Frequently, the most unexpected correspondences can lead us onto new paths. Xavier Dolan, the French-Canadian director of such films as Mommy, Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm, is exploring such a correspondence with his first English-language feature, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. It was also an unexpected chain of messages with Dolan that put Collider on a plane to London to view a few days of intense emotional scenes lensed by Dolan in the English countryside and London alleyways. I got a rare chance as a journalist to sit next to an Award-winning director as he directed Award-winning actors and view, firsthand, his level of precision in framing both the picture and the emotional reactions of Natalie Portman and Jacob Tremblay.
We’ll have much more about the production of the film, including a lengthy conversation with Dolan and members of the cast, in due time. But at this current moment we’re excited to debut the first images of scenes and behind-the-scenes pictures from the film and give some extra context to the characters that the actors are playing.
While the film boasts a starry ensemble, few share scenes together. This made it easier to get talent when they were needed, but it also has made for a lengthy production process in multiple locations, spanning a year and a half shoot. Yet, that process also allowed for Dolan to take breaks and edit the film in between the next shoot. The official synopsis for the film is as follows:
A decade after the death of an American TV star, a young actor reminisces the written correspondence he once shared with the former, as well as the impact those letters had on both their lives.
Although the logline doesn’t mention a mother, don’t worry Dolan-ites, the tumultuous mother-son relationship that Dolan has traversed throughout his career is just as strong as ever. “When editing, [during a lengthier shooting break] it became clear that the heart of this film would be the mother-son relationships,” Dolan said. “And you, know that realization didn’t bother me. I could spend the rest of my life talking about mothers and sons and still be making a completely different movie than the last.”
The story of John F. Donovan spans more than a decade as the timeline begins with the news of the death of the titular character, John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington), which reverberates back to his life and numerous characters he interacted with that positively and negatively affected him. Then the story moves forward ten years past his death, when the younger recipient of a correspondence is himself an actor and is opening up about the previous written relationship he had with Donovan to a journalist, Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton).
Dolan, whose previous melodramas recall the best works from Pedro Almodovar and Rainier Werner Fassbinder, has an immense visual palette and is one of the best complex character writers in modern cinema, particularly for women. And his English-language debut features some immense talent. In addition to the aforementioned actors, Donovan‘s supporting cast features Jessica Chastain, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates and Ben Schnetzer. With this talent and exquisite visuals, Dolan will surely have the attention of distributors once Donovan hits the film festival circuit.
Though Donovan is grounded in relationships, Dolan does view this as his most commercial and accessible work yet. His reasons for which we’ll divulge in our next chapter (or should we call it a “correspondence”?) about the lengthy production. For now, let’s get into some brief character introductions via some beautiful photographs from the film that we’re very pleased to debut on our site.
Kit Harington plays John F. Donovan, an actor on a CW-like teen drama circa 2006 called Hellsome High (think: Roswell). Dolan showed me an intro scene they created for the show and the opening credits and it’s a pitch-perfect creation of that era’s supernatural teen drama, from Donovan’s casting as a 17-year old to the heroine’s hero pose to end a sequence that’s set to a known late 90s pop-punk hit. Sarah Gadon plays the lead of Hellsome High, Liz Jones.
Donovan answers the fan letters of an eleven-year old boy named Rupert Turner (Tremblay), which sets in motion the threaded plot of the film to explore numerous types of relationships. “It’s the story of a child who worships an actor, Kit’s the fictional hero, and my movie and [Hellsome] is built around specific tropes of American cinema, such as a superhero and a villain.” (More on that when we get to John F. Donovan’s foe.)
Kathy Bates plays Donovan’s manager, Barbara Haggermaker.
Susan Sarandon plays Donovan’s mother, Grace Donovan. Dolan has been a long time admirer of Sarandon and mentioned that he’d previously written a TV show with a part for her.
Jessica Chastain gets the villain role, a gossip columnist who discovers the letters between John and Rupert. Bella Thorne plays her assistant, Jeanette.
If Kit’s John F. Donovan represents the superhero then Chastain’s Moira McAllister-King represents the villain. “Her character is sheerly evil, and that was part of a desire to really tell the story as a superhero tale. The superhero owes his public, must save them from evil, or in this case from the truth, and has to live by this facade and wear this mask, which in this case is his sexuality.”
Chastain, of course, famously tweeted her love of Dolan’s Mommy when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. The two had a cute Twitter correspondence of their mutual admiration (and Dolan’s desire to have her be his “beard” to which she replied, “take me on a dinner date first.”). Fans of both the actor and the director instantly fell for the public display of mutual fandom. It was of course a simpler time then on Twitter than it is today in 2017.
Now? “Social media facilitates hatred, violence, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and all of that. That is, in my opinion, what it truly facilitates,” Dolan said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to express yourself without risking offending people, for your choices, your behaviors to be mistaken and misinterpreted.”
Jacob Tremblay plays the younger Rupert Turner, the young fan of John F. Donovan who grows up to be Ben Schnetzer in the portions of the film that are set in the present.
The discovery of the letters is extremely hard for Rupert who’s coming into his own as a young schoolhouse actor himself. His troubles are further compounded because his mother does not approve of his desire to act.
Natalie Portman is Rupert’s mother, Sam Turner. Sam was previously an actress herself, but she’s devastated and resentful for roles drying up at a certain age and she wants to protect her son from that level of rejection and displacement.
Dolan said that the mother-son relationship between Sam and Rupert serves as the emotional core of the film, with the adult Rupert (Schnetzer) and John F. Donovan’s stories serving as the support to this central narrative.
On the John F. Donovan set, Portman and Tremblay were shooting scenes that required tears, embraces, and a dash of wonder. Without giving away any surprises, Dolan’s storytelling approach with John F. Donovan appears to be very emotionally earnest via some scenes that look and feel much bigger in scope than anything he’s done before. He’s even shooting on 65mm, which the director said, “changed my life.”
Dolan has played with various film stocks before, shooting in 1:1 ratio for Mommy and with IMAX cameras for Adele‘s “Hello” music video. And like he mentioned above—concerning a return to the mother-son relationship central core—his use of a new film stock is just another aspect that’ll make his first English-language film something unlike anything he’s ever made before, but still very Xavier Dolan.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan currently does not have a release date, but is likely to debut at a film festival this fall.