Making some Noise

Philippe Gregoire on taking risks with his debut film

by Amber Wilkinson

I was thinking on this movie, I really wanted to be risky. And I wanted to learn.
I was thinking on this movie, I really wanted to be risky. And I wanted to learn. Photo: Shawn Pavlin
Philippe Gregoire's The Noise Of Engines had it's world premiere at San Sebastian Film Festival last month and will screen at Raindance this November. The film stars Robert Naylor as Alexandre, a man who finds things spiralling when he pays a visit home after being suspended from his customs job. He strikes up an immediate friendship with Icelandic tourist Aðalbjörg (Tanja Björk) but finds himself subject to increasingly bizarre and dangerous encounters with the local police. We caught up to chat about how Gregoire folded his own life into the story and his risk-taking approach to filmmaking.

Amber Wilkinson: At what point did you decide you were going to take elements of your own life and put them in the film. That's quite an exposing thing to do, especially for a first-time director.

Phillipe Gregoire: I was thinking that I had to show people that I had something to say, but also I wanted to start with making a movie where I'm going to be very honest about myself and very humble and I was thinking of talking about things that I was not normally sharing, or talking about. Being a customs agent when I was a student was something that I could not say, because people would look at me and say, "Really, what are you doing there?" I had to just be like [whispers] "Yeah, don't tell anyone." - so this was something that was really different in my life.

Philippe Gregoire: 'I wanted to start with making a movie where I'm going to be very honest about myself and very humble'
Philippe Gregoire: 'I wanted to start with making a movie where I'm going to be very honest about myself and very humble' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
That made me very awkward studying cinema. And for the people I was working with at customs, they were like, "Most of the time we have students that are doing law or studying management, but a film student is very, very unusual". So I wanted to, to have this line in the movie, where you could watch the movie and at first, you believe that this is just a story, it's just fiction. And then, suddenly, you get this feeling that the director is talking to you and just opening a little of his own life. And then you're unsure of what is real, or what is just coming from fiction. I found that very interesting.

I'm making my next feature film, and I do believe that it's important to put a lot of myself into it. And that's a way to make sure that the audience will relate to the movie while watching it. Because this is also part of what happened. Before, when I was doing short films, I was sound mixing with a friend, my friend and he was telling me, "I don't see much of yourself in this movie, Phillipe". That made me think, yeah, maybe that was just a movie I did because I knew I could write a script and I knew I could shoot a movie, and maybe on the next one, I should maybe put a lot of myself into it. So it's also a word from my very close collaborators that brought me to this idea of working this way on this one.

AW: It's a very fine line in the film, isn't it, between to the real and the kind of surreal, almost, what might be imagined in the mind of this guy who is having an existential crisis. That sort of a playful idea of reality and unreality walking side by side. Is that playful approach something that you were keen to take from the start.

PG: Yes. I think it started from my own experience - during weekdays I was going to university in a life that was really easy. For me, I was fitting in well, I was enjoying watching films, talking about movies, and then during the weekend, I had like to put a costume on myself being a customs officer and act in a very different way, which was really uncomfortable to me, but I was getting paid so I could pay for university. So I had to do it. And to me all these conversations that I was having during the week and also that I was having during the weekends were all totally different and awkward and they were not fitting together. To me the people during the week were probably ghosts to people that I was meeting during the weekends and it was the opposite for the others - the people I was meeting during the weekends were probably ghost for these other people. So, for example, the character of Aðalbjörg in the movie was, to me, like these people I was meeting and having very easily dialogue with. And then when Alexandre is talking with the police officers, that was like my work - it was just like a bad game of ping pong. During the week, it was easy and suddenly during the weekend, I had to adjust all the time. So these are like two worlds that were never seeing each other's. So this idea of having moments where you're unsure if it's real or not, this is something that I really wanted to work with and also I wanted to work with different tones in the movie, so you could see different rhythms between these two places.

AW: It’s interesting that you mention rhythm, because I think it's a very important part of your film. There's that sense sometimes that you're deliberately upsetting the rhythm of the film by having those very quick edits, like when he's in the car and the key goes in and he throws it into gear. It’s almost like you're saying to the audience, “Hey, guys, keep awake here.” Was that in your mind to sort of kind of provide these kind of sudden donuts for the audience in a way to shake them, so that they didn't get into the kind of groove with the film.

Tanja Björk in The Noise Of Engines. Philippe Gregoire: "This idea of having  moments where you're unsure if it's real or not, this is something that I really wanted to work with
Tanja Björk in The Noise Of Engines. Philippe Gregoire: "This idea of having moments where you're unsure if it's real or not, this is something that I really wanted to work with Photo: Shawn Pavlin

PG: Yeah, and also on the donuts, because at first I was thinking that, you know, we're going start with a shot with a car doing donuts and then you'll get the main actors and actresses, and then the title and people will be thinking, "Okay, so let's like, let's start the movie now". And then on the next one, you get another car doing donuts. I wanted to tell the people from the get go, like, "Probably you were expecting something from this movie, but it's not going where you're thinking now". When you’re talking about the rhythm, these zooms - it was something that I wasn't sure about doing. I wasn't sure that it was going to work, or it was going to please people. But, I found it just so funny and weird. And I was thinking on this movie, I really wanted to be risky. And I wanted to learn. With my previous short films sometimes you could feel you're just like on autopilot and just being okay, but I found out that this is not when my movies are working, when I'm on autopilot. So on this one, I was like, ‘Okay, I'm not sure about this idea of just changing the rhythm, suddenly, some people are just going to feel it's very aggressive to them, and some people are just going to find it. odd. But, to me, I believe it is something that I'd like to work with and I'd like to try it. There was a lot of trying on this movie.

AW: It does feel experimental but in a good way. It feels very distinctive. Here's this guy who isn't fitting in, he isn't finding that rhythm at all. He isn't getting in a groove with anybody. I mean, it made me laugh that his mother has this complete shrine to him at home, with his face on throw cushions, but she doesn't seem to like his actual physical presence. I guess a lot of parent/child relationships are a bit like this. You know, the kid goes away. You miss them terribly. The second they get back, you're like God when you do you leave? Was that something that you were looking to sort of explore as well?

PG: Well, I can totally relate to that because I've been away for the first time of my life I was away for a year. My parents were talking on the phone and they were missing me but after being back two days, we're like getting back to where we were. I mean, we love each other but it’s hard. I realised talking about the film in San Sebastian that the movie is talking about this character who has to make a decision. And he's at this point where things are changing, and he has to decide what is good for himself and how he could become the person that he wants to be. And on this movie, when I start to look at it right now, this is what I was doing. I was starting to think, “I'm making a first feature film, right? Before I was just like doing random short films. And now people are going look at this one and think, so this is like your first step? This is where it starts for you.” I watch a lot of movies all the time and what it is that I can bring to that others maybe aren't bringing? Maybe just a little of myself. So I made that decision on doing a movie this way.

AW: It reminded me of somebody like maybe Quentin Dupieux or Denis Cote, when he's being more experimental. You must be quite pleased that the end result is reflecting what you wanted it to reflect.

PG: You mentioned Denis Cote and Quentin Dupieux, who are both filmmakers that I love., but the thing is, myself as when I go to the cinema, and when I'm looking at the first feature film, I'm looking at the filmmaker and thinking, “Please tell me that you have like a bag of ideas that you can show me that you have stuff for the next 10 years”. And if you have like one idea in your movie, I'm like, “Okay, so what's going to be the next one?”. Even though I am not looking for a perfect movie, as someone who watches movies, I'm looking for a moment of like a brilliance or something that really attracts me. And these are mostly from people who aren't afraid of risk or trying new things.

AW: How did you come to cast Robert Naylor – who was also recently in Denis Côté movie, Ghost Town Anthology? He’s great in the central role.

PG: This is something that is very good in Quebec. We have access to many very good actors and actresses and even though it was a super indie low budget movie, I knew that I could get in touch with these people and send them the script and if they liked the script, they wouldn't care about the money and just jump into the movie. I was looking for like a very good young promising actor and when I was thinking of the of the movie Denis Côté's movie was not out. It was shot, but it was not out yet. And I went to a premiere of When Love Digs A Hole by Ara Ball and he was there. People were asking him questions and I found him brilliant in his way of seeing his part as an actor and what he brings to the movie. I got from there that he was a very talented actor and he knew what he wanted to do with a movie. This sounds very unnatural, but he’s an old soul. You’re talking about someone who grew up with it because he was a child actor. He is not playing a game. He knows what he can bring to the movie and he’s very honest all the time. And he wants you to be honest as a director. It was a very good experience working with him.

Robert Naylor in The Noise Of Engines. Philippe Gregoire: 'He knows what he can bring to the movie and he’s very honest all the time. And he wants you to be honest as a director. It was a very good experience working with him'
Robert Naylor in The Noise Of Engines. Philippe Gregoire: 'He knows what he can bring to the movie and he’s very honest all the time. And he wants you to be honest as a director. It was a very good experience working with him' Photo: Shawn Pavlin

AW: It seems like it's quite a good time just in general to be a Quebec filmmaker. I mean, I see quite a lot of films seem to be making international stage people like Denis Côté, Louise Archambault. Is that right?

PG: I would have preferred to answer that question before March 2020. It’s been a little weird. But on this movie, this is what I've learned. I've been working with very talented people. And the director of cinematography, Shawn Pavlin is very talented. I’ve heard Denis Villeneuve say in an interview and I do agree with him that we have so many talented people that are used to working on big sets from the US. So they’re used to working a lot. And when you grab them, and you put them on your movie, it elevates your movie to a bigger level, because they're trained. And exchanging with them has been very good for me. This is also something that I learned on this movie - that I'm going to talk a lot with these people, I'm going to exchange a lot and I have to listen a lot to what they’re going to say because they know their work and they're talented.

AW: There’s a heightened sound design in the movie, was that something that you had in mind from the start? Or was that something that sort of developed as you were shooting the film?

PG: Um, yeah, well, I think it's coming from many different places but I could start by saying that this is a real part of myself. I grew up in this little hometown where we had a racetrack. When I was in another country and I was hearing cars going fast from far away, then I suddenly would feel like, oh, I’m home now because this is what I grew up with, I could hear the cars from away and that made me feel as though I was home. And so this idea of the noise of is something I've been working on with Julien Éclancher, the sound mixer and sound editor on the movie. We've been working together for 10 years now since university. I've learned a lot from him. And I was thinking, let’s give him opportunity to read the script and see what he can add to the movie.

AW: Are you working on your next project now?

PG: Yes, well, I am a one-man army on this one. So right now I'm getting emails from everywhere - I need two computers at the same time. But the next one is starting from many different ideas. But like this it is also something I found interesting and funny. And on The Noise Of Engines is that you have like this little thing that happens and it brings something bigger. This is something that I really enjoy in cinema. And on this new one, it's also starting from something that happened in my hometown, because all of my short films and this first feature film was shot in my hometown. And this is a very important to me, I don't know why. But when I close my eyes and start to write, this is where it happens all the time. It never happens in Montreal, even though I've been living here for more than 10 years. So I like to start with something that really happened, and then see what I can build with that. And I've seen over the last 10 years, 15 years in my little hometown that people have been moving from cities and they're getting closer and closer to these little rural regions and my region is mostly agricultural and now they're having problems. People are moving and buying land over there and then the farmers are fighting against that. And I know that this is something that is happening not only in Canada, but everywhere. So I want to start with that and see how the neighbours are dealing with that. The new neighbours are coming in and there are differences between the new ones that are coming in, and the ones who were there for many years. So it's also a little tongue in cheek movie but I wanted to start with some very serious stuff and then build something with it.

AW: When do you hope to get that finished?

PG: Right now I just want to be writing the movie I just want to be working. So right now should be outside and like because I have a friend who's a who's a farmer and I was I want to spend some time with him taking pictures like and filming him. But it is hard to say I hope script will be over by springtime. I've learned that whenever you believe in and you're not afraid it could turn good and so on this one I'm not afraid to be risky again. I want to be to go into places where I'm unsure but I believe in myself and I’ll do my best and I think we could do good on that and also involve again, my team that was working on The Noise Of Engines. I'll make sure that they read the script from the get-go because to me the script is very important. This is where it all starts.

The Noise Of Engines, will screen at Raindance on November 4. More details on how to buy tickets, here.

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