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There’s a moment early on in Sam de Jong’s Crystal Bear-winning “Prince” that sets the stage for what’s to come, casting the coming-of-age tale as something quirky, off-kilter and uncomfortably funny. After getting screamed at by a gang of tattooed older guys, young Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri) and his friends stand back to watch as their primary tormentor attempts to make a clean getaway — by kickstarting a pesky four-wheeler that just won’t turn over. The moment breaks the tension and diffuses the danger, and Ayoub and his boys go right back to standing around in a neighborhood courtyard, watching the world go by.
The trick of “Prince” is that all that humor can’t dissipate the real dangers lurking in the feature, which eventually gives itself over to true violence, a tale about growing up the hard way. Dutch director de Jong found his amateur star in an unlikely place — an alley, as it happens — and directed him to a full-bodied and fascinating performance in a film that refuses to conform to expectations. De Jong, however, is still trying to figure out what that means — and what kind of expectations he’d like to set for himself and his career.
Check out the trailer for “Prince” below, and read on to learn how de Jong’s style has changed over the years, why he loves amateur actors and how he ended up directing a wildly popular — and very weird — music video.
I first wrote “Prince” for the star of my short film “Marc Jacobs.” His home situation is very similar to the home situation Ayoub has in “Prince.” Due to personal circumstances, it wasn’t possible for him to play in the film, so then I started looking for a nine-year-old who has the same qualities he has, and what struck me with him, was he grew up very unprotected and he had to fight for his safety on the streets. He was actually a grown up in a kid’s body, and I liked that. A part of that is in “Prince,” about this young kid that, you know, his father is so troubled that he feels that he has to act out and be the man of the family and protect his sister.
I made a 50-minute doc about a Moroccan kickboxer, and Ayoub was in his entourage. I saw, in this sort of seedy alleyway, I saw Ayoub, this young kid cornered by eight older guys. He was just fearless. He was coming at them, he was spitting at them, he was completely uncontrollable. His nickname was “the little rat.” I thought, okay, he has this sort of danger. In “Prince,” he’s pretty sweet, but you feel there’s something underneath. He explodes. I found that interesting, to make him sweeter, but still that explosive nature of his is interwoven in his character.
I’ve been working within the realm of social realism for awhile. I graduated film school with a 20-minute short film about a gymnast, who was also an amateur actor. “Magnesium” is about a gymnast, “Marc Jacobs” is about someone try to act out, they’re all about identity in a certain way. And “Prince” is also about identity and someone looking for their own voice.
We build our identities on labels, but it’s just facade. People kill for labels. If you look at the pop industry and pop songs and sexism and brands, the most popular songs now are just like, “Versace Versace Versace Versace Versace,” those are the lyrics. It’s such an exaggeration of consumerism. I find that interesting. In “Prince,” eventually it’s like an anti-statement. He throws it all away and realizes that’s not where you get your happiness from.
The village I’m from is very small, it’s 200 houses, but it’s super-close to Amsterdam. As a kid, I just watched a lot of commercials, a lot of television. A lot of James Bond with my father, who was away a lot and I always envisioned him being a secret agent. Living in a small village and seeing the world through films was inspiring. I wasn’t particularly brought up with parents who were involved with art a lot, but I was brought up with a global sense of the world.
When I decided I wanted to make films, I just started watching Dutch documentary filmmakers from the 1910’s. I just started to go through the entire history, absorbing as much as I could. Since then, I’ve just been hooked on movies.
I reflect a lot on my own work. I reflect on my grad film, I really see that as a product of film school, I don’t recognize my own voice there yet, because you’re still growing and learning. In “Prince,” I feel like I’m way more en route to finding my voice as a writer/director.
I started as a documentary directing major, but I switched to drama. In my work, you see it’s sort of a blend. I would still like to do documentaries in the future.
[Winning awards] does boost your confidence. There’s so much doubt as a filmmaker, and I’m very scared constantly, insecure. That’s part of the process. You choose to be a filmmaker, but you’re never really sure if you’re the chosen one, if you have talent. You need to get that confirmed sometimes, in order to know you’re on the right route. Every time you get selected for a festival or you get some acclaim, or even a company like Vice embracing my movie, it’s like, okay, yeah, people trust in me. That makes me stick my neck out. It makes me want to dare more.
Lil Kleine, who co-stars in the movie, is incredibly popular as a rapper. His people negotiated that if he appeared in the movie, in the future, I would have to shoot a music video [for him]. So then he sent me this track, way after shooting the movie, and I liked it because it’s so weird. It’s like “drink and drugs.” That’s the message, that all teenagers use molly. [The video currently has over 14 million views on YouTube.]
The short films and the feature, it’s definitely a continuum. “Marc Jacobs” couldn’t be “Prince.” “Marc Jacobs” premiered in Berlin in 2014, I just decided while being there, okay, we’ll be back next year with a feature. After that, I started writing. They really are a family.
I’m writing a film about a girl growing up in foster care and then pursuing a career as a singer. Sort of sidetracking into crime. There’s similarities to “Prince,” but it’s darker. It will be a bit rawer, I think. I’m thinking about a non-actor, but I’m still in the writing phase. I think it will be with amateur actors.
“Prince” is available in limited release today, August 14.
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