_La Peau blanche_ - An Adaptation


A Brief History of _La Peau blanche_, So Far...
By Joël Champetier

(1) The Novel

_La Peau blanche_ (_White Skin_) was published in 1997 by Alire. It is my personal take on the "urban romantic postmodern blurring of the line between SF and fantasy" sub-genre.

Thierry, a young man from France, comes to Montreal to study Québécois literature at the Université du Québec. He shares an apartment with Henri, a happy-go-lucky student who was born in Quebec with Haitian ancestors. Although Henri is black, he talks and thinks like a "real" Québécois. Thierry falls in love with Claire, a beautiful red-haired woman he meets at the university. Their passion is intense and carnal, but Claire is elusive and mysterious. She finally reveals her secret: she is sick with cancer, and she will start chemotherapy soon. But the treatment doesn't go as planned. After all, whoever said that Claire was human? (Eerie music begins...)

_La Peau blanche_  was favourably reviewed. It was the first time one of my novels had been reviewed in major newspapers such as _La Presse_. Ironically, it was also my worst-selling novel ever! It is hard to pinpoint why. Difficult to pigeonhole? Too racy for schools? My observation is that most readers didn't care much about the iconoclastic subtext and postmodern posturing; they related more to the humour and the romantic story.

(2) The movie deal 

I was asked, "How did you convince somebody to adapt your novel to the screen?" The answer: I didn't. Daniel Roby, a young producer and cinematographer, read the book and phoned me. He said he loved the story and wanted to make a movie with it. I said, "Cool." I didn't jump for joy, since I didn't have a clue if the guy was for real. We met; he struck me as a no-nonsense guy who really knew what he was talking about. He didn't bullshit me: making a movie is a long and difficult haul, with no guarantee of success. I knew the guy was for real when (a) he bought the rights and (b) he showed me a promo tape of his work as a cinematographer. Very slick and pro stuff.

(3) The adaptation

Daniel Roby asked a few screenwriters if they were interested in adapting the novel. They read it and said they didn't think it had potential. So Daniel asked me if I would be interested in co-writing it with him. I said, "Man, I thought you would never ask!" (Irony: one of the girls working on the movie told me with a twisted smile that her boyfriend was one of the screenwriters who turned down the offer.)

Adapting the novel was very interesting, and whatever happens with the movie, it will stand as a very informative experience. It may seem uncool that Daniel asked other screenwriters before asking me, but Daniel told me he'd had bad experiences with novelists. Most of them don't understand the difference between a script and a novel. A novel *is* the work. A script is the *blueprint* of a work in another medium. The story is driven exclusively by images, dialogue, structure and music. There is no narration. Such a simple concept is hard to grasp for most novelists. Voice-over narration (unless it is ironic, as in _The Big Lebowsky_) is almost always a sign that the script has problems.

The bulk of the screenplay was written in 1999 and polished in 2000. We had a tiny grant by SODEC ($8,000, to be split between Daniel, me, the publisher and a pro screenwriter who was appointed by SODEC to counsel us). We played with the story, changed characters, injected a policeman into the story... man, did we try to fit in that damned policeman! It didn't work. In the end, the screenplay was very close to the novel.

(4) Financing

I had nothing to do with financing the movie, and this is a good thing since paperwork makes me foam at the mouth. You also have to meet a lot of people and be your own publicist. Another thing I am not good at: Daniel sent the screenplay to several producers. Everything you read about producers is true: They *don't have time* to read the screenplay of the movies they are financing! Well, most of them. Some read the thing and said, "Ho hum. I'm at page 5 and I don't already know everything about the story. I don't know where it is going. Why am I reading this? Who are those people? Guards, take them away!" At that point, God, in his infinite wisdom, sent us _The Sixth Sense_, a slow movie where you didn't know in the first few minutes what would happen in the rest of the movie, and still the movie was a smashing success. We would say, "It's like _The Sixth Sense_." It helped catch the attention of producers. But still we were going nowhere fast. Years were passing by. I had time to write and publish two novels!

So Daniel founded his production company. Tons and tons of paperwork again. At the first try, SODEC and Telefilm Canada turned down financing the film, but it was OK; this is the way the game is played. Finally, in 2002, financing was granted by Telefilm Canada and eventually by SODEC.

There is a slightly unreal twist to this happy ending. When we started this project, the budget for independent movies was fixed at Can$1 million. About two years ago, Telefilm Canada lowered that maximum to $750,000. The cost of everything else goes up in the movie business except Telefilm Canada's independent movie financing! Which means that the tight budget for the movie was now ultra-tight. We could not afford *any* delays, bad luck, or overtime while filming. What a relief that Daniel Roby and the crew were able to pull it through difficult weather conditions.

(5) Postproduction

Editing and postproduction should be completed this summer [2003], but the movie will probably not hit screens before winter 2004. It's tricky. An independent French-Canadian movie is a very small fish in a pool controlled by very big American sharks. Most Québécois movies are barely distributed, and disappear instantly from screens. Our distributor is Film Seville, which does a pretty nice job of marketing independent and foreign movies
such as _Talk to Her_ by Pedro Almodovar. The Film Seville owner -- who actually read the script -- is a big supporter of the project, and suggested dubbing the movie into English. But of course he is waiting to see the final cut before putting his money where his mouth is.

That's all for today. The ride has been fine up to now. (Joël Champetier, March 11, 2003) 

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