Interview with Director Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers: “There’s a thousand of meaningful details hidden in every image”

Director of this poignant short Just Me and You, Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers, talks to Arts Muse Magazine about making this ambitious film. Set in Montreal where young Ava and her father leave for a ‘holiday’ to Mexico, the film explores the harsh realities of trafficking immigrants through the USA. Sandrine talks to us about the inspiration for the short and the technical realities involved in shooting an 18 wheeler truck.

What kind of research did you do into the short, and what made you decide to write a film on this topic?

Luis Molinié, the screenwriter, had the idea of the film when an acquaintance told him about her relationship with her dad. As a kid, she used to follow him in different places and they spent a lot of time together. Later, she discovered he was bringing her in events that she suspected as morally and legally condemnable. Yet, for her, these moments spent with her father were happy memories. Luis was also interested in talking about hard decisions immigrants sometimes have to take.

When I started working on the script, I did a lot of research to understand the reality of today’s immigrants in Montreal. Immigration is a wide subject, so I decided to focus on the people that have to go through French classes (in Quebec, immigrants that don’t speak French have to learn it). I had some friends that went through this process and it was very hard for most of them. I figured that was the protagonists’ reality. Also, I wanted to work on language in the film (they sometimes speak Romanian, sometimes French) so even if the film is not about this issue, it felt right. It was important to me that the actors would embody the characters’ reality to its finest details. So I met different people to make sure I would get enough details and perspectives on the subject. I also got in touch with the Romanian and Moldavian community in Montreal, trying to get the right representation on screen.

These details were to inspire all the team: art direction, actors, location, etc. For example, with Anette, the art director, we asked ourselves what would be the images the dad would put in his truck? All cultures have some universal and similar objects we find in homes and these were what I was looking for. For example: a blanket with a certain pattern all the Romanian families have in their home but that are not necessarily “traditional”. Meaningful objects, such as the bubble head soccer player, came along. I also tried to understand the reality of the truckers. I discovered that most of them are really proud of their truck (we had a magical shot of the father cleaning his truck in the middle of the desert, but it didn’t make the final cut). It was also important to understand customs and everything related to the truck crossing the boarders. We had a lot of different professionals that answered our quirky questions. There’s a thousand of meaningful details hidden in every image.

Tell us about how you went about casting the film?

Luis Molinié wrote the script, thinking about Romanian protagonists. But in casting, we opened to anyone, except those who their mother tongue was French, English or Spanish. The other requirement: the father had to drive the 18-wheeler truck while acting and he also had to speak the same language than the chosen kid. Finding the right actors was a real puzzle!

We scouted all sorts of events and places such as the biggest truck stops in Ontario and Schools talent shows. Tania Arana (casting director), Johannie Deschambault (producer) and I ended up with a long list of potential talents that were both professionals and non-professionals actors. Luckily, we found Florin Peltea (who had both an acting background and a truck permit) and Dalia Binzari (8 yrs old).

Although they never confronted the actual problems portrayed in the story, the actors could relate to their character’s reality. That made it magical. For example, Dalia was in Quebec province for only a year and a half and already knew French perfectly. In the film, I left Dalia to decide when she would speak Romanian or French. It was interesting to observe that, when she didn’t want her acting-dad to understand, she would switch in French. Dalia Binzari was very intelligent. She wanted to understand the situations and she was able to access feelings such as disappointment, which is a really hard thing to do for a child actor.

How was your experience of filming in the truck, I can imagine it’s a difficult set to navigate? 

Shooting with an 18-wheeler truck in general was the hardest thing we’ve done. The technical aspects wasn’t the problem… It was the organization that came with the truck that was very tricky to manage! Our original plan was to do the actual road trip, from Montreal to Mexico. We had no other choice than to have all the permits to shoot as a truck is not an easy thing to hide from the custom! Quickly, we realized we couldn’t afford the US permits to shoot on the road with the 18-wheeler truck and the insurance that came with it. We decided to fake the US travel both in the area of Montreal and Tijuana (who has a wide variety of landscapes). We were very lucky to have an amazing team that helped us find great locations in the area of Tijuana and Montreal. With Laura Irene Arvizu (fixer in Tijuana), Felipe Garcia Naranjo and Marie-Claude Belisle (locations managers), we found a way to feel the road trip!

The other big problem was to find the actual truck! We discovered that it was impossible to cross the US-Mexican borders with an 18-wheeler truck for legal reasons. And even finding a truck alike in Montreal and Mexico felt like an impossible task. In North America, all the trucks on the road were 2011 and up. In Mexico it was the opposite: it was mostly 2011 and down. We had to postpone the film shoot 2 times because we couldn’t find the trucks! We finally found two alike at the very last minute. It was very stressful as the truck itself could be considered as a character in the movie. The story couldn’t exist without it!

How have audiences reacted to the short? 

The film has had an extraordinary ride so far in festivals. It started in Berlinale, where it won the Crystal Bear. And then, it went through festivals around the globe, winning prize in Regard, Rhode Island, Hamptons and more. But the greatest reward when doing a film, is the discussion you can have with the public after a screening and hope with all your heart that your film touched them.

What I found amazing is how this film reached a wide audience. Youth, adults, seniors and so many different cultures could relate to that father-daughter relationship. Immigration is a very important issue of our time. It was very interesting to see the different reaction and witness how one’s reaction would confront him/her to his/her  own thoughts about immigration. The protagonists are not presented as immigrants. Yet, the subject of immigration becomes an unavoidable aspect in the story. Most adults relate to the dad. Some are angry at him and question his motivation. Others put in perspective how kind he is with his daughter. Other viewers are wondering if Eva, the 8 years-old protagonist, would ever get along with her dad again? If she would recover from this experience?

One thing is clear: the audience always asks a lot of questions. And those questions are exactly the ones that Eva (the 8 years old protagonist) is left with. I decided to stay with the point of view of Eva during all the film. Adults don’t explain much to kids… nor to the audience. I decided to trust the audience. They have to think as nothing is given on a golden plate. It’s like looking at an issue like immigration with a clean slate.

What was your favourite moment when making the short, and also your least favourite experience?

Again, working with the truck and having a limited budget was both thrilling and the worst nightmare. I was very excited and inspired to work with these actors and with the truck.

But I had to keep in mind that the reset with the truck were very time consuming (a truck doesn’t do U-turn in the middle of the desert on a highway as easily as a car!).

And I wanted to take as much time as I could for the actors and not so much for the truck resets. So to reduce the challenges, and also to achieve a naturalistic look, we decided to work lightly technically. We wanted to make sure we would get the human story first.

With that in mind, Mathieu Laverdière (the director of photography) and I agreed to shoot mostly hand-held, even in the truck and work with natural light. I wanted the film to be both rough and tender, therefore I wanted the confrontation of the hand-held camera with a joyful and colorful palette. I will always remember Mathieu asking me: what does the character want now? What does she feel? We were all working for the actors, for that story. The story is told through what this little 8 year old girl witnesses. We had to have all those details and feel her journey with great precision.

With that in mind, we succeeded to capture magical moments on screen. For exemple, during the change of location, we were shooting Dalia in the truck, hoping to have a genuine smile. When we arrived towards the beach, Dalia (the main actress) saw some horses on the beach. Dalia loves horses. We captured her reaction when she first sees them! This obviously made the cut. It is a very small moment, but every time I watch it, I love it. That was a really nice improvised moment.

Just Me and You Trailer 

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