“Every day I was crying,” says director Felix Van Groeningen about his experience in production on The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s official Best Foreign Language Film entry for this year’s Academy Awards. We believe him: All MovieMaker editors had the same lacrimose experience watching the film. Talk about a sucker punch. This is a film that seems expressly calibrated to rip your heart out from your chest and pummel it into despair.
If that didn’t make you want to go out and watch it as soon as you can, perhaps the film’s exquisitely truthful performances from stars Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens, and its winsome, energetic bluegrass soundtrack (watching heartfelt Belgian interpretations of extremely American music is a kick), might do the trick. The story—based on a successful play co-written by Heldenbergh himself—revolves around a banjo player and a tattoo artist who fall in love with an intense, palpable headiness. Tragedy strikes their new family, however, driving a wedge into their picturesque romance and forcing each character into a lonely spiral of grief and doubt. In the following account of the deeply emotional making of the film, Van Groeningen writes about difficult casting decisions, on-set weepiness, international festival success, and what drove his desire to bring Belgian heartbreak around the world.
This film is an adaptation of a stage play. When I first saw the story in its original medium, I cried for about half of it. It was an overwhelming experience. Although I was immediately attracted to the thought of adapting it, I didn’t go for it at once. The story was beautiful, but I didn’t see how I could turn it into a movie. For the next six months I considered it, rejecting the idea repeatedly, but finally I decided that it was too good to not try to make work.
Carl Joos, the co-writer, brought great new energy and ideas for how to tackle this adaptation, and so away we went. In the year that followed, during the writing process, I often cursed myself for taking the project on. How were we going to bring all of these elements to the screen? The beautiful love story, the music, the tragedy this couple endures. There is a lot of sadness in the story, but the play never felt depressing—it actually was rather soothing and life-affirming. My eventual solution: never giving up, never stopping, always trying to take it one step further.
I wrote an early draft by myself that neither the producer nor my co-writer liked. I would have given up if my girlfriend hadn’t persuaded me to believe in what I did. She convinced me to persist. With a couple of small changes I managed to clarify what I wanted to achieve for my collaborators and get them back on board. At some point my girlfriend also collaborated on the writing with me, which is one of the many reasons this movie is dedicated to her.
The original play was written and directed by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, who both acted in it as well. When I talked about adapting this play into a movie, we agreed that I could be free to cast whoever I wanted, though I never intended to work with different actors (I just didn’t want my hands tied). While writing the first draft, however, I started to feel that I had a different perception about the female lead, as we altered the character slightly during writing. At some point I had to explain to both Johan and Mieke that I wanted to go on with Johan, but had my doubts about Mieke—obviously a very painful discussion.
As I didn’t really know what I wanted, we decided to do auditions for the female role. That’s where I met Veerle. She blew Johan and me away during the audition. Recasting the part was a decision that took months; casting Veerle was a decision made in a couple of hours. It led to a career-defining performance for her in the movie. Ironically, the hardest choices you have to make are often related to the easiest choices. It all has to do with a gut feeling. Sometimes that instinct is very clear, and sometimes it’s hidden somewhere deep down.
From the first shot on our first day of production, I knew that the shoot was going to be emotionally draining. Every day I was crying. Some days the whole crew wept. The strange thing is that after a while, you become so sensitive that you even start to cry at all the beautiful and joyful moments, too. It surely was the most intense shoot I ever experienced.
The editor for all of my previous movies, Nico Leunen, initially wasn’t available to work on this film. I felt very bad about this because Nico was not only a friend, but also a very important person on my team, but I began working with a different editor. Four months in, we weren’t getting where we should have been. I called Nico again and asked him if he wanted to take a look at what we’d done. He did, and a couple of weeks later we started working again on the film. He’s just the best editor in the world. When we’re together magic starts to happen. He gets the best out of your material, sometimes setting aside the written script and starting fresh in editing, something I also really love to do. We worked together for the next two months and had the best time ever.
My previous film, The Misfortunates, was my first to cross borders and be distributed internationally. The whole crew really hoped that this film was going to follow the same path. We all felt that The Broken Circle Breakdown had become something unique and deserved it. When we started to send the film to festivals we were met with a great deal of rejection, from festivals big and small. It was frustrating. When you’ve put so much into a film, when you’re so deep in it, rejection is a hard pill to swallow. Luckily, we had a great sales agency, The Match Factory, who really believed in the film. They persisted and finally got it into the Berlin International Film Festival. It was still months away, and those months of waiting were some of the most difficult of my life. I just didn’t know what was going to happen. But in Berlin we had the most beautiful screening ever; our premiere was met with a standing ovation and applause for minutes.
Everything came together. It was incredible; the film had found its audience. At the end of the festival we had won two prizes, then we went to the Tribeca Film Festival and won two more. All the effort we put into making this film had paid off, and I would do it over again and again and again.
– Felix Van Groeningen MM
Tribeca Film is opening The Broken Circle Breakdown November 1, 2013, in New York, November 8, 2013, in Los Angeles, with an expanded releases in other U.S. cities in the next few weeks. The following clips are two scenes from the film.
In this scene from the passionate early stages of their relationship, Elise greets Didier at his self-made ranch in the country with a surprise out of Didier’s fantasies.
This scene finds them performing a classic bluegrass song, but with a painful distance between the two lovers on stage.