A decade separates Villa des Roses and Madonna’s Pig, Frank Van Passel’s latest film. But he says it doesn’t feel like he’s been away. ‘I didn’t stop directing over the past 10 years, but it’s true that I stopped making feature films,’ he says. Instead he made prize-winning television drama, shot commercials and started the production company now known as Caviar. ‘That took a lot of time, but now Caviar has a life of its own I can go back to where my heart is.’

Text: Ian Mundell; Portrait: Bart Dewaele

Frank Van PasselAfter Villa des Roses Van Passel decided he should take some time out to think before making another feature. ‘In a certain sense I was happy with the film, but I can’t deny that it wasn’t the biggest success,’ he says. ‘Its ambitions were greater than its final achievements, and that’s not good. As a filmmaker, that’s the moment to start asking questions about where it went wrong.’ Madonna’s Pig is the result of that reflection. ‘I’ve gone back to a local story, a Flemish speaking story, to things that are closer to me,’ he explains. ‘And I’m more in control, not only of the content of the film but also of the production surrounding it.’

Maria

The story begins when Tony Roozen, a 25-year-old salesman, heads into the Flemish countryside on a mission to sell Porki. This is a robotic pig which produces noises and vibrations intended to arouse the desires of real pigs and so produce more piglets. It’s a hard sell, but the bonus is worth it and Tony needs the cash to get married. Near the town of Madonna, Tony swerves to avoid someone in the road and his van ends up in a ditch. He goes into the town, but this bizarre rural backwater seems to have cut itself off from the world. There is no mobile phone or wireless network, and no-one wants to help him, since they are too busy arguing over the plan to build a new road through the town. But the young school teacher Maria takes an interest. She is concerned that the road will disturb the dead from World War I, including her own grandfather, whose bodies still lie in the fields around the town. And the figure that Tony swerved to avoid appeared to be a WWI soldier.

‘I’ve felt for a long time that we are the last generation that is connected with people who lived through this war,’ Van Passel explains. ‘Our grandfathers lived through it or fought in it. So I wanted to make a film about the First World War without it being a war film and also, for a generation like my children to be able to connect to these stories, without it being something historical or documentary.’

He also wanted to include the clash between old and new ways of thinking connected to technology. ‘I thought that the confrontation of this digital thinking and analogue thinking could be a beautiful basis for a story,’ he says. ‘Tony arrives in this small village where, on purpose, they don’t have wireless hotspots and they try to keep on living in the analogue age.’

Trusting people

The mix of analogue and digital is also present in the making of Madonna’s Pig, which is the first time Van Passel has shot using digital cameras. ‘I’ve hesitated for a long time, but I was totally convinced by this new Alexa camera. For the first time, I couldn’t see the difference.’

Yet he thought it was vital to retain some analogue attitudes to filmmaking, such as carefully planning shots and rehearsing scenes as if valuable film stock was still being used. ‘You don’t do 25 takes if it is not necessary,’ he says, ‘and I absolutely try to avoid having the crew surrounding a monitor. If the DoP wants to check something on the monitor he can, but everyone else should keep on using their eyes.’ He applied this discipline to himself as well. ‘As a director, if you start watching a screen you are not doing your job. For example, you are judging the framing, which I think a director should never do, or should only do in retrospect. Filming is about trusting people, and this triangle between an actor, a director and a DoP is so important. That’s where a movie is made.’ Van Passel’s regular DoP is Jan Vancaillie, and together they share a preference for a slower, more traditional approach to framing. ‘Some people hate it, but I love being able to shot the public something, and say: “take your time, just look at the shots”.’

For this modern fable they have gone for a magical look, inspired by the work of photographers such as Stephan Vanfleteren, whose images of old Flemish villages Van Passel admires, and Todd Hido, who specialises in street scenes at the magic hour between day and night. ‘There are a lot of night scenes in Madonna’s Pig, so we had to find a way to translate this magical feeling. And I think Jan managed to do this.’

Porki the pig

Asked about his cast, Van Passel jokes that top billing goes to Porki the pig. ‘We had him made by a company in Ghent and it is based on a real machine that was used in the 1980s.’ However he means no disrespect to the actors, and is quick to praise the acting skill and audience appeal of Kevin Janssens. ‘I thought he would be perfect for Tony.’ Meanwhile Wine Dierickx takes the role of Maria. ‘I honestly think she is the most talented actress living in Belgium at the moment,’ Van Passel says. ‘In Villa des Roses I cast Shirley Henderson, and Wine Dierickx has the same approach to acting, the same passion.’ Alongside them he has cast other favourite actors. Wim Opbrouck, who plays the mayor, had an early role in Van Passel’s debut, Manneken Pis, while the priest is Peter Van den Eede, who featured in the drama series Tales of a Liar.

There are also some newcomers. ‘As a big part of the film takes place in the Westhoek region I cast from local amateur theatres, because I needed lots of old people who were able to act,’ Van Passel says. ‘I was really amazed at the talent I found. I’ve seen actors making their film debut who are 87 and 81, and they are brilliant. I think it's the start of a new career for them.’

A further difference between Villa des Roses and Madonna’s Pig is that Van Passel is now the producer as well as the director of the film, although in this role he also has the support of Caviar’s Bert Hamelinck and Marie van Innis.
‘I was only the director in the other movies that I made, but I think I always had a very realistic view on the production limits of what I was doing,’ he says. ‘Of course now I feel these limits much more, but still it doesn’t change very much for me.’ If anything his partners urge him to think more like a director than a producer. ‘Bert helped me a lot, as a colleague producer, by saying: “Oh, forget the money just do it!” That’s a great thing.’

Published on Thursday 28 July 2011

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