Belgian writer-director Jaco Van Dormael is an auteur in every sense of the word. Thoughtful, imaginative and authentic, his films are to be experienced, not seen. Just don’t expect answers, because Van Dormael would rather you walked away asking questions.
Paste recently sat down with the director to discuss the U.S. release of his epic sci-fi drama Mr. Nobody, starring Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diana Kruger.
A young boy stands on a station platform. The train is about to leave. Should he go with his mother or stay with his father? An infinity of possibilities rise from this decision. As long as he doesn’t choose, anything is possible. Every life deserves to be lived.
Paste: The first thing I thought after I watched Mr. Nobody was, “Why haven’t I see this movie before?”
Jaco Van Dormael: (laughs) Yes, that’s a great question. It has the speed of a message put into a bottle and dropped into the sea. It’s a film that has traveled slowly with a lot of accidents, chances and theories of chaos—the life of the film is close to the subject of the film—but it continues to find its audience.
Paste: The movie was such a surrealistic and profound experience. What inspired you to write this story?
Van Dormael: In fact, I started from a short film I made (È pericoloso sporgersi) about a boy who has two different lives based on whether he follows his mother on a train or stays at the station with his father. It was a 12-minute film, so it just showed his two possible lives.
Later, when I revisited the subject, I realized that in my own life after any one decision, there was always another decision, another choice, another chance. And so, there were not just two possibilities or lives for the boy, there were an infinite amount of lives possible in every moment, because in that moment all things are possible.
Paste: When a film has such a dream-like quality to it, how do you capture that on the page?
Van Dormael: I had to learn to write completely differently. As a writer you usually tell a story that becomes narrower and more focused as it moves forward to the end, and of course the ending then derives meaning from everything that has preceded it. But this story gets larger as it moves forward; it expands like the branches of a tree.
I think this way of telling the story reflects more of that strange feeling of being alive. And I love being alive because I live in a world where truth and consequences are not always clear, where the most beautiful things are not the most indispensable, and in the end, where my death will not give meaning to everything that has preceded it.
Paste: Was it a long process from script to screen?
Van Dormael: Yes, it was. I wrote the script for six years, writing three hours a day, five days a week. It took four years to finance the film, six months to shoot it and then editing was a year-and-a-half. The whole process was ten years between the first time I sat down at the table to write and the end of the sound mix. It was ten years, but it went by really fast, and it was a joy to do.
Paste: The music was also amazing. Did you have the soundtrack in mind while you were writing or was that something that happened organically later on?
Van Dormael: There were a few songs, like “Mr. Sandman,” that I was listening to while I was writing, but the most important music in the film is what my brother Pierre composed.
I asked him to create something really simple as a counterpoint to the complexity of the storytelling. It’s one guitar, and it’s some of the most beautiful music he has ever composed, and it was also the last music he composed. He had lung cancer and he could not breathe while he was playing, so he would have to stop playing every 40 seconds. And then he would take a breath and go back to playing, so the music is all played without breathing. Because of that, the music has an underlying tension, and for me it’s very moving. (Pierre Van Dormael was posthumously awarded the Magritte Award for Best Original Score for his work on the film.)
Paste: Mr. Nobody pulls you in such a way that you’re completely engrossed in the story, but still able to notice those details. It’s a total experience.
Van Dormael: Thank you. It’s always very mysterious trying to imagine what others see because of course I can never truly see my own film. I know it by heart.
This way of sharing an experience is always unpredictable and mysterious because it’s so personal. Often people will say that there are three pieces to making a film: The first is the script, the second is the shooting, and the third is the editing. But I think there is a fourth piece that is probably the most important—and that is what the viewer experiences and takes home. Because the movie is not what’s on the screen, the movie is in the memory of the people who have seen it.
Paste: And what would you like to see people walk away with?
Van Dormael: That there are no bad choices. Every choice is a good choice; every path is a good path, and every life deserves to be lived.
That was the message I tried to share, but I also didn’t want to propose answers to anything—only questions, because the questions are more interesting than the answers. They stay with you longer. This is a film about questions, not answers.
Paste: Every actor was perfect. How did you go about casting?
Van Dormael: Sarah Polley was my first choice, and she said yes right away, so we were fortunate. She’s an amazing actress.
And with Jared [Leto] it was incredible, because he truly is an actor of transformation. He played nine different versions of Nemo and created such distinct character choices for each one. And not only in the way he looks, but the way he breathes, the voice, the rhythm, the way he walks—he was the perfect actor.
Paste: Jared Leto seems to choose unconventional and challenging roles. Was it difficult for him to play nine different versions of Nemo? How did the two of you partner together to make it work so well?
Van Dormael: We first worked by reading and thinking through the characters, then rehearsed with different looks, dresses, walks—for Jared, finding the voice is so important. He has fantastic control of his voice.
Sometimes he would play two different characters in the same day. But because we had built this labyrinth together, we knew it well. It maybe seemed chaotic, but it was clear to everybody, especially Jared.
Paste: Is there anybody you’d love to work with?
Van Dormael: I love to work with friends (laughs). Whether they are famous or not, my greatest pleasure is in working with my friends. Often the only payment we receive for a film is the fun we have in making it; it’s the only reward we can be sure of. The experience of making a film is just as important as the result.
Paste: Having conquered such a beautiful and complex story, where do you go from here?
Van Dormael: I’m shooting a film next summer with a smaller crew. God exists, he lives in Brussels, and he is awful with his wife and his daughter, so it’s the story of his 12-year-old daughter’s revenge. It’s a sort of surreal comedy.
We’ll shoot in 2014, so it will come out in 2015 in Europe, perhaps in the States in 2025. (We both laugh.) It depends on the bottle—on the wind and the weather.
Brendon Kelly is a writer and you can follow him on Twitter.
BONUS: Tim Grierson wrote an awesome review of Mr. Nobody that you can find here.