Canadian writer, director and actor Xavier Dolan has seen an ascent to world cinema fame any filmmaker would envy. However, when Dolan said he wanted the role of Michael Aleen, a mischievous mental patient in a film adaptation of Elephant Song, director Charles Binamé had one request. It was for Dolan to remember that Binamé was the only director in the room.
“[Dolan] is very pro-active of finding ways to express himself with film and with roles,” Binamé tells Toronto Film Scene. “We were exactly on the same page in approaching that character and how he should come alive.”
Elephant Song, opening at the Varsity in Toronto on Friday, February 27, 2015, marked a new challenge for the two Québécois directors involved. For Dolan, it was his first English-language role. For Binamé, it was shooting a story mostly resigned to one room and two actors, Dolan and Bruce Greenwood.
The psychological drama, based on a play from Canadian playwright Nicolas Billon, is a mental duel between the cunning Michael and the guarded Dr. Green (Greenwood). Michael’s shrink has gone missing and the bipolar patient was the last person to see the psychiatrist before he vanished. Dr. Green hopes Michael can help track him down, but ends up finding out some dark secrets about the missing person.
Binamé, best known for directing the Maurice Richard biopic The Rocket, had seen Billon’s play many years before producers offered him the project. The adaptation, which Billon also penned, had languished in pre-production for five years before the director hopped on board. (Originally, the film was going to be in French.)
Still, there were adjustments to make with bringing the stage story to the screen. “I really wanted to work on the Green character with Nicholas,” Binamé says. “[It was] to make sure we knew who was in the room, and how much resonance everything that was said in the room would have for him. We wanted to give him a life.”
To add dimension to Dr. Green, Billon added the parts of Green’s wife, Olivia (played by Carrie-Anne Moss), and Dr. Lawrence (Colm Feore), while expanding the role of Nurse Susan Peterson, played by Catherine Keener.
For Binamé, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to make the drama more dynamic, even though much of the story is set in Dr. Green’s office. The trick was not to alter much of the dialogue, which he says was already brilliant to begin with. Instead, Binamé focused much of his attention on making the performances ring true.
Before shooting began, he answered a lot of Greenwood’s extensive emails – the actor was out of Canada, working on another project– where the actor asked a lot of questions about Dr. Green’s motivations. Keener, who has a smaller role than usual for a two-time Oscar nominee, spent three days in the director’s Montreal office discussing the intricacies and subtext of the dialogue.
The intensive preparation extended to the shoot, Binamé says. Every weekend during the three-week shoot, he would bring the cast onto the set to make sure everything was clear and all questions were answered. “We worked on movement, on the flow, the energy, everything,” he says. “It was to make sure that when we were on set [on shooting days], that everything was taken care of.”
But the figurative elephant in the room was figuring out how to create a set that could be convincing as a psychiatrist’s office yet be visually stimulating enough to work as a backdrop for a 100-minute film. With production designer Danielle Lebrie, Binamé figured out objects and set-ups that would draw the eye, such as an aquarium, a bright white window and a plush couch.
To help grasp an audience’s attention, Binamé also decided to set the drama in the mid-1960s. The stage play is set in the 1980s. He says that the period came across more easily through art direction and costumes, yet also dealt more thoroughly with institutional conflict. “It was a time of lobotomy,” he tells TFS. “It was a time of confinement.”
Binamé and Lebrie took inspiration from one notable setting: Lionel Logue’s speech therapy office in The King’s Speech. That room is filled with peeling wallpaper and has a skylight despite being in a basement, which makes the setting more quirky.
“It’s all decaying and it feels a little stagy,” Binamé says of that film’s setting, “but it works and you remember it as a persona. It is a character and the characters revolve in it in a way that’s entertaining.”
Creating an enthralling visual space was important for Binamé, who had abandoned film for a few years to work on many television series, like Flashpoint, Being Human and Republic of Doyle. Without a unique aesthetic, Elephant Song would look like a filmed play and fail to engage the audience.
“In theatre, you have to be redundant to a certain degree, to make sure that things sink in,” he says. “But [the film is] a thriller, whether it’s happening in one room or several places. If you have characters that are of substance and they come together and their destinies cross and something happens with them, it’s fascinating.”