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MANNERS OF DYING
An interview with Jeremy Peter Allen
How did you get the project started?
I first read Manners of Dying in 1998. I fell in love with the story and immediately decided I would like to adapt a film from it. I contacted Yann Martel, only to find out the rights had been optioned to someone else. There was no possibility at that time of working on an adaptation, but Yann and I kept in touch. In 2001, I finished a short film called Requiem contre un plafond, a short film that did quite well and picked up several awards on the international festival circuit. Yann came to the premiere in Montreal. He told me that the option on Manners of Dying had run out and the rights had reverted back to him, just in case I was still interested in working on it. I obviously jumped on the opportunity and began writing the script in early 2002.
Did Yann Martel have any input in the scriptwriting process?
I wrote the script and I take entire responsibility for it. I told Yann I wanted to change a few things around to make the story more visual and suited for cinema. There is not really any dialogue in the original story, since it is written in the first person, so I had to write lines for all of the characters. Yann gave me entire freedom to do all of this, but said he wouldn't mind seeing the different versions of the script. As I came out with each new version, I would e-mail it to him and a few days later I would get a long e-mail message back with lots of very detailed comments on how he felt the work was progressing. This turned out to be a huge help for me. Yann is a great writer, and even though the script format is not what he writes in, he has this pretty uncanny ability to point out weaknesses in plot, in character motivation or in dialogue. It was wonderful to be able to bounce ideas off him as I was writing.
How did you cast the principals in the film?
Surprisingly, neither Roy Dupuis nor Serge Houde were the first actors I looked at. In Roy's case, I knew he would be perfect for the part but I guess I figured we were working with such a small budget (one million CAN, or about 750 000 USD) that we wouldn't be able to afford him. After going through a few casting session, I just wasn't seeing anybody I felt was right for the part of Kevin Barlow. I mentioned to Yves Fortin, my producer, that I was looking for somebody kind of like Roy Dupuis, to which he answered,"Well, why didn't you say so! Lets ask Roy Dupuis!". Roy accepted immediately. He later told me it was the first time he had accepted a part without first meeting the director. I guess he liked the script.
I didn't consider Serge Houde at first because he was based in Vancouver. For budgetary reasons, we were looking for somebody in Quebec to avoid travel costs as much as possible. Again, after a few casting sessions where I just wasn't finding the ideal candidate for the part of Parlington, my casting director gave me Serge's demo tape and asked me to at least have a look at it. I thank him for doing so. I showed the tape to my producer and he immediately agreed that budgetary arrangements would have to be made to get Serge onto the project. It was clear that he was the guy we needed to play Parlington.
This film was shot in nineteen days, which is extremely fast for a feature film. How did that affect the shooting?
I would have loved to have more shooting days, but there was just not enough money. Knowing that we only had nineteen days to pull it all in, we had to set priorities. Since so much of the script rests on the shifting relationship between the two main characters, the number one priority had to be the acting. Despite the insanely tight schedule, I needed time to work with the actors. I'm happy to say everyone on the crew bought into that. I'm sure James (Gray), my director of photography, would have loved more time to play around with the lights, but he always kept to his allotted set-up time so it wouldn't eat into my time with the actors. Same goes for the art department, which is always underfunded and undermanned on these low-budget films. They gave me the look I wanted for the film without my having to compromise the acting. Everyone on the crew was terrific in this respect.
Where was the film shot?
Almost everything was shot in an old, abandoned prison called La Maison Gomin in Quebec City. We were very fortunate to get into the place since there are plans to turn it into a gigantic funeral parlor sometime in the future. From the outset, we knew we needed a real prison since we didn't have the money to do any serious setbuilding. The actors would have destroyed the sets anyways. They insisted on actually banging the bars and slamming each other into the walls when the script called for them to do that. During location scouting, we visited several operational prison facilities that had empty wings, but getting a film crew in any of these places would have been a security nightmare with everyone having to go through about eighteen checkpoints before getting in or out. We finally settled on La Maison Gomin. The art department still had to give it a fairly extensive makeover. They repainted two whole floors, cut a few holes through the foot-thick concrete walls and welded in some extra bar sections to what was already there. We had the run of the place for the shoot. Each actor got his own personal cell to which he could retire when not required on set.
What inspired the music in the film?
My initial idea was to have the music follow and play off of the shifting emotional states of Kevin Barlow, this man who has been locked up and left to contemplate his own demise. During the editing process, I listened to all kinds of music inspired by death. I'm not just talking about morbid, gothic stuff, but anything inspired by death, be it classical, mystical, religious, New Orleans jazz played at funerals, new age droning inspired by near-death experiences, whatever I could get my hands on. I narrowed it down to what I felt was working best, then laid some temporary tracks down with the picture cut to show Éric Pfalzgraf, the film's music composer. Éric quickly pointed out that there was a dominance of singing in the music I had selected. He agreed that live human voices meshed well with what was happening onscreen. The problem he was facing was once again related to the budget. Here the director wants live musicians and singers, when all the budget really allows is a synthesizer soundtrack. Éric asked me to let him consider the possibilities for a few days. When he called me back, he said: "It's crazy, but lets try it". It was crazy, I can see that now. We had a whole bunch of different singers and musicians from different ethnic and musical backgrounds come into the studio, knowing we had to get everything right in only a few takes, since we could never afford to bring anyone back in for re-recording if things didn't sound right. Éric pulled it off. Almost everything you hear on the soundtrack, the malaysian-inspired choir music, the gospel, the voodoo chant, the marching jazz, everything was recorded live in Éric's studio, with only very minor synthesizer additions.
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