Facing the facts

Facing the facts

By Michael Pickard
June 9, 2023

In production

Sophie Lorain and Alexis Durand-Brault from Québec’s Also Productions take DQ inside their particular brand of storytelling, which they say changes the narrative when it comes to well-trodden genres, and discuss embracing factual drama with their latest series, Désobéir (Disobey) and Mégantic.

Since they launched Montreal-based Also Productions in 2019, Sophie Lorain and Alexis Durand-Brault have never shied away from talking about big subjects, whether it’s abortion rights, mental health, disability or sensitive, real-life tragedies.

But with more than 20 years in the entertainment business – Lorain as an actor and both as directors – it’s their demand for innovative storytelling that the husband-and-wife team hope ensures their productions stand out from the crowd.

Sortez-Moi de Moi (Way Over Me), which debuted on Canadian streamer Crave, dealt with the frontline battle against mental health problems through the eyes of a doctor and a trio of emergency responders who struggle to put their emotions to one side as they deal with a range of demanding and dangerous cases.

Portrait-Robot (The Sketch Artist), meanwhile, which has been renewed for a third season by Club Illico, is a crime drama that focuses on a police officer with a unique method of identifying criminal suspects – one presented to the viewers in a dynamic and visually arresting way.

Sophie Lorain

Also Productions’ latest two projects tackle real events from modern Québec history. Désobéir: Le Choix de Chantale Daigle (Disobey) is a courtroom drama about a high-profile foetal rights case, while Mégantic is based on the train crash that devastated the town of Lac-Mégantic in 2013.

“We work with smaller budgets because we’re from Québec – and we do have much smaller budgets than what people are used to. That’s why we insist on working on quality, and we choose our projects very carefully to be able to do that,” Lorain tells DQ.

“Quality for us is innovation,” says Durand-Brault. “Quality is not just a question of money, it’s a question of innovation and trying to push the envelope, invent something new and bring something new to the audience.”

That mindset is rooted in the roles the pair take on in front and behind the camera alongside their producer remits. Lorain starred in The Sketch Artist, Way Over Me, Au Secours de Béatrice and season two of Omerta, while making her directorial debut with Also drama The Family Affair. Durand-Brault, meanwhile, has credits on films including C’est le Coeur qui meurt en dernier and Sortez-moi de moi alongside TV series such as La galère, Au Secours de Béatrice, Les Invisibles and The Sketch Artist. He also directed Disobey and Mégantic.

“We’re creators to start with, so we see things a little differently,” says Lorain. “I’m a Shakespearean trained actress, so I can read scripts. I’ve read Moliere and Chekhov, and when you read these theatre plays, which are extremely difficult sometimes to make truthful on stage, it helps you out [as a producer].

“Alex is very talented as well, and with the experience we’ve had in the past, we try to put aside what we don’t want and concentrate only on the content. Administration is not our strength. Banking is not our strength. The legal part of the business is not our strength. But this is the real know-how we have.”

Désobéir: Le Choix de Chantale Daigle (Disobey) focuses on an abortion law case

With an international premiere at French television festival Series Mania following its debut on Crave, Disobey dramatises the 1989 trial between Chantale Daigle and Jean-Guy Tremblay. Pregnant when they broke up after their relationship became abusive and violent, Chantale decides to have an abortion, but Jean-Guy takes her to court to stop her going through with it. The case went all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court, where it eventually went Chantale’s way and still stands today as case law in Canada, where injunctions cannot be obtained to prevent abortion.

By the time of the verdict, however, Chantale had already had an abortion after she was smuggled into the US for the procedure.

“To this day, if we can get an abortion freely and securely in Canada, it is partially because of her, because one year before her whole story, abortion was criminalised,” Lorain explains. But by the time of the case, Canadian abortion law had mostly been found unconstitutional – save for issues around the status of foetal rights, the very substance of the case against Chantale.

Alexis Durand-Brault

“So for a moment she was the only woman in Canada who couldn’t get an abortion. And she was waiting for these gentlemen to chat among themselves to decide whether the foetus had a personality or not, which was absolutely absurd. So finally she did get this abortion and she went back to a secret life and got married years later, and that was the end of it for her.”

Although well known at the time, the case had faded to memory until Lorain and Durand-Brault began working on the project around 2018, believing it was a story that needed to be retold. This came not long after Donald Trump had been elected US president, and “I could see that Roe vs Wade [which protected abortion rights] was going to fall off, or at least something was going to happen – and it has,” Lorain says, referring to the 2022 Supreme Court ruling that there is no constitutional right to abortion in the US.

“So we thought it was very important for this story to come back on the air and to recognise this woman, who’s a hero from the ordinary day-to-day world.”

Sold overseas by Attraction Distribution, the series opens as a relationship drama, with the producers keen to establish the bond between Chantale and Jean-Guy. It then becomes more of a thriller as the courts face a race against time to determine the case. During the trial, the story flashes back and forth between the past and present to unravel the central relationship and how events took a turn for the worse.

The story also shows the efforts of a group of women – lawyers, nurses and social workers among them – who helped Chantale fight her case and also took her to Boston, where she had an abortion before returning to Ottawa to hear the verdict.

The case at the centre of the show changed the rules around abortion in Canada

“All these women risked prison as well, so that aspect of their solidarity is also in there,” Lorain says. “It’s really powerful because, at the same time, there’s the anti-abortion movement pulling the strings, paying the lawyers of Jean-Guy and making sure their publicity and their agenda is going forward. So it gets to be very thrilling as far as the storytelling is concerned.”

Behind the camera, Durand-Brault’s task was to create a dynamic visual style that would elevate the action. The key to this, he says, was to place the camera in the centre of the courtroom, where it can follow all the key players and keep viewers in the middle of the story.

“I’m trying to make the viewer feel like Chantale,” he says. “I really love the feeling of sitting the viewer right in the middle of the scene. We need the viewer to have the same point of view as Chantale so we can understand the story and the emotion.

“If you watch the entire show, I don’t use that much montage. I’m not cutting too much. And my camera is always in the middle, never outside. I’m not a witness; my camera is part of the story. I think that creates a relationship between the story and the viewer, because you can be really immersed in the show.”

Mégantic tells the story of the devastating train crash in Lac-Mégantic in 2013

Meanwhile, Mégantic, which debuted on Club Illico earlier this year and is distributed by Incendo, is inspired by one of the worst rail disasters in Canadian history. On July 6, 2013, 47 people died when an unattended runaway train carrying more than seven million litres of crude oil derailed, causing it to erupt in flames.

Also Productions had previously been asked to create a series about the tragedy, but Lorain and Durand-Brault thought the idea was “too overwhelming and a bit tasteless.” However, after meeting some of the survivors in Lac-Mégantic, in south-east Québec, they came to learn more about the ordinary people whose lives were radically changed by the explosion, and ultimately decided to bring their stories to the screen.

“Some people felt it was time to express what they had felt, because we only saw the huge explosions through our televisions and through the media,” Lorain says. “We heard what they had to say, and their stories were so powerful that we decided to write eight one-hour stories on each of the people we met. And so we told the story of Mégantic. It’s really a very impressive show. It’s a huge hit in Québec.”

What Disobey and Mégantic have in common is a focus on the people – and emotions – at the centre of “unbelievable stories.”

“For me, it was unbelievable that Chantale could stand up to all these people,” Lorain says of Disobey’s subject. “She was surrounded by men – the lawyers of her boyfriend, the judges, the Supreme Court of Canada. It’s unbelievable that she managed it. And Mégantic, of course, it is spectacular. But underneath the spectacle, there are some really beautiful, gorgeous stories. And that’s what interests us. If those stories hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have touched them [as topics for drama series].”

That approach is also inspiring their next project, Chain Reaction. Based on Vincent Larouche’s book La Saga SNC-Lavalin, it explores a financial scandal that engulfed a Montreal engineering company and a web of intrigue that linked it to former Libya leader Muammar Gaddafi.

“I read the book about two years ago and this story is larger than life,” Durand-Brault says. “It’s almost ridiculous and very funny. So we’re working on that story now and I think it could be a very interesting show.

“It almost brought the government of Canada to its knees,” adds Lorain. “That’s something we’re developing. The series is going to take place in North America, Europe and also in Arabic countries, so we have to package it very carefully to make it happen because we really want to do it.”

The producers describe current conditions in the Québecois television business as “challenging,” with the relatively modest industry feeling budget squeezes and rising costs more than most. But that won’t stop the team at Also from taking on “huge” projects like Disobey and Mégantic, which command higher budgets than the regional norm. They are also plotting an English-language adaptation of The Sketch Artist.

“It’s tough for us. It is very tough. And Chain Reaction is also an expensive project, even more than the two we just did,” Lorain says. “So we have to be careful.”

But whatever challenges they face, they won’t be led by the fleeting desires of commissioners. “We heard the other day, ‘We need blue-sky crime,’ but in two weeks or two months, they will say, ‘We need dark crime,’” Durand-Brault says. “We never listen to them because if it’s not coming from the heart, it won’t happen. You never know what is going to be good, so you better follow your heart. After that, the movie gods will decide.”

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