Lessons from a Belgian auteur

THESSALONIKI – «The method makes the filmmaker» is the message delivered by Luc Dardenne, the younger of the award-winning Belgian filmmaking duo, who delivered a master class at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival on the event’s opening weekend. The Dardenne brothers are the subject of a tribute that includes the rarely screened feature debut «Falsch» (1987), «Il court… il court le monde,» «Je pense a vous,» «La Promesse,» «Rosetta» (the first Belgian film to win a Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well as the award for Best Actress in 1999), the cerebral «Le Fils» (Best Actor at Cannes, 2002), «L’Enfant» (Golden Palm, 2005), «Dans l’Obscurite» and most recently «Le Silence de Lorna,» which earned the Best Screenplay award at the venerated French film festival this year. Speaking to a full house, writer/director/producer Luc Dardenne (his brother Jean-Pierre was unable to attend), talked about the early days of the siblings’ filmmaking career, and the way they work. Originally a student of philosophy, Luc (born in 1954) became involved in the film business through the older Jean-Pierre, who was working as an actor in the theater of Armand Gatti. Describing Gatti as their «spiritual father,» Luc told his Thessaloniki audience how they became fascinated by Gatti’s practice of filming his non-professional actors before and during rehearsals. Also troubled by the labor movement of the 1960s in Belgium (the Dardennes grew up in the working-class steel town of Seraing) and the social transitions the country was experiencing with the collapse of the Socialist experiment, the Dardennes first used their camera to record the stories of regular people. «We were not ideologists,» said Luc Dardenne. «We would just interview people, make portraits of people.» What started as a foray into documentaries eventually morphed into fiction, explained Dardenne. «We gradually began asking people in our documentaries to do things we wanted them to do. We began manipulating them, began to feel that there were things we wanted to say.» Dardenne does not believe that he and his brother make political cinema, though the critical acclaim they have received is for their incisive awareness of society. «Our films, basically, pose a moral question: Would I kill someone to achieve my own goals?» If there is one idea that runs through their work, it is that of regular people in unreasonable situations having to deal with a moral quandary. This philosophy, said Luc Dardenne, also transcends to the way they work with their actors. The writers/director don’t prompt them on how they need to feel. «The actor has his own film playing in his head and we have a different one in ours. It is better not to discuss the character they play because it would take the suppleness out of the performance.» Dardenne also said that he and his brother act out all the parts together before giving the actors directions. They also don’t use a storyboard, which is standard practice in filmmaking for drawing out every scene in detail. «Before shooting,» said Luc, explaining something of their technique, «we rehearse every scene in detail before the crew arrives because we want it to come from us, not from the crew. The technical part is very important, but it also has a tendency to override the actors.» Rehearsals are an integral part of this duo’s working method and they shoot as many takes as needed to get it right. «We need to construct every scene perfectly so that the delivery can look natural,» said Dardenne, adding that the cost of their films arises from the amount of time they dedicate to its preparation, which can include weeks of rehearsals before shooting even begins. Another tip the award-winning director shared with his audience was that they always shoot the film in sequence as opposed to grouping scenes and shooting outside the time line of the story. What this achieves, said Dardenne, is a maturity in the delivery and often they may go back to the early scenes at the end and rework them once the actors have become completely familiar with their characters. Seemingly simple on the surface, the Dardennes’ stories and their delivery are founded on both profound thought and hard work – a winning combination.