Films trade serious fare for commercial stories

PARIS — A few years ago, the idea of catching a Belgian film for sheer entertainment value would have seemed ridiculous to most foreigners. The Belgian film industry was renowned for its serious-minded documentaries and dour arthouse dramas. But a new generation of Belgian producers and directors, grown tired of making pics for specialized audiences, has begun to discover the joys of genre filmmaking.

For some like Jaco Van Dormael, the celebrated filmmaker responsible for “Toto the Hero” (1991) and “The Eighth Day” (1996), their new work has taken on epic proportions: Van Dormael recently finished shooting “Mr. Nobody,” an ambitious sci-fi story with a e37 million ($58 million) budget.

“It took six or seven years for me to write the script,” Van Dormael says. “I was searching for something magical, and it took me years to make all the complexities very simple to look at. I’m a very slow writer.”

A lot is riding on Van Dormael’s third feature, which easily ranks as the most expensive Belgian film ever made. Unlike other Belgian productions, Van Dormael’s film was shot in neither Flemish nor French — the country’s two dominant languages.

“The story came to me in English,” the director explains. “It’s a story set over very long distances and time frames. One of the strands of the plot is about a kid who must choose between living with his mother in Canada or his father in England. There are also some incredible English-speaking actors I wanted to work with.”

“Mr. Nobody’s” cosmopolitan cast includes Jared Leto playing nine different characters, including the world’s oldest living mortal, and actresses Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger and Linh Dan Pham. Despite the stars’ varied international appeal, the pic’s budget was raised before the cast was in place, solely on the strength of the script and the director’s name.

The pic’s French producer, Philippe Godeau, who also produced “The Eighth Day,” guaranteed half the budget through his production company Pan Europeene. The rest of the money was put up by Wild Bunch and Pathe. Wild Bunch, which is handling foreign sales, has already presold “Mr. Nobody” in Japan, with other territories under negotiation.

“Belgium is a country where the people speak a lot of different languages, so they often use images to communicate their ideas as opposed to dialogue,” Godeau says. “This means there are a lot of very interesting visual directors in Belgium.”

Belgium-based German-born director Sam Garbarski (“Irina Palm”) is currently prepping “Quartier lointain,” a $13.9 million adaptation of Jiro Taniguchi’s manga comic about a man who finds himself projected into the body of an adolescent.

“Quartier lointain,” which is being shot in French and is set in Paris in 1968, is being produced by Belgian company Entre Chien et Loup and is being set for a 2009 release. Entre Chien et Loup co-founder Diana Elbaum feels that French-speaking Belgian companies like hers are finally beginning to take creative control from France.

“Before the tax shelter was introduced (in 2003), we were very dependent on France as one of the biggest backers of Belgian films and on their creative or artistic decisions in terms of cast and everything else,” she says. “It’s still the case, but less now because we actually can come up with an amount of money which is relatively identical to the French. With Garbarski’s new film, we are going to bring close to 50% of the budget. That’s never happened before.”

Flemish-speaking director Erik van Looy made a name for himself with the genre pic “Memory of a Killer,” a psychological thriller about a hitman with Alzheimer’s disease, which was voted film of the year by Time magazine’s Richard Schickel in 2005. His latest, “Loft,” boasts an equally accessible premise.

“It’s about five married friends who share a loft where they take their mistresses,” van Looy explains. “One day, one of them enters the loft and there’s a dead girl tied to the bed. From that moment on, it’s a question of who did this and why. It’s sort of a mixture between ‘The Usual Suspects’ and ‘Bound.'”

The fact that van Looy references U.S. films as opposed to European ones tells its own story. “I’m more influenced by Coppola or Don Siegel than I am by Pedro Almodovar or Wim Wenders,” he says. And the love affair works both ways. Several recent Belgian films, including “Memory of a Killer,” “Science Fiction” and Oscar nominee “Everybody Famous,” have had their remake rights picked up by U.S. production companies.

And though van Looy was courted by Hollywood after “Memory” sold a million tickets in Belgium, he opted to make his next film at home. “Loft,” which opens in Belgium this fall, marks the first film project from Flemish Belgian TV production company Woestijnvis, which created the successful reality show “The Mole,” a hit in the U.S. after it was sold to ABC. The producers are counting on the popular-leaning story to help deliver on the pic’s $5 million budget.

“Moviemaking is a beautiful business, but it’s also very tough work,” van Looy says. “I don’t want to make a film which will only be seen by five people in a very small theater.”

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