February 20, 2012

INTERVIEW: Michael Roskam

by Steve Dollar

BULLHEAD writer-director Michael Roskam

Perhaps the most dapper dude bouncing around last year's Fantastic Fest, Belgian filmmaker Michael Roskam made a huge impression with his debut feature Bullhead. The film won Best Picture, Actor and Director in the fest's "Next Wave" section, anticipating greater triumphs to come: it's one of five contenders for best foreign film at Sunday's Academy Awards. As I wrote last year:

"Bullhead packs a genuinely tragic wallop whose surprising, emotional impact is hard to gauge from the generous—if somewhat misleading—word of mouth that has made the drama an instant festival favorite. The story pivots around the indeed bull-like Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a steroid-shooting giant muscle on two legs who works for his family cattle farm. This also means that he's on intimate terms with the local "hormone mafia," who sell illegal growth hormones to bulk up the livestock. When a cop investigating the bovine underworld is assassinated by the local mob boss, Jacky begins to question his deepening involvement, while an encounter with a childhood friend triggers flashbacks to a life-changing trauma whose repercussions have yet to fully play out."

The film's evolution from low-life in the Lowlands crime drama to near-operatic tragedy has an undeniable, forceful sweep, commanded by Schoenaerts' astonishing performance. While in Los Angeles last week to promote the film, Roskam spoke about its origins, his unique bond with Schoenaerts and what it feels like to have your first film nominated for an Oscar.


This has the feeling of a real-life crime saga, but it can't all be true. What inspired the story?

The whole story is completely fiction. The background, the whole hormone mafia thing—and even, to some extent, the cop that gets murdered, that's based on reality. I used it because you couldn't imagine it better. In the '90s, you get a veterinary inspector who works for the food and drug administration in Belgium. They inspect the meat in the slaughterhouses and take samples out to see if there are illegal growth hormones in it. This guy, he was an Elliott Ness kind of character. All his colleagues were either part of organized crime, they were corrupted completely, or—if they were honest, good people—they were no match for the tough hormone mafia who would intimidate them.

If you find a little something in one cow or bull, you have to destroy the whole livestock of that farmer. So they didn't dare do their jobs. He was one guy who decided, "Listen, this is the law, and I'm not intimidated." They killed the guy at the end, execution-style. The country woke up: "Do we have farmers and meat-traders who are like gangsters?"

The whole subject is pretty esoteric for an American audience. But it's framed by familiar genre elements.

A couple of years ago, I was convinced it had to be this neo-noir kind of movie. I was also convinced it needed to be a story that was grounded in my society, in my soil. It was clear that the hormone mafia, farmers and gangsters in one, was an ideal and exotic crime scene for a neo-noir, even with some Western stuff in it. Then I just needed a good story.

I wasn't interested in a reconstruction of the murder. I wanted to make a real tragedy with an allegorical power. I did some research in the meat industry and found out about how pigs are treated. It's pretty brutal, and is related in my imagination to what happened to Jacky. When I did more research I found out about the hormones that could play a great role in his life, a double life, because now he wasn't just a farmer using illegal growth hormones for his bulls. He was now going to inject himself also with all kinds of nasty stuff, becoming a bull himself. This was a product of my imagination, but it’s kind of based on all those things.


It's almost like a Flemish Sopranos. But there are elements that Americans might not pick up that a Belgian audience would notice right away.

Especially the subtleties in the language. The farmers in my country and the guys in the meat industry, they don't speak proper Dutch. It's a nasty dialect that you do not understand if you're not from the region. I even had to subtitle it for my own audience. Then you have the Walloon side, which is French-speaking.

You have two communities separated by language. One is the Flemish people who live in Flanders in the north, and they speak Dutch like in Holland only there’s an accent difference. In the south, you have the French-speaking region called Wallonia, and that's why we call them the Walloons. A hundred years ago, Dutch-speaking was more a social identity than it was a regional identity or a nationalist ideal. It's very complex. I'm not going to explain it to you because then we will end up doing a master class in Belgian politics and your audience is going, "What kind of boring article is this?"

It comes across without any footnotes, especially whenever the buffoonish mechanics show up.

I'm playing with it. The [French-speaking] mechanics are the comic relief, a bit like in Shakespeare. Kurosawa was very strong in using those kind of tools that I was directly inspired by. It's a bit of a tone difference with the rest of the story, but I enjoyed doing that. They're based on a couple of garage people I know and they are caricatures of themselves.

It's interesting to see those elements of comedy within something that's so incredibly dark.

Mr. Orson Welles taught me that.


Where did you find your lead? That's such an insanely committed performance. Who the hell is that guy?

I cast Matthias for a short in 2005, and that was the time I came up with the idea for Bullhead. I was writing a first version of the script and told him about the story. I just felt he was this great actor, that he has the DNA of the great guys. It was a bad script at the beginning, he knew and I knew. But he said, "I love the character, I love the whole allegory. I want to do this."

He's more skinny in real life. I told him, "You have to get bigger. We need to believe your weight and mass is artificial." He said, "Yeah, watch me." He gained 60 pounds in total, and I realized it was the right thing to do. Because I trusted him, he gave me the confidence to develop the character and feel no boundaries. Imagine this movie with a crappy actor, and my career would be over. It was a beautiful thing.

He prepared for several years?

Yes. He played [in] another movie before he did this. One director thought he had a Hollywood complex, building up the body, but he was just preparing. We had to finance this movie but it's very hard to know when you have the financing. Then when we got it, we had to wait for him to get the whole mass on his shoulders. That was hard. He had to stand by. The last year before the shooting was when the real transformation took place.

Was he also using steroids to buik up?

I have no idea. I think he didn't. That's what he says. But it might be a good secret.

Has he gone back to normal or did he like being that hulk?

No, he didn't like that. He was losing weight, but then he got cast [as] the lead next to Marion Cotillard in Jacques Audiard's new movie Rust & Bone. His casting director saw Bullhead and she loved the movie. He has to play a free fighter, like cage fighting, so he had regain the pounds he lost. He plays a completely different character. It's a beautiful thing for him. But now he's going to start losing weight because we're going to do a new movie together. He wants to. He's tired of it.


Does it surprise you when people constantly bring up Raging Bull and Robert De Niro?

There are some of those legendary performances where people transform themselves. I hear guys refer to Tom Hardy in Bronson. The other way around is Christian Bale, who transforms many times. Brilliant actor. I love that guy. When it works, it works, and people love to see that.

Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. I bet you were knocked out by that.

It was one big surprise trip all the way. I thought the Dardenne brothers with The Kid with the Bike would be the Belgian entry. They had the pedigree.

If the Dardennes buy a cup of coffee, it gets nominated.

Yeah, we were like, "Why bother?" Although we were a huge box-office hit in Belgium. I hoped, in a way. It would be a great honor. I want to make the best movie, that's all. The whole thing started at Fantastic Fest. We won those three awards. Tim [League] took the movie and started to work very hard. We went to AFI Fest and won awards there. We went to Palm Springs. More and more people started to see the film and it worked with an American audience. Do not underestimate Bullhead.

Has your research into the Belgian meat industry affected your diet? Is it strictly veggie burgers for you?

Not really. Growth hormones are illegal in Belgium, and there are five types of hormones that are legal in the U.S. to beef up the animals. I would prefer not to have them, but I'd rather know which ones are than not knowing what's in it. I still eat meat. I had a good steak yesterday.

[Bullhead is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, pending wider release.]

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Posted by ahillis at February 20, 2012 5:20 PM