Welcome to uOttaKnow, an informative, inspiring and entertaining podcast produced by the University of Ottawa.
Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow, a proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and president of the Equal Chance Foundation.
uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa researchers and alumni at the cutting edge of their fields for thought-provoking discussions on today’s trending topics.
Season 3 of uOttaKnow will focus on the entertainment industry, with conversations on film, music, reality TV, technology trends and much more. From Montreal to Toronto to California and beyond, we'll talk to alumni at the heart of the entertainment industry.
Our guest today is Tanya Lapointe, a graduate who majored in communications and lettres françaises. She is the executive producer of Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, with whom she also worked on Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. She is a co-founder of Les productions sur le toit, and the director and producer of The Paper Man, which won the Audience Award at the 2020 Whistler Film Festival. Tanya has also written several books in both French and English, including The Art and Soul of Dune. Her latest book, The Art and Science of Arrival, is due to be released in early 2022.
Tanya, thank you for joining us today from Montreal. So, to begin today’s conversation, I have a somewhat philosophical question for you as a filmmaker. What does entertainment mean for you?
Well, that’s a great question. I think when I was a child, it was the entertainment world that took me out of my daily routine. I watched a lot of television, too much, according to my parents [laughs]. They would tell me to go and play outside with my friends. But I think the entertainment world opened my horizons and fed my imagination. As I grew up, I developed a taste for other types of entertainment. So it was not just television, obviously.
Actually, I consider entertainment to be a very broad term that encompasses many things. Watching television, reading, going to the movies or a sports event are all entertainment. In my case, over the years, my entertainment focus has shifted to television and cinema.
It’s all about telling stories. What is great is that, at the University of Ottawa, while I was studying communications and French literature, if a course was offered in connection with cinema, that was always the one I would choose. And I realized that entertainment is not only a form of escape, but it can also be a source of reflection on society, a source of intellectual analysis. So for me, yeah, entertainment can be precisely that thing that we tell ourselves: “I’m turning my brain off”—and that we often tell ourselves [laughs]. It can also be something that opens us up to other realities, other worlds that... my answer will sound a bit philosophical, as you said, but entertainment also opens up our hearts. So it may come in many, many different forms and have many advantages.
Thank you for sharing that and also for sharing your experience at the University of Ottawa because it’s... it’s always nice to hear that you took these courses in cinema at our university. I'm sure they have been useful to you, haven't they?
Oh! They have, of course! I have very fond memories of that time. I had some memorable professors: Gary Evans, who had written a book about the National Film Board. I found it impressive that someone could write a work like that. He became a bit of a mentor to me. And even though I didn’t go into film at first, but into television, I think it’s no coincidence that I work in the film world today.
Absolutely! And recently, you went on an international promotional tour for Dune, the Hollywood film released on October 22nd. Over the last few years, you have also been promoting your first two documentaries.
After your academic studies in communications at the University of Ottawa and 15 years at Radio-Canada, RDI and CBC, how does it feel to have gone from an interviewer to an interviewee?
Well, I must say that I am grateful that my career has given me the opportunity to learn to be on your side of the microphone, to be an interviewer, because when you understand what you are looking for when you ask questions, you are better equipped to answer questions. So in my own career, what I have understood—and I have interviewed thousands of people—is that we are—or at least, I have been—striving for authenticity and also for enthusiasm, depending on the subject, and these last 15 years have prepared me to talk about my own projects today.
I think it’s easier for me to talk about my projects than to ask questions, because when you ask questions, you don’t necessarily know all the answers: you are seeking answers. Whereas when you ask me about my projects, I know I have all the answers [laughs]. So there’s a certain relief, I would say, in answering questions rather than asking them.
Speaking of your projects, let’s first talk about your first feature-length documentary in French: The Paper Man, which won the Audience Award at the 2020 Whistler Film Festival for its international premiere. This documentary about children’s TV host Claude Lafortune explores the mark he left on our popular culture, much like Fred Rogers in the US and CBC’s Mr. Dressup.
Here we discover his extraordinary talent for creating characters and sets using only paper, scissors and glue. Sadly, Claude Lafortune passed away in the spring of 2020 before your film was released, but I was very moved by the tribute to him that you shared online. Why was it important for you to tell his story and share it with a wider audience in Canada, abroad and especially outside of Canada’s Francophone community?
Thank you for your kind words about the film. It’s a project that is very dear to me. First of all, my desire to make this documentary stemmed from my curiosity... or I would say nostalgic curiosity, because when I was a child, I watched Claude Lafortune on television and, when I met him later in life, I realized that there was perhaps more to him than what we could see on the screen.
So I wanted to discover the artist behind the paper characters that so fascinated me as a child. When I asked him to do the documentary in 2018, he didn’t accept right away, and he explained: “I’m not Celine Dion, I’m not that glamorous.” I replied: “Claude, I think we can find a way to make a documentary in your image.” I soon realized that this man, who was 81 years old when we started filming the documentary, was not recognized for his true value as an artist and that he was even falling into oblivion. I found that... I sensed a certain... I don’t know if I can say injustice, but in any case, I was saddened by it and I made it my mission to make Claude Lafortune known because I thought he was someone who did good, someone who was... whose works and television productions were full of goodness. And I think that our society is in need of kindness and gentleness. I found his message important, and that it should be shared.
So... in December 2020, when I had to decide where I was going to present the film, Paul Gratton, the programmer of the Whistler Film Festival, called me and said: “I’m not from Quebec, I didn’t know Claude Lafortune, I love this character and I would like to present the film at Whistler!” I was really grateful because, as you said, it allowed me not only to get people talking about Claude Lafortune in Montreal in Quebec—and in the rest of French Canada—that knew him and had grown up with him, but also to make his name known to a wider public. What I realized thanks to the chance I had to be in Whistler is that, whether we know Claude Lafortune or not, his story echoes those of many others. So as you said, a bit like Fred Rogers or Mr. Dressup. Whether it be in Hungary or in France, there have been children’s entertainers everywhere who have marked everyone’s childhood. So, to my great delight, the story of Claude Lafortune has left our borders and was recently presented in Africa, Asia and Europe. So... I would say that the mission to put Claude Lafortune on the map has succeeded! Even if that is coming from me [laughs].
Congratulations! It was a really nice project. Thank you so much!
So what an achievement your most recent feature film is: the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, Dune, on which you worked as executive producer alongside your spouse, Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. You have also published a companion book: The Art and Soul of Dune. I particularly liked the way you referred to Dune on Instagram, joking that it was the little project you’d been working on since 2018.
At the time of this recording, Dune had already grossed $300 million at the international box office. The film received an 8-minute standing ovation at its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, with outstanding reviews and starring actors such as Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and Oscar Isaac.
How does a project of this scale come to life and how does it live with you? How has it changed you as an artist?
The project, when you look at my film career to date, was pretty big... impressive numbers. It’s true that I started working on this film in 2018, but already in 2016, Denis Villeneuve, who directed the film and with whom I share my life, told journalists that his life’s project...his life’s dream, would be to direct Dune, a book he had read in his teens.
From that moment on, there was a snowball effect. A studio caught wind of what Denis had said and they invited him to a meeting. Then, as the saying goes: The rest is history! Denis was hired to direct the film and we spent, well it’s 2021 now so this film, this project, this story has been in our lives for five years now. I would say it’s a lesson in perseverance as an artist because not only was there the whole production process—you have to understand that when you make a science fiction film like Dune, you are inventing every last detail, and nothing is left to chance. The story takes place in the year of 10,191. So an everyday object such as a doorknob won’t look the same as it does in 2021. So every element needs to be invented. Making sure that Denis’s vision and each of these details were brought to the screen as he imagined them was precision work.
Then, as you pointed out, I wrote the companion book The Art and Soul of Dune, which was rather challenging since I started it just at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Part of me wanted to give up: I was distracted, I was upset like everyone else and I kept telling my editor, “No you have to put this off, you have to postpone it!” because part of me didn’t want to invest time and energy in it. I couldn’t concentrate, but I didn’t have the choice. Because even if the film was ultimately pushed back a year due to the closure of movie theatres and everything, we still had to respect our schedule because we didn’t know at the time how things would evolve. It was when Claude Lafortune passed away that I finally started writing the book. I wrote it through a lot of societal, emotional and personal upheaval. But I’m proud today that the book is out because I was able to finish it on time, and it has been translated into seven languages. In retrospect, I remember the emotion and the difficulties, but I also realize that through perseverance, you can end up with a real feeling of satisfaction... Yeah, so that’s it. I’ve written five books so far, but this one was the hardest, and perhaps the one of which I’m proudest because I nearly gave up on the idea of writing it [laughs].
What beautiful words about perseverance. I am sure there are many listeners with us today who will be inspired by your journey, your story, and hearing that we always need to push. We always need to hear motivating stories from others, and yours is very motivating. Thank you!
Thank you, thank you! I think we sometimes get the impression that everything is easy for some people, especially when we’re talking about $300 million at the box office. But it’s not always a walk in the park. I think that we have to talk about these difficulties to boost each other along the way!
Absolutely! I have another question about Dune that I would like to approach from a different angle, from the perspective of technology, evolution, and the way our society engages with various forms of entertainment. You shared this comment online: “a word of advice, see it in theaters on the biggest screen possible.” Denis Villeneuve also expressed the importance of experiencing films in a movie theatre. He was very frank about this and said he was disappointed that Warner Brothers did not wait to stream the film on HBO Max. Could you tell us more about this love of cinema and the importance of seeing films in a theatre with others?
I think that... I talk a lot about my childhood, but it’s because I believe it is childhood that gives us perspective on human existence. When I think back to the first film I saw in a movie theatre, I can’t really say whether it was a great masterpiece: it was an animated film. I was 6 years old but I remember it very well. There I was, 6 years old, seated at the cinema, watching Bambi on the big screen. It was a bit of a special thing of course because it was my first time, but the experience left its mark on me.
I don’t remember the first TV show I ever watched. Television doesn’t have the same impact: it’s part of our daily lives, it’s more like routine. But there’s something about the ceremony, the ritual of going to the movies, in a dark room. The lights go out, we turn off our mobile phones, we leave all distractions behind and let ourselves be carried away into a... a Homeric state. We really just let ourselves fall into a dream that is not our own, but still a dream, a story. I don’t think you can get the same experience on streaming.
Obviously, streaming was everyone’s saving grace throughout the pandemic. I myself gorged on series and films. Yet there is something about the cinematic experience, and the same can be said of musical performances. You can listen to an album on a streaming platform or on vinyl, or you can go and experience the music live in a concert hall with others, with real people... There is something, a human chemistry that takes place at a live event that you share with others.
I would say this more specifically in the context of Dune and Denis’s vision of it: the film was conceived, thought out, and filmed, to be seen on the big screen. Which means... everything is grandiose! You need to be sitting in a theatre. That’s why I said, “see it on the biggest screen possible”: it’s immersive. It’s so enormous that you feel like you’re travelling through the desert yourself. You also have Hans Zimmer’s music enveloping you with sound designed for surround sound in Dolby Atmos. So I think for me the love of cinema is all about that. It’s a human experience that goes beyond just consuming content.
Wow! Thank you so much! We have a question for you today from Kenya-Jade Pinto, who completed a JD at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law – Common Law Section. She is an Indo-Kenyan-Canadian filmmaker, photographer, documentarian, and lawyer based in Toronto. As a filmmaker-in-residence at York University’s Refugee Law Lab, she is working on her first feature-length documentary. She joins us today from Greece.
So thank you so much and hello Tanya! It is not easy to navigate between the worlds of narrative and non-fiction at the same time. I’d like to know more about the skills you’ve managed to bring from your career as a journalist to projects such as Arrival (one of my favourite films!) Now the same question in reverse: What skills do you bring from fiction to documentary filmmaking?
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my question and congratulations on all your hard work and success.
Thank you very much Kenya-Jade! It’s nice to meet you. This is an interesting one to answer. Between fiction and documentary films, what surprised me was to what extent the two are connected. Because in both cases, we are telling a story. First of all, I would say that looking at my career from journalist to a documentary filmmaker, I adopted a rigorous and ethical approach to asking questions, digging deep into reality in search of things that truly touch people. Because both in television and journalism and in documentaries, we try to tell personal stories that will pique the interest and curiosity of an audience and make them ask questions. I think that my curiosity has been very enriching for me and has allowed me to go beyond the horizon of superficial questions. And that’s what I like doing with documentaries. I like digging deeper, taking my time. Because when I was at Radio-Canada, it would take me a day to put together a two-minute report [laughs]. It took me over two years to make my last documentary and it’s 78 minutes long. I would say it’s really an extension—or even a deepening—of what I was doing... Time allows us to reflect on things. Whereas you don’t always have time when you have a 6 p.m. deadline every day in a newsroom.
Now for the other side of the coin: what has fiction brought to my documentary filmmaking? The two actually work in tandem. Even on the set of Dune, with me alongside Denis, who was directing every video shoot every day, I’d look at an image and tell him if I thought something wasn’t realistic or something wasn’t quite right. I’d mention it because I’m used to looking at realistic aspect of images, or images taken from real life. I really do have, I think, a critical eye that helps to feed what we do in fiction. What strikes me most when it comes to fiction is someone who speaks a lot through the poetry of images. I find this especially with Denis Villeneuve. As a documentary journalist, I instinctively say and explain things. In cinema, Denis’s philosophy—I don’t know if it applies to all movie directors—is to let an image breathe in silence... to let an image be without putting words to it so that, as an audience, we receive the image and try to interpret it, and in order to make them... I mean, not to make them work, but let them draw their own conclusions rather than always trying to tell them what to think. I think that is what gets the process rolling, to draw out the emotion. Arrival is one of my favourite films too, even though I worked on it [laughs]. But there is something about that deep emotion that takes us by surprise at the end of the film. I’ve seen it dozens of times, every time I cry: there’s no escaping it. It’s a deep emotion, not just sadness. It’s something that connects with the humanity in me, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do now with documentaries. I think that documentaries have the power to tell moving stories.
Tanya, thank you very much for answering Kenya-Jade’s question! I’d like to end today’s conversation with a short question we’ll be asking all our guests this season. What entertains you today?
That’s a good question! There are many things that entertain me. Where do I begin? I don’t seem to have enough time for everything I want to see, there are series... At the moment, it’s Squid Game. I’ve started watching that. I went to see Lawrence of Arabia at the movies in Toronto a few weeks ago. It completely blew me away. It's the 1962 masterpiece that inspired Denis to create Dune because it is set in the desert and it takes a very critical look at colonialism. I also have the privilege of working with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who write books. A good friend of mine, Emilie Perreault, wrote Service essentiel, a book on cultural health. I mean, we often talk about mental health, physical health, but she says, sure but, what about our cultural health? Shouldn’t we say, “I’m going to read a book every... or 30 minutes a day” or “Shouldn’t I go see a play once a month?” I find that these are some of the questions that come up in her book, which are based on science, namely the proven benefits that culture and entertainment have on us. I find that book very interesting. And I must say that I am currently reading another interesting book about nostalgia written byone of my former professors at the University of Ottawa, Denis Bachand. I find it fascinating since it’s about nostalgia and I made a documentary on Claude Lafortune that inevitably awakened my own feelings of nostalgia for what I used to watch on television when I was a child. I would say that there are all these things, and I could name many more, but these are the main sources of entertainment in my life right now.
Well, thank you very much for all these recommendations! And I’m sure that I myself will go and get some of the books you mentioned. Then maybe watch Squid Game, because I haven’t watched it yet [laughs].
Thank you so much, Tanya. Could you let our listeners know where they can find you online?
Oh, of course! Well, first of all, thank you for this interview. It has really been a pleasure meeting you, meeting Kenya-Jade, and feeling that connection again with the University of Ottawa, which was very important in my professional development and in my career.
As for where I can be found, I’m on Twitter @tanyalappointe; it’s the same address for Instagram, and I’m just learning the ropes on TikTok. If you are on TikTok, follow me, message me! I’m trying to find a way to communicate with people and I’m no expert at all, so if anyone wants to follow me on TikTok, it’s @tanyalapointedune.
Tanya, thank you so much for joining us on uOttaKnow. It was a pleasure to chat with you today and learn about your background in the entertainment industry. Thank you so much!
Thank you. It’s always a pleasure!
uOttaKnow is produced by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. This episode was produced by Rhea Laube with theme music by graduate Idris Lawal. This episode was recorded with the support of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English or French, or to learn more about uOttaKnow, please refer to the description of this episode.