The over-increasing predominance of money in a society where all other values seem to have crumbled is a powerful driving force in how people interact with each other. The strong benefits that wealth can create in modern culture can at times be crippled by the increasing greed by people who don’t wish to use it to help their communities. The exploration into how people perceive themselves, and change, depending on their monetary worth, is wittingly, and equally touchingly, explored in the new politically driven comedy-drama, ‘The Fall of the American Empire.’ The contemplative film, which was written and directed by Oscar-winning Canadian filmmaker, Denys Arcand, is being released today in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles by Sony Pictures Classics.
‘The Fall of the American Empire’ follows Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry), an intellectual with a PhD in philosophy, who’s forced to work as a deliveryman to make a decent living. While he appears to be presumptuous at times, his life’s perspective, and his place in society, is unexpectedly challenged one day while he’s working.
Pierre inadvertently walks into the aftermath of a crime scene, where two men were robbing a major gang’s stash of money when a third walked in, with intentions of doing the same thing. During the ensuing gunfight, only one of the men survived, but he was too wounded to leave with the cash. As Pierre walks in, he decides to sneak away with the stash, and store it in a storage locker.
Pierre decides to find someone with the expertise to help launder his new stash of money, and finds the right accomplice in Sylvain (Rémy Girard). The delivery man’s new associate is ex-con who earned a finance degree while in jail. Before the duo figures out out how to properly launder their new-found wealth, Pierre, who has always struggled in finding a lasting romantic relationship, decides to search for Montreal-area escorts. He connects with one woman, who goes by the name Aspasie (Maripeier Morin), and they get to know each other. Along the way, he has to figure out if she really values his personality and need to help others, which includes giving money to the homeless, or if she’s just conning him for his new-found cash.
Arcand generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview at The London Hotel in New York City to talk about writing and directing ‘The Fall of the American Empire.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he was motivated to pen the script after hearing about a violent real-life robbery in Montreal, during which the suspects didn’t try to hide their actions. He also mentioned that it was important to him to explore how the temptation of wealth changed Pierre throughout the course of the story, which Landry perfectly captured on screen.
The conversation began with Arcand explaining where his inspiration in scribing the screenplay for the movie came from, and what the process of writing the script was like overall. “Some years ago, there were two young black men who went into the business district of Montreal. They double-parked their car and put the flashers on. They went into a fashion boutique and killed two people in broad daylight. The sidewalk was full of people, but they still killed the victims and drove away,” the scribe divulged. “That act was so violent and brazen, especially in the fact that they didn’t try to hide what they did.
“So I became fascinated with that story. I knew the detective who was in charge of that case, so I talked to him about it. There was a difference in accounts between two gangs in Montreal,” Arcand noted.
“Becoming interested in this story made me realize the staggering amounts of money that’s involved in the drug trade; it’s millions of dollars. The bill are always in small denominations,” the writer disclosed. So the people involved “end up with tons of piles of money, and often don’t know what to do with it. That fact led me to become interested in money laundering, and what people do with the bills involved.” As he delved further into his captivation with money laundering, Arcand began to do research into the criminal activity, and then “slowly started to write my story.”
Arcand then delved into what his experience was like as he transitioned from penning the screenplay to directing the comedy-drama, and how working on the script influenced his helming duties on the set. “When I’m writing, I try to not think about the directing,” he admitted. “I’ve found over the years that if you don’t think about the directing while you’re writing, you’ll make things easier for yourself” as the helmer, but the easier option may do a disservice to the story.
The few times that the scribe has penned projects that other people ended up helming, which all ended up airing on television, “I didn’t care if it would be difficult to shoot,” he revealed. “I just wrote scenes, especially if they were fun to write.” Overall, whether he’s writing a screenplay for another director to helm, or for himself to direct, “I have a split personality. When I’m writing, I’m thinking only about the writing. I try to write the best that I can. Once that’s done, I then tackle the problems of the directing. But I like both jobs equally.”
Arcand added that he feels like he couldn’t just be a writer, as he described it as being a lonely job. “A script usually takes me a year-and-a-half to two years to write. By that point, I want to meet people, and it’s fun working with the actors and crew…Once a movie is over, however, I don’t shoot another movie right away. I become tired of people, and want to be along again,” he admitted with a laugh. “So both jobs fit my personality!”
The casting process for ‘The Fall of the American Empire’ was also one that the filmmaker cherished. “I knew all of the older actors, as I’ve worked with them over the years. So it’s easy for us to all work together again,” he shared. “For the two younger guys and girl, I did hold auditions. For the two guys, I initially auditioned 50 people, and then narrowed it down to 10, and then five, actors. I then decided who I wanted to cast.”
Once the actors signed on to play their respective characters, Arcand didn’t hold any official rehearsals with them, and instead encouraged them to work on building their characters’ backstories, motivations and emotions on their own. “Some great directors believe in rehearsals, but I don’t see the point in it so much for films. In my mind, rehearsals are very good for theater, where someone has to play the same thing over and over again, so that they can perfect even the smallest detail.
“But in film, you’re only after one take,” the helmer pointed out. “So it has to be good, but only for that one time. Once the camera captures something, you have it for eternity. We’re only after that one perfect take, and we shoot until I think we got it. So I like to work in the moment with the actors on the set,” he explained. “We try things, and I’m open to what they’re going to do. Sometimes they do things I didn’t envision…and we discuss what they did with the cameramen and everyone on the set. I’m open to suggestions, but there’s usually not a lot of discussion, because I spend a lot of time doing research and writing my scripts,” he added.
One of the major themes that the movie explores is how the power of money drives people’s choices. Arcand then delved into why he felt it was important to explore how the temptation of wealth changed Pierre. “My idea is that nowadays, money is the last valuable thing we have. For most people, everything else has disappeared. Religion isn’t what it used to be, and duty to your country, which used to be important, is in the past.”
The filmmaker also pointed out that even when people talk about movies, the discussion usually focuses on the box office. “It’s now all about how much a movie has grossed during it’s opening weekend, like with ‘The Avengers.’ To me, this is a very sad situation…so that’s what I wanted to convey in this film.”
Arcand then revealed that he thinks “money itself isn’t bad or good; it’s what people do with it that matters. If someone has a lot of money and is a good person, they can do a lot of good things. **SPOILER ALERT** That’s something that the character in this film does at the end. In the beginning, he works at a homeless shelter, so the money didn’t really change him. He might keep some of the money for himself, but we don’t know. I wouldn’t blame him if he did!,” he added with a laugh. **END SPOILER ALERT**
In addition to exploring how newfound wealth changes people, ‘The Fall of the American Empire’ also focuses on the current political moment in the U.S. When he first began making movies in the 1960s, the filmmaker witnessed how all politics were a lot more important to people’s overall lives. “People were idealistic, and thought they could change society. Some of my friends at university thought the working class was going to take over power,” he shared “But somehow, those ideals disappeared, and a disillusionment over politics has arisen. Young people today don’t care about politics; they’re more attached to their screens. It’s a different world now.”
While ‘The Fall of the American Empire’ is a politically-driven drama, it also features moments of humor. The director disclosed that he doesn’t always consciously decide to infuse humorous moments into his more serious stories, but he feels that they should all have some instances of comedy. “I’ll usually write a straightforward story, but if there’s something funny that genuinely belongs to that situation, I’ll put it in. I don’t shy away from comedy, because I do like it. But the most important thing is the story and characters…so the comedy grows naturally out of every situation, when it’s necessary.”
The comedy-drama was shot in all real location in Montreal, which was a process that Arcand enjoyed. He then explained what the experience of finding, and shooting at, the locations where he filmed was like throughout the production. “I’ve spent my life shooting in Montreal, so it’s a city that I know very well. So it’s not complicated to film there. But you do have to work hard to find the locations where you’ll film, and secure permission to shoot at those places,” he pointed out.
“When we shoot in people’s homes, for example, we’ll have to pay for the tenants to stay at a hotel while we film there. Also, I found the offices of the high-class officer who organized the money laundering while I was having dinner with a group of people. A woman I knew, who used to be a rather famous model, married a banker,” the filmmaker shared. “I told them that I was looking looking to shoot on a floor of a bank for a week. The banker said they had one in Montreal, because they were moving a division of the bank to Toronto. I asked him if I could visit it, and he said sure. That worked out perfectly, because we ended up using the entire floor.”
Arcand worked with a production manager to find the right locations for many of the other scenes in the movie. “When he had about five apartments, for example, that he thought could work, I would go over and look at them. I would pick one of the ones he showed me, and tried not to be difficult. But sometimes I do say, ‘No, this isn’t it,’ and he goes out to find more, until we find one that I feel is right,” he noted.
Once production on his movies is complete, the helmer appreciated the opportunity to bring them on the film festival circuit. “My first film played at the Cannes Film Festival 40 years ago. It’s nice to be able to bring my work to the festivals,” he stated. “It was really nice when I was younger, because I was able to travel the world and explore new cities, and meet new people. When I came here to the New York Film Festival with my second film, the Coen Brothers were actually here, as well, with their first film. So it was fun to discover what they were doing as new filmmakers.”
But Arcand also admitted that attending festivals as a filmmaker has changed throughout his career. He explained that now, as a writer-director, he mainly attends festivals in an effort to try to find distribution for his work, and promote his movies by participating in interviews. The scribe-helmer expressed appreciation in people wanting to discuss his films, but he also confessed that he feels the process of attending a festival as a filmmaker isn’t as fun as it used to be when he first started making movies. “But film festivals are still important, because they’ll create an audience for your movie. They’ll talk about it, which will help create a buzz,” like what happened for ‘The Fall of the American Empire’ when it screened at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Now, with ‘The Fall of the American Empire’ opening today in select American theaters, Arcand expressed his appreciation that all types of movies are still receiving theatrical distribution in the new digital age. Theatrical distribution for all films, no matter how big or small the campaign is, “helps put a spotlight on films. With the digital release model, it’s easy for movies, especially smaller ones, to get lost, and many people don’t even know that they exist. If people are aware of smaller films, they may not know how they can watch it. So a theatrical release helps people know that a movie exists.” But he also pointed out that the digital distribution allows more movies to be seen by more people around the world, and connect audiences with films more so than ever before.