When you first lay your eyes on film director Xavier Hamel, you are welcomed by the softness in his own. His hair is buzzed to a three, dyed in a cheetah print pattern. He’s handsome, with an impressive mustache and remarkably pronounced ears. He’s got a timid smile to match the gentle air about him. There’s no escaping the trope here, he’s essentially a sweet Canadian teddy bear. His Instagram profile supports the image; it is a collection of selfies of himself in various states of undress, cuddling a different cat in every photo.
This is unexpected, considering his films all deal with themes of strong violence – brainwashed groupies obsessed with a serial killer, a sex worker committing arson, and the murder of a woman that rocks a small town. Actually, the victims of the violence in his films are almost exclusively women.
He’s directed about a dozen music videos for queer artists, and a handful of shorts in both English and French that have shown at festivals in cities across the world including Sydney, Tokyo, and his hometown of Montreal.
We had a sit down to connect the dots, and get the deets on his first feature film.
Hey Xavier. It’s nice to put a face to the name. Let’s jump right into it – tell me about how you ended up in LA.
Well I grew up in a suburban town in the south of Montreal. After I got my BFA in film production from film school at Concordia University, I worked in video stores, hanging around the horror section. In the meantime I made music videos for some local artists. At one point I suddenly developed a rare autoimmune disorder called Guillan-Barré syndrome. Basically my immune system was attacking my nervous system, and I was left disabled in a wheelchair, paralyzed for eight months. Facing your own fragility in that way is a serious reality check. I did a lot of moving around after I recovered. I came to LA for six months and fell in love with the city. I knew I wanted to settle down here eventually, but first I went over to Berlin for a stint. I really developed artistically and spiritually there. I kept riding the wave and decided to get my MFA at California Institute of the Arts, so now I’m here!
Wow, that’s quite a journey. It sounds like you really made the most out of what could’ve been a bad situation.
Yeah it could have gone many different ways, but I took those life experiences and channeled them into my work.
I can definitely see the horror inspiration from your video store days. Where else do you draw inspiration from?
My last film Rive-Sud is actually inspired by my hometown Longueuil. It’s a very quiet town that was shaken by a murder that happened some time ago. I wanted to explore people’s reactions to it – the way tragedy shapes connections, and mourning builds intimacies. The lead character is based on my mother, actually. Though ultimately the character ended up being nothing like her and is more an invention of an artist. The film is a love letter to her, and an homage to my town. The characters in my films are generally mirrors of people in my life.
It’s interesting that you mention that, because all the characters in Rive-Sud are women. Actually, most of the characters in all your films are women.
Yeah my films are always about women! Personally, I have a big circle of girlfriends and I just connect more with women. There are also just so many films about men out there, and I think male characters are kind of just boring.
Rive-Sud is an intimate examination of the relationships between women, but still, in this film and your previous, the female characters are almost always the victims of serious violence. And some might argue that, especially as a gay man in the world today, subjecting women to this kind of graphic violence in your work only feeds the male gaze.
Hmm. That is a really interesting point. I’ve never really thought about it. In my other films I was exploring topics I didn’t really know about but was fascinated with. The Last Roadkill is about three girls who are obsessed with a serial killer and agree to this suicide pact in his honor. It’s based on this serial killer Richard Ramirez who was a night stalker in the ‘80s. He had these groupies, women who were in love with him, ready to do anything for him even though they never met him. I was really fascinated with that transformation in the human psyche. How do people go from being one person one day, to swearing allegiance to a serial killer and committing crimes in his honor the next? My film ended up being a story about friendship and betrayal. You don’t really get to explore the intricacies of characters’ personalities in short films, but I do want to turn it into a full feature for that reason. I am a big fan of Brian De Palma, the director of Carrie. He was known for his love of women, but also criticized for his objectification of them and the violence against them he portrayed. I guess I don’t know exactly where it comes from for me – maybe it comes from the dark human impulse to destroy the things we love? Obviously I’m not a woman, so for me it is the study of something that is foreign to me. I know that it’s just my little gay perspective on it.
Do women collaborate on these projects with you?
Oh yeah! Absolutely. All my films were produced by women, except maybe my first in undergrad. Actually the Last Roadkill was shown at the Final Girls Film Fest in Berlin, which is a festival that showcases horror cinema by women. Both producers were women, and the cinematographer, the costume stylist and female actors too. There are so many talented females in the industry that just aren’t hired. I’m not being original here, but it’s true - every time I’m on set and not directing, it’s always men in the light department and camera department and women are stylists or hair dressers or makeup artists. It’s so tired. I was on a set a few months ago and the whole crew was men. I spoke to the producer and was like, “You make the decisions and you are surrounded by men.” I think I read a statistic that right now 4% of movies that get released, are made by females. There were twelve women and six men in my class at CalArts - where do these women go after school?
Sounds like they can count on being a part of your next movie! What projects do you have coming up?
My main focus is a feature I’ve been writing for the last few years about a gay sex worker living in the underbelly of society who burns down a john’s house. I’m going to this writing retreat in New Mexico next year and I have a producer attached to the film. My last music video, Jove Jupiter’s Materialistic, touched on the same themes so I got to explore this world in three minutes. It was a new experience because the central character is male, which I’d never done before. But besides the feature, I have a production company called After Hours studio that I founded with my friend who moved here from Beirut, Sarah El Khawand. We alternate between directing and producing. So far we’ve only worked with LA based queer artists, but we’re excited for everything coming up.
Cool, we’ll keep our eyes peeled. Thanks for the chat @catdaddddddy. So you really like cats huh?
I love them! I cat-sit at different houses often and use the time as mini-writing retreats. They keep me company. I’m a cat whisperer.
Photography : Luka Booth @Lukabooth
Model/ Director : Xavier Hamel @catdaddddddy
Writer : Danny Qiblawi @dqibb
Producer/Groomer : Mike Fernandez @ojosexo using MAC Makeup and Evo Hair Products
Danny Qiblawi is a NYC based storyteller, published in the likes of Vogue Arabia and TimeOut magazine. When he’s not writing or art directing, you can catch him on the dance floor of a House party or tending to his flock of backyard chickens.