Why They’re On Our Radar: In 2010, Belgian filmmaker Michael R. Roskam came to the Berlin Film Festival with his first feature, “Bullhead,” as a relative unknown. A year later and Roskam’s an Academy Award nominee, up against world-renowned directors Phillipe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”), Joseph Cedar (“Footnote”), Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) and Agnieska Holland (“In Darkness”), for the Best Foreign Feature Oscar.
His blistering debut stars Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky Vanmarsenille, a steroid-addicted cattle farmer with a mysterious past. When he intiates a shady deal with a notorious mafioso meat trader, things go haywire, forcing Jacky to face his demons in order to deal with the present.
Roskam, a graduate of the Binger Film Institute in Amsterdam, has several award-winning shorts under his belt. His star, Schoenaerts, has a number of credits but has been relatively unknown to American audiences. The son of celebrated Flemish actor Julien Schoenaerts, he studied at the Conservatorium Toneel Dora Van der Groen school of acting. Prior to “Bullhead,” his highest profile film was “Black Book,” directed by Paul Verhoeven.
What’s Next for Them: Roskam is currently collaborating with a writer on an untitled project set in America. Schoenaerts is also transitioning to American work with a supporting part in this spring’s “The Loft” opposite James Marsden, Wentworth Miller and Eric Stonestreet. He’s also starring with Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone,” Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to “A Prophet.” The drama was recently acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, so expect to see it in theaters later this year.
[“Bullhead” opens in New York, Los Angeles and Austin on Friday, Februrary 17.]
With this and last year’s surprise nomination for “Dogtooth,” it seems the Academy is taking risks in the Foreign Film section. Were you surprised by the Academy’s recognition of your film, given its uncompromising subject matter?
Roskam: Well, the surprise was there, because you cannot predict it. The Belgian entry [for Academy Awards consideration] was announced a couple of weeks before we went to Fantastic Fest. I arrived and immediately people were talking about the movie, because we beat the Dardennes Bros. [“The Kid With the Bike”]. Who beats the Dardennes? They’re the greatest Belgian filmmakers.
And it’s their most open movie, their most cheerful movie. And they’ve been the entry three times, but I don’t think they’ve ever been nominated. There was not a shot for them this time around, which in turn gave us a lot of exposure. And then the good vibe started at Fantastic Fest. A lot of people there liked the movie. We got good press, good reviews. We won three awards. The seed of the good vibe was planted there, and then we went to AFI and won two awards and then Palm Springs. In the meantime we started the whole campaign to get people there, because that’s what it’s all about. Getting people to see the movie and talk about it.
Ever since, it’s been a very calm but very steady wave of good vibes. Being on the shortlist was great, because it’s a great year. There are a lot of good movies. We’re very proud.
Where were you both when you learned the news?
Schoenaerts: I was at home in Antwerp. I knew the awards would be on CNN at 2:30 PM, so I saw it there. It was alphabetical and we were first. And I was like, “Who’s pulling my leg?”
Roskam: I was driving my car. I had been in my studio doing ADR. I finished my job at 2:15 PM and people in my studio were like, “Oh, you don’t want to know, we’re all going to watch it.” But I just got in my car, and I knew that by the time I got home, we would know if I am nominated or not. My wife sent me a text message. I saw the Brussels skyline on my way home and I just enjoyed the moment. I was running out of gas and so I pulled over into the gasoline station, and I was just standing there listing to the ‘ting ting ting’ and thinking, “Damn, I have an Oscar nomination.”
I had an everyday moment and I just wanted to mark it in a way. I was thinking, “My life is going to change a little, though,” so I just try to keep in touch. It was fun, just driving home, and suddenly my phone is going crazy. My phone beeped for two hours.
I learned the film is set in your hometown, Michael. How much of it is tied to your own experience growing up?
Roskam: When I was a kid, I worked during holidays to earn some money to buy a new bike or something. I worked at a farm, and I loved working there. And they’re still my best memories as a student. I think that’s something that was there all the time. And then in the 90’s, the whole Hormone mafia thing was a big scandal. The veterinarian investigator of the food and drug administration in Belgium was killed by some of the meat gangsters. He was this Elliott Ness kind of guy who was the only guy in the whole system who was going by the law. All the other guys were part of the illegal network, trafficking hormones, being corrupt and getting lots of money. He wasn’t playing their games and in the end, they just decided to kill him, execution style.
We were all kind of shocked, like, some of our farmers are actually gangsters? At the same time, my imagination started going, “Wow, that’s pretty original.” My themes were already existing in my work as a writer. It was there in my short films — destiny, vengeance, redemption, loyalty. The whole classic themes of tragedy. So, when I started to make this movie, I decided I want to make a film noir, and for a good film noir, you need an interesting crime scene and a good tragedy. I got the crime scene, doing some investigation, doing some research, and I let my imagination do the rest. The effects of this brutality was inspired by the way they treat pigs in the meat industry and it became this huge metaphor. The main character is a meat guy, who is involved in trading the hormones on top of this. He looks like a bull and he injects himself with hormones, so you’re like, what’s the deal? The whole backdrop and the past created this whole universe.
Did you already have Matthias in mind when first dreaming up the project? I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.
Roskam: We met doing a short film in 2005. We met, we talked, we worked together, and became friends on an artistic level. I knew I wanted Matthias to play the part for many reasons. I presented him the story, he read it and said yes. He was involved from the start, reading different versions of the script, discussing the character.
We just fantasized about the character. Not to say that we ran through every scene and said, “This is this and this is that.” We just wanted to leave it open so we could really play in the moment. Because that’s what it’s about: re-inventing the script while you’re shooting. That’s the fun of moviemaking. Because if it’s just executing what it written out, then it’s just a boring, dead thing, like chess. It’s the cinema. It should be alive. We wanted to be talking about it in every direction. We went in every direction.
Did the role initially intimidate you Matthias, especially given how you’d have to transform physically?
Schoenaerts: Immediately, I was aware of the complexity of the character, but at the same time I was touched by the richness of the character on many levels. Especially on an existential level, I thought it was touching. But it was a big challenge because there were a lot of compositions to be made as an actor and that really triggered me. You had a physical aspect and an emotional aspect and you had the ambiguity in the relationship between the emotional aspect and the physical aspect. It is a very interesting zone to look for and there’s contrast. There was a lot of interesting work on that side. It was just such an appealing character. I had that gut feeling. I fell in love with it and I didn’t know why but I felt it was special. I thought it was going to excite me more than anything I had done before, and I didn’t know why.
Are you from the same area as Michael?
Schoenaerts: No (laughs), so that was part of the composition as well. It’s very much about that particular region and that region has a very specific dialect, which to me, sounded like Chinese the first time I heard it. That really freaked me out. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to make it work, because it was way too hard. I jumped into it right away and started working on it like a maniac. I got a dialogue coach and just started working on it right away.
On top of the physical transformation, that’s no easy task.
Schoenaerts: As hard as it was, it never felt like a sacrifice. When you’re in love with someone, you’re ready to cross the ocean swimming. And it’s the same thing. That’s what I had with this part. I would have done anything.
Let’s talk about the prep work. How much time did you have to bulk up?
Schoenaerts: Well, I started years before, because I was such a little skinny fellow. And on top of that, Michael told me I had to gain some weight. Once I read the script, it was about becoming half bull, half man. I became obsessed with the idea. I had to not only gain some weight, I had to gain a lot of weight, just so I had somewhere to start from before we started shooting. So a year and a half before we started shooting, Michael told me we had a date and the money. We were waiting for five years. I was so happy, I declined every other project and threw myself into preparation for more than a year. Weightlifting, eating and sleeping. I didn’t see him for a couple of months and he asked what I was doing. And he said, “You’ve got to stop working, you’re gonna die.” My mom was also very concerned. Everybody thought I was juicing up. I was so obsessed that at a certain point, I still felt skinny. There was no end.
Roskam: I remember when we were hugging, it was like you were cracking a rock. I was really proud when I saw it happening, and at the same time I started freaking out, like, what if I fuck up this movie and he’s putting his body at stake?
Do casting directors see you differently now, Matthias?
Schoenaerts: In Belgium we don’t have a cinematic culture that really focuses itself on creating iconic characters. This is the first time I read a script where the character was symbolic for so many things. I had the opportunity before to play interesting characters that were far less interesting than this and far less ambiguous. But it’s true that on an international level this film has given me a lot of opportunities. I just worked with the director of “A Prophet.” I consider him one of the greatest directors. It was amazing.
How has your life changed, Michael?
Roskam: My life was more simple before this. I was very comfortable with that, and things start to change, and you have to think of more things, more ideas, more scripts. And in America I have an agent now and a manager who are taking care of me. Of course, I would love making movies in America. Not because I want to send a Hollywood postcard home, but because it’s the highest concentration of the best talent. All the movies I love, many of them, were made here. I would love to go here.
Our critic, Eric Kohn, dubbed you as Belgium’s answer to Scorsese.
Roskam: Is it that obvious? He’s like my artistic grandfather. He’s one of those great guys who I respect and I admire who inspires me. The Coen brothers. And Orson Welles and John Huston and Sam Peckinpah are others And guys from my generation, like James Grey, Soderbergh, I look up to as well. I refer to director’s voices. I want to contribute to cinema with my voice. If I can do it here, it would be great.
It all starts with a good script. It takes a long time to write a script, so I wouldn’t mind directing on a script I did not write or collaborating with a scriptwriter, which I’m doing now for an American project. I have lots of plans now. Let’s just wait to see what’s going to get financed first.