Micheline Lanctôt: Lyrical Filmmaker at Heart

Rejecting the Hollywood method of making films, Micheline Lanctôt sees herself more as a lyrical creator. Her cinematic phrasing is imbued with emotion, her scripts are constructed like symphonic movements, and her images burst forth like piccolo trumpet solos. Her eyes light up whenever she talks about her art. Her spirit abounds. Her passion is as vital as it was when she first stepped on set. Yet she swears she’ll never make another film because the conditions on the last feature she shot left her burnt out and bent out of shape. Fortunately, after more than five decades of putting out the fires and jumping through the hoops that go with the job of being an actor, screenwriter, and director, she’s still as feisty as ever.

You started in animation in 1967. Next year will mark your 55th anniversary in the business. What does that mean to you?

I never even think about it. I had no expectations right from the start. Anytime I hit a wall, I just walked around it and did something else, instead of banging my head against it and being discouraged. I just kept moving. I never really felt I was stuck in a rut. When I got tired of acting, I started writing and directing. I had started in animation because I wasn’t getting anywhere in theatre, and I had started in theatre because I wasn’t getting anywhere in music. I exited the stage in one art form and came back on in another. 

You originally wanted to be a musician?

Actually, I wanted to be a conductor because I didn’t have the technique to be an instrumentalist. I had no discipline. While some of my colleagues were whizzing their way through Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, I couldn’t even play four bars. To be a conductor, I’d have to complete my bachelor’s degree and some specialized studies, but the nuns at Vincent d’Indy told me, at the time, that no woman could be a conductor. Even today, there are very few women conductors.

Isn’t being a director a lot like being a conductor?

In a way, yes. I found that I was happiest doing many things at the same time. Instrumentalists and actors tend to focus on one thing at a time. Being a director, you need to know a lot about everything. It satisfied me perhaps in the same way that being a conductor would have satisfied my musical ambitions. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss the music. I miss it a great deal. I cried my eyes out all the way through the PBS documentary on Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I couldn’t help thinking that it could have been my life. Because for the longest time, music was my life.

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Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

Does your musical background have an influence on how you write a screenplay?

Absolutely! It was a revelation to me when one day Gilles Baril sent me a monograph on Sonatine. It concluded that the reason my film was not a box-office success was due to its poetical-musical structure. The screenplay was written like a sonata: twelve bars of theme, twelve bars of development, eight off-beats, and one modulation in a minor key. The first movement is an allegro, the second an andante, and the last a rondo. It was all a result of my musical background. Apparently, I’m a lyricist, not a dramatist.

What is the difference between lyrical and dramatic styles in film?

Many directors before me have maintained that film is closer to the dreaming than the dramatic state. Unfortunately, everyone latched on to the American movie-making template and its deep American theatrical roots. By 1920, New York playwrights were being commissioned en masse to write screenplays for Hollywood. Remember that the first silent scripts were much closer to music than to theatre. While the three-act concept, the conflict and dramatic structure, were not originally fundamental to filmmaking, they quickly became the only way to go. In my opinion, film could be so much more than just that. It’s perfect for the lyrical expression of emotions. People have been telling me repeatedly throughout my career that my stories have no conflict. I really don’t care. What interests me are movements and bursts of awareness. It’s something the industry decision-makers can’t wrap their heads around because they are fixated on the American model.

But hasn’t the viewing public also bought into the dramatic model?

The public gets used to what’s on the menu and they do have a hard time when they’re offered something really different. It’s important that what’s being offered is properly labelled. I was pleasantly surprised by the audience reaction when my latest metaphysical and lyrical film was screened in Ville-Marie. Their questions and comments were very insightful. They understood the film inside-out. People will buy into what’s different in film as long as you make it accessible. 

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Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

You’re pretty well-known for your outbursts in the media, yet you say you chose not to break down the walls you came up against. What gives?

Because I knew I couldn’t break them down. When I auditioned at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde early on, Albert Milaire told me that my voice was much too deep to play leading roles. What could I say? That door was closed. Back then the theatre was highly academic, very focused on the classical repertoire. There was nothing I could do about that. Just like I couldn’t break through the wall to become a conductor. No one would hire me. If I’d trained for five or six years, I might have ended up wasting away as a choirmaster somewhere. Not my cup of tea.

So, you branched out into animation. What were you aiming for?

I wasn’t aiming for anything. I just wanted to do what I liked. I’ve always had a cartoonish streak, with a side order of caricature, and a hefty helping of gallows humour. It was a milieu made for me. A bit like a dysfunctional family. Luck was on my side when I applied at the National Film Board in 1969. They’d just opened a French studio and were hiring lots of women. But after years of doing painstaking work there, the NFB was getting to me, especially the civil servants’ hours. I’d get in at 10:00 am and leave at 4:00 pm and still do four times more work than my colleagues. They told me to cut it out. I thought it was stupid and left for the private sector.

What was it like for women in animation at the time?

Way more painstaking work, twenty hours a day tracing the drawings and painting them in. Heh, it was okay at first, but then it got complicated. One day I asked to become an assistant. I was the best. I could duplicate the line style of anyone. They all wanted me. After eighteen months, I said to myself, “That’s enough. I can do this on my own.” When I asked the boss to let me be an animator, he said “Are you sure you can do it?” in a very arrogant tone. Then he gave me two scenes to do in two months and told me that if the work was good, I’d be hired as an animator. If it wasn’t, I’d be fired! Naive as I was, I didn’t see anything sexist in the deal. I did the scenes. The work was good, and I became an animator. But I was never given credit as an animator. I was paid $90 a week for doing the same work as others getting $425. Truth is I couldn’t have cared less because I loved the work.

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Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

When did things start going south?

When I realized how hierarchical the animation business was. That I’d never get a chance to be involved in story development. That I’d only get to animate the outlines I’d been given by someone else. And I’d been working sixteen to eighteen hours a day because every animation project is always behind schedule. Then one day, the director Gilles Carle came into the studio and offered me a major part in a film he was doing. Suddenly, I found myself on the set of The True Nature of Bernadette. My acting career took off just like that. I continued to do freelance animation for Sesame Street and the NFB. While I was living in Los Angeles, my former boss in the animation business asked me to work at Quartet Film. I got to meet the animator of Sylvester the Cat and the designer of the sets on Snow White. I couldn’t believe it. I had dreamt all my life of meeting them. Unfortunately, they gave me the lousiest job on the film. I was completely devastated.

Any reflections on your first directing experience in 1979?

On the third day of the shoot, I told the producer that I didn’t know what I was doing and that I had to withdraw from the project. I thought I knew where I was going, because I had done animation and knew how to cut scenes, but I was feeling totally out of my depth. The producer insisted I stay on the job. So, I finished the film, and to my great amazement, it was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.

Are you one of those artists who doesn’t believe in retirement?

The ideas are there, but I don’t want to make films anymore. Certainly not under the same conditions as my last one. I ended up burnt out and seriously bent out of shape. They gave me nothing to work with, not even the funding I needed. It was an exercise in frustration and compromise from beginning to end. I’ve shot on budgets of $850,000 to $1.1 million over my career as a director. I was counting on something similar even if I wasn’t making box office hits, at least I had the freedom to make the films I liked. The ideas I have today are expensive to produce and I know that the powers that be are not going to give me the money to do it.

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Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

Will you continue writing screenplays without directing?

No screenplay is a work in itself. If it’s not used to make a film, it’s like a stillborn baby. There’s nothing worse than giving birth to a screenplay that goes nowhere. And I’m too old to be making the rounds begging to have my project read. I wouldn’t mind recycling some of the ideas into novels, but I’m blocked because I have so much admiration for literature that I think I’m not good enough to write books. 

Is there still a market for your vision as a filmmaker in 2021?

I really don’t know. I do know that there’s an interest in more mature films. People are sick and tired of coming-of-age teen sagas. I was on the Iris Award selection committee two years ago and that’s what 21 of the 45 nominations were about. It’s crazy. What’s up with the bureaucrats? Do they really love teen movies that much? I don’t know if ageism is a factor in the funding process, but older directors are getting squeezed out to make room for others in need of financial support. It’s a good thing I’m a working actor, because directors can go years without a film. I have filmmaker friends who’ve suffered nervous breakdowns after a series of rejections. It’s a crying shame that more mature films don’t get the support they deserve. Most of the work of much older filmmakers is outstanding. It’s a craft that really takes time to master and one that requires in-depth, wide-ranging knowledge.

Has the experience and confidence you’ve gained over the years made a difference in your work as a creator?

Not at all. Because the process of financing a film is so arduous, you’re always riddled with doubt. I was rejected three times before I could start work on my last film. With each rejection I had to defend my idea again. After the second one, I started having doubts. I felt that it was me against everyone: the bureaucrats at Telefilm and SODEC, the distributors, and Radio-Canada. They didn’t like the first page, the middle of the script, this character, or that proposal. You have to have some pretty thick skin not to be done in by this level of nitpicking. A few years back, author and screenwriter Stéphane Bourguignon sent a script to Telefilm. He was so humiliated by the comments they made, that he decided to never write another film. Unfortunately, there’s not a single filmmaker in any of these funding institutions. The bureaucrats are trained to read scripts in a way that’s totally antiquated. I get the same comments today as I did in 1982. Yet every time I’ve been on a jury with my peers, we can spot talent, even if it’s not our style. We’re able to sense the potential. But the decision makers are not creators. And I’m just not up to doing battle with them anymore.

Samuel Larochelle
Originally from Abitibi-Témiscamingue and now based in Montreal, Samuel Larochelle has been a freelance journalist since 2012 for some 20 media outlets, including La Presse, HuffPost Quebec, Les Débrouillards, Fugues, L'actualité, Nightlife, Échos Montréal and many others. Also a writer, he has published two novels (À cause des garçons, Parce que tout me ramène à toi), the first two volumes of a series for teenagers and young adults (Lilie l'apprentie parfaite, Lilie l'apprentie amoureuse), as well as literary news in three collectives (Treize à table, Comme chiens et chats, Sous la ceinture - Unis pour vaincre la culture du viol).
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