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‘Funeral’ Director Marie Vandelannoote on self-taught filmmaking, and refusing to be a ‘bootlicker’

Marie Vandelannoote is not your conventional filmmaker; fiercely independent, she didn’t attend film school, she doesn’t have any industrial connections to draw on for work, and she steadfastly refuses to resort to the kind of ‘bootlicking’ expected of ‘outsiders’ to attract funding. The fabulously outspoken Writer-Director of Funeral and The Shroud spoke to Indy Film Library about film, funding and family.

Aftab Bose was the one who formally reviewed Funeral for Indy Film Library, so I deferred to him for the first question. He would like to know: “The film talks about a range of social and psychological factors; from social isolation, depression and suicide to sibling rivalry and closure. Were you looking to emphasise any of these themes in particular, and what was the motivation behind that?”

There are a lot of subjects in this film.

But I mostly wanted to talk about family, and the very complex relationships between brothers and sisters. It’s also a film that evokes the nostalgia of childhood, those few years when we could express our love with sincerity and without shame or hiding what we feel. Growing up, for most of us, is like losing this spontaneity of love.

When siblings evoke their childhood memories, this carelessness, it’s actually the key moment of the film. We understand that their brother committed suicide because he definitely lost the love he could feel as a child, the love of his family, and he knew he’ll never feel this way again. The others have evolved, and their lives are filled with other priorities, but for him, he remained at the exact same stage, emotionally speaking, so that explains his extreme feeling of loneliness. He felt abandoned. If we imagine that we could choose our own heaven, I suppose he would go back to that time, when he was with his siblings, when they were children.

But, above all, it’s a movie about love. The film tells us that you have to love. Love like children, no matter what, without asking questions – and to be less concerned about how people or our family wants us to be, or the little problems of everyday life, because ultimately it doesn’t matter. Everything might end tomorrow.

A critic once said that the film made him want to call his relatives and tell them how he loved them. This is the best compliment you can make to Funeral. That’s exactly why I made this film.

For all its cinematic polish, Funeral feels like a play in the way it is constructed; a single set, where the meat of the story is derived from a bickering family, and their failure to support someone pushed to mental breaking point – in fact, this combined with the twist ending particularly reminded me of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Is this a project you could see having a second life on the stage?

That’s quite a compliment, thank you! To be honest, I never thought about it, but it’s a very good idea! Stage is a very different – but equally interesting – process. But I think I would miss all the movie production process too much. I guess I like it much more than I want to admit. But that’s a good idea; I will put it in the back of my mind!

It’s hugely impressive that you managed to balance potentially volatile strands of comedy, drama and tragedy to create such a well-rounded final result. Were there any particular works, on stage or screen, which you drew upon to help keep Funeral on-track?

I didn’t draw on a specific film in particular, but I really have a soft spot for films that mix genres. Maybe movies like Steel Magnolias, or Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Fisher King or even The Breakfast Club inspired me.

Do you have a favourite film or filmmaker, which you feel has influenced you in what you want to do?

Ha! That’s the million dollar question! It’s always hard for me to answer that. There are so many of them; and not just filmmakers, writers too.

I can’t pick just one, but for the most famous, I’d say directors like Sam Raimi, Coppola, Oliver Stone or Robert Zemeckis, or Barry Sonnenfield. But I could mention Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, as well as Lee Daniels or Woody Allen, and so many more for North American influence.

But I also have French influences like Diane Kurys, Claire Devers, Claude Sautet, and specially Claude Berri, and Henri-Georges Clouzot. I think there is also a lot of television influence in my work. Tales from the Crypt, I think influenced my style of writing a lot.

You have been writing for television and video games for 13 years, as well as regularly writing for literary magazines in France and Quebec. About nine years into that, you decided to take the plunge and write and direct The End of the Movie. What made you decide that was the right time to prioritise your own project?

Actually, The End of the Movie was not my first film. I shot few shorts and a feature film before that [they just don’t appear on IMDb]. In fact, it really came after seeing several films adapted from my screenplays made by others directors. And I always was hugely disappointed, because in my opinion, the directors had missed what I really want to say through the film.

At the same time, my husband suggested that I should stop complaining and make my own movies – probably because he was tired of hearing me groan about it. It’s funny, I never thought of it before; I never went to film school – ad indeed never went to school at all – I really thought I wasn’t able to do it.

And you know what? I was so right! The first shooting was a total apocalypse!! I think I have made all the possible and unimaginable mistakes on earth, but I learnt as much during this shooting as in 10 years in any film school. It was an extraordinary experience.

The movie never got made in the end, but I’ve kept the script, and I never give up on the idea of revisiting it someday.

The cast as a whole gives an excellent performance – even though each of them can be observed critically for how they didn’t support their brother before his suicide, each of them conveys a degree of vulnerability and pathos that means we can still empathise with them. To get a performance like this from your actors, how do you deal with the cast as an independent director?

Funeral has the chance to be carried by very good actors, all of whom have a very great theatrical experience. It was an absolute necessity for this film. My method is to work a lot with them on refining how their character would act and tell the dialogues I wrote to change this one word that will define them, because it is necessary in order to give them the possibility to appropriate the character. This way, they can give a part of themselves inside the role more easily.

Besides, we talked a lot about their characters upstream and we did many rehearsals.  The shooting was done over 4 days, including two rehearsals in the set, so it let them the time to experience a little bit of the atmosphere. This way, everything, or almost, was fixed before the shooting and that makes things easier for everyone.

Is there a limit to what you can expect of them, and how do you go about pushing them toward your expectations?

You know, there is a moment when everyone is going to give everything they have because they can’t take it anymore, that’s the moment we give everything because we have to get there. The famous “moment of grace”; you know, “it’s now or never.” It’s the G-Spot of directing, if you’ll forgive the analogy.

That’s how filmmaking works; the first takes are good, the middle is average, and the end is extraordinary.

The aim is to push the actors, (but also the crew), but only to the edge of rupture. The difficulty is to know where that border lies. Don’t stop before, but don’t go beyond either.

They have to be mad at you, but not hate you. So you have to know how to spot that break point and push them at the right time, without them realising it. That’s the hardest part.

In Funeral‘s filming, for example, the long-shot takes were central in this. I wanted the film to be split into two long shots sequences, with a light-hearted moment in the middle.  We took about 20 takes of each. And I cut almost none of them. Cutting them off because the magic wasn’t working would have been a mistake. They were necessary to carry actors away where I wanted them to go.

What are the pros and cons of independent filmmaking?

The pro is that no one is telling you what to do, so you can do whatever you want. The con is the lack of money, so you can’t do whatever you want. Ironic, don’t you think?!

I mean, advantages can become disadvantages and vice versa. The lack of money pushes you to be inventive and surpass yourself. You have to bypass that, and so you get better. For example, I had to learn to make production, editing, sound, sometimes music, etc…

And that’s a great thing!  You need this global knowledge of your job to be able to understand it in a better way. It teaches you how to be super responsive. And the icing on the cake is that you have total control of your film.

But, on the other hand, it also forces you to give up a lot of things; you can’t do everything you want. And that’s extremely frustrating. Making independent films is an endless series of compromises and frustrations. But it teaches you how to do your best with very limited resources, because you know you won’t get more. It’s the story of lemons and lemonade. The only thing that really bothers me is that I would like to offer the people who gave themselves for the film, the cast and crew, much more than I can offer them right now. That’s my biggest regret.

Do your ideas ever out-strip your resources (time, money, cast, crew, technology, etc.)? How do you cope with that?

Yes, of course, all the time! It’s part of the game! We try to do as much as we can, and when it’s really not possible, we rewrite everything so we can fit it into the budget. It can be frustrating, and then, sometimes, on the contrary, we realise that, in the end, it’s even better.

What support mechanisms have you benefitted from in order to keep making films (e.g. film networks, festivals, etc.)?

I’ve always produced my films with my own money and with the big help of Kickstarter campaigns.

You know, I do not receive any help from state support, because my films don’t deal with the popular themes – so it’s harder to obtain them. I didn’t go to any film school, so the extent of my network is infinitesimal. And in France, if you have no network, you have no job.

I don’t have any uncle in the industry either, so I’m doing what I can. And I admit that I don’t do ‘the right things’. I mean, being a bootlicker in exchange for a few banknotes, it’s not part of my life. My grandmother used to say, “The more you bend over, the more people can see your ass!” I tend to think she was right.

But the expansion of film festivals around the world is a great chance for filmmakers. It allows us to show our films in many countries, the public can discover you; they talk about you on the net, etc… It really helps a lot! Without this, it would be much more difficult to make our voices better heard.

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t help to raise money! On the other hand, it doesn’t really bother me that much. I like this outsider position. The only downside is that I don’t do as many things as I would like, but when I’m finally able to make a film, it gives me this strength born of desperation that makes me put all my soul and guts in my work! That what can make the difference, I guess.

What advice would you give would-be filmmakers, who would like to write and direct their own short films?

Run. Run as fast as you can. Or buy a gigantic box of anxiolytics. No, I’m kidding, of course (or am I?). I don’t know, going further. Making short films is great because you can experience a lot of things. So don’t hesitate to get out of your comfort zone. The best thing is to write your script thinking that you have no money, so be as simple as you can be. When I start writing a screenplay, I always have this Jacques Brel’s phrase in my head: “You can’t pretend to be rich, when you’re penniless.”

And don’t try to please everyone. Do what you have in your mind, be sure of yourself and your choices, but don’t be narrow-minded. Making a film requires collaboration; you don’t make a movie on your own. You have a team, co-workers, so listen to them. And please, be humble.

You know, I see a lot of young directors who already think of themselves as Tarantino or Spielberg, who wish to appear flying when they’re barely learning to walk, direct the biggest movie stars, who have dreams of adulation and infinite recognition. They make movies for and with their egos, when in fact it should be the other way around. That’s too bad. Cinema shouldn’t be about the money, recognition or celebrities, no matter what they say. It should be about working your ass off in order to do the best film.

You don’t do cinema for yourself. It should be, above all, an act of generosity. Like spending hours in the kitchen preparing a good meal for the people you love. We don’t do it to be congratulated. We do it because we want to please people. Don’t take it the wrong way; of course, it’s great to be congratulated! But it shouldn’t be the main reason.

And also, please, don’t forget that you need a good story, and good dialogues, too. And don’t be too serious. It’s just a film, after all. But I’m not sure if that applies to would-be directors or newly-established ones. Maybe both, I guess.

What is next for Funeral, and are there any follow-up projects you would like to tell us about?

Funeral will continue to run festivals and I think now is the right time for me to move on to a feature film. I am currently working on the adaptation of one of my shorts, The Shroud – once the world has resumed its normal course, of course.

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