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Q&A: Heather O’Neill’s adapted story makes its film debut at TIFF

Heather O’Neill and filmmaker Claire Blanchet (photo: Xavier Torres Bacchetta, courtesy of NFB)

Lullabies for Little Criminals author Heather O’Neill has made her first foray into the film world with the adaptation of her 2008 short story, The End of Pinky.

Directed by Montreal filmmaker Claire Blanchet and produced by the NFB, the stereoscopic 3D animated short is premiering today at the Toronto International Film Festival. O’Neill not only wrote the script, she also narrates the eight-minute film, about three fallen angels living in Montreal’s red-light district among the muted tones and swirls of cigarette smoke and snowfall.

Q&Q spoke with O’Neill and Blanchet prior to their red-carpet debut.

What was the genesis of the short story?
O’Neill: The Walrus was doing a film-noir issue, and had contacted a writer from every city in Canada to do a film-noir take on their city. They called and asked if I wanted to do one about Montreal.

When I was a kid, I had written this book called The Romeo Hotel, and it was all about these brutal gangsters who were incredibly handsome. I thought I was being really tough, like Mickey Spillane, but it ended up having a very romantic feel to it. I’ve always wanted to go back and rewrite it. There were three main characters in that novel, and I thought, Oh, I’ll pull them out of retirement and write a little funny kind of tale.” I kept that sort of tongue-in-cheek, absurd, kid-like gangster feel to it.

Did Claire approach you? Why did you trust her with your work?
O’Neill: Yes, she came and found me. The process with which she convinced me was a really long one. She kept coming over to my house with new drawings. It’s almost like I had  storyboards for the film, and basically all they needed was a magic wand to make them start moving. She drew me this amazing cityscape out of charcoal with little snowflakes coming down, and she gave me this long roll of the character Mia, with her long legs. There were all these drawings of Pinky crouched down going through his poetry withdrawal. She had actually started working on it before she contacted me.

Blanchet: I didn’t mean to start. Mia and Pinky, they’re just such beautifully written, lovable characters. With every step we got to, I just kept thinking, If that’s where it ends, at least I’ve done everything I can, but I have to make sure I’ve done everything I can. And then if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.” But I felt very strongly it would take.

How did you translate Heather’s writing into visuals?
Blanchet: The characters are so vividly described, I felt like I was already seeing it as a film as I was reading the story. So much of the language is so material-oriented … like you can hear things, and smell them, and feel them. I checked in with Heather often to make sure she felt okay, because you don’t want it to become about you. The most important thing is the story, so you have to always work with that. We had a beautiful musical score as well, and editor Jelena Popovic was constantly balancing the reading and the story, the visuals and the music, and made sure nothing was competing, and everything was always supporting the story.

O’Neill: When you write, you always have this idea that there are so many things that can’t be translated to film, which can make letting go of film rights difficult. Claire had created a snowfall in 3D. I found that I had never quite seen a snowfall captured on film that way. The tactile feeling of those early snowfalls in Montreal with these incredibly huge snowflakes, and everything just gets quiet. The snowflakes come down, and you can actually see the patterns in them as they fall in front of you. How would you convey that in film? It was nice to see Claire had found some crazy inventive way. I think she had crafted them out of paper.

Blanchet: Rebecca St. John, who was one of the people who worked on the film, cut each of those paper snowflakes by hand, and our stereographer, David Seitz, figured out a way to make that happen in a digital 3D space. It was one of the first things I wanted as soon as I read the story.

Are there any plans to collaborate again?
O’Neill: Claire and I have another film coming, a piece of creative non-fiction mixed with magical realism, based on a newspaper story I wrote about my nephew and me. My nephew’s been sending photographs to Claire so that she can capture him. It’s finally like, “Yes! I’ve always wanted to go through the looking glass.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.