A decade before he won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Drama in 2013 for Fault Lines, Nicolas Billon was a university student in Montreal trying to shape a writing exercise into a one-act play. Written as a taut tête-a-tête between one Dr. Green – the director of a Montreal psychiatric hospital – and a brilliant, troubled patient named Michael whose previous therapist has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, the play, entitled Elephant Song, would be Billon's first produced work, mounted at Stratford in 2004.
For Charles Binamé's film version of Elephant Song, Billon has skillfully rewritten his own script and earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. But while he's had more acclaim in the last 10 years than many writers pack into a lifetime, he says that he thinks about the return to the primal scene of his career more in terms of failure than success.
"I saw it as a real opportunity to rework the material as an older, more experienced author," says the Ottawa native, who was first approached by the film's producer, Richard Goudreau, over eight years ago. "When I wrote the play, [the script] was very much about Michael and his slipperiness and his cleverness. There was a lot of cockiness on my part, and I think that now that I've had more experience and failed a little bit, I'm able to approach things differently."
Onscreen, Elephant Song is more of an ensemble piece than it was on stage, but it's still essentially a two-hander, with long and complicated dialogue scenes between Bruce Greenwood (who was nominated for a CSA for best actor for his sensitive portrayal of Dr. Green) and Xavier Dolan, who seems to be channelling Heath Ledger's Joker as Michael, all flashing eyes and nervous tics.
The latter character's obsession with elephants is reminiscent of the fixation of the patient in Peter Shaffer's classic play Equus, which Billon admits was a major influence. He saw a production at Stratford and even alludes to Shaffer himself in the surname of a supporting character, Nurse Peterson. "It's 'Peter's Son' as in Peter Shafer, but also my mother's maiden name is Pierre, which is French for Peter. It's a little joke that nobody would ever know about but it's also an acknowledgment of Equus, which showed me what a play could be."
The intricacy of Elephant Song's dialogue and symbolic meanings ensured that significant alterations to the script would be difficult, and yet Billon knew that it wouldn't be possible for a filmmaker to simply turn on the camera and shoot the play in its original form. "One of the things that was discussed was that I had to open things up," he says. "I took that very literally, by which I mean I tried to take things out of that room as much as possible. But then I felt like that was sort of artificial, like I was doing it more because I had to than anything else. So I opened it up in a different way, which was to make it equally about both characters. The play belongs to Michael; the movie belongs to Michael and to Dr. Green. That was the major shift."
Billon is grateful that he got the opportunity to write his first feature even as he insists that it was harder than the swiftness and eloquence of his screenplay might suggest. "It took a long time to do this," he days. "We went through a lot of drafts, and a lot of them weren't very good. But Richard Goudreau stuck by me. My joke is that I really don't know a lot of writers who love their producer, but I'm definitely one of them."
The Canadian Screen Awards Gala airs March 1 starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBC.