An in-depth interview with multi-awarded director Louis Belanger about his new comedy-thriller BAD SEEDS (Les Mauvaises Herbes)

by Oliver Carnay

Photo: Director Louis Belanger with this writer

One of the most entertaining and delightful comedy feature at the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival was Louis Belanger’s BAD SEED (Les Mauvaises Herbes). Jacques (Alexis Martin), a theatre actor who runs away from the city to escape from a mafia where he owes a lot of money because of gambling debts. Clad only with a Shakespeare costume brazing the cold winter, he found himself in a very remote place meeting the reclusive farmer Simon (Gilles Renaud) who offered him food and shelter. But Jacques’ luck was only for a moment when he found out that he is now a hostage and being blackmailed to work for Simon’s home-breeding marijuana business. When Francesca (Emmanuelle Lussier-Martinez), a lesbian electrician who is doing a routine electricity house meter check-up found out about the marijuana-breeding barn and their secret, she also becomes a hostage and was offered to double her salary in exchange of working with them. Things get twisted when the mob boss Patenaude (Luc Picard) starts looking for Jacques and found him working in this barn. This is just a premise of such comedy-thriller story with endearing characters director Belanger greatly executed.

I caught up with director Belanger after the movie and here is an excerpt of our conversation:

HF: You mentioned your daughter had a significant part in creating this wonderful film and you said you were at SBIFF ten years or twelve years ago?  Can you talk about it? 

LB: My daughter was two years old the first time I was in Santa Barbara International Film Festival and that was sixteen years ago. Most films I've done was about politics and my daughter actually was asking me why I don't do funny films. And that's how I thought about doing this film. (In 2000, that year his film "Port Mortem" won the SBIFF Special Jury Prize for Artistic Merit and the Independence Voice Award).

HF: How did you come up with the fascinating story?  What was your motivation and inspiration in creating the relationships between each characters?

LB: The idea started with few intuition.  A book that I read.  La forêt des Renard Pendus.  From Finland author Arto Passalinan.  It was set in Winter and I thought that we have the same surrounding to set a good story.  I also had a friend who passed away 4 years ago.  He was 63, living in a complete autarky 4 hours up north from Montreal.   I learn fishing with him, canoe,  He was a pure philosopher even if he was unable to read and write.  So I decided to dig this idea about the rural intelligence and city intelligence.   Book and school versus life and pragmatism.   Finally I ride a motorcycle, so I travelled a lot in remote village in the province of Québec, a huge territory… and it doesn’t take a genius to understand the alternative economic in those place.   Farmer and lumber turn to weed harvester without any guilt.   They have been forgotten by the big city, the government…. so they feel the right to do as they please to occupied 364 days per years  those territories.   Finally , a subject that come back in most of my work…. the legacy…. what to pass on to our children… and i’m not talking about money, but value of life…. 

HF: How long did it take you from the very start you wrote the script and the production, and with the finished product?  How many shooting days did you have?

LB: It took something like 3 years from the writing of the script to the editing room.   Alexis and I started to write this story while we were doing a documentary on his father (a great journalist).  Then there were a lot of pause because Alexis wrote and played two theatre plays he directed.  On my side I was doing 36 episode series for TV (the french adaptation of IN TREATMENT).  The problem was there were small windows we target to shoot the film.  End of January and February are the only safe month if you want enough snow to shoot a film during the winter.  We were ready in winter 2013-2014 but there were not enough snow.  So we waited for winter  2014-2015.  It was ok because we  took that time to go deeper in the writing of the script.  When we can, we just go outside of Montreal in the country, either at my shack in the wood or we rent a country house where we cut ourself from our other obligation.   Finally, we were able to shoot it in 35 days.  Tough condition but beautiful. Editing and mixing were done last summer.

Photo: A scene from "Bad Seeds" with actors (L-R) Gilles Renaud, Emmanuelle Lussier-Martinez, and Alexis Martin (who co-wrote the story with writer/director Louis Belanger).

HF: I liked how you gradually introduce each characters throughout the film and it kept the thrill in creating the arc and twist of the story until the end.  How did you do this?  

LB: Basically, Alexis and I are always worried about doing something already done.   Often when the people who fund the film propose some solution they don’t realize that they’re proposing old ideas, clichés and that’s exactly what we were trying to avoid.  Sometimes if you want to create something different and unusual you have to stop being logic.  Logic is not always entertaining.  It has to be believable but not always rational and logic.  In this film we use a simple technique.  Each time the story start to slow down, we injected a new character.  When thing start to be too good and life is great for Simon and Jacques, Francesca arrive in their republic.  When all of them start to get along too well .. bang!!! .. here is Patenaude -- the crook!   It kind of gave an electric shock to the story.   It complicates things, and people have to reveal new sides of their personality.   And we try to respect only one law when i write a film.  To be interesting, a character should always be in mutation…   

HF:  You have found a tremendous talented actors.  Where did you find them?  

LB: Before being actors, these people are my friends and we see each other very often outside work.    Iv’e already made five films with Gilles Renaud (Simon) and three movies with Alexis Martin.  With the actors and my technical crew as well, I am a family man.  I work with the same people  (John Casavetes maybe an inspiration here!!!!).

Gilles, Alexis and Luc Picard (Patenaude, the Crook) are quite famous here in Quebec.  They are popular in small and big screen and all three are also known for their theater works.  Gilles was in over 20 projects in one of the most famous writer here, Michel Tremblay.  Alexis is the director of “Libre” théâtre where Luc Picard is what you can call a star here.   I go to see a lot of theatre plays and I always follows the work of different actors and actresses.    I never do auditions to get actors in my movie. I always offer the part to actors and I live and die with my choices. But I auditioned only with Emmanuelle Lussier Martinez (the girl who played Francesca). In her audition with Gilles, I knew right away, we had found our Francesca.  She was right on… Her will to get the part made her look strong like Francesca.  She was nervous and making fun of herself. she was being very comic.   I knew she had a great sense of humor.   She was very concentrated and was listening very well to my instructions.   And above all, she was not trying to seduce the camera or me, or the casting agent. She was just natural.

HF: How was the working relationship and the atmosphere in between shoots?  Did you allow your actors to be serious during set?  Did you have to be strict on them so you can achieve the delivery you wanted?

LB:  There was nothing you can do, seriously, when Gilles is around…  With me and Alexis either.   That said, we burst in laugh between the takes.  But we go back on serious mood rapidly before the take.   In certain occasion, i can become very strict.  One example, all the scenes when Simon is lying in his bed waiting for death to come and take him.  I asked my first AD to make sure that all the conversation between the takes are made in a whisper mode.  I asked for the clap being made at the end of the take, not at the beginning.   I also notice that Gilles and Alexis were very kind to the young Emmanuelle.  Some sort of parenthood attitude.   She was the kid of the set so they kind of protect her.  When i give directions to an actor, it is never from a chair behind the monitor.  I walk to them and talk in low voice.  I try to make it simple and short.  One instructions per take and I don’t give a whole bunch of information.  I have to admit, I don’t have to talk a lot with Gilles and Alexis (we go way back).  I work a little more with Emmanuelle.   Making a film is a rare opportunity, I try to do that with fun and laugh.

HF: The set location effectively created a perfect atmosphere in establishing the momentum and the pacing.  I feel like I was also freezing the whole time.  Where did you find the location?  

LB: We found the location about two hours up north of Montreal.  We were lucky  to find exactly something that fits the script.  It was out of question doing the interior of the farm in one place, the barn in another place, and the exterior farm in a another place and trying to make it match with green screen.  I don’t have the patience for continuity. I’m bored with continuity and I want the actor to go were they are pleased.  I would want to change my mind on the set and try something different, plus I never used storyboard so I have to shoot with the real  environment.    

HF: Can you talk about the plants used in shooting and the location of the barn?  Where did you find all the marijuana used during the shoot?

LB: I owe everything to André-Line Beauparlant, my Visual Designer.  She’s the one who created all these places.  She was also the one who decided that we would go plastic for the plants (yes, we used fake plastic plants!). Otherwise, we would have lost the harvest of weed ten times during the shooting.   She’s the one who went and got the help from professinals in growing weeds, to make sure that we were 100% accurate.

HF: What was the most challenging part during shooting inside the barn?  Did you have to stop sometimes because of the weather temperature?

LB: The weather was always an issue.  Last winter was the coldest since we started to film the temperature. 39 Celsius is something camera doesn’t like. But we have to and never stopped. My photographer Pierre Mignot is 71 years old. He was for a long period of time, the director of photography for famous director Robert Altman. He is a gem .. and human tougher than equipment.  

HF: What would someone think about your film after watching it?  What do you want them to take with them later?

LB:  We should all wake up in the morning and try to enjoy life on a daily basis, which is the greatest human challenge.  I want people to leave after watching this movie with a feeling of love and gratitude for human beings.    I  believe that with beautiful things comes our success and failure. I strongly believe in solidarity. It is something that we are capable of. Friendship and family are important to me. I try to pass it along.

HF: Who were the filmmakers you adore growing up watching films?

LB: As a kid, I was fascinatied by every Sergio Leone films.  Then as a young adult I fell in love with the Italian cinematography of Fellini, Scola, the Taviani Bros, Commenchini, Elio Petri .. films with mixture of drama and comedy was new to me.  Then the New Wave from Czechoslovakia like Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman (trains closely watched and the love of a Blonde) ..

HF: Do you have a role model?  

LB: If I have to name one person it would be John Cassavetes. He set all the rules for independant filmmaking.  He was totally free in his artistic approach.  I’m also a big fan of the works of Ken Loach.  

HF: What type of films you like watching, any genre?

LB: Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of documentary and foreign independent fictions.    

HF: What is your next film about?  

LB: Once again, it will be a film about friendship.  Largely autobiographic.  Three guys from 7 years old to 21.   I was not exactly a good teenager .. it will be something dramatic and funny!

HF: What is your marketing and distribution plan for this film?  Are we going to watch this film in the U.S. in the near future?

LB: As of right now, I am thinking of my junket tomorrow morning. This film will be launched in five days. As you know it had a World Premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. We have a solid distributor (E ONE) so it is early to tell.   The passage and the buzz at SBIFF certainly open some doors on the US market.  The film will be screened at another festival in CA. at the Sonoma Film Festival).   Strangely, despite the language, it looks better so far  in the US than in France. We’ll see .. thank you!