Jakob Verbruggen jokes that he owes his chance to direct BBC television series The Fall to the Danes and the Swedes. ‘I have to thank The Killing and the Scandinavians’, he says. What he means is that the British television industry is opening up.

Text Ian Mundell | Portrait Bart Dewaele

Jakob Verbruggen'There is an interest in the European way of filmmaking,' he explains. 'The Americans like European directors for their big genre films, because they have a fresh approach, and I think that the British, inspired by what they see coming from the Scandinavian countries, are trying to refresh their television drama. They want a fresh look, a fresh visual style and I think that's why they got me on board.' On a practical level, the connection came through Code 37. Verbruggen was one of the principle directors on this Flemish television series and went on to direct a successful spin-off feature film, Code 37 The Movie. When British production company Artists Studio picked up remake rights for the series, they asked if Verbruggen would like to read the script of The Fall. 'It was a surprise that they called me, but I'm happy that they did,' he says.


Different atmosphere

Bringing new life to old genres has been a theme in Verbruggen's career. After graduating from the RITS film school in Brussels in 2002 he was taken on as an assistant by directors Erik Van Looy and Jan Verheyen, eventually directing two episodes of Verheyen's fast-moving crime series Missing Persons Unit (Vermist). He went on to make dark melodrama 180 for Dirk Impens' production company Menuet, which then launched Code 37. This series featured the tough but troubled police inspector Hannah Maes (played by Veerle Baetens), who takes over the vice squad of the Ghent police force. At the same time she investigates a violent crime in her family's own history. Verbruggen's idea for giving this series a different atmosphere was to borrow elements from the western genre. 'It's in the set design, the way the actors look with their western boots and the way they carry their guns,' he explains. 'The actors were all given Rio Bravo as a reference.'

The Fall also centres on a tough female cop. Police inspector Stella Gibson (played by Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame) is brought from London to Belfast to review a murder investigation. When she finds other unsolved murders are connected to the case, she becomes convinced that a serial killer is at work. In parallel, we see the serial killer going about his everyday life. The series is written by Allan Cubitt, who together with producer Gub Neal won Emmy Awards for their work on series two and five of Prime Suspect, a landmark in television's treatment of women in the police force. Coincidentally, Prime Suspect was also a reference for Verbruggen while he was developing the Hannah Maes character.


thefallfimagHis approach to The Fall also has some distinct influences, although westerns don't feature this time. One was to draw on documentary techniques, using a casual, hand-held style of camerawork. 'That brings the audience closer to the story of the police investigator and creates a heightened reality for the personal world of the serial killer,' he explains. At the same time he wanted to generate a sense of mystery around the characters. 'It's not a whodunit or whydunit, it's whether or not the killer is going to get away with murder,' he says. That means giving viewers time to get to know both the killer and Stella Gibson. 'They are both enigmas.' To achieve this he drew on the slow, stylish character development in Nicolas Winding Refn's film Drive. Verbruggen also took inspiration from Gaspar Noé's films Irreversible and Enter the Void. 'He has some nice ways of treating point of view. The killer in The Fall is a voyeur and so we tried to make the audience as much of voyeur as possible.' Taking on board these influences meant deploying a range of camera techniques, from hand-held and steady cam to cranes and long tracking shots. Being able to do this was one of the advantages of working on a series for the BBC. 'Filming is the same everywhere in the world and there is never enough time, but here you could feel there was a bit more budget,' Verbruggen says.

This was also apparent in the number of people involved, for instance on production design. 'There are more people in the art department, and they are all working and doing things,' Verbruggen says. 'I thought: Poor Belgian art directors! They work their asses off, and they're very good, but they have to do it with three people, or five on a feature film. Here there were at least twice as many people involved.' But with more money comes more responsibility, and Verbruggen was struck by the way in which the writer, producers and the broadcaster were closely involved in taking decisions about shooting the series. 'It's not that I was restricted, but I could feel that every step was being watched.' But he also recognises that, as a young director with no track record of making TV in the UK, he wouldn't be allowed to go his own way. 'I had to prove myself again, which was challenging, sometimes tiring, but also very interesting.'


Being able to work closely with the writer, Allan Cubitt, turned out to be very rewarding. 'There are good scripts in Belgium, but if you read a BBC script you can feel the experience the writers have in telling a story and helping directors visually,' Verbruggen says. And try as he might, there was something special about working with Gillian Anderson. 'I always thought: I'm not going to be star struck, she's just another actress,' he says, 'but then at a certain point you are on set and Scully walks up to you... That's something! It's actually rather cool.' He also had to remember that she was more than just a famous face from The X-Files. 'She has 10 TV series and 10-20 films more experience than I have, so I had to be very focused and make sure I did my homework.' Similarly it was necessary to let Anderson explore the limits of her character. 'If things were difficult or for some reason she was not happy with takes and wanted to keep on going,  then I could help her and make a contribution,' he says. Nothing beats the feeling when that pays off in a scene. 'You see it from behind the monitor and you think: Yes, that's why you're a star! It all comes down to good understanding and teamwork.'


code37filmIn the immediate future Verbruggen plans to take a well-earned holiday. 'I did Code 37 and The Fall back-to-back, so I've been working non-stop for two years,' he says. 'It's a good moment to take a little break and reset my mind.' He still dreams of making an original feature film, for which Code 37 The Movie is a good first step. Beyond that he is open to offers for more TV work. 'I haven't been spoiled by the experience of working on The Fall. If there is a good project, I'm happy to come back and work in Belgium. But we'll see what the UK adventure brings.'

Published on Monday 13 May 2013

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