French Girl: Former Montrealers have crafted a big screen love letter to Quebec

Written and directed by former Montrealers, James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright, the movie stars Zach Braff and Évelyne Brochu

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James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright wrote French Girl, a bilingual love letter to their home province of Quebec, almost 10 years ago.

The two Montreal screenwriters then put it in a drawer and spent years doing other things in their adopted hometown of Los Angeles, including watching the big-budget sci-film they co-wrote, Independence Day: Resurgence, get savaged by the critics and disappoint at the box office.

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Years later, the two old friends — who started as actors before becoming writer-directors — returned to the French Girl script and decided the time was right to get it made. Woods plays hockey in L.A.  in the same beer league as producer Anders Bard, who grew up in Westmount, and one night Woods mustered up the courage to present the script in the dressing room after the game to Bard.

Bard told him he’d look at it but added that chances are he wouldn’t like it enough to produce it. The next day, Bard called Woods and said: ‘I love it and let’s effin do it.’ And tout de suite, French Girl was back on the front burner.

The film, an old-school rom-com set in Quebec City, opens this week in Quebec and across the U.S. It is written and directed by Woods and Wright, with Bard serving as one of the executive producers. The French version here is titled Chez les Beaux-Parents.

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The original script was about a guy from Vancouver who comes to Quebec with his Québécois girlfriend and runs into some classic romantic-comedy trouble. But it was Bard who suggested they make the main male character American and try to get a Hollywood studio interested.

Now the main guy, Gordon, is from New York, and he’s played by Zach Braff. And Bard’s ploy worked like a charm. Paramount bought world rights outside Canada and Paramount-owned Republic Pictures is releasing it in theatres in the U.S. Bard said he sold the Quebec setting to the Paramount executives by saying Quebecers are like Liverpudlians, “a very proud family-oriented culture who have a unique version of their language … and love their sport of hockey as Liverpudlians love soccer.”

“This was our dream,” said Woods, just hours before the Montreal première of French Girl this month. “Our favourite movies were those throwback rom-coms from the ’90s and early 2000s that they don’t make anymore. And Nick and I shared the same story in the sense that we have anglophone fathers who met French-Canadian women and decided to move here. The power of love. We thought what delicious background, (to show) the love we have for this province. So we thought why don’t we try to make that hybrid movie that meets studio and independent cinema and colour it with the bilingualism and all the tradition that is so rich in Quebec and its history.”

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Évelyne Brochu and Zach Braff in a scene from the Quebec-set romantic comedy French Girl.
Évelyne Brochu and Zach Braff in a scene from the Quebec-set romantic comedy French Girl. Courtesy of Entract Films

Braff plays a schoolteacher from New York who comes to Quebec City with his girlfriend Sophie (Évelyne Brochu) because she is trying out for a job as chef at the Château Frontenac. The only wrinkle, and it’s a big fat rom-com wrinkle, is the hotel’s kitchen is run by a star chef, Ruby (Vanessa Hudgens), who just happens to be Sophie’s former girlfriend.

Sophie and Gordon also visit with Sophie’s family, and they’re played by some of our finer local thespians, notably Luc Picard as her dad, Isabelle Vincent as her mom, Charlotte Aubin as her sister and Antoine Olivier Pilon as her brother (who prominently sports a Voivod T-shirt throughout!).

It really is a loving portrait of la belle province.

“That was our mission from day one, to celebrate Quebec,” Wright said. “We never wanted to make fun of anything Québécois. We’re half French-Canadian.”

Vanessa Hudgens and Zach Braff in the Quebec-set romantic comedy French Girl.
Vanessa Hudgens and Zach Braff in the Quebec-set romantic comedy French Girl. Courtesy of Entract Films

About 30 per cent of the dialogue is in the language of Arcand, but so far no one has an issue with that. Early screenings in the U.S. have garnered rapturous response and the Paramount execs loved it.

They were even more excited to be able to film it entirely in Quebec, including some scenes at Woods’s alma mater, the Montreal high school Collège Notre-Dame, which stood in for the Brooklyn school where Gordon teaches.

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For them it is quite literally a dream come true. They also got to put in songs from great Quebec artists like Harmonium and Robert Charlebois. Just as cool for them was to include on the soundtrack Charles Aznavour’s classic For Me Formidable and Barry White’s You’re the First, the Last, My Everything. When they presented the film to the Paramount execs, the president of distribution said he loved it and said “I bet that music costs a lot.” He then said they’d pay for everything, except Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle because that would cost a small fortune. So Axl Rose hit the cutting-room floor.

All in all, it feels pretty incredible to these two guys who first met more than 20 years ago working as actors on the set of the Montreal-shot YTV series Seriously Weird.

“It’s literally an Olympic gold-medal victory for us,” Woods said.

Zach Braff on the run in the Quebec-set romantic comedy French Girl.
Zach Braff on the run in the Quebec-set romantic comedy French Girl. Photo by Laurent Guerin /Courtesy of Entract Films

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