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‘Snorrie’ director Victoria Warmerdam and OAK Motion Pictures producer Trent on the strengths of Dutch independent cinema

Victoria Warmerdam is an acclaimed filmmaker from the Netherlands, whose works Snorrie and Korte Kuitspier have both won awards at Indy Film Library’s annual festivals. Both films were also successful collaborations with Trent, the dedicated, hands-on producer, who built OAK Motion Pictures from the ground up. Having long admired their work, I was lucky enough to finally pick their brains regarding the secrets of balancing comedy and emotional drama, and maintaining a good working relationship through the highs and lows of independent filmmaking.

My first few questions are for Victoria. To me, the scripts for Snorrie and Korte Kuitspier both stand out for pairing an absurdist sense of fun with emotionally intelligent social commentary. Is it ever difficult to keep the ratio of comedy and drama in proportion?

Because the comedy in my films tends to tragic comedy, the line between comedy and drama is actually very thin. That makes it easier to find a balance between comedy and drama, although I am more comfortable with the comic part. I have no difficulties sensing if something is funny, but I feel less confident when it comes to “emotional” scenes. For some reason I then become very aware of the artificiality of film, fearing that it turns into melodrama.

In terms of your influences, what are your earliest memories of a storyteller or filmmaker whose style really impacted you? Did you take anything from them for the two films IFL has seen?

When I was very young, my brother was addicted to the complete oeuvre of the great Charlie Chaplin. So that became my first acquaintance with comedy. Chaplin’s comedy is very universal, which I really like to pursue with my own work. I wasn’t aware of his early influence, but when I realised this the other day, I decided I want to do more with physical comedy in my next films, inspired by Chaplin.

What has your early life as a filmmaker been like? What were the most important milestones on your journey so far?

When I was twelve years old, I realised that I wanted to become a film director. I had absolutely no clue what that meant, but it sounded like something for me. Although I am thirty now, I still feel like a beginner because there is so much more to learn. With my second short film Snorrie I won an award of the Dutch Screenwriters Guild and one of the Dutch Directors Guild. Those awards were huge milestones for me because they make me, or at least my film, feel respected by my fellow film-colleagues. I am very grateful for their acknowledgement.

People don’t always respond positively to having it pointed out that they are, consciously or otherwise, biased. When I reviewed Korte Kuitspier, one of the things that stood out to me was that the story carries us along, gets us essentially to laugh at someone being othered and alienated, before showing us the unnerving material consequences of that. How was the reception of the film from viewers in that case?

To be honest, I did not speak to viewers of the film about this particular reception you are talking about, but in general the film is received very well. People laugh about the film, but also realize it talks about something serious, about prejudices and minority groups. So sometimes it does lead to discussions afterwards, but never in an unnerving way.

Snorrie also used a similar one-two combination to a very different end. Initially we giggle at the absurdity of an imaginary person looking to mend a broken relationship with his now-adult friend. Eventually, this brings us to address how the need to ‘mature’ beyond the silly beliefs we have as children can see us stifle our emotions in an unhealthy way. What was your inspiration for this story? (And did you have an equivalent of Snorrie?)

Unfortunately I did not have an imaginary friend as a kid (I did have an imaginary treehouse though) but when I was making the film I discovered that a lot of people did have one when they were young. I simply woke up one morning, asking myself: where do all the imaginary friends go to when their kid does not see them anymore? I imagined this whole parallel universe of damaged imaginary friends in therapy. That in combination with the fact that I wanted to make something about the fact that it is okay for men to cry and be vulnerable. During the working process, the subtitle of the film was ‘a little ode to the crying man’.

You wrote and directed both Snorrie and Korte Kuitspier. Relating to its cast, which has a couple of well-known actors in it, as a young independent filmmaker, is it a daunting prospect to tell more established artists what to do? Has there been a learning curve for you, or were you just a natural from Day One?

Luckily I am comfortable with actors, even more so with well-known actors because I find it easier to work with actors who have a lot of experience, I can rely on their skills and ask more of them than from non-actors for example. But every day on set is a learning curve anyway, as a director you are not as much on set as your crew and actors, so I really like to learn from their experience.

Some filmmakers treat short film as a proving ground, before moving into longer productions. I know short film is a worthy art-form in its own right, so you obviously shouldn’t feel compelled to do that! But I do wonder, since you are already mastering the telling of stories in this format, is feature-length work something you’d be interested in? Or have you already found the ideal medium for you?

I am a huge fan of short film as a medium. I feel really challenged because you have literally a very short amount of time to tell your story in, it forces you to think everything through and to get to the core very quickly. I do not see this medium only as a stepping stone for feature-length work but nevertheless I would love to make something of more length.

I’m working on some feature concepts, but I find it difficult to “sell” my genre. Because my concepts are usually absurd and comic, you have to come across a reader (on the right spot) that gets it.

Last but not least, do you know what your next project will be, and how it will be different from Snorrie?

I am working on my next short film I am not a robot, a feminist black comedy sci-fi, about a woman (Ellen Parren) who begins to doubt whether she is a robot, bought by her own husband (Henry van Loon). Compared to Snorrie this film is much darker and slightly longer (25 minutes). I am really looking forward to it! The fact that we are shooting the film on 35 mm is definitely contributing to that excitement!

Now, coming to you, Trent: one of the most frequently asked questions when people talk about film production, is ‘what does a film producer actually do?’ That question has probably been done to death, but I’m interested to know if the role is any different in independent cinema, compared to the studio system?

I am not really confident to say I know the difference between independent cinema and the studio system very well, cause in the Netherlands we do not really work in a studio system. If that means that all Dutch films are independent cinema, it might be. All I know is how I am working. And I am working on all levels of filmmaking on the sideline.

It starts with the idea. I want to be involved from the start, and develop the idea to a script together with the filmmakers. From that phase we continue to casting, financing, choosing the right crew, shooting, editing and mixing the film. In every stage I am involved, because for me it is the only way to make the film also my film, and that is the way I just like to work. Sometimes it means I am too involved for some filmmakers, so I can not work with any filmmaker and vice versa.

How did you wind up in this part of the process? Was it always the plan to become a producer, or did something motivate you to move into it?

No way, when I did the Film academy I thought I wanted to be an editor, or have some function on set. So I started working as editor for several films and programs, and at the same time I worked on set, while I also was the owner of a video shop in Amsterdam. So I had three different jobs at the same time. Production always seemed to be a function that was independent of the set and just looked like an executive part of the job, and I am not a very good executor if I am not involved.

While I did several functions for several films, I kind of rolled into the job of production manager, seeing producers doing their work in a way that was not mine, so from that I quickly thought I could do better and started to produce myself.

Could you talk us through how OAK Motion Pictures came about?

In the nineties I bought a video store called Cinema, in the Ferdinand Bolstraat, in Amsterdam South. The store did really well, and for years I could survive by standing in this shop, where my love for cinema and audience grew even bigger. In the meantime, I started out with my own company in 2001 which was called Allez Allez then. We made low budget videoclips and commercials with young talented filmmakers.

In 2006 I bought the private limited company NFI (Netherlands Film institute) Productions in order to make feature films in an independent way. We started with the feature film Sextet by Eddy Terstall and the feature film Can Go Through Skin by Esther Rots. Two completely different films with very different directors, scripts and budgets, but it set the way for me to start relationships with Filmfunds, distributors, television stations etc. This helped to produce some more feature films, also co-productions, which led to having films in festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Warsaw, London and Sundance.

Around 2012 I noticed that the name NFI was not really well chosen for foreign co-productions. My partners thought I was part of the Netherlands Film Institute and thought that I was supporting films like the Danish Film institute or the British Film institute. So I changed the name of the company to OAK Motion Pictures, and it is still the case. Just as an oak I would like to grow slowly, but steadily, and thus attain much layers in my films so they will reach an audience and stay with that audience. It can be any genre, as long as the filmmaker has a clear vision that I can underscore and support.

Managing a budget in particular must be more of a challenge in independent productions. Do you ever have to encourage writers and directors to tone their ideas down, to keep them possible? And how hands on do you typically get with the creative process?

Since I am involved from the beginning, I kind of know the development of the story and also know what is really needed to tell that particular story. So it also means that it is my job to find the support that is needed to tell that story, so in the development I never tell my writers to tone down. On the contrary, I even try to encourage them to think and write bigger. I honestly do think that a project can never be too ambitious. It should be a given that it is. And if possible, I try to be hands on in every stage of the creative process, from writing to casting to shooting to editing and mixing.

In both films, you attracted name actors from the Netherlands. I’m sure there are a lot of independent filmmakers reading this who would love to know how you manage to get people like Henry van Loon or Wim Willaert involved in a project. Is there a secret to it?

Yes, write a fucking good script. If the script is of A-level, you can attract A-level actors. Victoria is an amazing writer, and actors do read this, and want to be a part of her world. But it sounds easier than it is. Writing a good script is very difficult.

Finally, are there any OAK releases coming up which you would like to champion, or any current productions you are particularly excited by?

At the end of October a feature film called Narcosis will be in the Dutch cinemas. A truly wonderful, touching and sensitive film, made by two very talented filmmakers: Laura van Dijk and Martijn de Jong. The main lead is played by international star Thekla Reuten, and she really is a phenomenon. It is a layered film with emotion, sensitivity, intellect and entertainment. A drama film full of life and loss and love. Get your tissues ready for those tears!

I also have a couple more questions for both of you. First, let me say an important ‘thank you’ for keeping Indy Film Library in mind over the last two years. It was wonderful to receive Snorrie for the 2022 festival, after the success of Korte Kuitspier at our inaugural event. On that note, independent filmmakers have to be careful when spending money on submissions – do you have any tips for them when it comes to choosing festivals to send their films to?

Take a good look at the wonderful platform FilmFreeway, and choose your films and money wisely. Also EYE International (or SEE NL as it is called now) can help and assist you in making good choices.

Also try to stay in touch with the festivals and programmers that have selected your films for the first time. Many festivals want to follow directors, so really want to see your next film.

When I talk to people about cinema in the Netherlands, I often encounter a misconception that it is unimaginative, or dominated by Hollywood-style knock-offs. If you wanted to introduce someone to this country’s film culture, and show that wasn’t the case, which films would you point to [besides your own obviously]?

We think a wonderful mix of great Dutch cinema is the following:

  • Northerners by Alex van Warmerdam
  • Kom hier dat ik u kus by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevoorden
  • Kauwboy by Boudewijn Koole
  • Nena by Saskia Diesing
  • Antonia by Marleen Gorris
  • Bumperkleef by Lodewijk Crijns
  • Nocturne by Victor van der Valk
  • The Paradise Suite by Joost van Ginkel

Finally: in another life I worked with people on different films, and by the end, nobody wanted to talk to each other! You are both repeat collaborators though; how do you compliment and contrast each other’s approaches, and what are the key factors for maintaining a good working relationship like that?

Staying open and fair to each other. That is the first thing, that creates trust. Second thing is being creative and good in your job, so there is mutual respect. These elements should always be there between a producer and a director / writer; it is like a basis. If this is not there, you will fail. If this is present, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

In our collaboration we have this basis, we respect and trust each other. Besides that Victoria is very comfortable with directing, has a great vision and knows how to communicate that vision.

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