SSIFF 2021 interview: Philippe Grégoire (The Noise of Engines)

Philippe Grégoire’s very promising debut The Noise of Engines had its world premiere at the 69th San Sebastián International Film Festival. Cédric Succivalli talked to him about the similarities between his protagonist and himself, how he came to shoot part of the film abroad, and just how difficult it was to find an Icelandic actress who speaks French.

CS: The film is called an ‘autofiction’ in the press material, since your protagonist shares a lot of your background, including growing up in a rural town. How did growing up there influence you as a cineaste?

PG: When I was in film school and started to make short films, whenever I was writing I was thinking about these rural landscapes: forests, rivers, and so on. Simply because that’s where I grew up. So even though I was in school in Montreal, on shooting those shorts I would simply take my equipment to my home town. I thought that’s how everybody made their films. But then when it came to projecting all of our projects, I realized that all other students were shooting in the city and I was the only one to go outside. So for my first feature film I knew I wanted to go back there. Not in the least because my parents have a hardware store, so they knew all the people in town. Whenever I was looking for somebody or something specific, they would always come up with a suggestion. The thing about my home town, Napierville, is that all people know about it is that it has a race track. I wanted to shoot specifically at that race track, because that kind of racing (drag racing, ed.) probably had its peak at the end of the ’60s, and it’s certainly in its heyday now. It’s something that will die off, because people nowadays, given the environment, don’t want that anymore: burning a lot of fossil fuels, lots of noise. And this end-of-life idea was very important to me, because I wanted to tell a story that could happen now, but not 10 years from now.

CS: The film deals with outsiders and how they are perceived by the communities they enter, where even the protagonist Alexandre is met with hostility in the town where he grew up. Given that he parallels your own experiences in a way, what were your own experiences of being an outsider that maybe have made it into the film?

PG: I grew up there, so to me I was always ‘from there’. But after moving to film school in Montreal and then coming back every once in a while, I noticed that when people there would ask me where I’m from, especially people who had just moved in, they would say, “Yeah, you’re from here, but you’re not really from here.” That is something that changes very fast: even though it’s the place you grew up, you rapidly become a foreigner. Linked to that is my experience with working as a customs officer, to pay my way through film school. The new government in Canada at that time wanted to arm all customs officers. Some colleagues opposed that idea, some were in favour of it. But after a few weeks of firearms training, those who were against it had changed their mind. They were saying things like, “Times are different now,” or “It’s more dangerous, we need these weapons.” So it occurred to me that in a few weeks you can change people’s mentality, and that’s something that I wanted to make it into the film.

CS: The last part of the film is shot on location in Iceland. Given the tight budget, why was it still important to shoot there instead of bringing Iceland ‘closer to home’, so to speak?

PG: In the story, the protagonist is now a foreigner, even in his own home town. And then he meets another foreigner, one who opens up for him the idea to take his own decisions and the possibility to take different paths in life. I liked this idea of somebody coming into your life and making you evolve as a person. When I went to the Reykjavik International Film Festival with my short film, I thought Iceland could maybe be a good location for my ‘foreigner’ to come from. In Quebec we have seven million people who speak French, and we always like to think we’re such a tiny community. But then you look at Iceland, with a population of three hundred thousand, and then it dawned on me that it would be great to contrast this Québécois character with somebody from an even smaller community. So when I was there I started to research race tracks in Iceland, and when I found one the people were really open to the idea of me shooting there one day. So when I was writing, I put my character there. I like this idea of having a character talking about a place all the time, and then suddenly you are there, so that is what happens to my protagonist. I wanted him to be in Iceland, talking to random people. So you have these two other people talking about how beautiful and amazing Iceland is, and I’ve had that happen to me as well when I travelled and met people in hostels, and it always occurred to me how exhausting that must be for locals to always hear.

CS: How did you find an Icelandic actress who speaks fluent French (Tanja Björk)? Did the character come first there, or did you first cast her and wrote the character around her?

PG: When I wrote the script, I had friends from Germany in the back of my mind, for whom French is their second language. I like how that gives a person a little backstory. So I was actually looking for a French speaking actress from Iceland, but I expected to end up finding somebody in Quebec. My producer insisted, however, that she should be from Iceland. Small pool of actors! I think I have met all of those that matched the criteria, which must have been less than ten. So it certainly was a challenge, but a rather funny one at that.

CS: I know first-time directors often don’t like comparisons, but to me there were touches of Aki Kaurismäki in the film, in the way you have all characters except the lead be a little bit ‘off’. This brings a certain uncanniness, and eeriness to the film. Can you talk a bit about this specific choice?

PG: It started when I was writing the dialogue, which I always wanted to be a bit off indeed. I had to tell the actors that this was not really Québécois. I mean, sometimes the words are very much Québécois slang, but then all of a sudden it’s completely different from it. Even the people who watched the film in Quebec were a little bit thrown by that, realizing that those characters were not exactly them, which was great, because I wanted it to be that way. I wanted that bit of coldness in the way the characters act towards each other, because that way they all become ‘foreign’; and then you have the interaction with the Icelandic character, the real foreigner, and there’s a different rhythm there, whereas with the rest of them it feels like a bad game of ping pong.

CS: Thinking of the police officers, and also the landscapes, this also reminded me a bit of Bruno Dumont, in particular P’tit Quinquin. Is that the kind of cinema that you are drawn to?

PG: I may start to sound like a fanboy, but I love Dumont’s work, and I was very impressed by Quinquin. The way he shoots landscapes in the place where he grew up obviously resonates with me, and indeed he also has police officers in the film. I have to say I like uniforms, what they bring to the camera in terms of colour, what they say about the characters wearing them. Since I worked as a customs officer, I know what they mean, so I was sure I wanted to have that element in. So in that regard I certainly relate to his work, especially Quinquin.

Philippe Grégoire (The Noise of Engines)