Like many Flemish directors, Peter Monsaert did not rush into his first feature film. After graduating film school, he worked in theatre and video arts until he was handed a project he couldn’t resist. He re-wrote the script over four years before shooting. ‘I’m convinced that I was only now ready to make a feature film,’ the 37-year-old says. ‘I think I’ve made a better film now than I would have made 10 years ago.’

Text Lisa Bradshaw     Portrait Bart Dewaele

peter monsaert © bart dewaelePeter Monsaert’s first feature is called Offline, a reference to how difficult real life can be compared to the safety and distance of the internet. The main character Rudy (Wim Willaert) is a man just released from prison who wants to re-connect with his family. ‘Because of what has happened in the past, that is nearly impossible,’ says Monsaert (pictured on the right © Bart Dewaele), ‘but he still believes that he can.’

Things don’t quite go Rudy’s way, and he finds an unlikely escape: a young woman working on a web-cam sex site. But it isn’t what you think. Rudy and the girl, Vicky, connect in every way except sexually. They talk regularly, give each other advice, form a real friendship. ‘You get two plotlines,’ explains Monsaert, ‘the virtual one, and the real-life world’.

The character of Vicky (Anemone Valcke) doesn’t only come to us online; we see her in the real-life world, too. She’s trying to escape a small-town life of boredom and poverty by enrolling in university in the city of Ghent, but she has to pay for her studies. Hence, the web-cam job. ‘She thinks that it’s an easy job, easy money; she can just do it at night,’ explains Monsaert. ‘But it’s really harder for her than she wants to admit. Then she meets Rudy online, and he’s different from all the other guys, and that confuses her.’ Whether Vicky and Rudy will ever meet ‘offline’ is one of the film’s big questions.

Monsaert worked on the script for four years before shooting last year in his hometown of Gent. The script originally developed as a collaborative project with a social-artistic platform called Victoria Deluxe. But eventually the organisation handed the entire script over to Monsaert to finish. ‘At a certain point, they told me that the project was becoming too big for them and that we should find a producer.’

They found one in Lumiére, producer of such successful films as Dorothée van den Berghe’s Girl in 2001 and the Oscar-nominated A Cat in Paris. With Lumiére on board, the project really began to move forward and was shot in 37 days last autumn.

Video art to feature films

Monsaert went to film school in his 20s and made a few shorts, but he waves them away as projects from a previous life. It was his installations, video art and mixed media that have paved the way to film directing, he says. ‘I think that everyone who starts film school thinks they’re going to make feature films. But by the time I finished, I really had more of an urge to make smaller projects that I could really finish. For me, film back then was too long, too much, too big.’

Besides video art projects, he began writing and directing theatre, a medium much more in keeping, he says, with that kind of attitude. ‘You sit on a chair, and you say “I’m in a forest,” and you’re in a forest. For me, that was a release. I didn’t want to  be a third assistant on a film and then second and then first. I didn’t see that as my way towards making films.’

Psychological drama

Because the script for Offline was developed with an organisation that works with a number of at-risk or marginalised populations, the two central characters are both people struggling with their place in society. But Monsaert is quick to emphasise that it’s no social drama. ‘Most of Rudy’s problems are with his inner circle. The source of his problems is inside him,’ he explains. ‘So it’s more of a psychological drama than a social drama. The same story could have been told in a wealthy family. The basics of the story are the personalities.’

‘Anemone does have traits in common with her character. A big mouth but a very sensitive heart'

Of course Monsaert had to find just the right actors to play Rudy and Vicky, since they carry the film almost entirely. Wim Willaert, who plays Rudy, is in nearly every scene. Willaert is a character actor in Flemish film and television, rarely playing a lead role. He may even be better known in France, after the film in which he starred, Quand la mer monte (When the Sea Rises), won two Césars in 2005.

Although he has had roles in high-profile Flemish films such Koen Mortier’s Ex-Drummer and  22nd of May, the bearded, long-haired Willaert is rarely recognised when he walks in the street or sits in a pub. Which is exactly what Monsaert was looking for when casting. ‘I had this romantic idea that we were going to find people on the street and make a film full of unknowns,’ says Monsaert. ‘But finally, I had to be honest with myself. As a first-time director, I was making it harder on myself, with all these uncertainties with actors who have never been on a film set.’

In the end, Willaert had not only the experience and talent Monsaert was looking for, but also the look. Willaert’s other job as a singer and pianist also helped him fit the role of Rudy, who is a huge fan of classic rock.

Monsaert did in fact hold open auditions for Offline; posters hung around Ghent ensured that amateurs as well as professionals would have the opportunity to audition. Anemone Valcke, who has had important roles in such award-winning Flemish films as Moscow, Belgium and Oxygen, auditioned for Vicky, and there was no question once Monsaert saw her that she was the one. ‘When Anemone came in, I saw Vicky sitting there. Actually, she does have traits in common with her character. A big mouth but a very sensitive heart.’

Rock’n’roll Rudy

Monsaert wanted the soundtrack for Offline to match Rudy’s interests, so he hired Belgium’s most famous blues rock band, Triggerfinger. The band wrote all original compositions for the film. It’s the first time that the band, founded in 1998, has ever worked on a film score. ‘Rudy is the guy who listened to blues rock in his time and to early Black Sabbath and Cream and all these 1970s and ’80s rock bands,’ says Monsaert. ‘Triggerfinger are the modern incarnation of classic rock, so I thought that would work. And it really does. There are some passages where Rudy is listening to his old cassette tapes, and Triggerfinger composed a Jimi Hendrix song and a Black Sabbath song that really sound like lost songs of those bands. Hopefully some of the fans will really question it: Is this an unknown Black Sabbath number?’

peter monsaert offlineAnother pro on Monsaert’s set was Ruben Impens, the director of photographer, who brings a naturalistic approach to Offline (pictured still on the right © Jonathan Wannyn) in the same way he did to Moscow, Belgium (2008) and The Misfortunates (2009). ‘I really like that Ruben is more than just a guy who makes a nice picture,’ says Monsaert. ‘He has comments to make on the script, on the acting; he really thought a lot alongside me. Because he is really into the script and the characters, he chooses his shots starting from them.’

The entire process of shooting his first feature was easier than he imagined it would be, says Monsaert, ‘because I surrounded myself with professionals. The team was so strong that all I really had to think about was directing. There was just one thing – it was Wim who said it. One day he said, “Peter, it’s like you’re making your 10th film, the only thing that gives away that you haven’t had any experience is your shoes.” It was pouring down rain, and my feet got soaking wet. Everyone else was standing there in full rain gear, and I was in jeans and tennis shoes. So that day, I was the laughing stock of the crew.’

Victoria Deluxe                                                                                                                                                                

Director Peter Monsaert has participated in several projects of Victoria Deluxe, a social-artistic platform for co-operations between artists and ordinary locals in Ghent. Victoria Deluxe in particular works with working-class and immigrant neighbourhoods and with specific target groups that benefit from social contact in creative endeavours, such as substance abusers, the mentally ill, the chronically unemployed, immigrant youth and elderly people.

It was Monsaert’s video work that attracted the attention of the platform when it launched in 2004. He had put together an installation together with dozens of people from his neighbourhood for a city-sponsored project designed to get citizens more involved with the arts. ‘People sit in their living rooms and watch television and don’t seem to have much contact with their neighbours anymore at night,’ says Monsaert. ‘My idea was to take our televisions and put them in front of our windows with the screens facing outside. I made 30 or 40 little films with all of these people in my neighbourhood, using the enemy of social life – television – as a way to connect with each other.’

Since then, Monsaert has worked on film projects for Victoria Deluxe. It was that organisation that first brought him the script for Offline. ‘We meet a lot of people with a lot of stories, so the idea was to get some of these stories into a script.’ Victoria Deluxe eventually contacted him to direct the film and get his thoughts on the script. He got more and more involved as a co-writer and after a few more years of re-writing and re-plotting, Monsaert was finally satisfied. ‘It’s come a long way from the original story to this story,’ he says.

Published on Tuesday 14 August 2012

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