Justin Leclerc and Justin Leyrolles-Bouchard in Pieds nus dans l’aube.
Director Francis Leclerc has long lived in the media shadow of his father, the legendary poet, writer and folk singer Félix Leclerc. Though he’s rarely spoken publicly about his father, Leclerc (who was only 16 when his father passed away) is invariably presented as his father’s son. He has always been, for better or worse, part of a legacy. He finally tackles that legacy head-on with Pieds nus dans l’aube, an adaptation of his father’s first novel which relates in a semi-autobiographical manner his youth in the remote logging town of la Tuque.
“I hadn’t read much of his work when he died,” says Leclerc. “I became more conscious of who he was after his death. What was important to me when I was less than 16 was that he was my dad! He was just my dad who sat around the house and took care of us. I knew what he’d done as an artist, knew that he was famous and knew that he hated when people recognized him in public. When he died, I wanted to connect with his work. Between the ages of 16 and 19, I read everything and listened to everything. I binged on his work. What I remember the most was Pieds nus dans l’aube, probably because it spoke about childhood, which I had only recently lived through myself.”
Newcomer Justin Leyrolles-Bouchard plays young Félix, an unusually bright and sensitive young man growing up in a logging town as one of seemingly countless children being raised by Léo (Roy Dupuis) and Fabiola Leclerc (Catherine Sénart). Félix is bright enough to go away to boarding school in Ottawa come fall, but he doesn’t feel particularly ready to take on a whole new world. He’s especially wary about leaving behind his new friend Fidor (Justin Leclerc) and an older nurse, Garde Lemieux (Marianne Fortier), who has taken a shine to him — but not nearly as much as he has to her.
Pieds nus dans l’aube has a bucolic coming-of-age feel that’s more identifiable of movies from the ’80s than the film’s 1920s setting. In fact, Leclerc showed his two young leads Stand By Me and Dead Poets Society in order to give them an idea of the feel of the film.
“It’s a wholesome movie, but it isn’t cheesy!” says Dupuis. “That wasn’t necessarily a part of the script. It was, but it also wasn’t. That has a lot to do with Francis and the people he chose to surround himself with. But I’m very proud of my Léo. He’s very masculine — I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself be this masculine. I’ve played heroes before — I played Maurice Richard! But there’s something about this one.”
“The novel really did affect me, and the film had the same effect,” says Sénart. “I feel like Francis — and Felix, to some extent — really does strike a chord with men. It’s a story about boys. It’s a man’s universe — women are not as present in the film — and I think it reaches out to a very particular fibre of what it means to be a boy.”
Though Pieds nus dans l’aube is a book about Leclerc’s childhood where he is the main character, it remains a novel — a narrative construction with some basis in reality, certainly, but not a biography. “I respected the novel in that sense,” says Leclerc. “I went and visited all the places he talks about in the book. Once I got there, though, I was like ‘Man, it’s so much uglier!’ All of what he described was in his head! My father embellished everything. (…) When adapting for the film, I adapted the vision of the novelist who saw things in such a heightened way. Garde Lemieux is so beautiful to him — that crush he has on her is so strong, but I don’t think that’s the way it was in real life. I don’t even know if Fidor was a real kid. My dad never really told me if he existed or not. My mom doesn’t really know either. He could be an imaginary friend!”
Francis Leclerc on the Pieds nus dans l’aube set.
In that sense, the film does not dwell on biographical details of Leclerc’s artistic life — no foreshadowing of song lyrics in dialogue, for example. “I didn’t make a biopic,” says Leclerc. “I adapted a novel about a little boy living in 1927; he happens to be my dad, in this case. It was important for me to move away from the idea of a biopic, because people tend to expect to see his entire life in fast-forward. (…) My dad’s daily life wasn’t that exciting to begin with. They made a TV series that I hope you haven’t seen — it was horrible. They invented stuff that never happened. I think adapting his work is much more interesting. You’re way better off adapting the works of someone you love and try to do justice to it.”
It also goes without saying that the film’s young leads had a pretty tenuous grasp on who Leclerc was. “I knew he’d done some songs, but that’s about it,” says Leyrolles-Bouchard. “It’s not really our generation! But we learned about him.”
The last time I spoke to Dupuis, he told me he considered himself lucky to be able to only take on projects that he liked and admired. I asked him what appealed to him about this particular project. “A lot of it appealed to me as an actor,” says Dupuis. “First off, I thought it was a well-written story; a beautiful, well-written story. But it was mostly that I know Francis and have lots of respect for what he does and the way he does it. I knew that if Francis wanted to adapt a story of his father’s, he had thought it through. Secondly, he gave me the script for my birthday. Francis’s own son is named Léo, just like the character I play. That was another proof of respect and of trust in my acting abilities, I think. Third, there are very few positive, healthy, solid, creative, passionate father models in our cinema. There are lots of alcoholics and philanderers. I thought it was important to play a solid male model.”
“There’s no real drama,” says Leclerc. “It’s a loving family. No violent dad, no abused children, nothing like the stories you tend to see. It might be a little early to say this, but I think it speaks to our roots and shows us where we come from. Maybe we just don’t think about that as much as we did 20 years ago. I think this movie might do some good. It’s not a feel-good movie… but it’s okay to talk about a family that loves each other!” ■
Pieds nus dans l’aube opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 27.