Family comes first
Canadian writer Anne Boyer discusses her 30-year writing partnership with Michel d’Astous and how their explorations of family led them to write Mon Fils (My Son), a series about a teenager’s struggle with schizophrenia.
For more than 30 years, writing duo Anne Boyer and Michel d’Astous have brought stories to the screen in Quebec, tackling genres from historical sagas and detective series to soap operas and psychological drama. Most frequently, however, their work focuses on family and how characters are shaped by their closest relationships.
Examples include Tabou (Taboo), which chronicled a couple’s relentless search for their missing daughter and asked whether a family can withstand such a tragedy, and 2 Frères, which followed two brothers on diverging paths who are brought closer together by a tragic event.
Their latest collaboration, Mon Fils (My Son), focuses on the delicate relationship between a mother and son after the latter is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Eighteen-year-old student Jacob’s mental illness engulfs his whole existence and jeopardises his future, but the challenges ahead leave him with a strong desire to start a new life. Meanwhile, his mother Marielle faces a struggle to care for a schizophrenic son who doesn’t always want to be helped. She then uses all her resources to break through the barriers in front of her, leading them both on a journey from overflowing emergency rooms and psychiatric units to protected apartments and homeless shelters.
“Family is our main subject and we have worked with families in so many ways in 30 years,” Boyer tells DQ from Montreal. “This one is special because we wanted to talk about mental illness, and schizophrenia is a taboo disease. That was interesting for us. Mental heath issues, especially in the time of a pandemic, are very important.
“We really wanted to dive into this mental illness, not just touch it, and also we wanted to show it often happens to young boys. It usually affects people around 17 or 18 years old and often without, or with little, warning. They don’t really know what triggers it. It’s fascinating because this is very frightening. The other thing we wanted to show is a family that does not come from a disadvantaged background. We wanted to show loving parents with inner strength and resources; we wanted to show people who look like us struggling with this disease.”
Jacob and Marielle’s relationship is at the centre of the story. Before Jacob’s illness, they enjoyed a strong bond and Marielle knew how to help and take care of her child. But his diagnosis leaves her completely helpless, as suddenly nothing she does seems to work.
Across six episodes, Boyer and d’Astous wanted to show Jacob and Marielle’s journey with schizophrenia, starting with his diagnosis – everyone initially thinks he’s having a bad experience with drugs – to his recovery at the end as he learns to live with the condition. It’s a painful experience for both characters, with viewers following the separate roads down which Jacob’s diagnosis takes them until they find a way to reconcile and become mother and son once again.
“We wanted to go from A to Z,” Boyer says. “In the beginning, he goes to the hospital and we see the refusal of treatment – a lot of people refuse to be treated. In this case, they have to go to court to force him to be treated. Then there are the pitfalls and the difficulty of the health system. Then, of course, the recovery. We absolutely wanted to show that, although schizophrenia is an incurable disease, it is controllable. You can be happy if you control the disease. We wanted a happy ending for Jacob and Marielle.”
Boyer says the writing duo – their production company is called Duo Productions – knew very little about schizophrenia before writing the series, so they spent months researching the condition and speaking with medical professionals and others familiar with it. They also sought out people with experience of schizophrenia to read the scripts because “sometimes you try to do something good and you end up doing worse,” she says. “It also has a very fast pace. Although it’s six episodes, time goes fast in the episodes. People who live in those situations thought it was like reality. That’s a compliment.”
It’s no surprise to hear the way Boyer and d’Astous write together has changed across their three-decade collaboration. At first, they would both write scripts simultaneously and take the best bits from each. Boyer describes it as “knitting.” These days, however, they meticulously plot out the series before each writing different episodes.
“We do a lot of things together but the dialogue is done by each of us [individually],” she explains. “Then we read each other’s scripts. When we start doing the dialogue, we have already decided exactly what will be in each episode.
“The only time we’re not together to create and write is during the writing itself,” Boyer adds of her “professional husband.” “The rest of the time we are together. We were originally working for the same company and we went to see a movie. Michel was writing a theatre piece and I was studying creative writing. We thought we would revolutionise TV in Quebec – we didn’t, but we’ve written a lot in 35 years.”
That planning also carries over into pre-production, when the pair sit down with the director – in the case of Mon Fils, actor and filmmaker Mariloup Wolfe (Unité 9) – to discuss their vision for the series. “If we work well, when the shooting starts, we don’t have to be there so much,” Boyer says. “By then, everything has been decided. We are not there a lot on set because we have to write and we are producing other things too, so we work a lot in prep and post-production. On set, the director is boss and we respect that. Mariloup did a terrific job.”
Boyer recognises the challenge the scripts presented to actors Antoine L’Écuyer and Élise Guilbault, who play Jacob and Marielle respectively. “It was very demanding, especially for Antoine, because there are some very emotional scenes, so that was challenging for the actors,” she says. “We also had some wolves on the set at one point – that was challenging as well! Really, it was a great set. Nothing bad happened, everyone was happy with what was happening and everyone thought we were doing something good. It is rare to show schizophrenia like this. Everybody was very aware it’s an important subject.”
Though Mon Fils first aired last March on Quebec’s Club Illico, it is now set to be showcased to global audiences via the Berlin Film Festival, where it will be screened as part of the Berlinale Series Market Selects programme next month. Produced by Duo Productions and Quebecor, the show is being sold internationally by France-based distributor Oble.
“I had seen similar things [to Mon Fils], but our way to write it was always through the family,” says Boyer, who urges people to be more open when it comes to their mental health. “We don’t talk about it enough. Psychiatry is the least funded department of medicine and people are suffering with mental health without help. If this just opens some eyes, we did our job. Twenty-five years ago, you were locked up [if you had] schizophrenia. Your life was finished at 25 years old. We now know it can be controlled.”