Nominated for the foreign film Oscar is Belgian entry "Broken Circle Breakdown," a breakout hit in Belgium before it won the Panorama audience award at the Berlin Film Festival last February. The improbable bluegrass musical romance went on to delight global festival audiences, winning best screenplay at Tribeca. It had a limited release stateside this past November (Tomatometer ranking: 80%).
This crowdpleaser is a four-hankie love story between a sexy tattoo shop owner (Belgian star Veerle Batens) and a freewheeling banjo player (Johan Heldenbergh) who start a family and must confront their different ideologies when their daughter (Nell Cattrysse) gets sick. Van Groeningen stopped by Sneak Previews this past fall semester after a screening of the film left many audience members in tears.
Anne Thompson: You showed in Berlin last February and won the audience award. That must have been a surprise, or was it?
Felix van Groeningen: It had been out in Belgium for awhile but still a festival like Berlin decides the career of a movie, the international career. So then I knew it was going to play well, it would travel all over the world. If it wasn't going to play well, that was the end of the movie. I was very excited. Everything worked out fine. We brought the band in. We held a concert over there. So there was already really good buzz around this movie, so our first public screening, in a beautiful theater, everyone was so excited. Veerle and I watched it together and it was amazing. There was a standing ovation, people didn't stop applauding. It was very, very moving. The movie took off there. It would prizes around the world. Belgium submitted it for the Oscars.
This was a stage musical?
Johan Heldenbergh, who plays the lead in the movie, wrote it, he directed it, he starred in it, he even learned how to play the banjo. He's a friend of mine, he played in previous movies of mine. This is my fourth film. I absolutely was blown away by it. I started crying after five minutes, I was intrigued by it, and played around with the idea of turning it into a movie. I went to see it a second time and just didn't see how I was going to do it, I thought it was just too good to mess it up, it kept coming back to me. So we said, 'let's just try it.'
Are there a lot of bluegrass bands in Belgium?
There weren't until this movie came out. There are two or three and usually when they play, there are more people onstage than off.
Was Johan Heldenerbergh a big bluegrass fan?
He discovered it while he was thinking about making this play and then he fell in love with it and decided to do something about religion or the fact that he was angry. He learned how to play the banjo. He always wanted to become a musician and now he is one actually. The soundtrack is being performed all over Belgium for full houses.
Heldenbergh is a powerful, tall, charismatic figure. The chemistry between him and the actress had to be perfect. How did you find your star?
Through auditions. I had seen ten actresses or so before her, and Veerle actually didn't show up at the first audition. I called back a couple of actresses, and it was a very hard decision.
How big a star is she in Belgium?
She's the biggest. She's on a lot of very popular TV. She did "Ugly Betty" and became very popular. She's done a lot of musical TV shows. Since she's a big star, I really wanted to see her. She's a great actress, and very engaging. She came when I had already chosen three actors for callback and then I saw Veerle and immediately knew. She just adds something that I hadn't written, something really dark and powerful. She scared Johan at the audition. It had to be a very passionate couple so it couldn't be a one-way street. Because he's so big and charming and has opinions about everything, there had to be some counterpoint and she brought that.
It didn't work the same way because it actually was just extremely simple, so it had nothing cinematic. They were part of the band. In between the songs, they started talking to the others and just told their story, plain and simple, very pure. But by telling their story, they also jumped in time. It did play around with time but on a completely different level.
The movie has this intense romance, but you plant seeds of the ideological conflict that is going to disturb this romance…
It was difficult. I worked very little on the screenplay for a year and a half, it was Johan who cowrote the screenplay. Onstage, Johan ranted for like an hour and a half against George W. Bush, against America, and slowly…we understood why he was doing this, so it worked in a completely different way. In the movie, we realized it wasn't going to work. Film works differently, so we spent a lot of time making this guy likable where you would still understand why he became that way. It was a tricky part. Bush was still in office when the play was written. People were reading the script wondering, 'is it still relevant?' But for me, and for Johan, the issue of stem cell research was the trigger to make the film. And he wanted to do something about it so I thought that it had to be part of the movie.
You challenge the
audience to keep up as you cut back and forth in time.
We worked really hard on the shooting script to recreate the experience I had seeing this theater play. I knew that we had to play with time in order to have an emotional impact. So we developed three story lines and then we went back and forth and we added to the screenplay and just felt it wasn't working the way I wanted it. At some point we just started over, said 'let's just forget about the script and retell this story in a different way.' What works on paper doesn't always work onscreen. What seems obvious on paper has a completely different impact onscreen.
You were trying to achieve the same emotional impact but in a completely different way. You did achieve it. The film is moving because the couple started out so joyously happy. Are you saying that romantic happiness is impossible to sustain?
I don't know. I guess that we have to enjoy it because that dark sickness may always come and will always come. But it doesn't mean that you can't enjoy your happiness. The weird thing I discovered while making this movie is that when you go through tough times, it's not necessarily bad. It makes you realize how precious life is, and that's what I really like about this portrait too, is that the happy times and the sad times are so close together that it becomes confusing, and seeing the happy times doesn't make it happy but as a viewer it's sad, too, because you know where it's going. In reality for me, when I came out of this theater play I felt relieved sometimes.
Explain the language of the film.
The songs are in English and the language we speak in Belgium is part French, part Flemish and Dutch. Flemish and Dutch is the same, it's just a dialect.
Audience: I wanted to ask you about the child star. She was exquisite.
She was five years old when she shot this movie. It was her first role. She had never done anything. We had a big audition and so parents brought their kids. Her parents enrolled her because she wanted to do theater maybe or has enough energy, so her parents thought maybe this is a good thing for her. I thought she was too shy but the trick with child actors is you give them time to open up. We narrowed it down over a couple of weeks to four, three, two. She really understands what she's doing and why she's doing it. I asked her, 'can you do it again?' And she said, 'no I don't want to do it again.' So I said, 'if you're going to be in a movie, you should do it again.' Okay. First rehearsal, the girl just clicked with Veerle and they formed a family. The funny thing is that she, with all those very hefty scenes that you think is too much for a kid like that, she actually made it easier for us, because she understood very well.