An Interview With: Louise Archambault

September 16, 2019

UPDATE: And the Birds Rained Down is a nominee for the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award. Tune in to our virtual gala March 9 at 8:00pm to see who wins.

“I want to reach and let audiences discover that we’re all the same.”

Audiences eager to escape into the woods and enjoy the finer things in life simply must see And the Birds Rained Down. The third film by Louise Archambault is a poignant and bittersweet tale of embracing life as it tells the story of two hermits, Tom (Rémy Girard) and Charlie (Gilbert Sicotte) who retreat into the woods with a pact to end life on their own terms. The men’s cozy isolation is disrupted by the appearance of two women, a young reporter named Raf (Ève Landry) and Marie-Desneige (Andée Lachapelle), a runaway from a mental institution eager for a new lease on life. It’s a poignant, delicately told tale of growing old and finding love, delivered with Archambault’s signature naturalism and empathetic approach to her characters.

The film adapts the critically acclaimed novel of the same name by Jocelyne Saucier. And the Birds Rained Down marks the first adaptation by Archambault to make the big screen after the original works Familia (2005), which won Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF, and Gabrielle (2013), which was Canada’s submission in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film and won Best Film at the Canadian Screen Awards. In bringing Saucier’s deeply moving novel to the screen, Archambault asserts her voice and vision loud and clear, honouring a beloved text while making it authentically her own.

And the Birds Rained Down had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month before opening the Québec City Film Festival on Sept. 12.

Pat Mullen sat down with Archambault during the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss her process of bringing Saucier’s novel to the screen and basking in a film that inspires us to embrace each day life brings.

How was the experience of your first adaptation compared?

I did another adaptation before this film, but it has not yet been made. I loved this project, not because it’s an adaptation but because of the subject. I felt stronger while writing it because the subject and themes were so powerful. It’s as if you have two heads when writing an adaptation: Jocelyne Saucier’s work is so strong and I wanted her to be proud of what I did. I didn’t want to deconstruct what she said in her book. We had a lot of conversations before writing. She talked to me about her research with hermits and with Marie-Desneige, who is vaguely inspired by her aunt, so I wanted the film to have that truth. But then again, I made some choices while writing the script. I wrote many versions so that the story would fit within two hours.

What’s the difference between cinematic storytelling and storytelling in a novel?

Time in a novel can extend. In film, you have two hours, so you have to work with ellipses. For about one month, I wrote until one o’clock every day, and then I would go out of my house—but I was still with the hermits. I would still feel the forest and the lichen. It always took me several minutes to realize that I was in city surrounded by concrete. I felt good in that environment. I’ve enjoyed writing my other scripts, but this one was very sensorial.

I was surprised to see that the scenes between Ange-Aimée/Raf and the woman in High Park didn’t make the film. They feel so central to the book, but I think the adaptations works without them. Was there any reason you chose to omit that?

It was in the first versions. I did try it and at some point, I felt it was too much. I shot a lot more than we see in the film. I cut an hour of material, so I had to make choices and remove some scenes. That was one thing I had to let go.

How involved was Jocelyne Saucier in the project?

She actually gave me carte blanche to write the script, but I didn’t want her that far from me. We talked about the subject and the characters before writing. She saw Gabrielle and she felt so comfortable with me and with my process. She said, “I made the novel, now you can do your version with your sensitivity.” She read two versions of the script: once in the middle of writing and then again just before shooting. She read the script and she really loved it. 

Quite a few things are different from the book, like the swimming scene with their hermits. It’s not in the book, but it was a way for me to talk about rituals and day-to-day habits. And it’s a plaisir coupable. [Guilty pleasure.] I love swimming in the lake, so I wanted to my characters to swim too.

You mentioned you had a previous adaptation that has yet to be made. But Gabrielle was quite successful: it was our Oscar pick and won the Canadian Screen Award. Were there challenges in getting this film made?

I got a number of offers from USA, UK, and France after Gabrielle. Sometimes films work out more quickly than others. There’s another project, one I didn’t write, and it’s based on a novel as well. Telefilm Canada wanted to do it and it was ready, but And the Birds Rained Down got it [funding] right away, so the other ones had to wait. I shot another film this winter and spring, so many factors determine when a film happens. Another good thing is that the time between films gave me the chance to shoot TV series. That’s great because you’re always on set directing actors and doing mise-en-scène. When you’re working with great actors, all projects are good.

Both And the Birds Rained Down and Gabrielle tell love stories that we don’t normally see on screen: tales of the elderly and people with disabilities. What draws you to these stories?

In my life and in my fiction world, I’m drawn to characters that society might judge as atypical, but I don’t find them atypical. I like encouraging openness to others and to differences. I want to reach and let audiences discover that we’re all the same. We just want to love, be love and have our own dignity. I say with Gabrielle Marion-Rivard [who played the title role in Gabrielle], I learned so much from her. I know she did from me too. Our relationship really was an exchange. It still is as of today. I want to share that exchange with viewers as well.

You worked with a mix of non-actors or professionals in Gabrielle. How did that develop your direction coming back to working with veterans like Rémy Girard, Gilbert Sicotte, and Andrée Lachappelle? 

I shot a lot between Gabrielle and this film [including the TV series Trop and Catastrophe and the web series Nouvelle addresse] but I learned a lot while shooting Gabrielle. I learned to trust my gut feeling and myself. I also learned to trust the actors—it doesn’t matter if they are professional or non-professional—they can just be who they are. You take the time to let them be confident in their role. Even though professional actors can have 40-50 years’ experience, they still want to be directed. They need to be. Sometimes the line is quite thin between what is too much and what is too real. Sometimes professional actors need someone to tell them to come back, go into their characters, and just listen to themselves.

Your films are driven by such distinct and authentic characters: what’s your approach to casting?

I learned over the years with casting that when you choose an actor, you choose the actor for his or her talent. You know when they’re the one for the part. I’m drawn to actors who are very generous with others. They are better actors when they listen to one another and they’re not into their egos or worrying if their angle is good with the light. I look for someone who believes in the character and can listen. One thing I did with Gabrielle that I still do a lot today is improvise, just to create some truth. We improvise and we change things. Actors generally like that because they have to be sharp. They have to be present.

They have such good chemistry and inhabit these characters so well. I especially love the scene in the bar when Tom sings. Why pick Tom Waits? 

I love Tom Waits’ songs, and Leonard Cohen and all the others in the film. I chose the songs I love. The Tom Waits song fits the scene with Tom because it’s an extent extension of his sensitivity and virility. Tom is a bit rough and he doesn’t talk about emotions, but then it comes out and I hope you understand him more. It was quite a challenge because I gave Rémy Girard songs that are written by people who are more poets than singers. In some ways, it was more difficult to learn. I mean, Tom Waits is Tom Waits!

The film is very sensitive in dealing with characters who know they are approaching the ends of their lives. How were the emotions during the shoot working with actors who might be facing the same sentiments?

On set, I have a reputation to laugh a lot and to make people have fun whatever the situation even though we have to work quickly. But making this film was quite light. You have to take more time. Andrée Lachapelle had difficulty walking through the forest at the beginning, but by the middle of the shoot, she was riding a four-wheeler. I had to remind her to go slower and that Marie-Desneige is not supposed to be that good. She came to life with that character. This film was the same as my others. Every project has its difficulties and challenges.

Has it made you look at life and growing older any differently?

Maybe when I read the novel but I didn’t think about it every day while I was doing the film. For me, the film was not about that at all. Hope, I guess. But it’s not about getting older. C’est profiter la vie. [Enjoying life.] Life is now. Forget about goals or what you lost. It made me want to appreciate life day to day.

I think that’s really a strong message of the film–just living in the moment

We just have to be honest with what we do. When I was writing, I was wondering who was going to see a film with old hermits in the forest! At times, I wondered why I did that but I wanted to share that story.

But a film like Amour by Michael Haneke found an audience and you could say this film has similar themes.

I love that film. Jean-Louis Trintignant was amazing. It’s a great reference for this film, actually.

You mentioned you had some offers previously. Would you ever like to follow someone like Jean-Marc Vallée and try something on the scale of Hollywood films are TV shows like Big Little Lies? What would be some of the ideal projects if you could have them?

Jean-Marc Vallée and I have a lot in common. We are both character-driven directors. Biopics for sure would be one kind of film I’d love to do, or anything that lets you travel or discover a new feeling. I also have a secret fantasy about doing action films. I did that recently—the stunts and everything was like doing Charlie’s Angels. That’s quite a departure for me. But just now I shot a comedy that is coming out for Christmas and we had a few stunts. I loved that. It would be fun to do stunts again.

And the Birds Rained Down is now playing in Quebec cinemas.