This article was originally published in 2008
Feature film producer Roger Frappier has become famous as a champion of Quebec’s robust film milieu, yet he says it was something an American producer said to him some 15 years ago that really affected his thinking about film audiences.
‘This American producer said to me: ‘You know, you Canadians are making films that people ought to see. We Americans are making films that people want to see.’ That has stayed in my head ever since,’ explains Frappier.
As Frappier sees it, artistic and commercial films don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
‘We tend to think that certain subjects make a film important enough to be made,’ says Frappier, president and cofounder of Montreal-based production company Max Films. ‘But if you don’t forget that it’s also an entertainment business, you can make a film that can also reach an audience. We’ve lost that sense over the years – films seem to be either very auteur or very commercial. There’s a way we can reach both [audiences].’
Frappier points to films such as Jean-François Pouliot’s La grande seduction/Seducing Dr. Lewis, which he coproduced, to underline the viability of auteur films that make money. Seduction raked in around $8 million at the Canadian box office, an enviable number for any indie. Frappier makes films that reach people. Touch people.
Writers, directors, producers and distributors – hell, anyone in the business – would do well to listen to the opinions of Frappier. Since his beginnings as a producer at the National Film Board in the early ’70s, Frappier has overseen a body of work that is undeniably staggering.
Frappier leads the way among Canadian producers with three Golden Reel Awards (for the Canadian film with the year’s biggest domestic box office) and four best-picture Genies. He also coproduced the first Canadian film ever nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign-language category (director Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire). He has worked with most name directors in Quebec, including Léa Pool, Yves Simoneau, Pierre Gang, the late Jean-Claude Lauzon and numerous members of Quebec’s ‘Brat Pack,’ including Denis Villeneuve and Manon Briand.
Frappier’s considerable achievements have also been recognized in Europe. In 1996, he received the Order of Arts and Letters from the government of France, and in 1998 was given a special citation at Cannes for his championing of Quebec filmmakers.
Frappier, 63, says his love affair with cinema began as a very young boy. ‘My aunt was an usher in a theater, and she would take me there and sit me down every weekend, and I would watch the same film over and over. There wasn’t a TV in our house at the time, so this was incredible. One of the first films to have an impression on me was Calamity Jane, with Doris Day.’
That enduring passion for the cinema is what colleagues say has driven Frappier and made him one of the most prominent and respected producers in Canada.
‘There is no doubt about it, he’s had a huge impact on us all,’ says Oscar-winning producer Denise Robert. ‘He takes risks. He has put a lot of directors on the map. He’s been invaluable in fostering talent in Quebec, but also in putting Quebec cinema on the map internationally.’
Frappier began as a director and editor, working at the ONF (French side of the NFB). He says that it was simply his love of film that led him to the role of producer.
‘At one point, I realized that I had the energy to do four movies a year rather than one movie every four years. So I decided to become a producer,’ he recalls. ‘I remember very well that once I made that decision, I wanted to become the producer I would have liked to have had when I was a director. A producer should work very closely with the filmmaker, understand the kind of film they want to make, and create the space where that can happen. I worked my whole life to be able to protect that space, so the filmmaker can make the film of their own vision.’
Frappier has since become known for his work with first-time filmmakers. In 1996, he spearheaded Cosmos, a six-part anthology feature that effectively gave six young Quebec filmmakers their first shot on the big screen. The film – co-directed by Villeneuve, Briand, Jennifer Alleyn, André Turpin and Marie-Julie Dallaire – dubbed the Quebec Brat Pack – was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in ’97, where it won a special award for innovation.
‘Roger is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met,’ says Villeneuve, who has since made two movies with Frappier, including his multiple-Genie winner Maelström (2000). ‘When he believes in a film, he becomes completely dedicated to it. He’s not dedicated to the budget, but rather the movie. When we were making Cosmos, there was pressure for us to shoot in 16mm. But Roger felt that look didn’t suit the project. He insisted that we go ahead with 35mm. I remember saying, ‘How can we afford this?’ He said, ‘This isn’t your problem, it’s mine. Leave it to me.’ During a crisis, Roger always remains calm. Roger has touched me and my work a great deal.’
‘Of the last 14 movies I’ve produced, 10 were with first-time directors,’ Frappier says, clearly proud of the statistic. ‘It’s important to discover new talent, and to make sure their visions will reach the screen. Luc Vandal [Frappier's partner at Max Films] and the rest of the team we have here, we are very good at dealing with new films. It’s something we’ve developed over the years and something I’m very proud of.’
And, he says, of filmmakers’ all-important freedom, ‘It’s even harder to find now…There are so many more interventions now than there were when I started. At the script level, during editing, the casting – everything. The budgets are bigger, so you have to have more sources of money, so you have to negotiate and discuss with all of these people.
‘But it’s very crucial that we create and protect that space where filmmakers feel they can experiment.’
Main photo: Roger Frappier with Catherine Deléan and Marc Paquet for 2006′s The Secret Life of Happy People