As we all know, the holidays are not always a time for cheer. A time of year packed with as much melancholy as it is celebration where the bonds between families are exacerbated for better or worse. Annie St-Pierre captures this feeling in her festive 80s-set short Like the Ones I Used to Know (Les Grandes Claques), a film which made its mark on us back at Encounters in September. The film tells the tale of Denis, an estranged father arriving to pick his children up on Christmas Eve. St-Pierre cleverly balances the stress of Denis’ arrival with the coming-of-age of his daughter Julie, who has to come to terms with the broken nature of her own family. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking film that manages to successfully depict the flaws and joy of a broken family without ever stepping into overtly schmaltzy territory. DN joined St-Pierre for a conversation about making Like the Ones I Used to Know, how she and her team recreated the 1980s through set design, and the process of working with her younger actors to achieve their wonderful, naturalistic performances.
What motivated you to create a story that is both about coming-of-age and fatherhood?
I think that family is often, almost always, a strong duet with coming-of-age. Family ties force us to evolve; something that happens to someone in your family happens to you. A family is like a beast with multiple heads and I just found it more interesting to tell this story with the perspective of the daughter and the father, the kid and the adult; their relationship and how it forces them both to grow.
Was there anything specifically that drew you to centre the film around Christmas?
Yes; I wanted to dramatize the story of this early coming-of-age in a circumstance when you can feel the opposition between a kid that can stay in his naïve childhood and another one, that, in a metaphoric way, has to stop believing in Santa. Christmas is also full of emotional baggage linked to family… I thought that a lot of people of my generation would be able to relate to those traditions… and their end.
And how did you find the process of recreating the time period of the 1980s visually?
I had the enormous privilege of working with a master of the period movie, and design in general, Éric Barbeau. We are from the same area in the Quebec countryside and we had similar big Christmas parties with all the family; I was in total confidence. I was dreaming out loud and he was doing better than I could even imagine. When I entered the house after he put wallpaper everywhere, carpets, decorated it and made it alive again, it was like time travel. I was amazed. Every little thing of that era was there, even in the closet.
Christmas is also full of emotional baggage linked to family… I thought that a lot of people of my generation would be able to relate to those traditions… and their end.
For the wardrobe I worked with the extraordinary Gabrielle Lauzier. I wanted to have a realistic gaze on, not just the 80s era, but also the small town, lower-middle-class situation of the characters. We were looking in Sears catalogs, but more those from 1978-1981; for sure, this family would not be all dressed in clothes of the year. It was one of Gabrielle’s first projects with so many people to dress from a different time period and she managed it with great organization and meticulousness. She went to all the vintage stores and flea markets from Montreal to Amqui (which means more than 500 km) and found 4-5 choices for every character, all convincing with their personality, and we did a lot of fittings. We worked all together with the experienced eye of Éric who was able to confirm our decisions.
Your young actors are so wonderful in the film, how did you find the process of conveying to them what you needed in order to tell your story?
The two main characters were played by professional actors Lilou Roy-Lanouette and Laurent Lemaire and they really deserve the word “professional”. I wanted them to be in touch with their childhood and didn’t want them to feel like they were “at the job”, so I cast two other kids with no experience, who were totally immersed in the ambience without preoccupations about “the result of the day”. We spent the four days of shooting in this Christmas vibe, with everyone enjoying, playing, running on the set, and when the more difficult scenes arrived for Laurent and Lilou, they were prepared and ready for them.
How much improvisation was there? There are so many lovely small moments between the children where they’re playing.
All the scenes were written, but for the ones with kids there was no precise dialogue. I wrote them to let the kids emerge as they really are. We had rehearsals; they knew everything about their characters, and they knew that they couldn’t talk with any 2020’s slang. I didn’t want them to learn sentences by heart, I wanted them to be present in the moment when we would shoot.
Like the Ones I Used to Know marks your second narrative film, how did you find the transition from documentary filmmaking?
Documentary is a very complex genre of cinema because everything is related to the capacity of welcoming: people, time you’ll be able to dispose, places, noises, what will be said, what will happen… You are always writing with the present moment. You must be curious at every second and stay open and sensitive to the best place to put the camera in a wink. For sure, all those reflexes help in every shoot… and even more in a short film context with such a small amount of time. You have the experience of prioritizing what’s real.
The film looks absolutely gorgeous. What conversations did you and Étienne Roussy have about how you wanted Like the Ones I Used to Know to look? What camera did you shoot on?
Étienne and I are really good friends. We spend a lot of time together, talking about films we like, going to the cinema, but it is also about how we communicate with each other. On a set, everything goes so fast, having a DP who knows you well and vice versa, you don’t have to explain everything you have in mind; with half a sentence or a quick reference, the other is at the very same place as you.
In all the references we had, I remember that we were very inspired by Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence; the way the camera organically follows the action and finds the place to make us feel like we are a part of what is happening or what has happened. Even if the frame isn’t perfect, it was relevant for us. With our budget, it wasn’t possible to shoot on film, so our idea was to choose a light camera, the ARRI Alexa Mini, and find some good lenses that would give us a texture, a feel from the 80s, without a ‘gadget’ look. We did a lot of tests with so many different lenses (thanks Post-Moderne Camera!) to find the look we wanted. I knew that the Christmas lights would be an important part of the outside and inside the car aesthetic so we became obsessed with the bokeh and the shape produced by the different lenses. We finally chose the Neo Super Baltar and were happy with the result.
I didn’t want them to learn sentences by heart, I wanted them to be present in the moment when we would shoot.
How long did it take to bring the film together from start to finish? Did you encounter any particular challenges in making it?
12 years! Haha! The very first version of the idea was written 13 years ago, with a friend and brilliant artist, Daniel Schachter. It was a totally different script than the one finished in 2017 but it was a similar idea to a first Christmas after divorce. This version slept in my drawer for seven years. I was more into directing documentary during those years but I had the chance of doing my first really short fiction and I loved the experience. It gave me the swing to believe I could do another one… and this Christmas coming-of-age was still in my mind. Then, Colonelle Films joined me as producers and it took us three years to complete the budget.
We shot in January 2020 just before COVID and we had to postpone the editing in June 2020. All the schedules of my collaborators, mostly working on feature films, were disturbed by the pandemic so we had to re-do the calendar but we finally finished the post-production at the end of October 2020. Sundance was the first festival we sent the film to; it was a real joy to find out they had selected it. Also, when the film was selected by Palm Springs, I had a deep emotional reaction; I had this memory of myself, three years before, camping in Joshua Tree for the first time and learning by email that our grant to shoot the film was refused… There’s no easy road to do a film, but it’s always a fun ride.
What projects will you be working on next?
I’m in production for a feature essay-documentary on life coaches which is called Your Higher Self and I’m working on two feature narrative films; one written by François Bernier, with my collaboration and another one written by me, which is in early-stage development. I’m also taking the time to enjoy some festivals with Like the Ones I Used to Know. I find it very important to travel and listen to what people think about the film; it always helps me to learn more about my creation.