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Canadians in “Space”: Stéphane Lafleur on Viking

Stéphane Lafleur's VikingViking

While Stéphane Lafleur’s third feature, 2014’s Tu Dors Nicole, chronicled the summer malaise between of aimless Quebecois post-grads, his follow-up, Viking, explores a different, slightly otherworldly strain of existentialism. High school gym teacher David (Steven Laplante) gets the opportunity to revive his dreams of becoming an astronaut by joining a behavioral research team called the Viking Society that will mirror the first manned mission to Mars. This B-team plans to replicate the mission in a controlled environment that resembles the probe—i.e., a Quonset hut in the desert—where they will game out potential interpersonal conflicts between the five-member crew in order to determine potential solutions. The crew has been picked based on how well they resemble the personalities of the astronauts, transcending gender altogether. (“Steven” is a young woman; “Liz” is a short, middle-aged man.) In the film’s first scene, David undergoes a rigorous personality test where he’s asked about his dreams and potential proclivity for cannibalism.

Naturally, the simulation slowly unravels due to petty squabbles and incipient desires between the B-squad members while trying to replicate the real conflicts between the astronauts whom they’re playing. Lafleur allows the absurdity of the situation to organically heighten as the team commits deeper to their roles in sheepish—and, in the case of David, stubborn—defiance of their shared reality. (At one point, two cowboys on horseback approach David and Steven, who are dressed in spacesuits and trying to dislodge a fake rover in the real desert.) Though certainly a high-concept comedy—Lafleur describes the film as a combination of The Lobster and 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which he visually nods—Viking also embraces a familiar free-floating melancholy previously expressed in Tu Dors Nicole, redirected towards an unconventional workplace environment. As the Viking Squad ultimately discovers, not only is it impossible to accurately duplicate the behavioral dynamics of astronauts 78 million miles away without their own personalities bleeding through, their replica probe can’t possibly reflect the life-or-death stakes of space. (After all, you can always go outside and normally breathe oxygen to watch the sunset.) As they accept that their “performances” are inherently imperfect, the purposelessness of their mission amplifies.

I spoke to Lafleur a few days after I attended Viking’s premiere at TIFF.

Filmmaker: You mentioned something in the Q&A about [photographer] Vincent Fournier as a source of inspiration for Viking.

Lafleur: Probably like 12 years ago in New York I saw a photograph exhibit of Fournier’s, and there were these large prints of astronauts in the desert. Later, I discovered that these people were actually members of a thing called The Mars Society, a serious organization doing simulations of Mars in the Utah desert. It’s still going on, and this was the beginning of an inspiration. I liked the idea of making a kind of sci-fi movie; I liked the idea of people pretending to be somewhere else and, later on, the idea of actually being someone else. It took a few years to develop the idea. As I said in the Q&A, I also saw a documentary about the Voyager probes. The NASA people were talking about keeping a replica of the probes on Earth in order to solve problems at a far-away distance and I asked myself, “What if we applied this concept to humans?”

Filmmaker: It’s been eight years since Tu Dors Nicole premiered in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. What have you been doing in the interim and how long did it take Viking to get off the ground?

Lafleur: Many things. I’ve got different jobs: I’m an editor myself, so I work on other feature films during these years. I also have a band and we released an album in 2016, so we toured with it. I also worked on a script that didn’t happen. It was intended for another filmmaker—I was just the writer—and I put a lot of time and energy into it and it never worked out. In parallel, I started slowly writing Viking and it took me a few years to get the first draft. I knew I had an interesting concept but was lost in front of all the possibilities of where it could go, and the other script that didn’t work discouraged me. It was getting tough. I was questioning myself and my skills during that period of time. [Laughs.] So, I asked my friend, [co-writer] Éric Boulianne, if he wanted to jump in so we could write this film together. That collaboration started in the beginning of 2020, and when he came in, it went really fast because the pandemic started, there was a lockdown, and that’s the only thing we had to do. So, we just worked on the script, and it [took three months] to have a second draft.

I don’t know who wrote what exactly. I certainly had the whole concept, the beginning, the ending. The middle was blurry and weak. The first thing we did was try to structure a dramatic progression That was the hardest part, just trying to surprise the audience—as soon as you think you understand what’s going on, trying to give you something else. Erik is a funny guy as well, so he brought a lot of humoristic stuff, and I brought the more poetic stuff. We inspired each other in a way. He knows how to structure a story. That’s the switch [from] my previous work. He’s pushing me further in one direction and I’m trying to hold some things that are important to me at the same time.

I don’t direct stuff other than my projects. There are directors that receive projects and do TV or whatever, which is fine. I don’t, and so when I write, I need to see what is the shot. It can change later on, but if I don’t see the shot while I’m writing it, it’s probably not going to stay in the script. The challenge with co-writing was that the images or the scenes came from someone else, and they had to be clear in my mind at first sight.

Filmmaker: Did you do much rehearsal with the core ensemble? Or was the goal to replicate the first-day-of-school energy the characters share when they enter the simulation?

Lafleur: I don’t do a lot of rehearsal, especially for a film like this where there’s no dramatic scenes. What I like to do, though, is a reading with all the actors, just to make sure everybody gets the same information from me, to make sure we’re going to shoot the same movie together. I think we did a day of rehearsal in small groups just to know each other basically. [As for comedy], the rule with the actors is always the same: don’t try to play the joke. It’s supposed to be situations that make us laugh. If the joke is good, it will work, if it’s bad, it won’t work, but don’t try to emphasize it. 

We shot for 34 days. My three other films were 28 days, so that week was a big jump for me. As you can imagine, it was an ambitious project. [For the desert scenes, we shot] in the Alberta badlands, a city called Drumheller. [Everything else was] around Montreal.

Filmmaker: Was it challenging to shoot those desert exteriors on a 35mm camera given the rough terrain and unpredictable environment?

Lafleur: Part of the exteriors were shot in a a national park. It was protected, so there were a lot of rules. We couldn’t bring any trucks on the land, so we had to push all the gear from small paved roads. We were really, really lucky [with] the weather. We shot for two weeks and the weather was the same always. It never rained. I don’t know what we would have done if we had rain. It was such muddy terrain, it would have been a nightmare. 

Filmmaker: Throughout the film, there are pillow shots of Mars as a swirling object and David out in space reaching out to a space suit. Could you talk about how both came about?

Lafleur: [The Mars planet was created by] artist Yonkers Vidal. He’s working with oils and substance. He doesn’t want to tell me what [the exact material] is, actually. But he was able to make this red dot that looks like a marble a little bit, but I can assure you it’s as big as a pin, and we were filming it in camera with a macro lens. It’s just gorgeous what he does with his stuff. I stumbled into that guy accidentally, said “Hey, I need you for my film,” and he was kind enough to work on it. 

As for David flying, it was made in studio. We hung our actor in the air with really cheap rigs. The stunt guy showed us the rig for Gravity and said, “That’s what you can’t afford. You won’t have that.” [Laughs.] “We can give you the Cirque du Soleil rig. Two wires.” So, we managed, and in post we fixed it up. We rented a real space suit and worked with that in studio, but it was a really cheap rig.

Filmmaker: Could you talk a bit about the score? I know you’re in a band, but the music you make in indie folk group Avec pas d’casque is quite different from the music here.

Lafleur: The score was made by my friend Organ Mood. [They’re] a duet now [Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux and Mathieu Jacques], but it used to be just [Christophe]. In Tu Dors Nicole, all the electronic synth parts were also made by Organ Mood, but they were songs that already existed. In this case, they were there from the very beginning of the project. They started composing while we were shooting without having seen anything except my moodboards and the script. I had some references: I knew I wanted jazz, synths and saxophone. They started on that path and developed different themes. When we started editing the film, there were already a few tracks made. Some are in the movie, but most were replaced with new stuff. 

I didn’t want a funny or “comedic” soundtrack. It was fun to play with, [with everyone] pretending to be something else in that film, you know? Just like the characters: “Let’s make a soundtrack that pretends to be serious.” As [actor] Christopher Heyerdahl said in the Q&A, “That’s a Canadian desert pretending to be an American desert.” For me, it’s a film pretending to be a sci-fi movie, but it’s not in a way. So, it was fun to play with these concepts.

Filmmaker: You don’t hang a lampshade on it, but one of my favorite parts of the film is how the cultural relationship between America and Canada informs how the Viking Society assumes their respective roles. They’re Canadians playing Americans, but they can’t transcend their foreignness.

Lafleur: American culture is everywhere around us. If you go to younger people, their role models are all Americans. It’s a little bit about our relationship with the U.S., wanting to be something else. That’s why it was important for me not to make a sci-fi film on the first level [of] a Canadian going into space. I wouldn’t believe that, you know? Playing with the concept of pretending to go to space, that made sense to me.

Filmmaker: I’m curious if you’ve seen [the HBO series] The Rehearsal.

Lafleur: I just started watching it. I heard about it while we were finishing the film and I was like, “Ah, dammit.” I’m a big fan of Nathan Fielder and his previous work, too.

Filmmaker: Yeah, me and a friend were detailing the overlap between the two: the attempts to make an artificial simulation as real as possible, people over-committing to fictional roles and losing perspective on the project as a whole, the Canadian otherness, etc.

Lafleur: Yeah, totally. Viking is playing in the same ballpark. What can I say? There’s always [weird coincidences] like that when you’re working on a film. I remember I had just finished my second film [Familiar Grounds] a few years back, and at the end of the film there’s a big inflatable blue guy, the thing that floats near a car lot. I went to see Greenberg at the cinema, and he’s got a scene with that thing. I was like, “Goddammit.” Same thing with Tu Dors Nicole, again with Noah Baumbach. We were shooting Tu Dors Nicole in one week. We had already decided we were doing it in black-and-white, blah blah blah. Frances Ha comes out, it’s in black-and-white, it’s about a young girl, blah blah blah. I was like, “What the…?” When you’re working on something, there’s always a weird coincidence. And talking about Mars was really dangerous, I knew it, because it’s in the air right now. There’s a lot of films around Mars and stuff like that, so I was like, “Please don’t do the same thing.”

Filmmaker: A lot of sci-fi movies, specifically ones where ordinary people want to go to space, take a romantic view of exploring the unknown. But you invert that here—David comes to the opposite conclusion, realizing that there’s a suicidality to wanting to go to space so badly that you’d settle for pretending. 

Lafleur: There were a lot of discussions [about the ending]. For some people it was disappointing, because the thing you wanted doesn’t happen. For me, I don’t see it that way. For me, it’s nice to go after your dream and then take it away from your head. He [says] at the beginning of the movie, “I just need to get to the bottom of this.” Then he realizes that maybe he likes his life. For me, it’s a good realization. 

When you’re obsessed with something, you need to take it out of your head no matter what, even if it doesn’t work as planned. Things rarely work as planned anyway. The way I’m doing films to take them out of my head and move on to another project—honestly, it’s the same process. I saw these pictures by Vincent Fournier and they remained in my head for many years before I started writing the film. I was obsessed with these pictures, then I had to do the film just to move on and do something else. That’s how I know usually that I have a project that I want to work on for several years. It’s always with you, no matter what you’re doing, you’re thinking about it and it keeps coming back. At some point you say, “OK, maybe there’s a movie that I can do around this thing.” 

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