Moonstruck: Robert Lepage Floats in Space

By Jason Anderson

far-side-of-the-moon-robert-lepage.jpgThe Far Side of the Moon, 2003

Robert Lepage has always been very keen to free himself from the shackles of gravity. In Needles and Opium, one of the productions that confirmed his status among theatre’s most vanguard conceptualists, he spent much of the show suspended in a harness far above the stage. In the touring stage production of Far Side of the Moon (La Face Cachée de la Lune) a one-man show first mounted in 2000, he used an array of techniques to suggest the weightlessness of astronauts and cosmonauts – at one point, an overhead mirror transforms his writhing form into a space-walker who’s come untethered.

Conversely, Lepage’s first four feature-length film works have generally been less exploratory and more earthbound affairs. In his debut La Confessional (1995), the dark, fatalistic mystery story seemed as tightly confining as the titular booth. Journeys into the great beyond seemed just as unlikely in the noir-ish Le Polygraphe (1996) and the wry and more overtly theatrical No (1998). Though his first English-language feature, Possible Worlds (2000), also marked his first venture into science fiction, this adaptation of a play by John Mighton depicted another highly constricted universe – appropriately enough, much of the film turns out to be the imaginings of a brain in a vat.

Thus the airy wit and gravity-defying lightness of Far Side of the Moon inevitably feel like something of a liberation. It’s the mordant yet curiously moving portrait of a character who is, in many ways, coming loose from his life. Philippe (played by Lepage, acting in a film that he’s directed for the first time) is an embittered underachiever. He has failed to defend his doctoral thesis on several attempts – no one seems to care much about Philippe’s thoughts on Russian aeronautics visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky or how the defining characteristic of the space race was not the thirst for knowledge but old-fashioned narcissism.

In his dealings (or lack thereof) with people around him, Philippe has the air of a man who has shut himself inside his own capsule. Most of the human contact that he enjoys is through his drab work as a telemarketer for a newspaper called Le Soleil. The apartment where he lives is defined less by presence than absence – namely, that of his mother, who has recently died. In place of grief, Philippe feels a greater degree of alienation. He learns of a contest put on by SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) soliciting stories that people would like to be broadcast into space to inform aliens about life on Earth. Philippe begins a video documentary about his life – he becomes his own Neil Armstrong, tentatively exploring the landscapes of a wintry Quebec City and his own memory, transforming both sites in the process.

Lepage also has a second role in both the theatre piece and the film, playing Philippe’s gay brother Andre, whose greater social ease and affability is indicated by his soul patch and snappier dress sense. He works as a television weatherman, and doesn’t give a fig for space. Obviously, the brothers can’t stand each other.

Then Philippe’s almost-encounter with a Soviet cosmonaut leads to an invitation to speak at a conference on Tsiolkovsky in Moscow. The trip doesn’t turn out as expected. “The Earth is the cradle of the mind,” wrote the father of the Soviet space program in a letter in 1911, “but we cannot live forever in a cradle.” Philippe’s escape from his own mental and emotional cradle is protracted, sometimes painful and ultimately revelatory.

Far Side of the Moon marks its creator’s escape from another kind of cradle. Encouraged by the film’s executive producer Daniel Langlois (the Montreal new-media guru and founder of the Ex Centris film complex, see page 32), Lepage has fully embraced digital filmmaking technology for the first time, shooting on HDCAM 24P.

Though nearly every moment of Far Side of the Moon has obviously benefited from careful computer tinkering, it rarely feels as fussy as his films have sometimes been in the past. The new filmmaking tools allow him to more successfully replicate some of his stage techniques. The startling visual transitions that often give his works such a strong sense of flow have never seemed so seamless or playful on film.

These instances of visual ingenuity are matched with a marvellously intricate sound design. Of course, all the digital hoohah would be for naught if Lepage didn’t offer such an engaging and emotionally acute story of two brothers struggling to assess themselves and each other in the absence of the mother who originally bonded them to the world. Far Side of the Moon is the first film in which Lepage has allowed himself to express his persona as fully and richly as he does onstage.”

Jason Anderson: In Far Side of the Moon, the lead character is fascinated with the American and Soviet space programs of the ’60s. Why do you think the events of this time had such a powerful resonance in our culture?

Robert Lepage: This is part of the theory that one of the characters tries to convey – it’s the idea of narcissism. Like Christopher Columbus, we went to the moon thinking we’d find another Earth. And it is not another Earth. It’s not a place we’re gonna go and live, we’re not gonna build anything there. Actually it was an excuse to see the Earth from another point of view.

Some of the people who worked at NASA have said that when man put his foot on the moon, it was supposed to be the big event, but that the much bigger event took place a few missions before. That was when Apollo 8 went all the way around the moon and resurfaced on the other side and we saw the Earth rising as if it were the sun.

That really blew people’s minds. People saw themselves really as another world would see them. The whole thing was about, “look how beautiful we are, look how beautiful the planet is.” It helped that everybody had colour TVs by then.

So the film is a lot about how we all thought we were going to explore the unknown but we were just there to look at ourselves. That’s what Christopher Columbus did or the Brits did when they came to North America and Australia. The Brits are more pathetic than the other explorers because they went to Australia and tried to create Victorian London in a tropical zone – it just didn’t work! We’re always looking for ourselves, basically.

JA: Of all your films, this one feels closest in spirit to your theatrical works, especially the one-man shows. Do you think this reflects a growing comfort level with filmmaking?

RL: Well, I’ve always been more comfortable doing theatre. When I try to venture into film, it’s weird. We always think that theatre and film are close cousins because they both have actors and stories and dialogue. But I think film is actually closer to novel writing, music or even dance than it is to theatre. It is very, very difficult to adapt a play. At least half of my films are adaptations and I always ran into problems. So this time around I decided I wasn’t going to find any excuse for being theatrical. So it ended up being a very filmic movie, not just because I use video or stuff like that but because it’s in the narrative structure, in the way I tell stories.

I have to say that this time around I did something with the story that I didn’t try to do on other films, I just sat there and thought, “What if this were a novel? How would the novel start? What would I keep? Would I use this piece of dialogue? I don’t think so, I’d describe the feeling instead or I’d try to create an ambience.” So the fact that I kind of sifted the play through the idea of a novel made it easier to do that.

There are all these narrative workshops out there, these scriptwriting workshops with Syd Field and Robert McKee. These guys are obsessed with making the American films more interesting, but there’s this new gang in France that has compiled all these techniques from different kinds of cinema and they came up with another set of rules that I think applies more to something like Far Side of the Moon. Instead of dividing it into the five-act system that you usually use to write films, this one is divided in nine acts. There’s even an act zero. It’s more permissive and fun to follow those lines. It’s more Tarantino-like.

Have you seen Kill Bill? I thought it was fantastic. The interesting thing about Tarantino is that it’s clear he used to work in a video store. He treats film like someone who’s gonna buy the video, not necessarily someone who wants to see it on the screen. So he knows that people will rewind and fast-forward if they didn’t get something. It’s so permissive. It’s like we do with a book. He knows people will rewind.

JA: When you were developing Far Side of the Moon as a theatre piece, did you have any inkling that it could also work as a film?

RL: Not really. It’s very strange. I never think about that when I do theatre. I always do a piece and try to make it as theatrical as possible and always try to tell the story with what I have at that moment. This was a very personal piece of theatre and I toured it for three and a half years all around the world. I was in Vancouver performing it and it was one of my last performances. I thought, “I need to take a picture of this.” Then it occurred to me, “maybe I need to make a picture of this.” It went very quickly from then on.

JA: What did you have to sacrifice in the process?

RL: There are a lot of things in the play that would never have translated to film. The play’s very poetic. Onstage, it’s great but onscreen it just looks stupid. So I was really wondering how I’d translate that into film and I ended up finding the playfulness and poetry in this new technology.

JA: This is the first film that you’ve made using the HDCAM 24P as well as an array of digital filmmaking tools – how did going digital change your methods?

RL: It makes filmmaking fun again. It’s just a video camera that happens to be very high definition and better adaptable to film. And it’s a radically different way of shooting. I could just shoot and shoot and do takes and takes. It changes the whole approach. And because it’s digital, when you end up in the editing room and start playing around with it, you can do amazing things. If your material is poetic and crazy and playful, you can allow yourself a lot of things with this new technique.

Then with Daniel Langlois being the executive producer, I had got to explore his laboratory. There’s a guy called Martin Lauzon, who’s an amazing wiz kid in computer design and animation — he worked on Titanic. He lives in Montreal and he said he’d like to do this film. He got involved from the very first day. Usually when you do digital imaging on a film, you always ask these guys at the end, now I’d like you to create a house here, and we want a car crash or whatever. They’re never really involved. But in this case, they were there from day one. They were even choosing locations with us. It was so different from any film I had done. We shot this in 17 days but after shooting was over, we had the impression we were still shooting because we were creating images still and doing things. The whole process was much more versatile, permissive and closer to how I work in theatre.

JA: It sounds as if the usual distinctions between production and post-production become irrelevant.

RL: Something really great happened about a week before the film debuted at the Toronto festival. Daniel and I looked at the final cut with the sound and everything and thought that the film was dragging in a certain section. I said, “we can’t do anything now. Everything is over – it’s the final cut. We have to send it out to get the first print.” Then Daniel said, “are you sure we can’t do anything?” I said, “well, it would mean re-editing.”

Then we looked at it again and took reels three and four and flipped them around! And it was fantastic! We went back to the studio and it only took an evening to solve – even with the sound done, it was very easy to change. We did that a week before the first official screening. How fantastic is that? Daniel knows this is very risky stuff and if we’re gonna promote the idea that working digitally is more creative and crazier and you can take risks, we have to go all the way. That’s what we did.

JA: Was it also easier to construct the transitional images and visual motifs that you like so much?

RL: Oh, absolutely. It’s like you could have a subplot going with just this kind of thing. You have your own ideas about this when you write the script, well, this would segue into this and the transition would be this. Then when you work with these tools, you have another layer of thematic transitions. You think, well maybe that colour we used for this thing, maybe we can re-use it. And this moon we put there, we could re-use the same moon for the space walk. You could even start working on the subliminal side of films, which I think is very exciting. There’s always a problem when you make a film – you shoot it, you edit it then you look at it and you have to give a final cut to the people who are doing the sound. There’s this horrible moment called picture lock. And in art, to use a word like ‘lock’ is very unhealthy.

JA: All this sounds like you’ve struck upon a method that’s much closer to your theatrical model. This is a method of filmmaking that allows for a much greater sense of flexibility. How has this changed your ideas about the medium?

RL: I was very pleased with Possible Worlds, but it didn’t really find an audience, so I thought, “well, if doing films means having your films be rerun on English CBC on Sunday nights in the summer, then do I want to do them?” That’s the reality. So you say, “Okay, film ages and it will have some kind of value in 10 or 15 years, but it’s so much work and you invest so much energy and of yourself.” I thought, “well, this is my last chance.” That’s not to say it was a suicidal or desperate way of approaching things, but I felt film had to be more user friendly and be more relaxed and have more freedom for me. Otherwise there was no use in going on with it. Filmmaking for me is more like a nice hobby than a profession. It shocks some people when I say that, but that’s what it is. It’s the best hobby.


Visit www.farsideofthemoon.com  

This interview was abridged from a piece published originally in the very fine international film magazine Cinema Scope, edited by Mark Peranson out of Toronto. We are very pleased and grateful to be able to republish it now. Cinema Scope is not available on the news stands in the UK but subscriptions – seriously recommended – can be made via the excellent website (www.cinema-scope.com).  

Jason Anderson lives in Toronto and writes on film for eye Weekly, The Globe and Mail and Cinema Scope amongst others.