INTERVIEW: Coming Up "Rosie" with Patrice Toye
by Anthony Kaufman
“Magritte is something we all have in our blood,” says Patrice Toye, referring to the famous surrealist Belgian painter who informs her debut film “Rosie” along with such disparate influences as Ken Loach, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Terrence Malick. The first female director ever to come from the Flemish side of Belgium, Toye is a startling new talent and her work shows the prowess of a filmmaker-to-watch. “Rosie” combines bracing realism and dreamy poetics to form an evocative portrait of a 13-year-old girl living in the desolate outskirts of a Belgium suburb with her young mother. Toye learned about the true trials of adolescent life with the production of a short documentary about 13-year-old girls and research for a feature-length documentary about a reform school that never got off the ground. It all helped, along with several other documentaries, and two telefilms she directed: a 25-minute docu-drama called “Water” financed by “Rosie” producer Antonio Lombardo (“Antonia’s Line“) and a French-language production called “Mama’s Lover.”
Uniquely lensed with a stark look and intimate portrayals, the film has been much lauded for its sensibility and style, garnering the 32-year-old filmmaker a Best Director award at the Flanders International Festival in Ghent and a New Directors Showcase Award in Seattle. In Ghent, she was presented her award by American screenwriting guru Syd Field (she even studied with Robert McKee) and has this to say about the mainstream conventions of filmmaking: “I must say I learned a lot. If you don’t know those rules, you cannot break them.” Besides breaking rules, Toye speaks here about overcoming sexual prejudice, the division between Flemish and French Belgians, and getting at the truth.
indieWIRE: How do you think “Rosie” follows the rules and breaks the rules?
Patrice Toye: Everything’s been told before, and I don’t think there’s anything new under the sun. We all pick from everybody. What’s important now is to tell things your own way, with your own personality and that’s what I tried to do — to make it truthful. Maybe, not real, but, we have this word for it, but it’s Flemish “waarachtig.” It’s something I can’t translate. Maybe, it’s not real, but it’s truthful. It’s a poetic thing.
iW: In attaining that truth, there’s the documentary work you’ve done in the past, and the specific documentary research for this film. . .
Toye: It’s impossible for me to do something that I don’t like. So I’ve always had to look for my own subjects. Things that really interested me. As a freelancer, I tried to sell those ideas. Like, I’d love to do something on young girls and being 13-years-old. I’ve always picked documentary subjects that had to do with stories I wanted to write. To get stories out of the real world. I did a documentary on a social area, an apartment complex called Chicago block, and it was like bees in a hive. I love to do that, to know what they’re dreaming about. And it all influenced what I wanted to do in a film.
iW: The landscape of your movie is very bleak.
Toye: But I think it’s beautiful in its ugliness. It’s a metaphor — not for Belgium — but for my story, for the world Rosie lives in, which is cold and everything is dead, you don’t see anything that is alive, except for the people who are important to her.
iW: But it looks beautiful, it’s shot with such a unique quality. I read in the notes that “Badlands” was a visual influence for you? What specifically visually were you trying to do?
Toye: We took the color out. At the end of the development process, we didn’t use the bleach. If you don’t use the bleach, the colors fade. And it’s more contrasty. We wanted everything to be a little bit more harsh, more painful. Everyone wants to make “beautiful shots,” and I didn’t want to do that. We tried to invent our own film language, because we didn’t have money. I wanted the film to come out of the eyes of Rosie, that you’re inside her mind and you see things the way she sees them, so we had to do a little bit more than objectively film. We were close to the characters all the time and not making them so beautiful with make-up.
iW: Working with a young person is always a challenge, but you got a wonderful performance from the girl, Aranka Coppens.
Toye: She came out of nowhere, and hadn’t done any acting, not even in school or anywhere. We did a lot of rehearsal. She trusted me, I trusted her and she just blew open. I have this little intuition for people. This is my first feature film, but I’ve done a lot of short films, and I’ve worked a lot with young people. For television, I worked with a young black boy. I started to trust my intuition, and he had this talent for being a good actor. Actor is a strange word for me; I try not them to be actors, but to be. To be the person. And that takes a lot of time. I don’t want to see people “play” something or “act.”
iW: How small was the crew?
Toye: Fairly small, but I always felt it was a big machine, a slow machine. Because I was used to working with a cameraman, his assistant, one lighting and one sound person. And maybe one other person who was my assistant. And then the actors. And that was enough, because we were very flexible. If we wanted to change something, we could. But here, if we wanted to change something, we didn’t, because we had to tell one person and then he had to tell another person and there’s 20 people we have to tell — and that isn’t much, but I thought 20 people was like 10 people too much.
It wasn’t a smooth shoot. The technicians had this thing about me, because I was the first woman Flemish director to make a feature film. And they were all macho guys, going ‘she’ll faint’ or ‘she can’t do this,’ but after two weeks, they started to treat me like a director. I wasn’t going to try to prove myself to them; this is my way of working. I’m not very much an authority. I am so much an actor’s director that I work with my actors — and the visual things I prepared beforehand with Richard [Van Oosterhout] who was my D.P. and my husband of ten years. And we’ve been working together for ten years, so I obviously don’t have to prove to him how I think or how we work. But to the technicians, we were like two extraterrestrials or something. They’re not used to the way we were working. It’s a modern way of making a film, though I think it’s a way that a lot of people use like Cassavettes used to do it. The Flemish are used to the old hierarchy.
iW: Are you, in fact, the first Flemish female feature filmmaker?
Toye: I am. But I’m not proud of it. But I am. Because it’s like the year 2000 and I think we’re peasants or something and it took us so long to make a film, a woman making a film on the Flemish side. I think it’s rather late, isn’t it?
iW: Tell me about financing in Flemish Belgium.
Toye: As it is in America, it’s very difficult to find the money. Although we must be grateful that we get some support from the government. But it’s a small cake, and the cake is divided into the French side, the Flemish side, and you get a very small piece of the cake after asking for two or three years. It’s really difficult. I can’t say I’m angry that it’s so difficult, because it made my script more mature. In the meantime, I did a TV film, I tried to learn the craftsmanship of making films more. I changed my script, I was reading it again and then thinking it was stupid. I grew up. So it helped me in making the film better. But I don’t want to wait 4 years again begging for it to happen.
My story is not the kind of story you can sell so easily. We got some money from the government, but that wasn’t enough. It cost more or less $600,000 which isn’t that much. But there’s no film industry in Belgium. Nobody’s waiting for a film, and certainly not one like this. Although you can think there’s this Belgium wave of good films coming from Belgium [“Rosetta,” “La Promesse,” “Antonia’s Line,” “Toto le Hero,” “State of Dogs“], it’s not really thanks to the system, it’s more that we’re stubborn people or something.
iW: What’s the difference between being a filmmaker in French Belgium verses Flemish Belgium. Is it more difficult being Flemish?
Toye: On the French side, even though they may not be very successful, the government still supports them. On the Flemish side, they have a very different way of thinking. They think the American way; they want films to make money. So they support films that will be box office successes, they support stupid comedies, no, but really stupid comedies, with a no-talent TV actor that will never get out of the country. As far as the government is concerned, it’s very divided. If you get money from the Flemish side, then you have to make a Flemish film with Flemish people, and you can’t talk to a French guy. It’s really very nationalistic.
iW: Tell me about your new project.
Toye: I’m writing it with a Spanish novelist, Ray Loriga (“My Brother’s Gun“). And the writing is going wonderful. It’s vaguely based on one of his books, called “Heroes,” but that won’t be the title of the film. Now, the book hasn’t anything to do with it anymore. I’m in love with the story. It’s a contemporary myth. Whatever I say is too much. I want to tell you more, because I’m so crazy about the story, but it’s too soon. Just two months ago, it was called “Blackout” and now it’s a totally different story. We have a German co-producer, the producer of Kusturica’s film and hopefully at the end of the year 2000, we’ll start filming.
iW: And I’m sure you won’t have to deal with a crew not used to a woman director?
Toye: This time, I won’t take it. I’ll stand up and say, “I won’t take it anymore.” I’ll say, “You don’t have to be in this movie, you don’t have to work with me. Go away.”