The North Sea Texas crew sit down to chat about the bonding experience of making the film.
This tale of teenage first love in a sleepy Belgian seaside town marks a striking feature film debut for director Bavo Defurne, whose short films picked up plaudits around the world. North Sea Texas is a moving story, beautifully told and acted. LWLies caught up with Defurne in London recently, along with producer Yves Verbraeken, actor Jelle Florizoone, and actress Eva van der Gucht.
LWLies: Bavo, this is your first feature film after a series of successful shorts, how was it to make the leap?
BD: When I showed my short films, most of them deal with rejection or loneliness and a lot of young audiences would ask what happens next? I wouldn’t know because when you make a short film you’re happy that you finished it! I really didn’t know what would be the solution for these lonely teenagers, so all the shorts had an open ending and in that sense the feature finishes them a little bit.
What attracted you to this adaptation?
BD: I think the whole tone of the book it’s adapted from is quite optimistic and that’s something rare in gay coming-of-age films, if you want to call them that. There’s a lot of films dealing with loneliness, rejection, hate, and the struggle of coming out, but I think Pim’s struggle is more in convincing the other person that his love is valuable and important. So it’s much more a love film than a coming out film, and in that sense it’s something new and it charmed me very much. It’s still a little bit open to interpretation, but it doesn’t end with a suicide or unhappy marriage or loneliness for the rest of your life kind, thing that you would have in films like Brokeback Mountain.
You didn’t enjoy Brokeback then?
BD: I have nothing against Brokeback Mountain but the thing is that it’s so sad. Being such a sad story about negative things, it also confirms negative things. We’re not from a perfect country but in Belgium a woman can marry a woman and a man can marry a man, and as a filmmaker, as an artist, you should also reflect positive things in your society,
Yves, were you involved early on?
YV: Actually, we’d been working together for a very long time already and when Bavo read the back of the book he said to me 'I’ve seen this story and it’s very beautiful'. I started reading and stopped reading when the book was finished, which is a really good sign! We know each other very well so I can immediately see what Bavo would do with the material and I thought it was a beautiful love story. I felt that it was something new and refreshing because it has this hope in it, I thought this is the kind of story that hasn’t been told yet.
BD: It’s a very beautiful short book actually and crazy enough after a lot of auditions, it turned out that Jelle had read the book two years before the audition.
So Jelle, you knew the story already before you read the script?
JF: I read the script and I thought I knew it from somewhere, then I remembered the book. It was actually pretty funny because when I’d finished the book I’d said to myself there has to be a movie made of this book. So it’s very special that I could be a part of that movie, it’s a very beautiful book.
Eva, how did you get involved with the film?
EG: Bavo and I had met years before in Amsterdam for another project, then he called me as he was thinking of me for the role of Yvette. That was the first thing I was very enthusiastic about, then when I read the script I really liked it, I thought it was very beautiful and as well I could imagine what Bavo would do with it.
BD: There’s a rule for directors never have an actor in mind for a script because maybe they wouldn’t want to do it, maybe they’re busy on other productions, then you’ll be very unhappy. But for the role of Yvette I thought it was Eva and I never considered other Yvettes, not really.
YV: No, it was very clear.
BD: It’s against all rules but I did it and I’m very happy that Eva was free. Or that she made herself free; she was in two movies at the same time but still managed to make the click from another character. She was in a feature film in Holland in the main role of the mother.
EG: A completely different mother: polka dots and cake, the perfect mother. Then I drove from Holland to Belgium thinking 'Okay, no more perfect mother, but unhappy all my dreams didn’t come true mother!'
Yvette isn’t a very nice character but she is an honest one: lots of women must feel they’ve lost their freedom by having kids but they’d never be that open about it.
EG: I really tried not to judge her at all while playing her. If you say you’re playing a mother who leaves her child at fifteen, everybody thinks it’s an awful thing to do, that she’s a bitch or an awful person. But I tried to make her as honest as I could about her own dreams and her own expectation in life, make her a bit funny and a bit witty. But also it’s not that she doesn’t love Pim, it’s just that at one point when she gets to choose the life she always wanted she does that. You could say that makes her a bad mother but I don’t know. It leaves it open, I don’t want to judge her.
When it came to finding Pim, some boys wouldn’t audition either because they were scared or their parents wouldn’t let them, but Jelle you didn’t have that problem.
JF: No, my parents were very enthusiastic, they supported me in my dream.
YV: Although it must be said that Jelle was very clear and very grown up about it. It has to do with his background as a trained dancer so he’s professional. If he had a question he would just ask it, it wouldn’t stay in this zone where it would not be talked about. We’d talk it through also with his parents.
BD: Actually the casting was not only a casting for the kids but also for their parents. Jelle was number 208 or something, there were more than 200 boys auditioned over one and a half years. A lot of actors would not come to the call back because their parents wouldn’t allow, a lot of them were young and lazy, when they discover they have to kiss a boy they don’t come, and that’s not very professional.
YV: But the sad thing is when you get a phone call and there’s a young actor crying saying 'My father won’t let me kiss a man, not even for a film.' What can you say? It’s really sad.
BD: Ideally you’d want them all on the job, but filmmaking is also a profession, it’s not an acting school, you need people who have this professionality, they are the people you want to work with. People who are supported by their parents, who are professional enough to read the lines, know their work and know what it is to be an actor, and also not be a pain in the ass for the adults also. As a form of respect to the professional grown up actors that the kids wouldn’t be the focus of all the energy and attention, you need to share it between everybody.
How did you all work together to create the characters and the world of the film, did you do a lot of rehearsals?
BD: It was an intense period of working together with the young actors. Acting is showing your vulnerable side and not being ashamed of showing things you would not want to show in public. A good actor is not afraid of showing intimate things, things that are secret and hidden. To create that atmosphere on a set you need trust, that’s why I also show my vulnerable side. The scenes are risky for me too as a filmmaker, we could have cut out intimate or painful scenes and it would have been much easier, to make the film very straightforward and easy like a TV show. But that’s not what we wanted to make.
JF: We did improvisation, we had to say what’s in our minds at that specific moment, so I actually learnt a lot of help me get into my character.
EG: We really searched for the characters. We did some improvisations of scenes that were in the film, that’s how were created the characters and their reactions to certain things. I leant to play the accordion and I was really, really bad at it! There was even one time on set when I played and I went so out of tune it didn’t even sound like an accordion but I had to play like it was beautiful, one time the dog made the same noises and we were laughing so hard we couldn’t stop.
BD: Her character is a virtuoso. We wondered if we’d have her be really bad but then we made her really good because then we get the idea she really has a talent, if she was in a bigger city without a kid she would really have a career. I think that was more heartbreaking and less clichéd than making her a silly amateur. It makes her character stronger and more believable.
EG: But I couldn’t become a virtuoso in six weeks!
What was the toughest part of playing Pim?
JF: Going naked. I was 14 when we shot the film and when I read the script I thought 'Oh no, I’ve got to go naked.' I talked to Yves and Bavo about how it was going to be on screen and they showed me the storyboards so I was then okay with it.
So that trust you built up was really important?
JF: Yes, the naked scene was on one of the last days so I thought I have to finish my character as he should be, so I just did it.
YV: It’s the scene on the beach and it’s really public, all the other locations were closed sets but here it was on the beach so the whole crew were there, he was a bit nervous about it.
BD: It’s a very lonely scene because when you have the other actors there’s something you can cling to, someone you can hide behind. It’s a scene that makes a lot of people cry.
JF: I’m very happy I did it.
What did your friends at school think of the film?
JF: At the school I’m in now there were some students who saw the film before I got there and recognised me and said they loved the film. It is universal, you see guys that are 70 years old and they say it reminds them of their youth and people who are eighteen who say it’s beautiful. Actually I didn’t have a negative reaction.
You won an award in Rome from a youth jury too.
BD: It was a youth jury of thirty boys and girls between 14 and 18 years old. They were quite curious and suspicious about the film, if I may say so. There was a Q&A after the film for about 15 minutes, then the film festival came and said the jury still had more questions. They weren’t easy questions, they were very complicated about society, about gender roles, about sexuality. They had seen every little detail, they had a question about every word, colour or gesture, we were there almost two hours. It really made an impression on us. We thought if we win or not, the dialogue with the kids was the most amazing experience.
YV: When we came out we were completely full of energy.
BD: It’s not an easy film for young people and I don’t want to underestimate my audience, so I give them some things they can think about. But of course it needs the will to think and to fill the blanks. There are blanks in the film on purpose, I really want the audience to make up their own story, it’s open to interpretation.
It helps that it has a timeless feel in the look and design.
BD: We didn’t want to make it too precise. Of course it looks like the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies, but in the first line of the script we wrote 'Our youth – some decades ago'. One man said during a Q&A in Palm Springs that growing up in the 1940s was just like our film. I think it’s very charming, it’s interesting that it touches something that’s universal. That’s why we tried to stylise it, it not realistic now or realistic 1960s.
YV: We wanted it to feel like a memory, but truthful.
So in your minds, what happened to these boys after the film ended?
BD: I don’t fill the blanks, it’s something for the audience to make up. No one knows but whatever will happen, the emotions that they’ve experience in their lives they’ll never forget. I think for each other they will remain this really important person that changed their lives. They’re 16 and 18 years old, there’s a lot that can happen, but I think the optimism is a certainty and that they’re important to each other is a certainty. And the rest is the rest.