By Edward Douglas
While everyone else is busy writing about whatever movie is being released into thousands of theaters across the nation this weekend, one of Canada’s national treasures, Denys Arcand, has released his first movie in many years. It’s called “The Fall of the American Empire,” and if that name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because in 1985, he made a movie called “The Decline of the American Empire.” “Fall” isn’t a sequel to that movie, as that was the 2004 Oscar-nominated film “The Barbarian Invasions.”
Arcand’s latest film stars Alexandre Landry as Pierre-Paul, a philosophy student working as a courier to make ends meet, who comes upon a robbery gone wrong and suddenly finds himself with two bags full of unmarked cash. The only thing is that others are looking for that money from the person responsible for laundering it to the corrupt police who take a cut of any found cash.
As might any young single guy, Pierre-Paul decides to use some of the money to hire a classy escort, but when “Aspasie” (Maripier Morin) finds out about the money, instead of robbing Pierre-Paul, she decides to help him, as does an accountant just out of prison for laundering (Arcand regular Rémy Girard). Things seem to be looking up for Pierre-Paul, although he still has to figure out how he can benefit from his windfall without getting himself killed.
“The Fall of the American Empire” is not your typical Denys Arcand films as it partially takes place in the world of crime, and there are moments that are shockingly violent. On the other hand, it also continues his tradition for writing intricate character studies about relationships between people using talented ensemble casts, which makes “Fall” seem a bit like some of David Mamet’s better films.
Next Best Picture spoke to the jovial French-Canadian while he was in New York City a few weeks back for the following interview. Besides talking at length about the movie, we also spoke about why he isn’t nearly as prolific as so many other filmmakers and countrymates.
Let’s start with the title, which kind of hints back to your 1986 movie, but it isn’t a sequel like “The Barbarian Invasions,” so what made you want to re-explore and put a twist that title?
No, my working title was “Triumph of Money,” and then when I was editing it – because the subject is money, that’s the main subject. The thing is that I became afraid of my own title because I got some weird reactions when I was talking about it. We were editing this movie, and it was like, “Oh, money. I don’t want to talk about money. I’m tired of hearing about money. I won’t go see your film.” Stuff like that or people couldn’t remember the title. “Oh, your stuff about money? What is it? Does money conquer all? What?” I became afraid because titles are very important. I became aware of that, and I said, “Well, let’s call this ‘The Fall of the American Empire’ because I did this film called ‘The Decline’ and in the famous history book, there’s the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.” To me, we should not read too much into it in the sense that to me, it only means these times we’re living in, our time, our epoch. This is what I mean. That’s all.
It’s interesting because “Decline” came out during the Reagan Years and this one comes out in what is unfortunately still the Trump Years. So you immediately see parallels and think there’s some connection between the titles.
Yeah, but as I told you, these times we’re living in, and in these times, money… every other value got lost – religion, society, culture, your own country, whatever. Everything got dissolved slowly, and there’s only money left. So that’s what I mean.
I don’t usually read about movies beforehand, but in this case, I see your name and if I can make a screening, I’ll go see it. Seeing the first few minutes when Pierre Paul is talking about philosophy to his friend, I thought, “Oh, no. It’s going to be another French film with people talking about philosophy…”
(laughs) Yeah, right, and then two black guys come in with guns…
Right, and then there is more violence in the movie then I’d ever imagined in a Denys Arcand film. Did you base the story around this guy finding money or was there some other thing that got you going?
At some point in Montreal, five or six years ago, two black guys came in with a car in the financial district, they double parked, put their flasher on, came into this fake fashion boutique and just killed two people. It was so violent, and it was at noon, and the sidewalks were full of people. They did it in broad daylight. They went POOM! POOM! I became fascinated with that story, and I knew the detective who was in charge of that case, so I talked to him, I phoned him, and I said, “Talk to me about this. It’s a strange one.” It was a settlement of accounts between various gangs and so on. I got interested in the drug trade and the ENORMOUS amounts of money that’s involved, that’s just staggering. It’s millions and millions, and their big problem is, “How do you launder that money?” because you end up with piles and piles of cash. So what do you do with it? I got interested in that, and money laundering. I wondered, “Okay, who is laundering that money? How do they do it?” I got to talk to fancy lawyers and accountants and specialists and foreign investments…
And this was just for the movie, not because you wanted to figure out what to do with your own money?
No, no… (laughs hysterically) Unfortunately, I don’t have to be worried about that. So I got interested in that, and then the story took form around this. I said, “What would be fun, is if a real naïve, nice sweet guy would end up with ten million dollars, what would he do with it?” In other words, you and I. If you came out of here and there’s a bag and there’s ten million dollars in it, what do you do? And if you know that it’s drug money, it’s not like someone lost it, and then if you’re an honest person you’d say, “I found this.” You know that it’s drug money and you know you can’t give it back to the people who paid $100 or $50 for a fix, because they’re gone. Do you call the mob and say, “Oh, I got your money?” Why would you do that? From there, the story evolved…
I think as you say, it’s something we always feel like if we give money to poor people or are helping people, work in a soup kitchen, it will come back to us. it doesn’t always happen. It almost never happens. But also, the gorgeous high-priced escort we happened to fall in love with, also never says, “I’m going to help you with this plan.” Is this a fairy tale or a fantasy or do you see it more as a fable?
It’s sort of a fable, but to me, it’s a fable that’s rooted in reality. Suppose you broke up with your girlfriend. You’re alone in this small apartment full of books and then you have this amount of money. It’s been a while since you got laid, and you’re on the internet, and there’s this girl advertising herself, and it’s in a way that’s very seducing to you. And you make that mistake. And it’s the only mistake that he makes is that girl. Otherwise, he’s intelligent enough to know that he doesn’t know anything about money. He has to find people who are knowledgeable. How do you do that? You find a guy who is laundering money for the bikers who is coming out of jail, and you wait for him at the door, and you say, “Can you help me?” He goes around asking people, and it turns out that these high-price girls know a lot about money. They have this problem also. How do they solve the problem, since they’re often paid in cash?
What I also liked about the movie is that it constantly threw surprises at me. I would think something would happen and then something else happens. Even from that very opening scene, it never stays in that realm, and that excites me, because I see so many movies, as you can imagine. You have a couple of actors you’ve worked with for decades in the movie. Is the actor who played Pierre-Paul someone you hadn’t worked with before?
Yeah. I saw him in the theater a couple of years ago, and he was good. I did auditions. I auditioned fifty people, and he was the best, so I took it. The guys I started with are now so old, they play the old biker and the financier, so that’s my mainstays, but I gotta renew my touring company, so to speak.
Do you feel there’s still a good market for actors in Montreal?
In Montreal, yes, but they have to do everything. They have to do theater, television, and film. These guys do that, all the time, and that’s why they’re good also because professionally, it’s great. They go on stage, they play classical plays or all sorts of things, so it makes them sharp.
Is that the same for the actress who played the escort?
No, [she] is totally new. She’s not even an actress. She’s a television hostess, and she never acted before. She came as a TV reporter to interview me. I was the spokesperson for a tennis tournament in Montreal – there is a big ATP 500 tournament in Montreal prior to the US Open. I’m a tennis nut; I’ve played tennis my whole life, so I was the spokesperson that year for that tournament, so I was giving interviews about the tournament, the players and so on. She came to interview me, and strangely enough, her cameraman didn’t show up. He was stuck in traffic, so she said, “I don’t have my cameraman so can we wait together for 20 minutes?” and we got talking, and she’s really fascinating, and she’s gorgeous of course. I just made a mental note that this girl in a film would be really great, but that’s it. I just filed it on my hard disk, and then when I got to write this story, and I needed this high-priced hooker, so I thought of her, and phoned her and said, “Would you try your hand at acting?” She said, “I’ve never done it. I’ll try.” She hired a coach, and she worked, and we had four auditions. The first time she was good, but I wasn’t too sure, so we renewed that, and in the end, she was the winner. She’s perfect.
She’s fantastic. I would never have guessed she had never acted before.
But I’m good at this. This is my job… how to make her look good.
But most of the movie relies on her and her relationship with Alexandre to make that work.
The good thing is that the other actors I was sure of because they are my mainstays. They are solid. On the set, I basically cared about her. The other guys would take care of themselves. I knew the situation would be okay. I could take more time with her.
Do you do chemistry reads and have her read with Alexandre during one of the auditions?
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. The first three times she came in, she was alone or with other people who were reading with her, but at the end, I had her with Pierre-Paul, and we tried to see side-by-side how the chemistry would work, and it was fine.
I want to say that I’ve had one filmmaker say they wanted to put me in a film. That’s never happened. So that’s another fantasy you end up exploring with the movie because many would love a director to see them and want to put them in a film.
Sometimes it’s true, but sometimes, you don’t have the right movie for that person. Sometimes you think, “Oh, this guy would be great.” That’s why I told you that there were four years before that girl came to my mind, and I put her in a movie. I was thinking, “Oh, I should put her in a movie,” but sometimes you’re doing another kind of movie, and there’s not a right place for her or him or whatever happens.
When you’re writing, I assume you can’t write for specific actors because you never know if they’re available. Rémy you’ve worked with for so long, so as you’re writing, do you have a character you want him to play?
Yeah, but you have to remember that I’m working with people who are in a small market in a small city, and they’re available. I’m not writing for Brad Pitt, and he has several offers. They’re there. I phone them, saying, “Okay, I’m writing [this] to be shooting next fall, so keep that in mind. Don’t accept any other date because I’m going to be needing you.” I do this with the main characters a few months in advance, and they make themselves available. I’m not dealing with big stars. When you’re dealing with big stars, that’s totally different.
You’re sort of an institution in Montreal, so when you want to shoot a lot on location, as is the case in the movie, is it easier to get what you need to get in terms of licenses?
It’s easier to do that. The most important part is that it’s easier in a very delicate situation, like with the police, with investment bankers. They know me. They know I’m not a reporter. I’m not a journalist. It’s not going to be in the paper the next morning. I’m not going to reveal anything. “It’s going to be two years from now, and it’s going to be under the guise of a fiction film with an actor playing yourself, and so on, so nobody is going to recognize the information you’re giving me right now.”
That’s while you’re doing research for the movie…
Absolutely, and that’s why people trust you enough to tell you stuff they wouldn’t tell other people, especially not journalists.
Does that include the criminal element?
Of course. They will talk to you because they know you. You’re an institution. You’ve been there forever, you’re 75 years old. They can trust me. I will not reveal stuff that could endanger them.
I think you can admit that you’re not the most prolific filmmaker…
(laughs) Of course!
But your movies are worth the wait, so that’s nice at least, but do you always have ideas and you just have to develop them or find the right time to explore them?
I don’t have that many ideas, but not only that but since I do my own research, it takes a while. Also, there are no good scripts lying around in Montreal. There are none. If there were good scripts, and someone would bring me a good script, of course, I would shoot it. (laughs) I have no good scripts, so I have to find them and start from scratch. I once wrote an article for an American magazine saying, “I hate Clint Eastwood,” because at some point, I was in Cannes with “Barbarian Invasions” and he was there with “Mystic River.” I wrote a whole story about me losing my luggage on the corresponding flight from Paris. Of course, Clint flies his own plane. He has a private plane from Carmel to Cannes directly, doesn’t talk to anyone. There is a press conference for about half an hour, and that’s about it.
And then his plane goes back…
No, he plays a game of golf before, and then he goes back. As he goes back, on his desk came “Million Dollar Baby.” Of course, if this guy had sent me the script for “Million Dollar Baby,” I would have shot it also, except I came to my desk and there was NOTHING on my desk except bills and ads. (laughs) So I have to start from scratch and write it as best as I can.
After “The Barbarian Invasions,” you didn’t go to Hollywood and try to get some meetings. Working with studios is obviously a very different thing from what you normally do.
I did that before, long before that. When I did “The Barbarian Invasions,” I was already 64 or 63. There are people at the studios who know me, and they know my work, but they’ve given up on me (laughs) in the sense that they’re like, “Oh, this guy lives up North and does his thing, and we’ll just enjoy his movies, and that’s it.” When I was younger, I did come to… I was at Paramount for four or five months trying to make an adaptation of “Decline of the American Empire,” and it didn’t turn out well. I got along fine with the people at the studio. It was just impossible to adapt it and shoot it as an American movie in an American university. It didn’t work dramatically. I had tons of offers, but they were never the right ones. It never gelled really, and I was never offered a good script. The most interesting offers I had from Hollywood were as a scriptwriter. They wanted me to write scripts, but I always told them, “If you want me to write an American script, I’d have to live in America for a couple of years to get the feel of the taxi driver, to get the feel of the language, of the situations.” And then they become very reluctant, and saying, “Oh, yeah, we’d have to pay you for two years just to goof around. Don’t you have a ready-made idea?” I said, “No, my ideas come from life, from experience, so if you want me to move, I can move, but then I won’t come up with a script in six months. It will take a while,” and then they become unsure of themselves. I had the same kind of offers in Paris, ‘cause people in Paris are familiar with what I do. It’s the same thing. “You should do something about French society.” I said, “Okay, do you want to pay for an apartment in Paris for a couple of years? I’ll come up with a script, don’t worry.” So it never actually worked.
But then you have countrymates like Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Valée, who have found a way to get into that system.
But then they were never offered a scriptwriting job. They came to them and said, “This is called ‘Prisoners.’ Do you want to shoot this?” They never came to me. (laughs) They went to them, and they said, “Of course I’ll shoot this.” Denis is a friend of mine, and he’s one of the best. He’s fabulous. He shoots film in a very particular well, but it’s very, very well done. But he shoots ready-made scripts. They’re either made for him or at least it fits him perfectly. The offers that came to me were different.
Do you direct any theater?
Just once. I did theater once and opera once. I loved it. I just never had any other offers.
Sometimes you have to make your own opportunities.
It’s true, it’s true. I was busy making films all the time, and I was not earning a lot of money so I had to work, so I never really stopped and said, “I want to make a play.” I could have done it, I guess, but I did it once, it was wonderful.
“The Fall of the American Empire” is now playing in select cities and will expand to other cities over the rest of the month.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW