so I need that other outfit because of continuity. I need that outfit on the second or third day because, in the edit, it’s going to be before.” Doing that crazy fast assembly helped because a major focus in editing would be, “Oh no, we found out too late that this scene should have been before [that scene], but it can’t [be] because she has the other costume.”
I actually think shooting in blocks is a very wise idea. I would do that again on other films, have one or two or three different shooting blocks. You reflect on what you have, and you expand on it and sometimes add stuff. You find a way to make it work.
7R: Was the editor, Amélie Labrèche, editing while you were working in Tokyo? Was she looking at dailies?
Pascal Plante: She was. She even started as soon as she got the first week of the shoot in Montreal. Amelie was always working, and she kept working even as we were filming the Tokyo stuff.
7R: What are the plans for the film now?
Pascal Plante: It’s been picked up in France so it’s going to come out theatrically in 2021 in France. Right now, for obvious reasons, distributors aren’t thinking much about acquiring new films because they have a lineup of films that they want to release, and they don’t know when or how. I think the life of the film will be longer, but not as intense. I can see the film being released maybe in 2022 somewhere, where in a normal year it would be faster. We already have a great festival lineup for the film. That’s really promising and encouraging.
7R: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Pascal Plante: If there’s one thing I’d like to add, it is to mention how much the producer Dominique Dussault helped on the film. She was [working with me] very early on in the screenplay stage. She helped with casting, locations… she tied it all together. I couldn’t have done it without her.