Jacob Tierney is a political animal. Whether it’s the Bolshevik revolution, the alarming suicide rates among Nunavut youth or the status quo in Quebec’s film milieu, the 31 year-old writer-director is always game to confront the issues and engage in meaningful dialogue. Sometimes the politics strike such a chord that they eventually find their way into his feature film scripts. Such was the case with the 1995 Quebec referendum, which serves as the backdrop to Tierney’s latest, Good Neighbours, a taut noir adapted from Chrystine Brouillet’s Chère Voisine, about a serial rapist on the prowl in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
“What I remember most about the referendum was how exciting it was, how I felt as though things were going to change and then they didn’t,” a forthright Tierney told me at EM Café in Mile End last fall, one week before the film was to debut at TIFF. “I was a kind of shit-disturbing ‘yes’ supporter at a Montreal West high school and I was amazed by the homogenized uniformity of opinion about it. ”Always one to confound expectations, Tierney is the kind of interviewee journalists (at least those who aren’t averse to his opinions) quickly take a liking to: equal parts down-to-earth, eloquent and funny, passionate about the political and prone to giving perfectly packaged quotes.
PUTTING HIS SCREEN DAYS TO GOOD USE
After adapting Charles Dickens’ classic orphan tale to the seedy underbelly of Toronto hustlerdom in Twist, Tierney trained his lens on Montreal’s Anglo community in The Trotsky, a winsome teen romcom about student Leon Bronstein (our very own Maple-Leaf-on-chest Jay Baruchel), who believes he is the reincarnation of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky and takes his Marxist ideals to the public school system. With Neighbours, Tierney gives us an offbeat thriller set in an NDG apartment block revolving around three peculiar tenants: a young cat lady with subpar social skills (The Trotsky’s Emily Hampshire), a wheelchair-bound alpha male with a punishing sense of humour (Felicity’s Scott Speedman) and an awkward, friendly-to-a-fault new arrival (again, wonderboy Baruchel), who moves in just as the death toll escalates.
Many actors who’ve worked with Tierney consider him an ‘actor’s director’, which isn’t a shocker when you take stock of this guy’s acting credits, having shared screen time with Hollywood heavyweights like Gena Rowlands and James Caan, and played in two of Quebec’s most popular ‘90s teen serials, Watatatow and Are You Afraid of the Dark?. In Neighbours, he assembles a motley crew of familiar faces: Micheline Lanctôt as the landlord, Anne-Marie Cadieux as the resident emotional wreck, Clara Furey as a waitress and Xavier Dolan as boyfriend to Tierney himself, who plays Baruchel’s brother. “My father claims that I have a dinner party mentality about casting, where I only cast people I want to have dinner with. And that’s kind of true. I didn’t audition anybody for this movie. I was just like, ‘Oh! I wonder if they’ll do it?”
Anne-Marie Cadieux in Good Neighbours
A MEDIA EDUCATION
His father is none other than prolific local producer Kevin Tierney, the man behind box-office champ Bon Cop, Bap Cop. Having served as Chair of the Board of Directors at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, among other things, Tierney senior provided his son with a veritable education in Quebec culture starting at a young age, schooling him in the Falardeaus and Lauzons, while Jacob became captivated by a certain rollerblading rebel. “I remember seeing Eldorado for the first time as a teenager and I just fucking loved it! I was like ‘My city looks so cool, I want to live there!” says the guy not opposed to sprinking a few heartfelt expletives here and there to drive home the feeling. “Lots of Foufs [Ed’s Note: Foufounes Électriques], Pascale Bussières rollerblading up and down the Main, Pascale Montpetit throwing things at her therapist… Great shit… Gold.”
And while Tierney senior gently pokes fun at Quebec’s two solitudes in his buddy cop flick, Tierney junior went one giant step further when he made a few hotly disputed claims about the near-total exclusion of non-whites from Quebec cinema. Speaking to La Presse last summer at the L.A. premiere of The Trotsky, Tierney provided ample fodder for culture reporters after stating that Quebec cinema is more interested in revisiting its past (C.R.A.Z.Y., Polytechnique, 1981) than in depicting today’s more pluralistic reality. He argued Quebec cinema is disproportionately white and that it largely excludes Anglos and immigrants, who rarely see their reality reflected on screen. The response was swift, with some labelling him a Quebec basher and dismissing his views as those of an outsider.
Jay Baruchel in Good Neighbours
CREATING THE CULTURE
When we spoke last fall, Tierney was reflective and far from defeatist about the blowout. He stood by the comments he had made, while clarifying things that might have been misconstrued. “The larger point I was trying to make was that if we want this place, like any New World place, to have a future, we have to allow for the people who come here to be able to imagine themselves living here,” he argues. “My much maligned ‘Luc Picard comment’ was that it’s been generations upon generations of kids from other cultures who’ve come here, who’ve been born here, and who look to see themselves represented in some capacity on screen. It just doesn’t happen very often. But I wasn’t talking about the English, it’s a larger issue. I almost feel as though it’s an aspirational argument… Like, what do we want people to think of us? Culture is something we project. It’s not, as I’ve been told many times, about reality.”
Fast forward to May 9. I give Tierney a follow-up call to fill in the blanks of 8 months gone by. After directing two back-to-back features, playing in his father’s upcoming summer farce French Immersion (fittingly enough, about a bunch of Anglo immigrants to Quebec and the language politics to which they’re confronted), riding out the La Presse controversy and winning a Genie for Best Original Screenplay, who’d have guessed we’d again quickly find ourselves discussing one of Tierney’s choice topics, cinema as a political tool? I bet Tierney will be a shoe-in to teach the class at Mel Hoppenheim twenty years down the road.
Jacob Tierney on the set of Good Neighbours
In the same way this local filmmaker projects his ideal of a multilingual Montreal on screen, he does the same with regards to the inclusion of queer characters in each of his films. There’s Tierney’s turn as Baruchel’s gay brother in Good Neighbours; Oliver as gay hustler in Twist; and one itty bitty line of dialogue in The Trotsky that reveals a character to be gay at the film’s end. The director makes it a point to reveal certain characters as queer in each of his narratives, while normalizing the fact, making it just another of their personality traits. Subtle scriptwriting strokes or am I reading too much into this?
“Yeah, absolutely,” grants Tierney. “I believe that cinema is innately political. The choices that we make and the stories we decide to tell, everything about doing it is kind of political. And so you present the universe that you wish to see reflected back. I think it’s not dissimilar to saying: why do I make English movies in Montreal? Because there are English people here and because there are gay people too. Especially with Trotsky, just getting to know this kid Tony, who I think most people walk out of the movie absolutely loving, you hear something towards the end and you’re like ‘Yeah, I guess that’s kind of been there the whole time, hasn’t it?’ But it’s just normal. In Good Neighbours, it’s more of a joke really: you have three characters whose sexual lives are so distressed. I liked the idea of having this normal couple being the gay couple in it. I thought that was kind of funny, like the opposite of a Hitchcock movie.”
Reflecting on the year gone by since Tierney made those comments about Quebec cinema, I wonder whether the recent string of local features depicting a more multicultural reality – Sortie 67 (billed as Quebec’s first feature addressing Montreal’s Black community), the Plateau and Chinatown-set The High Cost of Living, the bilingual disco drama Funkytown and the epic Incendies – has renewed Tierney’s faith in the future of Quebec film. “All the movies you mentioned are really interesting and hopeful, and I think you’re seeing younger filmmakers going at it so the palette is expanding,” says Tierney. “I think it’s great. These voices being added to our cultural mix is a really good thing. And yeah, I hope it keeps going!”