Team work makes the dream work
Philippe Lupien and Marie-Hélène Viens decided to go where few artists have gone before: partners in life and in work. After more than a decade improving their creative dynamics, the couple behind the short films Bernard Le Grand, Amen, and Nous sommes le Freak Show have struck a fine balance between personal creativity and teamwork. Now & Next contributor Samuel Larochelle sat down with them in downtown Montreal to discuss the ups and downs of working together.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Philippe: In the beginning, there were no limits! We once worked for two years in a row without taking any vacation. We are passionate about what we do and it's how we make a living. But we also realized that it was counterproductive to never take time to disconnect from work. Today, our work still takes up a lot of room in our lives, but we’re careful about it. We listen to each other. If one of us – often myself - is tired or needs a break to start fresh the next day, we both respect that.
Marie-Hélène: When it comes to ideas, I’m the impulsive one. Philippe thinks things through and eventually voices them. When I have an idea, I storm out of the shower with just my towel on, still a bit wet, run across the house, and barge into his world, realizing too late that he’s in the middle of something. But I‘m improving!
What came first–your professional collaboration or your romantic relationship?
MH: Our relationship. We’re celebrating 20 years living together this year, but even before that we were friends in high school.
P: We have the same passion for movies. I knew I wanted a career in film since I was eight. My family always went to the movies. And on our first date, Marie-Hélène and I watched the first Lord of the Rings!
MH: My career path was not straightforward. In high school, I was in plays and I tried improv. But I considered it more a hobby than a potential career. I studied philosophy at Cégep and then started studying law in university. However, I quickly realized that I was too sensitive to work in that field. Since I was already helping Phil with his films, I thought about becoming a producer. But after my studies at UQAM (University of Quebec in Montreal), I did an internship at Item 7 (Montreal-based film production company) and that’s when I knew that I wanted to be a creative director.
Philippe, did you see Marie-Hélène’s potential before she did?
P: It didn’t take long for me to realize that she would be great at this job. At the time, I was struggling to write a screenplay. Whenever she gave me feedback, the script got much better. The next thing I knew, we were cowriting. And when we worked together on our first film, it was a natural transition to codirecting.
MH: We share everything and we help each other a lot–it makes for a strong work dynamic. Plus, that first experience was a non-funded short film. No one on the team was paid. Everyone was just trying to find their place. It really allowed us to grow.
Were you nervous that working together might affect your relationship?
MH: When we started working together, we were ready to slow down if needed. If it wasn’t working out or if work took up too much space in our personal lives, we’d stop. That being said, we have always found our visions to be complementary–and especially when working on short films, as they take less time.
P: We were more worried about creating feature films. When we started screenwriting our first film in 2015, we knew we’d be spending months on it together and we weren’t sure how that would work. Should we write separately or write together? We tried different approaches and definitely made some mistakes at first. Things are constantly evolving, but for the past four years, Marie-Hélène has officially been the screenwriter. I’m still involved in every phase, I read everything and give her ideas when she needs them, but we’ve stopped cowriting… for now!
How did that happen?
MH: We ended up losing some of the freedom that is inherent to film development. When you start a project, you want to test out ideas and see how things look. Because we were always together, we were constantly sharing things and getting immediate feedback and we found it was too soon in the process. When we write, we need to let ideas simmer so they can improve. In 2019, we couldn’t get funding for our first feature film, and after many rejections, I finally decided to rewrite the screenplay myself.
P: It was the right moment too because I needed to put that project on the shelf and forget about it for a while. I found it hard to digest all the rejections. I didn’t have the strength. It was great that Marie-Hélène took the lead.
Do you still give each other advice?
MH: All the time. Phil also develops projects on his own. Each one of us writes at our own pace. When I want his input, I share my projects with him. We benefit from each other’s strengths. He has a different perspective on things that I value.
P: Being present during the writing phase makes me feel more useful. I notice different things and I can help create momentum.
What are the benefits of co-creating films?
P: I’d say it’s sharing the excitement when we get inspired and the desire to push further together. It’s a strong feeling that can last for days. As a couple, we know each other well, we have the same background, the same references. So when we have a good idea, we can spin it out for a long time, sometimes until 3 in the morning! We’re not limited, because we’re always together. And It’s nice to have someone who is easy to talk to.
MH: It’s like that moment of collective excitement on set, when you film something and all the cast and crew look at each other because they know something magical is happening. That’s what Phil and I experience together. That’s what we’re addicted to.
Do you feel stronger when you pitch a project together?
MH: Having seen friends go through the process alone, we fully realize the advantage of preparing for a pitch together, of having someone to help you cope with stress, who can help you find answers, give you space to think, push you to go further.
P: It’s nice, but it can also be a double-edged sword. When we first started working together, I had been screenwriting and directing films for a little while. So I had my fears. I had never seen her do a pitch or work with a film crew, so I was stressed and I didn’t completely trust her. We talk a lot about self-confidence, but having complete confidence in another person takes time.
How do you deal with work-related disagreements?
P: We make time to talk about the issue, sometimes for hours or even days. There is a bit of a hierarchy between us for screenwriting because it’s Marie-Hélène who writes. I will fight hard if I’m convinced an idea isn’t good. But in the end, after making time to talk and express our points of view, she has the final say.
MH: When he tells me something isn’t working with my script, I generally don’t want to change my mind. He’ll insist, I get mad, and then I go for a walk. But I always try to understand his perspective. He often puts his finger on the exact thing I’m unsure of and that I tried to hide. He always sees right through it. I don’t like it, but I know that he just wants to make the project better. If we didn’t recognize the importance of what the other person brings to the table, we would have stopped working together a long time ago.