TORONTO – Witnessing the remarkable rise of his Oscar-nominated big brother Denis proved to Martin Villeneuve that he had a shot at making a living in the arts.
When it came time to attempt his own feature film debut – an effects-laden look at the future called “Mars et Avril” – he set the bar high while keeping his famous sibling at arm’s length.
“The biggest help that Denis gave me was not to help me,” said Villeneuve, who, at age 33 is 11 years younger than his brother.
“He really does his own thing and he’s really protective of his own universe, in a good way. He never went into my area … Doing a science fiction film … is not something that Denis did, so it’s something very personal.”
“Mars et Avril” had its origins when Villeneuve began writing the first of two graphic novels in his late teens.
The books mixed graphic design and illustration, employing photos of veteran broadcaster Jacques Languirand and actress Marie-Josee Croze (who appeared in Denis Villeneuve’s 2000 film “Maelstrom”) to depict key characters.
“Mars et Avril” was published in 2002 to acclaim, and impressed theatre giant Robert Lepage so much he loaned his image to its sequel, “Mars et Avril, tome 2,” in 2006.
Villeneuve says it was Lepage who saw the potential for a movie adaptation – he optioned the rights, shares a producer’s credit on the film and appears onscreen as cosmologist inventor Eugene Spaak.
Most of the actors from the books also appear in the film, including Languirand as 75-year-old Jacob Obus. Jacob is a musician who falls in love for the first time with a younger woman, Avril, played by Caroline Dhavernas (“Passchendaele,” “Wonderfalls”).
Villeneuve notes that Croze played Avril in the books, but the actress – whose star has since risen with appearances in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and the Oscar-nominated “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” – was unable to take part in the film.
The love story unfolds in a world in which humans are poised to move to Mars.
“The link that I’m trying to make between these two stories is the conquest of love in parallel with the conquest of the unknown in space,” says Villeneuve, a former advertising art director who wrote, directed, and co-produces the film.
Although older brother Denis kept his distance throughout production, Villeneuve says he did turn to him for three consulting sessions that lasted a few hours each.
“I was looking for a script advisor on my own script and I phoned Denis just to get him to refer me somebody and he actually offered himself,” says Villeneuve.
“As a producer on my first film I wanted to be surrounded by the best people that I could find and Denis is by far one of the best filmmakers in Canada.”
Most of the advice involved finding ways to visually interpret the novels’ words, says Villeneuve.
Earlier this year, Denis Villeneuve was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar for his big screen adaptation of the Wajdi Mouawad play, “Incendies.”
As the oldest of four children, Denis had an uphill battle in convincing their parents he could build a career in film, says Villeneuve, noting that their sister is a nurse and another brother is a lawyer.
“They were supportive and encouraging but at the same time when Denis decided to go into filmmaking it was really, really quite a surprise for them,” he says.
“How do you live out of art? The parents are always worried about that.”
The younger Villeneuve says he was interested in the arts from a young age, and studied film after graduating from high school in Trois-Rivieres, Que. He moved to Montreal at 17 to live with his big brother, who was then 28 and making music videos and film shorts.
Now that the youngest Villeneuve is launching his film career, he says he’s learned that having a famous brother offers no real advantage at all.
“When you’re facing an investor or the institutions or a distributor, it’s you yourself with your own ideas and your own project,” says Villeneuve, whose $2.25 million budget is supported by funding agencies including Telefilm, SODEC, The Harold Greenberg Fund, and Alliance Vivafilm.
“Even if somebody in your family is successful it doesn’t change anything. On the contrary, I suppose people expect more of you in certain ways.”
Still, he does credit his brother with giving him the courage to follow his own movie dreams.
“Certainly as a child, probably he had an unconscious positive effect in the sense that (I saw) it was possible to do,” he says.
“To see somebody older than you in your own family that does that is already a pretty powerful influence.”
Villeneuve says he expects “Mars et Avril” to hit theatres in 2012.