The Bullhead director was the subject of the annual Binger-Screen International interview in Utrecht.
Michael R Roskam made his feature directorial debut with Bullhead. The drama, set in the world of Belgian animal hormone traffickers, was nominated for an Oscar last year and launched the international career of lead actor Matthias Schoenarts. Roskam is now preparing several new projects, including HBO pilot Buda Bridge, The Tiger with Brad Pitt’s Plan B, and another European film, The Faithful (more on projects here).
The Brussels-based Roskam took a break from writing last week to take part in the annual Binger-Screen International interview at the Netherlands Film Festival/Holland Film Meeting in Utrecht. Below are selected excerpts from the conversation.
So you made a short, One Thing To Do, in 2005 that starred Matthias, and you knew then he’d be the lead in Bullhead?
In 2005 I had my very first version of Bullhead on paper, which was good enough…it was terrible actually [laughs] but it was a good step in the right direction. Then I wanted to make a new short, and that’s when I met Matthias Schoenarts. And I knew when I met him that he was going to be the lead in Bullhead. He was there involved from the beginning.
He’s not a big guy in the short, so how did you look at him and say, ‘He is going to be Jacky’?
Because in the story I wanted a Jacky to be a construction of meat. Not someone who is born that way but someone who transformed himself. I was convinced he was the man for the role. He had the discipline and everything. It was everywhere in him, I knew this guy was going to do it. It helped me a lot because I could write and develop the character with him in my mind.
The world of animal hormone trafficking is a strange one. Was it hard to pitch this?
Pitching is really hard. The irony is that you have your perfect pitch the day your movie is done. And all the way your pitch is a work in progress. The better you pitch, the better your script is. It’s a barometer of the quality of your script.
Your producer Bart van Langendonck also worked on your shorts?
We became friends. Something I like to say if it’s a producer you’re going to work with, is that you have to imagine that if somewhere somehow there is only one hotel room left, and you have to share it together, that you can do it. If you are looking at a guy and saying there’s no way I can share a hotel room with him, that’s the wrong producer. Maybe in a big bed, but if you can handle that, then you have a good relationship and a good basis to go on a whole journey of moviemaking.
Watching Bullhead, I’m reminded of filmmakers like Scorsese — and not just Raging Bull — and Michael Mann. Who do you consider your influences?
Scorsese and Michael Mann, I cannot deny that. From the beginning I’ve always been intrigued by American movies. I watched movies on Saturday and Wednesday afternoons when I was a kid. Cowboys and gangsters, mostly.
With Michael Mann, I’ve seen Heat so many times. I think if they lose the master tape I can re-edit it. For me, it’s perfect. Michael Mann is just an incredible composer. Sometimes some people don’t like that, that he’s too composed, but I love his voice.
What about Shakespeare, a lot of people have noted that Bullhead is an almost Shakespearian tragedy and you also have the comic relief of the mechanics.
In the whole process of writing the story, and watching a lot of movies, it’s a very personal distinction that I make between drama and tragedy. For me tragedy is a story that is told where the storyteller already knows how the story is going to end. The best example of that is Sunset Boulevard, the main character says I’m dead, I’m lying there in the swimming pool, and here’s the story of what happens.
I love drama as well but drama is a different approach. Drama has to feel like even the storyteller doesn’t know how it’s going to end. that’s my personal distinction between the two forms of storytelling. Shakespeare is tragedy because you feel that he knows as a storyteller how it was going to end.
I love drama too I hope one day to make a movie that will be drama. For now I love tragedy because it has this little bit of irony, you can reflect while you are telling your story. And that’s where humor finds its place, which is much harder than drama.
What was your experience of the Oscar nomination?
It gives you so many opportunities. It has opened my career to go in a direction that I could never have imagined.
It was an honour to be there. It was quite unreal, but great…It’s tradition that every foreign feature film has a kind of godfather or godmother, that will present you with your cerfiticate [Michael Mann presented his]. I enjoyed that the most, more than the Oscars itself. Michael Mann who was one of my heroes. Career-wise that was the most beautiful moment.
You’re now writing an HBO pilot, Buda Bridge. Does episodic drama appeal to you and will you work across film and TV?
I think the real event was The Sopranos. We have had a couple of great serial dramas — including Lars Von Treir’s The Kingdom. At the end, what’s the difference if your vision is achieved? It’s about format - is it a short story or a 10-hour story told over 10 episodes? It’s storytelling in a much larger time frame.