Remember Eddy Merckx? There was a time in the 1970s when he seemed to be Belgium’s very own answer to Superman, a prodigy on two wheels who won the Tour de France several times. Whenever he was in a big race, the country would grind to a halt. Men would crowd round fuzzy TVs in spit and sawdust bars to roar him on. His victories inspired them and made them feel better about themselves. Merckx’s exploits were certainly uplifting for the troubled young protagonist of Gert Embrechts’ debut feature, Allez, Eddy!
Text Geoffrey Macnab | Portrait Bart Dewaele
‘Certainly, in Belgium, Eddy Merckx was a super-hero,’ Embrechts declares. ‘He was a perfect human being, as perfect as can be.’
Allez, Eddy! takes place in 1975, when the Belgian cyclist was at his peak… but also the year when he lost the Tour de France for the first time. The setting is a small provincial town. The main character is Freddy, a shy and repressed ginger-haired 11-year-old boy who suffers from incontinence and whose mother cossets him. His room at the top of the house is a shrine to Merckx. Freddy has his own bike, suspended by ropes from the ceiling so that he can recreate his hero’s greatest rides.
Modernity is encroaching. Freddy’s dad has a butcher’s shop and is terrified that the big new supermarket will steal away all his custom. However, to mark the opening of the supermarket, a special race has been planned. The winner will get to meet… Merckx himself! Even though the father hates the supermarket, he secretly signs up Freddy for the race. This is a rites of passage story. Not only does Freddy need to take a step from childhood and fantasy into the grown-up world… his village has to adjust to a new age.
‘We knew in advance that if our main character of the 11-year-old didn’t play well, we would have no movie' – Gert Embrechts
Is the story autobiographical? Not exactly, Embrechts explains. He grew up in a city. However, on a symbolic level, the film chimes with his events in his own life growing up in Antwerp. He came from a family of teachers. His mother ran a shop. ‘But I wanted to make films.’ His relatives were perplexed by his ambitions. He escaped to art school in Brussels having first trained up as an electrician.‘I had to pay for my studies myself which was a disadvantage but also an advantage. I had to work from the first day I went to school.’
The director, already well into his 40s, has extensive experience as an assistant on such films as Peter Greenaway’s 8 ½ Women and Frank Van Passel’s Manneken Pis. The years as an assistant-director in Belgium and The Netherlands were hardly wasted time. However, he eventually took the ‘leap of faith’ and began to direct himself, making primarily TV series and documentaries. He also made two shorts, one of them the award-winning Vincent (2001). It was at that point that he decided to work on his first feature. ‘It’s been a long process,’ he sighs ruefully.
Embrechts credits his stint at the Binger Institute in Amsterdam with helping him finally lick his feature screenplay into shape. In the years that his Allez, Eddy! was edging toward the start line, he also wrote other screenplays, one of them being the script for box office hit Stricken, which got made in 2009 by Reinout Oerlemans.
Allez, Eddy! is far more ambitious in budget and scope than the typical Flemish debut. It cost around €3,5 million; had a large cast and was bold enough to recreate mid-70s Belgium in its minutest period detail. Embrechts was lucky in having a very resourceful and experienced Dutch producer, Jacqueline De Goeij, who also happened to be his wife. She was used to working with young directors who were still ‘willing to see and to learn and to explore new possibilities.’ One of her films, Zus & zo, was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
The writer-director realized at the outset that casting was crucial. Without the right Freddy, Allez, Eddy! wouldn’t get out of first gear. This wasn’t an easy part to play. A neurotic, bed-wetting youngster with a highly vivid imagination is a huge stretch for an inexperienced actor.
‘We knew in advance that if our main character of the 11-year-old didn’t play well, we would have no movie.’
To the filmmakers’ amazement, more than 5000 children applied for the part of Freddy. From that 5000, Embrechts and his team chose 600 to audition. This was then narrowed down to 50 and then to 5… and finally to two. They knew what they wanted. ‘Must be very vulnerable but also athletic. Preferably with red hair.’
The child they eventually chose, Jelte Blommaert, had attention deficit disorder and took pills. No, he wasn’t easy to work with. However, with patient coaching, Embrechts was able to coax out an exceptional performance from him.
‘At first, it was my problem more than his. When you talked to him, it seemed that his attention was wandering everywhere. But I noticed after five or six days that everything I said, he took in… once you really trust him and talk to him, he gets it. He plays very much in the moment.’
It helped that the child actor was surrounded by experienced professionals. His father was played by Peter Van den Begin. His mother was Barbara Sarafian, an actress who has become an international name thanks to her performance in Moscow, Belgium.
The link between Sarafian and Embrechts stretched back more than a decade to when they had been the only Flemish-speaking Belgians on the set of Greenaway’s 8 ½ Women. ‘We found each other on that set because we could say something without other people understanding it.’
Embrechts enthuses about Sarafian’s performance, pointing to the subtle and sensitive way she performs for the camera. ‘It’s amazing! If the camera does something, she knows exactly where to be with her looks and how to play with the other actor. She is not only a very good actress: she’s a very good movie actress – and that is an unusual gift.’
When it came to putting together the crew, that was very straightforward. Embrechts had plentiful contacts from his own days as an assistant-director. ‘Most heads of department I knew and had worked with before.’
The film was shot on digitally, using the Arri Alexa Raw. The quality and resolution, Embrechts believes, were as good as with 35mm. ‘Also, working with a child, I was very glad not to have the stress of having only so many feet of film a day. I’d start the camera running and sometimes I waited two or three minutes before I said “action.”
Unlike many other novice debut directors, Embrechts had been around movie sets for so long that he wasn’t daunted at all when the time came to call ‘action’ on the first day of shooting.
‘I was not stressed on the set. I said, OK, we have to work and get the maximum out of the time we have and the people we have but that was it.’
His challenge was to ensure that the actors and crew could bring that extra dimension to the script he had spent so many years working on.
‘Certainly, in Belgium, Eddy Merckx was a super-hero. He was a perfect human being, as perfect as can be’ – Gert Embrechts
Although the film lovingly recreates the provincial Belgium of the 1970s, Embrechts was careful not to over-do the sideburns, fat ties and big lapels or to indulge in typical 70s nostalgic cliché. Instead, he wanted the film to have a timeless quality. ‘The village was an isolated place far from Brussels. I said to costume and make-up to make it as timeless as possible.’
When you see the film, you think at first it may be set in the 40s or 50s. It’s only when Eddy Merckx is shown racing to triumph or when the boy goes to the big city with his father that audiences will realize that they really are in the mid-1970s.
Was Merckx involved? Not directly, Embrechts explains. However, the former cycling champ is aware of the project. He replied politely to an email Embrechts sent him but hasn’t tried to interfere. ‘He must know. He’s not the lead character in the film and the film is not about his life. It’s about a little boy.’ The director intends to invite Merckx to the premiere and is optimistic that he will come.
So what next? Embrechts is rushing to finish Allez, Eddy! in time for its March release date. It may have taken him until middle-age to make his first feature (he is now 48) but he is determined now to make further films. One new project with the National Theatre of Ghent is provisionally called 4 ½, about ‘five different relationships which could be one relationship.’
He is also working on a war-themed screenplay for Bos Bros. Now, Embrechts states emphatically, he is a full-time writer and director… he doesn’t have time for anything else. (i)