Wrap Screening Series: ‘Gabrielle’ Filmmakers on Ups and Downs of Mentally Challenged Actors

Team ‘Gabrielle’ is also challenged with upholding the new tradition of Canadian films at the Oscars

Canada’s entry in this year’s foreign-film Oscar race, “Gabrielle,” is a feel-good love story, but hardly your average rom-com: The two leads, both in their early 20s, are mentally challenged. That led the filmmakers to some challenges of their own, particularly in the casting, a ripe topic for discussion at a screening Wednesday night hosted by TheWrap.

Hire professional actors, or go for the real, developmentally disabled deal? That was the question, and “Gabrielle’s” writer-director, Louise Archambault, ended up having it both ways, although she was able to find non-pros from Quebec’s mentally challenged character to more or less play themselves for every such role except the male lead.

Most notably, the magnetic leading lady, Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, really does have Williams syndrome, which didn’t keep her from lighting up nearly every scene in the movie.

“We were so happy to make this film with Gabrielle and not an actor,” producer Kim McCraw told TheWrap awards columnist Steve Pond in a post-screening Q&A at the Landmark. But the director had to work with Marion-Rivard for a full year before shooting commenced to make sure she was screen-ready.

See photos: TheWrap Awards Screening Series 2013 (Photos)

And even more than halfway through that process, McCraw said, “there were moments where we were like, ‘Can we do the movie with her?’ But three months before we started to shoot, we went: Okay, it’s working now, we can do it.”

Those anxious moments about the real Gabrielle’s suitability for a 28-day shoot weren’t the last hiccup on the way to production. Slight spoiler: One of the film’s final scenes involves the fictional Gabrielle and her boyfriend losing their virginity to one another. It’s shot as chastely as possible, but Marion-Rivard’s mother suddenly wanted to scotch that whole finale.

“A year before, Gabrielle’s mother read the script,” said Archambault. “I wanted to make sure that the sexuality was okay, and she was like, no, she doesn’t have the same inhibition, it’s fine. She knew I didn’t want to go into porn or something very hard, but first love, pure love … But Gabrielle had never made love in her life. She wants to at some point, but she’s not ready … Three weeks before shooting, her mom comes to the office and says, ‘You know the last scene where they make love? I think it shouldn’t be there. I’m not good with it; I don’t want you to shoot it.’ I said, ‘I don’t have a film if I don’t do that.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, if you want to pick another actress, I understand.’”

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At this, the Landmark audience laughed and groaned in sympathy, before the director added that the mom returned a day later to sign off — again — and apologize for being a “wolf”-like protector of her daughter.

As for the male lead, “I did audition mentally challenged actors for this role for Martin, and they were good actors, but the emotion of the love didn’t [ring] true,” said the director. That became clear at one awkward moment when they thought they’d found their man in the mentally challenged community, only to have this promising contender blurt out in the middle of a rehearsal that he couldn’t fake being in love with his leading lady. Eventually they hired Alexandre Landry as the boyfriend.

“We were glad to have Gabrielle, with whom it was obviously going to be tricky, work with a professional who is a pillar in terms of acting, and who also happens to be an incredibly gentle, generous young man. He took care of Gabrielle and they became friends.”

The issues involved with working with guardians as well as the mentally challenged were worth it, as much as for what happened during production as the end result, the filmmakers emphasized.

“The idea of giving the chance to those people to be on the screen was important for us,” said McCraw.

Added Archambault, “I had a dream of doing a film not on them but in collaboration with them.”

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Canada is on a roll with the Oscars. A French-Canadian selection has landed a foreign-film nomination for the last three years running, and in two of those three cases, the Gabrielle production team of McCraw and Luc Dery was behind the effort.

“Why have you been so successful with Oscar nominations?” Pond asked.

“Because we have a secret recipe,” McCraw answered, in accented English. “And we will not tell you.”

Soon enough, they were letting the “secret” out: governmental subsidies are a boon in an arts-appreciative nation.

“We decided as a society to have a film industry and a public television industry, and it would not be viable if financed only by private investors,” said Dery. “With these films, there’s not that much pressure to reap financial rewards to their investors, because they’re a part of our culture… [although] some of the films reach wide audiences… and people around the world get to see what it’s like in Canada and what our values are.”

“Because of that, we have a certain freedom to do cinema as art,” added McCraw. “Because we are just 6 million in Quebec, it’s really rare that a movie gives you back the money as an investment. So we have a freedom to try new things.”

The producers noted that they’d run into Denis Villeneuve, who previously directed their Incendies, in the Landmark lobby, as he waited to introduce Prisoners in an adjoining theater; indeed, Villeneuve snuck in for most of the Gabrielle Q&A. And they noted the poster for another film made by a Canadian, Dallas Buyers’ Club, down the hall. “After the golden ages of Quebec and Canadian cinema, mostly in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s somewhat of a golden age again,” Dery boasted.