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by Sarah Salovaara
October 31, 2013 1:31 PM
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'Broken Circle Breakdown' Director Felix Van Groeningen Talks About His Foreign Language Oscar Contender

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?"

Of course.

"The Broken Circle Breakdown" Tribeca

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.

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