Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: TIFF Interview with Heather O'Neill and Claire Blanchet

Share |
The End of Pinky (Claire Blanchet and Heather O'Neill)

“The End of Pinky” began its life as a short story by acclaimed Montreal writer Heather O’Neill. Published in The Walrus, the story caught the attention of filmmaker Claire Blanchet and wouldn’t let her go.

Claire convinced Heather to not only grant her the film rights but to narrate the English version of the short film. Painstakingly created by hand in stereoscopic 3D, The End of Pinky is a gorgeous aesthetic crossbreed of Tim Burton and Fritz Lang. Claire captures the eerie, sexy atmosphere of Heather’s story of love, murderous intentions and lost souls in Montreal, and translates it to the visual and auditory.

In celebration of the Toronto International Film Festival (where the film will appear via The National Film Board), Open Book spoke with Claire and Heather for a unique insider’s perspective on the nuts and bolts of adaptation. Claire tells us about stealing colour from the streets of Montreal and creative uses for saran wrap and plasticine, while Heather explains how short fiction is like the Tardis.

You can get a taste of Claire and Heather’s beautifully atmospheric, slightly creepy, entirely evocative final creation in this clip, courtesy of the National Film Board.

Open Book:

Tell us how you came together on this project. Why was "The End of Pinky" particularly suitable for a film adaptation?

Claire Blanchet:

I remember experiencing “The End of Pinky” as a kind of dream-like animated film the first time I read the story. I fell in love with the characters, the delicate balance of danger and hope, and the dark, moody atmosphere of night in Montreal. I also fell in love with the language itself. Heather’s got this totally unique and brilliant humour, poetry and sensitivity, and in Pinky there’s also this masterful twist of hardboiled language woven through. The story is rooted in noir fiction, which of course has inspired a rich history in film. Voice over narration is part of this tradition, and so right away I hoped that Heather might be willing to read her original story for a film adaptation.

Heather O’Neill:

Claire originally approached me to do this project. She kept showing up at my house or cafes with different sketches and charcoal drawings. The cityscape was so beautiful and the characters so mournful and adorable, it seemed a shame not to let them come to life, so I gave her the rights.

OB:

Claire, can you tell us a little about working in stereoscopic 3D and why you chose this medium?

CB:

I read Heather’s story for the first time on this really snowy February night when I was working on a stereoscopic production for the first time. I was immersed in all the new things I was learning, and I when I dreamed about “The End of Pinky”, I imagined it as a stereoscopic film. I was fortunate to continue working with incredible mentors like Roman Kroitor, Munro Ferguson, Paul Kroitor and David Verrall in the years that followed, some of the most innovative leaders in 3D filmmaking. I learned to think of 3D as a medium constantly in development, so much yet to be explored and discovered. I knew I wanted the aesthetic of Pinky to be very tactile, handmade, I wanted to keep a sense of innocence in the materials. We used things like saran wrap, scraps of fabric, cotton, paper snowflakes, tin foil, and the drawn elements were drawn with pencil and coloured with pastel. Everything was photographed, then treated digitally with more color and texture and light. David Seitz, our stereographer, worked brilliantly and tirelessly placing each element in virtual space, softening every edge, working with lighting and reflection and all of that beautiful snow. Our joke while we were making the film: “maybe no one has made a 3D film this way before, and there are reasons for that.” But we did it (thank you Dave!) and developed techniques I’d love to work with again.

OB:

Heather, how did you find the experience of narrating the film? Did you find yourself discovering anything about your work by engaging with it in a new way?

HO:

I always find it oddly humiliating to read anything that I’ve written out loud. I feel like I’m being forced to stand up in front of the class and read a note that I got caught passing. I thought my voice brought out everything that was funny and absurd in this supposed hardboiled gangster tale. My voice is kind of child-like. Once I was on the radio and a listener wrote in and said, that 12 year old you had on was a genius. It’s like being forced to play a requiem with a piccolo. But it in end, when I watched the film, I thought it was magical to hear my voice being part of this strange animated universe. There were these 3D snowflakes falling onto my hands and somewhere from the cold my voice began telling a story.

OB:

How do you go about the process of translating the literary aesthetic of a short story to a visual and audio aesthetic? What informs your choices during this process in terms of music, colour palette and other decisions?

CB:

Some key decisions were really clear to me. Like when I first heard Genevieve Levasseur’s music in 2008 I felt strongly that she’d be the ideal composer for the film. My producer Michael Fukushima at the NFB and I shared a vision for the film, and he was really blown away by Gen’s talent. Sam Vipond was the artist we wanted for the sound design from the beginning, and he also did the sound editing for the film. I was thrilled that Heather agreed to read her original story, and I had the idea that we could create a pair of films by having a male voice for the French version. I hoped we could work with Marc-Andre Grondin, and our collegue Victoire Bessette helped with everything from approaching him about the film to securing his participation. He had only seen the film once I think and it was far from finished at that point, but he captured it in his first reading and delivered such an evocative performance. Thanks to him and to Heather, even though the visuals are identical, we have two unique films.

The color palette developed over the course of production, and collaborator and filmmaker Elise Simard was a huge inspiration with this. I had an old color photograph of a street in downtown Montreal, I just found it on the internet, but it was brown with vivid reds, greens, pinks and blues and it felt totally right. The city was built with pencil drawings I’d done, Elise and I layered in textures, color, light and shadow for each shot. We’d photograph sparkly paper or mylar smudged with plasticine under the camera and layer that in. We used textures our collaborator Rebecca St-John had photographed all over the city. Elise also animated each neon sign in the film under the camera: she made stencils from my pencil drawings, she underlit them and used coloured acetate, and animated each frame by hand. The signs are some of the stars of the film I think. Lauren Goldman worked with us on finalizing the colors for the characters’ costumes, she’s a painter and was a colorist on the film. She proposed several combinations, all within our color palette, and we agreed on the winning ones for each character. We were especially excited when we found the right mix for Johnny, which was challenging since he’s in almost every shot.

Many decisions were made with the help of Jelena Popovic, our brilliant editor. I learned so much working with her. She was passionate about the film, always balancing attention for the big picture with the most minute of details. Down to the frame, she was mindful of keeping the narration, the music and the picture strengthening and complimenting, rather than obscuring, each other. The story is the priority, especially when working with material as strong as Heather’s. Thanks in large part to Jelena’s support and insight, I feel we did the best we could with the film from beginning to end.

OB:

What do you love about these specific characters? Do either of you see anything of yourself in any of the three main characters?

CB:

When I first started working on the adaptation, I felt like I could interpret Mia and Pinky from the inside out pretty naturally. I had a lot of trouble with Johnny. I saw Godard’s A Bout de Souffle the summer I was finalizing the screenplay, and that unlocked my interpretation of Johnny’s character for me. I saw the sequence where Michel is looking at a poster of Bogart through display glass at a theatre: he is reflected in Bogart’s image (usually the hero), and I thought of Johnny going to see Breathless and imagining himself reflected in Michel (an antihero), reflected in Bogart and I got a sense of how to approach him. I already liked the idea that Johnny was a big movie fan, and sort of dealt with things by telling himself his own story in a kind of glamorized noir-like narration. All we know from the original story is that Johnny is a “gorgeous thief”. No indication that he has never killed anyone before, so what he is going to choose that evening will be of great significance.

I worked with a script advisor, Ben Klein, who really underlined the importance of the ambiguity of the ending, and this was extremely helpful. Johnny is always imagining something: going over sequences from his childhood, picturing what it would be like to see Mia, taking her to the ballroom. Always distancing himself from what’s really happening. And as he’s walking towards Pinky he’s imagining Mia waiting for him at his home. He’s trying to convince himself and comfort himself at the same time. I have hope for all three of the characters, they each represent each other’s vulnerability.

HO:

I love Pinky the most, of course. He’s a happy-go-lucky misfit. He’s like an existential hero with a sense of humour. And he’s clearly in the wrong line of work. That he’s survived as a gangster this long is a miracle. He hasn’t got his head blown off because he’s so fun to have around. And he’s an obsessive writer by nature, like me. If I don’t write, I get completely bonkers and start going through withdrawal.

OB:

Several pieces of Canadian short fiction have been adapted to film in recent years. Do you think short fiction loans itself to film in a different way than novels? What are some of the opportunities you see in adapting short fiction?

CB:

I think so, it seems to me to be a really different thing. I’m interested in working on a feature in the future, and this is teaching me more than ever how different the considerations are. You have a short duration and that can be challenging for its own reasons, but there is a different kind of freedom with short fiction: the films will probably be shorter and made on a shorter schedule, and with a smaller budget than a feature of course. This means you can take different kinds of risks I think, and you can ask different things of an audience too. A five minute experience is really different than a two hour experience for the human body and mind. There are more and more on-line distribution and viewing possibilities, and apps that are fantastic for short films. I hope that sites like Netflix might start programming more shorts, or collections of shorts, in the future, and I love it when shorts are programmed before features in theatres!

HO:

Oh, it totally depends. Generally, a novel is going to make a more obvious choice for a film adaptation. Some short stories can tell the story of a whole life, like Alice Munro’s, which is why her works lend themselves to feature length films. It’s a magic trick. Or it’s like Dr. Who’s Tardis: it seems small on the outside, but once you get inside of it, its dimensions are huge. And some novels can be such smorgasbords of events and scenes and conversations and meditations, that they can be difficult to translate into film. They might be better conveyed through a 100 part mini-series or a three ringed circus.

OB:

Were there particular writers/filmmakers either of you would cite as having influenced this piece?

CB:

F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, John Huston, Michael Curtiz, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Disney and Warner Bros Studios, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Hayao Miyazaki, Michael Arias, Karl Lemieux, Elise Simard.

HO:

As far as writers, it’s sort of a mish-mash of Mickey Spillane & Fyodor Dostoevsky & Lewis Carroll. And since film always, always, always informs my literary aesthetic, I would give a big shout out to Jean-Luc Godard, whose gangsters are all poets, and whose adults are all children.

OB:

What other films at the festival are you looking forward to seeing?

CB:

I wish I could see everything. A few I especially want to see: Sarah Prefers to Run, Hi-Ho Mistahey!, The Animal Project, Empire of Dirt, Prisoners, Cold Eyes, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Seasick, Subconscious Password, A Time is a Terrible Thing to Waste, Impromptu, Cochemare, The Art of the Steal, Watermark, Dallas Buyers Club, A Story of Children and Film (…lots of others.)

OB:

What are you working on now?

CB:

I’m excited to be developing a new project with Heather, working with a very different and equally enchanting story. I’d love to work with the NFB again, and to build on techniques used for Pinky. I keep on drawing the city, and am hoping to do something interesting with that collection of drawings. Also I’m trying to gain experience with live-action, and experiment with some hybrid animation/live techniques.

HO:

I just finished a new novel called The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, coming out in May 2014.


Claire Blanchet is a Montreal-based filmmaker. Originally from Fredericton, she has studied dance, studio art and philosophy. Her love of drawing and movement led her to Concordia University's animation program, where she graduated as recipient of the Norman McLaren Award in 2007. She works with a variety of techniques: hand drawn, under-the camera, direct on film, stereoscopic and digital media. Past projects include Trash and No Star! (2008), co-directed with Karl Lemieux, and The Wobble Incident (2009), co-directed with Sam Vipond.

Heather O’Neill's first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, earned accolades around the world, including being named winner of CBC Canada Reads 2007 and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and being a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize. She is a regular contributor to CBC Books, CBC Radio, National Public Radio, The New York Times Magazine, The Gazette (Montreal) and The Walrus. She was born in Montreal, where she currently lives.

For more information about Heather O'Neill's first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals please visit the HarperCollins website.

For more information about The End of Pinky and Claire Blanchet's other work, please visit the National Film Board website.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad