ScreenPrism spoke to director and screenwriter Philippe Falardeau about his upbeat political satire, My Internship in Canada.
Meet Steve Guibord: a boyishly handsome politician who is more comfortable on the ice than leading an assembly, who wears worn-in leather jackets, who can't help but leave crumbles everywhere when he bites into a pastry, whose office is situated right above a lingerie store, who passionately supports aboriginal rights.
Now meet Souverain Pascal: a constantly beaming, whip-smart 22-year-old student from Haiti who loves Rousseau and earnestly writes poetry, who manages to collect and create a supportive group of friends no matter where he goes, who cheerfully packs his belongings into one giant suitcase for a chance to intern with Guibord.
These two oddly matched men are on a mission: they must traverse the whole of Guibord's Canadian county to talk with Guibord's constituents. Why? Because Guibord holds the swing vote in his hands. What does the swing vote determine? Whether the entire country of Canada goes to or does not go to war.
Director and screenwriter Philippe Falardeau's upbeat political satire takes a prolonged look at the inner workings of democracy. When lobbyists shamelessly manipulate an image of Guibord from his hockey-playing days, what's a flabbergasted politican to do? When a twenty-something intern knows how to deflect probing questions from hungry journalists better than a seasoned government worker, what is the current state of our media climate? When the final swing vote count is about to be tallied, the one road up north is blocked, and the only options are to canoe or helicopter to Parliament, what option does an intensely aviophobic person have?
These are a few of the outlandish yet relevant questions that Falardeau prompts and answers in My Internship in Canada (2015). As a former student of political science himself, Falardeau had to reconcile his theoretical, idealistic understanding of democracy with the disparing realities of political machinations. And so he does in this hysterical piece of satire which opens with the director himself reassuring the viewer that these following events did not in fact happen. (Or maybe they will in a near future, he muses wryly.)
ScreenPrism: My Internship in Canada is very humorous and accessible, even to those who aren’t familiar with Canadian politics.
Philippe Falardeau: That was the main surprise for me when I released the film. When we did it – knowing that first of all this is a comedy, and second of all this is about Canadian politics – I didn’t know if it would travel. I actually thought it wouldn’t, but it premiered at the Piazza Grande [at the 2015 Locarno International Film Festival], in front of 5000 people, and I realized we had tapped on something digestible in any other western democracy, and the humor would travel also. So I was very happy about that.
SP: Patrick Huard, who plays Steve Guibord, is normally a comedic actor, but I read that the reason you cast him was because you heard a speech he gave at an awards ceremony. How did you work with Huard to create this character?
PF: He’s known for his comedy style. He’s also a very solid actor, and he’s not given the recognition he should for that. When he read the script and we met, he said, “It’s very funny and I like it, but I don’t want to do it because it’s funny. I want to do it because he’s an ordinary guy trying to survive in this complicated situation.” He liked the humanity, the relationship with his daughter and his wife – that felt real to him.
He got the spirit of what was the film: what was going to happen to him would be funny, but he himself didn’t have to put too much mustard on it. And that’s not how I set up comedy, either. It’s more about distance and situation and how you stage a certain [situation]. In some cases, he plays it very physically, like when he comes out of the airplane. But most of the time, it’s the people and the situation around him that are funny, not necessarily him.
SP: I didn’t know who I hated more, the loudly shouting mayor or the guitar-playing Canadian Prime Minister who doesn’t blink at bribery, but I liked how they weren’t supposed to be villains. They were just politicians working the system.
PF: The PM is a caricature of our former PM, Stephen Harper. He works as our Darth Vader for the Canadian audience because we immediately recognize him. What I liked about [the filmic PM] is that, in real life, the guy would play instruments: guitar and piano. Probably from the view of the little girl, he’s a cool dad, but he’s also very Machiavellian like most politicians. And the mayor – we forget that mayors of small towns have a lot of power. They’re like little kings in their own little realm, and it’s part of the complexity of politics, especially in Canada, with [its] so many levels of government. Which can also apply to the United States, I guess. They are caricatures, of course, because of the tone of the film, but they’re not so far from reality.
SP: I enjoyed the introduction, when a blurry man explains that the story we are about to see is not real, but it may be. What is your overall message in the film?
PF: Well, all these films [that] start saying [they’re] based on a true story – that’s an idea I had when we were shooting. I asked the costume designer, “Do you have a jacket for me?” and I stepped in front of the camera, and I said that. It was spur of the moment to mock all those films who try to find credibility by saying "based on a true story." When you’re dealing with fiction, the real question is: is it interesting or not? And I wanted to be a parody of that.
But at the same time, when I started to write the film, none of these events had happened, but when I was posting the film [in post-production], the parliament of Canada went into a vote to go or not to go to war against ISIS. The reality caught up to my fiction. The opening became like this premonition. But it’s mostly a joke.
I thought the message of the film – it’s not so much a message as a declaration of what can go wrong in democracy. It’s still a system we value but we take for granted. So the character of Souverain, who comes from Haiti, a bright student who comes from a place where democracy is nonexistent or at best very, very fragile, he understands the value of [democracy], and I think we lost the understanding here because we take it for granted. Because we are allowed to participate in direct democracy, it’s not purer. It’s more chaotic and complicated.
SP: Souverain is so earnest and so completely opposite to Guibord. Two of my favorite movie tropes are road trips and odd couples, and My Internship in Canada has both. How did you create these two main characters?
PF: First of all, when I was working on the core idea of having a politician – an independent member of Parliament – with the swing vote, I realized very quickly that this was going to be very repetitive. I needed some sort of second level or second point of view. Then I came up with the idea of this guy who comes from Haiti – because we [Canada] have a very big Haitian community in Montreal. They are all people who are very curious and knowledgeable about politics, so it’s very believable that you would have this young student of politics coming in like that. But it does create an odd couple situation, especially up in the north. I liked that.
In my other former films, I liked exploring who we are as a society but from the point of view of someone else. Because I know who we are or who I think we are, but you bring in a character who’s not from here and then you start realizing and start seeing the idiosyncrasies of our habits and culture. That’s interesting for me, to bring in this outside point of view. I have a pretty good idea of what a character would look like.
Then you start casting and you have to be open-minded and embrace personalities that you probably didn’t think of before. Then this guy [Irdens Exantus, who plays Souverain] came in to audition. He was actually working in a corner store. He hadn’t done anything before that, and he struck me as very believable and earnest and also very curious. I called him back and worked with him, and he became the character. I often rewrite some of the stuff once I find my guys. What I do is adjust the dialogue for him and do some additional work so that [the character] suits him.
My Internship in Canada (2016)
SP: I read that you were very struck by Rousseau when you were studying politics. Souverain is very enamored with Rousseau and other classical philosophers and great orators. Can you explain how you decided to inject this character with an element of your own self?
PF: I didn’t study cinema when I was younger. I studied political science. The book I had on my bedside at night [was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract]. It was a very nerdy thing for me. For me, politics was about something very philosophical and pure. But then you grow older, and reality tells you it’s something else. So to do that, we have this young guy, who has Rousseau as a model. Then you get a politician who hasn’t heard of Rousseau and doesn’t know who he is, but he knows about politics on the field. Then you get these two views clashing together.
At the end of the story, what I’m most proud of: [Guibord] doesn’t win the vote, but he gets a friendship with this guy who is completely opposite to him, with more education than him but less experience. They both learn from each other. A lot of people told me that I have a very pessimistic view of politics. Sure, but I have a very optimistic view of humans, and I tried to convey that in this relationship, in this odd relationship.
SP: The ending was very surprising. Now that you say you believe more in humanity than in politics, I understand why you didn’t give in to the temptation to whip out an underdog victory ending.
PF: No, because that would’ve been, for me, not very believable. In politics, underdogs don’t win. People with no power don’t win. It’s too difficult and contrary to the presidential system in the United States. The powers are all concentrated in the PM of Canada. It’s a much more centered power structure. The president of the United States has his hands tied for a lot of stuff, but in Canada it’s the opposite. It would not be plausible for him to make such a difference, and I wanted to portray that by showing the travesty of democracy by bringing this comatose woman inside the parliament. Which isn’t so far from what they would probably do.
But at the end of the day, what’s interesting in life, and in my films, is you get this cross-cultural relationship. You’ve been in Haiti with this family and neighborhood, who’s been following Canadian politics as if it’s a soap opera or some kind of reality show. All of this is in good fun, of course, but this is my vision of life: how we are intertwined not just with our neighbors but with other people in other countries. I’ve had that in all my other films, and that’s how I see life in general.
SP: Portraying Guibord as a former hockey player turned politician who advocates for aboriginal rights was an interesting character choice. Can you talk more about that decision?
PF: That’s interesting that you should say that. We think or assume that hockey players aren’t educated, but hockey players will come from different regions. They’re not all from the big city [and] some of them can be sympathetic to the cause of the aboriginal people. That part of the character was inspired by a former hockey player who played for the Boston Bruins, who is now creating little leagues for aboriginal people in northern Quebec. So although the character of Guibord is not a real politician, some [of his] dimensions are taken from real life.
The thing that was frustrating for me was that I wanted to go deeper into the aboriginal issues, but that was not the purpose of this film. I still wanted them to be an important part of the story, and I have them say stuff that I feel is important. Like the woman who says, concerning the debate whether we should go or not abroad to help other people in a war very distant, “I never saw any other country invade Canada to help us.” It was important for me to give them a voice.
SP: Guibord's wife and daughter are at complete ends of the political spectrum. You make the larger, local debate very intimate within his family. This is in stark contrast to the PM’s daughter, who could not care less about politics.
PF: Exactly. Well, the idea behind that is quite simple. When you deal with politics, politics is something very boring. I don’t think that people rush to the theater to listen to see what I have to say about politics. They want to follow characters. So to make it less dry you have to internalize the tension inside the family because people can understand that. Anyone can understand family dynamics, and by having the young one be more on the left and the mom be on the right on the spectrum, it would allow me to treat everyone equally. Although I would consider myself much more left-wing, I could give everyone equal treatment by internalizing the political context [within] the family.
My Internship in Canada (2016)
SP: The give-and-take between Guibord and reporter Stephanie is also very interesting. Was this another attempt to humanize people who are normally caricatured onscreen?
PF: Yes, completely. If someone wants to cover politics and stay close to politicians, it is give-and-take. The politicians would shut [reporters] down if they are too aggressive, and, ironically, it’s the same with professional athletes. An ex-hockey player would do the same with journalists. Journalists would follow you on the trail and interview you, but there’s line you can’t cross because a person can just decide to not answer questions. Guibord needs Stephanie to convey his message or convey his views to leverage, to get his message to reach the opposition party. It’s a game that’s being played.
What’s interesting in the film is that it’s being played on a very, very low level. She used to do the weather channel, and he hasn’t had that media attention since he was a hockey player. And that’s why the political scrum, when it’s out there [that] he has the swing vote, he looks like a normal hockey player after a game, commenting. It doesn’t come across like that in the subtitles, [but] all of a sudden, he talks like someone who doesn’t have a huge range of vocabulary. He sounds like a hockey player.
SP: Can you speak about the musical decisions?
PF: I knew I wanted to create a theme song that would be there, from start to finish. My friend is the composer, and we brainstormed before shooting. We brainstormed for about four months, and then he came up with the theme. So I had a sample of it on my iPhone, and I could use it as some sort of metronome to pace a scene, to make sure that the way I staged a film, this pacing would also help the actors.
Because the film is a lot about someone not being able to go from point A to point B, he’s always stopped in his track. We didn’t want the movie to feel like it’s always stopping, so the music is like a locomotive to tell the audience that although the character is stopped, the movie is not. It keeps on moving forward,like a marching band.
SP: Is that why a random marching band makes its appearance at the end?
PF: That was an idea that came up at the very end. I was scouting in Haiti. We had shot the movie already in Canada, and we were just doing the pieces down there. I saw a beautiful marching band with old instruments. They had powder-blue suits, and I tried to hire them, but it didn’t work. Then we found another marching band, and because the song in my head sounded like a marching band with brass I had the composer fax me the sheet. Then they rehearsed in the park and then we shot them. For me, they were like a Greek chorus, coming to the audience as if it was the story telling the story almost.
SP: The marching band also fit in well with the almost surreal tone of the film.
PF: For me, [the whole movie] is surreal. If you look at the beginning of the movie, someone says that this is based on true events that haven’t happened. It starts in a surrealistic way, and it ends this way, too.
SP: What was a favorite scene to film and a favorite scene to watch?
PF: To film? I would say: the marching band was a favorite to shoot because everyone was happy, and it was something I’ve never risked before. Like you said, it was surreal. But also the first assembly when everything goes sideways. I had insisted with my producers to shoot that up north in a small town and not in Montreal like we could’ve. Because we could have: [the scene] was interior, and Montreal was local. But I said, “No, let’s do that because they’ll know what we’re talking about and react.” So what I did was, I rehearsed with the actors, and I brought all the extras and told them, “Stuff is going to happen. People are going to say things. I want you to react spontaneously to that.” Because [the actors] were taking about roads, forest, mining, aboriginal people, and the fact that they didn’t care about a distant war, what you’re see is actually real people reacting to what is being said by the actors. So I had a lot of fun shooting that.
Then, for me, the best moment [to watch] was when [Guibord and Soveraign] are on the road, going to Outardes. There’s a huge zoom-out, and we’re hovering over this vast country. You understand how impossible it is to govern this country where there’s so much geography and so few people, and the constituencies are the size of small countries. It’s a big task for one man to represent a vast territory like that. Canada as a whole is like that – I mean 7000 km wide and it has only 3500 people.
SP: Any last words?
PF: I’m still in awe and surprise that this film can be entertaining outside of Canada. My other films have always traveled well, and I knew they would because of their topic and the way I shot them. This one, I thought, was going to be super local. Ironically it’s beginning to have a lot of success outside of Canada, and it didn’t do super well here. It came out during a political campaign, and I think people were fed up with politics and political films, and they didn’t want to see that – don’t associate politics with entertainment. We don’t have the Anglo-Saxon, the American and British, tradition of political satire in French Canada. I think that’s why it draws attention to Anglo-Saxon crowds, because [of that history].