Interview with Jaco Van Dormael by Paul Risker
Jaco Van Dormael’s comedy Brand New Testament serves up the suggestion that God has a flexible persona that can feed the revisionist imagination. It is one that draws on the ruthlessness of the original Old Testament God versus the compassion that imbues the New Testament, although with a few revisionist tweaks.
“God exists and he lives in Brussels, has a wife and a daughter and he seems to be a real guy” explains Dormael. But behind the comedy of the concept there is a satirical political edge that originally escaped the filmmakers attention.
An apartment in Brussels, the city that is the beating heart of the E.U is perhaps the perfect place for God to turn up. “Indeed, where he invents all these laws to annoy people [laughs]” mocks Dormael. “But It’s funny because it was something I didn’t realise when I was making it. The first time I showed it to friends from Portugal then of course God lives in Brussels where people make stupid laws just to make us poor.”
With this interview with Jaco Van Dormael we get a humorous yet honest insight as he offers his thoughts on the creative process that culminates in giving up ownership of the film. The filmmaker also looked back to his encounter with Tarkovsky’s cinema and the way in which perception remains an influential mystery.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Yeah probably! I don’t just make films one after the other, I always need to find another desire, and choosing to work on a film every three of four years is essentially crazy. But it’s a very mysterious process and even if I am prepared, professional and knowledgeable about the camera, lighting, editing, acting and scripting, and I know how to fix all the stuff, then there is still a moment where it’s beautiful and totally out of my control. And most of the time we all think: Wow that was beautiful, but nobody knows why. It’s like falling in love; it’s a moment when something happens and you don’t know why.
Is the fascination with the creative process whether it be film, art or music the fact that it is learning a language which will never fully reveal its secrets to us, but one which we can’t help but pursue?
I don’t know. I think what interests me most are the structures and in film the structure has more meaning than anything else. I try to make films that ask questions, but which do not give answers. And yet the structure is in fact an answer because it gives a sort of perception of what you can do with your life in very different ways. Here we are in a period of time where the film moves towards its end, which we wait for. We wait for tomorrow because we have a question, and so we wait for the answer – we wait for the next scene. This film is sort of episodic like Don Quixote because it’s of the moment and it’s happening now. So every shot has to have a smell or taste of something special because it is not about the next shot, it is about what’s happening now at this minute, and in that way the structure gives the perception. So there are only questions and no answers, but rather a kind of perception.
Is part of the reason you don’t like to offer answers that it creates more of an interaction between you and the audience?
It’s because I don’t have the answers [laughs] and I don’t believe in the answers. I can’t believe in an answer for ten minutes – what are we doing in this friendly experience of being alive that we all share? I don’t believe in any explanation, but it’s fun to be there and to question because we can give more and more and more. And it opens the mind instead of closing it, because when you have an answer it’s as if you put your thoughts in a little box and you say: Okay, this is what I think. But making films or theatre and writing books is trying to open the box to say: “Oh no”, because there are more things that are in the catalogue.
The charm of cinema perhaps lies in the communal experience whereby everyone can have a different reaction. But when you consider the experience of watching a film with a given structure, then this outcome contradicts the communal experience.
Yeah, it’s a strange experience pand especially for a filmmaker. I will see people who like my film and I will not know what it was they saw. And I will then see people who didn’t like it and I will not know what it was they saw either. I myself will never see my film because I know it from the beginning and so I will never see it for the first time. It’s strange because I try to feel what people see and feel or even think, but it is impossible.
I was at some of the first screenings and when I look at it again it is like when you listen to music. While you may know everything about a piece of music, it is always a little bit different although nothing changes. Perception is a strange experience and I encountered this seeing Tarkovsky fourteen times when I was twenty four. I was fascinated and after that I saw Stalker, which I have one shot from in this film here, referenced with the glass of milk. When I saw Stalker I was fascinated and after ten minutes I realised I had seen the film three years before, but I had left the theatre because I thought it was incomprehensible. There was nothing and it was uninteresting, and yet three years later it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And yet the film had not changed.
Do you look forward to that moment in which the film plays for an audience?
Sure, and that’s the great thing with festivals where most of the time people are real filmies and you can for instance feel things. Sometimes it is cruel and sometimes it is great, but it’s always a little bit unexpected. When nobody laughs it is unexpected and when everybody laughs it is unexpected. So at that moment it is their film – it’s not my film. It is often said that there are three moments in which you write the script, you shoot it and then you edit it. But I think the fourth rewrite is the most important – how the person who sees the film rewrites it in their memory and what they choose to take out, how they change the order, colours and characters as though it was their own film.
What was the genesis of Brand New Testament and how does the process of developing an idea occur for you personally?
At the beginning it is a little bit like planning things: God exists and he lives in Brussels, has a wife and a daughter and he seems to be a real guy. And after that it comes together with images and people. I wrote it together with a friend and this was the first time I actually wrote with someone. It was a lot of fun because even without a good idea at least we’d have a good afternoon, and that was the fantastic thing. When you are alone without a good idea, then it’s a really bad afternoon, and here at least we had a good afternoon together trying to make each other laugh. After that it’s living with ghosts and speaking with them, trying to know them at that moment before somebody comes along and makes the character flesh and bone. And it is a very moving moment when the actor becomes the character.
Do you ever encounter moments where an actor discovers something about the character that surprises you?
It is always better because I imagine faces that are a little out of focus. I dream the shots and when I write the script I describe shots and scenes. Then it is edited with sound, but the moment it is embodied there is much more detail, and everyone – not just actors – that brings something to the colour of that world makes it more complex and different. It is a complexity that no human can do alone. But the actors are fascinating because it is always better than what I felt because at the moment it is concrete, and it also brings the complexity of flesh and bone.
Big ideas such as God and religion have to be explored with an openness, but with the comedic and lighthearted approach you are taking, there will those that will be less than pleased.
The French philosopher Deleuze said that what cinema and religion have in common with one another is that both try to make us believe that life could have meaning. While I do not believe the answers I use mediums that make you believe that it goes somewhere, and how we can speak about the fact that if it doesn’t go somewhere, then it’s fun to be there with that medium. So that’s why in the end it is strange to use and to work in a medium that says the opposite. It gives you the feeling that it speaks to you about the strange experience to be alive, and not everything about all of this is meaningful. So no, personally I don’t think it means anything, but it’s great.
And religion is arguably a story that provides comfort within the otherwise vast uncertainty, and when you start thinking along those lines religion is obsessed with story and narrative.
Indeed yes, and it’s totally how to get out of the narrative. But it gives us strength and people that believe in God can be very strong. I had a brother who was a composer and believed in God, and every morning he would say: “God takes my hand and writes music.” I have to work [laughs]. I have to work and to wait… No one ever takes my hand… I have to take my pen myself. But it is two different ways of being happy and for him he hated not to have an answer, whereas I don’t like the answers.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which Brand New Testament has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward from a directorial or storytelling point of view?
The experience of making it with friends, now that was really an experience. But when I am making a film I don’t think of me as I am today, but rather I think to one and half years before at the moment when I was writing it, and that feeling I had. So it is finding the gusto of that previous time of who I was and not what of I am now. And sometimes in the now I wouldn’t have written it like that, but I nonetheless try to find the guy I was at the moment where the words came in that particular order.
Brand New Testament was released theatrically on Friday 15th April 2016 by Metrodome Distribution.
Interview with Jaco Van Dormael by Paul Risker