Doc fans with green thumbs are in for a treat with Sébastien Chabot’s sumptuous new doc The Gardener. The film, a highlight of this year’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival, takes audiences on a tour of Frank Cabot’s extensive English-style garden Le Quatre Vents in Charlevoix, Quebec. Chabot offers interviews with Cabot in which the late gardener explains the history of the many sections of his elaborate design, which includes hanging bridges, an Asiatic garden, furniture carved out of hedges, and just about every petal of flora one can imagine.
Shot in crisp 4K, The Gardener strolls through the lush art of Le Quatre Vents. One watches Cabot’s handiwork in awe as he and fellow interviewees like former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson illuminate the details of this green masterpiece. The film lets audiences admire the passion of one devoted horticulturist and Cabot’s meticulously crafted landscape invites an inspiring message about the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings. How refreshing green space can be!
POV sat down with Chabot in Toronto to discuss The Gardener shortly before its screening at Planet in Focus. Chabot shares his experience working with the late Cabot, as well as the art of cultivating a film that’s as finely crafted as the garden it depicts.
SC: Sébastien Chabot
POV: Pat Mullen
POV: What was your first experience with the garden Le Quatre Vents?
SC: I first visited in 2007. I went there with my partner just for a regular visit. The visit takes three hours and I was just blown away by the beauty, the perfection of the place, and I wondered why it is so unknown to the general public. It should be better known, so I decided to make the film.
POV: Was there any part of the garden that struck you most?
SC: For me, it was the Asiatic garden. You only really discover that after an hour and a half or two hours in the garden, but it’s so surreal. It’s so perfect and incredibly made with two Japanese pavilions built in the same way that the samurai would have made them in the 16th century without any nails or anything. This specific garden took nine years to create. There’s a big cascade with primulas and it’s a very meditative place. It’s much nicer than what you see in a conventional botanical garden.
POV: Yes, that section is a highlight of the film. It’s very unique.
SC: And that’s just after a two-hour visit. It’s really the garden that keeps on giving. I wondered who might be crazy enough to create this garden because it’s beyond reality, and that led to the film.
POV: Did you get much of an opportunity to tour the garden with Cabot? The film shows him walk along the hanging bridge and sit outside in the interviews, but did he get to guide you around much?
SC: Not a lot. I first personally visited the garden in 2007, contacted broadcasters in 2008, and then we had interest from a number of broadcasters. I contacted the Cabot family afterwards and met with Mr. Cabot in 2009, but he was sick. He had a pulmonary disease. He said that the project was of interest to him, but he added, “If you want to do an interview, you have to come now because I’m dying.” That was in July and we did the interview on the 26th and 27th of September. We shot with two cameras and a big crew. Then the American broadcaster pulled back because he thought that the film was too much about the garden and not enough about the people.
SC: But the deal with Mr. Cabot was that we would do a film about the gardens and not about his personal life because people always want to know how he made his fortunes. The movie is not about that at all.
POV: I think his personality comes through a lot by studying the garden, though…
SC: Yes. And doing a personal movie about one’s personal garden might be the best way to reveal someone. He wanted to control what he was going to say and that’s totally fine with me. I respected that. The whole movie is based on a book he wrote called Greater Perfection, so all the research was done. He was very generous, but we didn’t get to tour with him because he was too weak. He had to use a wheelchair just to get him to the interview site.
POV: How did the film evolve after his passing? If you knew he was sick beforehand, how did you prepare?
SC: He knew he was going away, so he presented his son, Colin Cabot, and said that he would take care of things. Colin Cabot has been very helpful. He opened the garden to us so that we could complete all the “beauty shots” and capture the flowerings Mr. Cabot talks about in the movie. We did 22 days of filming over four years. You have to time it, like, wondering what time of the year the primulas are beautiful. Then you’re planning like, “Okay, I’ll come in ten days or maybe two week,” but sometimes the team at the garden would reply, “Oh, but the bloom’s early this year.” That’s why it took so long because we wanted to get every plant at the perfect timing.
POV: Adrienne Clarkson makes a good point about the garden being like a conversation, and the editing frequently cuts between shots of people and shots of the garden, like dialogue. How did you decide the pace?
SC: The first edit we did was too fast. We showed it to friends and realised it moved too quickly. It’s not like television. It’s a film. We decided to slow down the pace in order for it not to be frustrating. If someone talks and you have those beautiful images at the same time, it’s frustrating and you know you aren’t getting everything. We did a second edit where we slowed down the pace and took all the popular music—we tried all sorts of music and then realised that the music was also important. We chose the music that Frank Cabot listened to, so mostly the Romantics: Schubert, Schumann, Saint-Saëns, all the French ones, Beethoven. We slowed down the pace and added the music because it’s a Romantic garden, as this garden refers to the English-style gardens of the 1890s to 1905, so the golden era of big mansions, big gardens with lords and heritage in England. When everything came together, the music, the pace, and the vision of Frank Cabot, it all clicked.
POV: The nice relaxed pace lets you enjoy a stroll through the garden.
SC: And that’s what I wanted to convey so that people have that same relaxing feeling.
POV: And how did Adrienne Clarkson become involved?
SC: The interview with Mr. Cabot was planned and he called me and said, “My friend Adrienne Clarkson is going to be here. Would you like an interview with her?” And I said that of course we would! We were shooting his interview on the 26th and she was going to be there the 25th, so we left Montreal a little earlier and she was there with her husband.
Her interview was very quick. She gives great clips and she’s very used to television, so everything was done the first time. There are no second shots.
POV: It seemed like it quite an extensive interview from the film.
SC: No! It was a short half-hour interview, but all of the clips were good. That’s the difference when you work with professionals.
POV: That’s very helpful! And if we can maybe talk about The Gardener on the topic of environmental films. When we see gardens at environmental festivals, they’re often about the functional or sustainable elements of gardening, like growing your own veggies instead of buying them at a store or watering a home garden in place of watering some grass, but I like how this film looks at the aesthetic value of gardens. Why is that important in terms of environmental protecting and concerns?
SC: I wanted to make was a positive film about the environment and look at the inspirational aspects. If you take the time to appreciate a beautiful landscape or garden, you’re more attune to preserving the environment. That’s how I see it. In Switzerland and Europe, they talk about the value of preserving the landscape. Here we put electric lines everywhere and we don’t care. And this location is very scenic with the hills and the river, and I wanted to convey that landscapes are important. If you put electric lines everywhere like Hydro Quebec does, in my thinking, then you eliminate the touristic value of the landscape and that’s very important to preserve. We should have laws about that here and if we take inspiration from Europe we’ll get there one day.
POV: I think that’s possible if people feel a connection to the land. You’re right. The film can speak to a lot of people because we don’t see many gardens like Cabot’s because of condos and suburban sprawl.
SC: It’s just routes and roads and auto-routes. All the urban and suburban areas have been planned for the car and that’s a big mistake. That’s a whole other film, but I think this movie can talk to that because when you appreciate a beautiful landscape, you appreciate that putting a road in the middle of it makes it less beautiful. It’s just a matter of realising what you have.
POV: Are you a gardener yourself?
SC: Yes, I have a very small garden. I’m a big fan of tulips and spring stuff. I took a lot of inspiration from Cabot, but it’s nothing on the same scale. It’s a 20-foot by 8-foot.
POV: That’s pretty good for a city garden, though.
SC: It’s just my way of doing what I can. Even my street looks cleaner since I put in my garden and people do the same at their place; they talk with me. A movie like this, talking about the environment, if it can inspire people to preserve the environment or do the same at their place, it shows that everything is connected. So if you’re place looks like a dump, it will inspire people not to do the same, but if you try to make your environment look better, then maybe you’ll inspire someone else. It’s subtle, but it works.
POV: One of the interviews talked about Frank being an eccentric, but in the interviews, he’s very composed. Did you see that side of him?
SC: You don’t see it when you meet him. He looks composed, but the eccentricity is in what he does. One part of the garden has a hidden door that he opened with a button in his pocket, and the inside is like Alice in Wonderland, so that’s where the eccentricity comes from. He always wore a bowtie, so he was more of a gentleman than anything. Eccentric, but in a good way.
The Gardener screened in Toronto at Planet in Focus and airs on CBC in Spring 2017.