An interview with Jaco Van Dormael

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With the release this week of Jaco Van Dormael’s epic masterpiece Mr Nobody on DVD and Blu-ray, we spoke to the writer and director about how he went about creating such a reflective film that deals with different lives and different realities.

Flickfeast: Firstly, congratulations on Mr Nobody, it is an amazing film and an incredible experience to watch.The film deals with many vast concepts and philosophical ideas, how did you begin the writing process for such a large amount of ideas?

Jaco Van Dormael: I tried to make the language a little bit different and tried to make the form of the film fit to the idea that I think everybody has that feeling of what would have happened if. The fact that there are not only two choices but an infinity of possible lives, not only two or three but an infinity, and to make this infinity and to give a feeling about this strange experience we have of being alive and having possible multiple lives and never knowing what would have happened if.

FF: How long did it take you to write the film?

JVD: I am a slow writer so writing was around six years, something like that. I started with a very simple idea with two possibilities which I started a long time ago and after that there was Sliding Doors (1998) that had the same idea in fact of two possibilities. So I took back the idea when I had the feeling that in this experience of being alive, there always being choices, there are never two lives in front of you but an infinity of lives, because after a chance or a choice there is another chance and another choice. Perhaps all these infinity of lives are all interesting and perhaps there is no bad choice, that was more the question. There is a young kid that cannot make a choice between his father and his mother and cannot make the choice between three different little girls. But the version of the old man at the very end of his life is perhaps all of the choices, all the lives are interesting and perhaps all the choices are interesting, there are no bad choices.

FF: Our constant throughout the film is the character of Nemo, did you always have Jared Leto in mind for this character?

JVD: I chose him when I realised that there were a few films in which he was really great. The moment I realised that I had seen him in other films without recognising him, I saw him in Panic Room (2002) and I didn’t recognise him and I saw him in Fight Club (1999) and I didn’t recognise him, and at that moment I thought okay perhaps he can be so different in every film that perhaps it is the best choice to have this kind of actor that is able to make very very different characters with the same character. The child is the same but after that there are the two teenagers and then there are nine different Nemos and he had to play these nine different Nemos not only in a different way of looking, but also a different way of breathing, of walking, of speaking.

FF: For me the child and teenage actors did an incredible job of portraying such emotional depth, how did you find it working with the younger actors? What did they bring to the film?

JVD: Yeah they were fantastic. In fact I thought that it would be more difficult to find the teenagers than the adults and it was just the opposite. When I met Toby, Toby Regbo who plays Nemo the teenager, on the third day I was casting in London and I think it was five or six teenagers I met and already I had the feeling of okay it’s him and the same thing for the actress who plays teenage Anna (Juno Temple). I just saw two or three and it was very evident she was great and also with Thomas (Byrne) the young kid, it was really a great experience. I think also it was a great experience because this type of thinking in very different ways and looking to all the possible futures links to the age of the actors as they are at a period of time in their life when they can imagine all the possible futures. I think they could identify really really well with this type of storytelling and this type of character. For teenagers it is a very positive film because it speaks about all the possible futures and perhaps for more of an audience it can be something sad because it speaks of all the choices they didn’t do but perhaps that’s the reason why perhaps it is a film that is strangely more addictive for teenagers than an older audience.

FF: The visual style of the film is so distinct, what were your influences for this? Did any particular films influence you?

JVD: A little bit of Magritte’s painting with the mirrors that always give the strange reflections. We played a lot with reflections in the mirror where for example you cannot see the camera when the camera is going through the mirror and things like that. In storytelling I think speaking about complexity is something that is unusual in cinema. But if you look at Intolerance (1916) by Griffith that was a silent film, it was already complicated, it was already telling three different stories at the same time and it wasn’t a problem. I think afterwards the cinema, a certain type and style of cinema, is much more simplifying and giving answers instead of asking questions. For sure the cinema that I prefer is the cinema that asks questions without giving the answers. Also there is a choice for every filmmaker to make films that look real or don’t look real, and it is the same thing with the silent movies too. The Brothers Lumiere (with their 1895 film Train Pulling into a Station) said look what you see here is a reality, the train is entering the station and there was Melies (with A Trip to the Moon 1902) who said that here we are on the moon but it is a dream and don’t believe me, don’t believe it is the truth. What I like in cinema is that at times I don’t know what the reality is but I like cinema that reproduces in a way the idea we have of reality and can be very different from one moment to another. I like the cinema that can work in the same way that our brain is working by assembling very different things into time and space and at that moment I think cinema has as much freedom as literature and that’s what interests me.

FF: Music plays an integral part in Mr Nobody, with classical and popular music, how did you pick the tracks to use?

JVD: There was music that was not composed for the film; they were used for the specific period of time, music from the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties so that it has something to do with the period of time. I chose very different music for very different times but there was one thing that was a link between this music; all the music has arpeggio, da da da da da (sings melody). The opera, the guitar in the Fifties, everything has arpeggio. After that my brother composed music specifically for the film, they were minimalist, just one or two guitars, not pushing the emotions and so we have music that is very simple through a story that is very complicated.

FF: Was it a challenge to shoot everything within six months? With so many different locations it must have been difficult?

JVD: Yes but it was really fun, six months is so long that nearly every day you work. After the six months nobody was tired, I think we were tired after three or four weeks but after six months we found a rhythm and we could have done another film just after that. The crew was really great and part of the crew was the same going from Belgium to Canada, Belgium pretending to be England, Germany pretending to be Canada in the future and then Canada pretending to be Canada.

FF: You have directed quite a few short films in the past, now that you have created three feature films will you ever go back to short films at all?

JVD: Sometimes I make little tiny experiences that I put on the net. What I would like to do in the future is to learn from the young generation that is able to make films with the photo camera with a crew of four people and editing in the bedroom, to make films with very little money and with a style that is much more Arte Povera . I think my next project will be very minimalistic whereas this one is very maximalist.

FF: Do you have any feature films lined up? Are you working on anything at the moment?

JVD: Yes yes I am writing the next one.

FF: Well we look forward to it!

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