On May 1, 2017, director François Jacob’s documentary Sur la lune de nickel A Moon of Nickel and Ice) will have its North American première during the prestigious Hot Docs festival. A chronicle of life in the Siberian mining town of Norilsk, its music was written by Viviane Audet and her partner, both in life and in the studio, Robin Joël Cool. It’s their eighth feature film or short film original score, ninth if you include the music for Anaïs Barbeau-Lavallette’s TV documentary Ma Fille n’est pas à vendre (My Daughter’s Not For Sale). We talk with her about her newfound passion for screen composing, and its impact on her multi-disciplinary career.
We were forewarned that Audet is always on time. She’s even early for our rendezvous in a Le Plateau café, on a rainy ideal for binge-watching movies.
Right from the get-go, Audet is loquacious about Sur la lune de nickel, which was “filmed in one of the most polluted cities in the world, a mining town built in an old gulag, and populated by isolated people who work in the mine,” she says. “We recorded the music at the NFB’s huge, magnificent music studios, with its giant screen, incredible control room, a grand piano. It’s the first time we worked in such ideal conditions. We asked Yves Desrosiers to sing a Russian folk song, which we had re-arranged. He was amazing, and we were ecstatic…”
When Audet talks about scoring films, her green eyes light up. The actress, writer, composer and singer, who Québec audiences have seen on television (Belle Baie, Nos étés), in the movies (Frissons des collines) and onstage – both solo and with her indie-folk band Mentana – has added a new talent to her repertoire, after becoming proficient in the art of writing music for moving images. It happened more or less unwittingly, and with a lot of help from director Rafaël Ouellet.
“I acted in his first movie,” she says of Le Cèdre penché, completed ten years ago. “We didn’t know each other, but he got in touch with me to ask if I would act in his movie. He’d also asked me to write two songs for that project, so it truly is he who introduced me to writing music for films.”
Her first big break, however, came in 2012. Ouellet had asked Audet and her beau Robin, who’s also a member of Mentana, to play roles in his latest film, Camion. “Rafaël lived in the flat below ours, he heard us rehearse our Mentana material,” says Audet. “After the photography was done, he asked us to score the movie because the composer who was supposed to do it had dropped out at the last minute.” Ultimately, Camion’s score of minimalist folk – so typical of Aubin’s work, as well as Mentana’s material – earned her, Robin and Érik West-Millette the 2013 Jutra Award for Best Original Score.
They were hooked. “I don’t know if being an actress is an advantage for me when the time comes to write movie scores,” says Audet. “Maybe because of the way I approach a story? I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that after moving into recording, I feel I’m much more comfortable writing music for images than for words at this point of my professional career. I trust my instinct much more when I compose for images. Right now, I should be working on my third solo album, but I find writing words rather painful. And even when I do have words, writing music for them, it’s strange… It’s like I discovered myself [elsewhere]. It’s like that was it, me, writing music for images. It comes more instinctively, if you will.”
Thus, Audet and her colleague’s creative process is largely based on their perception of the moment projected on the screen. She admits there’s a lot of improvisation involved: “We don’t write sheet music,” she says. “Only when necessary – say, when we hire French horn players to record with us, someone will write their scores based on our demos.” They do come up with a main theme, a well-defined melody that informs the rest of the piece, all of it framed with more or less precise indications from the directors, “who are generally very generous in the sense that they offer us a lot of reference music already edited into the scenes we have to score,” she says.
“I’ve also noticed that directors are increasingly interested in working with songwriters, people who don’t necessarily do anything but screen music. Take Dear Criminals, for instance: they did the score for Anne Émond’s Nelly, or Milk and Bone, who did Podz’ latest movie, King Dave. They’re going off the beaten path, and I mean that in a good way, since there are a lot of well-established, expert film composers. Besides, there aren’t many girls doing this!”
Well, there’s one more, now, and she’s convinced that she’s made a place for herself in this field where she can combine her love of music and her love for acting. Alongside her partner once more, Audet will soon finish scoring Les Rois mongols, Luc Picard’s next movie set during the October 1970 FLQ crisis in Québec.