Toronto was never part of the plan for Maxime Desmons, director of the independent film What We Have, which was awarded a spot to play in the Rendez Vous Du Cinéma Québecois Wednesday.
What We Have follows the story of troubled Maurice, a Francophone adrift in a small town outside of Toronto. Maurice begins tutoring young Allen in French, and their friendship becomes complicated when Allen begins to fall in love with Maurice.
Desmons is the writer, director and star of the film, beginning on the project in 2010. However, his inspiration for this film started back in 1992. Maxime arrived in Canada that year knowing no one outside of the film community and his contact with people in the industry was limited. Within his first week in Canada he met Damon D’Oliveira, his now husband, through a friend that was involved in the Toronto International Film Festival, and a world wind romance ensued. Neither was not looking for any romantic attachment when the two had met, but by that weekend Damon had taken Maxime home to meet his family.
D’Oliveira produced the wildly successful miniseries The Book of Negroes, and Maxime worked together flawlessly.
“We’re a good team,” Desmons said with a smile, “The only difficulty is that we have to know when to stop working. There has to be a separation. Like, ‘Come on honey, we need to eat, the fridge is empty,’ you know,” he laughed.
“Damon loved the story of the young boy who is bullied at school, doesn’t fit in, then gets a French tutor, knows he’s gay, and falls in love with him. It applies to anybody, everybody!” Desmons elaborates on the phenomenon of having a crush on the teacher who seems to just “get” you.
“I would always fantasize about my literacy teachers, boy or girl! Never math teachers though.” He pulls a face. “Math was never my thing.”
The problem in the narrative comes when Maurice does not put up boundaries, for reasons of his own.
“This kid, this adolescent, falls in love with his tutor,” Desmons said. “Any real teacher or tutor would have put some limits up right away. But Maurice doesn’t know, because he isn’t grown. And suddenly this relationship brings him back to past trauma he hasn’t dealt with. He meets Allan, and suddenly he is triggered.”.
D’Oliveira and co-executive editor Sally Karam were very aware of this story arc in the first draft, and encouraged Desmons to explore Maurice’s story, instead of focusing on the love story that the audience has already seen.
In 2012, Desmons applied to Telefilm Canada, the biggest Canadian agency and the main investor of Canadian films. At that time, they turned the film down. D’Oliveria, Desmons and Karam headed back to the drawing board in an effort to tighten up the script and condense the story. Six months of editing later, they became eligible for a new program, and were given a $250,000 budget to make their film. According to Maxime, this was “dirt-cheap.” They got 15 days for production.
Desmons’ and D’Oliveria’s preparation for these 15 critical days spanned six months and included rehearsing camera angles, meeting with costume designers, and extensive story boarding. The most prevalent advice he was given by his fellow directors was simply: “Be ready.”
Everything was shot here in Toronto. The majority of cast and crew were friends of friends and contacts that have been accumulated throughout years being involved in the independent film scene.
Desmons was relatively calm during the whole process, until the time came to cast the role of Maurice. When Desmons brought up the topic, D’Oliveira was puzzled.
“Well, you’re going to do it,” Desmons could almost hear the ‘of course’ in of D’Oliveira’s voice.
“That scared me a lot,” Desmons said of playing the lead.
Though he started his career in acting, he hadn’t acted in seven years. Desmons had put acting on the backburner to pursue directing after realizing that he wanted to share his stories, not portray other people’s.
Seeing as Maurice is based on a past version of Desmons himself, it was difficult for Desmons to tread down that road again.
“I got a notebook on Maurice. What does he do, what time does he wake up, why does he do the things he does, what are his dreams, his nightmares? Little by little I started to get to this place of deep … loneliness. And I’m glad during production that I had that limit [of 15 days], because it started to weigh on me,” Desmons said.
He is very far from that place now, happily married and successful.
“It was a dark place to go back there,” Desmons sighed when speaking about having D’Oliveria by his side during the process.
D’Oliveria represents how far Maxime is from the character of Maurice now. It had been 15 years since he related to that character, and embodying him for those 15 days might have proved too much had he not had D’Oliveira’s steady vision of the film.