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.