Writer/Director Jaap van Heusden
What inspired you to come up with the idea for the film?
Screenwriter Jan Willem den Bok, who is also one of my oldest friends, was working on a short documentary in Brazil with a wolfpack of boys surviving on the streets. And later he made a short documentary with a similar group living in the heating basements in Kiev, Ukraine. The experience of getting into the groove of those boys’ lives, their rhythms, codes, rituals during research and then poooff flying back home to a much more solid and protected life. And back into it for shooting. And forth. And back. It was schizophrenic. Jan Willem introduced me to the scene in Kiev and I remember how for a week, we shared food and stories with boys and girls of a very tough group, that managed to stay clear of the police somehow. Then right after this, we had our taxi and our tickets out of there, and they could not follow. This experience was one of the seeds of the film.
Why did you want to tell this story?
From an early age on, I have been in awe of those immaculate blue flight attendants of our royal airline. They were always dressed in uniform and ready for takeoff from the moment they left the house. So quite often you would be riding a train together. And that romantic blue icon of unlimited access to the world still exerts its attraction on me. Now that I’m almost forty, the dream has in many ways become reality. With a few clicks we can purchase a tickets and much like those flight attendants we can travel anywhere we want. But the people I encounter on these travels have a big impact on me. The part of the blue dream that proved to be untrue, is the immaculacy of the traveler. If I have the courage to travel with my heart fully connected, by plane, or even through the stories in my newspaper, I would be touched and tainted and torn by the encounters. In the film Lin is a flight attendant, and a good one, a successful ‘director’ of her life. She’s full of energy and on top of things. And I admire her for that. She’s always on the move, just as the boy Nicu in his Bucharest underworld. Both of them seem to be running to stay ahead of themselves. And it’s only a violent collision that can bring them to standstill. Through this unlikely encounter with the other, an encounter that is by the way full of lies and opportunism, their shell is cracked for the first time. And it creates space for some version of mother care, trust and yes love. Under those very harsh circumstances, I find this quite hopeful.
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
There is always this ongoing flow between reality, script and actors. Back and forth. First the reality of my research. That ends up as scenes and people in the script. This is transferred to the emotional reality of the actors, who are most of the time my superiors in emotional knowledge. In this case we ended up shooting in Bucharest and the lives and stories of the young people living in heating tunnels informed a lot of what the film has become. So I started with getting to know these unknown worlds of the flight attendant and the boys in the tunnels. And this grew into a script. And then during casting and rehearsals the script was reshaped and changed by the actors. But I also introduced them to the boys of the wolfpack and some real air hostesses, so that their ‘role’ could also be shaped after the same sources as the script.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
We started writing and a bit of pre-production in Kiev. Then the civil war started. And flight MH17 was shot down. A national disaster here in the Netherlands. But our story was not about any of these two events. And we didn’t want to include them in the film. But we also didn’t want to make some sort of statement, by not telling a story about those events. So apart from insurance issues, we had to move the production to a different arena for story reasons. Through the moving stories of a friendly photographer, Jo Voets, we ended up in the tunnels of Bucharest and that world turned out to be even more crazy, but ironically also more cinematic.
What influenced the visual style of the film?
During the writing stage I was mostly inspired by the work of documentary photographers (e.g.: Jacob Aue Sobol, Joost Vandebrug and a series by Massimo Branca). With photographs and paintings I scraped from books and the web I created ever-changing ‘mood’ folders and booklets. Then when Melle van Essen (director of photography) came on board, we revisited my own field-work. We read the story. The scenes. We talked and travelled a lot. Visited locations. Those mood-documents were not so important anymore. Melle was already a very accomplished documentary cameraman when he started working on fiction fairly recently. He had thirty-five years of experience in the field. So there’s a big reservoir of people, faces, textures, places that he carries around with him. And I took him to the places of my research. And we had piles and piles of photography books, not just as inspiration but as a way to calibrate our language. Because you talk about frame and light and layers and texture, but it’s just words and you have to fathom what the other means before you start breaking down the script and shooting. As always in my work, the actual shoot had a huge influence on the way the film looks. Because most of the time it’s the movement of the actors and their glances or gazes that guide us when framing and lighting. It’s the locations we created or picked that guide us. And Melle is sensitive. Even under pressure he allows himself to look and see things anew and be guided. Melle is not just a D.P., he is a very talented camera operator. And he is well known for his ability to, in a way that looks quite natural, capture a scene in one camera movement. This approach influenced the film. For some parts of the film we ended up choosing a much rougher approach, but this feeling of a camera that is part of the choreography within the scene, is still present most of the time.
What risks did you take to tell your story?
Obviously you take some physical risks when you want to research the underworld. I remember a specific heating tunnel filled with addicted teenagers from the street, where there was this cracking sound under the soles of my shoes. And it turned out to be a layer of used syringes and needles from everybody who was injecting the self-make drug ‘krokodil’. My fixer had refused to come down this time because ‘the guys in this tunnel are just too crazy’ and later when I had climbed back up, she told me most of those guys were infected with HIV.
But I think the emotional risks are actually more dangerous. Maria Kraakman is one of the best actresses we have in our small country. Her main job is in theatre, but she allows herself to do a movie about every three years. It was hard to get her attached to the project. She did a very good first test, but after that she seemed hesitant to proceed. It turned out she had experienced very similar grief as Lin in the script. Her decision to come on board of this film was very brave. Her acting philosophy is that she has to be present all the time. To remain transparent. And to do this she really pored herself into the movie. And I think it shows. During the early showings here in the Netherlands, I was approached again and again after the film by people who told me Maria came so close it scared them a bit.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screen writing or film producing?
Dive into the story. In my case, the writing is never something that can be done just from behind my desk. I need to go out there. Make physical contact with the lives and surroundings of the people I write about. Sit through their silences. Eat up the awkwardness. Encounter their pain. Experience their rituals. Very often this is an uneasy, even unsafe process. If I haven’t reached a point during writing that makes me feel very uneasy, I know I’m not deep enough into the script yet.
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