Interview: Denys Arcand on Following the Money in “The Fall of the American Empire”

As a filmmaker who has often found great comedy in observing intellectuals unequipped to deal with the reality they face once those pesky details like emotions get involved, Denys Arcand got used to the fact long ago that audiences who might show up to see an action film might be disappointed once they realized they’d only be getting a war of words. But that’s changed with his latest, “Fall of the American Empire,” as the writer/director behind “Jesus of Montreal” and “The Barbarian Invasions” has found out recently.

“I was talking to someone yesterday who said, ‘When I looked at your film and I saw the first scene where it’s this philosophical student who ponders about life,’ I said, “Oh, no, this is going to be French film dialogue…’ and so on… and boom, these guys show up in a car and you’re into a whole other thing,” Arcand recounted with delight. “He was relieved by that and [said] actually enjoyed it immensely, so it’s fun to have these oppositions, but you don’t always have the kind of story to put that into film.”

For longtime fans of Arcand, it’s actually a little jarring to see to see a heist in progress at the start of “Fall of the American Empire,” especially when filmed with the efficiency and verve of a Michael Mann thriller. But it’s the start of one of his most exciting films in both its action and its ideas as the film follows Pierre-Paul, whose ideals prevent him from seeing much use for money, though his degree in philosophy hasn’t been of much use to him either, requiring him to deliver packages for a shipping company to make ends meet. During a day’s work, he’s confronted with an intriguing thought experiment when he witnesses the robbery go awry when security for the store arrives with a shotgun, leaving a bag full of cash around with no one to claim it before the police arrive, and slyly slips the bag into the back of his van. Yet it turns out that picking up the money is far easier than being able to spend it inconspicuously, with Pierre-Paul enlisting the services of a high-end escort named Aspasie (Maripier Morin) and the ex-con Sylvain (Remy Girard) to creatively evade the attention of law enforcement when he knows enough to realize he makes a terrible criminal.

Amusingly oblivious to the moral considerations of his actions, Pierre-Paul is tortured instead by how his ideology is challenged by actually enjoying the ill-gotten gains, particularly when it affords him the attention of Aspasie, and as he begins to view money as a necessary evil, Arcand cleverly crafts an entertaining caper where a clean getaway will rely as much on leaving with his conscience intact as the cash. With the film arriving in theaters following a warmly received premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Arcand spoke about the inspiration behind the crafty drama, deciding on the film’s provocative title and returning to his roots?

How did this come about? It isn’t connected to “Decline of the American Empire,” as a longtime fan like myself might suspect, given the title, though just as that film challenged ideological notions with sex, this does with money.

My real subject is and was money and the working title for this film was “Triumph of Money.” We shot it under that name, and when I started editing the film, I became afraid of my own title because some people reacted badly to it, saying, “Not again about money – that’s all people are talking about. I don’t want to hear about money anymore.” Or people had a problem remembering the exact title, [saying] “Oh yeah, your thing about money,” or something like that. So I decided to change it, and I didn’t know what to call my film, but since I had done this film “Decline of the American Empire,” the title was a take on the famous [Edward] Gibbon’s book “The [History and] Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” I said okay, let’s call this “The Fall of the American Empire.” But people shouldn’t read too much into it. It just means these times we’re living in.

So no temptation to bring Remy’s character back from “Barbarian Invasions,” the proper sequel to “Decline of the American Empire”?

No, his character’s dead! [laughs] He’s dead! So I could’ve had him reappear as a ghost, which is a trick that some people do, but a lot of time had passed since “Barbarian Invasions,” so I thought he could reappear as another character. Since he was bald in “Barbarian Invasions,” I gave him lots of hair [in “Fall”], so he looks different.

You’ve said the initial inspiration, at least for the crime element, was a 2010 incident in Montreal. How did it grow from there?

During a a normal business day in the business district of Montreal, two young guys came in a car, double parked, put their flashers on, [walked] in this fancy, pseudo-fashion boutique and just shot two people in the head, and they came out and drove off. It was so violent and so brazen – Montreal’s a rather peaceful city – [that] I thought this was an unbelievable story. I knew the detective that was in charge of that case, so I went and talked to him and it was a settling of accounts between two rival gangs. As I tried to understand what had happened, I suddenly discovered the incredible amount of money that is circulating in the drug trade, even in a quiet city like Montreal. People ended up with millions of dollars in small denominations and they don’t know what to do with all that money. Sometimes they dig a hole in the earth and just put it there – what to do with all that money? So I went and talked to some lawyers, tax advisers, income tax specialists – all of these people whose business it is to launder money, and then with that, the story structured itself around these themes.

How do you throw a philosophy major into this situation? And does Alexandre need a boot camp to pick up on all the references? Or is there enough context in the script?

A boot camp is too much. [laughs] But there’s a lot of stuff [he had] to learn and he worked hard to get familiar with all of this. [Alex is] a young actor that I’d seen in a play years before and I kept him in mind, so that was the occasion. He’s very thorough. While we were shooting this film, he started reading [Baruch] Spinoza, which is unreadable. [laughs] Just because he wanted to be true to his philosophy major character.

He has a great rapport with Maripier Morin. What was it like to find that pairing?

Well, she’s not an actress. She’s a television personality, an interviewer, and at some point, she came to interview me. I was looking at her, thinking she’d probably be great in a movie because she’s gorgeous and she takes the light very well, so I kept her in mind, but that was probably two or three years prior to my shooting [“Fall”] and once I was ready to shoot, I was working on the casting, I phoned her and she said, “I’m not an actress. I’ve never done this.” So I said, “Okay, well, if you want to try, I’ll just audition you and we’ll take it from there.” She worked with a good professional coach and came up with a fabulous audition, but I wasn’t entirely convinced the first time. I was not sure she could carry a film on her shoulders. So we did four or five auditions and at the end, we did an audition with Pierre-Paul, with Alex who plays Pierre-Paul and the chemistry between the two was perfect. They got along fine and eventually, I hired her.

When it comes off the page and you see their interaction with each other – this could be for any part of the film, did it change from your original ideas?

Strangely enough, and I know this makes for a bad interview, but there are very few surprises on my shoots. I prepare very thoroughly as I work on the script. I know everything there is to know about [the characters] and I work with actors that I’m familiar with – most of the actors are guys that I knew very well, and also, I work with fairly small budgets, so it means we have to be fairly precise. In a day, we have to do a certain number of scenes, so it doesn’t leave a lot of space for surprises or even improvisation. It’s very boring to tell you this because usually what’s fun about film is something incredible or unexpected happened, but this is not the case. It’s a well-planned and well-executed endeavor.

I know you’ve done big set-pieces before, but I can’t remember anything like the gunfight you have at the start of this film — was that a new challenge?

My three first films, but they were in the early ‘70s, were police stories, stories with guns and thieves, so I went back to my roots basically, and it’s fabulous. It’s fun to play with firearms and people getting shot and tortured. [laughs] The film noir is a classic genre of cinema and it’s always fun to go back to that, doing chase scenes or whatever it is. I don’t know [how I] got sidetracked into these philosophical/intellectual films. [laughs] But I went back to what I did when i was very young and it was very enjoyable. It’s not that difficult anyway. It’s just pure fun.

What’s it been like traveling with it?

It’s a good feeling because in the end, even if it’s a small film, you want to reach as many people as you can and provide them with food for thought and entertainment and wisdom, if that’s possible at all, and I was in Paris this winter, I’ve done tons of interviews with Italian and Spanish newspapers and Portuguese reporters and the film has been well-received, so it’s great.

“The Fall of the American Empire” is now playing in Los Angeles at the Royal and in New York at the Quad Cinema before expanding on June 7th. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.

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