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Thursday, March 6, 2014

An Interview with Alex van Warmerdam, Director of BORGMAN


Courtesy of Drafthouse Films 

AN INTERVIEW WITH 
ALEX VAN WARMERDAM, 
DIRECTOR OF BORGMAN

by Joshua Handler

Recently, I had the good fortune to conduct an email interview with Alex van Warmerdam, acclaimed director of the upcoming film BORGMAN.  BORGMAN will be released later this year by Drafthouse Films and was the Dutch submission to the Academy Awards this past year.  Here is my review of the film.  The following is the interview:

What was the inspiration for BORGMAN – how did the story come about?  It’s one of the most unique films (I mean that in the best possible way) I’ve come across in ages.

I was longing for something nasty, but also enigmatic. And I wanted, like Borgman says in the film, to play.  There's a man in a hole in the woods, there's a priest with a gun (an old dream), and then I start writing. Writing brings the ideas. 

BORGMAN is by no means a traditional film, yet it seems to have connected with critics and audiences alike.  What do you think it is about it that connects?

I think the combination of humor, suspense and unpredictability.

As many have pointed out, the film seems to have no traditional logic, which was one aspect that I found to be particularly fascinating.  What was the scripting process like and how did you decide upon this?

From the beginning I didn’t want to explain too much. Explaning brings you to forced [shots], and worse, to stupid dialogue.  Although, in the first rough cut there was still a lot of…explanation. We cut a lot of it because we found out that [cutting the explanation] makes the film stronger.

Violence is lurking beneath the surface (Marina’s gruesome dream sequence illustrates this most explicitly) but there is no graphic violence depicted in the “real world” of the film.  The violence depicted doesn’t show any blood or gore making it all the more unnerving.  Was this a conscious decision?

In every film I make, there’s a man standing by with some blood.  In case there’s some violence, the first shot of the wounded person is always with blood. Take two [has] just a little bit and in take three the blood is gone.  I don’t know. Blood.  Of course if someone is stabbed several times, you have to show some blood. But since Sam Peckinpah showed blood in slow motion fountains, blood is a little bit boring to me. I like clean violence: strangling, poisoning.

The subject matter of BORGMAN is, at its base, very dark, but almost gleefully so.  Was it your original intention to make BORGMAN as darkly humorous as it is or did the humor come out later? 

All my films have a [humorous] element. I’m not really working on it, it sneaks into [the film].
But…during the writing of BORGMAN, I really tried to avoid humor.  Also, in this case, we cut out a lot of funny things in the [editing]. Still there is humor in BORGMAN, but withheld, dry humor. That’s allowed.

What was the casting process of BORGMAN like?

It was  as always – quite a job. But also a joy. My wife does the casting. She knows me very well. She almost forced me to take Hadewych Minis for the part of Marina. I thought she was ok, but I kept looking for another actress. In the end I took Hadewych and from the first shooting day it was easy working [with her]. She really surprised me. She is the perfect Marina.

The characters are so rich in BORGMAN, particularly that of Camiel Borgman, yet we know very little about his backstory.  How did you and Jan Bijvoet navigate that? 

[It was also easy working with Jan]. I’m not a psychological director and he was not asking for psychological direction. We both are very practical. I asked him never to smile or laugh.
The idea was that Jan should smile once, just before when he kisses Marina on her bed after giving her the poisened wine. But in the [editing] I didn’t like it, so we also took his smile away, digitally.

You cast yourself as Ludwig and have acted in many of your other films.  How do you separate your duties as director and actor?  Do they ever interfere with one another?

It never was a problem. But I’m getting less and less interested in playing a big role myself.
Nowadays I only want to do a small part because my acting ambition became small as well.

How has your work as a theater director affected your work as a film director, if at all? 

There must be a mutual influence for sure, but how and what and why and in what way, I don’t know. And to be honest, it doesn’t interest me that much.

How did the BORGMAN that you originally conceived change from the writing of the screenplay through post-production?

As already shown in earlier answers, the script was more explicit then the film [eventually was].
I sometimes met people who…complain or [are] even angry because they think the film is too abstract or too vague. That puzzles me. The film opens with a Bible quote: “They Descended upon earth to Strengthened Their ranks.” This is, in fact, a perfect [summation] of the film. But the audience forget[s] about that, fortunate[ly].

I see the film as a poem, a song, it is crystal clear, there are no false leads, I give the [necessary] information. It is important to know that Borgman and his cronies are players, they are indeed stoic, but they enjoy their work  They are friendly, ruthless, but not sadistic.

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