The Wise Owl Exclusive
Interview: Roger Frappier
(Producer of 'The Power of the Dog', a film that won the Golden Globe, BAFTA & Oscar for Best Director)
[Puneet Singh Gupta in conversation with Roger Frappier, Los Angeles]
Roger Frappier is a Canadian producer, director, editor, actor, and screenwriter. He is known for directing and producing films with unusual themes that challenge the established mores. ‘Each time I am back on a project it has to be something that will teach me something and at the same time it will teach people who will see the movie and also it’s something I haven’t seen before,’ says Frappier.
Roger Frappier worked in all areas of the film business, from film critic to television commercial director to director/ producer of the experimental feature documentary Le Gand film ordinaire, until he found his true vocation as a hands-on producer. While at the National Film Board of Canada in the early 1980s, he assembled a group of writer/directors who collaborated on developing edgy, urban dramas. The script for Le Déclin de l’empire américain emerged from the process that Frappier had set in motion. With that film’s phenomenal success, Frappier rose to the ranks of the top producers of feature films in Quebec. He left the NFB in 1986 and founded Max Films with Pierre Gendron, producing Un Zoo la nuit in 1987, the winner of 13 Genie Awards, still a record. His many other films include Pouvoir intime, Anne Trister, Jésus de Montréal, Ding et Dong, le film and Cosmos. Members of the Cosmos collective went on to make two of the most celebrated works in recent Québécois cinema, Un 32 août sur terre and Maelström, underscoring Frappier’s eye for fresh talent. His 2003 production, the affable Seducing Doctor Lewis, became one of the highest-grossing films at the domestic box office in Canadian film history. He has been in the news recently as producer of The Power of the Dog, a movie that has won the Golden Globe Award 2022 for the Best Motion Picture-Drama and the BAFTA Award 2022 for the Best Picture. The film has also been nominated for the Oscars in 12 categories and has won the Oscar for the Best Director.
Hello Roger. Welcome to The Wise Owl. I’m talking to Roger Frappier, who is the producer of the well-nominated film, ‘The Power of the Dog.’ The movie has been nominated for 12 Oscars. It has a Golden Globe and a BAFTA win.
PS: So, Roger, how did the idea of making an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel come to you?
RF: I was in a hotel room in Paris 10 years ago on jet lag. I was not sleeping. There was a magazine and an interview with George Depardieu, a very well-known French actor, and they were asking him little questions like what’s your best song, what’s your best theatre, what’s your best novel and for best novel he said ‘The Power of the Dog’ by Thomas Savage. I was intrigued by the title. The next day I went to a few book stalls before I found the book ‘le Pouvoir du chien’ in French.
I sat in a café and started to read. I stayed there for lunch. I continued reading. I stayed there for dinner. I continued reading. I came back to the hotel and continued reading all through the night to finish the book. I was completely taken by the story. This is the story of two brothers on a ranch in Montana in 1925. The two are very close to one another. They even sleep in the same bedroom in their own little bed. One is a tough guy, and the other is softer. Phil is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, while George, who is played by Jesse Plemons, will marry the widow of the village and bring her back to the ranch. Phil will make her life impossible until Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, will bring her son Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who will sense the evil happening in the house and will save his mother.
What really struck me about the book was the fact that even if it was in 1925, the toxic masculinity of this man, being at the centre a repressed gay person, was really something very contemporary which is why I optioned the book. I found the editor of the book in New York the day after. They told me the rights (of the book) were not available. I said I don’t care because I know it’s me that’s gonna make this movie. So, I kept talking to Amanda, who was the person responsible for the rights. Each time I was in New York I would call her and have lunch with her and a year and half later she called me back and said that the rights of Thomas Savage’s book are back and do you want them. I said sure I do want them.
First of all, ‘The power of the Dog’ is a great piece of literature. It is absolutely well written; it is a very singular book, and it has not only a great story but four great characters. And in my mind when I read the book, I said I don’t know who will play them, but actors and actresses will want to play those characters. You know we forget the stars that we see in the movies are actors inside; they want great parts to play and that’s what really interested me. So, I got the rights 8 years ago. After that, 6 months later I had a phone call from a big studio here. Sony wanted to do ‘Power of the Dog’. I negotiated with them for 6 months, we developed for another 6 months and then Sony dropped the project. The project came back to me. After that I had a phone call from Indian Paintbrush who wanted to do the ‘Power of the Dog.’ We negotiated for a year, we developed for six months, then they dropped the project,t and the project came back to me. Then after that I was going from one producer and studio to another. It was never at the level I wanted it to be. I was going from joy to disillusionment, from being happy to unhappy each time.
One morning in my office, in Montreal, I had a phone call from a woman. She said “Hi I’m Jane Campion’s agent. Are the rights of ‘The Power of the Dog’ available?” and I said, “yes they are.” She said Jane is going to come in 2 weeks for the Cannes film festival. And I said so do I. So, we met in Cannes, two weeks later and had a conversation for an hour. It was very peaceful, we were on the same wavelength just talking briefly for an hour, about the book, about those characters, about seeing each other and of course I was really impressed to meet with Jane as I have seen all her movies. I think she is one of the great filmmakers in the world. I was so impressed. At the end of this first meeting I said, “what do you do after Cannes?” and she said, “I’m going to Rome”, and I said, “so do I.” Each time I go to the film festival, I spend time in Rome. You know I love Italy. So, after Cannes for a week, Jane and I, sat every morning in a café, each one with a copy of the book, talking deeply about the adaptation, what we like in the book, what we think we should keep in the book, what we think is unnecessary, we talked about the characters, we talked about Phil, we talked about George, we talked about Rose, about Peter. On Friday I said to Jane, “the movie is yours if you want it.” So that was the beginning of the best junction that happened in this film. Then she found a friend producer, Tanya Seghatchian, and another producer who flew to Rome on Saturday, and we had lunch and that was when we decided to find a way to make this great film based on this very unique and singular book.
So, I came back from that very excited, but the question was how do you find money to develop this. I mean this industry is so vast and from both sides of the Atlantic. Then I had another offer here with Jane that went on for a couple of months, but they were not at the level that Jane and I envisioned the scope of this film. At that time there was no script there was only the book. Maybe for the studios, just the book with Jane Campion, even if she was and is a great film maker, a great director, maybe they didn’t see the commercial aspect of it, or they didn’t see the quality of the film that will be. So, Jane told me, during that period that we were going through different possibilities, Jane said, “you should meet my producers of See Saw, Ian Canning, Emile Sherman, Simon, with whom I did Top of the Lake.” ‘Top of the Lake’ is a TV program that is really, really good. Jane said, my producers will be at the Toronto festival in September. So, I contacted them, and we met at the Toronto festival next September. With Ian and Simon, it was the same thing as with Jane, we were on the same wavelength, we saw the movie the same way and I said we’re gonna do the movie together. Then I called my lawyer, and we did a development deal that we signed in February and Jane started to work on the adaptation of the book.
PS: Great. So how long from the time you read the book to when you and Jane found a commercial project to move forward?
RF: I would say 5 years. 5 years since I had the rights of the book till I met Jane. During these 5 years I had to keep the flame alive, I had to review the rights of the book and I had to keep the spirit that ‘I really want to do the movie.’
PS: So, Roger is that common, does that happen in a lot of projects?
RF: Absolutely. Yesterday at the Producers’ Guild breakfast, there were many producers talking about their projects. Some took 10 years, some took 7 years, some took 5 years. We are like long-distance runners. On this project, I spent 10 years of my life, other movies took 7 or 5 (years). Some are 3(years). 3 is the fastest. From the idea to the movie on the screen is at least 3 years. So, you have to choose a subject with which you know you have to spend many years, so you have to choose a subject which when it will reach the screen in 3 years will be a subject which will be in synchronicity with what the people want to see. So, this is something you have to do by intuition. There is no rule. The only rule that we have is that we have no rule. It is based on your belief. This book was optioned 5 times before our option. Why it did not succeed before was probably because it was not the time. For me also it took 5 years to find a person to do it. So, for work as a producer, you have to be grounded, you have to be patient, you have to be in focus, and you have to keep in mind where you want to go even if it will take many-many years.
PS: Roger, you said that the film was better than the vision of the project?
RF: Yes. When I read the book, I saw the story, I saw the characters but Jane’s vision, what she adds to the story, was the tension between Nature and the people that live in it and this is something that I can feel in the movie, that how the Nature-the mountain, the land, the cows- have a real impact on those people even if it was well described in the book, how Jane with Ari Wegner, the cinematographer, capture Nature, is really fantastic and we can see the influence of nature on them. It is in the title ‘The power of the Dog.’ The shadow on the mountain is like the face of a dog and it means that the one who can see it has power over Nature, maybe they have power over the people and the way we did it, some people cannot see it when we show the movie. When Peter comes (Rose’s son), he says immediately that there is a dog. And Phil says, “you saw it?” And he says, “yes.” And Peter and Phil (I will not tell the ending) have a very unique relationship. Peter also has the power as he saw it in the shadow on the mountain. This is really in Jane’s vision. The way that she was able to put that tension between Nature and the characters.
There is one person in the movie that is not there but is very present, that is Bronco Henry and Bronco Henry is the cowboy. Phil had sentiment for him, even love for him. Bronco Henry teaches him how to be a ranchman and cowboy. He is dead. He is not there. He has to be present even when he is not there. To be able to do that, Jane in pre-production did something really fantastic. She asked Benedict Cumberbatch to write a letter to Bronco Henry. He was surprised. He did it. Jane read the letter and then told him, “Now you have to write an answer that Bronco Henry would write back to you.” And he did that too. Which means Bronco Henry became a life inside Phil played by Cumberbatch. That was a fantastic way for Jane to keep the ‘present of the not present’ throughout the movie. Jane says often in her Q&A that her way of working is by being conscious and unconscious. She takes from a dream, and she is able to live of that and she is able to let all of that come in relationship with the story, with the actors, and that’s why this movie has so many levels. I have seen it so many times, maybe 50 times since this movie has finished, and I still discover little things each time I watch it. I think honestly it is a masterpiece. This is a movie that people will have the same pleasure in watching 50 years from now, as we do to watch it now.
PS: I agree it’s a masterpiece and seems like a classic. Each time you see it you are peeling of layers and seeing something new and like a classic every time it rings true and resonates with the heart.
PS: Like you said about Bronco Henry, I feel there are so many good characters and the main character, Bronco Henry, is right there. The way Jane has brought him up, without being there, he is there. And that’s beautiful.
RF: Especially the other thing she did, is the initial on the scarf. To me it’s so sensual, it’s a touch of master craftsmanship to do the scene like this.
PS: It is beautiful. It’s very sensitive, it’s very subtle but it tells all.
PS: So, about this concept of toxic masculinity and its analysis in the book that is set in 1925. When you read the book and started thinking about it as a film project, did the question come to mind that would the film be relevant now considering it was more pervasive then, not that it is not there anymore.
RF: It is there. Even if the LGPTQ rights have gained so much, it is still there. There are many-many countries where you’ll be dead or go to jail for life. But not only on a political level but a normal level, even in 2022, so many youngsters are in the closet, they cannot tell their parents that they are gay, or they will refrain that and try to have a normal life and in 15 years they will finally be able to come out of the closet. It is still present even though now you can be gay or get married and have kids. So, the society has evolved a lot but individually it is still there. The reason for the success of the movie is that although it is 1925 in Montana, it is still linked to our days. I could not imagine but even Thomas Savage himself got married and had kids because he was not able to live his life openly. I cannot imagine being a cowboy in 1925 (in such a situation). It would have been awful. It’s (the film) great because even if it is a western and a historical film, it is like a contemporary film. And I think it is the first Western in world without any guns. (Chuckles)
PS: That’s right. The first Western without guns (laughs). That did not even cross my mind when I was seeing the movie.
Yes, you are right. People are still repressed and not being able to be their true selves. There are some who are able to come out of the closet, like you said, but not everyone.
RF: It is the other way also. In Montreal, a young teenager went and told his father. He was so devastated. It is like the other side of the same coin. He was able to say it, but his parent was devastated. Then there is a big period of discussion and adaptation. Some accept it and some parents still don’t.
PS: Yes. Absolutely. You have produced films with unusual themes, be it ‘Another House” that narrates the story of the schism between brothers caring for a father with Alzheimer or ‘2 seconds’ which is about a bisexual or ‘Comfort & Indifference’ about the 1980 Quebec Referendum etc. So, do these of scripts or stories that are different, do they stand out with you, do they make a connection with you?
RF: You know I always say my job as a producer, is like a permanent university. I’m learning all the time. So, each time I am back on a project it has to be something that will teach me something and at the same time it will teach people who will see the movie and also, it’s something I haven’t seen before, otherwise if it is a story and I can name 10 films that have the same story, why make another movie. This is true for all the films that you mentioned and many others. There are many movies about Alzheimer but this one was closer to me, and I really enjoyed making it.We had a great response and many discussions about the film. It was also the story of the father of the Director, Mathieu Roy, and I knew him; that’s why I say it was very personal. I knew the two brothers and so it was close to me.
I have produced many movies with father-son relationship. I lost my father when I was 18 years old. I left home, went to Montreal by myself, found an apartment, found a job, went to university. So, the relationship of father and son is really very important for me. Even in ‘The Power of the Dog,’ there is something like this in the relationship between Phil and Peter. This theme in common in all my movies.
But the most important thing is that I’m learning all the time. I have learnt so much working with Jane Campion. I see the way she works, the way she expresses herself, the way she directs people, the way she adapted the book. The adaptation of a great book is more difficult than to write an original screenplay. Because you have to keep the essence of the book and you have to place your own vision on it. And she did the job perfectly.
When I produced ‘Decline of the American Empire’, it was the relationship between people 25 years ago. After that ‘Jesus of Montreal.’ This is the movie I still love because of the spiritual aspect of it, compared to the very commercial society in which we live. All the questions (raised in the movie) are still a part of our life today. Like I said in the beginning, it is going to be 3,5, 7 10 years of my life; it had better be a subject I can spend time with.
PS: That (the subject) is close to your heart and one that you said you can learn from. Wonderful.
What stood out for you during the making of the movie (The Power of the Dog)?
RF: The unique experience in the movie is that after we shot all the exteriors, I came back to Montreal for 2 weeks, as we were taking time to go into the studio to do the interiors. Then the pandemic arrived, the borders were closed. And the film stopped. It was a very tragic moment. We didn’t know when the movie would re-start. Will all the people be available and alive? How much it would cost? Will we be able to finish the movie? We were shooting in New Zealand and after one case New Zealand closed the borders. Finish. That was the middle of March. Then Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst flew to LA to be with Kirsten’s mother and their kid.
We were able to start four months later, with 16 days left in June. This was a very difficult and dramatic situation, but Jane turned it into a very positive one. She said for the first time she had the time to sleep, she had time to look at all the dailies, she had time to think, to make notes for the interiors. We were very lucky to be with Netflix. They have been great partners. They were with us during the pandemic, and they paid the extra amount of money necessary to finish the movie. Jane did a new editing of 6 minutes so when the actors came back, she showed it to everyone so that they were back in the spirit of the movie, and we shot the interiors. So, we turned a very dramatic and negative moment into a very positive one.
PS: Do you have any project you are working on right now?
RF: Yes. I am working on 3 projects at the moment. One movie in French. It is again a story that juxtaposes the past and the present. It is set in 1946 and 2022. It is the story of a ‘Brother’, La Frere Marie Victorin, the greatest Botanist of Quebec. He did all the flowers of Quebec, and he did the same thing in Cuba. The movie is about the relationship between him and his secretary, Marcelle Gauvreau. They wrote letters (to each other) extensively for 20 years. So, the basic of the movie is the relationship between the two actors who play these characters, in our modern life and how playing those characters affects them. It’s very interesting. The basic about the movie is that Marie and Marcelle had love without sex and the modern characters have sex without love. So that is why we put the two periods in relationship like that. This is the story we put together. Both of them were religious, they believe in God strongly, but they were totally in love. That’s this movie.
And I am negotiating for the rights of a book. I will not tell you the title. The negotiation is starting to close.
I am working also on my first musical as I love musicals. So, these are the 3 projects I am on.
PS: That’s wonderful. Fingers crossed that all the projects come through, the way you want them to.
RF: Thank you.
PS: Now Roger, Last one. Do you think ‘The Power of the Dog’ will win at the Oscars?
(The interview was recorded on 20th March in the run-up to the Oscars)
RF: I wish it will win. I wish that Jane will be recognized as the Best Director. But you know it is not in our hands. Up to now, I think we have already won as the movie is seen, because of Netflix, around the world. The movie is good, and we have had so many prizes up to now. This is the last one. I hope we gonna win. Because we are where we are at the moment, nominated for the Oscars but if we don’t win…(shrugs). Honestly it will be a 10-minute deception and after that it will be life as usual. Because the movie is good, and life is in front of us.
PS: Thank you so much for the interesting chat. I have seen the movie and I think it is a wonderful movie and like you said in your words and I agree with them. It’s a masterpiece. Wishing you the best and I really hope it wins at the Oscars.
Thank you, Roger, for your time and for talking to The Wise Owl. This is Puneet Singh Gupta talking to Roger Frappier, one of the Producers of ‘The Power of the Dog’
RF: Thank you.