THE FREEDOM OF BEING DARDENNE: DOUG JONES INTERVIEWS THE DARDENNE BROTHERS
In recent years, “Dardenne-like” has become a favorite descriptor of international film critics. If a film features an economical, but emotionally complex narrative, a naturalistic approach to filmmaking and a penchant for lower class protagonists brought to life mostly by non-professional actors, you can bet somebody somewhere is going to compare it to the work of the Belgian filmmaking duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. As their latest, the Cannes Grand Prix-winning and Spirit Award-nominated The Kid with a Bike, makes its way to theaters nationwide, we had the chance to speak with the much lauded filmmaking brothers about their early years, their working methods and how it feels to become an adjective.
Doug Jones: Film Independent does—among other things, like the Los Angeles Film Festival—a lot of classes and labs for young and emerging filmmakers. So with them in mind, I wanted to start by taking you back to your own beginning. You came to international prominence in 1996, but by that time you had already been working as filmmakers for nearly twenty years. So how did you first step behind a camera?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: The first thing was meeting Armand Gatti, who is a filmmaker, but first and foremost a theater director. We worked with him when we were twenty or so. In one of his theater projects, he had a video team that was getting accounts from different people to be used as material for a new production. And this man trusted us, despite the fact that we had absolutely no experience in theater or film. I think that this trust imbued in us, first of all, the feeling that we wanted to be like him and also make films, in particular documentaries. We wanted to do portraits the way we saw his team do. We tried to work a little bit like he did, and during the course of this work, we started to find our own areas of interest. And it led us to do the documentaries that we made.
So we didn’t go through a film school, you know. We kind of came in through the back door. You know, all of the advantages and disadvantages of being self-made men.
As filmgoers, did you already have an appreciation for documentary films?
Luc Dardenne: Not particularly. No, we were pretty ignorant of film in general. We’re not being falsely modest. It’s just I would say that we discovered film towards the late-’70s, early-’80s.
Your early work hasn’t been seen nearly as much as your films of the past 15 years or so. When talking about your filmography, there’s such a tendency for people to begin at 1996 with La Promesse and only talk about the more films that followed.
JPD: They’re right to do so.
You yourselves, you don’t go back to your older films? Would you agree with people that your film career has had sort of an act one and an act two?
LD: And wants a third act. (Laughs)
That’s to come.
LD: I would say we found a work method with La Promesse. We wrote the script ourselves. We shot in continuity. We worked with actors that aren’t well known with a team that was made up of friends. We axed a lot of technical mediation and made it as simple as possible.
We rehearse a lot before we film. We first rehearse, just he and I together, just the two of us, for about two months, where we use a small camera, and we work with each other. We use our imagination. I may be portraying a certain part while he’s filming or vice versa. We work on what the movements might be, and we work like that for about two months. And then we get the real actors. We rehearse on the real sets, not in a theater or something. At first, nobody is there except the actors. Then when we’ve found the staging with the actors, then we call in the technical crew. And when the technical team comes, it comes to us, and we don’t go to them. We do things in reverse of what a lot of filmmakers do, which is that we get everything in place the way we want it, and then we call in the crew.
You mentioned in our explanation working with a team. Of course, the two of you always work together, but you also have worked with a lot of your crew—people in key artistic positions like your cinematographers, editors, your actors—on multiple films. What are the benefits of working with people that you have a history with, whether it be a family history or a professional history?
JPD: Well, there can be a big disadvantage if everybody starts to rest on everybody else’s shoulders because they’re so used to working together. You know, when you get together with people you know, you start to bring up memories of things that have happened in the past and… Well, you know… Actually, once you’re aware of the pitfalls, then having the same technical crew and working with actors that you’ve worked with before gives you tremendous freedom. It’s especially with the actors. I feel it more with the actors. Even with the technical crew, there are certain things you don’t have to say, that you don’t have to discuss anymore because they’re understood.
A lot of your actors are—or at least began as—non-professional actors. Is it through the rehearsal process that you lay the groundwork for the intimacy your films achieve? And how is that process affected when you bring in a professional actress, as you did with Kid with a Bike?
LD: Well, Cécile de France… When you have somebody like that, who’s an actress who’s well known and everything… Well, what we did was consider her like she’s any other actor. She eats with us and the other actors. She lives the way everybody else lives during production. You know, everybody has the same makeup artist. Everybody has the same hairdresser…
JPD: Me. I am the hairdresser. (laughs)
LD: We’re all on the same level, and that’s very important.
And we’re not afraid of saying silly things or stupid things when we’re working. Well, Cécile said, “You know, it’s kinda weird because yesterday you said we’re gonna do this, and then today you’re saying we made a mistake yesterday, so we’re gonna do this instead.” And they know that we’re still… We’re always, you know, searching, looking for things, and that we may vary things. And they trust us, and they give themselves over to our work.
And I think once the actor has felt and understood that he can basically say anything, then he’s no longer invested in trying to protect an image or a concept. He frees himself of what an outsider’s perception of him might be. And then we can work. At the same time, Cécile, you know, said “It allowed me to let go” and to find things that she never would’ve found.
As much freedom as you give yourself, the international film community and film critics were very quick to see in your films a particular, specific approach to filmmaking and label it the “Dardenne Brothers style.” They then started to use this label as a way to describe other films and filmmakers who were coming after you. Does that concern you at all, this pigeonholing of yourself and others?
LD: Well, first of all, in terms of the people that might have been inspired by what we do and put it things similar to what we do in their own universe, that’s good. Because we also saw things— Tarkovsky and Rossellini—inspirational things. But the important thing is to have a universe in which you can then replace those things, so they no longer are the same thing. They become something different than what they were in the place they originated from.
In terms of the style, well, we’re used to repeating a sentence that was from Eduardo De Filippo—he’s an Italian stage director—and his sentence was, “If you look for style, you find depth. If you search for life, you find the style.” Because if we feel trapped in a system or a way of doing things, we start becoming imitators of our own style, and that can’t work. So you have to always try to stay alive, to let the film be alive. There’s a certain freedom in that.
The Kid with a Bike opens in theaters on March 16.
March 12th, 2012 • No Comments