Audiences might best know the work of Charles Officer as a collection of Toronto stories. Unarmed Verses (2017) tells the story of Francine Vallentine and youth in the city’s Villaways community as they escape the growing gentrification of Toronto through music. The Skin We’re In (2017) offers a penetrating study of race in the city as seen through the eyes of journalist and activist Desmond Cole, while the drama Nurse.Fighter.Boy (2008) is a powerful tale of a fighter’s heart in the urban jungle, just to name a few of Officer’s works.
Officer’s latest film is international in scope but it examines a story with which many Torontonians are likely familiar. Invisible Essence dives into the world of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and amasses a chorus of talking heads from around the world who are united in their enthusiasm for a timeless tale. As Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince, “All grown-ups were once children.”
Officer’s doc latches on to another Saint-Exupéry line in the beloved novel, “What is essential is invisible to the eye” and finds within it a stirring message about inclusion and social equality that has guided readers young and old across the years. It’s an engaging film that intertwines Saint-Exupéry’s tumultuous biography within the tale of The Little Prince as the various interviewees evoke ideas about art ironically imitating life and vice versa as tales of two inquisitive aviators come to tragic ends.
The film enmeshes the contemporary story of a young Toronto boy, Sahil, who is blind but may see the “essential” in the people he encounters. Officer affectionately and respectfully captures Sahil’s treatment with doctors and therapists who prepare him for a world without sight, except for what is provided, as Saint Exupery expressed, by the heart. As the interviewees unpack The Little Prince, Sahil discovers it for the first time as he learns Braille, running his hands across exquisitely perforated illustrations. He is part of a new generation of readers for this timeless tale.
POV talked with Officer by phone to discuss Invisible Essence, Sahil’s story, and the process of bringing a classic work to the screen.
POV: Pat Mullen
CO: Charles Officer
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: It’s so interesting seeing Invisible Essence back to back with Unarmed Verses. The’re both stories of youth culture and artistic expression. Is this a coincidence as a follow-up project?
CO: These two projects were in development at a similar time. When The Little Prince project was presented to me, my natural instinct was that it would be exciting. I was also, like, “No, no. What would I do with that?” There’s been so many different takes already, so I took some time to think about what this film would be and there were different perspectives on what it would be.
POV: Like what? How different is what we see from what was in the works at the beginning?
CO: Very early on, Rachel McAdams was going to do voiceover throughout this film. She was actually in the first teasers that we got a little funding to make. Politically, it was the closing of Obama’s term and with what was happening in the political spaces between Canada and United States, I just felt a connection to the book, especially reading it again before I delved into looking at it as a film. I found that I had different feelings about the book now that I was older: some memories affirmed, some different perspectives, some things actually made more sense. I just felt its message was something that I wanted to get out in the world.
POV: How did The Orchard and Netflix come aboard? They’re big names for a Canadian documentary.
CO: We had SuperChannel involved and there was a complete year where we didn’t know what was going to happen with the project. [This was due to the broadcaster’s controversial bankruptcy filing that left many docs in limbo.] SuperChannel was involved, CBC was involved. The idea was to make a feature film and when SuperChannel fell away, it became a conversation about doing just a one-hour version—that’s not as exciting—and then Radio Canada came on board. I thought they were coming on board to make one version together, but they both wanted a one-hour of their own and that became the third deliverable. I suggested we get a Quebec filmmaker involved to handle the Quebec deliverable, so we started working with Hugo Latulippe. Then Unarmed Versus won [Best Canadian Feature] at Hot Docs and came out, and Invisible Essence went to The Orchard.
POV: That’s quite the process.
CO: It was quite a bit to unravel, but they became partners and wanted a feature version. I had to go back to the drawing board again and look at what I was making. I looked at this book chapter by chapter and some narrative sequences that connected the author to what he created. I didn’t know a lot about Saint-Exupéry. I knew about other books he’d written, but I hadn’t read them. I was pulled into his other books and how he was an aviator before The Little Prince was written. That was an interesting base for the film so that it’s not a biography or an intellectual piece. It tries to maintain the spirit of the book, which is a bit of a magical, realistic description of our world.
POV: What was the interview process like? There’s a sense of it being pulled down a rabbit hole as each interviewee uncovers a different nugget. How did you plan the analysis of the book within the larger story and with the different subjects? Did you have them all walk through the book in its entirety?
CO: I tried to cast for specific sections. There was an idea very early on to have chapters of the book read by individuals. I had individuals read full chapters and chopped then down [in the editing], but I tried to hear the conversations [around the book]. In lining individuals up, I would first send a note to find out what resonated in the book with them. It was hard when individuals would mention the same chapter. I needed to spread them out. So I try to map everyone out throughout the chapters and throughout the film.
With my documentaries, especially this one, I have this habit of writing 90 page scripts. [Laughs] I need to map out where I’m going and even what archive I’m thinking of using and I create this full document. It creates a map of where people would land and how many people we’re interviewing. Some people are going to be in, some fall away, and then you have to find someone else. Then you’re whittling down and trying to get to the essentials and the balance of individuals and professions so that not everyone’s a writer and not everyone’s an astrologist. That process itself was quite extensive.
POV: It’s so interesting because you can also see the passion that everyone has, which probably makes the decision to include one soundbite over another difficult.
CO: Yes, and that’s why it’s important for me to map my ideas and intentions along the way. You know at some point you’ll go, “Oh, my God, I love that this person’s said this, but where does it fit? Where does it go? Where does it really land? I love it, but, oh shit, I have to cut it.” Features allow for some tangents, but they shouldn’t go too far.
POV: Were you surprised by the level of passion and excitement that adults had for a children’s novel?
CO: I think it’s disguised as a children’s novel. The book has a Turkish astrologer dressed in this foreign way and when he puts on a suit and says the same information, he’s respected. Here we are doing this sort of flip and taking adult themes and ideas distilled into a presentation that is childlike and innocent and welcoming and doesn’t really pose a threat. You get these layers of humanity that affect us.
POV: And why adults?
CO: I think adults get excited about The Little Prince since they can point out distinct things that stayed with them. It’s like a great film or a certain line. People can immediately pinpoint something that they just loved about it. It’s grown with these individuals and found different forms as they’ve grown and had more life experiences and relationships. It’s an evolving piece of art in the ways that it affects people, which is rare. I think that’s what constitutes something becoming a classic.
POV: Had you seen Mark Osborne’s film or the Stanley Donen before production of the doc? How much was Invisible Essence in the works when Osborne’s film came out?
CO: Mark Osborne’s film was just being finished when I started this project. He was one of the first people that we reached out to. The Stanley Donen film, I’d seen so long ago and that always stayed with me. That film had some incredible sequences that were psychedelic and ahead of its time with bizarre Bob Fosse stuff that Michael Jackson got his moves from. It’s fascinating but, in places, I had to choose between Fosse sequences or Guillaume Côté‘s beautiful ballet to represent the snake.
The animated film by Mark Osborne is beautiful. I love the care and detail, and his personal connection to the story and what it meant for him and his wife. Another beautiful story that didn’t make it in the film was about how he wanted to go to Cal Arts. It was his dream to be an animator. He was living in New York with his new girlfriend and in love and she was like, “Go live your dream. Take this book. And every time you read this book, you’ll think of us, and we’re always going to be together.” The book was The Little Prince.
POV: Really? And you cut that out? That’s an amazing story!
CO: I know. It’s a shame that this story isn’t in there. I had so much material, but I’m sharing it because it’s these kind of moments I loved where you’re talking about a book, or something like this, and ask someone their personal connection. The film could have had more of that, but in a way, I wanted to keep the focus on the book itself. I’ll be diplomatic, but what if you didn’t have quality things from everybody? Mark had a beautiful story. When I first met him, he ran out and got the copy of the book that’s signed by his now-wife and they have two kids. And here he was, blessed with making a film about a book that played a major role in his love life.
POV: That’s great. The movie really highlights the universality of the book, but were there any interpretations that were out of left field or really surprising?
CO: I think I was surprised around interpretations of what happened to the Little Prince at the end of the book. A lot of the conversation around that had to be streamlined because there were so many different ideas. The idea of suicide didn’t come to me so directly until having conversations with some of the individuals. That actually shocked me because we are in the most documented time of young people committing suicide. I always saw it as the Little Prince’s sacrifice for love—it’s a different way, like he surrenders to a snake bite. I was really surprised by some of the direct interpretations: “It’s the end man! The end of everything! It’s the ultimate choice!” It’s a bit extreme, but I was like, okay, we can go there.
POV: I was surprised by that too. It’s heavy, but it works. The music really drives the film, too, with its emotional pull. How did you and Kevin Lau develop the soundscape for the film?
CO: I was working with some temp [music] and I thought there was an opportunity to create an orchestral score that was appropriate. When I saw the ballet that Guillaume Côté created, I was blown away by the composer and thought he should be doing cinema. I started to look at him a year and a half before production. To be honest with you, there was a lot of doubt from the executive producer about how he hadn’t scored a film and so on. And, I said, “We’ve got to get out of that. We’ve got to get out of our ways.”
I was influenced a lot by The Fog of War. Its thematic score by Phillip Glass worked incredible music with the juxtaposition of war and the images. I was trying to keep my references very streamlined—maybe Fog of War and maybe a Max Richter song and then just kind of left [Kevin] alone. He created a scene and played it for me. The first meeting, he had his wife, who was formerly an orchestral violinist, play a version, then he played a version on the piano, and then he took me to the studio to the play the recorded version. I was blown away by his sensibility. We worked in a nice rhythm and flow back and forth. He recorded some orchestral things and some vocals, which I didn’t even think of because I didn’t want vocals at first. It was amazing to work with someone with such exquisite skills and apply them to a medium that he’s not used to working in.
POV: At what point did Sahil come into the project? That was such an interesting perspective to have in the film because it was an innocent discovery of the book and his blindness really drew out the theme of invisibility that ran throughout the film.
CO: When I delved into making this film, I asked Saint-Exupéry for some guidance and some permission. This time, I was thinking about his line, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” One night, I just called Jake [Yanowski], a producer on this film, and told him we had to find a blind child. He was like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “It’s coming to me: how we see and then what that means.”
At that point, I’m not sure if it’s a boy or a girl—whatever. But then I saw it had to be a boy—a contemporary little prince. We have to get that across metaphorically. When I was a graphic designer, I did the first Grade One Braille kit for the CNIB [Canadian National Instittute for the Blind], so we got in touch with the CNIB to see if we could find someone. We connected with Sue Marsh Woods and she was so open. She was immediately like, “Have I got the child for you!” She mentioned this child, Sahil, and he was just perfect. The book has this idea of of returning to childhood, and here’s this child who will have challenges in his future, but here in the now, he’s brave—exploring and curious.
I was in New York telling Mark Osborne the exciting news about this angle. I had a deeper idea of Sahil learning Braille and how long that takes. That idea was scrapped, but I’m telling Mark Osborne about this child and this idea, and in the middle of a conversation, he said, “Stop. Hold on one second, I’ll be back.” He ran downstairs and he came back up with a box. He opened this box and said, “You have to give this to this boy.” He handed me a Braille version of The Little Prince. I think there were only 10 editions of this at the time.
POV: Really? Mark Osborne again with the books?!
CO: Mark handed it to me and said, “Take this back to the boy. You have to give this to him.” I could actually introduce this child to this book through this rare Braille version that is beautifully designed by a blind artist, Claude Garrandes, who’s created this amazing book with images that are tactile and beautiful.
POV: The image of him running his hands over the illustration is so effective, so cinematic. Is there any book that you would like see brought to the screen?
CO: There’s a book by Nalo Hopkinson, The New Moon’s Arms, and it’s just beautiful. She’s a sci-fi writer based right here in the city and they’re stories from a woman’s perspective, a woman of color, but in the future. It’s a beautiful story about a woman who finds a little blue boy that comes out of the sea. It’s a magical and realistic, just like The Little Prince. That is something that I would love to see realized.
Invisible Essence: The Little Prince opens in Toronto on Friday, March 8 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.