Do you know Martin Villeneuve’s amazing story? From film student to TED talk phenomenon, to Hollywood. Over a million people have been inspired by his mantra “Give the Space to Dream.” For you sci-fi lovers, film lovers, and to every human who dreams… this story will inspire you to go for it!
Martin Villeneuve starts drawing at 4.
At 8, he sneaks down the basement stairs to watch movies that only his big brothers are allowed to watch. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner are all seen through the staircase banister. Blade Runner is set 30 years in the future. Little does he know that 30 years later his older brother Denis will direct Blade Runner 2 in Hungary with Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling and Robin Wright. Martin will be in talks with some of Hollywood’s biggest names to star in his second feature film.
Martin spends his childhood and adolescence obsessing over the work of Gilliam, Kubrick, Spielberg and Lucas. He discovers the work of H.P. Lovecraft and dreams about violence-free sci-fi movies. He believes that there is more to this world than we can see. He starts seriously writing and sketching graphic novels, including Mars et Avril.
He attends Concordia film school in Montreal. His short films are quickly acclaimed among the student community. He becomes friends with Caroline Dhavernas and she stars in his student movies. While studying, he works for a Montreal casting agent filming audition tapes for actors. He sees that the camera loves the person you wouldn’t necessarily select. He takes note of when the magic happens.
Out of school, he begins working as a creative director at the ad agency Diesel. They are impressed by his graphic design portfolio from UQAM and they give him a prize. He pitches to Cirque du Soleil. He meets his idol Robert Lepage. His ads start winning awards. His rename for the agency is selected: Sid Lee (an anagram of Diesel).
Finally he begins work on his first feature film, Mars et Avril, Quebec’s first sci-fi movie. He is able to cast Robert Lepage by making his character a hologram. He attracts Cirque du Soleil’s CEO Guy Laliberté to pay for the imaginary musical instruments to be crafted, his Belgian artist hero François Schuiten to do the production design, special effects wizard Carlos Monzon to turn his crazy concepts into reality, and Oscar-nominated Benoit Charest to score the music. His school friend and ex-roommate Caroline Dhavernas accepts the lead role.
Martin learns that outside of school, making movies takes a long time. He works day and night to finance his first feature. He manages to raise only half of what it takes to complete it, and vows he will never try to produce alone again. He gets others to help. He doesn’t know then that he won’t get paid for the next 7 years. He continues working as a freelancer in advertising to make ends meet.
He remortgages his condo. Twice.
Martin’s girlfriend leaves him because she can’t deal with the financial strife. Mars et Avril has disappointing results at the box office, simply because it is a nontraditional genre for Quebec audiences, and because the local distributor doesn’t believe in it. Regardless, Martin makes sure that his movie has a good ride in international festivals, sending advanced screenings and paying the entry fees himself. He goes back to working in advertising on a full-time basis.
But then, TED Talks comes knocking at his door. TED Curator Chris Anderson invites him to speak about how he made a 2.3 million dollar movie look like it cost 23 million dollars. Mars et Avril is labeled “The Impossible Film” in America. Martin becomes Quebec’s first TED speaker, and his inspiring TED Talk is seen by over a million people. In it he says “A dream is a gateway into what is possible”. The day after giving his TED Talk, Martin has the opportunity to meet with the Hollywood studios. He writes a pitch for Indiana Jones 5. He decides to leave his job in advertising to concentrate on his filmmaking career.
Mars et Avril is sold to the U.S. and is now distributed on iTunes and Amazon! It starts to make investors their money back and the cast & crew receive a check for a film they made with a deferred pay. People who have worked in cinema for 30 years say that this has rarely happened before.
Two of Martin’s childhood heroes, comic book masters François Schuiten and Benoit Sokal, ask him to embark on a long journey with them. For years they’ve been dreaming of an animated feature film about giant whales, titled Aquarica. They want Martin to write a script based on some mind-blowing drawings they created during their summer vacations. Martin jumps at the opportunity and brings the project to producer Pierre Even (Brooklyn, C.R.A.Z.Y.) at Item 7. He’s currently completing the second draft.
He is also approached by L.A. producers Nicholas Tabarrok and Morris Ruskin to direct From Beyond, based on the H.P. Lovecraft’s short story he read as a teenager. He begins casting this horror/sci-fi/thriller and has meetings with his dream Hollywood cast. While the producers are finding financing for the film, he starts other projects.
He decides to make a short film, Imelda. He puts on his beloved grandmother Imelda’s clothes, goes in her house (about to be sold) and improvises. Not only does his performance win him an award, but Montreal producer Nicole Robert from GO Films offers to option it as a feature. She says she hasn’t laughed that hard in years. They are hoping to shoot the film next year.
New York producer Ed Pressman – who has launched the careers of such directors as Brian De Palma, Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow and Sam Raimi – also contacts him to develop an original concept for a sci-fi film. It is called The Other World. Martin teams up once again with François Schuiten. It is around this time in his story that I meet with him for lunch. He will find out the next day what the producer thinks of the first draft of the script.
Martin can’t tell me who his dream cast is for From Beyond. He has to keep it secret because he is in talks with them. He acknowledges that it is a whole other ballgame casting in Hollywood. Here in Quebec you can sign an actor over coffee. Now talks involve their opinion of the script, and questioning whether the film fits with their career trajectory. These are very smart people with a lot of power. They decide what movies get made. The stakes are high.
He feels a new pressure. A pressure to impress people in a way he didn’t feel with his first movie. He feels the tug of war between making the film you love, and one that others love. He wants to carve out a place for his unique voice; he wants to refine it, to get it where he thinks it should be. He wants to make something new, to stand out. But he knows it’s all about timing. Will audiences be ready for him? Will the movie make money as fast as it needs to in order to be seen?
From Beyond is a popcorn movie that people of all ages would love. Based on a short story by master of horror H.P. Lovecraft, and a screenplay by London writer Ray Gower, Martin was involved in crafting the script. It deals with parallel dimensions, the layers of reality you don’t see as humans but exist. It is part Detective novel, part Film Noir, with shades of horror, sci-fi, mystery and thriller.
He has that thing; he knows how to talk about himself in a compelling way.
Angelique: You have so many projects on the go but film is such a slow expensive art. How do you deal with the waiting?
Martin Villeneuve: If you can’t deal with it, you better change careers. If something doesn’t get made, you start something new, which is hard because you put all of yourself into each project.
How do you prepare for a pitch? What makes it successful?
It’s something you are born with. A bit of charm and you have to find an original voice. I do extensive research and bring mood boards because these people are visual and it helps them see my vision. My TED Talk was a good vehicle too because 10-11 minutes is as much time as you have. Also pitching for Cirque du Soleil and to Robert Lepage was all good practice. You have to know how to get to people. You have to have a new angle. You have to know how to get the puck in the goal. That’s why Sid Lee hired me, because I know how.
What made you chose a girl to save the world in Aquarica?
Because it would be a woman that would save the world. Femininity is life, renewal. The world would be a better place if there were more leaders with feminine traits like emotions and intuition. We men have other qualities, but tend to get stuck in our heads!
Is it a comment on global warming?
This movie is not a morality on how we should do things, it’s an acknowledgement of what’s going on, a fable about how these characters manage to make things right. How does losing one species affect us? Every time we lose something of value in the ecosystem, we are altering the equilibrium. This is our doom. We’re going down that path. Perhaps it’s our fate.
How do we save ourselves?
We have a lot of ways biologically to see things, but it gets discouraged by society. Kids understand that what we’re doing to the planet is clearly wrong, but as we grow up to work for a system that becomes part of our daily lives, we are blinded. We live in a capitalist society. If we did more meditation, focused on our dreams, and questioned what we want to do with our lives, we’d be happier. Most people aren’t happy because they haven’t asked that question at the right time in their life.
We live with tremendous pressure and this leads to lack of creativity in our daily lives and in film. I want to make films we haven’t seen before, but it’s hard because as soon as you come up with an idea that people haven’t seen, they’re afraid, and they say it won’t work. The sequels are getting the money.
The reason Quebec films and those made in countries like Belgium are so original is because no one expects them. We aren’t working for a factory. We are making indie films, sometimes they’re good, sometimes they aren’t, sometimes they’re weird, but they attract attention because they propose something new. They aren’t necessarily commercial, but they open the path for what is going to be commercial in 20 years. To make something new that has commercial appeal, you have to be right on time. Not too soon that people aren’t ready, and not too late that it’s been done before.
Do you think we will save our planet?
It’s tricky because the end of the world has been announced so many times. Perhaps climate change has to do with other things that we don’t really understand. All of this involves very complex parameters. It’s hard to say if we’re doomed, but the next 50-100 years will tell us. We lack connectivity, and a ‘big plan’ for humanity. We are trying to connect but if you look at societies like ants and bees, they all work together but we don’t have the ability. Perhaps we aren’t meant to stay here? Perhaps we are developing these abilities. When you show kids how to meditate, they have psychic abilities, they are able to plug into something bigger, and we don’t encourage these abilities. Most people will just laugh. We have a strong ability to bring new things into reality, to make a dream a reality. That is quite fascinating! We have that instinct, some people stronger than others. Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, for example, are probably very strong mediums, relying on their instinct. If they started to talk about it, people wouldn’t take them seriously. If we would encourage that in society, it would free us from many boundaries. I’m not afraid to talk about it. For me it’s part of our reality. Ninety percent of our reality is invisible and we are victim to not being able to see what is going on.
Tell me about working with the lovely Caroline Dhavernas. She sparkles in Mars et Avril.
She’s very discreet on set and she comes in very prepared. She listens a lot, a very important attribute for an actor. She has a strong instinct. She’s beautiful, and she knows how to use it. Actresses have to know they are beautiful. It has to be your ally, not the doom of you. Her body, mind and soul are tightly connected. She’s in charge of her tools, very grounded. She has that charisma, not everyone has it. I would work with her again.
What about Mars et Avril are you most proud of?
That I was able to create a cohesive world and tell a poetic story using sci-fi, without any violence. That is a new idea, and I’m proud of that. It isn’t a perfect movie, which is the curse of a first film. Coppola said in a workshop I saw that “What people hate you for, is what they will praise you for in 20 years. It’s your voice, it makes you unique. So if you get depressed about it, you lose an opportunity to grow.”
When should we stop dreaming?
Never, not until our last breath, for it’s the thing that makes us distinctly human. Unfortunately, there is a ticking clock for many dreams. They say if you haven’t made your first feature by 30-35, you never will. In order to do that, you have to be focused by 20. But creation doesn’t have to stop. Film is such an expensive medium; no one will just offer you 20 million dollars like that. The democratization of the medium is great, but it is the distribution that is so difficult to get, it’s almost impossible. You have to find creative ways to get your voice out there, and for me that vehicle was TED.
To be successful in a creative field, you can’t just want it, you have to need it.
Very well said! I can’t imagine creation not being a part of my life. I’d rather be dead. Many people go to school to study film because they see the good side, it seems extraordinary. But the amount of work needed days, nights, and weekends is more than most people are willing to give. Everybody that succeeds in this business is a tremendously hard worker.
I am someone who believes in magic, do you?
Magic is everywhere. People fall in love, and they ask themselves why. When my son was born seven and a half years ago it was like another portal opened. There is something strange at play. Or when you die…
Your grandmothers have both passed away. When mine passed, it was very difficult. Tell me about your grandmothers.
My grandmothers were the building blocks of my family. Losing them was as strong as losing a parent. Mine were such strong, complex, colorful individuals. They were so different, like fire and water. They were opposites physically, psychologically, spiritually. So I had everything I needed for a feature film. I researched Imelda for four months and I found out things that happened that not even her kids know! When people read it, they can’t believe it’s true. I got paid to write about my grandma! How often does that happen?
What other secrets does this visionary have up his sleeve? We wait.
Thank you Martin for your time and dedication to this story. It was a privilege to collaborate with you. Thank you for inspiring us to give ourselves the “space to dream”.