Interview with “Nadia, Butterfly” Director Pascal Plante, [OAFF 2021]

“Nadia, Butterfly” directed by Canadian Pascal Plante, received its Japan premiere screening at the 16th Osaka Asian Film Festival(OAFF 2021).

Based on the experience of director Pascal Plante, who was a swimmer until the age of 19, this film was selected for the official selection "Cannes 2020" at the Cannes International Film Festival last year. It is a human drama that depicts her struggle to break up with her teammates and choose a new life, focusing on three days including Nadia's last race of the Tokyo Olympics.

Including the powerful race scene, the details of the Tokyo Olympics and the swimming that the Canadian national team participates in are realistically reproduced, stretching from before Nadia starts practice, post-race care, meals, changing clothes, etc. It is a story of the "courage to quit" as Nadia chooses to make life choices by herself in the midst of great expectations around her, as she interacts with team members such as Marie, who has been enduring tough training together with her for many years. I would also like to pay attention to the part of the Tokyo location where director Daisuke Miyazaki(“VIDEOPHOBIA”) participated in the production.

We conducted an email interview with Pascal Plante,the director of “Nadia, Butterfly”.

Every athlete retires at a different time. Why did you choose to focus on the retirement of a young athlete at the height of her career?

Pascal Plante:I wanted to portray a character who was a prisoner of her own talent; someone who performs at the highest level without necessarily enjoying it. That raises a lot of questions from her entourage, hence adding extra pressure on Nadia’s shoulders. I used to swim at a national level as a teenager, and I saw so many extremely promising young athletes quitting because they couldn’t see themselves fitting in this enclosed world. Nadia is a character who’s been pushed into a dream that doesn’t seems hers anymore. She wants out – like someone wants out of a house on fire – but she progressively realizes that she also leaves behind things that she loves: starting with the intense friendships.

Not only the race scenes but also the details of the Tokyo Olympics feel very real. How did you make preparations? What was the most difficult part?

Pascal Plante:The way we shot the race scene justified our intuition to cast real athletes in the lead roles, because they portrayed it so well, in my opinion! We shot this scene at the Montreal Olympic Pool, but we modeled the stands on the 3D graphic of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Pool (that was far from being finished at the time of the shooting!). The faraway crowd was added in CGI, which was a big challenge, since these are long takes, handheld shots. As for Nadia’s uncut 100m butterfly at maximum speed, we only did one take (at ~3 AM at night!) which we rehearsed extensively before at various speed with body doubles. It was a challenging scene, but oddly enough, it went really went: the swimmers were great at conveying these intense emotions… it’s close to home, for them!

Please tell us about how you met Katerine Savard and why you cast her. How did you feel about Katerine, a professional athlete, playing Nadia, who has decided to retire?

Pascal Plante:Katerine Savard (who did the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games) started out as a script consultant, because I had so many questions about the backstage of the Olympics (again: I know swimming very well, but since I never did the Olympic Games myself, I really wanted to make an authentic portrayal of this unique competition). When I wrote the film, I had nobody in mind in particular to play Nadia. It’s through these meetings with Katerine that I got to meet her, and when we got to deeper psychological aspects of her life, I found her very touching. After that, we auditioned her (like a “real” actress!) and we had a callback audition with Ariane Mainville (who plays Marie-Pierre) in order to test their chemistry. Since they are friends and training partners in real life, they had a sincere bond between them.

Did Katerine follow your direction or did you discuss which scene should be added with her?

Pascal Plante:It was a bit of both, but it’s during this kind of scenes where I would heavily rely on them. Our lead actresses also acted as our consultants! Whenever something felt a bit “off”, they would tell us, and we’d adjust.

The most impressive scene for me is the one where Nadia swims butterfly in the race. It is so beautiful and powerful. How did you film it? 

Pascal Plante:For the race scene: the camera was in a splash bag on a paddleboard that was rigged on a pulley system. Stephanie Weber Biron (our director of photography/camera operator) was on the paddleboard, with her swimsuit, and was able to compensate the “randomness” of our velocity with her framing. I wanted us to be physically close to the protagonist, with wider lenses, in order to enhance the perceived speed of Katerine’s butterfly (which is some of the fastest in the world!)

There is also a scene where Nadia swims freestyle. Any particular intention for that scene?

Pascal Plante:For the “dream” scene where Nadia swims freestyle in a dark misty pool: the camera was on a dolly on the side of the pool, and we get closer to her with a zoom in. The significance of this scene is very personal: when I used to swim everyday, I would have recurring dreams of me swimming in a nondescript pool, again… and again… and again! It’s even part of your subconscious: you ARE a swimmer!

I felt the stoicism of a top athlete and the weight of the years she has dedicated to swimming. What did you focus on in terms of direction in order to portray her struggles as an individual?

Pascal Plante:So many times, Katerine understood very well what the character was experiencing, and was able to portray that emotion without me having to “direct” her too much. As a swimmer, she hasn’t retired yet (she actually plans to do the Olympic trials in a couple months, in the hope of doing the Tokyo Games, and then retire!) but she knows that she’s in the last stretch of her career. She only had to project herself a couple years into the future, and it got her fragile and emotional.

Nadia's interactions with Marie, her long-time comrade, and other team members are very realistic. How did you cast and direct the Canadian team?

Pascal Plante:We wanted to have a relay team that would mimic Canada’s distinctive bilingualism, and also have athletes at various stages of their career. A kind of a microcosm, in a way. We wanted an anglophone who spoke French (Karen: played by Olympic medalist Hilary Caldwell from Vancouver), an Anglophone who didn’t speak French (Jess: played by Cailin McMurray, a really good young swimmer from Montreal) and the two francophone friends, Nadia & Marie-Pierre. All of them still pursue their swimming career, with the exception of Hilary Caldwell who retired in 2018.

The scenes in the streets of Tokyo have an atmosphere reminiscent of "Lost in Translation".

Pascal Plante:It’s funny, a lot of people see hints of “Lost in Translation” in our film, but I don’t necessarily have this particular film as a direct inspiration. I actually made sure NOT to watch it again, in preparation for our film! If I were to pinpoints some films that inspired us, it’d be “American Honey” by Andrea Arnold and/or “The Florida Project” by Sean Baker: two features that are, on the one hand, authentic and realistic, and on the other hand, colorful and expressionistic. But since “Lost in Translation” is a widely beloved film, I’ll take this as a compliment! 

Did you incorporate any improvisation, like having them walk as they liked? Do you have any anecdotes about the shooting?

Pascal Plante:The walking and talking scenes were not improvised, but I always allowed the girls to have some fun and flexibility with the written lines. What I would say most on set was “Have fun with it!”… and I think it shows!We really wanted to respect the “geography” of Tokyo: not just point the camera wherever and stitch it together with another neighborhood in a non-realistic way. Before the girls go to the nightclub, it made sense to shoot in Roppongi, and when Nadia roams the street by herself, it made sense to shoot in Shinjuku and follow a “real” trajectory. And of course, we shot a lot at the real locations of the Olympic Village (that was still under construction… but we managed to find spots where the buildings were completed!). We were extremely lucky with the unpredictable weather, especially considering that we shot in early October 2019, literally between two big typhoons!

This film is a story of "the courage to quit", of making your own life choices despite high expectations from those around you. It is also a groundbreaking film about professional swimming. What kind of films would you like to make after this?

Pascal Plante:So far in my young career, I never made the same film twice, so I don’t plan on doing another swimming movie anytime soon! I’m actually working on something drastically different: a 17th century film with folk horror vibes, about a disastrous transatlantic crossing between France and New-France (Canada). Fingers crossed: we’ll film in 2022, and have a film ready in 2023.

by Yumi Eguchi

Supported by Jason MAHER

The 16th Osaka Asian Film Festival official interview with “Nadia, Butterfly” Director Pascal Plante is below.

"Nadia, Butterfly"

Director: Pascal PLANTE

2020|Canada|107min|Language: French, English|Subtitles: English, Japanese