Filmmaker Deborah Chow loves Montreal at High Cost

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      Deborah Chow is a typical Canadian filmmaker. That is, she grew up in Toronto, did her undergraduate learning in Montreal, did grad work in New York, and now lives in Los Angeles. After making a couple of moody shorts, she describes her first feature, The High Cost of Living, as “a kind of love letter to Montreal”.

      Opening here Friday (April 22), the film displays the grungy underside of French Canada’s key city, where she still lives part-time. Clearly, she regards it with considerable tenderness, as seen in the tale of a down-on-his-heels American, played by Zach Braff, whose life changes when he literally runs into a pregnant woman, played by Isabelle Blais.

      “I just felt that no one had shown the Montreal I know,” the young filmmaker says on the phone from L.A. “I thought the culture is so interesting and the city’s so beautiful, and I wanted to relate more of the English speaker’s view of it, especially in areas like Chinatown, which you never see in French-Canadian films.”

      The film took about five years to get off the ground. Quebec star Blais, known for her role in The Barbarian Invasions as well as her work as a rock-band singer, was attached to it early on. The feature’s gestation was long enough, in fact, that Blais got pregnant and had her first child long before the cameras rolled. If the timing had been different, maybe she wouldn’t have had to spend three weeks with a prosthetic belly.

      “Yeah, maybe,” Chow allows, “but in the end, having gone through the whole experience made the role more meaningful for her—or so she said.”

      It wasn’t until closer to shooting, however, that the female lead knew who her opposite number would be.

      “The casting director on this film, Heidi Levitt, was also its executive producer, and she got the script to Zach Braff’s manager. I flew down to New York to talk with him, and he did it entirely for the creative aspect. It certainly wasn’t for the money,” Chow adds with a laugh.

      Remarkably, the part was not at all rewritten for its Yank star.

      “The guy is supposed to be someone who doesn’t quite fit in. He can’t work legally and he has no French at all. I wanted an American who would read American to the audience.”

      Okay, Woody Allen would be going too far, but Braff certainly has that neurotic–New Yawka vibe. The Garden State star needed to dirty down his boyish appeal—or “descrub”, as Chow puts it—for the role. He gained weight (some of it stubble), and she says Montreal did the rest.

      “Well, first off, he didn’t wash his hair for four weeks ahead of schedule, and he practised smoking with herbal cigarettes. Mainly, though, we shot in February and he was pretty lightly dressed, so that took it out of him. This film could have come out overly dark and serious, and I feel he brought a lightness that it really needed.”