Belgian Filmmaker Lander Haverals’ short “Pure Madness” is based on a play his brother wrote before he took his own life. This intensely moving film will screen at London Lift-Off Film Festival on Wednesday 6th November at 7:45pm at Arthouse Crouch End as part of Shorts Programme 2. We interviewed director Lander to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and his path as a filmmaker.
Interview by Sneh Rupra
Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the making of this film?
This short is based upon a theatre play, written by my brother Jelle. Shortly after writing the play, he decided to commit suicide. He did this after a very long and intense battle against all his demons and fears.
All this happened 10 years before I started working on this film. So for some reason it felt as if it was the perfect time to dare to tackle what I had always wanted to do, but maybe up until now I wasn’t quite ready to do so: to bring some of his legacy in front of a public audience. Also to realise a long existing dream with the hope to help break the taboo of a very well known, but still not widely spoken social problem: mental suffering.
What is it about short film as a medium that drew you for this project?
Thus far in my career I have always focused on human interest series and documentaries. As a director, I worked for daily TV shows about the daily struggles of life as well as several documentary series. This way of story telling I love very much indeed, because it always feels pure and honest.
About a year ago I was then given the opportunity to make a short documentary as long as it was about something personal. At first I chose to make a short documentary about my brother’s life. Nevertheless, it felt as if some emotions and feelings can only truly be transferred to the audience by a combination of music, colours, light, acting, setting … this ultimate freedom and range of opportunities combined, which is so specific to the fictional genre, is something I felt was almost a neccessity to really transfer mine and my brother’s emotions into this short film. Therefore, I made a decision to make a short narrative instead.
I also wanted to stay as close as possible to the beautiful theatrical script and the sense of poetry my brother managed to keep into his – otherwise very dramatic – play. And in a strange way, I now feel that this way of story telling, i.e. for this particular story, can be more honest and pure than my first intended documentary approach. The result I think is neither documentary nor pure drama, but hopefully a compelling cross-genre.
What was it like casting such a personal project?
The casting was actually rather easy. I knew Seppe [Cosyns, lead actor] from when I was studying. Together we already worked on a similar project as students. This was due to the fact that Seppe had been a good friend and a fellow student in the same class where my brother was also studying as an actor. In other words, working with Seppe I already had a head start as we both went through what happened to Jelle in our own ways, and both had a close relationship with him. The mutual trust and respect we have for each other was something that I think was invaluable for this project. On top of that, I do personally think Seppe is a brilliant theatre actor, a quality that was fundamental for this specific film, rather than an actor whom offered a lot of TV or film experience.
What was the most important piece of advice or direction you gave to Seppe Cosyns?
I always like to start from blank pages. Scenes need to come to life on set. The script was merely a guideline to infuse life into some ideas. Just as much as the improvisation of Seppe was critical. Furthermore the inspiration we received from the location, which was an abandoned psychiatric clinic; the music we played on set (my brother was an extremely gifted violinist), all these factors and many others play a big role in how an actor can bring a scene to life.
I also like to start from the physical aspect of acting, rather than the verbal side. For example; I would ask Seppe to go for a run or do some push-ups just before playing a scene or saying his lines. This physical tension can help intensify the acting in my experience. But most of all I like to improvise and really “play” on set from time to time… start big, scream, dance, run… and then slowly remove layer by layer, taking away what’s too much, to then hopefully end with a pure and poetic, but still dramatic result. The whole idea for me is that Seppe needed to really forget he was on set, so much so, that it becomes important to do a good reality check from time to time!
How did you go about adapting the material from script to screen? What were the most significant changes you made?
Adapting the (theatre) script for this film was mostly about choosing what to keep. The script was intended to be an hour long theatre performance, which mostly needed to be adapted to my own skill set, so I chose to keep only a small part of the monologue at the beginning and kind of random parts I think were important to transfer my general feelings about mental suffering and his decision to commit suicide.
In addition, I chose to add a timeline of his use of medication because I felt I needed some anchors in this otherwise rather incoherent way of story telling, because for me it was never meant to be a straightforward film. I wanted the pace, imagery and narrative techniques to move to the rhythm of a psychosis. I gave a lot of attention to beauty, art, and music as these were the things that gave my brother peace and happiness in-between his struggles. Just as for so many others, art can release some of the pressure in our daily lives.
Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?
The biggest challenge during production (as with so many productions I’m sure) was money and time. As this was mostly a project that was only possible thanks to the goodwill and free time of friends and family who were willing to invest in this short. This meant we shot on location with a total of only 4 crew members and a shooting time of only two days. This forced us to film late into the night, but also generated that intense bond that filming can create, which can also push the creative result forward.
The other massive challenge for me was the end scene, where I wanted to show on the one hand the drama and impact my brother’s decision brought with it, but on the other hand also show the respect and even empathy I have for these kinds of decisions. This duality in emotion around this final act was something I did not know how to realise until in the moment, which was around 3 AM in the morning! All the pieces fell together after a very, very long improvisation session where we actually had nothing else in the script other than the piece of music we so much wanted to use.
The score is such an important and moving part of this film – how did you go about getting the perfect sound?
Getting the perfect sound was done mostly in post-production by Thomas Vertongen, a truly talented soundscape artist! I must confess that, other than some “emotional guidelines”, he mastered this task to perfection without much direction except general moodboard-inputs! The only decision I really wanted to keep very loyal to, was that the impact of the end piece of music was so important, that this was the only moment in the film I wanted music.
The piece “Partita No. 2 for Violin in D Minor, BWV 1004: V. Chaconne” was a very well considered choice, as it was during my brother’s higher studies to become a violinist (which he did before his acting classes), his mental illness intensified a great deal and it was mostly this piece of music that kept my brother in its grip for years. He studied it inside and out and it seems to me, it played a very important role in his, and therefore my life.
How do you think this film will impact the conversation surrounding mental health in Belgium and around the world?
There are many misunderstandings about mental suffering. Furthermore, the symptoms and conditions themselves are often avoided as a topic of discussion. What it does to someone is not only difficult to comprehend, but even more difficult to explain. To the outside world, I can only hope that this film can mediate and maybe help break the taboo of an indeed very well known, but still not widely spoken social problem.
How has the experience of making this short narrative been different from your previous documentary work?
Being on a set with an opportunity to think about every camera angle, line, light, etc, to highlight the details that you as a director wish to show, was a great opportunity to intensify my love for the visual side of storytelling, which I had fell in love with years ago. Putting an immense effort in visual story telling, also when I make documentaries, is something I like to believe where part of my success in my day-to-day jobs lies.
I do still love both genres, the documentary side keeps me down to earth and true to myself, but it’s the narrative fiction story telling that brings magic in my life and made my boyhood dream resurface in full intensity, since I am hopefully able to bring that magic to an audience.
Are you looking forward to screening “Pure Madness” in London?
I very much look forward to each and every time my work manages to do what it was always meant to do: get in front of an audience and hopefully move and touch some people! I’m in the middle of working on a new docu-series (Strokes Of Madness), so I really hope to be able to attend, because every screening is a thrilling moment I cherish immensely.
Tickets are now on sale for London Lift-Off, where “Pure Madness” will be screening.