Belgian helmer protects independence at all cost
This is an edited extract from the Variety Cinema Militans Lecture, which took place at the Holland Film Meeting on Sept. 30. Variety journalist Katja Hofmann spoke to Belgian helmer Marion Hansel about her career and her views on cinema.
Hofmann: Marion Hansel is one of the most daring voices in European cinema and one of the few female directors to have developed a strong and idiosyncratic cinematic signature. Her latest film, “The Sounds of Sand,” screened at the San Sebastian Intl. Film Festival earlier this month.
What I want to do is look at her motivation, attitude and experiences.
Marion, how did you get started as a filmmaker?
Hansel: I started as an actress. I went to acting school, but not for very long though. Then I started doing theater, mainly in Belgium. But I always wanted to work in film, which was difficult at the time because so few feature films were being made in the country. You had Andre Delvaux, but apart from his films there were few opportunities.
So I thought I had to move to learn more, so I went to New York. I got the opportunity to be an observer at the Actor’s Studio. It was the time of Lee Strasberg.
I tried to get parts in films in New York but this was very difficult. I had a French accent, which they told me was cute, but I had no Green Card and I wasn’t supposed to be there. So I didn’t act in the States but I learned a lot.
The training I received at the Actor’s Studio didn’t teach me that much about acting but it did teach me something I would use later.
I was young, 22 years old. The Method is quite tough and I was alone in New York, but I have always had a survival instinct. I realized that some of the exercises that the actors were doing could be dangerous for me, mentally and psychologically. They could throw me off balance.
So I talked to Lee Strasberg and told him: “I feel psychologically in danger when I do all those improvisations and exercises and going into memory. Is it O.K. if I don’t do some of them?’ And he said: “Yes, that is no problem. Whenever you feel that you are entering something dangerous for you, just back out of the circle.”
So most of the time I was out of the circle but observing the ones in the circle. And I think that taught me a lot about how to approach and talk to actors. How to help an actor. Just by giving him one word to bring alive an emotion or a memory. But it’s simple. You don’t need a lot of talking.
But I didn’t know at that time that I would ever become a director, so I just thought: “Oh my god, I am spending all my time outside of the circle.” And I am somebody who is not really there. And then 10 years later it turned out that it helped me a lot.
Hofmann: You were actually pushed into becoming a director. It wasn’t of your own free will, was it?
Hansel: In a way, yes, I was pushed into it. I did not know that I wanted to become a director and I never imagined that I could have the ability to do that. So I was still an actress and it was annoying that when I was acting in the theater or in television series or small films the directors used to tell me all the time: “Don’t you want to write something? Don’t you want to be an assistant director?”
So I was worried and thought: “Probably I am such a bad actress they are trying to get me out of the way.”
They told me the same in France, America and Belgium. They all told me: “Why don’t you write?”
So one day I had been unemployed for a while and I decided: “If everyone says I should write something I am going to write. And the only thing I thought of writing was a short film without dialogue. So there wasn’t much writing involved. And then having done that, I had to get the money and I thought about how I could sell that strange story, which was based on a child I had observed and talked a lot with and who was training at the circus school with me.
I was a tightrope walker, training at a circus school in Paris. And the child was also training on the rope, next to me. And she was 11 years at the time, very peculiar, a little woman, and I decided to make a poetic essay on that child.
I decided that the only way to do it was to take photographs of the story with the child and send it to the film commissioners in Belgium.
I thought since I am Belgian it might be easier. I think it was the first time they had got a dossier that was purely visual and not written.
So they thought: “Well this is something we haven’t got yet.” And they gave me the money to do it. I tried to find a producer but I could not find a producer for this non-talking film. I drew up a budget but I didn’t even know what type of film to use. So I asked the commissioners and they said: “You can’t do it on 16mm with that amount of money.” But I wanted to do it on 35mm so I had to find more money.
I am not afraid of working hard but I am afraid of failure. So I work hard to try and avoid failure. So I drew the storyboard and I was very proud of myself. And I showed it to a friend who was director and he looked at the storyboard and said: “Very interesting. Have you ever been to the cinema? What shape was the screen? The screen is like this.” (She indicates horizontal rectan-gle.) And then he said: “Have you seen what you have drawn?” My screen was like this. (She indicates an upright rectangle.) Because it was a film about a tightrope walker so for me it was logical that I needed the height of the screen. He said: “It will be a little bit difficult for you to change all the projectors and all the screens.”
This was the first time that I realized there were rules. I was not going to change that. I would have to adapt, to give the impression of height. Then I decided: “Okay let’s do the film in the normal way.” I shot the film and I don’t know if you get the impression of height or not.
Hofmann: Did your tightrope training teach you anything that has helped you with your filmmaking?
Hansel: Maybe not for filmmaking but it gave me a sense of inner balance and a sense of risk and how to calculate the risk. Because when you fall, you fall. You cannot cheat. It taught me not to cheat. Because when you walk a tightrope it is impossible to cheat. Either you do it right and you stay on the rope or you do it wrong and you fall. That is maybe the best lesson I learned in my whole life.
Hofmann: Having trained as an actress, especially a Method actress. How has that informed your work with actors? I hear that when actors work with you for the first time, they are often confused and disconcerted. How do you explain that? What is the process?
Hansel: I was an actress so long ago that the actors I work with don’t know that I have that background. I storyboard the films in great detail. I draw every single shot, which means two months before the shoot I know exactly where the camera will go, the position of the camera, the lens, the movement of the actor from here to there.
When I prepare a film I am playing all the parts and it looks a bit crazy. For instance, in my last film there is someone moving and dancing oddly and then you think: “What is wrong with this woman? What is she doing there?”
When that homework is done I feel safe, but the actor feels trapped because he has to go from there to there. And he says: “But I would love to play this scene sitting down.” And I have imagined him walking. So I tell him to do it my way and in the beginning they think they don’t have any liberty at all, that they are trapped, but after a few days they realize that they are not trapped because any emotion or what they bring from their inside, there they will have total freedom. And very soon, after two or three days, none of the actors seem to be bothered by this non-improvisation.
A lot of directors leave the actors to improvise and propose things, but, after a while, my actors will say: “This is easier because you know everything and we just have to fill it with real emotion. What has to come from inside. I don’t dare to use another method. Maybe one day… I don’t know.
Hofmann: Is this still possible to do even if you are filming in extreme circumstances? Do you still insist that what you planned will be carried out?
Hansel: Yes. I thought with this film it was not going to work because I didn’t know what the camera was going to do, I don’t know what the goats are going to do or what the children are going to do. But I still draw it the way I dreamed it and it did work because the camera did do what I wanted.
Hofmann: Do you rehearse a lot? Or do you tend to do it on the spot?
Hansel: I talk with the actors once I decide which actors are going to play the parts, but I don’t rehearse. I talk and we read the script together and we talk in depth about each scene. What is the level of emotion? What is the level of containment? Where does it have to be slow or fast? What is your connection to the other actors. That we really talk in depth about. And if they have any doubts or questions, or there are any scene they don’t understand or don’t like or don’t think they can do, then we can either rewrite it or discuss it or change it even. That is before, and I never put the actors together. It is one by one. They don’t meet, apart from maybe “Hello,” but not before rehearsing. Well, they can rehearse all they want in their rooms. Then once we start shooting we rehearse the scene on the set, once, twice, maybe five times before we shoot. And then when we shoot, it is very few takes. I love one take. My d.p. hates it. And the insurance doesn’t like it either. So for this film I shot every scene twice because it was very dangerous for the lab. It was far away and we wouldn’t see our rushes for 10 days. And with the sand and the wind it was danger-ous. But I tend to do very few takes.
Hofmann: You produce your films through your own company, Man’s Film. Why did you decide to produce your own films?
Hansel: After I wrote this short film I tried to find a producer and I met two or three in Belgium but nobody seemed interested in making this film. So I decided: “Maybe it is not that difficult to do it myself.”
I started my own very small company. Once I had taken this step, I started writing the second and third films, and I tried to get a producer because I thought it would be too difficult to find the money myself. But the same thing happened. Nobody wanted to produce them. So I said: “I have to go on producing myself.” My first feature film was called “Le Lit” (The Bed) and it took four years to get the money together and it was a very cheap film. And then for the third one it seemed logical that I would go on and I had started coproducing other directors’ films and it became an established production company.
Hofmann: A lot of the time, a producer is concerned about admissions, profitability and so on. How do you manage to wear the producer’s hat and the director’s hat at the same time?
Hansel: For me, it’s not very difficult. I can switch off the creative, although I think a producer has to be very creative as well, but I can switch from directing to producing to writing very easily. But I have a trick. My office is in the house downstairs and my home is upstairs. So whenever I am busy with producing I am in the office downstairs and when I go into creative matters I go upstairs. So it is very simple.
And it has its advantages because I choose exactly what I want to do and how I want do it and there is no producer who can tell me: “No, don’t shoot in Djibouti. It’s ridiculous, it’s expensive, it’s dangerous and Morocco or Indonesia is 10 times better and easier!” Which is true but I think the film, even though more expensive, will have another flavor, another harshness. The people are different in Djibouti than in Morocco. So it is a decision I, as a producer, can make. Financially it may be an insane decision, but artistically it might be a sane decision. I like that. But on the other hand, sometimes I would love to have a producer next to me. Because I believe that if I found one that would fit me in the way my All Stars sneakers do, I could go further. Maybe he or she would tell me: “We don’t have the money for this helicopter scene but we need this helicopter scene so go ahead and shoot it and I will find the money.” Those kind of things that I cannot do.
When I am directing I can’t find more money. My time then is used for something quite different. Sometimes in some of my films it would have been good to go a little bit further and spend a little bit more. So I miss it and I don’t miss it.
Hofmann: And you can never blame the producer. You always have the responsibility for the entire film.
Hansel: Yes, but at the same time, if it works out, I am very happy to say: “We did it!”
Hofmann: You talked to me earlier about profitability and breaking even. Maybe you can repeat what we discussed. Your main aim is to break even and not lose money.
Hansel: How do I choose my projects? With a producer’s mind, do I think: “Is it going to make money? How much money are we going to make with this film?” No, I never ask those questions. When I choose a book, because most of the time I make literary adaptations, I usually I choose a subject that is not commercial. I always think “Can we finance it and make it in a way that nobody loses money?” That is absolutely fine for me and I hope for my partners too. I would never be able to choose a subject because I think: “With that one I will make a lot of money.” That is wrong because you never know. A lot of times it doesn’t work out.
Hofmann: Given that you often choose projects that are not overtly commercial, you have survived for a very long time. You are still making films regularly. Maybe you can explain how you manage to do that? A lot of European producers last for two or three films and then disappear.
Hansel: Maybe it is because I don’t want to make money that I am still alive. I don’t know. I choose subjects that are not in the middle of the road. Most of the time they are rather extreme because either they are very minimalist or they are very engaged. Or something people don’t talk about, like my first film about an dying guy, agonizingly dying for a whole film and he only speaks about the process of dying. That is not very commercial, especially 30 years ago. But when you try to make things that are true to you and that you believe are the only story that you want to tell and the only thing you want to talk about to an audience at that moment in your life. Or what you are able to express. I think if you do that, then it will reach some kind of audience, even if it might be a small audience. And you might say that I have a niche audience. I have the impression that the audiences who have seen my films, and I don’t know how many they are, they will, if they like the first film, they will come back for the second and the third and so on. Because they will recognize something that touches them. And I believe that is why I keep finding, even though it is difficult, enough money to make the next film and often with the same coproducers, funding bodies and sponsorship. I have a network now. Belgium has never let me down, the Flemish- as well as the French-speaking commissions have been behind me and my work for 30 years, so I have been able to do what I have done.
Hofmann: But you never work with banks?
Hansel: No, they cost too much. Producers should try to make films that are not too expensive. I speak for myself because I know what my budget level is going to be. My first film was very cheap; less than Euros 1.5 million ($1.9 million). The most expensive one is my latest film which was Euros 3.7 million ($4.6 million). That is the maximum I can raise. It would be dangerous and it would take me too much effort to try and make films that cost more than four million.
Hofmann: And once you start talking to banks things tend to get complicated.
Hansel: Yes. I think young people who enter film production have to realize that now you really need to be bank minded. You need to know about accounting, and loans, cash flow, and all those kind of things we didn’t need to know 20 years ago. It was very easy then. And now you have tax shelters and Soficas and all that stuff I don’t understand. I can do it because I have very honest partners. It is important to have a film fully financed before you start shooting. Well, I have no choice as I cannot find money while I am shooting so it is important I have the money already there. If possible you need to have the unforeseen financed. Which was not the case for the last film. What saved my company is that I have never spent the money for the unforeseen. From one film to the other I use the money from the one film to cash flow the beginning of the second one and so on. But I have always been lucky not to have a tornado one my set, or an actor get sick or get a terrible car accident or things like that.
Hofmann: And you said you always keep shares?
Hansel: Yes. It is very important for young directors as well. Get as much money as you can from subsidies, European funding, all kinds of different sources of financing, but as little as possible from those tax shelter and Soficas that take a big slice of the equity from the producer. Because if the film is a success and the producer has only 10% left of the film that is not enough to start another film. So Man’s Film always keeps more than 50% of the equity.
Hofmann: With European coproductions in particular, everyone tends to sit on the fence and won’t commit to the project. How do you get those European coproductions off the ground?
Hansel: I try to have as few coproducers as possible. The best thing is to coproduce with two or three partners. If you start getting four or five it gets complicated and the fees for all those producers will be expensive. I try to be very well organized and work out exactly how much I’ll need to spend. That way I can submit my accounts at the start of principal photography and then after two weeks of shooting I’ll get some money from your partners. Most producers are so focused on making the film that they don’t have the time to do the accounts and so then they submit the accounts three weeks late and then they lose three weeks and the money comes late. And then they have to pay a lot of interest to the bank. So I the manage the cash flow very carefully and keep the money instead of giving it to the bank, and put it in the film.
Hofmann: You also coproduce films like “No Man’s Land” and “25 Degrees in Winter.” When do you decide to enter a production as a coproducer? What does the project need to have?
Hansel: It has to have a script that I believe has absolutely to be made. It doesn’t matter which genre, and most of the time I like to coproduce a film I would never be able to make myself. Like a comedy or a war film like “No Man’s Land.” I would never be able to direct a film like that. So those films are going to teach me to tell a story in a way that I am not used to. So I have to be absolutely convinced that I love the story so much that I want to see it on screen. Of course, I have to be sure of the talent of the director. If it is a debut I will look at their short films. And I have to have total confidence, or even more: I have to like the producing partner who proposes it to me. I don’t like fighting, especially with directors, so I have to be sure that we will have a smooth voyage together. If I feel that we won’t enjoy ourselves, then I will pass.
Hofmann: What’s your involvement in the creative process? How much should a producer get involved in the creative process?
Hansel: It is difficult to say. When I coproduce as a minority partner I rely a lot on the decisions the majority producer takes and I am open to what he wants me to do. If he or the director wants my advice I will give it. Or if they want me to come to the editing booth I will do it. But as a minority partner I will never impose or ask to see a rough cut because I trust my partners are doing their jobs. When I am involved as a majority producer then I know that the director is going to ask me to be creatively present. I seldom go on set because being myself a director I think it is not nice for the director to have another director standing there in the back. Unless they ask me to. But then I try to be present in the editing process. I also ask my partners what they think when I am the director because I really need their presence in the editing because I don’t have a distance to my own work. I am too much in it. So then it is very important that they become like brothers and they dare tell me: “It is too long or too short? Do this, do that.” It is important to know their taste. What kind of films a producer likes and works on shows me if we can work together.
Hofmann: What is your taste? What kind of material do you gravitate toward? Is there a common thread running through all your work? And has it changed over the years?
Hansel: As I said before I mostly adapt books. I love the process of adaptation. I never know when I finish one film what the next one will be — like now. Then I start reading. I can read hundreds of books. Searching for something I don’t know. I don’t know what I am searching for but I do know that I need what we would call “real literature” — great authors, because I need the language, I need musicality, I need style, a touch of a real author. If not then I am totally unable to adapt. Because if a book is not well written, by real authors, I am not able to finish the book. Even if the story is just a story but the language is not used well. So the story doesn’t matter that much, it’s something else. It is really a musicality that has to move me and then suddenly I realize I can transform it with my writing, my images, my camera. And I can make another work out of this work. I have to admire it to be able to adapt it.
Hofmann: But the adaptation has to stand on its own feet. On the one hand you try to recreate the style and the musicality but on the other hand you try to make something else out of it.
Hansel: I try to be true to what the author of the book was trying to say to the reader. Because if I have been moved by what I read then I have to be true to what he was trying to say. But the way I am going to tell it, there I have to distance myself. Because it is not a transcription of the book but an adaptation. And there I feel quite free to change the chronology or let a protagonist disappear or appear in a way that didn’t exist in the book. I am not scared of making changes if needed.
Hofmann: And what about original stories? A lot of young filmmakers have their own ideas and thoughts. But you said that you advice them not to do that. To go for an adaptation.
Hansel: I think young directors and authors have to be aware that there are millions of books just waiting to be adapted. It is not more creative to write an original story compared with doing an adaptation. I never felt I was less creative than somebody else. I have written an original screenplay twice. It gave me joy but it was also more difficult for me. But there are no rules. Especially in Belgian and French cinema, the directors tend to think they have to write something. In the American film or the British they know that a good adaptation can make a good film. And it’s not expensive because you don’t have to get the latest bestsellers. There are so many books you can get for so little money.
Hofmann: You have gone to some very exotic locations in your films, including “Sounds of Sand.” Unlike people such as Mi-chael Haneke who stay within a milieu close to hand, you go all over the world: Hong Kong, South Africa… What do you choose to do that?
Hansel: Yes, I know what you mean. When I go to see the commissioners in Belgium, they ask me: “Where are you taking your next holiday?” It has become a joke whenever I come along with my new project. But it is also a result of the reading process because I try to read books from all over the world. I try to discover literature that I don’t know. So I come across writers who set their stories in South Africa or Hong Kong. I never think: “I am not going to read a Japanese writer because I don’t know anything about Japanese culture so I am not going to be able to adapt a Japanese book. I haven’t done it yet but I’d love to do it because I love Japanese literature. But my next film could be set in Brussels. I don’t know.
Hofmann: Aren’t you afraid of getting some of the culture wrong? Isn’t that something that scares you when you go to a foreign location? How much research do you do to get it right?
Hansel: It does not scare me because I never try. This film we just made was written by a French author (Marc Durin-Valois). It is about the problem of a village with no water and we follow a family of three going through the desert, trying to survive. So we are doing something very close to what is happening to people all over the world like in Darfur or Chad. I have been to Africa and I know a little bit about African people even though I had never been to Djibouti, which is another Africa. But I never thought I have to copy African films and do it like African filmmakers would. On the contrary: it is my European view of Africa. So it is going to be different. The same thing when I shot in Hong Kong because what do I know about Chinese culture? Practically nothing. But then it was a story about a Greek Irish sailor who arrives in Hong Kong and it is his eyes looking at Hong Kong. So I never really censor myself by thinking: “How dare you speak about something you don’t know anything about?” Well, that’s it I don’t know anything about it but I a going to speak about it. And in my own way. And of course people and critics can reproach me and say: “You didn’t really enter into this culture.” But then it would be a different film.
Hofmann: What grabbed you in the book “The Sounds of Sand”? What was the kind of film you wanted to make?
Hansel: I wanted to make a film in a very broad landscape, very close to nature. I was hoping to find a story I could shoot in the desert. I do like deserts and I love them more and more, but my next film I would like to do on the sea. So I was reading several books about deserts and I came across “Chamelle,” which is the original title of “Sounds of Sand.”
What I love about it is that it was very sharp writing, very little dialogue, and speaking of the most important issue of the coming years: shortage of water, not only in Africa but in the whole world.
I am very concerned and engaged with all ecological problems in the world, and what will happen if we don’t change, and to change what we still can change. So I got the book and it seemed that it was written for me and I felt it had to be done very quickly. And then I was lucky enough that the author was convinced that I was the right person to do it because there were other producers trying to buy the rights to the book. But there was never a moment of doubt that I had to do this film.
Hofmann: Filming in Djibouti must have been quite an experience. There is no cinema in Djibouti, no infrastructure. How did this happened? You arrived with a lot of trucks and containers?
Hansel: Even though the subject is very close to reality and could have been shot as a documentary I absolutely did not want to make something like a docu-drama were the audience do not know if it is real or not. So I wanted to make very clear: this is a feature film with professional actors, 35mm, camera movements, cranes, trucks, etc. So that needed to be brought by boat, in containers. That’s why the film is so expensive. It was difficult because in Djibouti they had no idea what a film is or a film crew. They did not understand what we were going to do and then they understood wrongly what we were going to do. And of course it is shocking for people who have nothing and are struggling to survive to see trucks and cranes and people and they don’t realize why they don’t get the money even though we were spending a lot of money on them because we were working with them and using hundreds and hundreds of them to be in the crew. But it was difficult to be there.
Hofmann: How long did you spend there?
Hansel: Shooting took three months and preparations two months. So more or less five months.
Hofmann: What would be your advice to others who are going to work in similar conditions? What is the main experience you took from there?
Hansel: I don’t think it was more extreme than my other films because we shot in winter so it was not that hot. But when I look at television, at documentaries on people, when I see what we call normal people working in Alaska or fishermen or mineworkers in any country, when I see the conditions in which millions of normal people do their everyday work and I see a film crew and people say: “Oh, it must be terrible,” it seems 10 times less terrible than what I see of those other people. If I see the day to day life of most people, what we do is simple.
Hofmann: So you see everything in relation. Which is what most people working in film tend to forget: that there is a life outside of film.
Hansel: I try to remember that we are privileged doing work that I love. I mean, when I am shooting I am totally happy. There are things going on around and behind me, sometimes in Djibouti it was quiet dramatic, with stones and sticks.
We needed the army and police because there was such tremendous aggression but I didn’t see anything. I just said: “We are shooting, nothing is going to happened. The stones are not going to fall on our head.” And they didn’t. If you stay calm and keep shooting, everybody stays calm. I can do that because when I shoot I am so happy I cannot accept that anything or anyone would destroy this joy and probably it works on the other people around.
Hofmann: What do you enjoy most: producing or directing?
Hansel: Of course I prefer directing. But the producing process is a fight. I never have the impression that the shooting is a fight. I can’t stand “No,” so when a television station or a partner says “No” it gives me three times more energy because then I have to find another way and I keep coming back until they say “Yes.” It really works. And when you achieve it at the end and you have the budget together, as a producer there is the joy of saying: “We are going to make this film together.” Each time I think it will be a miracle that we will put the money together and then it happens.
Hofmann: Are you specifically looking for a hard task? Do you want to prove that it is do-able?
Hansel: Probably, there is something like that. They say don’t work with children or animals and don’t film at sea. But I have worked with them and I would love to do a film completely at sea. And everybody says that is very difficult. So why do I want to do that? I don’t know. Probably I want challenges. I want to see if I can go one step further because that is fun.
Hofmann: That political, ecological motivated direction in “Sounds of Sand,” do you see yourself making more films in that vein?
Hansel: I hope so. I hope that this film will be shown and used by Unesco and such to help people change their mentality toward water. If it could help then that is the reason I made the film. So I hope I find the next subject and another subject that could also be useful or help solve this problem, for the younger people, because I won’t be there around 20 or 30 years. I think it is important to make these films. Even if it is only a drop in the ocean, it helps. At least I am trying to help.
Hofmann: Only 7% of directors are female and your company is called Man’s Film. Can you tell us why it is called that? And what is your experience as a female director?
Hansel: I was astonished when you told me that it is 7%. I thought it was 20% or so. I always have a bit of a difficulty talking about being a female director because I don’t have the impression that I am a female director. I mean when I started I came from a family of six children: five sisters and one brother. A family with a matriarch. A very strong mother who had studied philosophy and her mother studied before her so we were raised with no difference between a girl and a boy. So I have never felt there was a difference in my approach to a film, the crew, the actors to a male director. But I know for most women, especially in other countries like those in Africa, there is a terrible difference. But not to me so it is difficult to talk about it. When I started I felt I didn’t want to make female films. I didn’t want to limit myself to talk about female stories, issues, problems. I started in 1977 when the women’s lib movement was very strong. I wanted to make films, not women’s films: any film! I want to speak about men, women, child, any age. Why? As woman do I have to talk like a woman and fight for women? I might but I don’t have to. In some of my films I tend to tackle or speak more about women’s fights or problems and in other films less so. But that is just the great freedom of being a director and not a woman-director.
Hofmann: You called your company Man’s Film because you didn’t want to make women’s films?
Hansel: Exactly, ha, ha!
Hofmann: What is the best and worst thing about filmmaking?
Hansel: The best is that it enables the director to tackle, use and work with so many forms of art. Starting in my case with literature but of course filming is working with actors so it is comedy, it’s theatre, it is communicating with actors, it is music, for me it is also close to painting. My camera tends to work as a painter, with a frame and with the use of colors. I wanted to be a painter so that is very important in my way of making films. That’s what I like. That it allows me to work with all these different arts together and make a different art. That is what I like.
Hofmann: What would you like to change? We are talking about the future of cinema.
Hansel: I would like people to be more courageous: the distributors, the TV buyers, the exhibitors. I would like the audience to be able to decide what they want to see but in order to do that they need to see what is out there. I think one of the problems of cinema today, the auteur cinema, is that most films do not reach an audience anymore. So how can we know if the audience would like or would be moved by such or such film if the distributors decide or the television stations decides that this is too this, not commercial enough or too sad, and the audience is not allowed to see it? I would like that to change.
Hofmann: Possibly via a different medium? Film festivals have become more important.
Hansel: Film festivals have always been important to try to get an audience to see different things. But I hope film festivals will stay film festivals. That they are going to show different and difficult films and not show the films that are going to be shown anyway.
(Katja Hofmann asks for questions from the audience.)
After all these years hasn’t your fear of failure lessened?
Hansel: No. With my latest film I worked with a new composer. The process of trying to find the right music and instruments succeeded because I had worked on it first. I listened to many records and gave them to him. Not to influence him but to put him on the right track and work with him: “More this, less that.” With a draft it is the same; the first one is never okay, there is always a second, a third. You might have geniuses who can do it with one draft but for me it is always work and I am scared. I guess everyone is scared of something. To be alive is scary.
How did you work with the locals in Djibouti?
Hansel: I storyboarded for six weeks, during which time I observed details: how they milk a cow, speak to each other, put their feet down. I observed all the time and tried to understand and copy it. Then the African actors arrived. The lead was from Burkina Faso but the character was from Rwanda so had never been there. So they talked and ate with the people there. So they were a great help. They had to be as close as possible to the way of walking and learning how to handle a camel. It is not rehearsing but training and it is very important.
Who do you show your first rough cut to?
Hansel: I show it to my coproducers. For the second rough cut I ask colleagues, other directors I know and whose work I like and I know to be tough, like Jaco van Dormael, who made “The Eighth Day.” He never gives compliments. Most of the time he just says: “Shame.” Before I always asked Henri Colpi, a great editor. It is important that they have a critical eye and know what it is like from their own films. In France, when I tell them I have other directors look at my work, they say that is impossible! I have never done test screenings. Maybe it is very efficient, maybe I will try someday.
Do you always use the same crew?
Hansel: Nearly always. The director of photography did six of my nine films. I always have the same sound guy. The make up and costume is done by two Dutch guys that have been with me from the beginning, 25 years ago. The composer changes: two films with one, two films with another. It depends on the music. I don’t think one can compose everything. I like to work with the same people.
Does the director of photography have an influence on your storyboarding?
Hansel: It depends on the d.p. I mainly work with the same one and it is a close relationship. I storyboard and when I am finished we look at it together on the spot. Sometimes he comments: “We should link those two shots.” Or: “Should we stand behind the tree? Why not stand in front of it?” We talk a lot. Most times he agrees: he knows how I work and when we shoot he is my eyes. It is incredible! It is a little annoying for others because we see the same things so strongly there is little space for anyone else. After the shoot, with grading and colors he is very present. I made two or three films with the Frenchman Bernard Lutic. Unfortunately he died in a plane crash. He looked at my storyboard and said: “Your first assistant did a great job!” He thought the first assistant had done it. Not that he was not concerned but he relied on me. He was present but in another way. He only did the light and Walther van den Ende does the camera and the lighting. That is why we work so closely. I like a d.p. who does the lighting.
Can you imagine making a film by yourself?
Hansel: No. The camera would break in two minutes. Even the small Sony thing I have for locations. It would be handy but I am a very bad technician. I would have to train first. I can hardly use a computer. I can just about read my emails. And I love the creative process, working with other people, the sound guy, the grip, the gaffer… It is so great to have a crew around you — but it is expensive…