After receiving six Academy Award nominations in the Best Foreign Language Film category in the span of almost five decades, this year, Belgium has put its Oscar hopes behind director Felix Van Groenigen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown; already a box office hit in its home country and a big winner at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it won awards for its screenplay and the Best Actress award for leading lady Veerle Baetens.
The film is an adaptation of Jonah Heldenbergh’s eponymous play which tells the story of Elise (Baetens) a tattoo artist and banjo player Didier (Heldenbergh reprising his role from the play) who fall in love and whose relationship is put through the ultimate test, when their little daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) is diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps best described as Walk the Line meets Terms of Endearment, the film combines wonderful musical numbers (the actors played and sang) with an accordion-like structure that takes the audience on a wild ride between past and present in which layers of pain, sorrow, joy and endless love are revealed.
We spoke to the film’s director who was visiting New York to celebrate the film’s official opening Stateside.
PM: What about the play drew your attention and inspired you to turn it into a film?
FVG: I went to see a play by a friend and by the end I realized I’d never experienced anything like it. It simply blew me away. At first I didn’t know how to turn it into a movie, but I knew I had to do it.
PM: What was the format of the play?
FVG: The play was extremely simple. It was set up like a bluegrass concert, in which the band performed the songs and told the story of Elise and didier in-between. It wasn’t cinematic at all.
PM: How did you come up with this accordion-like structure when you started working on the screenplay?
FVG: It took a very long wait to get there. When I started work on the screenplay (with Carl Joos) all I knew is that I was going to have to play with time. The structure of the play would be ineffective for film and I needed to come up with an effective structure that would help reveal the audiences where you were going. The play had two main narratives which explore the relationship between happiness and unhappiness and how they are so close that they’re almost interwoven. When I was writing I experimented a lot and every draft became more elaborate than the previous and on paper it looked great, however we realized that somehow it wasn’t working the way we were conceiving it and we decided we’d take some freedom in the editing room instead because we wanted to convey the huge emotional impact of the play.
PM: The film features beautiful performances, how did you prepare your actors for the shoot?
FVG: We did three weeks of rehearsals which is a lot for a Belgian movie, I’d never done rehearsals before this, but this gave us time to get to know the characters from the inside. We went scene by scene creating these people, giving them lives beyond the paper…how they talked, how they walked…but even before this, since the music is such a big part of the movie, the band and the actors had been working together on the soundtrack for six months before the shoot even began, so they’d had time to get to know each other way before our rehearsals began.
PM: I was especially moved by little Nell Cattrysse’s performance. I know that many directors choose to shoot their films chronologically when they need a big emotional payoff from a child in the end. Was this how you worked with Nell as well?
FVG: There’s this scene in the film in which Nell had to cry while holding a dead bird, it was one of the last scenes we shot and it was deliberate because we’d wanted her to be ready for it. I wanted to make sure we’d had enough time for her to adapt to the environment of a film shoot, get her to enjoy herself and to realize that she was playing, and nothing about what she was doing was real. Crying was something she found hard to do, so we pushed her a little bit so that everything built up for that moment when Maybelle has to confront death. We shot the big scene, in which she did great work, and after we finished, we approached her to see how she was because she had been crying a lot, we asked her how she was and she said “I’m OK of course, I was only playing.”
PM: The film is very critical of American conservatives and the way in which the Bush administration invaded Iraq and vehemently opposed stem cell research. What do you feel your movie has to say about American culture in general?
FVG: The reality doesn’t interest me. The elements of American culture were included because they were Didier’s dream, the American dream is his ultimate dream until reality catches up with him and he is forced to look differently at the world and this includes America. What mattered here was the story and how America affected Didier, so mentions of America are more of a tool.
PM: The soundtrack also popularized bluegrass in Belgium, right?
FVG: It’s not like there’s a bluegrass club in every block, but yes, in fact the band went on tour after the movie and they’re still touring!
PM: Do they plan to visit America?
FVG: They would love to, but there are no plans for that at the moment.
PM: How do you think American audiences will react to what technically is a European reappropriation of their musical genre by excellence?
FVG: At the screenings we’ve had I haven’t seen any difference. The music gets to the heart and that’s what matters. I’ve had Americans approach me and say they are amazed by it, they don’t question the origin of the music.
PM: What are your expectations now that the film has been submitted by Belgium as this year’s Best Foreign Language film possible nominee?
FVG: We are very excited! I think this movie deserves it and we will do our best to make it happen.
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The Broken Circle Breakdown is now playing in limited release.