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Jean-Claude Lauzon

MONTREAL — Canadian film director Jean-Claude Lauzon died Sunday Aug. 10 in a plane crash in northern Quebec, along with his girlfriend, popular Quebec TV thesp Marie-Soleil Tougas. He was 43.

Lauzon and Tougas, who were on vacation, were in a Cessna 180 that plunged into the tundra in a remote region 2,400 miles north of Montreal. The cause of the fiery crash was still under investigation by the Quebec provincial police on Monday Aug 11.

Lauzon — who is best-known for writing and directing the pics “Night Zoo” (Un Zoo, La Nuit) and “Leolo” — was born and raised in tough neighborhoods in downtown Montreal and, before becoming a helmer, did stints as a factory laborer, taxi driver and scuba diver. He hung out with Hells Angels bikers and small-time crooks, but his mentor, National Film Board of Canada staffer Andre Petrowski, convinced the high-school dropout to go back to a university.

While studying at the U. of Quebec at Montreal, Lauzon began making films and his 19-minute, 16mm effort, “Super Maire,” won the Norman McLaren Grand Prize at the Canadian Student Film Festival in 1979. His second short, “Piwi,” which he started working on while spending time at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, garnered the young auteur the Jury Prize at the Montreal World Film Festival in 1981.

After spending several years making TV commercials in Montreal, Lauzon made his feature debut with “Night Zoo,” which had its world preem as the opening-night selection at the Directors Fortnight sidebar at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. The hard-hitting urban noir was part stylish thriller, part poignant drama about a son’s reconciliation with his dying father, and Daily Variety’s review called it “an astonishingly mature first feature … bound to draw positive attention.”

The pic went on to win a record 13 Canadian Genie Awards, including nods for best picture, director and screenplay, and it also took home the Golden Reel Award as top B.O. performer in Canada of the year. Lauzon, who was far from prolific, didn’t return to the silver screen until the launch of “Leolo” in 1992. It made its bow in the official competition at the Cannes festival, earning widespread acclaim from the media for the event.

“Leolo” was one of the bestselling international pics ever for Alliance Communications of Toronto, with pickups in more than 70 territories, and it generated strong box office results in a couple of European countries, most notably Germany and Spain. Fine Line released “Leolo” in the U.S., where, good reviews notwithstanding, it failed to make much of a mark commercially.

In spite of widespread interest from American and Canadian producers, Lauzon effectively turned his back on the cinema milieu in the years following “Leolo.” He made a good living shooting TV commercials in Quebec and spent as much time as possible piloting his Cessna to remote locations in far northern Quebec, where he would fish and hunt.

Alliance vice chairman Victor Loewy said that his company had recently reached a deal with Lauzon to shoot his first-ever English-lingo project, to have been produced next spring by Alliance and Les Prods. Du Verseau in Montreal.

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