Where most narratives coalesce, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” begins. A nonlinear tale of an unlikely couple and their cancer-stricken daughter in the Flemish countryside, Felix Van Groeningen’s fourth feature also happens to feature some of the best bluegrass across the pond from Appalachia. Weaving emotions into a grander scheme of politics and ethics that arise from stem cell research and religion, Van Groeningen lures the audience into Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise’s (Veerle Baetens) insular and poetic world, one that is shattered at the height of its happiness. A prize winner at the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals, and Belgium’s official submission for the Academy Awards, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” opens in New York tomorrow. Indiewire spoke to Van Groeningen about adapting the monologue-driven play to screen, and the strengths and challenges of its interwoven chronology.
The film was adapted from a play, “The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama,” co-written by lead actor Johan Heldenbergh. I’m sure everyone asks you this, but how did you come across the play, and what did you connect with that made you want to translate the material to film?
I knew Johan, who wrote, directed, and acted in the play. We were rehearsing for my previous movie, “The Misfortunates,” in which he starred, and he would show up with a banjo. I was like, “What’s going on Johan?” And he told me about this play, but he didn’t talk a whole lot about it. I went to see it when we were finished, I didn’t know anything about it really, and it completely blew me away. I had no idea that these issues were something that bothered Johan, that he was involved in this music, that he was making this beautiful story. I thought that I knew Johan very well, and then I saw this play, and saw a completely different side of him. I had an incredible experience, I started crying after five or ten minutes and just didn’t stop. It was so powerful. It was a very simple love story that became so huge because of how he handles the issues, the music. I talked to him about making this into a movie, but I was very careful about it, because at the same time, I didn’t see how this was possible. It’s very different from the movie. The play is very, very simple.
I was going to ask, how faithful is the adaptation? Did Johan just turn it over to you in confidence, or how was that collaboration with him, not only as the source material, but also as an actor?
We talked about it after I first saw it, and I went to see it again, and the second time, I said, “Oh I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t see a way I can do this.” Because I didn’t want to make a great play into a bad movie. It was just two people, a bluegrass band, telling their story. There was no reenactment of the scenes, there was no little girl. They just told the story, extremely simple and effective. But a couple months later, it kept coming back to me, and haunting me. So I read the text and listened to the songs in between, which activated my imagination. I realized that there was a way to do it simply by showing what happened to them. Instead of them talking about it, just showing it. It’s a stupid idea. [Laughs] But it was the first time it came to me. So I took it from there. We added lots of ideas and layers. Instead of one concert, we made it fifteen or so throughout their career. We used the music as a tool to help the narrative. So a few months later, I called Johan and asked for his permission, and asked if he would be okay if I wrote it with someone else. And he said that sounded right. He’s been really amazing throughout the whole process, in the sense that he never interfered, was always supportive and extremely generous with his trust. I took it further, yes, but that was because he wrote it in two or three months, and I worked on the script for one and a half years.
Was the non-linear narrative something you brought to it, or was that present in the play’s storytelling?
In the way they talk about it, it was more or less the same. You knew very soon that something bad was going to happen. It that way, it worked the same, but we had to figure out something different. Whenever you tell stories, they will always go back and forth in time. They would talk about Maybelle, their daughter, and before she was sick, while you already knew something was going to happen to her. It had an extremely effective emotional impact because of that.
Can you speak a little bit about constructing the arc over this disjointed chronology? I’m sure it presents its share of challenges when you’re juggling that sort of progression, but also maybe some advantages in that you’re able to play with time, and bypass things that are more expository.
We had a lot of drafts, and I think every draft became a little bit more complicated in terms of how we played with time. But then, during editing, we actually started over. We forgot about the script, and we kept the idea of playing with time, and the initial structure as a feeling, but not as the structure itself.
During shooting, did you group the scenes in any particular way? Elise cuts her hair, but other than that there aren’t any physical changes the characters undergo.
No, we shot it, how do you say–
In an economical way.
[Laughs] Yeah. Like a regular shoot.
For me, a lot of the story works its way through visuals. There are objects and images you return to again and again, to the point where nothing is included by accident. You string everything together through objects. It’s like Chekhov: if there’s a gun in the first act, it’s going to go off by the third. Except this time the gun is a terranda. How does that come to you in the writing process?
There were really beautiful elements in the theater play, but often they were very tiny. The whole story of the bird was just one monologue that Didier tells about Maybelle. But, in the end, it made a beautiful arc. I tried a million things with that story, and then decided to break it up throughout the movie. It became the story of everything you said, up until the last thing Didier says before he lets Elise go. We were able to make a thread throughout the whole movie. The other thing was the tattoos. Elise, in the play, mentions that she had tattoos, that she had names of her ex-boyfriends and she had them covered up, which is a beautiful way for her to look at life.
Well, it says a lot about her character.
Yes, it does. So, instead of having this one thing that she says about herself, it became a whole thread throughout the movie, and we built her character off of it. I made her a tattoo artist, and so in the movie, the tattoos tell her story.
How did you come across Veerle Baetens for the role of Elise? She’s incredible. I’ve never seen her in anything, but I assume she’s big in Belgium.
She’s very big in Belgium. She hasn’t done a lot outside of Belgium, but she’s about to, because of this movie, I guess. I did auditions. I knew that she was a very good actress, and so I invited her to do an audition. It was immediately clear that she had to do it, mainly because she added something that I didn’t know the character needed to have. I like to be surprised at an audition, and she didn’t just surprise me, she showed me that she needed to do it. She was the only one of all the actresses who was able to scare Johan. I thought if we’re going to have a couple that’s really passionate, they need to have a lot. And he is such a bulldozer, and he has angry scenes, but he’s also charming. You need someone who can add a lot in response.
Her part takes a lot of range. I don’t know if anyone else has brought this up, but did you ever see “Blue Valentine?”
One of my big gripes with that movie is that it spends too much time on the disintegration and dissolution of the marriage, and not enough on, not just their courtship, but happier, compatible times. Your film, I think, accomplishes the even handedness in a way that maybe that movie doesn’t. Were you ever concerned about that? Maybelle is a huge part of the story, obviously, but we need to believe what Didier and Elise have before anything else. And you thrust us in, illness first.
Yeah, you get to know them through a problem.
I love so much that the first private interaction we see between them is when Elise pulls Didier out of the hospital room into the hallway and tells him to get it together. They’re balanced, but it goes up and down a lot.
My biggest worry when I started writing the first draft of the script was how are people going to cope with this? There are really heavy things in the story, but when I saw the play, I didn’t feel depressed or anything. I left and I felt relief, that I had seen something beautiful. Very sad, of course, but I could live with it. So, to get to that state at the end of the movie was the most important thing for me. To counterbalance the heavy things, I added more happiness. I spent more time in showing how good a couple they are before things go wrong. In the play, you didn’t need that as much.
The setting, this enclave that they’ve built for themselves, is also a big part of it. Their house in the countryside, Elise’s tattoo parlor is in the city. Did you think to play with that as a contrast between the two–because they are very different, in their beliefs especially.
Yes. Obviously it works that way. When I was working on the story, I thought a lot about my parents who were hippies, and have had great times living in a farmhouse outside of the city. Not working, just enjoying life. My parents’ story inspired Elise and Didier’s story. The freedom that I remember from pictures of my parents, I wanted to put in the story.
Another element I wanted to ask about is the Americana. Beyond the music, you use the Bush administration, 9/11, and stem cell research as a chronological axiom, but also for dramatic effect.
That was actually the trigger to make the play. Johan saw this news item where Bush stopped stem cell funding and it made him really angry. When he makes something, he’s usually really angry about it. And at the same time, he discovered bluegrass music, which is very religious in terms of where it comes from. He put those two together and made something incredible, I think. When he did the play, it was during the Bush administration, but when I was writing it, people would come to me and ask if it still made sense to include it. And I felt, yeah, it does. It’s not because it’s behind us that it’s over. I can still relate to those years when Bush was in power, and every day you’d read the newspaper and just get angry, the stupidity of the choices he made. Johan’s problem was not that he was in power, but that he was making these choices out of religious reasons. And I think that comes across in Didier.