Choose Your Own Reality: an Interview with Mr. Nobody Director Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody, the inventive, original third feature of Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael, opens in U.S. theaters this Friday after being picked up by Magnolia – though the film was made way back in 2009 and was already something of a European cult sensation in 2010.

In fact, the film picked up a Golden Osella and a Biografilm Award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, an Audience Award at the 2010 European Film Festival, as well as sweeping its own Belgian Magritte Awards (taking home six prizes, including best film and director). So why, before this week, were its U.S. screenings relegated to a handful of festival and arthouse venues – including, at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, a “Films that Got Away?” showing? Van Dormael is as mystified as the rest of us, describing any project’s international distribution trajectory as a “message in a bottle dropped in the sea.” A rather romantic metaphor, and perhaps unsurprising, given the film’s sweepingly philosophical thematic underpinnings about destiny, choice, and the possibility of true love.

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Jaco van Dormael on the set of Mr. Nobody

Mr. Nobody begins with an image straight out of some ancient classical riddle: A young boy named Nemo Nobody stands on a train platform, forced to choose between staying with his father or departing on the next train with his mother. Whatever choice he makes will pan out into a separate alternate reality, where the grown up Nemo (Jared Leto) is married to one of three different women (Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley, and Linh Dan Pham in turn). In the following interview, Van Dormael discusses the careful plotting of this ambitious structure (“divergent,” he says, “like a tree”), the capacity for younger audiences to parse non-linear narratives, and his positive relationship with budget.

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Mr. Nobody was completed in 2009 and opened in Europe three years ago, but we’re only seeing it in the U.S. now. Tell us about the complicated process of getting it to American theaters – why did it take so long?

Jaco van Dormael (JVD): It’s really mysterious to me how a film travels, doesn’t travel, travels slowly, quickly, or not at all. I have a feeling that a film is a message in a bottle dropped in the sea. I never know where it will go, who will see it, or what people will read about it. There are some fantastic American films that have never come to Europe, and it’s always difficult to have a film released in China. But it’s always a miracle when it arrives somewhere, especially after such a long time. I’m full of joy about that. Yesterday I was in Brussels and attended the original cut of a film that took three years to return in its original version, and I felt like I was at the scene of a crime.

MM: I believe it had some festival play in the States, though?

JVD: It was shown as a “Film that Got Away” at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2011 – a Film You Didn’t See This Year. It was shown in Toronto, and Venice, and some other countries.

MM: It seems that [the delayed U.S. release] was ironic because this film starred an American actor and it was your first film in English. Do you think that European and American audiences look for different things in a movie? Do you think there are different strategies in packaging a movie for different audiences?

JVD: Oh, yes. Most of the time, people want to recognize themselves in films. I myself like to see films coming from far away. Again, it’s like a message in a bottle: Instead of my little share of life on earth, what would life be like in Afghanistan, or if I was African, or South American, or so on?

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Jared Leto in Mr. Nobody

MM: Tell us about the process of getting the film in production. I understand that you started working on the film all the way back in 2001.

JVD: It took me nearly 10 years to make the film. Six years for writing, because I like to write and I like to rewrite. I always have the feeling that I’m never finished. I worked on the structure, which was very important for Mr. Nobody. I tried to build a structure that was like a video game. Instead of focusing on an end, it was divergent like a tree. This was new to me, so I had to learn the process of screenwriting again – it was totally different storytelling. That took six years. Financing and preparing the film took two more. We shot for six months, then one and a half years of editing. So that was 10 years. But it was fun, really fun. Fantastic crew. Fantastic actors. Even writing for six years was fun.

MM: It’s funny that you say you were thinking of video games because I was thinking of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, where at the end of every page you get to choose a different story path. Do you have those in Belgium?

JVD: [Laughs] Yes, my scriptwriting teacher was [notable Czech moviemaker and teacher] Frank Daniel; who taught Miloš Forman. He was taught in Los Angeles and also in New York. My scriptwriting education is very classical, but what was interesting for Mr. Nobody was how it was possible to reverse the rules. Is it possible, for example, to bring a new character in the third act? That usually doesn’t work; can you make it work? Is it possible to mix different stories that are not converging, to an end that still contains meaning? The modern experience of real life is divergent. Also, I was thinking about [narrative] complexity, which is something that existed in silent film—Intolerance was a complex film in its structure. And then this disappeared when, in the ’30s and ’40s, films became more linear. Films need to speak about a life, and a life is never a story, so how do you make a story of something that is not a story? That was the most interesting challenge.

MM: What do you think is the key to doing that effectively? Obviously you’ve always been interested in non-chronological, non-linear storytelling, even back in your older films (Toto le héros in 1991 and Le huitieme jour in 1996). What do you think someone needs to do to successfully to tell a non-linear story?

JVD: In my own experience of being alive, causes and consequences are rarely very clear, the most beautiful moments are unnecessary, and endings might not have any more meaning than beginnings. In storytelling, it’s just the opposite. Causes and consequences have to be clear. And things have to seem indispensable because everything moves forward from what precedes it. [To counter that philosophy,] in Mr. Nobody there are these different lives, in three acts. Some viewers will have fun being lost in that labyrinth and some people will not like being lost. It’s a game.

MM: So how much of the structure was inherent in your original script and how much of it was developed in post-production?

JVD: The original script was really the editing. Transitions were written to work by association, drifting from one scene and cut to another, describing the process of thinking and of memory, so the structure was there from the beginning.

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Leto’s Nemo has three alternate realities in Mr. Nobody

MM: I just saw [Belgium’s submission to this year’s Academy Awards Foreign Language Film category] The Broken Circle Breakdown, which is also nonlinear. What is it about that technique that makes it so effective, in your opinion?

JVD: New audiences are much more open to new forms and new ways of storytelling. It’s not like literature. Stories are told faster, in a way, jumping from one scene to another. A young person can get a phone call at the same time as being on the internet and watching something—it’s not a problem for them (just for people my age!). I was surprised that young audiences were [the most responsive] in places like Belgium, Moscow and France. For them Mr. Nobody a simple story about choice, and about the complexity that is part of the life of a teenager.

MM: Mr. Nobody had a budget of 33 million euro and was the highest-budgeted Belgian film of all time. How did the size of the budget affected your conception of the project and your process? It was a big step up from your previous films.

JVD: I love to spend money [laughs]. This film was probably too expensive, but it wasn’t something I worried about. We didn’t go over the budget—it’s a job, just like everything. We used more natural sets and natural light, which was cheaper, and we tried to allow audiences to use their imaginations.

MM: The film won The Golden Osella Prize and other accolades for its visual effects and cinematography. Could you talk about some of the choices in developing your visual inspiration and cinematographic strategies in the film?

JVD: What was great was after writing for so long it was fun to work with people. With the cinematography team, we tried, for example, to let the camera reveal truths about character. When someone is emotionally absent, the camera moves onwards totally independent of the character. For each life we tried to find ways to film that was unique to that character. We also tried one main color for each life. At the beginning all the colors exist; when Nemo chooses the girl in the yellow dress, everything becomes more yellow. And when he is an old man all the colors disappear and everything is black and white. That was our key—our Ariadne in the labyrinth—to making it clear what life we’re in.

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Sarah Polley in Mr. Nobody

MM: Can you talk about the complicated visual effects?

JVD: We collaborated with [visual effects supervisor] Louis Morin in Montreal, and three companies in Montreal that did a fantastic job. The goal for the special effects were for them to be as invisible as possible—to blur the lines between real and unreal. For example, when Nemo wakes up in bed after having a dream, he goes to the mirror; the camera is behind him and goes through the mirror and to the other side. It’s strange; in that moment we don’t know if it’s real life. And every Nemo is both a dreamer and a dream.

MM: You had such a long gap (10 years) between making your films. How did the changes in the industry feel when you came back into filmmaking?

JVD: Actually, I didn’t feel like I ever stopped making films. When I’m writing I feel like I’m making films all the time.

MM: Would you ever have someone else direct a script that you wrote, or the other way around?

JVD: Well, that’s the dream. I’m lazy, so if I found a great script by somebody else, yeah, I’d love to. I’ve written by myself and I’ve also written films with a friend. I’ve begun to love collaborating with a friend, because even if we had no good ideas in a whole afternoon, at least it was still a good afternoon. MM

Mr. Nobody is currently available on iTunes and VOD, and opens in theaters on November 1, 2013.

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