Belgian filmmaker, actor discuss Oscar-nominated 'Bullhead'

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As one of the five movies nominate for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year, Bullhead (from Belgium) tells the story of steroid-using cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is caught up in a world of crime and revenge.

During an interview with me last week, director/writer Michael R. Roskam and actor Matthias Schoenaerts talked about what it takes to make audiences feel compassion for a callous lead character like Jacky and why they consider Bullhead a universal story.

Bullhead opens exclusively at Alamo Drafthouse theaters in San Antonio Feb. 24.

Michael, what were you hoping to get out of such a complex character as Jacky from the script?

Well, I took my time to develop him. It took me five years to write the script. I always wanted to present this character in a way where the audience would judge him from the very beginning. Then I wanted to put the audience on the other side and see if they could understand this character and show compassion so that at the end they wouldn’t be able to judge him anymore. I wanted them to feel like it was just too much to know about him and then to judge or condemn him in such a black and white manner.

Did you worry it might be a challenge to create empathy for this character since he is not necessarily a protagonist in the film?

In a way he is doing things that are not very nice, but at the same time a lot of things are happening to him as well. In a way, Jacky is a very classic character – a sort of archetype. It’s a character and story you can find in Greek mythology. Jacky is a victim of his own destiny. If you tell this kind of story at an extreme level, I think audiences can identify with it. We are all trying to fight our destiny in a way and trying to control our lives. I think Jacky is presenting this battle.

Matthias, from an acting perspective, did you tackle Jacky in the same way? Were his more brutal characteristics a challenge to overcome so you could make him identifiable to audiences?

Well, to me the vulnerability of the character was more important than his brutality. I knew with his physicality, he would evoke this hyper, brutal presence because that’s the way he looks. To me I knew I didn’t have to play anything on top of that brutality. It was all the emotional vulnerability that was more important to me.

There are plenty of themes you explore in the film – manhood and masculinity, revenge. Do you hope audiences get anything specific from the film when they walk out of the theater?

I hope if anything is taken from the movie is the idea that being deprived of love will make you go crazy. That’s what happens to Jacky. He’s not able to get love, and at the same time he’s not able to give love. That to me is the essence of that character.

Michael, was there something going on in your life that triggered emotions inside you to write this story?

Well, the inspiration came in two ways: One was the reality of things when it comes to the crime scene in my country. I decided to use it as the backdrop for my story. I think I already had the themes of destiny, manhood, friendship, loyalty, and loss of innocence. They were all things I was intrigued with. I had already been writing some short stories and short films that played on these subjects. This specific story came to me when I started doing research on the agricultural and meat industry. It’s like chemistry. It’s hard to tell when you put two elements together what you will come up with. You, of course, want to get something unique and original. It’s all imagination. Sometimes it takes you just lying in your bed staring at a white ceiling and suddenly you get the image.

Did you worry about anything getting lost in translation when the film made it to U.S. theaters?

I started to write the story with the intention of being as authentic as I could because I believe that is what makes a great movie no matter where in the world it is made. Authenticity is the key to make something universal in a story. That’s what happens with all the great movies – [Akira] Kurosawa in Japan or in Spain or in Argentina or in America. Just be faithful to that universe and that will make it universal.

Matthias, there is some great narration in the film, especially at the beginning. Can you tell me what you think the deeper meaning is behind the line, “In the end we are all fucked” and do you think we actually are?

I think Jacky represents someone who is cornered by destiny and is not able to overcome it. I think there are a lot of people in the world that can identify with that. Destiny will determine lives, sometimes in radical ways. Some people never get a chance to live their lives in the way they want. I don’t think it’s a condition for everyone. Luckily there are people that live happy lives. But the reality for a lot of people is quite different. For me, Jacky represents that spirit.

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