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A Denys Arcand Q&A.: foreign film invasion.

Foreign Films – and Denys Arcand -- Invade Hollywood

Though fewer and fewer foreign films flicker on America’s screens every year, foreign films – and foreigners -- enjoyed a strong showing at Sunday night’s Academy awards. Nominations went to Brazilian’s City of God, New Zealand’s Whale Rider, France’s The Triplets of Belleville and Germany’s Die Rote Jacke, to name a few. Not one of these films walked away with the gold Sunday night, but plenty of New Zealander from the Lord of the Rings’ clan walked the stage.

At least the foreign language category guaranteed a win for a non-U.S. film. Denys Arcand, also nominated for best original screenplay, was anointed with an Oscar for his intellectual drama The Barbarian Invasions. His award did not come as a surprise. Invasion’s contenders - Czech Republic’s Zelary, The Netherlands’ Twin Sisters, Japan’s Twilight Samurai, Sweden’s Evil - were obscure choices and Invasions raked in rave reviews from American critics.

At a pre-Oscar symposium Saturday morning that featured the directors of all five foreign language films up for Oscar, Arcand admitted that he did not expect to win. “It is my third time here. And I ready to lose a third time,” he told the Samuel Goldwyn Theater audience. The French-Canadian director has also been nominated for The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989).

The following is an excerpt from the symposium, which also included Ondrej Trojan (Zelary), Ben Sombogaart (Twin Sisters), Yoji Yamada (Twilight Samurai) and Mikael Hafström (Evil), and was moderated by the Academy’s Foreign Language Committee Chair and producer Mark Johnson.

Mark Johnson: How did the idea for your film come about?

Denys Arcand: I struggled with the idea of a man who is going to die and his relationship with his son and daughter and his friends. I struggled with this for a long time, not getting anywhere, until I had the idea of using the characters from a film I made 18 years ago called The Decline of the American Empire. It was a long struggle, but once I decided to use these characters, it was pretty easy. It took me about a year to write.

MJ: How many actors from the previous one appeared in this one and was it difficult to get them to recreate their parts?

DA: No, It was very easy. They were ecstatic about it because it is very rare as an actor to get to play the same part 18 years later – it is unheard of. Luckily, they were all successful actors and they were all very healthy. We had a ball. It was like a family reunion. It was wonderful. And I shot it with the same crew. It was like reliving a photography album from your family.

MJ: How did you finance it?

DA: I don’t think it was too hard for [producer Denise Robert]. We are well supported by the Canadian government and by the Quebec government. They really are good people. They support us. So, it was that, plus the usual suspects of cable TV and of course distributors, foreign sales, stuff like that. I don’t think it was too hard to finance it.

MJ: The government wasn’t at all put off by the very telling criticism in your film of the insurance system and the government’s inadequacies?

DA: Yeah, but you know, I can deliver an Oscar nomination.

MJ: How much does your script change during production? Do you give actors a say?

DA: It is a bible. I work very hard on my script; I am not going to let an actor mess it up. I have spent years and years polishing this dialogue. In actuality, if they want to change a word or two, they can get away with it…

MJ: Notice he said ‘a word or two…’

DA: They don’t want to change it usually. They learn their lines and say them and that’s it.

MJ: Are you open to working on someone else’s scripts?

DA: I think I did two that I didn’t write at all. A couple collaborations and most of it I wrote myself. Because I never found good scripts. Very good scripts are sent to Steven Spielberg – they don’t send them to me.

MJ: Would you be willing to do a movie in Hollywood? Is there an attraction or something that repels you?

DA: Depends on the project, on the subject. I was joking the other night in London with Stephen Frears and said, ‘You were offered Dangerous Liaisons. If I had been offered Dangerous Liaisons, I would have walked on my knees to come shoot it.’ And the Grifters. So he did two films over here and both films were fantastic. If someone were to offer me that kind of material, I would gladly do it. And if not, well, I’ll just stay home.

MJ: I can’t believe you haven’t gotten scripts just as good…

DA: No, no, no, I am sorry. I was offered scripts like White Man Can’t Jump. I said I am not a basketball player, I am a hockey player. I hit people in the mouth with a hockey stick, I can’t do this. Basketball is alien to me.

MJ: I have been told that Hollywood has a depth of talent unmatched in many other countries. Do you agree?

DA: In my case, very often in Montreal I have to wait for one person. I have to beg, wait for them and if their schedule won’t allow them, I have to juggle my schedule like crazy.

Because there is only one person who can play it here. In any given situation you have ten people who are equally fantastic here.

MJ: But your films are so perfectly cast…So that means if you don’t get that one person, you are out of luck.

DA: All through the writing of the film, I was calling them and saying …be ready. I am writing for you now. Don’t die. Stop smoking. Here, if Johnny Depp can’t do it, Brad Pitt is there.

MJ: This Oscar nomination… How important is it to you personally and to Canadian filmmaking?

DA: I don’t know…It is my third time here. And I ready to lose a third time. And I am going to be gracious about it.

MJ: What happens if you win?

DA: I don’t know. I am not used to it.

- Susan Buzzelli

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