Writer-director Ilse Somers admits to having mixed feelings about her profession. 'I've always had this love-hate relationship with film, because it is so hard to find your way and get your projects made,' she says. Fortunately, the love has proved stronger than the hate and Somers is about to complete High Heels, Low Tide, her first feature for the big screen.

Text Ian Mundell | Portrait Bart Dewaele

Ilse Somers, director of Seaside Rendez-Vous - portraitIt's easy to understand Somers' ambiguous relationship with filmmaking once you hear something of her career. After training as an assistant director in Brussels in the early 1980s, she went to New York to take a masters degree in film at Columbia University. This was meant to be a stepping stone into the US film industry, but just as she was completing her first assignments the Gulf War broke out, the industry contracted and the work dried up.

For a while she split her time between production jobs in Belgium and writing in New York, but this soon became untenable and she returned permanently to Europe. In 1994 she began teaching screenwriting at the RITS film school in Brussels, and in 1997 completed a successful short film, Sancta Mortale, about a young girl living in an old people's home who has vivid religious fantasies. This was followed in 1999 by film for Dutch television, Cowboy uit Iran, about a refugee who befriends two apparently stray dogs on the beach, and through them finds an adoptive family.

red light district
Despite these promising developments, her own feature projects refused to take off. But she took comfort in the increasing amount of work coming her way as a script consultant. 'I thought, if I can't direct then I'll write, and from then on I did a lot of writing.'

Even though this included two relatively successful features directed by Rudi Van Den Bossche, Olivetti 82 (2001) and The Dark Diamond (2004), it was frustrating not to be able to put her own vision on the screen. Eventually she decided to do something completely different. 'I lived in the red light district in Antwerp and I was offered a job restarting social networking in my neighbourhood. I thought: that's a challenge, I'll leave all this film behind.'

The break was not complete, however. She kept on teaching and occasionally helped other filmmakers polish dialogue or shape their scripts. 'And after four years I really really missed it. I knew I had to go back.'

Seaside Rendez-Vous stillSomers had also started a family, which provided the inspiration for her short film IVF (2007) about women's experience of fertility treatment. She also dusted off an old project from her student days. 'A friend said: why don't you make High Heels, Low Tide? It's such an easy film to make, it's a small movie, it's a funny movie. It shouldn't be too hard.'

That was slightly optimistic. A grant from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) allowed Somers to develop the script at the North by Northwest workshop, but it still took five years to secure the funding. Even so, the situation seems to be better now than it was when she first tried to get a feature underway. 'I think it has become much easier for producers than it was before the Tax Shelter,' she says, referring to Belgium's tax break for audiovisual productions. 'Many more films are made now.'

As well as VAF funding and input from the Tax Shelter, High Heels, Low Tide has also won support from Flemish commercial broadcaster VTM. It will be part of the next Faits Divers series, which in the past has included films such as Moscow, Belgium and Happy Together.

'I've always had this love-hate relationship with film, because it is so hard to find your way and get your projects made' – Ilse Somers

career vs. family
The film concerns four women approaching their thirties who have a weekend re-union at the house by the sea where they used to spend their summers as teenagers. 'But they have too many secrets from one another, and the secrets keep them from really being friends,' Somers explains. 'Actually, the secrets ruin the whole weekend and it ends up being a little chaotic.'

The original idea came from thinking about the friends Somers left behind when she went to study in the USA in her twenties. The passing years have only deepened her interest in the theme. 'It has a lot to do with the nostalgic ideas you have about friendship,' she explains. 'When you are good friends you are driven by a feeling for the 'old days' or maybe a memory of one moment. When you see that friend after 10 or 20 years, you experience the same feeling and that makes you think that you are still friends.'

After so much time, Somers considers these things with a certain detachment. 'Now I look very differently on issues such as career versus family, or friends versus family. Now I can laugh about it, because it's all over!'

However, they were a little closer to home for her four actresses: Eline Kuppens, Maaike Neuville, Marieke Dilles and Ellen Schoeters. 'For them it touched real experiences,' Somers says, before conceding that this was no bad thing for the film. 'I wanted it to be played with a certain integrity, and because of their experiences they really brought that in. They really dug into the characters.'

Seaside Rendez-Vous stillThese personal connections came out in a week-long rehearsal period that Somers organised on the set before shooting started. 'That was crucial to the project because it allowed us to see if the tension between the characters was right,' she says. 'I had to shoot in 20 days, so I knew that there would be no time on the set to really go into discussions.'

Even so, some issues would not go away. 'The discussions often started up again on set,' she recalls. 'Some things bring up a never-ending discussion. It evolves and you start thinking, but there was no time to really do that. That was sometimes a little frustrating, but we had to move forward.'

'It's a very personal story, because I adopted a son who comes from Addis Ababa' – Ilse Somers

rethink friendships
The tight time constraint was Somers' main concern, and with four characters in play it was sometimes challenging to get all the shots she wanted. 'It's an actors' film,' she says. 'It's carried by the performers, and you can't ask actors just to jump and take on a role. They need time to be and to create.'

This heightened the tensions that are inherent in filming a comedy. 'I knew what I wanted but I was scared it would not come out, that I would get into the editing room and be stuck with scenes that were not funny at all,' Somers recalls. 'But now I'm very happy. It all works.'

Producer Viviane Vanfleteren was a great support, both during filming and at the editing stage. 'She gives you a lot of freedom to do what you want, but if there are problems, then she is there for you,' says Somers. It's also clear that the location they chose, in Ostend, was just right for the story. ‘The east side is all under development, and that's a nice metaphor for what happens to the women. They have to rethink their friendships.'

Although High Heels, Low Tide is only just completed, Somers already has another script under way. 'It's about a birth mother, an adopted son and adoptive parents who are looking for each other,' she says. Called Addis Ababa, it will involve filming in Flanders and the Ethiopian capital.

'It's a very personal story, because I adopted a son who comes from Addis Ababa,' she explains. In fact, the story is so close to her heart that she almost abandoned Seaside Rendez-Vous to devote all her energy to writing it. 'But I thought: I've fought so long for this story that I'm not going to let go of it now. I'm going to fight until I make it! I also wanted to start small before making something more complicated and more profound.' (i)

Published on Friday 10 February 2012

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