It all starts with a place and a feeling.
It was somehere around 2017 that I rented a new studio place in a mostly abandoned building downtown Quebec City.
While visiting the place, there were all those textures, walls, windows, rooms. All put together in a chotic universe.
What struck me the most was the light. Each space had it's own light spirit, its own feeling. And when I decided to capture that. I had absolutely no idea where I was going or what the project will be, as always. Just following my gut feeling.
As I mostly always do, I didn't ask for grant or money, I just asked for help a couple of friends with whom I've been working on my latest movies and commercials.
Stephane, my friend and DP, told me that we should make a movie too. I said yes of course, why not. As usual he wanted to shoot in 4K and have some lighting coming over and as usual I said "Nah man, we're shooting 1080p with natural light, let's have some faith in the sun".
So I had to think. What should we do as a film. In photography it's easier, it's pieces of a moment, instants, they speak by themself, they don't need continuity or narrative coherence. In movies though, you have to give the audience a story, a construction of different feelings so that they live through something in the theater. So I though "yeah, let's make a film about rules. About not following the rules. About beeing freed from the rules to become different, better, to become free. I quickly decided that ballet will be the start, because it's more rigid form of dance, with a lot of rules to respect. And then it will transform into modern dance et continue to the contemporary dance.
Then, while brainstroming with the art department we had this idea, to support the "getting rid of rules" thing, to have this dress, that falls in pieces while the story advances. So it was our base for a universal narrative structure. Still no Franciszka in mind.
It was a big space, almost 4000 ft.sq. But it felt so intimate. I learned later, that at first it was a shoe factory. So that feeling of each person behind her machine, making shoes, lost in their minds and their dreams, multiple inner worlds. It was there.
At this period I was obsessed with mixing dance and cinema to create something narrative out of abstract. So I said to myself "I have to make a photoshoot with a dancer here".
Franciszka Mann was not on my mind, at this time I didn't even knew her existence in history.
The ideas started to take place in my head.
Just so you know, when I say department, I mean people, like literally. The lighting department was Stéphane Thériault, the art department was Sophie Boonen and Jean-Nicolas Demers and we had some help here and there from Pierre-Marc Laliberté. We were 6 people on the shooting, Small team, ideas move faster.
Fun fact: I met Sophie Boonen in a café a couple of weeks earlier. She wrote to me, telling that she was new and wanted to see how the movies works. So I asked her if she wanted to participate in my next film as an Art Director. Best thing to learn is to do, right? She accepted and I was pretty happy with the result of her work and her fresh ideas. The dress came from her too. It was magnificent.
Time to find a dancer.
A facebook post, couple of recommendations, and I was speaking with a couple of people. When my former cinema teacher told me about his girlfriend whith whom they just had a son (Henri) and that she was absolutely stunning and versatile in all kinds of dances. After a couple of messages and pictures of her just flying around their apprtment I said, all right, let's do this!
So we set out a date for the shoot and hoped for a sunny day, because it's all the light we had.
Franciszka was about to enter our lives.
Shooting day (Part 1)
We had a very sunny day. We were there early and the sun was still a little bit hidden. Perfect time to get prepared. We had to find a way, in the decor to create continuity and movement too, that follows the state being of the dancer. So we decided that day that all the pieces that falls off her dress will transfer and add-up to the decor. The art department had this idea to put plastic on windows, so more the dancer becomes free, more we destroy the plastic and let those rays of light in, as to symbolise this well being becoming real.
We also decided that once she deposits her pointes and touches the column in the middle, the between two worlds, the decor becomes alive, her interiority will revive. So we hid a couple of fans in the decor, we start them when we were ready.
All day, everyone, was having those inrcedible ideas. We created a safe space where our artist minds can be free and create as we wanted, whithout any restrictions, any derangements from the outer world, from the reality.
We were about to meet Franciszka.
While speaking about the decor with Sophie and Jean-Nicolas, I wanted 2 things. We already divided the space in two distinctive universes. On the right, the reality and on the left, the interiority. So I asked them (24 hours prior to the shoot) to make something very ethereal in which we could bring movement, life.
The decor you see on the left of the movie is the second attempt. The first one was not very interesting as we tried to make some kind of theater scene. They decided to go more abstract, and it was perfect.
Shooting day (Part 2)
Marie-Chantale arrived. This fragile woman with her newly born baby in her hands, her husband, and mother were here too. She then told us that he had this little boy (Henri) two months ago through a C-Section. I wasn't sure, I was a little worried about her health, the well being of each one is more important than the perfomance for me. But she told us that she was ok and that the only thing is that her husband will bring the baby each 2 or 3 hours so that she could breastfeed him. Great. So let's do that movie then.
We made some tryings of the costume which was a little too big for her so the art department had to do some sewing. We talked in the meanwhile with Marie-Chantale, about her, about her life about the "free yourself from the rules" basis of the movie. Made some camera tests and adjustments here and there. After about an hour we were finally ready to begin filming.
We didn't had any lighting except the natural one, so we had to shoot the movie chronologically.
Shooting day (Part 3)
Each person has that thing that I call "CC", Camera Charisma. The camera sees every person differently from the human eye. It is why we do camera tests with the actors usually. With this project I didn't had time nor the money to do it. Let's get this out of the way right now, this movie was all funded by my personal money AND the hardwork of my friends.
Everything is ready, we talked about that first scene where Marie-Chantale is sitting on that bench, she stands-up and pushes the bench hard. The camera is ON, Marie-Chantale enters the frame...and BOOM!!! I looked at the monitor and her "CC" was incredible! I wasn't sure at first, but when I saw her on the screen all my doubts melt down, I knew right then that we are on to something.
So we shot the movie. All day. With some breastfeeding between the shots. I did some photography as usual to get some more visual content, to look for different angles and try to capture that dance vibe that was strong with Marie-Chantale.
Shooting day (Part 4)
When the time came for the last shot of the movie, I'm always looking to mix some cult images that already exist. Like the PIETA in my film LUCIA or the MONA LISA in AICHA. For this one I wanted to feel a rebirth. So for the final shot of this film we mixed BOTTICELLI and TERMINATOR. Yeah, that's right, Renaissance and Schwarzenegger. The Terminator part is the beginning, when she starts in this crouched position and stands up, and the ending position is of course the Birth of Venus by Botticelli.
So that's about the movie finale. And the shoot was over. I was so happy. I knew we did something good, something important.
But the funny thing is, at that moment, I've never even heard about Franciszka Mann. It wasn't about her, yet.
Sophie, Stéphane, Jean-Nicolas and me.
Two weeks after the shoot, I got into the editing phase of the project. I first cut all of my films. After that it's Stéphane who takes the editing and we do some back and forth.
First, I asked for a couple of music tracks from Jean-Philippe Nadeau Marcoux, to find the rythm of the movie. So the music that I used to create the first cut was "Alfred Schnittke - Concerto Grosso No.3 (1985)".
It took me about 2 weeks to get to something that works, but it didn't had a soul yet. We exchanged some ideas with Stéphane, he added a couple of cuts here and there and then I was stuck. Something didn't work. So I put the movie away for a better moment.
A month after I put away the film for a better moment to work on it I was just scrolling Facebook, going through different posts when I see a post of one of my friends and illustrating artist Pierre Girard (Pihier) about a dancer named Franciszka Mann who died in WWII. I clicked, I read, I knew.
Right then, I knew that as strangely as it may seem, my film was about that, about her, about that courageous woman that defied those nazis with a grace of a simple ballet movement. It was so beautiful for me, I almost cried reading her story.
The next day, I jumped into the editing, and it was all so clear now. A week after, the first cut was finished, and a soul started to appear.
Once that first cut was there, it was time to expand and give life to that soul with the music. I met with Mathieu Grégoire and Alexandre Côté and we started working on what will become that beautiful soundtrack that mixes classical klezmer music with sound design and sound storytelling.
Right from the start, the guys told me about that orchestra named "Ensemble de musique Klezmer de Ste-Nigoune". They wanted to work with them. And they were in.
We started a very long process (it took about 3 moths) to make this sound track.
First, Alex and Mathieu went to the place where we shot the film and collect some sounds there. Stepping on stuff, hitting walls with metal bars, dancing and the floor, walking, running, touching...a very very weird recording session.
For the orchestra, we also took the same room for the recording. We wanted it to sound as if we were there with her and she was there with us. I brought a movie projector and we started recording taht same track, over and over, with collecting some sounds of each instrument.
Fun fact, it was february, in Canada, it's cold, very cold. And we had to stop the heating for the sound, so everything became cold very fast. I think personnaly that the fact that the musicians and the intruments were struggling in that cold it added some of that suffering feeling to the track and the story of Franciszka, how it was told through our recording.
The camps sound design
Once the first part of the sound track was done, it was time to tell a story, with sound. Add to that narrativty.
I took a map of Auschwitz camp and studied the path that prisoners took from their arriving by train until the gas chambers. So I wrote a couple of annnoucements in french, I imagined them through a speaker in those camps. That voice that gives directions to the prisoners from trains unto their announced death.
At the end, more precisely, the discussion between those two officers towards Franciszka, they ask her to dance for them. She dances, just to lure them and kill one of them and then die.
I then imagined all those dogs, and trains, and the people yelling in distance and of course Mathieu and Alex added their ideas to all of this.
We did the translation and then some recording sessions with René Bolduc for the voices and it was done. We had what we needed.
At one point in the process I was doubting the fact that I had to put subtitles over the german voices, but Jean-Philippe convinced me not to. And it was a good advice because at the end we want to feel and not necessarily undestand.
The color grading
Too often underestimated, the color grading is one of the most important phases in post-production of a movie. It can give you that additional narrative level that you might need to tell your story.
For Franciszka it was a very rewarding process. With color grading we really reached that balance between life and death in the story of Franciszka Mann. Starting with the radical changes in the beginning as we hear the bullet when the pointes falls and at the end, when she dies ans disappears in the reality, before being reborn on the other side.
In this video you can see some parts of the movie without any effects nor color grading.
The final cut
Finally everything was done and put together and there was our first final version of the movie. Some graphic design by the artist Simon Giguére for the poster and the in movie credits and we were ready for the next and final phase before submitting it to film festivals.
I sent the movie to about 10 different people, some of them are in the movie business, other in dance, my mom and dad (so they can tell me again that I'm a genius) and a couple of friends who are not in the arts.
A week after the comments started to arrive, of course those of my mom were the first ones and the most critique ones (she was a ballet dancer in her younger years in Russia). Combining all the comments, some came more frequently, some questions rise up, we made some modifications to finally have that final movie.
Fun fact, I edit my movies in a way that almost always the first minutes or seconds before the title becomes the trailer.
At the beginning of every dance film that I make is a mix of what to come. Kind of a legend of a map for the movie.
So the trailer becomes obvious.
The movie was finished and sent to a lot, like A LOT of film festivals which concluded in its selection in 45 of them and winning 14 different awards (which you can see on the Cinema page of this website). The film was co-distributed by me and SPIRA.
The premiere was at the Quebec City Film Festival on the 15th of september 2018. I went to present it there, made a really short apperance, because 2 weeks prior to that my little Léon was born.
I wanted to share all of this, because I think it's important to share the knowledge that we acquire through our journey of creativity. It's unique but so common at the same time.
With this movie I really learned that there is no pattern in creating art. There's no formula. You just have to go with that flow that each piece of art is bringing you in, never stop, always advance, forward, the inpsiration will eventually come and the cards will fold the right way. Maybe not the way you intended, but in a right way for what you are doing.
If after reading this you have any questions, just send me an email and it will be my pleasure to share more.
The Music (By Alexandre Côté, the composer)
The music process was an interesting adventure. Mixing klezmer with more romantic, orchestral music was a good challenge, as these two kinds of music are quite different. Despite this, the relation between these two parts had to be well-connected, in a musical way. We worked along with Nathanaël (cellist) on the tone of the main instrument, with noisy bowing techniques, down tuning the C string, or with beautiful angelic harmonics. We used a lot of elements from the klezmer recording session to add that kind of “imperfection tone”, which is, according to me, a good connection with the two different music parts. The idea was to feel the horror of the scene through music and sound design, but also the pure and heroic beauty of Franciszka. You can hear that concept throughout the movie, and especially at the final scene, where we can hear subtile distortions and degradations that recall the rest of the movie.