Playback Canadian Film & TV Hall of Fame: Lyse Lafontaine

Lafontaine has made an indelible mark on Canadian cinema, with producing credits that include Jean-Claude Lauzon's Leolo and Xavier Dolan's upcoming feature.

This article originally appeared in Playback’s Spring 2015 issue 

Although producer Lyse Lafontaine says she plans to slow down over the next three years, you could hardly tell by her slate of projects and the passion with which she talks them up.

Topping the list is The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, the next feature by 25-year-old Quebec triple-threat Xavier Dolan, for whom Lafontaine was a producer on Laurence Anyways (2012) and associate producer on Tom à la ferme (2013) and Mommy (2014). Produced by Lafontaine, Dolan and Nancy Grant, John F. represents a major step forward for all involved.

“It’s exciting. We’re going around for financing and distribution and feeling the markets everywhere. The budget is fluctuating, but it’s going to be in the big-budget ballpark,” says Lafontaine on the phone from the Montreal office of Lyla Films. “It’s a very good script. Xavier wants to keep people on their toes and he’s planning to have a wider audience.”

It’s Dolan’s first English-language film and packed with star-power. Attached are Kit Harrington (Pompeii) in the title role, supported by Jessica Chastain, Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates. The director will appear in a small role. The story follows a Hollywood star whose innocent correspondence with an aspiring British actor is sensationalized by the gossip rags, changing both their lives forever. Likely going into preproduction in the spring, the movie will shoot in Montreal, England and New York.

In a way, Lafontaine’s partnership with Dolan brings her career full-circle, recalling director Jean-Claude Lauzon and her first film, Léolo (1992), which she produced with Aimée Danis. Lauzon was older than Dolan, but similarly made a huge impression out of the gate. Lafontaine met Lauzon working on commercial campaigns, and he brought her the script as the follow-up to his debut feature Un zoo la nuit (1987).

Highly autobiographical, Lauzon’s film recounts the surreal adolescence of Léo (Maxime Collin) and a family touched by madness. “Some people turned it down,” Lafontaine recalls. “It was hard to read. If not written and directed by Jean-Claude, it could have been a very miserable film and wouldn’t have had much magic. But it had lots.”

It was a challenging shoot. “I thought either I’d die by the end or I’d be so strong I could do anything,” she says with a laugh. “Jean-Claude was not easy to work with. He was funny, but could be moody. He would walk into a room and I would say, ‘Oh my God, you brought your dark cloud.’”

resized - Lauzon-Lauzon -TV  - Graphisme Guy LessardBut the result was something special. The film competed at Cannes, won prizes at TIFF and the Genie Awards and, most impressively, is included on Time’s list of the 100 greatest movies. In 2014, Léolo screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Cannes Classics lineup.

Tragically, Lauzon’s unique voice was silenced when he crashed a Cessna he was piloting, killing him and his girlfriend, actress Marie-Soleil Tougas, in 1997. In tribute, Lafontaine produced the TV doc Lauzon Lauzone (2001), co-directed by Louis Belanger and Isabelle Hébert, which incorporated writings found on the filmmaker’s computer.

“We did the documentary out of respect for him, but we wanted to show him as he was, his dark side and his light side,” Lafontaine says.
That desire for honesty marks not only Lafontaine’s creative tastes, but also her dealings with collaborators, according to François Tremblay, Lyla’s 47-year-old VP, whom Lafontaine has groomed to take over after she retires.

“Often she’s the one who will have the courage to tell it like it is to people when they are surrounded by others who don’t,” Tremblay says.

Climbing the ladder

Lafontaine took some left turns on the road to producing. Graduating in 1965 with a Master of Literature and Linguistics from l’Université de Montréal, she worked for a year at a film-dubbing company. This was followed by a gig recruiting filmmakers for Parti Quebecois campaign spots, which led to other film jobs.

During the hazy 1970s she managed bilingual rock band Offenbach.

“It was crazy,” she reminisces with a laugh. “I had inherited a bit of money from my mom and it literally went up in smoke. We lived in a big commune on Pine Avenue. People were insane 24 hours a day. There were fights. After a year, I said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I was young. I can say, ‘That’s done. Tag it.’”

She tried her hand at script-supervision on the tax-shelter horror flick Seizure, a.k.a. Queen of Evil (1974). “I was bad,” she recollects. “When an actor sits down, I can’t remember which way they are supposed to cross their legs.” The movie was at least memorable as Oliver Stone’s directorial debut.

She found her footing as a location and unit manager on films including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) and later served as production manager on titles such as Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989). It provided a valuable education on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and she recommended the same route to Tremblay, whom she first met as his mentor at the INIS film school.

“Lyse said, ‘You’re going to be a better producer because of that,’” Tremblay recalls. “You learn so much, and then after a while you know what you’re talking about because you went through it.” Alongside Lafontaine, Tremblay would go on to produce the Guy A. Lepage vehicle L’Empire Bo$$é (2012) and director Carole Laure’s dance drama Love Project (2014).

In the early 1980s, Lafontaine worked on Robert Lantos’ Montreal productions Suzanne and Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. Lantos remembers her as “smart, hard-working, and with a tremendous sense of humor. She was pretty ready to be a producer even back then. You could just leave things in her hands and they would get done.”

Barneys Version - Photo - Sabrina Lantos

Barney’s Version

When Lantos returned to Quebec to shoot Barney’s Version (2010), he asked Lafontaine to come aboard as coproducer. She was hands-on in day-to-day prepping and production and brought in crucial SODEC funding.

After the exhausting Léolo experience, Lafontaine had a couple of children to raise and so migrated into the nine-to-five world of TV, producing the Radio-Québec high-school drama series Zap (1993-1996), a kind of Degrassi for la belle province.

Then there was Radio-Canada’s L’ombre de l’épervier (1998-2000), starring Luc Picard and Isabel Richer in a love story set in a post-World War I Gaspe fishing community. It was co-written and directed by Robert Favreau, a frequent collaborator.

Lafontaine formed Lyla Films in 1999 and returned to her first love of features with Les muses orphelines (2000), a Favreau-directed ’60s family drama. Supporting Lafontaine and Tremblay at the prodco today are business manager Hélène Thiffault, administrator Michel Goulet, accountant Alain Champagne and assistant Suzie Pilotte.

LYSE LAFONTAINE - SITU

Lafontaine and crew

Another memorable Favreau collaboration is A Sunday in Kigali (2006), based on a Gil Courtemanche novel about Canadian photographer Bernard (Picard), who falls in love with Hutu waitress Gentille (Fatou N’Diaye) in the days leading up to the Rwandan genocide. The powerful drama won the best adapted screenplay Genie and surpassed $1 million at the Quebec box office.

Lafontaine and fellow producer Michael Mosca shot in Rwanda. “I like easy films,” she jokes. “It was amazing, but we had to bring in everything. The Rwandan people were reserved and never complained about anything. We spent four months there prepping and shooting, and once you get out, you stop your own complaining for a few years.”

Despite Lyla’s winning streak with Favreau, there have been no collaborations since. “We tried to structure other films, but they didn’t get financed. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” Lafontaine laments.

In a totally different vein is Camping Sauvage (2004), a no-holds-barred comedy about broker Pierre-Louis (Guy A. Lepage), who sees a crime and enters a witness protection program in a trailer park. The film took in $3.5 million, winning the Jutra Awards’ Billet D’Or for the year’s biggest box office.

Lafontaine says whether it’s a comedy or drama, what clinches a project for her is the filmmaker. “A good story is a good story, but some scripts are hard to read. You have to know who’s going to direct it and what they’re going to do with it,” she says. And she regards filmmakers as business partners.

“It takes a lot of talking, because you never have the budgets you need. We have to find solutions together. You can’t impose a solution on a creative person,” she says.

Several other filmmakers have worked with Lafontaine multiple times, including Léa Pool, who directed Maman est chez le coiffeur (2008), a touching ’60s drama about teenaged Élise (Marianne Fortier) and her two brothers, whose lives are upended when their mother Simone (Céline Bonnier) leaves them and their sexually confused father (Laurent Lucas). The film won a Jutra for the Quebec movie achieving the most success abroad that year.

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Camping Sauvage

Since then, the business climate has grown more challenging. In 2004, Mosca’s distribution company Equinoxe Films bought a majority interest in Lyla to form Equinoxe Productions, which gave Lafontaine a built-in distribution pipeline for Kigali and Maman.

However, Equinoxe Films temporarily stopped doing distribution in 2009 and the partnership dissolved. Today, Tremblay sees a local distribution market dominated by Entertainment One.

“They have hundreds of scripts to read and choose only a few projects,” he notes. “It was a good collaboration with Equinoxe. Now we’re like every other producer, sending our scripts to external distributors.”

But that hasn’t slowed Lyla’s efforts. It’s ramping up for Entertainment One subsidiary Christal Films’ March 20 Canadian release of Pool’s La passion d’Augustine, which again revisits the ’60s with a story of a mother superior (Bonnier) whose music-focused convent is threatened by the public-education system.

And that’s not all. It took Lafontaine 15 years to land the movie rights to Roy MacGregor’s Chief, about Billy Diamond, the late Quebec Cree chief who, at age 25, negotiated the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement with the provincial and federal governments. Benoît Pilon is attached to direct the biopic, which exemplifies the kind of projects Lafontaine wants Lyla to continue making while she’s at the helm and beyond.

Lyla has never been preoccupied with chasing growth or box office. It’s driven by filmmakers and projects.

“It’s stories that for me need to be told to Quebecers or Canadians,” she says. “They will have our films whether they want them or not. And hopefully they will want them.”