Xavier Dolan Talks His New Erotically Charged Thriller ‘Tom at the Farm’

All photos courtesy of Amplify Releasing

Last week, when I sat down to chat with Xavier Dolan, I realized few things about him have changed since we first spoke back in 2011. Sure he’s chopped off his wild coiffure of curls, traded in his well-fitting jeans for track pants and now sits in his chair with the comfort of someone curled up by the fire, but when he opens his mouth to speak that same fury of manic energy and passion hasn’t subsided with success. But perhaps that’s because, despite sharing the Jury Prize at Cannes with Jean-Luc Godard and releasing a prolific five films in six years, Dolan is still only in his mid-20s and still uncovering his many talents as a filmmaker. From his emotionally eviscerating I Killed My Mother and the beautifully heartbreaking Laurence Anyways to the ferocious Mommy, Dolan has established himself as a director whose films tend to focus on the pains of romantic love, familial drama, and harrowing obsession. Yet with Dolan’s new psychological thriller Tom at the Farm—which only recently found a home in the U.S. after premiering in Venice in 2013—he’s delivered one of his most interesting features yet.

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As a departure from his previous work, the perversely stimulating film dials down Dolan’s affinity for grandiose aesthetics and love stories and focuses on the hauntingly erotic and sinister atmosphere that pervades the film. Based on a stage play by Michel-Marc Bouchard, Tom at the Farm stars Dolan alongside the terrific Pierre-Yves Cardinal and Lise Roy to give us, “another taste of his talents with a bizarre, kinky, and violent tale.” With a stimulating and evocative score by famed composer Gabriel Yared, the film takes you on a “nightmarish journey about a mourning young man who goes to the country to the family home of his deceased lover. Upon arriving he realizes that his man’s mother knows nothing of their relationship, while his thuggish brother won’t stop at anything to keep it that way. Set in the deep, damp farmlands of Quebec, the story of psychological manipulation plays out with cunning anxiety and bizarre tangents, finding a odd and sickly sense of humor even in its brutality.”

I caught up with Dolan to discuss the freedom of genre restrictions, the brilliance of Gabriel Yared, and not needing to be popular.

I saw Tom at the Farm in the winter of 2014 when it screened at MoMa and instantly fell in love. It was bizarre to me that the film couldn’t find a distributor in the U.S. because it’s sexy and suspenseful and certainly has the most broad appeal of any of your films. 

I thought so! But then again it’s my movie. So yeah, I was a little confused, although my movies have never had great careers in the U.S. Sometimes I don’t know why and sometimes I do; some movies are just less accessible than others. I’m not puzzled as to why Lawrence Anyways wasn’t such a huge success, it’s pretty clear. It’s a very long movie and the subject is, I assume, repellent to certain minds and certain people. But Tom is a genre movie and genre movies have a little more ease when it comes to reaching people and getting people to see them.

When we spoke a few years ago for Heartbeats, you told me that you always wanted to make your Se7en or your Silence of the Lambs, and when I saw this I thought, well there you go, he’s done it. So was making a psychological thriller or a genre movie a conscious decision for you following Laurence Anyways?

I don’t think of it as a response to anything because I don’t make movies against other movies. But that said, Lawrence Anyways was really long and really romantic and it divided people. It was a very hurtful journey for me because I loved that movie very much and I was really proud of it. I felt misunderstood I guess, but I don’t want to project the image of the eternally misunderstood guy. But when you fight for a film you give it your all and it takes a lot of time and energy and money and sweat and all that you give it you don’t necessarily get back. In certain cases what your getting back is just negative, and then it becomes hard to digest and process. So the way I dealt with that is by making a genre film. But I wasn’t exactly conscious of that or didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. If you compare Lawrence to Tom, they’re so different in length, style, format, everything is completely different—and I needed that. I saw Tom at the Farm when it was a stage play and it was clear right away that I wanted to adapt it and that I wanted to make it a thriller. I was excited that in the future I might be exploring something completely different that was unlike anything I’ve done before and so unlike anything I’ve done afterwards.

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Is it freeing to do something you’ve never done before and go totally off in a different direction, in addition to giving yourself the limitations and codes of a genre?

Yeah, it was completely liberating. There’s nothing more stimulating and inspiring than limiting yourself and restricting yourself to a genre and to the codes of that you genre you’re meeting with. There are ways to tell stories and as much as you call yourself a filmmaker or an artist, there are still codes you can’t escape—at least I don’t feel confident enough to escape those codes. I still feel like I have to abide by some precise rules if I want to succeed in storytelling. Tom is a thriller and there’s a way to shoot thrillers and to score them and sound design them. I was thrilled to actually follow some rules and feel like I had to respond to something and had certain expectations to fulfill. We couldn’t just fix things in the editing, there was none of that. I knew that I had to walk down a certain path and I couldn’t digress because it was useless. So respecting those certain codes was more challenging and more stimulating than anything else. 

When you first saw Tom at the Farm on stage, what immediately struck you about it and made you want to adapt it for the screen? Did you always envision yourself in it?

When I saw the play I didn’t know that I would be in it. But I remember that I loved it a lot and was already visualizing what it would be as a movie. So watching it on stage I was only half there. I was not entirely appreciative of the environment that I was thrusted in because I wasn’t completely paying attention I guess–which is nothing to take away from the quality of the play. I was just already somewhere else really because of how emotionally stirring it was. I also think the play had more humor than the movie. When you’re on a stage it’s very hard to convey fear and anxiety and anguish, those are feelings that are excessively hard to instill instantaneously in the flesh. When you want to create dear or some adrenaline-driven feelings, it’s a little harder in a play. So watching this I wasn’t feeling that fear but knew I was supposed to. I was thinking, oh mu god the movie could be so creepy and awkward and weird. I was thinking all these things as I was sitting in the dark watching the play. One thing that really struck me was the quality of Lise Roy’s performance; she was just absolutely great. She wrote me a very nice letter saying that she would love to have the chance to audition for the part, and I said well there are going to be no auditions you are doing it. But she thought that she might not be popular enough or not famous enough for this movie, and I was like, I’m not doing this movie to be popular so don’t worry. 

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You first imagined the film totally sparse, without a score at all.

A mistake!

It would have been a totally different movie. Gabriel Yared’s score is so haunting and truly makes the film come to life. How did you two begin working together?

Gabriel is a incredibly great mind whom I infinitely admire. While he was scoring the movie we never once met, we were just talking on the phone.

Had he seen a rough cut of the movie?

Oh yeah, he saw the entire movie. But it was hard for him because there were temp tracks all over the movie. Every scene had music from Howard Shore to Thomas Newman and Philip Glass; it was heavily scored and all those songs were just temporary but the movie had been edited on them. So it was very restrictive and he thought some of the choices were contrived and could be fixed. Gabriel is very eccentric and sometimes what he suggests in the first place sounds completely idiosyncratic and you don’t know it will support the picture—you’re like, what are those instruments? I felt especially illiterate in terms of music when I was listening to the first mockups he sent me because although they were works in progress, I could already hear such precise direction. A lot f people have mentioned that the scores sound like they were inspired by Hitchcock movies.

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That’s a really easy thing to say without giving thought to the comparison or thinking what Gabriel actually draws from in his work.

I know for sure that Gabriel was not at all ever I listening to Hitchcock scores. When you take the time to listen to the scores of Gabriel and the scores of Bernard Herrmann, it’s just not the same thing at all. I know for fact that there were resembling melodies and notes that are very evocative of Death in Venice, but just so far from Hitchcock really. It’s also that all of Gabriel’s choices are so surprising and so audacious, it’s obviously very impressive—especially for someone who was so young when I was hearing those tracks. I was like wow, those tracks are going to be in my movie? It felt like real music, a real score, and it was my first real score. I never really gave myself a chance to work with a true professional and Tom’s music and score is really what I fancy most in the movie. It makes the film; it’s just half of this film. Obviously it’s a thriller, and what is it without the score.

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