“I’ve still got this story about a hitman with Alzheimer’s,” producer Erwin Provoost told Erik Van Looy 8 years ago, thus introducing him to The Memory Of A Killer. ‘I hate it when film directors go into raptures about ambiguous film concepts, Van Looy says. ‘That ‘hitman with Alzheimer’s,’ however, is more than just a terse summary of the subject. It opens up horizons. It is mysterious and intriguing. It promises action and pushes the door ajar for psychological intrigue and the viewer’s imagination. I do hope the film is exactly that: a thriller with a soul.

So why did it take eight years for the thriller to acquire this soul?
The Flemish book De zaak Alzheimer was written twenty-odd years ago and describes very specific historic situations in Belgium. However good a book may be, the way in which the story is told on screen drastically changes it. Take the part of Vincke’s wife: she is a key figure in the book, but problematic on screen. Too little happens with her character, she has no structural function. So we had to weave her into the script in a totally different manner.

In books, some interrogations take twenty pages. No audience is prepared to sit through that. In real life, detectives rarely take part in the action, so Vincke and Verstuyft were given a good mix of action and confrontation. To do so, we had to turn Geeraerts’ plot upside down. That takes time. We wanted to stay true to the book’s spirit, make sure that spectators/readers recognize the same socio-political context. But content isn’t the only thing. Financing the project wasn’t exactly easy. I was going to film in comfortable circumstances, or not at all. At one point, we actually toyed with the idea of making a low-budget version. Thank God we didn’t.

It was to be a Business Class film?
(Laughs) That’s one way of putting it… Seriously: a script that has a killing, a pursuit, and a shooting every three pages calls for serious funds. We were not prepared to invest a large chunk of our money in one successful action scene, and then cut back on everything else. Audiences these days no longer accept that.

Why do Vincke and Ledda need each other?
The killer needs the police. He is afraid that, because of his illness, he might make mistakes fulfilling a self-imposed task: that of remedying injustice and dealing with villains. So he builds himself a safety net. He feeds the police enough information to put them on the right track. He wants to stay two steps ahead of them, of course, and ends up not giving them enough hints.

As opposed to impulsive Verstuyft — who merely wants to catch Ledda, or kill him, if need be — Vincke is a thinker. He could probably catch Ledda, or kill him, but wants to solve the real problem, that of the actual manipulators, the bad guys. Shooting Ledda would mean catching the small fry. Vincke decides to go for the big gang. Which results in a cat and mouse game.

Talking about The Memory Of A Killer, you aspire to emulate films like Heat, Seven and Memento.
Before starting a film, most directors watch tons of films. Paul Verhoeven watches dozens - not to steal from, but in search of inspiration. And, yes, I did watch Michael Mann’s “Heat,” to see how he treats a policeman’s fascination with a gangster, and how he tackles confrontations. It’s a great learning experience. The main character in Memento also has a memory problem. Not that I am comparing my work to those films. But even a film enthusiast like myself needs the occasional check.

Some argue that by using established European actors such as Jan Decleir (Ledda), Jo De Meyere (Baron de Haeck), Koen De Bouw (Vinke) you are hardly taking any risks…
Nonsense. Did you ever hear of anybody saying to an American director that he mustn’t work with Robert De Niro, or Al Pacino? Each of my actors was cast in a role for a reason. I have nothing against fledgling actors, but doing The Memory Of A Killer is enough of a challenge as it is. Struggling with inexperienced actors on top of that, would be taking a huge risk. These ‘established actors’, are actually doing roles nobody has ever seen them play before. Anyone ever seen Jan Decleir traveling from Marseille to Antwerp in a Scabal suit and flashy sunglasses, with an attaché case containing a gun for self-assembly? I don’t think so. I’ve certainly never seen Jan Decleir sporting a revolver, shooting people and spouting Schwarzenegger-like one-liners.

Jan Decleir claims you were once scared of him. Were you?
Who wouldn’t be, of so much royalty? Jan is always hugely concentrated. Scene discussions with him never end in a casual chat. He ponders on everything, which sometimes makes him seem dour. But — there’s a cliché for you — he is one of the warmest people I’ve ever met. Once you’ve gained his confidence, he will do anything for you. Even literally jump through a window, as in the film. He enjoyed doing most stunts himself, and one word is enough for him to know what you want. Tire easily at his age? He is completely submerged in his part, and gives it his all.

Would you consider doing a second Vincke and Verstuyft film?
Absolutely. The Memory Of A Killer was right up my street. I truly believe that Jef Geeraerts’ world has been kept hidden from the public much too long. However ‘American’ the film may appear — without religiously following the Americans, I hasten to add — it does deal with Belgian and Flemish situations. I like that mix, so bring in the second Vincke and Verstuyft. I’m game!