Much like the lead character in the new CBC series Plan B, Quebecois director Jean-Francois Asselin got a chance for a do-over when he translated his hit French TV series for an English-speaking audience. Unlike Philip, the central character of the sci-fi/psychological thriller, Asselin didn’t travel back in time, of course. And so, altering aspects of the script to suit a different audience came without the dire consequences of messing with the space-time continuum.
“It was an interesting process because … the structure is so complex,” says Asselin in a phone interview, thinking through his explanation as his “English brain catches up to my French.” If they tried to remove anything, it would have changed the show completely, he explains. “The most important thing was to keep the structure and what was the essence of the story,” but change the tone to suit another culture, he says.
“From one culture to another, we don’t speak the same way, we don’t fight the same way. Sometimes you just don’t have to translate the dialogue, you have to adapt it,” he adds. He got some help from lead actors Patrick J. Adams (of Suits fame) and Karine Vanasse (Cardinal), who changed odd-sounding dialogues on the fly. But the main difference was a tonal shift – especially because of the talent involved, says Asselin.
When asked what’s tonally different, Asselin demurs. But he notes there were some chances for improvement.
“Most of it was – I wanted the couple to be more lovable at first. And really the character of the woman – because in French, she was different. I think the word in English is ‘petulant’? She was not happy about anything. She looked more selfish. I think in the English version, the couple is a bit more wonderful. I think it’s a bit more mature than what we did in the French version.”
Plan B tells the story of Philip (Adams), a lawyer who discovers a way to go back in time and change his actions in a bid to save his relationship with Evelyn (Vanasse), an aspiring cellist who gave up her ambition to help Philip, as well as his upstart law firm and dysfunctional family. However, each trip back sets some different wheels in motion with unintended repercussions.
A show based on the premise of time travel isn’t novel, says Asselin. However, he wasn’t interested in the method of time travel as much as the character’s personal journey and the choices he ends up making. In the show, all Philip has to do is call a number, which makes for a delightfully simple set-up for the time travel device. With each episode, however, the stakes get bigger for Philip.
The sci-fi and character-driven nature of the show also appealed to Aisling Chin-Yee (No Ordinary Man, The Rest Of Us), who directed episodes three through five of the six-episode series. The former NFB associate producer turned filmmaker, who splits her time between Montreal and LA, has always been interested in telling stories about human connections and personal flaws.
“The messy things that go into living in this world, and living a life. We’re all complex contradictions walking around, and we come from different experiences. That’s where I get curious,” she says, reflecting on her own journey as a mixed-race child who grew up in Halifax, not seeing her own realities reflected in mainstream media.
She knew she wanted to be a filmmaker, especially after discovering Trainspotting at a Montreal video store during a trip to visit her grandparents when she was 14 and watching it obsessively. She wanted to tell untold stories, paying attention to narrative formats and how under-represented characters are represented in popular culture.
However, “the series space in drama is where those stories are thriving right now,” she adds. “It gets sucked out of cinema but it’s finding a space in television, in sort of longer formats, which is something I’ve wanted to get into.”
Her approach to Plan B is influenced by her work in film; it’s just that they are on a TV production schedule, which requires getting more material shot in a day. Filmmaking processes such as blocking scenes help with Plan B’s structure because they needed to shoot two versions of the same scene to capture the time-travelling aspect.
“Sometimes we did the extreme version, the desperate version first … something that required a lot of moving, or it was very physical,” she says. “Then we did the simple version, when he doesn’t know he’s gonna come back and return to that moment.
“So myself, Patrick and our cinematographer – we had fun playing with the evolution of … where is Philip in this moment?”
There were several moments of déjà vu while filming, says Asselin, especially because they stuck to situating the series in Montreal for the English adaptation. The city doesn’t have too many options of filming on location, and they often ended up shooting in the same venues as the French version. Compared to the scrappier approach of the Quebec industry, shooting the English version came with a bigger budget and “many more people on set,” he adds, laughing.
“We decided to have a real portrayal of Montreal … and characters speaking in English and French,” says Asselin. “It was Aisling who said we should have some people speaking French.”
It’s just how people live their lives in Montreal, says Chin-Yee, who has been living in Montreal for over two decades.
“We interact in two different languages, which I don’t always see represented in a truthful way,” she says. Heated moments in an argument, for example, result in using swear words in your mother tongue, and then continuing the fight in your shared language.
“You go back to the way you truly express yourself … So we talked a lot about how to incorporate that accurate portrayal of how we live,” she adds. “Actually I would love to see how this is going to translate to an audience outside of Montreal.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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