Filmmaker Xavier Dolan (center) on the red carpet in Cannes this weekend. Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images. Via Art Threat.

Listen to our podcast interview with Laurence Anyway director Xavier Dolan:

In 1997, Xavier Dolan was nine years old when his mom took him to the movies and his life changed.

“There was this time in the 90s when I saw this film that made me fall in love with a woman, a man, costumes, cinema itself, the art of telling a story,” Dolan told me this afternoon in a cafe at his hotel on the Rue d'Antibes here in Cannes. “That's what I admire most about American cinema.”

That film would influence him in ways he probably couldn't have imagined. In fact, its title may surprise you. Read on.

Dolan was still making his first feature, I Killed My Mother, when he was chatting with a costume assistant on the film and learned that her ex-boyfriend wanted to become a woman. Dolan contemplated the impact such a revelation might have on a relationship and the story immediately inspired him to write his bold and beautiful new film, Laurence Anyways.

Melvil Popaud plays Laurence Alia in this story of two people coming to terms with one man's decision to become a woman. Dolan's powerful new film has had critics and festivalgoers buzzing during the first weekend of the 65th Cannes Film Festival. It has already stirred quite a debate among viewers.

Laurence was something I had been waiting for since the second day of shooting I Killed My Mother,” Xavier Dolan explained today. “I knew how it ended. I had the trailer in my mind. I had every [piece of] music. I knew everything about Laurence.”

Taking place over a decade, this would be Dolan's most epic work yet, but he wasn't quite ready to tackle it. He finished I Killed My Mother and then made Heartbeats—both played in Cannes—as he continued to hone Laurence Anyways, writing and rewriting the screenplay for years. The script grew to some 300 pages.

“I knew it would be long and then if it was long it had to be big,” Xavier Dolan elaborated, “Because there had to be rhythm and a notion of movement. We move from one town to another, we change characters.”

Dolan is sensitive to early criticism of his new film. Some are calling it too long. In fact, he takes such talk quite personally.

“For me, people loving or hating my films always reflects an appreciation or a depreciation of the person I am,” he told my former colleague Peter Knegt in a pre-Cannes interview for Indiewire. “I don't want to be narcissistic, but there's so much. Everything people say, everything people think, whether it's my left side or my right side. There's a lot of me in these movies.”

Xavier Dolan on the set of Laurence Anyways.

Discussing Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan said that some might see its 159-minute length as a mistake. But today he offered an unprovoked defense.

“For me it was necessary to have this construction,” Xavier Dolan said. Smiling, he added that there are an additional 45 minutes of deleted scenes ready for the DVD release. “I knew it would be long to build each character's background.”

Explaining that he has been inspired by what he called a deep love of American cinema, Xavier Dolan said he embraced the U.S. penchant for in-depth, detailed storytelling.

“It's like a big house and you go into every room and you close doors afterwards,” Dolan elaborated. “It's so complete. It loves, so much, the art of the narrative and that's what I admire. That's what that movie taught me. That and the ambition. The power of a solidly written story. The desperate love.”

Have you guessed the name of the movie that influenced Xavier Dolan? Before I could guess, he told me the name and I chuckled. Of course!

“This movie actually taught me everything,” Dolan teased. “You would be surprised to know that it's not a cerebral film from Scandinavia.”

“It's actually Titanic.”

“Yes, it's Titanic,” Xavier Dolan revealed. “I am not ashamed of that movie. Of loving that movie. I still love it so much.”

“It's just so epic and ambitious and I wanted Laurence to be as epic and as ambitious,” Dolan concluded. “Titanic gave me wings and [James] Cameron taught me that those notions of rhythm that I try, in the best of my capacity, to emulate somehow.”

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (@filmlinc) and a founder of indieWIRE. Follow him on Twitter at @eug.

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