1996 Press Kit Archive: interview

How did you come up with the idea for Duo?

I have always been interested in mysterious people, people who are misunderstood by everyone. The harder that person is to figure out, the more fascinating he/she becomes. That's why I chose to make a film based on my brother. l've lived with him for twelve years, and I know a lot about him: his habits, his hobbies, his character, his life in school and at home... But somehow l've always felt that there was a lot about him that I can't figure out, things that belong to his own world and that no one might ever understand. I feel the main reason for that alienation is his struggle to communicate using words. Stephane and I get along very well because we don't even need words anymore to communicate. Sometimes, a smile or a facial expression means more than any sentence. Some ideas though are impossible to communicate without words. Sometimes he asks me a question and repeats it many times, but I just can't understand what he is saying. When I see his frustration building, I just pretend that I understood. Sometimes he buys it, sometimes he doesn't and gets really upset. I wanted to convey that frustration in my film, as he tries to communicate with "Joan". My main goal was to find a way for him to be able to express his love to Joan without the use of words.

One day, Stephane played 'The Three Tenors in Los Angeles" on the VCR (like he does everyday during breakfast). Then he picked up a pencil and started conducting the orchestra, while singing at the same time. He was right on the beat at every point of the concert, even when the conductor was not on the screen. I knew he was a music fanatic for a long time, since he listens to his walkman ail day long, but I never thought he had such a developed sense of music. I understood that music was like a friend to him, since no one ever visits him. That's when I realized that music was going to be the language he would learn in this film. It would be his own way to break the barrier. I created "Joan" because I needed a character that would ignite his passion for music, a character who knows about music, that Stephan would want to impress and communicate with. It would have to be someone he loves.

Would you say that Duo is about language?

It is one the main themes that drives the story. Stephan tries constantly to find a way to communicate his love to Joan. He draws his feelings on a piece of paper, or plays them on the piano, because he cannot say them. Ironically, he's not the only one who can't communicate: his parents have the same problem. The only difference is that Stephan is trying.

I also tried to use as little dialogue in this film as possible. I wanted the images and the music to speak for themselves. When Joan and Stephan are together, not much is being said. Every word becomes more important, and at the same time, more space is allowed for the music. When my other characters talk, they either fight or small talk. Those who are able to speak are not necessarily those who say the most...

How much of Duo is fiction?

There is definitely a lot of fiction in Duo, but it's all within a very real context. The film was based on my own brother because I knew him very well. Down Syndrome is a very delicate subject, and I felt the responsibility to represent it in a very realistic way. Since every Down Syndrome case is different, I decided to focus on my brother. It is vital for a film like Duo to be authentic, or it loses ail credibility and interest. For example, the scenes in school were shot in his own classroom, and ail of his classmates were his actual classmates in real life. I spent several days in his class trying to feel the kind of ambiance that emerges from it. To my surprise I heard a lot more laughter that I expected. These kids actually seemed to be having a good time. Were they really? I don't know.

Stephan's loneliness is also very real, unfortunately. l've never seen any friends from school visit him at home, and he ends up playing with his wrestling figures or listening to his walkman by himself, every day. Ail the attention and love he gets, he gets it from my parents. This is why I had to invent new parents that would force him to look for love elsewhere. I guess the only part of the film which is pure invention is Stephan's parents relationship. My parents are nothing like the ones in Duo! The film would have never been made without their support, their trust, and their love. I could never thank them enough. As for Stephan's relationship with Joan, well, her photograph is still on his night table...

Why does most of Duo place at night?

l've always enjoyed the night more than the day. I feel oppressed by the day: too much light, too much noise, too many people. The night is filled with silence and peace. It is the best moment to think, meditate, work, or just dream. It is also a time of loneliness, but it becomes magical when two lonely people meet.

What was your stylistic approach with Duo?

As I just said, I wanted the scenes with Stephan and/or Joan alone to be dark and preferably to take place at night. I wanted them to feel out of place when they are in a bright, noisy, and crowded environment such as the party scene. But I wanted to make them connect in a silent and dark environment, one that they would feel comfortable in, one where the only thing they could see is a piano, and the only thing they could hear is music. I played with that theme with my mixer Alex Dorn. Every time music cornes up, ail the other sound effects and ambiances slowly disappear.

The other main stylistic idea was the use of dollies whenever music would be heard. I feel that dollies (and dissolves) have the power to turn anything info a dream. I felt that somehow I could draw a connection between dream and reality, and bring them together at the end.

I also felt that those dollies were in perfect harmony with the creative energy that emanates from the musical moments, the feeling that something is finally happening for Stephan. Then I created the contrast with still shots in class, and before music is introduced to him.

How did you work with your actors?

This was the first time I had such a wide variety of actors to work with, and I quickly realized that I would have to use very different methods with each one of them.

Working with Stephan remains my most fascinating experience. As I said previously, no matter how much I know Stephan, there are always new things about him to be discovered. Before I even started to write the script, I had to test his acting abilities. I had to know what he would be able to do before I could write his scenes. I was always aware of his great presence and energy. I also knew he had a wonderful sense of humor. What I didn't know was if he could actually follow specifie directions, and communicate his emotions on the screen. So I wrote several short situations, without dialogue, and asked him to play them. One of the scenes was "pick a CD from a shelf and play it on the radio". Another one was "you're walking down a hallway and you hear music coming from a room. You open the door and look inside.". I was really surprised to see how well Stephan played that little game. Then I pretended I was filming him using a small camera. For a while, he could not take his eyes off of it, but he quickly learned that he should not do that. Slowly, we began to work on more complicated scenes. Stephan was making progress, and he felt very proud of it. We continued these little exercises for about a month, during Christmas break.

Once I got into pre-production, and the script was written, I would corne back home every month for a week, to work with Stephan. I tried to explain the scenes to him first, but that didn't work too well. Once again, the language barrier became a problem. Then I remembered that he had a gift for imitation. So I played his part in every scene, and told him to do the same. For conversations, I would play (or at least try to) the other part. My goal was to prepare Stephan so that he would know exactly what to do when he starts working with Eden. By the end of March, he had memorized every scene, to the slightest detail. In a way, I felt that Stephan taught me something very important in that process: he taught me to know exactly what I want from an actor.

I started doing auditions for the part of Joan as early as February. I remember using the final scene between Michael and his shrink in Ord/na/y Peop/e. Of course, I had to change Michael to a female name. It was a very strong scene, centered around the loss of Michael's brother and the suicide of his friend. I wanted my actresses to read the part of an older person. I needed one that could express strong and mature feelings. By the end of March, after contacting every agency, school and theater company in New York and Washington, I was getting very worried. I could not find a single actress who could get into that character. I even remember one of them started laughing in the middle of the scene. I was beginning to think that maybe I was making a mistake by using that scene. Fortunately, Eden auditioned in mid-march and proved me wrong.

Working with Eden was a lot of fun. As I was explaining the scenes to her, I felt that she already knew everything I said. Most of the time she did, and I would only ask her to make a few adjustments. I tried to keep those adjustments minimal, though, because I realized that Eden was a very spontaneous actress. I had a very specifie vision of Joan when I wrote the script, but I decided to forget about it and try to create a new one with Eden. I didn't want her to have to remember a bunch of details that would hurt her overall performance.

One week later, Stephan came to New York with my parents for a week end. I was very worried because Stephan had never played with anyone else but me. I was also hoping that Eden would understand Stephan and be patient enough with him. I think that's when Joan was the most helpful. She was so confident about her own part, and so mature in general, that she immediately made Stephan comfortable. They were also getting along very well. After only half an hour of work, they were already best friends. By the end of the first rehearsal, they could play just about every scene together.

So the next day, we started talking a little more in depth, even with Stephan, who was beginning to understand the process better. By the end of the week end, I knew they were ready.

During the shoot, I felt that both Stephane and Eden were very comfortable with the scenes. They knew exactly what they had to say and do. So I decided it was time to make them improvise a bit. Again, even though Duo is fiction, I wanted to give it a very real and spontaneous feel. So we would shoot the scene as memorized one or two takes, for safety, and then we would try new things. I especially remember the practice scene at Stephan's house. I didn't tell Eden what Stephane would ask her, because I felt it was the only way she would really try to understand what he was trying to tell her. I also remember that we never rehearsed the scene where Joan kisses Stephan. I thought I would only get the right reaction from Stephan if she had never kissed him before. It had to be right on the first take.

I think working with kids is the most wonderful experience. I seem to identify a lot more with kids than with adults. I love their spontaneity, their energy, their enthusiasm, their innocence. My job is to plan everything out, so they know exactly what to do, and then take the freedom to let them do what they feel like doing.

How did the shoot go?

I knew the shoot would be hard, but not that hard. We just had too much to shoot in too little time. I had planned the shoot to last 14 days. NYU gave me a camera for five days, and I tried in vain to get an extension for nine days, thinking I would then rent another camera for a couple of days. The cameras were available, sitting on shelves, but NYU never gave me any extension... So I had to corne back to New York in the middle of the shoot, return the camera, rent another one, and go back to Washington. In the process, I had to lose one day of shoot. In addition, I would not be able to afford renting a camera for the time I needed. So I had to reduce the number of shooting days to nine, and we had to shoot up to 18 hours a day. I had planned to shoot for fourteen days because I expected that working with handicapped kids would take a lot more time than with regular actors. I remember it took about one hour and ten takes to get that first dolly to Stephan in the first classroom scene. We just couldn't get our extras not to look at the camera, and we only had about five hours to shoot ail the scenes in the classroom. The party turned out to be very hectic too. We only had four hours to set it up and shoot it, and most of the guests were getting hungry... I had about fifteen different dolly shots planned out for that scene, but I only got to shoot four.

After a couple of days, my main actors were getting really tired. Eden had to go back to New York for an audition for Woody Allen in the middle of the shoot, then corne back the next day. In the meantime, Stephan got upset because he thought she would not corne back. The crew was also getting very tired. When we went back to New York to exchange the cameras, I lost my assistant director and my sound engineer.

Nevertheless, I felt that both my actors and my crew really believed in the project. They would sometime wait hours before playing their part, but they were always ready to give it 100%. The sound engineer helped getting Stephan on the set while Eden was gone. The assistant director helped a lot with the extras. I really felt we were working like a family. The first day of shoot, we started at nine in the morning. At one in the morning, we were shooting the last shot of the day, Stephan's final dream. After two takes, every one (including me) was getting very tired, so we decided to wrap. Then Stephan said "one more!" with a big smile. He looked like he was ready to start ail over again. Every one started laughing. So we put the camera back on the dolly and shot a third take. It was by far the best one.

What are your plans now?

Right now, I just want to send my film to festivals and supervise its world wide distribution. Duo was just granted the "Warner Bros. Production Award" and the "Martin Scorcese Award", which is a good start. I also wrote a feature-length version of Duo this summer, and I am now working on a third draft. I would like to shoot it as soon as possible (maybe this summer or in the fall) but I don't want to start until I have a decent budget. I am counting on the short film to help finance the feature. I also have several other ideas for screenplays in mind: one of them is a fantasy film.