Creating a Boy’s Dreamworld: An Interview with Bavo Defurne

The International Cinephile Society interviews director Bavo Defurne, whose feature film debut North Sea Texas (Noordzee Texas, ICS review here) won the Alice nella Città award (youth award) at the last International Rome Film Festival. Bavo explains how kids reacted to the themes of his movie, his creative process and how he, together with the actors, created the lovely little dreamworld that surrounds the characters.

North Sea Texas will have its US premiere at the next Palm Springs International Film Festival (January 5-16, 2012).

Thanks to Federico Mancini of Atlantide Entertainment and Yves Verbraeken of Indeed Films who helped set up this interview – Ciro Di Lella

ICS – Hi Bavo, thanks for taking the time this morning to talk to me.

BD – It's a pleasure.

ICS – And congratulations on the Alice in the City award and on your movie, it's a beautiful work of art.

BD – Oh thank you, thank you.

ICS – So, my first question is related to the award you won in Rome. Your movie was picked by a jury of kids aged 13 to 18. In the past couple of years there's been a lot of talk, both in the United States and in Europe, about bullying and homophobia coming from that same age group. Do you think that your movie being chosen by kids that age is a sign that maybe things are changing for the better? Did you find any hostility about the subject of your movie from the teenagers you showed it to?

BD – You mean the teenagers in Rome?

ICS – And back home.

BD – Well, in Rome obviously not and we thought that we – I thought, this is a jury of young people and what you need to win is not a majority, you need also to have someone to speak out and say, "Hey, this film is good," you know, I mean, because it can be a subject where a jury, even if people liked the film, they wouldn't dare fight for it. I thought no one would want to fight for this film because it's a bit of a difficult project, especially for that age group. And what happened when we were talking about the film with the jury – actually, we were there with the producer Yves [Verbraeken], and Nina Marie Kortekaas who plays the sister and Mathias Vergels who plays Gino, they were together with me to discuss the film with the jury – and they [the jury] had lots of questions, even very critical questions, but also very mature questions, questions that really showed that they had been really thinking about the world, about society and about art. It gave us a lot of energy talking to these people; after a quarter of an hour there were still a lot of questions and in the afternoon the festival people came back and they said that the jury still had a lot of questions, and are you ok to go on and talk more to them, because they still can't figure out what they think of your film and they have questions. We said ok, so we went back to the jury and we talked for more than an hour to them and after that the whole film team was so full of energy. We couldn't stop talking about how beautiful and crazy the reactions were, how people really liked the film, had seen everything, every little detail, nothing had escaped them.

That was a relief, actually: maybe we underestimated the youth jury because of prejudice, because when we showed the film here there wasn't such a big, open, beautiful reaction from the youth, actually. We didn't really show the film precisely to youth or anything like that. There were some teachers who thought of showing the film in schools and we thought it would be a good thing to do, but it was just individual projects, and the only reactions we had from the youth were quite negative. No boy would dare to play the role of Pim and Gino, so it was our feeling that it's a really difficult film for young people, to show it to, they would be afraid to admit that this is a film about them basically, whatever they are, girl, boy, gay or straight, or don't even know what their orientation is. They will not dare and say, hey this is a film that says something beautiful about us. So that [the Rome experience] really filled the whole team with energy, especially the actors.

Even before we got the prize we were all so happy, especially the young actors, especially the guy who plays Gino. He's a very good actor and he's also, as every good actor, very honest and shows his feelings very openly and that makes you very fragile. He had, in his group of friends, who are quite rough and tough kids, he had almost like…not negative but not really positive reactions either, they were like "you're in that gay film ah ah ah" kind of reactions, and it really made him so happy that suddenly there were kids out there from all – you know, well from Italy but basically from a very powerful and diverse combination of young people who all really appreciated what he had done and how he had done it.

And it gave us a lot of hope for Italy, actually [laughs]. There's like a cliche about Italy, everyone knows the Pope lives there and it's not a country you would – it's not a country where you would expect such a great reaction if you go by that prejudice and cliche that hangs around in Europe about Italy, so it made us so happy.

ICS – I'm glad Italy gave you the award, maybe this prejudice can be lifted from the country! And about this reaction from kids, from teenagers, I have your pressbook here, you say that you liked the idea of "showing hope for a life that was not possible for the boys from Brokeback Mountain" because your movie has a happy ending, which is actually quite surprising for this kind of film. So I wanted to ask you, when you think of gay teenagers watching your movie, boys or girls doesn't matter, do you think it's important that these kids are shown romances that are hopeful, that say that gay romances are not exclusively doomed, as they are often portrayed?

BD – Yeah, that's very important for me and, strangely, it's also something that sometimes can…shock [laughs] people who don't really know what the film is about. They go, "Hey, the gay guy doesn't die in the end and he's not even unhappy." Well, they don't say it that way, I'm making a bit of a caricature of reactions I had on that, but there is this kind of archetype of gay movies and it is heartbreaking to see films like Brokeback Mountain, which is really about wasted lives, about people who don't live their own lives.

You only have one life and what Brokeback Mountain says is, look at these people, how sad they are, they have never been themselves and then their life is over and they have never lived it. And this is very dramatic and very heartbreaking, and it also is about the world in the 1960s, it's set in the past…and yet I was thinking we live here in Belgium, a country where you as a man can marry another man, a real official wedding, and a woman can marry a woman, and still, in the law there is this thing that you can do, but that is not the end of the fight, it's not that everything is fine now. There's this feeling that everything is fine, while in the heads of the people, and in their hearts, there is still a lot of homophobia and there is still this feeling that gay people should act in a certain way and stay invisible.

So we actually had people who were angry, or at least uneasy, because in this film…I wouldn't say there's a happy ending, but at least it's a film about a boy whose problems are more of a romantic and intimate kind and not about the exterior world that is against him. Basically he lives in his own little fragile dreamworld and I think some people got angry about that, about the fact that the film is not really about "the others," it's really a film about Pim's feelings and what makes him different, and not everyone sees that. It's strange.

ICS – The ending may not be exactly happy, but it's very hopeful…

BD – Yes, yes, definitely.

ICS – …and it also shows what I feel is the biggest strength of the movie, and that's how you balance what is dreamy and whimsical with a very solid, grounded reality. It's also a very physical ending. You create this very private, intimate dreamworld around Pim, but then there are also moments of rawness almost, so I wanted to ask you something about this dual quality of the movie.

BD – It's difficult to say, because I do that quite intuitively, but the way I explain it to my crew and to my cast is that we create a world that is not realistic, but it is a world that is true, and what I mean by that is that realism is what you see when you look out a window, and truth is something in your heart. So that's what I tried to do, also working with the actors, and the set design, the colors, they might not be – in reality, the world maybe was different, is different, but I tried to work with them to be as truthful as possible. Look at fairy tales…

ICS – It reminded me of a fairy tale in a way.

BD – Yeah, yeah. Now fairy tales have been degraded to some children stories or something, but basically even if an animal talks in a fairy tale, what happens is still a very truthful story about values and things that are very rooted in our hearts and in our emotions. So it's only the presentation that is not realistic, but the presentation, I think, helps convey – well, I hope it helps convey what the film's about. If it was realistic it wouldn't convey the same emotion.

ICS – One of the things I really loved is how each character has an arc to follow and is a changed person by the end of the movie. The focus is not really only on the couple, but on their whole world.

BD – Yes, yes it is.

ICS – The mothers are especially moving in their journey: Pim's mom is projected towards the future and the freedom she sees in Zoltan the gypsy, while Gino's mom lives in the past. In the end they both accept their sons in their own ways: Gino's mom has that beautiful scene in which she joins the boys' hands and Pim's mom apparently understands how and why Pim is attracted to Zoltan, but she's very territorial about it, Zoltan is her man and her future, not her son's. Can you tell us something about those two characters, and how you worked with the actresses to define those characters?

BD – Yes, basically for the whole story – I thank a lot the man who has written the book [Belgian young adult author André Sollie] because these two characters, the ladies, are a present from him and the ending of the book is the same as the ending of the film. Actually, I'll talk about the ladies, but I still have something to say about the happy ending if you don't mind. I had already made short films, and one of my short films was about boy scouts, and a love story between two boys, but it was a story about rejection, a boy who is rejected by his group because he's gay. And this film was shown in schools ten years ago, in Flanders, and I had a lot of positive reactions, but also there were people who wanted to know what happens next, what happens to these boys. In that case the ending was really an open ending, but the rejection was there. So I didn't really know what happens next, because as a filmmaker you only think until the last minute of your film and that's where it stops, and when I read [Sollie's] book I thought, oh, that's what happens next. It wasn't my invention, I found it in the book, but I thought, oh this is so beautiful, this is that ending that everyone who saw my short film was asking for.

Then, about the ladies, I think everyone in this film – the film is a bit like a hall of mirrors if you want, everyone shares – they're all looking for love, and none of them has this classic love, like something between a father and a mother and a kid, and they all have an impossible, extraordinary longing for this special emotion, and they think of how they would be fulfilling their dream. Nobody is, like, normal in this film, and in that way they're all reflections of each other, this is what binds all these characters together.

The one mother [Pim's mother Yvette, played by Eva van der Gucht] is basically dreaming of an outside world, of going away, of exotic things, and she hates her family, she doesn't want to be the mother. I think she has her reasons for that because – it's not really in the film but you can get it out of the film if you do a little math – I think Pim was a kid that wasn't really wanted. She was quite young when she had him and she dreamed of being an artist and being an accordion player and being a beauty queen, she was 18 and suddenly she was a single mother, there was no husband there. For her Pim is like what ruined her dreams, so that's why she hates him so much, I think. But in the end she tries – I think her arc is that after a while she understands that he can't help it, but she also understands that she can't help him, the best thing she can do to help him is to not be there and to let him go fulfill his dreams and be with that other family, because that's basically what happens. Pim is a boy who dreams of being part of another family, Gino's family, of being the son of another mother and to have a brother and a sister, being part of that family. And in the end there is that family, it ends up being a very strange family. Gino comes back, Sabrina [Gino's sister] is there, and these three people form a strange alternative family, which is a narrative concept rather than a realistic social concept, but they all manage to make it happen. That's also really what Marcella [Gino's mother, played by Katelijne Damen] wants. She also wants them to be together and she's always wanted Pim to be in her family from the beginning of the film, but she knows it's not right, that's why at first she sends the little kid away. But after a while she accepts that it's too much [for Pim to bear], the other mother is gone, so she has to do what she's always dreamed of, and that's "adopting" Pim.

So, on the surface, one is like la maman, the other is la putain, you know, one is the whore, one is the mother, but in the end they all have a way of finding their love and realize a dream of happiness.

ICS – Happiness for themselves, but also for all the others, because in the end both mothers leave in their own ways, but they both know that they're leaving the kids in a situation where the three of them really care for each other.

BD – Yeah, yeah, exactly.

ICS – Can you tell us something about the "timeless" quality you wanted the movie to have? The screenplay note I found in the pressbook – Our youth, some decades ago – is very beautiful and fits the movie perfectly.

BD – Yeah, I think this also goes in this urge to not be realistic, in the sense that we're telling a really emotional, truthful story and we're not really interested in – [setting it in the past], it can give a nostalgic feel, but we're not really interested in overplaying it, like "Oh, we're in 1974, and this is the music that was playing then." I never wanted to do that. I think it's much more interesting when you can look through these – you know, clothes and the set design, and they become kind of invisible. Well, obviously they're not invisible, but the story is more important than the historical accuracy, it didn't have to be historically correct, because it doesn't interest me really. And also we tried to avoid eccentricities of the end of the '60s – beginning of the '70s, and we tried to look for classic things that could be still acceptable in our time, or could have already been there ten years before. That's how we did it, when we were judging the sets and the costumes. I would go there with my producer and we'd ask ourselves, would I still wear a shirt like this, or would my father have worn a shirt like this in the 1950s or '60s. We looked for those classics that are really eternal, which I think are very beautiful to work with. They're kind of icons and I like working with these icons. In my short films it's even more exaggerated because in a short film you can work with symbols and icons more, while in a feature you have a different fabric, a different timeframe to work with, so they become less important. But it's still interesting and I think – I think the reason why I do this is because an icon or a classic brings a lot of story into the story, it brings already a lot of significance, so as a filmmaker it's less work for you [laughs], or at least it fills your story and brings things that you can't possibly do yourself.

ICS – So in a way these classic things, especially the costumes, help you define the characters too. One of my favorite details in the movie is that both dreamers, both Pim and his mother, wear bright yellow clothes at one point. So I'm guessing that was very intentional, it was used to show the contrast between the dreamers, Pim and his mom, and what was around them, the dull world that was around them?

BD – Yes, yes, and he changes at one point – yellow was basically her color, she had that yellow dress, and yellow is this loud color, it totally fits her, this eccentric, loud, funny girl. In the beginning Pim is still very much under her wings if you want, he's still a kid, and yellow is also the color of a baby chick. He's like, he's her baby, and if you see how he develops – in the middle of the film we see less and less yellow in his clothing, and his clothes become more and more masculine actually. And in the end I think – I think he wears green in the final scene, if I'm not mistaken. He's not wearing yellow anymore, he takes the colors, the greens and blues of Marcella's family, so his colors change into the color scheme of that family, he becomes more masculine and more self-assured. That definitely helped define the character: even the actor was very happy to become a man with more manly clothes, after a while he started hating the yellow [laughs] and he was like "finally I can wear green and blue!" With him I worked in three steps basically, with him and with the costume designer, I said, this film is a film about a boy who starts off as a princess, then becomes a prince and in the end is a king. That's how I thought of the film. He's a princess at first, he dresses up as a lady, he feels different and he expresses that in dressing up like a princess. Then he becomes a romantic prince and enjoys this love he has for Gino, and in the end he becomes a king when he punches Gino, when they have that confrontation at the beach. It hits him when Gino says that [their relationship] was just a game, and that's when I said to my actor, this is when you become a king, because this is when you realize that this rough and tough guy who rides a motorcycle is actually a coward, he's a boy who can't be himself, he's totally not self-assured. And that's when you become a king.

The jury actually had a question about that. They asked the actor who plays Gino, "Isn't it a cliche that the gay boy is effeminate and that the 'straight' boy is rough and tough and he's more manly?" They actually asked me, but I said, we'd better ask the actor. And he said that he didn't feel that his character was self-assured or manly or brave at all, he said that he felt his character was wearing a mask. While Pim, he knows from the beginning that he's different and that he likes boys, he's the stronger character. It's kind of a reverse cliche that you can get only when you're open to letting the film speak for itself, and not go in and say, well this is going to be just another gay film.

ICS – So, since you're talking about your actors, I wanted to ask you something about the casting process. I know you had some troubles…was it only the parents who had problems with their children acting in this film, or was it the kids as well?

BD – Yeah, well, both. The guy who plays Gino, we found him quite early. We saw 220 boys for the two roles, and these were the ones that actually came to the audition, many more were invited or contacted. A lot of them didn't come, they seemed interested, but then we would send a script or a synopsis and suddenly they didn't show up. Mathias [Vergels, Gino], I think, was number 20 or something, he was one of the first to show up, but the thing is you can't decide if you haven't got the couple. So I always had to tell him, "Mathias, I think you're very good and I think you would be a good Gino, but we can only say yes once we have found Pim." The problem was that many many many "Pims" showed up, but a lot were either too old, or too young, too mature, or not mature enough, so that eliminated a lot of the candidates. And of the candidates who had all these qualities we were looking for, the right physical and emotional maturity, well, a lot of them didn't dare to play the role. At first they don't even tell you that, they just came to the audition and seemed happy to be there, but then either didn't show up for the next meeting or made up excuses. There was this one boy who called us crying and he said, "My father says I can't kiss another boy, not even for a movie," so that was heartbreaking for us, to see that a young person, whatever his sexuality, had this dream of a career as an actor and was stopped by his father from doing what he wanted to do. That was tough. And we all got edgy and nervous, the shooting was closer and closer, we had to shoot during the holidays. And in the end, well, I think number 210 was Jelle [Florizoone, who ended up playing Pim]. He was actually a bit surprised that we asked him to play that role, he and his mother wanted to talk about the film. He was an ideal candidate, so I took the time to go and talk to him and his mother and explain the kind of film this would be, what it would be about and how we would do it, and they loved the project, they loved it very much. You can't really make a film with a 14-year-old if his parents are not behind the project.

It takes a lot of balls [to play these roles], I don't even know if at 14 I would have dared do it. I'm not throwing stones at the kids who were afraid to do this, they're under a lot of pressure, at school and everything. I'm not mad at the boys who didn't show up, but I do feel bad for them because they couldn't follow their dreams.

I must say that the two boys we chose have family and friends who supported the film. Jelle is a ballet dancer, he was in ballet school, and everyone seemed to be very supportive of his artistic endeavors. Mathias was in acting school, there was some support there too. In that sense we were very blessed to have them. They felt at ease and that was important because it should feel real, it shouldn't be fake, they really had to make it seem believable that there is passion between those boys. I couldn't skip certain scenes. I don't think there's anything graphic [in the film], but it's a film about first passions, first passion is the essence of the film, you can't be too prudish about it. I felt like I had to show that there is sex between those two boys, because, hey, that's what happens during adolescence. When I talk about it the kids start to giggle, but it's real. You have to show this, of course in a beautiful and artistic and respectful way, in a way that allows you to respect their bodies and their integrity because they're so young, but you also have the integrity of the story you're telling, you need to balance all these things.

ICS – So once you had your cast, the three kids especially, how did you work with them to develop the love triangle in the movie? Sabrina, Gino's sister, is in love with Pim, and in the end the two boys are together and Sabrina is also there and supports them. How did you lead the actors to that conclusion?

BD – Oh yeah, well, how did we do that…well, we had a lot of rehearsal before the film. Especially with Pim and Gino. In the beginning the two actors liked each other on a professional level, but…well, I still have a set photo of them on their first audition together and it felt like they were…kind of curious, like they were asking themselves "who's this?" but there was no link between them. During the rehearsal period they developed more and more respect for each other and they were very professional. We didn't do a lot of, you know, psychology talks, we were just doing our job. I didn't talk about my private life, I didn't ask about their private lives, but we talked a lot and we worked and we improvised a lot on the private lives of Pim and Gino. We took all the time we had to really invent and discover the world of Pim, Gino and Sabrina; at first we didn't even really want to know each other, that was secondary to getting to know the characters. I think it's very important, especially with young actors, to say that, ok, this is your character and you make him as believable as possible, but when you go home you go home as yourself.

ICS – So the actors were involved in the creation of that world?

BD – Yes, we discovered it together. What we did was – we spent a lot of days together to improvise scenes, moments between them, in order to have them discover their characters and the world of their characters. We did a lot of scenes from the script, but most [of the improvisation] is not even in the film, it's what we called "backstory improvisation" or "pre-scene improvisation." We improvised a lot of the world of the film that you don't actually see in the film. Our rehearsals were much more about what you don't see, but what you feel. It was not that they had to read the scene again and again and again until it was perfect, no, it was exploring the world, sometimes with little games between ourselves during which the actors developed trust in each other and respect. They now have a lot of respect for each other and they're proud of what they've done, and I'm proud. I think the trick was to keep it professional and to respect their private lives.

ICS – Two last questions: is the movie going to be released internationally? And what can we expect from you now, will you make any more feature films?

BD – Yes, yes, I hope so! And I hope it won't take as long as it did from my last short film – it took ten years to find the money and the right project. North Sea Texas is actually my second movie if you want, there was another movie in development that we had to stop to shoot North Sea Texas. I'm now casting for this "first movie." It was stopped for many reasons, but mainly because it was more expensive and more complex to finance. Now that we have made North Sea Texas, the financing is moving again. We're casting and finalizing the script. The movie's called Souvenir and it's about a lady who almost wins the Eurovision song contest, but then ABBA comes along so she doesn't win. Her career stops because of that and we find her again years later: she's over 50, she works in a meat factory, she doesn't sing anymore. At the factory comes a young boy, an 18-year-old amateur boxer, and they develop a friendship, she falls in love with him and he encourages her to sing again. It's a story about a very difficult comeback and about a very difficult relationship because of the big age difference. We're right now casting the lead actress.

And then you asked about North Sea Texas, what's happening with the film…well, there is a sales agent involved, and he's already sold the movie to some countries, he's in negotiations with others. I'm quite sure there will be theatrical releases in Italy, Germany, Holland, probably more on DVD. And we're going to the Palm Springs Film Festival in January.

ICS – Your first US audience?

BD – Yes! We already were in Montreal, where we won two prizes, and they welcomed the film very warmly. The US premiere will be Palm Springs in January, and I'm going, I'm very curious to see how the United States audience will react. Every audience is so different and it's so beautiful, if you travel with your film, to see the reactions…I don't really have time or money to play tourist and discover the beautiful cities I get to visit, but it's still so nice to travel around with your film and see that each audience has a different reaction. Some audiences do nothing but laugh, and others do nothing but cry, at the same scenes in the same film! And I'm so happy because it's a film in which you can laugh and in which you can cry, it's full of different and varied emotions so I don't mind [laughs] if people laugh or some end up with wet eyes. For me, as a filmmaker, it's an adventure to see this variety of reactions.

ICS – Well the International Cinephile Society will support the film, that's for sure! Thank you for talking to us, it was lovely to hear you speak about this great film.

BD – Thank you, really, it was such a pleasure. I was very happy about your review, because…it's not an easy film. Some people don't take their time to discover what's in it, some simply don't get it, or maybe some don't want to get it, I don't know. It's beautiful to read such words, or even what we had in Rome…for everyone, the actors and set designers and everybody who put so much effort to bring so many things on screen, it's very nice to see that some people picked up on it. It's gratifying, it makes you happy that your work was not for nothing!

ICS – Thank you again Bavo, maybe we'll talk about Souvenir next.

BD – Oh yes, I would love that! Thank you, bye!