Lyne Charlebois: Choose Your Battles
Lyne Charlebois: Choose Your Battles
Lyne Charlebois is a feisty and talented Québec-based director, who after getting her start with award-winning music videos, now works in film and television. She is the first woman to have ever received the Jutra award for Best Director, which she won in 2009 for her feature Borderline. She has directed many episodes of successful Québécois television series such as Toute la vérité, Nos étés, and Tabou. For the CBC, she directed episodes of Sophie Parkerand This Life. She is currently working on Mère et Fille, a comedy web series from France adapted for Québec audiences.
Martin Delisle for Montage
MONTAGE: How are you coping in an industry with diminished resources and a lack of investment in new development?
One of the talents required of a good director is knowing how to adapt to the financial realities of any given production. We must give up certain things and somehow still find a way to grow as artists. Clever ideas have to be found to preserve and bring out the essence of the script, while respecting production constraints. This means maximizing the time available for a project. It is important to have an assistant director who understands how to make the best of a location, while saving as much time as possible and reducing unneeded movements of the cast and crew. These days a director must be productive and minimalist… Sacrifices must be made, such as shooting two scenes on the same location but making sure that it will never be noticed, by changing camera angles for example. At the end of the day it works, but it can mean not being able to use those perfect locations that we all wish for. I would rather save time on the set and spend more time with the cast and setting the shots than losing valuable time moving around… I choose my battles. Certain shots are done in a simpler way, while I spend more time on the more important ones, where the action and the emotion that stem from these scenes are at stake. My motto is “balance”, whether it would be on set, in resources, in everything… Therefore, I make compromises, but ones that I can live with.
MONTAGE: Should steps be taken to protect Canadian talent?
My only answer to that question would be that if the federal and provincial governments invested more money in film production then scriptwriting, shooting conditions and everything else would be fairer. We wouldn’t always have to cut corners… This could also mean more shooting time, which would allow directors more time to exercise their craft. Time is the one thing we are always lacking, but of course more time means more costs for producers.
MONTAGE: How are you adapting to shifting market demands and evolving digital platforms?
It certainly means lower wages. For example, when you work on a web series, you earn much less than on a television series, so you have to adapt – it’s just part of the working conditions. As for new technologies, of course we shoot in video now instead of film, but if we’re talking about new cameras, they allow us to save a lot of time, which is really helpful.
MONTAGE: Would you say you have a particular style? If so, how would you characterize it?
I find it a little pretentious to say that I have a cinematic style. Mine sticks to the reality of the script and the time I have to shoot a project. I try to keep my style consistent and congruent with the script. If I do not have the time to fine-tune a scene, I stick to the essentials, what’s in the text. I try to deliver the essence of the script, to shoot all the necessary scenes. There is always a way to produce a beautiful shot in a short period of time – it’s all in the directing.
MONTAGE: Do you find it challenging to communicate your own vision in the films you make?
If we’re talking about filmmaking, I managed to use my own vision, or very close to it, while shooting Borderline. In television, it is more a question of team work, with the author, the producer, the director of photography. It is the director who sets the tone, but of course one has to respect the script. I do not usually have to fight for my vision to be considered, but compromise is sometimes necessary. I try to find solutions that work for everyone.
MONTAGE: Where does your inspiration come from?
I seek my inspiration in movies and television series that I have seen. I am very inspired by photography, literature, theatre... Borderline stems from the adaptation of two novels by Marie-Sissi Labrèche and we wrote the script together. It was the theme of mental illness that inspired me for that film. For me, it is a very important issue. I like to talk about taboo subjects. I like to go beyond the entertaining aspect of a story and add some depth to the subject matter. Even in a comedy I think there can be depth. But I often direct productions for which I have not written the script. I cannot necessarily impose my own social agenda on a film. I take the work of an author and try to transfer it to the screen with as much respect as possible. If I want to shoot outdoors so I can show something very real, a documentary technique in a fiction context, for example, the script must allow me to do that.
MONTAGE: Do producers and distributors take current events into account when embarking on the production of a film or a television series? What are audiences looking for?
I think the goal of producers and distributors is to sell, to make money, to make their investment profitable. As for audiences, they want to be told stories, live emotions, and escape from their own realities. I really believe that even a comedy can have depth and deal with social issues. I also think that the public takes what we give them and either likes it or dislikes it. We often underestimate the audience’s intelligence. Borderline dealt with mental illness, not an easy subject. It may not have had the success of some Québec comedies, but it drew more than 170,000 spectators in the province of Québec alone. I am against making films that only three people will see under the pretext that they have some social context. Between a hit comedy and an arthouse film that nobody is going to see, which one is better? For me, the best of all worlds is a profound and artistic film that attracts significant audiences.
MONTAGE: Can you predict what events or conditions can suddenly cause things to go sideways on set?
Time is crucial. I can already tell, by going through the shooting schedule of the day, if we will run out of time. We are not given the time to do things properly and we are asked to work miracles. Even just a little more shooting time would create considerably better working conditions. Two fewer scenes per day means three or four more days of shooting by the end of a project. It may mean having to add a few days to the total shooting time, but it makes such a difference on the screen. For me, it is important to respect the allotted time, but at a certain point, I just cannot invent time or work miracles. It is a team effort and I must respect the work of each department. We are not machines!
MONTAGE: How do you gain the confidence of the head writer, the line producer, the crew, and the cast?
Producers and writers tend to trust me because of my experience in film and television production and as a result of my first meeting with them. It also depends on my vision of the script and my acceptance of the shooting conditions established by the producer. On the set, creating a good atmosphere is a key factor for success. The team appreciates that I arrive with good staging ideas. Essentially, filmmaking is a team effort so I consider it very important to respect individuals. Presently, I am working on a new web series, Mère et Fille, and the reactions from the people I have called to work with me on it are extraordinary. These are experienced people and they all agreed straight away, even if the pay is not great! The fact that they came because they wanted to work with me really pleased me.
MONTAGE: Do you often have differences of opinion with the producer at the editing stage?
When I work on an English language television series, I direct scripts that I have not written. Also, I do not pick my teams, so I have to let go completely. It is a kind of team work that requires a lot more compromise. I do my director's cut and then I lose control of it. In Quebec, it is different: the directors are closer to work. Certainly, when you work on a film, especially an auteur film, things are different because the director’s cut is more your own, it bears your signature.
MONTAGE: There is a lot of talk about equity between women and men in the film and television industry these days. It still seems like men have an easier time, being hired more frequently than women directors. Have you suffered from this inequity?
I think that nowadays there are more female directors, and I'm very happy about that. Measures are being put in place by Sodec (Société de développement des entreprises culturelles, Québec’s cultural funding agency) and Telefilm Canada to encourage gender parity. I find it unfortunate that we have come to this, but I think it is necessary. On the other hand, I do not think we should finance a bad film project because it is directed by a woman, and the same goes for a film directed by a man. In television, there are a lot of women who direct, but I still hear about pitch sessions for detective stories and the like, where women are not even invited to pitch... I know that men who have roughly the same talent and experience I have, who started out in their careers at the same time as me, are making four times what I make. They have had more contracts and more opportunities to practice their trade, to try out different genres and, consequently, to make themselves known and to build their reputations. Someone once told me that I was good but that I did not have enough balls! Which is quite a sexist macho comment, don’t you think? I simply have not been given as many opportunities to develop my own cinematic vision. We must not forget that the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director won for a war movie (Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 with The Hurt Locker)! And I am the first woman to have won a Jutra for Best Director (in 2009 with Borderline), and it was about time that a woman received it! Things will get better for the younger generation of female directors… I fear that women will get television series and projects that only deal with emotions, when in fact, we are able to tackle other subjects, like detective stories, action films, comedies, and so on. I took on the Mère et Fille web series because I wanted to direct good comedy. I really want to explore something else and not be confined to drama, even if I do like that genre.
MONTAGE: Has the increasing number of women in decision-making positions changed the working environment in the industry?
If more men than women are invited to pitch projects and ultimately get hired, it is because the pool of male directors is much larger than the pool of female directors. Consequently, men gain more experience. In Québec, an organization called Réalisatrices Équitables - a non-profit organization founded in 2007, whose members are Québec female professional film directors - and some individual women producers have fought for this cause. For example, if a broadcaster were to require producers to have at least one female director on a television series, they could just do a little research and I swear they would find some hidden treasures ... feminine, of course! But they prefer to fall back on their "safe bets", men, that is. The good news is that the CBC has started requiring that female directors be hired.
MONTAGE: Similarly, there are a number of initiatives in place to attract people from diverse cultures to directing. Do you feel this is necessary?
For me, this comes up when I am casting a project. Producers and broadcasters are interested in having their projects reflect reality, so we are always looking for talent from diverse cultural backgrounds. The group of filmmakers is still quite small, but it is important to make room for other cultures. These days, there are more and more technicians from diverse backgrounds working on sets, which can be attributed to the fact that the younger generations are going to film school – something their parents did not do.
MONTAGE: What would you change in the world of television production that would make your life as a director easier?
Having more time to shoot and to rehearse – with fewer scenes to shoot per day – would certainly be ideal. So, I guess that means having more money. Again, the money issue! Finally, is it possible to hope for respect and balance? I know I speak for all directors, screenwriters, actors, technicians, men and women alike. We have a wonderful profession and we must find ways to make it even more wonderful!