Q: What's the film about?
A: In a nutshell, it's an epic tale about a young man's life long struggle with his tyrannical father. The story is set in Holland in the early twenties. Genre-wise, one can say it's a dramatic love story, wrapped in a thriller. The tone and atmosphere tend to make audiences in the English speaking world, think of Charles Dickens.
Q: Was Dickens an inspiration?
A: Not on a conscious level. But I'm happy to take it as a compliment. The film is an adaptation of the novel Character, mixed with my own fantasy, my own romantic evocation of these characters in that historical period.
Q: So, the film is based on a book.
A: Yes the film is based on a very popular classic 1938 Dutch novel, Character, by Ferdinand Bordewijk.
Q: How did the Dutch literary critics react?
A: We were bracing ourselves for some serious flack. But, then it turned out they loved it. Despite all the changes and new elements, they all felt the film was very true to the spirit of the book and the work of the author. I suspect some of them hadn't read the book for quite some time, though.
Q: Where did you find your cast?
A: You may remember Jan Decleir (the father) from Antonia's line and the Oscar nominated film, Daens? Besides being a theater icon in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, he has been a leading man in Flemish films from the early seventies. Besides a terrific actor, we needed a presence of his stature. Jan's monumental personality adds a lot. CHARACTER and I owe him a lot. He was the only truly experienced film actor on the set. Almost everybody else came from the theater and we picked our other leading man, Fedja Van Huet, straight out of theater school.
Q: He makes us think of Robert Downey Jr.
A: Sure. You know, to be honest, we did not spot the resemblance at all until halfway during the shooting. At a certain moment we had to change his looks because his character was getting older. We were watching the rushes and all of a sudden Fedja seemed to have morphed into Robert Downey Jr. It was his new makeup and hairstyle that had turned him into a spitting image.
Q: Judging the level of assured craftmanship in CHARACTER, it is very hard to believe that you are a first-time director.
A: I'm just a natural! No, just kidding. Seven years ago I came out of film school in Amsterdam. My student film won the Dutch equivalent of the Oscar and on top of that the Student Academy Award in Los Angeles. But, in hindsight, I think that I was not quite ready for a first feature yet. Laurens Geels, who produced CHARACTER, gave me my first job. I paid my dues as a writer, script doctor and first assistant director on one of his films. I eventually wrote an English language script that ended up in development hell in L.A. Then I was asked to direct an episode of an acclaimed Dutch TV series. A kind of cross between L.A. Law and Thirty Something. I liked the writers and the main cast so much that I stayed on for two seasons and had a tremendous time.
Directing the series was like making mini features. I scouted my own locations, did my own casting, had my scripts rewritten and all that. It certainly built my confidence as a director. And then one night I was having dinner with Laurens and I asked, "what about the novel Character that you always wanted to make into a film." It was one of his favorite books and I asked him to let me write and direct. We started talking about it and after twenty minutes or so there was genuine fire in my eyes. From that moment on it took us two years and three months till opening night. Pretty fast for a Dutch film of this scale.
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