The structurally audacious, vividly nuanced work of Dutch filmmaker and playwright Joost van Ginkel has been one of my most cherished discoveries this year. His first feature, 2011’s “170 Hz,” provided a stellar showcase for rising star Gaite Jansen, while his second film, 2015’s “The Paradise Suite,” just earned three major Golden Calf accolades, the most prestigious film awards in Holland. Interweaving the lives of six immigrants in Amsterdam, the director’s riveting sophomore effort took home prizes for Best Feature, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor (Issaka Sawadogo). Though both films have yet to acquire U.S. distribution, Chicagoans were able to preview “The Paradise Suite” when it opened this year’s European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
A few days prior to the Golden Calf ceremony, Joost spoke with me via Skype about his creative process, his approach to directing actors and the filmmakers he finds endlessly inspiring.
How did you first become involved in filmmaking?
I started out when I was 21. I went to film school, and then worked as a trainee cameraman at a local broadcasting station. It was in 1994 when I encountered a Bosnian refugee and filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary about the refugee camp in Bosnia. Though I didn’t speak any Bosnian, I made the documentary with him. There were only three of us—a sound guy, me and the director—and since we didn’t have any money, I would transcribe the interviews we gathered via an interpreter. These were horrific accounts of the atrocities occurring in Bosnia, and to be honest, at that time, I didn’t read newspapers much, and this experience of making that documentary really broadened my view of what was happening in the world.
I decided that I wanted to be a movie director and that I would write my own films. I thought I would learn how to do this in two or three years, but of course, it took much longer than that. It took me sixteen years to develop my writing skills. Until that time, I worked for television. I did a lot of commercial work and sports documentaries, and at one point, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who said, “We’re going to be complete losers if we haven’t fulfilled our dreams by the time we’re 50.” So he started his own company, and I made my first short, “Zand.” I picked up the phone and asked a bunch of friends if they could help me make it, and within one or two hours, everyone said yes. All of a sudden, I was directing my first short. I had been so scared that my first film would be average or so-so, but “Zand” became the only Dutch selection for Venice that year, as well as the Dutch Oscar submission short of 2008. After that, I knew that I could raise funds for my next short, “Kus,” which went to Tribeca.
That’s when a producer encouraged me to pitch an idea for my first feature. My initial thought was to make “The Paradise Suite,” because I had numerous story ideas that all involved immigrants. There was a period after I had missed a few TV jobs when I ended up working in a harbor in Amsterdam, parking Nissans that were brought in by a boat from Japan. This was the sort of job only illegal or poor immigrants would do, so for three months, I spent time working with people from Iraq and Senegal, and that experience inspired me to make “The Paradise Suite.” But I ultimately decided that it would be too complex for a first feature, so I chose a classical Romeo and Juliet story, which was the basis for “170 Hz.”
Let’s start by discussing your devastating short, “Zand.” How did you go about crafting such an authentic portrayal of domestic abuse?
There were numerous stories in the paper about fathers who dressed up in superhero suits. At that time when there was a divorce in England, Spain or Holland, the child always went to the mother and never to the father. Some fathers in England felt powerless and wanted to draw attention to this issue, so they dressed up as superheroes like Batman, Superman and Captain America, and they climbed up skyscrapers. I figured that if they were this desperate for attention, their situation must be dire. After doing my own research, I found that domestic child abuse is performed equally by men and women. Everyone thinks the man is always the abuser, but that’s simply not the case. I rewrote “Zand” 17 times before I finally finished it. I wanted it to be an emotional film, and I also thought that it shouldn’t be told as a straight story, because I wanted the audience to feel the main character’s helplessness.
I used parallel timelines in order to link different moments in time, and connections were often made between similar actions. When the father is climbing on his truck to go be with his daughter, I intercut it with the moment later on where he is climbing up for [a much grimmer purpose]. I considered how the film would play with a Hollywood ending, where the father kidnaps his daughter and drives away to the south of France to start a new life. That could also be a good ending, but it would be too good. It also wouldn’t be doing justice to what was really happening. At that time, a child in Holland was dying every week because of abuse, so I thought it would be improper for my film to have a happy ending.
“170 Hz” is such an important film, and in my opinion, even more compelling than “The Tribe” in its portrayal of deaf teenagers.
While making “170 Hz,” I really thought that it would be a difficult film to watch, but when it premiered at the Dutch film festival, we discovered that we had made an audience film because the crowd loved it. We ended up winning the Golden Calf Audience Award. One of my inspirations for the film occurred when I was living in Amsterdam. I was cycling home in the middle of the night, and I spotted a large group of people on the opposite side of the street. As I got closer to them, I noticed that I couldn’t hear any of their voices. Then I realized that the group was comprised of about 50 deaf-mute teenagers who were shouting at each other with their hands. I was really grabbed by that, and I decided that if I was going to make a feature, it would be in sign language. As I learned more about the deaf-mute community, I found that all people are more or less the same. You and I experience the same emotions as people from Japan or Namibia or Canada.
I never saw sign language as the subject of this film. I looked at it from an artistic perspective. Some people told me that the film should be about the problems facing the Deaf community, but after meeting so many deaf-mute people, I found them to be as happy as people with no hearing impairment. Their language is one of the most beautiful in existence, apart from Russian and Italian. At the same time, I was making an experimental television show with a well-known stand-up comedian, and the production office was located in a harbor next to a Russian submarine. Suddenly, the premise for “170 Hz” started to come together: a Romeo and Juliet story about deaf-mute kids who seek their freedom by hiding together in a submarine. I worked for months to make it a larger-than-life tale that would immerse viewers in the characters’ sensory experience. When you are lying on your pillow, you never see a wide angle of the room. You are looking at things in extreme close-up, and that’s how I wanted to frame moments such as when Evy looks at the feather. I wanted the audience’s senses to be as heightened as those of the deaf-mute teenagers.
After seeing “Supernova” and “170 Hz,” Gaite Jansen has quickly become one of my favorite actors. What led you to cast her in the role of Evy?
I think this was the breakout role of her career at that time. Before “170 Hz,” she made some films for youth, which were pretty good. I saw her in Margot Schaap’s “Gaandeweg,” which was a really beautiful short for many reasons, but mainly because of Gaite, who filled every scene with her personality. She is the kind of actor you really want to have because she feels every scene out, and intuitively knows exactly what to do. I saw her ambition and work ethic from the moment we first met, and now five years later, it has clearly paid off for her. She has a big career in Holland, and she’s also worked in England, co-starring in “Peaky Blinders.” There is no shred of doubt in me that she will end up having a career in Hollywood.
People often say that you need a bit of luck to succeed, but I don’t believe in that. I believe that if you work hard, and put all your effort into developing your talent, you will find your luck. You may find it tomorrow or you may find it in eight years, and Gaite will find it. It wasn’t luck that got her cast in “Peaky Blinders,” she worked her ass off to get there. She’s such a phenomenal actress. The biggest disappointment in my career up till now was the moment when she didn’t win the Golden Calf for Best Actress after being nominated for “170 Hz.” Carice van Houten (known for “Game of Thrones”) won for “Black Butterflies,” and though it’s no shame to lose to Carice, I think Gaite really deserved to win.
I love how you convey the dynamics between characters without the need for words—such as when Evy stands up to her father by slapping herself in the face, or when she urinates in a pan before splashing it in Nick’s face.
I was training myself on how to write scripts, and on “170 Hz,” I was writing from intuition. It took months for the actors to learn how to deliver their dialogue in sign language, and I knew that I couldn’t add any dialogue onset, because it would take too long to get the extra dialogue right, which is something that can easily be done on any other film. Since I couldn’t add lines onset, I had to really think about how to approach each scene in a way that didn’t rely heavily on words. I thought the idea of Evy slapping herself would be the best revenge against her father, who we had previously seen slapping her. There is nothing to be said after she does that, because it is clear that she is the one in control. As for the other moment you mentioned, I always try to give my characters humor, and I loved this scene because it takes so long before the punch line arrives. You really don’t know that a joke is coming, and those are the best kind of jokes.
When I interviewed Gaite, she told me that it’s important for her nudity to be “functional” within the context of the film. How do you approach shooting intimate scenes requiring nudity?
In the case of this film and “The Paradise Suite,” these were the most difficult scenes for me to shoot. When we cast Gaite, we went to her house and had a wonderful conversation with her agent and her parents. Gaite wanted to do this film so badly, and it wasn’t a problem for her to say yes to it, but she was specific about what she wanted and what she didn’t want. I thought that was great, and we were really open with each other. I was at that time a fairly inexperienced director with these kinds of scenes but even back then, I knew the importance of being completely honest with my actors. Gaite was just 18 when she made “170 Hz,” and I was 40. I told Michael [Muller] and Gaite that these would be the most difficult scenes for the three of us to shoot. The scene where they throw paint on each other was the first moment they went nude, and we filmed it on the fifth shooting day. All three of us were nervous as hell. We did a small rehearsal of what positions they would be in, and they did it with their clothes on. Then we just gave each other a hug and said, “Okay, let’s go for it.” Everyone was happy after it was done, and things got a little bit easier after that. We also had a fantastic makeup artist, Thea Colenbrander, who made Gaite and Michael feel comfortable. I think Gaite felt that she was safe. When the film was done, Gaite was extremely proud of it, and I think she still is.
In the end credit roll, you state that two scenes in the film were inspired by Darren Aronofsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski. How have these filmmakers served as an inspiration for you, and in what ways did they influence this film?
I truly believe that if you see (and study) all the films of Kubrick, Kieslowski and Haneke, then in fact, you know everything you need to know about storytelling. Kieslowski is inspiring to me because he is always telling stories in a way that seems so simple, which is so difficult to achieve. There is an extreme close-up of Gaite where she looks at a feather and blows it away, and that was inspired by the close-up of Juliette Binoche’s eye in “Blue.” I have also been inspired by the way Aronofsky uses sound, and in “170 Hz,” I stole the shot in “Requiem for a Dream” where Jennifer Connelly screams in the bathtub. It is, in fact, a stolen frame, so I could never use it without crediting it. I thought of other visuals that could work for the scene, but I couldn’t come up with a better shot, so I just used it. Afterwards, I learned that Aronofsky himself stole the shot from Satoshi Kon’s animated film, “Perfect Blue.”
“The Paradise Suite” was selected for the Discovery section at TIFF and the New Directors section in Seattle. What inspired you to create an interlocking series of narratives?
I love films like this when they are done well, and there aren’t too many. Only a few of them work, and the best would be “Amores Perros,” “Magnolia” and “Short Cuts.” Over the fifteen years when I was writing, there were several story ideas that kept coming back to me, and they had been in my head so long that they started to feel like they belonged together. I thought I learned enough while making “170 Hz” to take on a greater challenge, and for a filmmaker or a storyteller, this type of narrative is one of the most difficult things to get right. I knew this after having seen so many of these films fail. I pitched it to the Film Fund, and the artistic intendant at that time, Frank Peijnenburg, had a lot of trust in me and my producer from the beginning onward. I wrote the first draft in about eight months, and the Film Fund agreed to give us the money we needed, though it still took me about three years to get the script right.
I went through many drafts, and even during the shoot, I changed some things. During editing, I skipped the opening scene and the ending scene. I quickly found that when you’re making a film like this, every day you’re shooting, you need to be on top of it. Some screenwriters think that more story lines give you more options, but the contrary is the truth. Everything has to fall exactly in place. It took two or three months for me and three other editors to cut all of the individual scenes. Then I work with a huge plan-board where I play around with the order of the scenes, and that was the most fun job to do. People ask why I edited the film, and the truth is, there is nothing more fun than being in a room with your editors, a whole lot of coffee and some cookies, while juggling these magnificent puzzle pieces together.
Like “Magnolia” or “Short Cuts,” this film deals with universal issues, utilizing its location as a microcosm for the world.
Exactly. I didn’t want to portray Amsterdam, I just used the city as a microcosm for the whole world. It sounds pretty ambitious, but that was the idea. I wanted to portray mankind by honing in on the five things that drive us and make us tick: money, sex, religion, ambition and violence. There are moments in your life where someone influences you simply by the way they look at you. I’ve had moments like that in my life, and I wanted to interweave the stories in this film by creating a meeting of the eyes between various characters. A reviewer wrote that it’s like a gazing game between the characters, but it’s more than a game, such as when little Lukas sees Seka putting the baby in the street. At that moment, Lukas is the angel for that baby because he rescues it merely by looking at Seka, and she feels judged by him. What I wanted to avoid, and I don’t know if I succeeded at this or not, was moralizing any of the characters and their decisions.
I was struck by the moment when Stig advises his son, Lukas, to ignore any obsessive orders and rely on his natural, instinctual abilities when performing. Does that scene mirror your own beliefs regarding artistry and performance?
I must say, smart question. Because that is true! This is the scene that I’m most proud of in the whole film, screenwriting-wise. Erik Adelöw, who plays Lukas, and Magnus Krepper, who plays Stig, perform that scene so beautifully. No matter what you write for Erik to do on film, he makes you believe it. When we were casting the boys in Sweden, Erik came in, and he was so self-assured. There was such a big personality in this thin, small, 10-year-old boy, and he wasn’t intimidated by anything. Magnus (know for “The Bridge”) was going to have his first day off in months, but he decided to be present for the casting session, and he ended up connecting with Erik. Sometimes the best thing to do as a director is to shut up and give your actors room, and this is what we did with Erik. We just gave him a good feeling, he felt our trust and he performed fantastically. I remember that our first AD, Willem Quarles van Ufford, cautioned us that our numerous shots featuring the young boy would be difficult, and I said, “It will be easy because all of his takes will be good.” After two days, he came up to me and said, “You were right.” Erik was and is a young but phenomenal actor.
The scene that you mentioned is about many things. It’s about how Stig has had trouble fathering himself, always believing that he’s not good enough. His talent may be mediocre, but he forgets that his ambition is a talent in itself. The funny thing about Magnus as an actor and as a human being is that he is an extremely hard worker as well and highly talented. I would hire him anytime, and there were a lot of similarities between him and me personally. He was always insecure about whether a particular take was good enough, and when I said to him that it was good, he would often ask, “Was it?” That inspired the moment in the film when his manager compliments him on a fantastic performance, and Stig replies, “Was it?” As a director, I am not insecure, but every time I have to make a decision onset, I am questioning everything again. The day before shooting, you get such a hyper-concentration that you see things as clearly as the moment you wrote them, but when you suddenly have three hundred people onset, you find yourself asking, “Is this really good? Are we missing something?” You must be open to those questions.
Every time before we go into a shooting day, I read the scene ten times, over and over again, to really know every word and every line and every mark. At a certain point, however, you are on your own and you have to make your own decisions, because the film is ultimately about your own perspective on the world. On my second short, “Kus,” I followed bad dramaturgical advice. This will never happen to me anymore, lesson learned! I am at a point in my career where I will always follow my instinct for what is right and wrong film-wise. That is what Stig is saying to his son: you are the master, don’t listen to my orders. I find it funny how Stig then persuades Lukas to go to school, which is against the boy’s wishes. There are many paradoxes in that scene.
Joost is planning to shoot his third film next fall in Spain, and is also working on a screenplay for the U.S. market, with the working title, “A Perfect Society.” “Zand” is currently available to view on Vimeo.