As he took questions both onstage and later out on the street following a Sunday night screening at the Torino Film Festival – where his film, “The Noise of Engines,” played in competition – director Philippe Grégoire found himself on the opposite end of an interaction he knew all too well.
Like so many filmmakers, Grégoire himself was once an eager festivalgoer, often staying late after a screening to hear this or that director speak about their craft; in a move perhaps less common, Grégoire could pinpoint one of those moments – a Q&A with fellow Quebecois director Denis Côté, to be precise – as the exact point he decided to step behind the camera.
“I was in the same exact place,” he tells Variety. “I had to take a decision. I figured even if no one would watch my movie, even if it was risky, even if I wasn’t sure whether something was a good idea or not, to go for it.” By 2018, Grégoire had authored a handful of self-funded shorts, nearly all of them shot in his hometown of Napierville, Quebec – a spartan municipality, just 20 miles north of the U.S. border, that mostly filled the pipeline for Canadian Customs recruits.
In his early adulthood, the director had been one of them, working for a spell as an arms instructor once the federal government decreed that all agents pack heat. It was a time of life he didn’t particular wish to relive and knew he had to revisit as he prepped his feature debut.
“I figured I would write a movie and probably have to shoot with my own money and have to ask friends for help,” he says. “I wrote it thinking of what I had access to. I had a room in the house where I grew up, so I figured it might as well be there.” Recognizing that his film would build on personal experience, and on the intense and conflicted emotions one feels for their hometown, Grégoire worked a degree of ironic distance into the script – devising an absurdist take on state bureaucracy and early adulthood ennui that follows 20-year-old Alexandre (Robert Naylor) as he returns home on a particularly fraught workplace suspension.
Confident in his hand, Grégoire played his cards. “I thought this could be the exact kind of movie that could fit with [Telefilm Canada’s] Talents to Watch,” he says. The public program, which offered a dedicated support fund to emerging filmmakers prepping feature debuts, would be celebrating an anniversary in 2018, marking for a uniquely auspicious moment. “They were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Telefilm Canada, so they said let’s fund 50 projects,” Grégoire explains. “If you’re not afraid of anything, if you’re willing and able, they could be open. I knew I had this card to play… So I was focusing on being at the right spot at the right time.”
The bet paid off. Armed with $125,000 (of a total of budget that, thanks to additional supports, would top out just under $200,000) in public funds, Grégoire went about assembling a 15-strong team that mostly consisted of people he already knew – sometimes very well. “My girlfriend Amélie did the costumes, my mom did the cooking and my dad was the gofer,” he says. “I used the same crew I had for my shorts, who are all good friends. When you’ve been working with them for so long, they come through for you no matter the budget.”
As he enjoys festival acclaim and an international tour that has already taken him to San Sebastian and Torino, ahead of an early 2022 domestic release before additional global hits, Grégoire admits to a certain degree of reticence when making this DIY effort. “This is something I’d been crossing my fingers and hoping for, but I would never have said as much out loud when making the movie,” he says. “I just made it for people like myself, and quietly hoped.”
Not that his current circuit doesn’t bring a different set of challenges. “I was thinking that I’d be a lot closer to home, that I would have some time to work, because I have some ideas for new projects,” he says with a laugh. “Only now I’ve been at film festivals, I’m just trying to be as effective as I can. That isn’t always the case. I have some emails that are already two months late!”