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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 4 December 2008

Sylvain Guy: The Written Image

by Caroline Louis / December 1, 2008

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"I’ve always been involved in the arts,” says Sylvain Guy. Music, theatre and film have always interested him and he has had a longstanding affinity with literature. With this background it is easy to see how he smoothly slipped into his first professional job as an entertainment business lawyer, and how from there, he leapt easily into the world of film. With no regrets about his law studies and a two-year stint with a Montreal firm, this young lawyer quit the profession and dove head first into directing and screenwriting.

Although script writing is not something one can improvise, Guy admits to being mainly self-taught. He bought himself a set of reference books to learn the methodology and rules of screenwriting. Though he knew the type of stories he wanted to write, he realized the finished product needed to be acceptable to the industry. To achieve this, he participated in a program called SOGIQ (now called SODEC), which helps young directors and screenwriters just starting in the industry.

His first feature-length film didn’t make the cut but it introduced him to producer Marcel Giroux. They clicked immediately and Giroux became one of his closest collaborators. His next job was writing the script for the short film Stéréotypes, a fantasy directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) in 1990. It was a fun experience, he says. Short filmmaking is a rite of passage for aspiring directors because the form allows for experimentation. He directed his second short film, Zie 37 Stagen, written in an invented language. In 1997, the film earned multiple awards in film festivals around the world. Even now, Guy says he wouldn’t hesitate to make another short film if the right idea came up, though there isn’t much demand for the format, but he prefers to make films that will reach a larger audience.

Between these two shorts, Jean-Marc Vallée shot Liste noire, based on a script Guy wrote during his lawyer days. The film was an immediate success, raking in over a million dollars at the box office, quite remarkable for a Quebec drama at that time. At this point, Guy became more interested in directing. At the request of an American producer he put out the English version of Liste noire. This experience demystified the Hollywood star system for him. In The List, he directed Ryan O’Neal (Love Story), Ben Gazzara (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) and Mädchen Amick (Twin Peaks). Even though the thriller exposes corruption in high places, Guy doesn’t burden it with cynicismtowards the justice system. The film explores one of his favourite themes: disobedience and its lifelong consequences.

Another characteristic in Guy’s work is the importance of women’s roles, as seen in his next feature length film, Monica la mitraille. The film, shot by Pierre Houle, is co-written with Luc Dionne and based on Georges-Hébert German’s biographical novel “Souvenirs de Monica”. It won a Genie for best adaptation in 2005. It was a year of winners. That year, Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. came out. Guy sat on the advisory board for the script and the film was a huge critical and commercial success.

This fall he finished shooting Léo Huff, a script he’d been working on for four years. Shot in the Lower Saint-Lawrence National Bic Park and in New Brunswick, Léo Huff is the story of an ordinary bloke whose life is turned upside down. At the heart of the plot is Bic Park, which Guy visited a few years ago. Overwhelmed and charmed by its rawness, Guy wanted to set a story there. That’s often the way creative ideas come about, he says. The starting point for a movie is just a place, a person or a story. The writer jots down whatever comes to mind and the idea takes on a direction and meaning, which become clear only years after the film is finished.

Léo Huff is an exception, says Guy. He already has a hunch about the deeper meaning but he prefers to keep the details to himself. The film is set to be one of the highlights of his career: total artistic freedom, the ideal backdrop and a fine team of technicians and actors. He has only praise for the acting qualities of his three main characters. Luc Picard plays Léo. “Just to see Picard create a role is a beautiful thing for me,” he says. He works by trial and error, with subtle changes to shape a character that seems even more human than on the page. Léo Huff also boasts an unrecognizable Guillame-Lemay Thivierge and the remarkable comedienne Isabelle Guérard.

Sylvain Guy is jubilantly exploring a genre that fascinated him from the start: film noir. First developed in America in the 40s and 50s and borrowed by French directors such as François Truffaut and Alain Corneau, film noir is shot in stark German impressionist photography and unfolds in sinister settings. For Guy, film noir represents the reverse American Dream. While musical comedies of the 40s and 50s depicted idealistic worlds on the big screen, film noir raked up the dirt of society. Guy admits that the darker side of the human psyche has always attracted him and he likes to shake up his audience with a dose of realism. “Life never ends well,” he says. Although mixed with a measure of humour, this fundamentally pessimistic outlook is another favoured theme of his, in which his characters’ best intentions lead to their downfall. Film noir is the perfect vehicle to dissect such situations, because lighting, sound effects and camera angles become metaphors for the character’s psyche. This relationship forms the essence of the noir aesthetic, both in film and literature.

Research of your genre is an important part of the filmmaking process. The writing is also crucial because it is like a sewing pattern the director follows. It has to be simple, straightforward and smooth. Body language is as important as spoken words. Usually this non-spoken dialogue goes through several rewrites. Each scene has to form a harmonious whole. “In a good script, each scene has some of the film’s DNA,” says Guy. But ultimately, it is the cutting, the editing and the assembly that give the finished product the right mixture of rhythm and mood.

The skill to do this comes partially from experience, but in Guy, it is rooted in an innate urge to reword, prune and graft a script. Up at four in the morning, pen in hand, he admits to being a strict taskmaster, but he also respects his actors because they put a human face to the story. As a stage director, he believes the spectator needs space to reflect, so he prefers a more open-ended story with ambiguous morals.

His favourite directors are Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard), Alain Corneau (Série noire), Roman Polanski (Chinatown) and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive). He thinks that Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo is the best Québec-made film ever written. His favourite novelists (George Simenon, Jim Thompson and Franz Kafka) inspire him. One imagines his inner bookshelves filled with stories about half-witted crooks and free-running deviants of every ilk. He admits that few will make it to the screen but two are scheduled for filming: an adaptation of Gaétan Soucy’s “La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes” and a film about Louis Cyr, shot by Erik Canuel.

Preoccupied with the lack of apprenticeship programs for aspiring directors, Guy invited a young Québécois stage director, Marc Bourgeois, to assist with the filming of Léo Huff. This was a unique chance for Bourgeois to participate in the pre-production and filming and acquire a practical lesson often inaccessible to young directors. With this initiative, Guy hopes to give the next generation of directors the skills they will need.

[Translation by Nisa Malli and Jef Wyns]

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