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‘Prince’ Director Sam de Jong on His Highly Stylized Debut and Its Synthetic Escapes

Sam de Jong on His Highly Stylized Debut 'Prince' and Its Synthetic Escapes

Teenage inadequacies are explored in glamorous fashion
through Sam de Jong’s energetic gaze in “Prince,” his highly stylized feature
debut. De Jong’s background as a music video director is present
in this narrative effort, but rather than overwhelmingly filling the frames
with fast-paced and gratuitously vibrant imagery, his sensibilities enhance
the film with vivid hues and fantasy-like elements.

This is a coming-of-age story that contains overly joyful
sequences and utterly crude outburst of violence blended in an intoxicating
visual potion.

Born to a Dutch mother and a Moroccan father, Ayoub is a
young boy concerned with the perennial yearnings of a 15-year-old: being cool,
hanging out with his friends, and being noticed by the girl he likes. But when
a group of older bullies interferes with his self-improvement plans, out hero
joins the dark side. Once the commoner is crowned by a murderous kingpin, his
first royal act will be to take revenge on his abusers.

In a recent conversation with De Jong, he talked to us about
his decision-making process regarding the visual DNA of the film, about working
with fresh-faced actor Ayoub Elasri, and the synthetic escapes that he wanted his
frames to represent.

Prince” is now playing in theaters and available through digital platforms. 

Aguilar: “Prince” is a very unique take on the coming-of-age film, did you want to use stylistic choices to create a different and more dynamic version of what it means to grow up?

Sam de Jong: I
didn’t necessarily want to make something different. I tried to make a film
about a 15-year-old growing up now in the Western world. It’s set in Amsterdam
but I think it’s quite universal. He sort of pursues this dream of getting more
respect and looking like an icon. He wants to change his identity and as that gradually
happens the film stylistically makes the same transformation. Stylistically I
wanted to have the look of the film relate to what he is experiencing, so when he
is getting the new shoes and he feels super confident about himself, we visually
emphasized that. That’s sort of why the goes through different genres and different
textures.

Aguilar: It feels like Ayoub is at an intersection within Dutch society because is of Moroccan descent. Is this dual identity something that you find interesting?

Sam de Jong:  Yeah, he is Moroccan, but in the
Netherlands there are so many kids from different ethnicities that it hardly
even matters whether he is Moroccan or not. I don’t think the film is about his
ethnicity but more about his longings, which are very universal.

Aguilar: You talked
about how the film evolves with the character and there is definitely an interesting blend between the lighthearted touches and the gritty undertones you include. Would you call it a dark fantasy? 

Sam de Jong: It has an overly happy ending – almost too romantic in
a way – and I
would like the audience to leave the movie feeling
invigorated and vibrant, but at the same time you might wonder if it’s possible because it’s not
a realistic ending. I hope that it will encourage
people to reflect on what the chances are for a kid like Ayoub growing up in this place. Whether he would really have the possibility to find someone like Laura or
whether he would be more likely to get stuck in grittiness of this world, because I think that happens more often in real life.

Aguilar: Tell me about your decision-making process regardign the visual style and the color palette in the film, from the clothing, to the spaces, and of course the amazing Lamborghini.

Sam de Jong: The
cinematographer and the production designer came up with blue and yellow
as the main colors for the film. Yellow was obvious because the overall tone of
the neighborhood is very yellow All the 
doors in the neighborhood were red so we painted them all blue. I also shot a short film there in
preparation. The
whole world sort of feels a bit like a desert and it’s very hot, there is
nowhere to escape to. Kalpa, the geeky kingpin with the purple Lamborghini,  comes
in to turn his world upside down. I really wanted that Lamborghini to represent
something completely different, like a different world, a sort of synthetic
escape from his life. I wanted that Lamborghini to complete
contrast with the neighborhood he is living in. That’s why I wanted it to be
purple.

Aguilar: The scene where Ayoub is “crowned”
feels like a powerful transformation. He is coming into his own. 

Sam de Jong: Yes,
he is basically transforming into Kalpa, the bad guy who represents everything
devilish.

Aguilar: There is also several emotional sequences between Ayoub and his father. He wants to save him but he can’t. Where did this doomed character come from?

Sam de Jong: I
always saw him as someone who left Morocco to pursue an artistic career. He
is an artist who never managed to settle or establish himself in the
Netherlands, whereas Ayoub does that in the end. His father never did and he is stuck in his
own reminiscence of his ambitions. There are a few scenes where he mentions a
painting, and it’s a painting by James McNeill Whistler called “Snow in
Chelsea.” The father identifies himself with the figure in that painting,
which is like this romantic painting of a lonely guy stuck in a world covered
in snow.  That’s his way of trying to build a relationship with Ayoub, but
Ayoub doesn’t understand that, in no way do they connect. His father is
basically more of a dream. He is already gone. He can’t be saved, but at the same
time he gets in the way of Ayoub growing up. Ironically enough, when he dies is
Ayoub who grows.

Aguilar: How different is it for you as a director to work with established actors in comparison to working with Ayoub and the rest of the young cast? Is there a great divide?

Sam de Jong: Yes
, it’s different. They are two completely different approaches. With the
established actors you discus the character and you really build a character
together with them. It’s sort of an equal creative process. But with Ayoub we
didn’t talk about his character, we would just fight, laugh, make jokes
and make sure he got into the scene whenever he had to. But it’s nice because
Ayoub is playing Ayoub in the movie, the character is very close who he really
is. For me that delivered a certain realism to the world we were creating,
because on set these young actors were being themselves. When I said cut they didn’t stop being
who they are. It’s an interesting process.

Aguilar: Are there any correlations between what you experienced growing up and what Ayoub goes through in the film?

Sam de Jong: At
that age I was also obsessed with getting new shoes and stuff  like that. Thematically I really
related to the story and also the moral of the film, which is about  growing up and realizing
you don’t need to externalize your problems but rather accept who you truly are
and that good things will come from that. That’s what I discovered at that age and I
wanted to incorporate it into this movie.

Aguilar: Musically the film also very synthetic and evocative. Tell me about working with your composer to add this other layer of originality into the film via its soundtrack.

Sam de Jong: I
really like the sound of the composer Palmbomen when I heard his music, and that’s why I asked him to work with me
and collaborate on this. He really liked that. His sound is influences by the 80s and
90s, I’m from the 80s and in a way maybe it’s a bit of a nostalgic thing for
me. It’s something that takes place now but it’s also part of my childhood. That’s probably why
I liked the sound of this particular music. It’s more of an intuitive thing. I
wanted to create a unique world. It would be more obvious to use Hip Hop,
because these kids listen to Hip Hop, 
but then it would too realistic and I wanted to create my own world with
specific songs that aren’t well known. All the source music in there are obscure tracks that Palmbomen found somewhere and that we could
use for the film. It was a way to create our own environment visually and in sound.

Aguilar: Has “Prince”
premiered in the Netherlands? What was the reception like there?

Sam de Jong:
Yeah, it premiered in June and it went very well. The reception was incredible.
We got so many positive responses and wonderful reviews. People really welcomed
the movie, which is great. For my first film to have such a reception, it
boosts my confidence for my next project.

Aguilar: Now that “Prince” has opened back home and in other places around the world,  are you thinking or working on any new projects?

Sam de Jong: Yes,
I’m now working on a new film about a girl growing up in foster care and who is pursing
a career as a singer. I’m in the process of writing that.

Aguilar: Lastly, I want to know, since the film leaves us with this uplifting and romantic idea of what Ayoub’s life will be,  what do you think  actually happens to Ayoub after the end of the film? What’s his future like?

Sam de Jong: I
think that after two weeks Laura breaks up with him because he is too young,
and one month later he decides to become Kalpa’s disciple, and in two years he
is in jail.

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