Interview: Felix Van Groeningen on 'The Broken Circle Breakdown'

Interviews
by Carlos Aguilar
November 13, 2013 5:58 PM
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Director Felix Van Groeningen

The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium's Submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award Nomination. U.S. : Tribeca Films. International Sales Agent: The Match Factory 

In recent years modern Belgian cinema has increasingly received more international attention due to the sophisticated stories and artful aesthetics utilized by the country's filmmakers. Great examples are the Academy Award-nominated Bullhead, and last year's Our Children. This year the breakthrough hit The Broken Circle Breakdown has placed its director Felix Van Groeningen under the spotlight thanks to its originality, its soundtrack, and the outstanding performances by Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh. Van Groeningen, whose previous films include The Misfortunates and With Friends Like These, crafted an incredible love story that deals with the tragic death of a couple's daughter and the way they each cope with this. It is told in a non-linear manner that enhances the poetry of the images, and adorned with the beautiful sadness of Bluegrass music. The Broken Circle Breakdown has been nominated for 5 European Film Awards including Best European Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay, and it is Belgium's Official Submission for the 86th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The director talked to us about the extensive writing process, working with Heldenbergh, who wrote the play upon which the film is based, and choosing the precise song for each sequence.

Read the review for The Broken Circle Breakdown

Carlos Aguilar: One the things that really work in the film is the fact that is so fragmented in a sense, was that a decision that came from the screenplay, or from the original material?


Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh

Felix Van Groeningen: It really came together. It was formed by trial and error; I knew when I was going to adapt this type of play that we were going to have to play with time. Because that’s sort of how it worked in the theater as well, but it was very different, it was just two people talking but they announced what was going to happen very soon, and then they were talking about good times and then they went back to the illness of their daughter. So, it did work that way but very differently. I knew that was one of the powerful things of the play that I wanted to recreate in the film. What it led to was so inspirational it was an experience. Most films have a climatic sequence or emotional climax after one hour or close before the ending, but here you have this kind of emotional impact already after ten minutes or so.

What it led to was that at one hour the climatic scene is still there and it goes way beyond. That’s what we were always trying to do during writing, where we developed different story lines and timelines, and just went back and forth to make this work. During editing we questioned that, we felt that it wasn’t working the way it could or the way it should. We forgot about the way we structured it, but we kept the idea and we started playing around with scenes and forgot about the logic and why we had structured like that. What resulted was a movie where you have this very emotional response very quickly, but it took out the logic, the cerebral take on it from the shooting script, but it made the poetry bigger and the magic even bigger. That’s something we understood by trying things and it was great to discover it.

Aguilar: Could you talk about the underlining spiritual themes? Didier doesn’t believe in God and Elise does, how did you infused that with all of the other issues the story deals with?

Van Groeningen: Well it’s a lot. [Laughs]. The play was a big inspiration, it worked on the play and it was so well written and put together combining all of these layers of very different people still being in love with each other. The characters are very believable and they are very grounded in life, but they are also archetypes of people. It works because it is layered, they are not just one thing but it changes, they both have a big arc and that makes it very real and complex. That’s why it works for me and why I think it’s very exciting, you cannot really pinpoint what it really means, because it means so many things at the same time. It is about a couple falling apart, it is a bout two people who cannot communicate anymore because they have different reactions on a big tragedy in their lives, which is also very human. It is about somebody very religious who doesn’t want to talk about things and somebody who needs to talk about everything, and tears things down because of that. It is all that combined in these characters.

Aguilar: Given that Johan Heldenbergh wrote the original play of which you talk about, how was it to work with him as an actor on a film based on material so personal to him?

Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh

Van Groeningen: I called him and I asked him if I could make it into a movie and my second question was “Would it be OK if I don’t write with you? If I write it with somebody else maybe, but you wouldn’t be involved in the writing” He immediately say “Yes, of course, I was going to say the same thing, so no worries. Go ahead you have my blessing, and I’m not going to interfere, you do your thing, I did mine for two years, and I won’t be able to have distance from it, and I like your other films” We have worked together before and he likes my work. We had a couple discussions where I asked about every little detail that I didn’t understand, but I realized at some point in the writing process that I would still have these questions, “ why is this here?” or “should we do that?” and that I had a different take on certain things. I had ideas on how they lived, that was never mentioned in the play, you didn’t see where they were living, what their jobs were, they didn’t talk about it because you didn’t need to know, it was just very focused on their story.

In the movie as we show 7 years of their lives we needed to have it be pat of it, that’s when my fantasies started working. I had this idea about this couple living wild outside in the countryside, running around naked, that kind of imagery. That was something Johan would have never done, he let me add those things and he was actually amazed by what I did with it, and he was always very constructive he would say to me “That’s a great idea, too bad I didn’t come up with that for the play because it’s good” [Laughs]. So, I worked on it for a very long time so it really became mine. Once we started rehearsing Johan acted as an actor, it was his baby but he felt that I was so involved that he respected the choices that I made that were different from the play.

Aguilar: Veerla is a real singer/actress, and here she has a role that demands a lot from those two facets. How did you help shape her performance and what did she bring to the character you imagined?

Van Groeningen: She is more of an actress, but in the meantime she has started her own band and she has done musicals, she has always loved singing. She is a very demanding actress, when I cast her we were one year away from shooting. Two days after I had chosen her and we had agreed we would work together she was sending me emails asking, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to do that?” She immediately was like a pit bull [Laughs] she bites and she won’t let go. Immediately she started thinking about this and wanted me to say things to her and I was still a year from shooting so a lot of times I was like “I don’t know Veerla we’ll see” [Laughst]. “Give me time!” That was amazing too, you felt her commitment and I think she listened a lot to Bluegrass, she added songs to the play list that we were putting together.

Veerle Baetens in "The Broken Circle Breakdown."

She was very engaged, and I guess what I helped her the most with was styling, giving her my take on how Elise would look, like the whole Rockabilly thing, the tattoos where part of the story from the original play. Then I found a tattoo artist and we got together with the make-up artist to talk about where each tattoo would come. It was very much collaboration, I brought little ideas and she would pick them and used them to become someone else. We rehearsed for like three weeks, after they had already rehearsed a lot of times. We did improvisations on the very hefty situations with all the freedom to work out of context, to not just play those scenes but to try and get the feeling. That was great because we created intimacy between the three of us, we trusted one another, and we felt we had gone that far with those emotions, which made it easier afterwards on set to recall them.

Aguilar: Music is a crucial part of the story and the characters’ relationship. Can you talk about the process of choosing the songs that appear in the film?

Van Groeningen: Choosing the songs was part of the writing process, which took like a year and a half. Writing is trying bad ideas most of the time and sometimes hitting a great idea, and keeping that and cutting the rest, and start over and over. Editing was also important, because of the structure we chose we also had the ability to put songs at different moment than where they were intended to be, which made it more emotional. What I realized also, it was that it wasn’t going to work if we just had 12 songs put into the movie without having a narrative or dramatic function. So we came up with scenes where the songs would really fit or vice versa we had scenes and we found songs that would fit. For example the song where Elise becomes part of the band, we see her just listened to Didier talking about the music, then we see the band rehearsing at the campfire and her already clapping a little, and the next time you see them both on stage and she is singing better than he is. [Laughs]. To come up with those little stories was really fun and to also make them fit with how the music or lyrics work emotionally, it was just really fun.

Aguilar: There is a scene near the end of the film that deals with the afterlife; can you talk about the purpose of this particular sequence?

Van Groeningen: The whole idea of the structure has to do with that. You could see the movie as the film of your life, or the film of Elise’s life, which she is seeing before she might be dying. For me everything builds up to that moment, so it is not something that is different than the rest, it is the climax of the movie. Everything that we used before is leading up to that moment; all the different realities come to together.

Johan Heldenbergh (Center) in 'The Broken Circle Breakdown'

Aguilar: Did you listen to Bluegrass music before the film? Or did you develop a taste for it thanks to the story?

Van Groeningen: I lived with it for two years, and I still love it, but it has its own place now. I’m never going to use it again in a movie. It has been such a great thing to dive into this and discover it, and to have a purpose for discovering it. I’m not very musical, I do listen to music but only if I have a reason, and here the reason was the movie.

Aguilar: Your film is representing Belgium at the Oscars this year, what are you thoughts on this?

Van Groeningen: I’m very proud, but Belgium is a small country [Laughs]. If you are representing France or Germany it is something else, but I’m happy. I feel they sent the right film, and I think it does have a chance because it has done so well in the festival circuit. We’ve won awards from juries and audiences. It touches a great range of different people.

Aguilar: Do you think that despite the unequivocally American music in the film, it is still an authentically Belgian film?

Van Groeningen: Good question. For example in France where people don’t speak the language either, and they would only see the images, they might say, “This is just an American movie done really well and people speak Flemish, it’s weird”. For me it feels very authentic, it feels very authentically Belgian or Flemish, but because of the way it looks it has an American feel too. It really combines those two worlds well.



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