If Hollywood loves underdog stories, it should be dangerously obsessed with Bullhead. Released by a domestic distributor with three films under its belt, the Belgian crime film came seemingly out of nowhere to secure a Best Foreign Film nomination at the 2012 Academy Awards – and by all accounts, it has a pretty good shot to win. Remarkably, it’s writer-director Michael Roskam’s first feature film, but it shows all of the poise and sophistication of filmmakers with years of experience, and yet it tells a story that’s vital and provocative precisely because of the filmmaker’s youthful hunger: a young man named Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) survives a childhood trauma to become a member of the “hormone mafia,” a group of people injecting animals with drugs to literally beef up slaughterhouses, only figures from his past threaten to destroy his modest empire when they unexpectedly return.
On the eve of this year’s Oscar ceremony, and as Bullhead slowly expands into theaters across the country via distributor Drafthouse Pictures, Movies caught up with Roskam via telephone to talk about his development of the film. In addition to discussing his creative process, he talked about the film’s philosophical and thematic underpinnings, and offered a few insights on how he wants to proceed after this film finishes its theatrical run.
Movies.com: Just to get started, talk about where you got the idea for this because it is such a sort of unique take on a familiar genre.
Michael Roskam: The idea started kind of when I decided to make a movie, a feature film that I knew that it had to be something like a film noir or a neo-noir movie, and if it’s a film noir, you need two things, a good crime scene and a good tragedy. The crime scene was kind of there when I found out about this hormone mob in my own country, so when I decided to make this kind of movie and I knew, okay, this crime scene is real because it’s like this thing in Belgium. It’s there, so why not use it? That’s one point, and then there was the point that I wanted to make a tragedy because I wasn’t really my intention to make a movie about real events, with real effects.
The murder case in the movie is based on a real case, but I didn’t feel like doing this kind of reconstruction of the effects. I wanted to just use it, and the fact that I could make it very real and very realistic contributed to the authenticity of the whole story. But the whole story is just a platform to work on themes that interest me like the impotence and play with destiny, powerlessness, revenge, redemption, loyalty, friendship, and all those big themes. I just love to put them in my stories, and I also like the film noirs and the gangster movies. So I tried to do something on my own with it, and I do believe that I’m using this existing crime scene, this Belgium hormone mafia, I would be really strongly connected to my own soil and to my own culture that I know the best, and where I make my story more credible and real.
Movies.com: How tough was it to sort of combine the crime element and the personal story?
Roskam: Well, I started with developing new imaginary families, but of course you base them upon the real persons. I knew I wanted to make this kind of movie with friends and family, and would require some research in the meat industry and the food industry - how does it work? I got inspired by real events and how they treat pigs in the food industry, and that inspired me to go in to a direction that ultimately brought me to this idea of Jacky being traumatized by a terrible event in his life. And when I found out what the consequences were, it immediately created this allegorical force, the whole hormone issue - and that’s official, the concept of the artifice. People constructing nature started to gain power as a theme in my film, and it’s actually kind of a marriage of thoughts and ideas, and it came all together. And that was it – so then it was just a matter of telling the story.
Movies.com: How important was it to provide a complete portrait of these characters and to sort of explain everything - or not? For example, we never know exactly how he gets his broken nose, but obviously there’s a sense of specificity about his background.
Roskam: Well I think sometimes you don’t really need to explain things - just show them it tells much more. Because when you tell straight away, people are going to be trying to make sense out of it and seeing it as a plot element or something that you have to take into consideration to understand the story. But sometimes you just see someone and you kind of already know where he comes from, what he is, who he is. And in this case, I did the same thing with Jacky - when you look at him, you already know a lot; it’s all about preparation, it’s all about developing this character with the Matthias and writing it and you do slowly can tell that this guy is like an animal with scars. Like, okay, that’s a ferocious animal - he goes to places that other people will not go because it will hurt.
Movies.com: How difficult was it to help the child actor playing Jacky sort of understand an almost unimaginable sort of trauma, and then connect that to Matthias’ performance to make sure that he sort of could understand or appreciate not only what happened but the way it’s depicted in the film?
Roskam: Well, the kids were special. I mean, that kid was like 12 when he played it, and how does that go? I mean, they’re kids; they have an imagination and they play, and I just let him be the way he is. You don’t try to match them, to force the match; the match is authentic behavior - do they really look like each other, do they really act like one another? It’s more about the performance, honesty and just a natural behavior and that tells a lot more. Children, when they play, that’s what they do - they always play all day. They even play themselves. And most importantly, they have to feel comfortable on the set - know who’s who, and see it as an extension of playing, literally. So in between the scenes, when we were outside we made sure they could play and they’d get dirty. And the actor who played Bruno was remarkable with the kids; he just made them feel so comfortable, although he was the one who was going to play crazy with them. And they just couldn’t wait to see him doing it, like attacking him because he could switch immediately and they just loved that. And all those things contribute to the match at the end – you’re going to see a little kid who you’re going to think, yeah, that’s young Jacky, and it’s all about that. It’s nothing - it’s for improvisation, for freedom of changing your mind whenever you feel like changing your mind, and that’s what makes it happen, I think.
Movies.com: What are your feelings about the undertones of violence, the idea of retribution and karma? Because there is a certain kind of parallelism to some of the things that are developed, and in other cases things don’t quite play out or pay off, such as with Bruno’s fate, in the way we might expect?
Roskam: I don’t need to explain it, because people just understand that this guy is going to end up in a bad way, because you can tell that someone one day is going to kick back and going to hurt him pretty bad. And that’s because it doesn’t matter because when we see him with Bruno; the impotence will become even larger, because how can you have your revenge on someone who is not able to defend himself, but just sits there? It makes the frustration even bigger, and I liked that. It will contribute, again, to the whole atmosphere of the movie and of all constant feeling of innocence and impotence - like you can’t help it [and] you can’t do anything about it.
Movies.com: Do you just focus on storytelling and creating something that’s purely authentic, or do you think about a cinematic sort of completion of things - that there are repercussions to these people’s actions?
Roskam: Well I think it’s all of this kind of balance. Of course, I just went with my gut feeling, and when I’m done writing and telling the story then I go and see how it’s going to be perceived - how are people going to look at it? How are they going to understand this? And consciously I invest a lot in this point of view of an audience that I want to be as large as possible. I don’t want to make a story saying, you know, this is so only for the few who understand all the references to whatever themes that I’m injecting here. On the contrary, I’m very much more intrigued by how can I bring complex matter to a larger audience, and how can I do this in the simplest way? And for me that’s important. Sometimes, I like to say that the road to complexity is simple, but the road to simplicity is complex. I took a long time developing the story, which is a very complex story that is dealing with complex matters, and I felt I want this to be as accessible as possible and that’s a good thing to do, I think. I just want that. That helps me writing the story, and there are some rules, so to speak; they’re not real rules, but it’s true that you need balance. You need a balance between your characters and when you need balance between your characters you need balance between emotions, and good, bad, not bad, not good, all those things are pretty important. And my wife was partly involved in the editing of the scripts, and she got me a tool that was used for literature; it’s an analyzing tool called a semiotic square, which is a very intriguing tool in developing and analyzing a story. It’s not something you can use telling a story, but it’s more like, tell the story and then you analyze it and you see what balance do you find in your movie, and who’s standing for what. And that really helps those elements and they’re important to make it accessible for everybody.
Movies.com: Having done this film, which is a crime story that obviously encompasses a lot of much deeper and more complicated issues. As a filmmaker are you interested in using genres to examine larger ideas, or was this your only foray into genre filmmaking and from here you want to make films that don’t necessarily fit conventionally in to one genre or another?
Roskam: Well, I just think I like to refer to a tradition of moviemaking, where sometimes a genre is created by someone who was original at that moment, and then it becomes a standard. People are going to apply it, but most of the time, for me, it doesn’t feel like genre. It’s more like a tradition of moviemaking where there’s a strong voice of the storyteller, not only in film, but also in content and in style. And you kind of can’t help making movies without referring to other ones, because you are in a tradition and you’re not inventing the movies again. You step in a tradition and you work with references, and you’re using sorts of style so to make it recognizable to the audience. But then again, you start to try to make new things, which is the only way to establish your own voice as a moviemaker. And so it’s about breaking rules, to make new ones.