On the way to the grocery store, “Family First” director Sophie Dupuis got a call that made her wish she wasn’t wearing jeggings. Not only was her first feature film Canada’s official entry into the Oscar foreign film race, but she needed to announcement it live within the hour.
“I was sure it wasn’t going to be us,” the Quebec native told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at a Q&A on Tuesday following a screening of the crime drama.
“Family First” is a 90-minute journey into the dysfunctional world of debt collectors, brothers JP (Jean-Simon Leduc) and 19-year-old Vincent (Theodore Pellerin). While older brother JP begins to have doubts about helping the cartel collect their money, a group lead by their uncle Dany (Paul Ahmarani), Vincent’s explosive, care-free personality leads him deeper into Dany’s web. Canadian actress Maude Guerin plays the on-again off-again alcoholic mother to JP and Vincent in the film.
Despite the circumstances, each member of the family feels unconditionally tied to one another. Dupuis told the audience at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles that she hopes that with “Family First” audiences can experience a movie where “love is the winner,” not necessarily a specific character.
And despite it being her first feature, Dupuis elaborated to say that she wanted to go for gold by making a crime drama that “the audience could feel physically.” To add that level of tension, Dupuis made sure the story included more than one version of violence, she said. Not only would audiences see physical violence, but emotional and situational as well.
Situational violence takes form when the family is home at the apartment. No matter what is going on, Vincent will constantly hover over everyone and won’t let them sit still. He will spontaneously pull their hair, smooch their forehead or make them answer his needs by berating them until they surrender to his will. With the assistance of hand-held cinematography, scenes in the apartment of the family attempting to tame Vincent are meant to evoke a sense of despair and imprisonment, Dupuis told the audience.
Finding the right person to play the role of Vincent was key for Dupuis.
“I was afraid it would be really hard to find him,” Dupuis said.
Pellerin had actually come in to audition for the role of JP, which was initially supposed to be much younger than the Leduc character is in the final film. At one point, Pellerin mentioned he was also interested in the Vincent character. The moment Pellerin began to improvise what his version of the character would be like, Dupuis exclaimed, “He was already Vincent.”
The rehearsal process took five weeks, during which time Dupuis collaborated with the cast to mold their characters into what they would later become. That’s because for Dupuis, the casting process is where she finds actors who will work well on her production. It’s during rehearsals when she is able to put a face to those characters by working with the actor to find their sweet spots.
This includes the character of JP, who attempts to remain calm and in control during chaotic moments. Dupuis said Leduc was picked in a crop of 200 or so auditions for his ability to evoke “sensitivity and sensibility.”
The final product would be a film that was nominated for best film, best director, best actor and winning best actress at the Quebec Cinema Awards and is now in the crop of films vying for a shot a best foreign film at the Oscars.
“Family First” premiered in Canada in March and will premiere in France and Belgium this week. Producer Etienne Hansez, who was also in attendance, told the audience they are still currently looking for a U.S. distributor.