“Mars et Avril is a movie that will surprise you. It has to, as every time it seems to go one way, it will twist off in a new direction. It will also give your eyes a good time (…) It looks beautiful and it looks different.” – Esther Inglis-Arkell, io9
In many ways, Mars et Avril is a tribute to the French and Belgian comics of the 70’s and 80’s, both in form and content, especially François Schuiten and his series Les Cités Obscures. Wanting the source of his inspiration to play a direct role in the creation of the film, rather than trying to mimic his style, Martin Villeneuve invited Schuiten to serve as production designer on Mars et Avril. Schuiten had already worked on such films as The Golden Compass and Mr. Nobody. Villeneuve went to Brussels in May 2008 to work with Schuiten, then Schuiten came to Montreal twice to follow up: in September 2008 and December 2011. Throughout filming and post-production, the two men touch-based as often as they could through Skype.
Shot on a very tight budget of 2.3 million, in only 25 days and with abundant use of green screen, Mars et Avril has no less than 550 visual effect shots, all of which required colossal prep and meticulous post-production work. The film’s 1200 shots were hand-drawn as storyboards and then edited with the dialogue in a detailed, two-hour long animatic that mapped out every detail before shooting. Five artists worked on the storyboards: François Schuiten, D. Jeevan, Manny Chatha, Guy Lessard and Martin Villeneuve.
Most of the filming for Mars et Avril took place on green screen in order to integrate the actors to the virtual environments in post-production. The other part required the construction of real sets and a dozen filming locations. Under the supervision of location manager Denis Paquette, the creative team toured Montreal and its surroundings in search for unusual places that echoed the movie’s “retro-futuristic” world: artists studios, underground habitats and bars, abandoned train, disused laboratory, Art Deco staircase, etc. Here’s an overview of their research!
To become Jacob Obus, Jacques Languirand had to grow his beard and hair for more than six months. Let’s quote Richard Hansen, key hair stylist: “As for his look for the film, as there are more and more hair to work with, I’m thinking of going with the lines of the harp and use moustache wax. We might trim some hair, but only those directly above the lips, not those near the ends. I can’t wait to be back in the future!”
Marie-Josée Croze was originally cast as Avril but left the project due to scheduling conflicts. She was the original Avril in the Mars et Avril graphic novels by Martin Villeneuve (left), and was replaced by Caroline Dhavernas in the movie adaptation (right). Both Croze and Dhavernas were Villeneuve’s roommates during his college years.
Martin Villeneuve and Caroline Dhavernas had directed some short films together during college where you would already find the Marsonautes with their big helmets. These characters would eventually be integrated to Villeneuve’s graphic novels (left). Two of the actors who were then involved – Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and Pierre Leblanc – were hired, 10 years later, as the Marsonautes in the movie (right).
Mars et Avril – aka Mars & Avril (poster title) or Mars and April (English title) – was shot in March and April 2009, which is quite a coincidence considering that the lead female character is named Avril (April), and that a mission to Mars also figures into the story. The foreshadowing of this is clearer for Francophones, since “Mars” in French literally designates both the Red Planet and the month of March, directly connecting Mars/March to Avril/April. A re-shoot 2 years later (in March 2011) made it quite obvious that there was a “planet alignment” for the film to be shot over this period!
Jacques Languirand, who was nearly 80 years old when the film was shot, wore an earpiece so that his wife, Nicole Dumais, could feed him his lines off set. It was the radio host’s first leading role in a feature film.
Jacques Languirand had played on stage for Robert Lepage’s Shakespeare Cycle in 1993, got amazing reviews for his performance and said at the time that this experience as an actor would probably be his last. Ten years later, Martin Villeneuve offered him to play Jacob Obus in Mars et Avril (since he had previously landed his image to this character in the graphic novels and that the part was written for him). Languirand couldn’t refuse because the challenge of being part of Quebec’s first science fiction film was too great.
The opening of the film is based on German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s cosmological model from the 17th century, Harmonices Mundi, in which the harmony of the universe is determined by the motion of celestial bodies. Benoît Charest also composed the score according to this theory.
Martin Villeneuve couldn’t afford to have the imaginary musical instruments built, so he went to Cirque du Soleil CEO Guy Laliberté and convinced him to buy them before they were even made. When Laliberté saw Villeneuve’s TED Talk on June 7, 2013, he offered the young filmmaker the “Gravophone” which can be seen in the talk (bottom left on this picture).
Upon his performance on the stage of the Liquid Pub, the band of old musicians – formed by actors Jacques Languirand, Marcel Sabourin, André Montmorency and Gabriel Gascon, genuine cultural icons of Quebec – received a standing ovation that lasted several minutes from the 50 extras present during the shooting. The first assistant director even had to stop the applause so as not to be behind schedule!
The look of the extras on the set of Mars et Avril was extraordinary, thanks to Mariane Carter (costume designer), Richard Hansen (key hair stylist) and Sophie Lebeau (key makeup artist). In between takes, they even made lead actor Jacques Languirand laugh!
A setting of Fever in Urbicand (Schuiten & Peeters, Casterman, 1985), cult-album in Les Cités Obscures series, appears in the movie. As a matter of fact, François Schuiten agreed to have a 3D model made out of his futuristic auditorium, for a scene taking place inside the Temple of Cosmologists. Martin Villeneuve had this image in mind when writing his books, a few years before Schuiten joined the team. Before the shooting, even the extras were chosen to look like the characters in the comic book.
The relation between the musical instrument and the Martian topography, explained during Eugène Spaak’s conference, is a real discovery that Martin Villeneuve made while writing his books.
Since Robert Lepage only had a few days available for filming, an avant-garde 3D capturing technique was used to integrate him virtually into his scenes as a hologram. Six cameras were trained on Lepage’s head while a mime, Jean Asselin, portrayed the body.
Jean Asselin, the mime who performs Eugène Spaak’s body, had to wear a green hood for the whole duration of the shoot. He also plays the robot waiter of the Liquid Pub and of The Greenhouse Effect nightclub, where you get to see his face.
Aboard the Orient Express, Jacob Obus and Eugène Spaak are respectively ordering an “electric eel” and a “flying fish”. This scene was shot on April 1, 2009 and, in volume 2 of the graphic novel (from which the above picture is taken), Eugène’s order was actually the “April’s fool special”.
The “electric eel” ordered by Jacob Obus aboard the Orient Express was a false latex eel. However, believing that it was real, the property master placed it in a cooler prior to the shooting of the scene.
In order to create the robot waiter’s costume, Mariane Carter first made a small paper model, and then a detailed sketch. In Mars et Avril, there is a U.S. version of the robot (portrayed by Jean Asselin), and an Asian version (performed by Khanh Hua).
The futuristic beer labels – “Dream Pétrole” and “Fantasme rouge” – were designed by renowned Quebec illustrator Janice Nadeau.
Those who have read the two graphic novels that inspired the film will probably remember that they open with a picture of Jacob Obus reading the newspaper. If the opening of the film is quite different, a futuristic newspaper was nevertheless created, as a prop for one of the scenes. Somewhere in the middle of the 21st century, the Marsonautes are ready to takeoff... and Jacob Obus launches a new album!
The space module that enters the Martian atmosphere was modeled after Jacob Obus’ microphone that can be seen on the stage of the Liquid Pub.
The Martian backgrounds were taken by photographer Denis McCready in the Mojave Desert using a panoramic film camera. The exact location is near Trona Pinnacles where several sci-fi movies and TV series were filmed including Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, The Gate II, Lost in Space and Planet of the Apes.
Concept artist Simon Laroche designed the “feedback” effects shots for the movie, programming his own software in order to do so. Laroche had also created similar effects for volume 2 of the Mars et Avril graphic novel a few years earlier.
Eugène Spaak’s machine to travel into the unconscious is based on the concept of feedback. These technical drawings are the work of Guy Lessard (based on François Schuiten’s design). The real set was built by the art direction team, under Martin Tessier’s supervision. Parts of industrial machinery – some of which were found by coincidence on the actual location – were assembled in extremis the night before shooting! A virtual dome was added in post-production by Vision Globale’s VFX team.
The scene where Jacob and Arthur are leaving for Mars is inspired by one of Martin Villeneuve’s childhood memories: when he was 4 or 5 years old, his older brothers put him in a box and made him believe that he made a space travel on his way to Mars.
In March 2011, exactly two years after principal photography, a re-shoot involving Jacques Languirand and Caroline Dhavernas took place at Robert Lepage’s request. The scene in which Jacob and Avril are making love was shot in Languirand’s actual bedroom. There’s a 48 years age gap in between the two lovers.
Because some extras were missing in a few shots, VFX artists at Vision Globale dressed in the futuristic fashion of the film to celebrate Halloween in 2011, and were shot on green screen.
Michèle Deslauriers, who’s the actual voice of the Montreal Transportation Service which can be heard in the metro, provided the Montreal Teleportation Service’s voice in the film. Michèle Deslauriers is also Caroline Dhavernas’ mother.
Is Pneumatology a science invented for the film? Think again! It is the study of spiritual beings and phenomena, especially the interactions between humans and God. Pneuma is Greek for “breath”, which metaphorically describes a non-material being or influence.
During the editing, sometimes we must make some difficult sacrifices in order to achieve the best possible rhythm. Here are the scenes that were shot and partly completed, but ultimately cut from the final film:
- Jacob and Arthur take the futuristic metro while watching the Marsonautes on 3DV.
- Jacob and Eugène are walking down the steps of the Temple of Cosmologists.
- In the middle of the night, Jacob is being awakened by the 3DV.
- Eugène tells Jacob about the circumstances that made him half virtual.
- Jacob goes back to the Pneumatologist because he can’t sleep.
- Inside the Red Planet, Jacob is experiencing the effects of anti-gravity.
On December 9, 2011, a brainstorming was held concerning the film poster, involving production designer François Schuiten, artistic director Jonathan Nicol (from the Sid Lee Agency), conceptual artist D. Jeevan and director Martin Villeneuve. About 40 concepts were outlined during this working session, and 3 were selected to proceed to more advanced illustrations. Here are 2 poster designs that were considered, but ultimately rejected.
The World premiere at the 47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Czech Republic on July 2, 2012, was absolutely fantastic! It was definitely the right festival to launch the film. The public – mainly young Czech in their twenties – responded very enthusiastically. The beautiful screening room was located in the Grandhotel Pupp, which appears in the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale.
The Opening Party night in Karlovy Vary! Since then, the film has toured in more than 20 major cinema events around the globe, including Mumbai, Mill Valley, Whistler, Brussels, London, Neuchâtel, Guadalajara, etc.
Mars et Avril was the opening film of the FOCUS section at the Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC) on October 11, 2012. The theme of this most special evening was, of course, “Futuristic Montreal”!
In November 2012, Jacques Languirand, Caroline Dhavernas, Paul Ahmarani and Martin Villeneuve were back into the Mars et Avril world during a photo-shoot by Jocelyn Michel for the exhibition “Plan large III : le cinéma québécois en photos”! Robert Lepage was also integrated virtually into the final image, a coherent treatment for his character.
Martin Villeneuve was with Caroline Dhavernas at the Whistler Film Festival in December 2012, promoting his film Mars et Avril, when he was given a phenomenal opportunity. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) curator Chris Anderson was in the audience, unbeknownst to Villeneuve, who at that moment was providing Anderson with an audition for his own stage.
Martin Villeneuve made Quebec’s first science fiction film, Mars et Avril. In February 2013, he gave a TED Talk about it at TED2013, thereby becoming the very first speaker from Québec invited to this prestigious event that took place in Long Beach, California. His talk, “How I made an impossible film,” has been viewed more than a million times across all platforms and subtitled in 25 languages. It is now part of TED’s movie magic list, featuring famed directors such as James Cameron and J.J. Abrams! Since then, Mars et Avril is being referred to as the “Impossible Film”.
The day after his TED Talk, Villeneuve had a meeting booked at DreamWorks Pictures, Lucasfilm, Disney and Kennedy/Marshall. Surprisingly, he was the only speaker talking about cinema at TED2013. Being an up-and-coming filmmaker who has done a two million dollar film that is worth 10 times more at least, made the studios really curious. An interesting “coincidence” is that a few months earlier, Mars et Avril had its U.S. premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival – partly sponsored by Star Wars creator George Lucas – and that Kathleen Kennedy, the new head of Lucasfilm, is high placed in the TED community.
When he was a kid, Martin Villeneuve was creating some comic books and dreamed of one day being published by Casterman. In November 2013, this dream became reality, in a certain way, as the book L’Horloger du Rêve was released. In this massive and fantastic book about the work of François Schuiten, an entire chapter is dedicated to Mars et Avril!
ABANDONED PREQUEL PROJECT – Two Immortals
In 2010-2011, Martin Villeneuve wrote a story called Two Immortals, a prequel to his striking feature film debut. This rumored prequel would have taken place some 50 years prior to the events of Mars et Avril, in contemporary Montreal, focusing on the characters of Jacob Obus and Eugène Spaak (respectively portrayed by Jacques Languirand and Robert Lepage in Mars et Avril).
According to Villeneuve, the story explores in depth the subject of immortality, through a Renaissance-type of quest. Then in their thirties, Obus and Spaak make a pact to find the secret of everlasting life; however their paths to reach a common goal are drastically different. Art and science as a way to defy death was at the heart of Two Immortals. The film would have also offered flash-forwards into a distant future, far beyond that of Mars et Avril, featuring Eugène Spaak as a narrator. Robert Lepage expressed an interest in reprising his iconic role in Two Immortals. 82 years old actor Jacques Languirand – who wanted to briefly appear as a cameo but was afraid of being too old when the movie would go into production – even recorded a piece of dialogue in March 2011 as he was shooting an additional scene for Mars et Avril.
Preproduction on Two Immortals was cancelled in 2012, as Martin Villeneuve started to focus on the development of the fantasy animated feature Aquarica, teaming once again with production designer François Schuiten. When being asked if there would ever be a sequel (or prequel) to Mars et Avril during a Q&A in 2013, Villeneuve stated that he might eventually publish the story of Two Immortals as a third installment in the Mars et Avril graphic novels series.