Fernand Dansereau on Desire and the Energy in Trees
The image came into focus towards the end of our conversation facing the orchard that borders his property: Fernand Dansereau as a tree. A rugged apple tree that has stood the test of time with roots deeply embedded in the fertile soil of Quebec. Over the past seven decades, he has written, directed, produced, and won awards for dozens of films and television series. Oddly enough our entire hour-long talk was about artistic evolution though and not career statistics, about the meaning of life, his next film, and why the 93-year-old artist keeps on keeping on.
Before we talk about your work, I’d like to know how you’re coping with old age?
There are mixed feelings. I now must deal with some serious physical limitations. At 87, I was still an avid skier. Then all of a sudden everything changed. I’ve had trouble with my eyes, cancer three times, heart problems, and the aftermath of a hip surgery that went very wrong. I’ve been in pain ever since. I’m on antibiotics full time. And I can’t complain because I know that many are much worse off than I am. I do savour the gifts that come with old age. I have a better understanding of what I’ve been through, the experience of others, why I came into this world, and how everything unfolds.
What is your place on Planet Earth?
Most of my generation are already long gone, and yet I continue to live. Why was this my destiny? Why are you here today asking me questions? I tell myself that there must be a reason why I’m still here. My role in the universe continues to play out. I believe the energy of the universe is embodied in trees, in animals, in me, and in all living things. When any living being goes, their energy goes on. I continue to grow and to produce. But I too must die one day for the cycle of life to continue. I accept my mortality, plain and simple. And even if that doesn’t stop me from being afraid of death, like everyone else, I don’t have a problem with the idea of dying.
When you started out in 1955, how long did you think your film career would last?
I hadn’t the faintest idea. If you’d asked me in 1980 if I’d be alive in the 21st century, I would’ve said no way. Truth is that at my advanced age and with my remaining abilities, I’m actually not at all surprised that I did direct another movie, Old Age and Hope, in 2019. And I thought that this one had to be my last, but my team insists that I make at least one more to explain my philosophy of life.
Tell me more.
The working title is Vue du crépuscule (the view at sunset). I want to find answers to some of the questions that have always perplexed me. As a painter, for example, I wondered what we look for in art. I always start a painting with a single brush stroke and see where it takes me. A power struggle ensues between the canvas and the colours until the painting finds its groove. It’s got nothing to do with beauty or what the work means. It’s all about the energy, how it flows. I want to go deeper into this topic and foster a conversation between a young painter and a painter from a studio I once used, about the diverging approaches in the heat of the creative process.
Then I want to outline the spiritual journey I’ve taken with a few of the significant people who made a difference, including the Zen monk who introduced me to the practice, and a woman I know who’s been through every type of religious discipline possible. Gathered together in a large empty church, I’ll ask them about the spiritual journey they’re on.
I also want to look into what lies ahead for the younger generation. My youngest son is 25 and very anxious about ecology and the state of humanity, as are many of the students I teach at the Institut national de l’image et du son (INIS). I want to bring some of these young people together to understand how they see the future.
I also plan to delve into life for the aging artist. What changes do you go through once you’ve become a has-been? I’m going to talk about it with Denys Arcand and Marcel Sabourin. We used to get together every three months for at least 15 years to chew the fat. Jean-Claude Labrecque and Jean Beaudin were also part of the gang, now sadly among the dearly departed.
Are you one of those artists who rejects the concept of retirement?
I believe that life is fundamentally an active process of fulfilling desires. The important thing is to pursue what you truly desire and not a desire you’ve borrowed from a friend or one that’s simply a trend. I reject the idea of retiring from desire or else I’ll be a dead duck in 20 months or less. There are plenty of things I still want. My wife laughs at me because the projects keep piling up. I’d like to make a film about what love really is. There are so many films out there that are totally off the mark. And I just finished the manuscript for my second novel. I want my publisher to get it out without delay.
What effect have the years had on your confidence as an author?
Writing always came easy to me. Most likely it was in my genes. Both my grandfathers and uncles were journalists. I began my journalistic career with a typewriter at hand. My sons also inherited this facility with words. I’ve been writing all my life. It’s one thing I have no doubts about. Nevertheless, one reviewer had this to say about my first novel, Le cœur en cavale (heart on the run, 2003): “While Dansereau tells a good story like he has done so many times in film and on TV, he doesn't seem to know what literature is.” That got me thinking that I should work on style a bit more. So, when I started my second novel, I pondered it for a few days, but it got me nowhere. It’s just not in my nature.
Do you feel there’s still a demand for your vision as a filmmaker?
I’ll answer that two ways. My somewhat superficial answer is that my audience is aging with me, so I’m not a has-been in their eyes. But compared to everything else that’s being produced, I’m way out of left field. When I was editing my last film, I was in a room with young women directors. I planned 45 days in editing, after 16 days of shooting to make a film. My roommates were tasked with producing one hour of television and eight online videoclips after just three days of shooting and 15 days in editing. Their generation faces totally different challenges than mine did. It’s the same for every generation. Mine invented direct cinema and other innovations that shook up what had gone on before.
What’s your second answer?
In his book The Life of Forms in Art, Henry Focillon claims that forms have a life of their own, which unfolds in the human mind but doesn’t depend at all on human control. Forms generate each other, like a genetic mutation. When I first got into this business, I started out playing with shapes, like others in my generation were doing, something that our predecessors couldn’t do and didn’t appreciate very much. Same thing is going on now. My generation was preoccupied with forms that are of zero interest to young people today. In 1957–1958, I took Monique Mercure to the coast in Old Orchard to shoot an image of a beautiful girl running through the grass to the beach and plunging into the sea. That take lasted 45 seconds. Today, the same shot would last a second and a half. Visual language is a lot faster.
What else is different?
My generation shot on 35mm film, in colour, looking for nuances in the image. Today, nuance has been replaced with brilliance. It’s another mutation of forms. In terms of content, I can’t even follow what’s being shown on Radio-Canada and TVA these days. I also find the dialogue uniformly dark. In my time, in TV series with Guy Fournier or Jeannette Bertrand, we used human drama as a tool, but we always worked it so that a little light got in. Not necessarily a happy ending, but some light somewhere in the story. It’s different with this generation. There never seems to be any light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe just the tiniest bit. My son, Bernard Dansereau, is into this, too. Still, if the public likes it, it’s the right thing to do.
Is this a reflection of how people think today?
A general pessimism does seem to prevail. People believe things are getting worse and worse when the opposite is true: things are getting better and better. We’ve made tremendous progress in my lifetime. Fifty years ago, one billion people were going hungry. Today, 200 million are. Wars around the globe took 320,000 lives in 2019. In the six years of World War Two 50 million died. Wars in the age of European conquests wiped out a quarter of humanity. Life expectancy has increased dramatically. Medicine has improved. Mindsets have also changed for the better. Trouble is the human brain is wired to sense danger. Even when there is no danger, we’re still in high-alert mode. So, the better things get, the more worried we get, and the worse we think things are.
Is your wealth of experience, self-confidence to spare, and financial security behind your need to take more risks in your work?
Am I more of a risk-taker? No. Am I more honest? Yes. I don’t care about impressing anyone anymore. When I shoot a film, I’m looking for that truth I was talking about in painting. If I need to do something special because the work demands it, I will, but not for novelty’s sake in a formal sense. At 35, I wanted to be the Quebec Ingmar Bergman. We all did. You could see it in the way my films were made. I wanted to show them that Dansereau had the right stuff, that he was the one to invent new forms.
What happened to your desire to impress others and revolutionize the field?
I had a long first career as a filmmaker. I then spent 20 action-packed years doing television. When I came back to film, I’d been away for some time. I didn’t worry about success any more like I did when I was a young gun. But it was a gradual, unconscious change. When I completed the Caserne 24 series in 2001, I was 72. Radio-Canada asked me for a TV series on aging. I submitted a project. The director of drama wanted me to go ahead with a series, but the senior manager of programming stepped in, turned it down, and gave her hell for giving me the green light. I was pretty bitter about that. A little later on, another director came across my project. She asked for three new episodes, but the new head of programming turned it down. Which made me even angrier. A few years after that, a third drama director called and offered to bring a young writer on board to work with me. She was very bright, very nice. So, we wrote three more episodes. But again, management refused. I was bloody furious. But I did get the idea of doing my own trilogy on old age from the experience.
Are you mentoring any young filmmakers?
Absolutely! I was chair of the INIS founding committee. I care a great deal about passing on what I’ve learned. I love teaching, and I think I’m good at it. And I know it’s very good to me. Keeps me in the loop. When I’m teaching at INIS, my students are 25 to 35 years of age and in the business already. They’re not teenagers. I’m always learning from them, too.
Are you doing your best work now?
When I look back on my career, I realize that one theme runs through everything I’ve done: my concern about connecting with others. It was an unconscious concern back then. Now that I approach it consciously, I think I make better films. They’re less ambitious, more honest, and really focused on people: the ones on camera and the ones watching them on screen.
If you’re still making movies in 2025, that will make a career spanning 70 years. What do you make of that?
It means nothing to me, really. I’m much less interested in my 70-year career than I am in my next film or my next interview. It’s not for nothing that I’m still here. If I can continue to make myself useful, I intend to keep on keeping on.