“Bullhead,” hailing from Belgium, is the edgiest of this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees. The film, a tragic allegory set in the world of Belgium’s bovine hormone mafia, has won numerous awards at film festivals since its debut at Fantastic Fest 2011, where it won Best Picture in the Next Wave spotlight and was acquired for US distribution by Tim League’s Drafthouse Films. It’s hard to believe, but “Bullhead” is writer-director Michael Roskam’s first feature film. He’s been compared to Martin Scorsese, who is the first filmmaking influence he notes: “I consider him the Godfather of this tradition of moviemaking.” The Coen Brothers and Michael Mann are noted second, and then Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa. “It is this tradition of moviemaking that I would like to contribute to,” Roskam says.
Roskam previously directed short films (including “The One Thing to Do,” with his “Bullhead” star Matthias Schoenaerts), after a career in painting and cinematography. The De Niro to Roskam’s Scorsese is Schoenaerts, and it’s not hard to see why. Schoenaerts won Best Actor at AFI Fest 2011 and Palm Springs 2012. He’s almost unrecognizable in person, whaving lost the 60 kilos (132 lbs) he gained for the role. Roskam and Schoenaerts participated in a Q & A following a screening on February 13. Here’s what they shared about their film. “Bullhead” opens in Los Angeles February 17.
(There are non-plot specific spoilers below.)
“The hormone mafia is real,” says Roskam. In the mid-90s, a veterinarian was assassinated. If a cow tests positive for illegal growth hormones, the entire herd will be killed. The vet was doing his job, his duty. He wouldn’t be corrupted to cover it up and he ended up dead. “One morning,” remembers Roskam, “we woke up and realized some of our farmers were also gangsters.”
Roskam wanted to make a neo-noir tragedy: “Good crime scene, good tragedy; that’s what you need.” He researched the meat industry and learned that male pigs are castrated at birth (if they aren’t, their meat smells when they grow older). Something clicked, the allegory for his fictional character, Jacky, took shape. “This is what happens to the boy; he needs hormones. The whole allegory was there.”
Roskam had the crime scene, the good tragedy — a young life bruised and betrayed and forever changed. Jacky’s character suffers an attack as a child. Without spoiling too much, the experience requires him to take hormones to fully develop into a man. Jacky becomes, as Schoenaerts’s sees it, a Minotaur. The character’s history becomes an integral part of the crime story that unfolds.
“With a bad actor, my whole career would be over,” jokes Roskam. He was confident Schoenaerts could pull it off. For his part, Schoenaerts says he was “completely intrigued” by the character. He had a gut feeling about playing the role — “sometimes you just can’t explain why something is so compelling, why you have to do it.” After reading the first draft of the script, he got the image of the Minotaur in his head and it became his obsession.
“I wanted [Jacky’s] body to look artificial,” says Schoenaerts, explaining that it was an amazing amount of work to transform his body into Jacky (dieting, weightlifting, lots of rest, but never the use of actual hormones, which he considered but was strongly dissuaded from by doctors). “Somehow it never felt like an effort or a sacrifice, because I loved the character,” he says. “It’s the kind of character that doesn’t come along very often in an actor’s career.” He certainly made the most of it.
What makes Jacky so compelling is his inner life. “There were no references” for the character, says Roskam. “It took six years to invent the life of a fictional man,” whose experience was colored by his life circumstances. “I just imagined what it could be,” he says, remarking that there’s a connection on a psychological level to Batman, Frankenstein and Beauty and the Beast. Like Batman becoming a bat because it’s the animal he fears most, Jacky became the monster so he could never be hurt again.
Jacky is “a kid locked up in a fortress of muscles that he had created,” says Schoenaerts. The physicality of the character existed, he looked the part. “I played the character like a child… concentrated on the vulnerability of the character.” Roskam says it’s like visiting animals in a zoo: When you see a gorilla in a cage and you lock eyes with it, there’s no danger in that moment. You won’t condemn that animal for knowing it could kill you, because it is the animal’s nature to do so. “Jacky was also innocent in a way,” he says; it was his nature to be the way he is, a result of what was done to him.
“We all get damned in our lives,” comments Schoenaerts, “and there are ripple effects.” That’s how the whole story unfolds. “One thing can determine a life and it’s hard to overcome that if the event is really traumatic; your life is completely condemned by it.”
The film is gruesome and violent — Roskam contends that finding the balance of how much vs. too much violence is like “tuning a guitar.” You have to “let the imagination of the audience do the work, just lead them to the right place. The most terrifying things would happen in the heads of the audience,” he says. And at least with “Bullhead,” he’s right. One of the most “gruesome” scenes, in which Jacky performs a C-section on a cow (because of the growth hormones, the calves are too large to be delivered naturally), is ironically one of the character’s most tender moments, ripe with symbolism.
When Roskam found out that “Bullhead” had received an Oscar nomination, he was in his car. His wife called with the news and then he needed to get gas. It was while pumping gas that he had his “Oscar nomination moment.” Schoenaerts praises his director: “He has this quality about making cinema, not just making movies. The way he thinks about telling stories, his characters, all these elements that make a film. He has great taste, which is not unimportant. He has that talent to make original, personal films that can appeal to a wide audience. He manages to do that without making any concessions, he makes the movies he wants to make.”