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Focus from London Festival on Actor/Director/Writer Bouli Lanners

Bouli Lanners is a Belgian actor and writer-director, whose Ultranova screened to great acclaim at the LFF in 2005. His follow-up, Eldorado, is a beautifully cinematic and absurdly funny road movie that also packs a hefty emotional punch.

A lot of the films I’ve seen at this year’s Festival have been very sombre, so with Eldorado it was nice to see something that at least made me laugh before going on to fill me with a sense of sadness! It’s a very idiosyncratic film, full of strange little incidents - how did the story evolve?

My scripts always start out quite strangely. I had a lot of different scenes in mind, and I developed a narrative thread to join them together. I had what I thought was a final script when we started shooting, but I soon realised that the two characters were interacting in really interesting ways which I hadn’t anticipated, so I did quite a lot of re-writing with this in mind.

It all feels very organic and effortless...

The landscapes are very important as well – it’s a film preoccupied with nature. Sometimes what I shoot is determined very much by the landscape. I do all the location scouting myself, I drive around looking for the perfect locations. So the landscape often influences the narrative.

There’s not a lot that identifies the film as specifically Belgian, or at least that identifies which part of the country it takes place in. Did you want to discourage people from thinking of it as a Belgian film first and foremost?

I didn’t want to create a typically Belgian film. In reality if you drove for two hours you’d be out of the country, so the landscape is extended to allow them to embark on this big road trip. It’s a road movie to a large extent, so the look of the film reflects this – we use a big American car and so on.

Why did you decide to cast yourself in the lead role?

I didn’t want to! My producer said to me ‘you’re searching for a guy exactly like you, so why not play it yourself?’ I said that I couldn’t act and direct at the same time! But he pointed out it would work out well for him financially if I played the role, so eventually I agreed and it turned out to be a real pleasure. It was very tiring, but very enjoyable.

Was it hard to direct yourself and be objective about your own performance?

I made the movie with all my friends, and what’s difficult in such a case is that everyone is always offering their own opinion. So I split the crew in two – I had my wife and the sound engineer watching the performances, and the DP oversaw the whole mise-en-scène. We prepared for seven weeks – in the morning we rehearsed performances, and in the afternoon we did shot breakdowns. And so it was all very meticulously planned. Things did change as we filmed, but on the whole we were very prepared. I only had one costume and didn’t bother with make-up, so I could just get in front of the camera whenever I needed to! The real problem was in the editing. When I was shooting I had been listening to the dialogue, but wasn’t really watching myself in the rushes much. When I was editing I had to look at myself all day long, so got sick of the sight of myself. There were scenes I wanted to cut because I hated my performance or appearance in them! So I had to learn to trust the editor’s judgement.

Where did you find the actor who plays Elie-Didier, the other main character?

I did a lot of casting sessions, and I saw him in the first week. But the producer said that as this was my second movie (as director) I needed someone more high-profile, someone from Paris. But he was always in the back of my mind, so I met with him for a second audition and was convinced he was the real Elie-Didier. But he’d done nothing before – he was just finishing his studies at the Conservatoire Royal de Liège. Two days after he finished he began working on the movie. The Conservatoire let him take five weeks’ leave before he finished to visit the set and we explained the whole process of filming to him – like that you should start acting when someone shouts ‘action’, and when people are looking at you they’re not judging you, they’re just checking the lighting!

The soundtrack is great and a real unifying factor in the film – at times it seems almost like a third main character. How much of the music was composed specifically for the film and how much was acquired from elsewhere?

When I write I’m always listening to music, and when I finish a script I make a CD with twenty or so tracks that could be used in the film. So everyone I’m working with has a sense of the kind of music I’m going for - they can then point me in the direction of similar things. In this case I was led to the composer Renaud Meyeur, who came on board wrote the music while we were shooting, based on my compilation and suggestions. Aside from I think three tracks, all of the music was written by Renaud specifically for the film.

There’s a real synergy between the score and the landscape...

Yes and for the editing we had lots of music to work with – too much in fact, Renaud was working hard, charging at it like a bull!

There’s a dramatic shift of tone when the pair visit Didier’s parents – we go from this absurdist comedy to a very believable, emotional situation. I was surprised to find myself caring so much for the characters. Was that structure always planned?

That structure fell into place during the editing stage – originally we anticipated that the whole film would be quiet sad. The heart of the film is the scene in the vegetable garden, where the idea of guilt at not doing enough for your family is discussed. But we realised that there was real comic potential in the relationship between the two characters – a kind of buddy-movie dynamic. That really became apparent in post-production.

You have a background in painting, and at times during the film I was reminded of Beckett – I just wondered who your artistic influences are away from cinema.

Yes, I’m a fan of Beckett, also Yasmin Reza, the French contemporary playwright and novelist. But also in painting, all the English landscapes after Constable, like late Turner. And French 19th Century painting.

Why is the strange nudist character named Alain Delon?

Well I acted alongside Alain Delon in Asterix (at the Olympics). I spent two months with him - I was the king of the Greeks and he was Caesar - and it was a really bad experience! So this was my act of revenge. Remember when that character sits on a chair with Alain Delon’s name inscribed on the back? That was Alain’s chair which I stole from the set of Asterix. And now when I go camping with my wife she sits on Alain Delon!

You’ve showcased the film at Cannes and other festivals, have people responded to it the way you imagined?

Well when I finished the film I hated it! But then it premiered at Cannes and received a ten minute standing ovation – which was great but that’s a really long time to stand there, it becomes awkward after a while! But it’s reassuring when people laugh at the comic moments. It’s screened at a lot of festivals now and people seem to have been touched by it. Now I’m actually becoming quite well known, and have women stopping me in the street! As an actor I’ve done a lot of supporting roles, but now I’m getting some really good offers.

Paul O'Callaghan, BFI
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