Nicolas Levesque is a photographer and a filmmaker based in Chicoutimi, Quebec who’s latest short documentary, “Interview With a Free Man,” was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival a few weeks ago. Laurence Cornet talks with Nicolas about the transformation from still photographer to filmmaker and the lessons he learned along the way.
LC: Can you start by giving a little bit of background about yourself?
NL: I studied photography for 3 years. I was then interested in cinema and wanted to become a director of photography so, I went to a cinema school in Santiago in Chile, where I study DP. When I came back, I made my first documentary short. It was a film about my father and how I didn’t takeover his farm. The film traveled a lot and won a distribution prize in a festival. I tried to sell it to the national television in Canada; they didn’t take it but they called me two months later and said: “We need a director with your style”. That’s how I started to work for national television, and this lasted about 5 years. In the meantime, I was still making some photography projects, and trying to look differently at things.
LC: How do you make a living? From the film industry, the photo industry?
NL: Of course there is more money in the film industry – maybe not in narrative films but television buys a lot of documentaries. Maybe it’s a “sexier” media; it’s easier to get some people interested in a film than in a photo essay. Television is a way for me to make a living and get a bit of extra money to start a project. Then, I ask for money from the government to continue a project; that’s how I usually work.
LC: Do you always have to start a project in order to get it funded?
NL: Not always. For my three last projects, I didn’t have to start them. I just asked for the money and luckily enough, I got it. But television is great, even if it’s sometimes boring – you have a time constraint, you have to do boring interviews with people in the center of the frame or things like that, you can not try some aesthetic movements. I learned a lot about journalism and reportage from the television industry; I learned how to be accepted into various contexts. It was a great school, and I don’t regret it.
LC: You just had a short documentary about prisoners reentry employment program at the Tribeca Film Festival. What else are you up to?
NL: Right now I’m working on two projects. I’m doing a documentary for television about gun ownership in Canada. It echoes my second short film, ‘In Guns We Trust’, which is about gun culture in Kennesaw, near Atlanta, Georgia. This short film traveled to 40 festivals and was sold to a couple of televisions networks; it had a great life. A producer saw it and offered me to do a TV documentary about gun ownership in Canada.
I’m also working on a feature film about seal hunting in Canada – in the Magdalen Islands, to be precise. I’m not looking for experts, I’m almost not looking for interviews, I just want to film people hunting seals – how they do it, how they live, who they are, what it is to live on an island where the nearest land is about 6 hours away by boat? This is going to be a long feature film. What’s going to happen, I hope, is that the film will be selected for festivals, and that television stations will buy it.
LC: So the way to impose your own language, in photo or video, is to do your thing first and then sell it…
NL: Yes. It’s a good thing to do. For ‘In Guns We Trust’, I didn’t ask for money. I used my own money, went there, took some photos, and shot some footage. After that, I found a bit of funding for the editing. And for sound design, you can just do a short demo pretty quickly and then ask for money to do the post-production, which can be very costly.
LC: How about photo projects?
NL: In photo it’s really hard to sell beforehand, so I ask for money from organizations – the Canadian Arts Council, or the Quebec Arts Council, for instance. It’s great if I can sell it to a newspaper or a magazine, but when you ask for institutional money they don’t see it as art if you say it’s for a magazine. You have to come up with something that involves gallery walls, or with a book. And it’s more interesting because you think about your image differently.
LC: What usually makes you choose photo versus video; is it because you like both of them and don’t want to choose or, is it because it helps you tell different kind of stories?
NL: I push them equally. When I have an idea, it comes naturally whether it’s a film, a short film, a photo series or an installation. Each discipline nourishes the other; some have qualities, some don’t. For example, the seal-hunting story is kind of heavy. You have to go with the soundman, a DP, and an assistant director. It’s fun to work in these conditions, but what is great about photography is that you are free to suffer alone if you want to, and not have the rest of the team suffer. Photography is so light. It gives you another access and another kind of image that can be useful in films too.
LC: You are talking a lot about access. Do you have any advice for photographers and videographers about how to get access?
NL: I always smile. And the thing is, when I was in Kennesaw for the gun project, if I had been saying that I’m a photographer for the New York Times that would have scared people. It was good to have the position of the artist doing a photo essay. Some people were like “Oh, poor little guy, he’s doing a photo essay; let’s help him do some pictures with us.” It’s still very confrontational to get in such contexts – it’s you against the subjects, and also you against yourself. And that makes me get better, bigger. You always become a better person when you return from a story because you judge less and you know the problems as a whole.
LC: How does that work for you?
NL: When you start a story people ask you: “Who are you? What are you doing? Why do you do that?” So, you have to think about yourself. And of course, I have a few tricks. Most of the time, you don’t talk too much, and when you do, it has to be something that you know they can relate to. For instance, Kennesaw was a rural place, and I come from a rural place, so we were talking about agriculture, machines and tractors. I was telling them about my first experience with a rifle when I went hunting as a kid, and because of that I was accepted pretty quickly. With the seal hunters, it was the same thing. When I arrived there, I was always asked: “Are you from a big city?” As I come from a small town we have a common ground. I think growing up on my dad’s farm always helped me.
LC: The way you approach people leads me to the next question about activism; you are not truly an activist, but you are always interested in subjects that have a social aspect. How would you describe yourself in that manner?
NL: You know, I first fell in love with Magnum photographers, and then when I was at school Seven was created. I was pretty excited with all that. Then when I studied cinema they always asked the students to explain themselves pretty well. It’s not just about your subject; it’s the reason why you’re doing it that way.
When I was working for my dad, a lot of people working for him were not rich, educated people; they were farm workers. I learned a lot from them, and I have a lot of respect for them. So social was always important to me because I always was interested in people who are working hard, struggling, but still surviving.
LC: Do you want to talk about your fishermen project in Ecuador or is this top secret for now?
NL: It’s not top secret. It’s about their daily life. I haven’t looked at my images yet and want to sleep on them for a while, so this is going to take a while. Till then, I have two book projects going on. One of them is the result of a $10,000 grant from an Arts Council that aimed to match an artist with an organization. The organization was a jazz festival. I hung out there for a week, stayed with the artists in the dressing rooms or backstage. That’s a good example of another way to have money and make something with it. Sometimes artists need occasions to create and try something – new twists, or another aesthetic. That’s what makes great films, great art pieces. You have to take some risks.
Nicolas Levesque is a photographer and filmmaker based in Chicoutimi, Canada. Graduated in photography at the Cégep de Matane, he also has a bachelor’s degree in cinema and arts at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. He co-founded the KAHEM photographer’s association, and worked as a director on the Télé Québec network. His documentary In Guns We Trust screened as part of the Not Short of Talent program at Cannes Film Festival before being selected for TIFF’s Top Ten Shorts in 2014. His latest short, Interview With a Free Man, premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2015.
Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.