A Belgian drama with bluegrass music may seem like an unlikely combo, but director Felix van Groeningen pulls it off spectacularly in his heart-wrenching new film “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” which is already garnering whispers of Academy Award recognition. While other foreign-language Oscar hopefuls such as “Wadjda” and “The Hunt” have come and gone from theaters (with others such as “Gloria” and “The Past” not making their way to Phoenix until early 2014), “Broken Circle” is arriving this month, opening at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale this Friday, Dec. 6.
A stirring, emotional love story set against the backdrop of a burgeoning bluegrass scene, the film has drawn many comparisons to “Blue Valentine” and “Walk the Line,” and features standout performances from Belgian actors Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh. Ahead of the its release, the East Valley Tribune had the privilege of speaking with Groeningen about the film, the challenges of incorporating music, and how it feels to be a part of the Oscar conversation.
Q: To begin with, when did you first come across the stage play on which this film is based, and what about it resonated with you or inspired you to adapt it for the screen?
A: I went to see it because I knew Johan (Heldenbergh), who wrote, directed and starred in it (and stars in the film as Didier). We were actually rehearsing for one of my movies while he was making the play, and he would show up during rehearsals with his banjo – I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know why he was playing banjo, and then he explained to me that he was working on this play with bluegrass music.
I didn’t go to the premiere or see the play for a very long time, but I heard very good things about it and finally went to see it. As I was watching it, I started crying after 10 minutes and didn’t stop until the end. I saw Johan afterwards and I immediately told him, “I think this is very interesting, maybe we should try to turn this into a movie.” We kept talking about it, but eventually I was like, “I don’t know man, I don’t know how I could pull this off, so no, I’m not going to do it.” But it kept on coming back to me, and I couldn’t let it go.
At some point, when I was trying to figure out what my next movie was going to be, I was reading a bunch of stuff and developing my own things a little bit, and all of a sudden I was like, “Maybe I should reread the (play).” There and then, I said, “OK, this is very good. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’ll try.” What I had gone through while seeing this … it wasn’t something I had ever experienced, and it was so moving, and it’s a really sad story, but in the end, I felt relieved somehow, and that was something very strange.
When I was thinking about it, I said, “Bluegrass music. That would actually be a very original idea, to make a Belgian movie with bluegrass music.” It’s so weird, in a way, that it kind of made it original. I could also really relate to the problems that (Johan)’s talking about … It’s a small story of two people being very much in love, and the small story just becoming bigger and bigger and bigger, and talking about love, and frustration, and hope, and religion. All those things. It just kept on getting bigger and I thought that was amazing.
Q: Could you tell me about the casting of Veerle Baetens as Elise, and what you believe she brings to this role?
A: When she auditioned, she brought something to this character that I hadn’t seen before, and I thought that was important. It was like some kind of strength and dark side that made it a lot more interesting. When I saw her and Johan together, and she was doing this scene where she freaks out a little, and at some point, I saw that she could really scare him. He’s such a big guy and charming, and I saw her next to him, being a lot smaller and tiny and sexy as well, and yet so strong, that she could make him feel scared. At that moment, I said, “This is important that they level up, that it’s not a one-way street, that at some point, this is going to have to happen in the movie.” It was little in the script, but she just embodied it and showed me that it could be more.
Q: In making this film, did you get to discover or explore Belgium’s bluegrass scene in any way?
A: I did, but it’s really, really small, so I think I saw maybe two or three bands (in Belgium). And then I went to a festival somewhere in Holland, which was called the European World of Bluegrass, which had bluegrass bands from all over Europe getting together. It was very lively, but it was very small. It was a cultural center where 300-400 people come together and they stay there for two or three days and they’re all jamming together and playing. I guess the whole European world of bluegrass was there, and it’s not much bigger than that, I think.
But it was fascinating to see that these subcultures exist and that people are fascinated about it. I think what I changed a little bit in the movie was that I made them cooler, they’re a littler cooler than what many of these bluegrass bands look like. A lot of times they’re a little nerdy. (Laughs.) I just thought for the movie that I’d like them to be cool. And I actually became cooler by meeting Bjorn Eriksson, who arranged the music for the movie. He’s a Belgian musician, he plays in a rock band and all kinds of bands, but he started out playing bluegrass when he was 16 with his dad and his sister, and he’s one of the coolest guys I know. So by meeting him, I also understood that (bluegrass) could be cool.
Q: Unless I’m mistaken, this is your first film to feature such a large musical component. What were some of the biggest challenges that came along with that, whether it was the logistics of arranging the soundtrack, filming the performances, or anything else?
A: What scared me a little bit was that I decided to record all the music before we started filming, so we could do playback on the set. It took a fair amount of time to get it right. When I’m filmmaking, I’ll explore every aspect of it and I’ll keep working until it’s perfect. It’s not that that I have my script, find my actors, go into preproduction and I don’t change anything until I go to edit – it’s all very (gradual). I have my first draft of my script, then I start financing, I start casting, and I keep writing while I have the other components come together. And I was still deciding what songs would go into the movie while the band was already rehearsing.
So I guess that made it stressful at that time, but also I had the opportunity to really try out a bunch of things. At some point they rehearsed I think 25 songs, six months before we started shooting, and then with those recordings, I went back to writing and put different songs in different places, and we were figuring out with the music supervisor if we could get the rights and if they were affordable, so slowly all those things fell into place … We had the opportunity to try out a lot of stuff while we were making it and writing it, which is of course great if you can make it that way, but it makes it more stressful, too, and it’s costly. It’s not cheap because you have to pay all those people to rehearse and make music. But it’s great that I got the opportunity from the producers to do it this way.
As I said before, everyone started rehearsing the music six months ahead of time. They would get together every week, they started to get to know each other better, they started getting into character, and then two months before shooting, we started recording the music. Once that was done, then we could start rehearsing the scenes of the movie, and when we were shooting, we had no stress of getting the music right because we had everything the way we wanted it. My sound guy, he had this great idea to say to the actors, “This is playback, but I will make it so you can still sing in the mike and we’ll record it, and whatever’s better, we’ll use it.” It gave them energy for every take (and allowed them to) make it seem live, and not just playback.
Q: One of my favorite moments was during “Wayfaring Stranger” and the long shot of Elise, who’s wearing white with her wings tattoo featured very prominently on her chest. Combined with the song and what is happening in the story, it’s a very angelic and beautiful image. Is there a shot or sequence in the film that you’re most proud of or one you find the most moving?
A: That comes pretty close. It’s a really long take just on her, and I also remember the moment we recorded the music … I always came by the rehearsal. I never said anything, but just watched and listened and observed it. She did three takes of “Wayfaring Stranger,” and one was OK, another one was also OK, and then one, I just started crying while I was sitting there. She asked me if everything was OK, and I just said, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.” They did another one, and I just started crying again at the same moment, and we ending up choosing that version (for the recording). When we were shooting that scene, it was the same emotion that took hold of me. It was just so incredibly amazing, and I guess it came across in the movie, too.
Q: Congratulations on Belgium picking this movie as its Academy Award submission for best foreign language film. How does it feel to be a part of the Oscar conversation for your first time?
A: It’s very exciting, of course, but at the same time, it’s so unpredictable that we don’t want to get our hopes up. I’m excited to be spending some time in Los Angeles and talking about (the film) with people, showing it, and feeling that it’s working here, too. It was a big success in Belgium, we showed it in Berlin and it won an audience award and also a (Europa Cinemas Award), and every time, it’s great to come to a new country and see that it works as well. That gives me high hopes, but on the other hand, I’m already so happy with what happened to this movie, that if it’s not nominated, I really won’t be sad. It’s been the most beautiful journey I’ve ever had with a movie. And I’ll be back!
Q: To wrap things up, what films have you seen recently that you’ve especially enjoyed?
A: I loved “Fill the Void,” the Israeli movie. It’s absolutely beautiful. The use of music, there’s some similarities with “Broken Circle Breakdown.” It’s a lot more realistic, but they have the same impact for me and I thought it was really beautiful. And (Paul Thomas Anderson’s) “The Master” is really a movie that’s going to stick with me for a long time, I think.
“The Broken Circle Breakdown” will open at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale on Friday, Dec. 6. For more information, visit http://tribecafilm.com/tribecafilm/filmguide/brokencircle.