Inside TIFF 2018: Xavier Dolan Tackles Fame in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Xavier Dolan’s new film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, tells the story of a famous actor who becomes pen pals with a fan. The 29-year-old Montreal native told Reader’s Digest Canada about the drama at a TIFF 2018 roundtable hosted by RBC and Nespresso Canada, and presented by Deadline.

Xavier DolanPhoto: Eric Charbonneau

Xavier Dolan on The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Growing up in the suburbs of Montreal in the late 1990s, director Xavier Dolan was obsessed with television shows on The WB, and would even write letters to the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. More than a decade later, he revisits those childhood moments of adoration for his latest film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.

Premiering at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, the film—Dolan’s seventh, and his first in English—sees the 29-year-old filmmaker examine the complex nature of fame and celebrity.

“Back then, I felt all I had were shows like Roswell, Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” said Dolan at Coffee with Creators, a TIFF 2018 roundtable hosted by RBC and Nespresso Canada at RBC House, and presented by Deadline. “That was the starting point for me [creatively]: the time of being very, very young and really losing yourself in shows.”

The film tells the story of John F. Donovan (Kit Harington), a famous star of both the big and small screen, who begins a five-year correspondence with 11-year-old fan Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay). Fast-forward to the present, Donovan has died alone following a series of scandals. Rupert becomes a successful actor in his own right, and publishes a memoir about their secret pen-pal relationship, which he hopes will set the record straight on various parts of Donovan’s life, including his closeted homosexuality.

“It was an interesting part to play because he’s a young star on a very popular show, and that isn’t far from me,” said Harington, best known for his role of Jon Snow in HBO’s Game of Thrones. “The story is about his private life, who he is alone when he’s not in front of a camera or with his wife or with his mother. What’s he like when he’s alone? And I don’t think he knows yet.”

Dolan is no stranger to being in the limelight, either: the former child actor wrote and directed his first film, I Killed My Mother, at the age of 19, while his 2016 feature, It’s Only the End of the World, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

Like many of his films, John F. Donovan also addresses themes of sexuality.

“In the past few years, there have been a lot of actors and actresses coming out through social media, and I think that’s very brave,” said Dolan, who is openly gay. “But you can’t help but wonder… does it then reshape and redefine their careers and opportunities? I think so. And that’s a problem we also try to address in the film.”

“I think the movie is quite entertaining and sincere and a sort of tribute to the films I adored and worshipped as a kid—big commercial movies like Titanic and Jumanji,” he  said. “I think TIFF is the right place for us to show it.”

Check out these famous TV cliffhangers that still get fans talking.