Vincent René-Lortie’s devastating short Invincible follows the final 48 hours of a desperately troubled teen’s life. Based on the tragic true story of his childhood friend Marc-Antoine Bernier, Invincible is a grounded drama which provides a deeply informed focus on the 14-year-old Marc as an individual who was much more than the collective memory of his chaotic behaviour which brought him to breaking point. A regular here on Directors Notes – this interview marks his fifth appearance on our pages – René-Lortie worked on the film for six years, throughout which he conducted detailed and intimate research to gain a deeper understanding of the precarious nature of his childhood friend’s mental health at the time. However, Invincible doesn’t just focus on the violence of Marc’s final hours, with scenes of beauty and bonding showcasing the duality of its young protagonist and illustrating the hope that he’d be able to break the self-destructive cyclical trap he found himself in. Invincible is a powerful narrative directorial debut from René-Lortie which demonstrates a maturity in his career and skills as a filmmaker. We invited him back to DN to speak to us about how his previous projects led to the making of this Oscar nominated short, his detailed preparation work with newcomer actor Léokim Beaumier-Lépine on the language of emotions to develop their communication methods ahead of the shoot and why he chose to start the film with the mournful final act.

[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]

Welcome back to Directors Notes, it’s great to catch up with you to talk about your narrative debut Invincible, tell us a bit about the film.

It’s based on the true story of my childhood friend, Marc-Antoine, who tragically died at the age of 14 after driving a stolen car into a river. As you can probably imagine this incident really affected me and everybody in our community. At that time, I was really young and I don’t think I really understood what really happened. Like there were a lot of people saying that it was an accident, there were police involved and the way it all happened was so tragic that it was really hard to grasp exactly what happened at that time.

The story really stayed with me for many years and it was around six years ago when I decided to delve back into it and to try to better understand what happened at the time. The first thing that I did was to meet with his parents and to have a conversation with them about who Marc was, what they remember of him and also their recollections of that incident. From those discussions I launched into research on mental health and the juvenile centres and systems we have in Montréal and Québec where I’m from. I was also researching through a lot of my friends. I met up with his other friends at the time and with people that knew him and then the idea started to grow roots in my head. I knew there were a lot of moments I could focus on but I felt like those 48 hours before the incident were crucial and where the fracture occurred so I wanted to focus on that.

Looking back over your earlier music videos that we featured on DN, I noticed a certain style and aesthetic which flows through your work. How did you find making the transition into a narrative project of this magnitude?

Honestly, I think every project that I did before, such as my music videos and art films were a way for me to learn about myself, to learn who I was as a filmmaker. I was making all these pieces at the same time as Invincible and those projects allowed me to explore the many ways in which I can tell a story. I have always done a lot of work around sound and visuals and I was just able to bring all of this knowledge to the making of Invincible. I always dreamt of making this film and more after. They were such wonderful projects in themselves, but they were also so important as a way for me to learn and brought me to where I am now.

Those projects allowed me to explore the many ways in which I can tell a story.

How did you keep the momentum going on such an ambitious project, with so much research that has spanned over so many years?

When I finished studying I started a production company Telescope Films with my friends which produced Invincible. Through building that production company we became a family. We’re so close and I think this has allowed us to push each other and get the best out of each other. There were moments in those years when I found it really difficult to be a filmmaker and actually, two years ago I almost changed my career. I was finishing the post-production on Invincible, it had been so hard and I wasn’t sure if the movie would work. But my friends and co-workers really helped me to keep the momentum going. I was lucky enough to do this film with a lot of funding, but you know how hard it is as, effectively, a first time filmmaker, that takes a lot of time. In the end, I think the project just got better over those years and I’m really actually glad it took that much time.

When we started this production company, the idea was that we didn’t want to stay at home and do one project every two, three or five years. Directing is like using a muscle which you need to keep fit, keep utilising. You have to feel comfortable on set, you have to be able to direct actors and know how to talk to your team. All of my previous projects allowed me to do that and the company we started.

I was so drawn into the closeness of the film, the shots on our protagonist and the feeling of being trapped in his situation.

Visually, I wanted to be in our protagonist’s world. Not only close to his face, but most of the time we had the cameras on a fixed tripod which barely moved and meant our actor had to stay in a smaller frame which made him feel trapped and really helped his performance. This also helped the viewer to feel that claustrophobia. A lot of the scenes inside the juvenile centre are very tight close ups which are the opposite to when we go outside. Then we were using wider shots and more light coming into the camera, more space to breathe.

We actually did the same thing with the sound. When we were inside, there’s a lot of silence. Sometimes, watching the film in a cinema it felt quite intimidating as you can hear everybody. Then, for instance, when he goes outside at the end, there’s a lot of wind and noise from the trees. Both the sound and visuals are subtle but I think they go hand in hand. As a very nice review of the film pointed out, it can be very dangerous to be so close because if your actors don’t perform well you’re doomed. However, we were so fortunate that Léokim Beaumier-Lépine, who plays Marc, gave such a strong performance which allowed me to be so close to his face.

We also talked a lot about feelings in general – about pain, about sadness, but also about joy, and happiness. Simple emotion but how these emotions were interpreted by him in his daily life with his sister, his family and his friends.

I read that you were working with Léokim for two months before filming, what were the stages involved in preparing him for that performance?

It was my first film and it was his first film so it was a big learning process for the both of us which is why we gave each other that luxury. We saw each other every week for two months and it was a big thing for him because he was living two hours away from Montréal so he drove to Montréal every week on Saturdays and we worked together all day. Not only did we talk about the scenes, but we also re-wrote them together because I wanted this to feel natural for him as well. We also talked a lot about feelings in general – about pain, about sadness, but also about joy and happiness. Simple emotion but how these emotions were interpreted by him in his daily life with his sister, his family and his friends. This hugely improved our communication as I could then talk about emotion with him in a way that he would understand.

This is something I learnt from my previous project Sit Still which features a six-year-old dancer who was amazing. We didn’t really rehearse our dance but spoke about emotion before filming so when we got on set we were able to communicate in this way. On set with Léokim, my job was focused on the team and I gave him the space to do what he was good at and play that main character. He was so close to his emotions and in many ways, he could really understand and relate to Marc. It was so special to find someone like that, a non-actor who had never performed before who was also able to forget about the camera and all of those other distractions and keep that real emotion.

Set against his anger and fury you have these beautiful, quiet scenes that show his kindness and empathy, I love that balance. Why was it important for you to have those aspects of his character in there?

Where should I start? I think that a lot of what I remembered from the year before my friend passed away was a lot of that anger, a lot of sadness too but mainly anger. But the Marc that I really knew, my friend, was so much more than that. He was sensitive and in my research, I was able to connect with that friend again, I got to see that part of him. As I was writing the film, I didn’t want to make a story just about that anger, of course it’s part of the film, but I wanted to include his empathy and his love for his family and his sister, as well as for his friends.

That’s why I started the film with the ending, because the ending is in many ways so tragic and I could have easily put that at the end of the film which would have been a more traditional way of doing it. But then the viewer would have been left with that tragedy. The story was more focused on who that person was and I wanted the viewer to get to know him and understand his pain rather than just what happened.

By not focusing on the ending we also get a much broader understanding of what he is going through, his mental health and also understand that he is not innately bad.

Sometimes these behaviours, what society deems as delinquency, are in my opinion more of a cry for help. That’s what I wanted to understand from that. That pain, anger and those moments of extreme behaviour. There was a kid and there was someone that was not doing well internally and that’s what I wanted to show in the film.

I want to ask you about the location, was it a real juvenile detention centre?

We filmed in the exact same juvenile centre where the real event happened. The centre opens occasionally for film shoots, especially for prison series or similar genres here in Montréal but then the pandemic happened and it became almost impossible to film there. So as we went into production and were location scouting that was always top of my list. The fact the centre knew Marc and some of the same staff were there at the time of the incident meant they really wanted to help us and made an exception just a few weeks before we started shooting, we were so lucky to shoot there.

The story was more focused on who that person was and I wanted the viewer to get to know him and understand his pain rather than just what happened.

We had to repaint the whole place with colours that matched the palette that we wanted. When we got there, it was bright orange and yellow, colours that didn’t fit the visual style of the film. But he was in a real room there, the scene where he enters his room and we have a long sequence shot is all there. We had the camera operator, the boom operator and the actor all in that small room which was actually really special as they did feel like they had no space to move.

The location does feel like a prison but the people who work there have kind hearts, they are human but it is a very hard place to be in. It’s claustrophobic and I cannot imagine having like eleven or twelve kids in the same dorm. They all come from different backgrounds with different life experiences and they all meet. It must be a hard place to work in but also a tough place to live in when you’re a kid.

You’ve worked with your cinematographer, Alexandre Nour Desjardins, for eight years now. How has your shared language developed over that time?

Alex has probably been on all of my projects featured on Directors Notes and he’s also one of the founders of my production company. At the end of the day, we made this project together. He was one of the first ones to read the script and he was very involved in the whole process. While I was writing he watched so many films and sent me so many references, ideas and particular scenes from films which he felt would inspire me. The collaboration started at the beginning and he took about two months off before the short to work on the style of the film.

We didn’t want it to look like a coming of age movie. There are beautiful examples of this genre with cameras on the shoulder, which move with the character but we wanted it to be more grounded. The kind of film where we let the actors and the art direction tell us the story. The camera is mostly on a tripod and we had so many discussions about camera movement, the colours and the art. The production designer was really involved in the film and we had regular meetings talking about the colour palette, every room and every location.

Was it always your plan that Invincible would concentrate on the last 48 hours of Marc’s life?

Yes and no, sometimes my imagination went somewhere else. In real life, my friend was in the detention centre for a year and escaped a few days before the end of his sentence. I wanted to know why he escaped then because his behaviour had improved, he was able to see his family over the weekend and return. I knew he had spent such a weekend and then escaped a few days later. I always wanted to make sense of those last 48 hours. At that time I didn’t know what happened which is why I started to do a lot of research about that time. At the end of the day, for me, the most important aspect of the film was portraying Marc and his energy, his senses, his sensitivity, his empathy and his love, and sometimes his anger in the right way in the film. Some moments in the film are imagined and others are true which I’ve always been very open about.

I always wanted to make sense of those last 48 hours. At that time I didn’t know what happened which is why I started to do a lot of research about that time.

There’s always contention about the length of short films and you are at the higher end, was it hard to settle on what was the right length?

It’s a short film. It’s a long short film at 30 minutes but you still have to tell a story in a short amount of time. It was 34-35 minutes and we cut two scenes, which is not a lot when you see the amount of scenes in the film, but it did allow us to really concentrate on Marc’s character. The scenes that we took out were not really about him or about what that character was going through so those were easy to cut. I knew we had to be under 30 minutes as that is the top for some festivals and there are a lot of festivals that didn’t select us or we couldn’t even apply for because they have 15 or 20 minute limits. At first I found it really hard as there were a few which I had dreamt about going to and we knew it wasn’t possible but eventually, we fell into a lovely momentum. Claremont-Ferrand was a highlight with such a beautiful screening and I’m now really happy and proud it sits at 30 minutes.

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination!

I feel very lucky and honoured to be here. I’ve seen my career change and evolve over the past few years and I know that a lot of that was being in the right place at the right moment but I’ve also worked really hard. I’ve always been very detail focused and I’m happy to be at this point in my career as it is telling me I’m on the right path. Telling stories and doing what I love as a career and that for me is a huge honour and a relief. For many years I was doubting myself, which I do now, but I also have a little bit more confidence in where I’m going. I don’t think it has anything to do with the Oscars as a lot of that has to do with luck. Certain people have to see your film at the right moment, in the right place. It’s a long process and there were many films that I love this year which didn’t make the nomination.

So what are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a feature film for about a year as we were doing the festival run with Invincible. I’ve been co-writing it with a friend of mine. Her name is Clara Milot, another amazing director, and we have a grant to make the first version. The past few months have all been about Invincible and the Oscars so it would be nice to go escape to a chalet or somewhere outside the city without social media and work on the film. I can’t really write in Montréal, it’s so busy and so intense. I like to take myself away, hide my phone and work on the film. Those are the best days for me, it’s hard to write, but everything is possible and I kind of miss that a little bit.

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