Québexit director and co-writer Joshua Demers on shooting a film in three languages with 20 actors in 12 days, and what the film reveals about Canada.
Canadian satire on film is still very much in its infancy, with Philippe Falardeau’s brilliant 2015 film, My Internship in Canada, essentially hailing its birth. With Joshua Demers’s Québexit, there’s now another entry in this nascent genre, and it’s an exciting, and very funny, one. Both My Internship and Québexit share an interest in the culture clash between anglophones, Québécois Francophones, and Indigenous people.
But Demers’s film takes the important next step of actually involving all three groups in the screenwriting process: he co-wrote the film with bilingual Québécois francophone actor Xavier Yuvens and Cree actress-director-writer Gail Maurice (recently seen on CBC’s Trickster as Georgina). The collaborative process really pays off because you feel like you’re getting an insider perspective on each of the characters, which ensures all of them are three-dimensional and the humour feels very, very specific. It also allows the film to be trilingual — in English, French, and Cree — which adds another level of authenticity and nuance.
When Québexit begins, Quebec has had another referendum to separate from Canada, only this time, the leave vote won by 51%, rather than the opposite. Quebec members of the Canadian military have immediately decided to take action: covering the Canadian flags on their uniforms, setting up checkpoints at the provincial borders, all while wondering why they haven’t seen their latest paycheck from the Canadian government. Their former (anglophone) colleagues in the Canadian army arrive on the scene to try to keep them in check; at first, the Quebec army’s primary concern seems to be to get people to tweet with the hashtag “#Québexit”.
Set entirely over a small patch of land at the Quebec-New Brunswick border, Québexit is a biting satire about the pettiness of French-English relations on land that they both stole from Indigenous people. The film doesn’t take sides so much as celebrate, or at least depict, the cultural and linguistic differences in Canada, the political issues these cause, and the bureaucratic silliness and chaos that it causes. It’s very funny and whip-smart, with Yuvens and Maurice, who also star, as particular standouts.
Québexit had its world premiere at Sudbury’s Cinefest, and it will screen at Cinefranco next week, and Whistler Film Festival in December. I caught up with director and co-writer Demers by phone to discuss shooting a film in three languages with 20 actors in 12 days, and what the film reveals about Canada.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Québexit?
Joshua Demers: I was born in Alberta. My father is a Québécois Francophone. My mother is an Anglophone from Ontario. So growing up, we didn’t really speak French at home, because later on, I found out my father felt ostracised from both communities. In the military, the English treated him like he was French and called him a frog, and the French treated him like a traitor and called him a sellout.
We grew up assimilated. I was the only one of my brothers who was really bothered by that because it felt like there was a piece missing. I figured I could call myself Canadian because that includes all those components: Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, English, French. So the idea of Quebec sovereignty was always kind of a counterpoint to that. It was always something that scared me growing up, because I was a bit patriotic. I became obsessed with Quebec sovereignty. In the process of researching it and also relearning French, you realise that everyone has their reasons. That was the genesis of the framework of the story.
The next step was realising [that if] I’m trying to make a political comedy about Canada, I can’t really tell it by myself, because I don’t have the authority to do so. Then, it was a process of working with a co-writer, Xavier Yuvens, who I live with. He was a bit of a sovereignist, so we would have debates, and that informed the Quebec sovereignist storyline. He had acted in a short film of Gail’s [Maurice], so that’s how we came across Gail. She created the character of Meetos, which really informed the Indigenous storyline.
As much as we want to tell a story about Canada, all the communities in Canada are far more complex than just us, so we had to make it even more specific. When we cast it, we told the cast members they had creative sovereignty over their characters, because that’s the only way to make sure it’s not a caricature. The job becomes somewhat of a composer making sure all the instruments are telling a story, but they have to be autonomous, and they have to be able to veto things. Otherwise, you’re diminishing the complexity of what exists. There was this personal component of why we pushed the boulder down the hill, but in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, I had to give up control so it was no longer just my story.
7R: What did that mean for casting? Were you specifically looking for people who could help with that collaborative process?
Joshua Demers: Casting was the most arduous, in the sense that we put the most effort into it. My view is, when you are producing or directing a project, casting your actors and also your crew is essential. Those are the people you’re going to rely on.
Our DP [Elisa Iannacone], is a conflict photographer who’s been in war zones. She’s from Mexico, with a Canadian-British father and a Mexican mother; that informs the filmic approach of a docu-esque vibe, one, because it seems funny, and two, because I love the idea of a conflict reporter trying to do a civil war film on Canada.
Working with Xavier and Gail, who are very connected actors in the Toronto film community, I was looking at casting, and then I talked to them and got advice. Especially with Gail, we were very aware of Nicole [Joy-Fraser] who plays Susan [the sister of Gail’s character in the film]. Xavier knows a lot of Francophone actors in Toronto so he introduced me to Alison [Louder who plays 2Lt. Sauvé running the Canadian army]. It was picking people who could bring something unique to it and then giving them as much space as possible.
7R: What was the process for working with the cast? Did you rehearse? Did you shift the script when they came on board?
Joshua Demers: We’re a low-budget Canadian film, so we could afford a four-hour rehearsal or table read, which was really stretching our budget, but I was adamant that we needed to at least have something. We had people in a room, and we chatted. You get different people from different points of view in the same room, some magical things happen, and then you incorporate that into the script.
There were some times we went off book. There are parts of the film that are more improvised than we’ll ever let on. I’m not talking about just funny moments, but serious dramatic moments where we realised on the day that we didn’t know what the scene was about, and then we figured it out.
Probably one of the best examples are two scenes that are very much Gail’s: the scene at night when they go back to the Québécois blockade and things kind of erupt. In the script, originally, it was going for humour, and this is where settler filmmakers should steer clear as much as possible from [imposing themselves on Indigenous characters]. I didn’t clue in, at the time, that soldiers talking to two Indigenous women at night, how that read. It just went over my head. But we had two very brave actors who just follow what that is [really like]. You wouldn’t have had that if you were like, “No it has to be the script.”
The other thing was at the end, when you have this beautiful moment when you think the movie’s going to resolve. Someone suggested that we should have a unity moment, and Gail was like, “Fuck that.” And I’m like, “That’s the scene!” Every time I was steering towards too pro-Canada, she [Gail] would call me out.
I guess you can accuse the film of trying to be a bit of something for everyone, but for me, that’s kind of what the country is. You have to pile these different perspectives, so the audience can look at it from different perspectives. They can look at it and go, “Isn’t Canada a wonderful place where we can all work together?” Or they can look at it and simply see that Quebec should separate, and everyone should be united as friends but separate. Or you can look at this and say, “Reconciliation is truly dead, because no matter what, this always happens.” Or you can look at this and say, “Wow I did not know Canada has all these demons and divisions because it presents itself to the world as such a happy-go-lucky place.” So it allows people to take what they want from it, which I think is the only way to make a film that touches on Canada as an entity.
7R: In the opening of Québexit, you see the first people to go past the checkpoint are the two Indigenous women, Meetos and Susan, and they’re caught between these two ridiculous checkpoints from Quebec and Canada. It’s this wonderful little metaphor for what Canada is. I was wondering how that ended up as the starting point for the film?
Joshua Demers: A thing I like about collaboration is you forget where it comes from and whose idea it was. There’s a lot of characters in this, so early on, we were just trying to cut things down. I think, in the original draft, there were 40 [characters], which is too much, even from a creative perspective, even if you had all the money in the world. We were carving down the piece to the essentials. You also have to introduce everyone quite quickly.
The scene with Meetos and Susan, the film can’t speak for more than what it is, and as much as I find it really important and love talking about it, it’s important to put it in context. This film does not answer questions or make everything OK; it’s not a salve. We were conscious of characters representing different ideas, but they’re characters. They’re just one person; they can’t be totally representing ideas.
Gail and Nicole really made that relationship [between their characters]. It was also Gail’s leadership as a creator. Nicole was saying that really helped anchor it: you have that strong older sister figure, and they’re just sisters.
Then, you have the soldier, Hassan, who speaks to the more idealistic sovereigntist; you have another soldier who represents the more old-fashioned version of sovereignty, which is like, he’s into it but it’s a lot of work; and then the bilingual… but they’re all people. They’re just three soldiers who are stuck in the middle of a shitty assignment, and they’re just griping.
And then you have the Canadian soldiers, and it’s a similar thing: on one hand, they speak about political points of view, but they’re just people. We made a film about 20 people in a crazy situation at the intersection of geography, identity, and language. The only way for there to be any hope in the idea of Canada, and I don’t mean as a country, is by loving the people more than the flag. That’s why I realised, in doing this story, you lose the idealism and realise these are just people. They speak for themselves and they can’t speak for all these big things. Even though they hint at it.
7R: I love that the film is in three languages, and that language is a battleground. Hassan refuses to speak English to the Cree sisters when they’re coming into Quebec, but then he refuses to speak French to the Canadians because he says they don’t know how to speak French.
Joshua Demers: When you’re trying to learn any language, it’s a very vulnerable thing to try to speak it, because you’re like a child. When someone switches back to the language they think you speak more fluently, in this case, someone switching from French to English, you do feel kind of called out. It’s like they think, “No, that’s not for you; we’ll be more comfortable in English.”
One of my favourite Canadian political stories is Jacques Parizeau in ‘94, right when he became the Quebec Premier, everyone knew the referendum was coming, and he was having a meeting with Bob Rae, who was the Ontario Premier at the time. Bob Rae knew French fluently enough to speak it in a meeting. And Bob Rae starts speaking to Jacques Parizeau in French. And Parizeau says, “Oh, my friend, I think we’d be more comfortable in English.” It’s a power move. I can exist in your world, but you can’t exist in mine.
7R: There’s also that discussion of Cree and whether or not you can speak Cree and how that can be used, as well.
Joshua Demers: It was important to show language as a part of identity. With Meetos and Susan, you have a slight age difference. One of the things that was told to me was, if you’re above 40 on a reservation, often, you speak your Indigenous language fluently, and if you’re below 40, often, that’s not the case. You ask, “Why?,” and then people are like, “Residential schools.” The violence of that concept is you are severing people from the language that feels like home.
Susan can understand it [Cree] more than she can speak it, and [her older sister], Meetos, only speaks to her in Cree to keep it alive for her. As much as we’re aware of this, it becomes more powerful when it’s on the level of characters. These are two sisters, and one’s trying to keep the language alive for the other one. The other has to choose to maintain it.
I think there are similarities with the English and the French. I’m not a Native Cree speaker so I can’t speak for it, but one of the reasons it was great working with Gail, who’s a fluent Cree speaker, when we were talking about translating it, she said, “You realise every language has a sense of humour.” I didn’t know that. I thought I could at least understand that sense of humour in French, but I realised the limits of my French [when] directing this [film], to a degree.
7R: Québexit all takes place in this one patch of land, and you’re working with people who are also in the theatre community. Did theatre influence your direction?
Joshua Demers: A friend of mine said we should make a play of it because we only have one location. Well, we only had one location because we didn’t have money, not because we wanted it to be one location! We very much were like, “Let’s go for the bone marrow of what’s funny or truthful, as fast as possible,” because we had 12 days to shoot. You trust your actors and DP, and her second camera operator, because we had two cameras.
We said, “OK, let’s stage this in a way where we can shoot this quickly, but give ourselves a lot of takes,” because we wanted the actors to explore. One of them said it felt like we were always rehearsing, and we just shot the rehearsal. It allowed us to find the depth in what we wanted with the limited time and resources we had.
7R: How did you approach location scouting?
Joshua Demers: We needed a road within the Toronto Union Zone; otherwise, we would have to pay travel time,which we couldn’t afford. It had to be isolated enough that it would feel like it could be a tiny road in New Brunswick and Quebec. We found a tiny road in Pickering. It was a process of elimination.
We literally went on Google Maps and looked for different roads. You have to work backwards and say, “OK, we only have one location, so one location is the best creative decision we could make. Let’s make it work.”
7R: You mentioned your Director of Photography Elisa Iannacone is a conflict photographer. What was your process for working with her to develop the film’s aesthetic?
Joshua Demers: She was in a bunch of different countries when we were prepping, so we Zoomed and Skyped a bunch before. She came a week before. At one point, we were debating, “Should we try to make it more minimalistic? Should we do something crazy like shoot it on new tiny cameras?” But very quickly, we were like, Let’s do Blackmagic; let’s use two cameras because it’s the only way to get all this footage in such a short amount of time. We have to shoot quickly, but we want it to be good. Instead of doing something very elaborate and precise with blocking, we have to give the actors freedom, so therefore, it’s going to be fluid, docu-drama-esque.
At the same time, when we’re blocking, we need to make sure it’s precise enough that we can cover everything quickly, because we don’t have a ton of time. Elisa Iannacone, the DoP, is one of the most resourceful people you’ll ever meet. She also does art photography. She did a very powerful exhibit on sexual assault where she took a creative approach to working with survivors, including herself as one, and finding colourful art therapy photos that symbolise people’s experience of processing the experience. She did these all over the world with no resources. She’d have someone in a cage with lions, and you ask, “How did you do that!?” And she’s like, “Oh I went to Africa and found lions.” Someone like that working on your film will find ways to get things done!
7R: How did you think about the comedy in Québexit? Were you thinking about certain comedic traditions when you were writing?
Joshua Demers: If it made someone laugh we went with it. A couple examples: the actor who plays Angus (Daniel Gravelle), is just a comedic gem. We quickly realised that. When we had our prep meeting, for whatever reason, I asked, “Do you rap?” And he said, “Yeah, I do, actually.” Because for whatever reason I felt like Angus would rap, and I felt like that was important because I think there’s a danger of Angus becoming pure comic relief and a goofball. But every character is a person, so how do you make Angus a human? Well, he’s trying to actualise the best version of himself. That turned into, he’s like your little brother: you love him, but he does dumb things sometimes. That doesn’t mean he’s not smart and capable. Daniel really brought that human element to it. We realised he had the gift of comedic timing, and we gave him more freedom to do that.
Another great moment is with Andrew Martin, Keenan Grom, and Samantha Brown, who play the land defenders. Even for characters like those who weren’t in the film as much, it was very important to give them a moment, because you want to fill the world out so it feels like a rich place of people. One of the things that always annoyed me is people just hire background and put them in the background; they feel like they’re standing there. We were fortunate to get really talented actors who came out and played with us for a day or so. We said, “We want to find something to make it clear that they’re people,” and Keenan pitched something to me: “What if I come in all this gear, because he’s a young man whose image of this is the Oka Crisis, so he wants to dress accordingly, and then [the character of] Bogdan’s like, ‘You should take that off, just stop.’” That made Andrew laugh, so then we just did it!
7R: You mentioned your father had been in the military, and I’m wondering if that informed how you were depicting these two sides of the military?
Joshua Demers: I really didn’t want it to come across as disrespectful of the military. I come from a military family. It’s a powerful thing when someone wants to do that for their fellow citizens. The way to do that was just depicting it as realistically as possible. If you talk to anyone in the military, it’s just like any other job. There’s always what they feel is incompetent leadership from the top. There’s always dumb rules. They feel like they’ve been sent to do something with not enough equipment.
We were speaking with members of my family in the military. We tried to capture the reality of what would happen. The radios break down, soldiers get bored and do dumb things. If you depict it as realistically as possible, it comes across as respectful. You’re not denigrating the military in any way; you’re denigrating the politicians who use the military as props. They’re all for the military until it comes to paying veterans benefits.
7R: What was that process of editing Québexit yourself like? You must have been working with a lot of material.
Joshua Demers: I only edited it because we didn’t have money to hire an editor. I wouldn’t recommend it for directors; I think it’s good to have an extra pair of eyes. What you do to protect yourself is you take a bit more time, and you make sure you show it to a bunch of people who will challenge you. There was a lot of material.
You see your sins as a director when you’re like, “Why am I watching five takes of this? I needed four or three.” Then you’re like, “Oh I should have gotten an extra take of that.”
So I take that back: every director should edit half of the movie. Then, it sharpens what they need and don’t need, and then you bring in a professional third eye to polish it.
7R: Comedy can be made or broken in the edit.
Joshua Demers: Did you laugh? I hope we didn’t break it!
7R: I laughed a lot!
Joshua Demers: Good!
7R: Is that just trusting your own judgement? Or showing it to other people?
Joshua Demers: I think it’s a bit of both. You try to trust your judgement. You try to show new people, and show it to different people at different times. You show it to close collaborators early on, because they know what you tried to do. Then you show people who care about you, so they’re a bit more distant, and then you show it to your last tier of people, the people who are going to treat it like they’re watching any movie on Netflix. It’s a game of inches.
Québexit screens in Ontario at Cinefranco on November 25 for 62 hours. Tickets are available here.
Québexit screens across Canada at Whistler Film Festival on December 6. Tickets are available here.
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