Soul searching

Soul searching

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
March 30, 2021

IN FOCUS

Writers Patrick Lowe, Annabelle Poisson and director Sophie Deraspe discuss their approach to the story told in Bête Noire (Dark Soul), a Quebecois drama set in the immediate aftermath of a school shooting.

While news from the US has once again been dominated by cases of mass shootings following separate incidents in Georgia and Colorado earlier this month, a scripted series from across the northern border is set to explore the impact of such an atrocity.

Quebecois drama Bête Noire (Dark Soul) examines the consequences of a shooting carried out by 16-year-old Jérémy at his school, looking at what drove him to orchestrate such an act of hate and how his grieving family are left to pick up the pieces. With the help of psychiatrist coroner Éliane (Sophie Cadieux) leading the investigation into the case, Jérémy’s mother Mélanie (Isabelle Blais) will try to work out how her seemingly trouble-free son came to commit such a terrible crime.

Produced by Encore Television for Corus Entertainment’s Séries Plus, the series is also notable for the fact it starts in the minutes after the fictional shooting, with viewers never explicitly seeing the events that are at the centre of the story.

Patrick Lowe

“What we witness is the impact of this mass shooting in a school on the family of the killer,” co-writer Patrick Lowe said during a Content London Hot Properties session at the end of last year. “It’s mostly about the investigation. It’s not a whodunnit, because we know who did it. It’s about why this young kid decided to go on a rampage.”

“It’s a story about a family that is going through hell,” said co-writer Annabelle Poisson. “They’re trying to find out what happened and whether they could have prevented it, and dealing with their guilt, shame and everything that comes with it.”

The show is rooted in real events, with Lowe and Poisson first developing the story following a 2017 shooting that took place at a mosque in Quebec City, killing six people. Poisson said the events shocked the country, adding that it was several months later when reading about some of the victims that she discovered the shooter had an identical twin.

“Then it struck me: this innocent guy wears the same face as a mass murderer,” she said. “This was the beginning of the story for me.”

Lowe studied criminology and also worked as a lawyer for several years, and says the case made him question why someone would carry out such a crime. He was also personally affected by another incident, the 1989 mass shooting at Montreal’s Polytechnique university, where he was a student.

“The story of the victims, we mostly know. But like Annabelle, I was struck by the idea of exploring the family of the shooter,” he said. “They’re not criminals but they are the ones left behind. We had lunch together and we both asked what the other was working on. I said I had this idea and she was also working on a show about the family of a shooter. That’s how it all started three-and-a-half years ago.”

Through the series, which launches tomorrow, viewers will follow the coroner’s investigation as she examines Jérémy’s background and the motives behind his actions, agreeing to work with his mother to find the answers to the questions they both have.

Bête Noire (Dark Soul) focuses on the impact of a school shooting on the perpetrator’s family

“If it’s a terrorist attack, you can understand why the attacker did it, even though it’s immoral. It’s logical; the purpose is understandable at face value. But with a mass shooting in a school, it’s hard to grasp why this guy or girl did it,” Lowe said.

However, the writers admitted the series may not offer any concrete conclusions by the end of its six episodes. “That’s why writers are so interested in that story, because it’s a big mystery,” Lowe added. “The human mind is still a big mystery to us. That’s why I think stories like this are so popular.”

The award-winning writer and director behind films such as Antigone, which was Canada’s entry for best international feature at the 2020 Oscars, Sophie Deraspe directed television for the first time with Bête Noire. She joined the project in December 2019 after reading the first script and said she was drawn to the project because of its approach to the events it portrays.

Annabelle Poisson

“It really spoke to me; I wanted to be the one to make this show,” she said. “As soon as I had the scripts in my hand, I was thinking about casting, and we just cast the right people. Once when I was still finishing a scene, I was behind a monitor and I was sobbing because I think we are really doing something that goes straight into the hearts and minds [of viewers]. We’re doing something relevant.”

Piecing together the cast led by Cadieux and Blais, Deraspe said she saw lots of young actors during auditions for the series, which also sees her reunite with Antigone star Nahéma Ricci.

“It was very hard to prepare for such a story because for most of us, fortunately, we haven’t been through such a tragedy,” she said. “At the same time, we’re telling stories and it’s all about empathy. Good actors are able to find the right path to empathise even with someone who did the worst thing you can imagine. So in casting, I had to go for actors who are able to bear something greater than themselves.”

On set, she chose to use wide angles and slow camera movements to dig into the minds of the characters, while at times the series also has a faster pace and uses music to heighten the feelings and emotions at play. Preparation was key, although the director also wanted to give the actors the freedom to make choices in the moment. “But there was no improvisation,” she said. “We respected the script, but giving them freedom was about how we felt it should be shot.”

On its release in 2019, the writers had seen Antigone and immediately picked out Deraspe as a director with the sensibilities they were looking for.

“We fell in love with her as soon as we saw the movie,” Lowe recalled. “When we met her, it was great and we had several meetings afterwards to discuss notes for production. Throughout, there was a discussion between us three about the story, the characters and everything.”

Poisson continued: “There was one specific topic we discussed that was very important to us, concerning what you see [on screen] before the shooting and after the shooting, with Jérémy and the guns. We didn’t want to see Jérémy military style or to show images that could encourage some viewers [to repeat his actions]. Sophie was really attentive and understood our concerns.”

Isabelle Blais (left) plays the shooter’s mother while Sophie Cadieux is the investigating coroner

“That’s why we wanted to start after that moment,” Lowe noted. “We see a little bit of the shooter in the flashback. In the writing, we even asked if we could do it without seeing any flashbacks of the shooter. We thought at one point it was a good idea because we were still very concerned about the problem of showing violence on television. Our worst nightmare would have been a copycat, so we’re showing the aftermath but we’re not showing the actual shooting at all.”

Filming the series in Quebec during the pandemic meant the main actors were contained together in a bubble, allowing them to work within one metre of each other. Actors were permitted to come closer together than that for a maximum of just 15 minutes per day, with someone on set keeping time to ensure those limits weren’t breached.

“We found a choreography that allowed us to work within the spectrum of the rules and, in the end, it doesn’t show,” Deraspe said. “The most difficult thing was for the crew to work with masks on. We were all very protected. After a few days, it became life and we were so happy to work and pull this story out.”

Sophie Deraspe

While mass shootings are thankfully still rare enough to leave communities and countries shocked and bereaved when they do happen, the director and writers believe the horror and grief left behind by such events are still universal themes that speak to all audiences.

“There are more and more types of that event happening around the world, unfortunately, and we’re just starting to see some glimpse of an idea behind the social, familial and psychological impact,” Lowe said. “That’s why I think people are interested to know why [people do these things]. One of the things we hope to achieve is when something like this happens, to just stop and think. There are always big stories and dramas behind it and we just want to show people the other side.”

“At the end, you cannot just not sympathise with this family,” said Poisson. “You can’t just look at them and say, ‘Maybe they missed something or did something wrong.’ We wanted to show this could happen to anybody. This could happen in your house – when you’re just living your life and you miss it. That’s going to touch people a lot, I hope.”

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