Spotlight: A Q&A with Director Erik Canuel

Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore

By Mike Crisolago

When speaking with director Erik Canuel, one can expect three things: humour, humility and a clacking sound. The first two traits are refreshing, considering the 48-year-old Canuel is an award-winning director of everything from feature films to music videos to television commercials. The third – a clacking sound – comes from the 10 metallic rings he wears, one on each finger. Some adorned with skulls, others with abstract patterns, they clink against each other as the Quebecois director stands at the front of a Toronto movie theatre, addressing reporters after a screening of his latest film, Barrymore.

The movie, based on the play by William Luce, in which an 81-year-old Christopher Plummer puts on an acting clinic as the broken-down title character, seemed a natural fit for Canuel, who very literally grew up in the theatre. His mother and father were both actors, with the latter also directing Shakespearian stage productions, while young Erik sat in the wings and watched them at work. So how comfortable must he have been, then, blending the genres of stage and film, both of which he knows so well, with the one of the great modern actors as his leading man?

“I was scared shitless,” Canuel laughed. “In this case, having talked with Chris and the producers, they wanted a movie, but they wanted to retain that feeling of what theatre is about. It’s not easy to try to transpose and adapt a great play like this.”

It’s not easy, but he did it. The end result is a brilliant medley of theatre and cinema, blending the props-on-wheels charm of the stage with the up-close introspective advantages of the screen. At the conclusion of the most recent Toronto press screening (the film actually debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival), Canuel discussed the challenges of making and marketing the film, working with Christopher Plummer and what the great actor thought of his many rings.

On the challenges of making a film about a play without making it a film of the play –

Erik Canuel: One of the first screenplay adaptations that I wrote was basically taking place in a very old theatre with investors. And Chris reminded me, “Yeah, but I would love to at least have a touch of the audience – have that magical moment at the beginning.” – So basically, the biggest challenge I would say was to find a way to get the people to be with him, to be intimate with the character, to get close to him and at the same time try to get away from the play and be more within the moment but never lose track of what it’s all about – try to find a way to bring imagery that would still stick to the feeling of a play but at the same time be very cinematographic.

The theatrical nature of the film and avoiding CGI effects –

EC: One of the first things I talked about with the producers was that some of the things should be Terry Gilliam-ish, keeping the aspect of theatricality within the imagery-. It has to keep that essence. And that’s tricky-. (Plummer) wanted to look a lot younger (in the flashbacks) and I kept telling him we can do it by makeup but we don’t want to go into prosthetics, we don’t want to go CGI. We want to stick with what you are – what Barrymore is about at this age. Even if he reminisces, he sees himself at this age. This is where he’s at and this is the end of his life and it was very important to keep that intimacy, that moment, alive.

Auditioning, so to speak, for the director’s job –

EC: My producer called my agent and said, ‘Eric’s got to meet Chris. Can you ask him not to wear his rings?’ And I went ‘No, he’s going to take me the way I am or not.’ But the ride to Stratford, going to meet Chris, then I started to get goose bumps. And he came to meet me at the door and that was it. He was so nice, and the first thing he said was, ‘I didn’t know you grew up in the backstage of a theatre.’ It’s funny because [his producer] told me, ‘You’ve got to have a meeting for two hours with Chris. If he invites you to dinner, then you got the job.’ And just to show his generosity and humility of what he is about, he invited me and my driver to dinner with his wife.

And the rings?

EC: He didn’t mind the rings. He found that funny. He asked, ‘How many rings?’ and I told him ‘I’ve got 10 fingers, I’ve got 10 rings’ and he laughed and that was it.

Working with Christopher Plummer-.

EC: He tells you what he needs very specifically: ‘I’m 81, this is what I need, I’m coming in the morning. The shot has to be ready. When you bring me onstage, I’m not waiting for a friggin’ minute.’ [Laughs]-.Once he came on set he was generous, present, so focused, knew exactly where he wanted to go, very open-minded. There was a great synergy between me, him, the director of photography-.So we had that trust. He was telling me every day. ‘I can’t do more than 10 hours, Erik’ and then he’d do 11 and 12 and whatever was needed-.We had a great time. Great man. Generous. Funny. Really funny. Nice to everyone. I mean really, really great guy.

The parallels between John Barrymore and Christopher Plummer

EC: When we shot it, we had 12-hour days and we had time to talk and look at it, and sometimes he would have that little moment about dreams – when regrets take the place of dreams. And he’s not there yet, at 82, which is totally amazing-. It’s incredible because he puts himself where he could have been if he would not have taken hold of his career again. Because, remember, maybe 25 years ago, he was not where he is today. In the last 15 years, he’s always been an icon, always been a great actor, but there was a period in his career that he could have lost it all.

 An Oscar for Chris, and the challenge of selling a very un-Hollywood film like this

EC: “One of the reasons I did the picture, I think, is that Garth [one of the producers] and Chris are very close friends, and I think Garth wanted to make sure that Chris got an Oscar for this. And then he did Beginners, which is amazing, and I remember when he won the Oscar I was in my living room, dancing. And then afterward, when I sat down after the speech, I was like, ‘Hey, that’s going to help the movie.’-. I know it’s not a movie for the average public, but there’s a great acting piece. I think the movie’s there. I’m very proud of the film. I’m absolutely amazingly proud of Chris. I mean, Chris is the reason this exists. I think there’s going to be people to see it.”