In late June of this year I had been in Montréal, looking forward to another meeting with Gaétan Soucy. Another draft of my screenplay adaptation of his novel L’Immaculée conception (The Immaculate Conception) had been completed several weeks earlier, and I had been eager to discuss the latest iteration with him, as we had done several times before. Regrettably this was not to be. On July 10th I received the very tragic news from his publisher that that the author had passed away without warning. This new reality has naturally reverberated through the project and has transformed it immeasurably. Though the work goes on, the field has become far lonelier without him, without his insight and support. There is now a new and tangible responsibility to respect the integrity of Soucy’s masterpiece now that he can no longer comment on its transformation. This will inevitably remain atop the shoulders of the film throughout its creation. I’ve therefore decided to open with a brief prelude as to the origins of the film, Eastland Major.
In January of 2010 I found myself at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, researching another film project, when one of the librarians there handed me a book. It was Soucy’s most widely read novel, La petite fille qui aimait trop les alumettes (The Little Girl who was Too Fond of Matches). I turned a few pages then consumed it in a marathon session, and then instantly began reading it again from page one. This was my first introduction to Soucy’s universe and I had never experienced writing quite like it; mad and full of fire, yet overflowing with empathy. It appeared to be written by someone in the throes of temporary madness – overwhelmed by the beauty and tragedy of the world, yet with a deep-seated awareness and bittersweet realization that all must eventually leave it.
I promptly went about reading everything I could get my hands on in Soucy’s oeuvre, in both French and in English. I was flooded by these books’ unembellished beauty, their depth, their angling toward to perfection. And, while most of these works seemed to me virtually unfilmable (due to their nature of being first person narratives and therefore dependent wholly on their texts and not their images or stories), I found it strange that no one had yet attempted to adapt his first novel L’Immaculée conception (The Immaculate Conception), which had first been published in English in 2006, shortlisted for the Giller Prize and then nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award. It was considered by many to be his most ambitious and complex work – his “cathedral” as Pascal Assathiany his publisher had remarked. But along with its complexity and ambition, it was also a novel with clearly delineated scene and plot structure, with the eye of its narrator-author floating omnisciently in and out of passages like a camera lens, cutting and dissolving in and out of time. The book seemed to have been written with the cinema in mind.
The Immaculate Conception also appeared to encompass all the themes, characters, and settings that would eventually find their way into Soucy’s later novels, making their overall relationship intelligible. Moreover, it was the book with themes closest to what I had been dealing with for years in my films: children, religion, sex, corruption, and power. This book, in my opinion, was the author’s forgotten masterwork, one of the greatest books to have ever come out of Québec (let alone Canada), and I would make it my ultimate aim to bring this book to the screen.
In July of 2010 I received a short note from the author:
Bonjour David Birnbaum.
Je suis Gaétan Soucy, l’auteur de L’Immaculée Conception. Je viens de voir votre excellent film… Je souhaiterais vous rencontrer afin que nous puissions dialoguer autour d’un projet aussi fou que celui que vous avez de mettre en scène ce roman. Je ne doute pas que vous en soyez capable de mener à terme un projet aussi difficile.
I met Gaétan later that summer, in his kitchen in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, as construction workers steadfastly tore apart a house just outside his window. He had watched my films and wanted to discuss my take on the novel.
I was aware of the political and cultural conflict inherent in bringing a great Québecois novel to the screen in English, especially given the time and place of the book. However, I am also a child of Québec, having spent my first 25 years in Montréal, yet as a child effectively isolated from the surrounding Québecois culture as if on a neighbouring island in an alternate religious community, an experience that I believe gave me particular insight into the oppressive and hyper-religious period in Quebec society depicted in the novel. Furthermore, as the main characters of L’Immaculée conception appeared to represent this divide and this island-like alienation, I was confident my outsider’s take on the story could only serve the film and expand its reach. I could demonstrate just how universal the story is, bring it into the larger world, and do justice to its colossal scale.
Over the next few years, I had the privilege to meet Gaétan on and off, often spending hour after hour in front of the small computer screen in his front room watching scenes from dozens of films that had moved us both over the years – Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmoniesseemed to have equally caught us in a broadside (the scene at the hospital in particular). We watched some Haneke, some Bergman, even Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. I brought him Wojciech Has’s Hourglass Sanatorium, and Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor (and that tremendous scene of child sacrifice), Pálfi’s Taxidermia, as well as films by János Szász and Victor Erice’s El Espíritu de la Colmena (and in particular, that little girl’s similarity to one who kept showing up in Soucy’s books).
As I developed the script further I would send over the occasional copy for his review. The last one was couriered to his home in early March of this year. Sadly, I never managed to get his direct feedback on this last version. But then a strange thing happened: At the memorial service in July I was approached by one of Soucy’s literary friends whom I had met a year earlier along with Gaétan at the Détour bistro at the top of the author’s street. He said he had been at the author’s home a few weeks earlier. “Gaétan told me he read the new screenplay that you sent. He said it was very different from the novel, but that you had succeeded in capturing its essence.” As grateful as I was to be able to hear this, what struck me then is how a simple willing messenger can carry one’s words beyond what could seem an impassable frontier.
A note is pinned on the bulletin board above my writing desk. It is a printout of a line I received by email from Gaétan, very late one night after I had returned from one of our marathon film screenings:
Simplement pour te dire, mon ami, avant d’aller me coucher, que je suis convaincu que tu porteras le projet d’ImCon à terme et que tu en feras un grand film, qui comptera peut-être dans l’histoire. Ce film sera ton enfer et ton salut.
Bonjour David Birnbuam,
I am Gaétan Soucy, writer of The Immaculate Conception.
I watched your excellent film… I would like to meet you to discuss a project crazy enough as the one you want to make into a film. I have no doubt that you are capable enough to complete such a difficult task.
Just to tell you, my friend, before going to bed, I am convinced that you will carry the ImCon project forward to its completion and will make a great film, which will go down in history. This film will be your hell and your salvation.