martie 2023
Festivalul Visuali Italiane - Noua Cinematografie Italiană în România, 2023
I had the pleasure to make an interview with the co-director of the film Le otto montagne / The Eight Mountains, Charlotte Vandermeersch (at her debut in film directing) about the process of making the film, about the film itself, maybe even a little bit about herself. We had a lot of fun due to her fascinating stories and the flow of the conversation was brilliant - I hope I did not kill it for you to read.

It was an absolute honor to meet Charlotte, I have seen the first official international screening of
Le otto montagne at Festival de Cannes 2022, where it won Jury Prize. I absolutely adored it, its humanity, the calmness of nature, its naturalistic ways of touching the spectator and maybe I do not have enough words to stress that enough. But the good news is that you can watch this film also in a more official context during Visuali Italiane - New Italian Cinema in Romania Festival, 2023 (in Bucharest - 6 - 12 March 2023, Cinema Muzeul Țăranului, in Cluj-Napoca - 21 - 26 March 2023, Cinema Arta and Cinema Victoria, in Timișoara - 30 March - 2 April 2023, Cinema Victoria).

I will now let the words do the do. Enjoy!

Alberto Păduraru: Charlotte, tell me three words that describe you as a person an then tell me three words that describe you as a director.
Charlotte Vandermeersch (laughs): That's a funny question! As a person, I would say curious, energetic. Yes, I think that, curious and energetic.

A.P.: And the third one? C'mon. (laughs) Is it hard to limit to just three words?
C.V.: Yes, of course it is. Hm... (laughs) It really is difficult, I would say patient.

A.P.: And as a director? Are the words the same?
C.V.: I would say empathetic, supportive would also be one. And also precise. A combination of free and precise.

A.P.: Good words. I am actually surprised that you have no common words for both, but that is explainable, I suppose. If it were for you to choose a film (of all time) that defined your directing direction, what would that film be? And why?
C.V.: A film I think of... and it is strange maybe to say... it's a very edifice one. The Deer Hunter, of Michael Cimino. It's very intense and what I like is the freedom in narrative. There is a huge American-Russian wedding in the beginning. The party is filmed for like 20 minutes, just like that, people dancing, tension before the boys go to war, well, also it is all about the celebration of life with a tension underneath, and then how everything changes throughout the war. It can be very far away with the camera, observant of this party going on, and it is huge and it sticks for a while as if you are a part of the party itself, it is not so focused on close-ups. And then there you have the scenes where they do the roulette with the guns, and it is very intimate and crazy, I think it is very well told. Not too sentimental, very intense, very emotional, yet not too sentimental. In a very right way, I like that.

A.P.: Very proportionate, I get that.
C.V.: I like 70's films a lot in general because they can be very expressive, but they don't go into sensitivity, more like a little bit into craziness.

A.P.: Now that you brought up sensitivity, I cannot help but ask you, regarding your directing vision what are the things that bring you and your husband - Felix van Groeningen, also co-director of The Eight Mountains - together, and then again what are the things that tear you apart? If there are any...
C.V.: (laughs): Such nice questions! Do you write for a film magazine? Or a film blog?

A.P.: I am actually writing for an online publication - - but I am mostly focused on theatre and film critique. I also adore doing interviews with people, be they actors, directors, producers etc.
C.V.: Oh, I see. So, what brings me and Felix together is love for the story and for the characters, this tenderness that we share for it, and so we put the project really above us and we serve it. So that really creates a bond - something humble also - between us. We don't put our own fights above this, you know? They are less important, we are less important. If we have a fight we just drop it and serve the project as well as possible. What tears us apart? Sometimes the pressure you experience whilst shooting, there can be a lot of pressure, there can be a lot of things going wrong, or time that is basically lost because of transportation, or an actor, or anything really. It can be anything. And when you get stressed, well, then some kind of survival mode kicks in... And Felix has a lot more experience than I do, so he will just go like... try and save it. And I would be a little bit impressed by all that WHOA! You know? That panic! Let me put it like this (suggestive hand gestures) I go under, he goes up. Remember I chose the word empathetic in the first answer. I think that's it. I just need to see what needs to be supported. So when he is going, I am just trying to look after everyone on set, you know? There is pressure and I feel it too, but I am trying to calm down and also to put people at ease. That is what I will try to do.

A.P.: That is a very nice image for the word empathetic. How did the idea for this specific film - The Eight Mountains - emerge? Did you read Paolo Cognetti's novel, then did you picture a potential screening? Have you reached out to him, or viceversa?
C.V.: The book actually reached out to Felix. And I am saying the book because - of course it's not the book itself (or maybe it is, who knows?) - actually it came in his hands two times. One time in Belgium, by means of his old producer. He knows Felix very well and he read this book and gave it to Felix like 'Man, you need to read this.' Felix didn't really... (laughs) Well, at first he started it and was like 'Why would I read this Italian novel?' So he did not even read it the first time, he put it aside. Then the book - also, not the book itself (or maybe yes, who knows?) - came back to him one year later. So really the people, the producers who have the rights in Italy, they were talking to a British producer who knows Felix, and planned to do an international film - maybe English-spoken - and they did not want an Italian director. So they asked Felix if he would do it, and then again he received this book, this time he read it, he was like 'ok, already two times, I need to read it'. After that he told them he wants to do it. Immediately. But not in English. He said 'If I do it, I do it in Italian.' And this is how the film came, also, I came along so we write together and then, during the writing process, the idea came to do it altogether. So it was not the first idea, he had never co-directed, I had never co-directed. For me except in theatre. I have made some of my own plays collectively. But not in film. So this was my first time directing in film.

A.P.: Congratulation for such a debut film, it was really amazing. I actually saw it last year at its very first official screening at Cannes Film Festival 2022.
C.V.: Oh, really? Amazing.

A.P.: I think it is my actual favorite from the selection on image. The way it was filmed... absolutely amazing. Do you think the space defines the film? I know The Eight Mountains was filmed in three different locations - Nepal, the Italian Alps and also in Turin. Were those experiences of filming different one from another? Are there any stories about each of those places regarding the process of making the film?
C.V.: Well, we've experienced it pretty differently. We needed a lot of different locations in the Alps, and we also had a lot of time to prepare. We did not know the mountains there before quite well, so we went there a lot of times - again and again - and then few months before the shoot we moved there with our son in order to live there already a little bit so that he would feel comfortable when we started shooting and everything. So this was a slow process, a slow and beautiful process. You go to mountain peaks, you say 'ok, can we land on this peak? Can we land on that peak?', flying around in the helicopter. Because how else are you going to decide which one to shoot. You watch a lot of videos on youtube (laughs), with people walking, hiking, filming themselves, filming the surroundings, trying to decide where it is best to settle. But then you really want to go there yourself, in order to check it. But then in Nepal it was impossible for us to go because of Covid, so we could not prepare. We watched a lot of videos again, did a lot of Google Earth - you know - walking around (laughs). But it feels like you cannot go to the best places yourself, because Google hasn't been there. I discovered this Valley, one that is close to the Annapurna Valley in the Himalayan foothills, but this one is accessible only by foot - it is called Narfu Valley. We filmed in the village of Nar. You have to walk for two days and a half towards it, it is a village at 4.200 m and you cannot go there anyhow - you know, just with the donkey. So we convinced the production company to go on a track altogether, because there we did not use helicopters, we did not use jeeps, like we did back in the Alps with this 'helping things' (laughs). There we just walked. We could not prepare, it was a bit of a documentary thing, you discover what you like as you walk. And either you just do it instantly or you do it on the way back, you know, you just improvise, so it was a very different experience, much more physical, it was both very physical and very tiring, we all lost like at least 4 kilograms. Very beautiful. So it was also about trying to find - in a short time-frame - a slow way of making the film. Not like flying somewhere and asking someone 'hey, can you stand in the field here and be a farmer?' We did not want that. So everything you see is real, and the people that you se were just there (laughs). They were not actors.

A.P.: That's absolutely amazing. Wow!
C.V.: And then going to the city... It is very different. It suddenly feels very tight. Everything feels very tight, as if you don't have a lot of possibilities, because you don't have the sights, you know? In the mountains everything is wide and then it suddenly becomes tight, and then you try to use that again. A lot of doors, a lot of windows. Boxes.

A.P.: I see. Wow! Beautiful. When and where does a director's work stop?
C.V.: I guess now it stops kind of, after this interview (laughs). And then you have the release, and it starts again, with promo. It does not stop in one go. The project is finished now for a while, but always new little things come, and then you have your promoting to do, so it is really important to support that too. It keeps on dripping. I mean, doing this interview with you now is still a part of the directing job as it is to serve the project.

A.P.: Wow! Never thought of that. I totally agree. But when I imagined the question I was thinking about the film specifically. You know, regarding the point where the actors start working themselves and the director stops. I posed it in that sense, but it is still interesting.
C.V.: Oh! The actors need to take over in the scenes, of course. I mean (laughs) it's their scene! They bring life to the scene, it's not us, it's not me. So you just try to elevate them, help them make it more authentic, you try to lift them up. But then it's them who need to fly and feel free. That's what I meant with the other words in the first answer. Precise and liberty, freedom. You try to look at somebody very well, understand the person, what the person needs to feel free and feel inspired in the scene. So you look very well and you try to give them something so that they feel good and have fun with it, although it is a sad scene. Just something that inspires and gives confidence. You have a lot of control as a director. You tell people where to sit, where to stand, where to put the lights, all this blabla, the image, the DOP of course, you give the lines, you rehearse, you write the texts and then suddenly you say (*whistles*) 'Go!' (laughs). And then you stop. Because they need to feel like they could take over, they shouldn't feel like 'Oh, I have to do it the way she wants me to...' You know?

A.P.: Do you think that it is an advantage or a handicap for you - in film - the fact that you have a background of theatre directing?
C.V.: Oh, nooo! Not a handicap for sure. I think that all the work I've done has helped me. Of course it is a big difference, yes. But in the end it's all about telling a story. Yes, the codes change, in a film it is - often - more realistic. But you can have a very expressionistic film also (laugh), but the way we made our film is way more naturalistic. The thing is a bit different with theatre, but in the end it is all about the same core - believe in what you say, know what you say, or when not to say anything, how to use your body, how to have trust in yourself and your instincts, yes.

A.P.: Do you have any future plans regarding film-making? >Do you maybe see yourself experimenting with different genres? Or do you maybe wish for a certain signature to be created?
C.V.: I do not see myself experimenting with genres. I think that if I would make a film on my own it would be different than making a film together with Felix - he has his style. It also depends on the story, next time it might just be something else, it might just look completely different. I have been with Felix for quite... He's been my partner for 16 years now and we grew up together. I am 39 now. I was 23 when we started. That is crazy, right? It is like the whole adult life and I see him working. I've read all of his working versions, I always talk to him about them, I've played in some of his films also. I have learned a lot from him. I think he goes into a story that touches him and then everything comes from this deep feeling about it. This is why there is no 'genre idea'. Just a feeling. That's the base, and then every decision comes from that. I believe that is the same for me, that is something we really share. And maybe that's because I have been with him for so long, I don't know (laughs). But I share that, yes.

A.P. (laughs): Amazing! Tell me something about you that I can also recognize in the characters of the film - Pietro and Bruno. (C.V. laughs). It can be a trait, a belief, anything that matches.
C.V.: I have three brothers and we grew up with a father who was very absent and a very troubled man - a lot more troubled than the father portrayed in the film - but actually I did shape the character a little bit after what I've known. You can say that the father figure and the want of Pietro to be seen by his father, to have some attention, to be validated, valued... it is something that I really recognized the moment Pietro walks up to his dad as a man and he is very serious 'I can come with you.' And the father replies with a cold 'Ah, but you have to be strong.' You can't be a child, you have to - like - make it, earn it. This way of wanting this love yet feeling a little bit weird sometimes close to your father, not always knowing what to say or how to behave. It's not like they hug all the time. There are families that hug all the time - we do this now in this house. But my childhood was not like that. And so - the searching for who he was and seeing two different man - two different people in one person - the appreciation for one more than for the other - the forgiving. It is something close to me, really close to me. Indeed it was a line that I loved working on.

A.P.: Thank you for your time and your responses, it was a pleasure. And congratulations, also! I am looking forward to future films and also I'm going to try and check out some of your previous theatre work, because I am also passionate about it.
C.V. (laughs): It is difficult to find, I mean, when you work in Belgium... We don't really put films, cameras in our theatres. It is not easy to find stuff. I made a monologue after a beautiful book by Johan Harstad - a Norvegian guy - and this monologue was called Buzz. Maybe you can find something, trailers...

A.P.:... or even written articles would do the work.
C.V.: Oh, yes. But it is hard with translation, because it is in Dutch. I went to play that in Norway a couple times - maybe you can reach some English stuff too. (laughs) You'll see!

A.P.: Thank you!
C.V.: Thank you very much, Alberto! Bye bye!

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