Early on in Michaël R. Roskam’s debut feature Bullhead, there is a shot of the main character Jacky sitting naked on the edge of a bath in the near dark. It’s an image eerily reminiscent of paintings by Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon. It is often said of these artists that they depict the human body as if it is a lump of flesh in an abattoir. Text Geoffrey Macnab | Portrait Bart Dewaele

Director Michaël R. Roskam (c) Bart DewaeleIn Bullhead, set in the world of hormone smuggling, the slaughterhouse isn’t just a metaphor. The world that Jacky inhabits is one in which cattle are injected with drugs that make them grow quicker so that they can be killed quicker and more profitably.

In the late 1990s, a vet was murdered in Belgium because he pried too closely into what was happening in the slaughterhouses. He had stumbled on a scheme to fatten livestock artificially - and illegally. The farmers behind it intimidated and bribed anyone in a position to reveal what they were doing. The police were slow to respond. After all, you don't expect to the agricultural world to be a hotbed of Mafia corruption. When the vet had exposed the farmers, they had had to destroy the bulls which had been fattened. They were furious at losing thousands of Euros. That's why the vet was killed.

Roskam studied the case in great detail. No, Bullhead isn't based directly on what happened. This is fiction, after all. However, he freely acknowledges that this notorious case was one of the inspirations for his movie.

‘For me, Bullhead is like a tragedy,’ the writer-director muses. ‘It's a tragic tale of destiny and innocence. I've always been fascinated by the American gangster films. I love them! I wanted to do one in my own way, on my own soil, with my own background.’

Strange rituals
Roskam realised it would be utterly implausible to make a Godfather-style gangster pic in Belgium. ‘It doesn't really exist,’ he says of the type of brooding, Italian-American mafia bosses played by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Of course, Flanders has crime. By honing in on the close-knit world of the ‘hormone mafia’, he hoped to find a Flemish equivalent to the Corleones and their sidekicks.

Bullhead has a conventional thriller narrative. There are cops, informers and plenty of heavies. However, this is as much a psychological character study as it is a gangster pic. Jacky has been deeply traumatised in childhood. As an adult, he has transformed himself into a bulky, muscle-bound and very imposing figure. No one messes with him. At the same time, Roskam insists, the character has an innocence and even an idealism about him.

‘I am old enough now to understand that I have to be patient and to work, work, work until the screenplay is as pure as I can have it’

As a youngster, Roskam spent a few months working on a farm in the area where the film is set. He knew the milieu inside out. It's a tough and unforgiving world. ‘But there are different social levels,’ he remembers. He was lucky enough to be employed by ‘gentleman farmers’ who were prepared to hire student workers.

There are some strange rituals in rural Flanders. When men are still unmarried in their 30s, they are often relentlessly mocked. ‘It's typical that when you are 30 and you are single, your friends will take one of the worst pictures of you they can find. They'll copy it, call you an ox, and distribute leaflets and posters which say that you are treating everybody to beer in the local pub. You have to go through with it.’

R2D2 and C3P0
This is a very intense piece of filmmaking but it does have a comic undertow. Two hapless Wallonian mechanics get caught up in the hormone mafia. These French-speakers are bewildered and appalled by the behaviour of their Flemish counterparts.

‘You know, in The Hidden Fortress by Kurosawa, you have two two low-lifes... or actually it's like R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars. They also help push the plot. Because of their stupidity, they actually create the circumstances that lead to the downfall of the main characters.’

Bullhead is Roskam's first feature... and it took him five years to get it in front of the cameras. Over the last decade, he has made several well-received shorts, among them Haun, Carlo, The One Thing To Do and Today Is Friday. In the meantime, he worked on the Bullhead screenplay. And there have been some false starts along the way but the characteristic he has learned is patience. ‘I am old enough now to understand that I have to be patient and to work, work, work until the screenplay is as pure as I can have it.’

Roskam's producer is Bart Van Langendonck of Savage Film. They already worked together on Haun, Carlo and The One Thing To Do.

As Bullhead edged toward completing its financing, Roskam took on bits and pieces of other work. ‘Radio commercials!’ he cites one source of revenue. These were relatively well-paid and didn't interfere too much with the serious business of licking his feature script into shape. He also did some part-time teaching directing at Sint-Lukas. ‘That was a bit weird because I hadn't done my first feature film and I already had to teach some kids.’

Richter, Bacon and Freud
The 38 year old filmmaker grew up not far from Liege in a community not that far from the one he portrays in Bullhead. His father is a picture restorer. Roskam began his own career as a painter. ‘I was very much inspired by Gerhard Richter but also by guys like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud,’ he recalls. His initial passion as a teenager had been drawing comics. He studied graphic design and painting but soon decided that he ‘wanted to tell stories, to go from A to B,’ and not to be stuck with a single image. In his late 20s, he wasn't quite sure which direction he wanted to head in. He wrote novels and dabbled in experimental video. ‘At 27 and 28, I was a big mess,’ he reflects ruefully. ‘It was a very dark period. I thought I would never find my feet. I lost discipline. I couldn't finish work.’

He describes making his first short film as being like ‘coming home’. At last, he had found a medium in which he could express himself.

Yes, filmmaking is expensive and complex by comparison with painting on your own in a studio. It is also immensely time-consuming and there is often a small eternity between having an idea and being able to make the actual movie. ‘But I always make a joke about it. I am kind of lazy. I say that now I can disguise my laziness with patience!’

Bullhead was shot on 35mm. Not that the director considers himself a ‘fetishist of film stock’. He relished the quality and depth that cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis was able to achieve. However, if a digital format offered similar quality, he says he'd change immediately. ‘Up to now, the difference between film and digital has been like that between oil painting and acrylic painting.’

Matthias SchoenaertsKarakatsanis is an outspoken personality with a strong artistic vision of his own. That's precisely why Roskam relished working with him. ‘Many of the people I work with are not easy guys but I liked it. They keep me sharp. Easy is boring. They're sharp, funny and serious at the same time. They want to work until everything is just right.’

What of Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Jacky in Bullhead? ‘Oh, he's easy…(the director winks) but not boring!’ the director says of the actor, who transformed himself into the brooding, massive Jacky. ‘I am very proud of him. He knew that he could use all his talent, which is enormous, to create this character. He knew he could go 100% with all that he had.’

Buda Bridge Bitch
So what now? Roskam has several treatments in advanced states of development.

He has become expert at shifting focus from one idea to another. He enjoys putting a project on one side and then revisiting some months later and seeing how it stands up. Roskam is writing a screenplay a mini-series project with the working title Buda Bridge Bitch – ‘it's science fiction/film noir’.

He is also working with Jeroen Perceval on D'Ardennen, a road movie about three guys driving to the Ardennes with a corpse in the boot of their car. Another project is The Faithful, an escape/heist movie about a convict whose wife is dying of cancer and who plans to help him get out of prison. Whatever happens with Bullhead, the writer-director is bound to be busy over the coming months. ‘I have my stories ready! I have projects for the next 10 years,’ he jokes.

Published on Thursday 27 January 2011

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