Interview: 'Bullhead' Director Michael Roskam & Matthias Schoenaerts
by Jeremy Kirk
February 10, 2012
Bullhead is a damn solid gangster movie. It tells the story of Jacky Vanmarsenille, a Belgian cattle farmer who gets caught up in the illegal side of the beef trade. Jacky has his own dark past, one that he struggles with every day, and the film shows how everything in one's world can come to a screeching halt all at once. Bullhead played at Fantastic Fest 2011. I was lucky enough to catch it there and instantly saw how powerful and engaging it is. I'm not alone, as Drafthouse Films picked it up for distribution shortly after its premiere. What's more, Bullhead was one of five films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars.
The intricate character building writer/director Michael R. Roskam (seen above) brings to the film along with Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts' staggering lead performance as Jacky were among the many reasons I admired Bullhead. That is why I jumped at the opportunity to interview the two of them during their recent publicity tour leading up to the film's release (on February 17th) and the big night where they could go home with an Oscar. It's an exciting time for the guys behind Bullhead, here's what we discussed:
Gentlemen, how are you doing?
Michael Roskam: Pretty well. It's amazing. We arrived yesterday in New York and we're going to start the promotion for the movie with the guys from Drafthouse Cinema, and I'm just getting ready for the roller coaster of the whole nomination. I'm looking forward to it. It's an honor. We're very thrilled.
For those who don't know, Mr. Roskam, give us a quick synopsis of what Bullhead is about.
Roskam: I call it a crime tragedy about a cattle farmer who uses illegal growth hormones for his livestock. It's based upon a real, existing crime scene or organized crime in our country. It's called the hormone mafia. It's like real organized cattle farmers and people in the meat industry using illegal growth hormones, because growth hormones are illegal in Europe. When something is illegal, crime gets organized. That's what I think. It's set against the backdrop of this tragedy of the main character, who is not only involved in this illegal business but seems to be a very unpredictable, violent kind of Minotaur character who is even injecting himself with all kinds of hormone cocktails. This is the beginning of a great mystery and a great crime plot that will meet at the end of the movie and will tell about the destiny of this character called Jacky. That one is played by Matthias.
Where did Bullhead start for you? Did you start with the gangster side of it, or did you want to tell Jacky's story first?
Roskam: I think it's kind of like a marriage or chemistry. Of course, the hormone mafia was exposed in our country to the public and to the authorities when they killed a veterinarian inspector in the Food and Drug Administration, so the crime scene was there. I always wanted to make this kind of film noir movie, and, if your going to make a film noir, you need two things: a crime scene and a good tragedy. I got the crime scene and then I started to elaborate on the themes that interest me like destiny and loyalty and friendship and manhood and loss of innocence. All those things. I was already writing short stories and did some short films that those themes were already involved in. It was more a matter of time. That's our job, you know?
It's an incredible marriage of performance and story. When did each of you realize how well the acting from you, Mr. Schoenaerts, was going to fit with the character you'd written? You've worked together before, right?
Roskam: Yeah. In 2005 we did a short film together. It was during the shooting of that film that I was already convinced about Matthias being the lead and playing Jacky in the movie. I just knew that he was the guy, and I told him about the story and immediately he was intrigued by the character in the story. He was a part of it from the beginning. Reading a lot of versions of the script we discussed character a lot. For me it was a very assuring thing, because the character on paper looks very good, but, still, someone has to play it. That was going to be the hard thing. If that would be a cliche or a joke than my movie could deflate like a bad souffle. Matthias was there from the beginning, which was, for me, always the confidence I needed to go wherever I wanted to, because I knew he was going to carry it there and bring it to the screen like nobody else could.
Mr. Schoenaerts, when did Mr. Roskam come to you with the story?
Matthias Schoenaerts: That was six or seven years ago after we shot the short film. Right away I had this intuitive, deep gut feeling. I was just deeply drawn to the idea, and it never let me go. Right from the start I just started thinking about the character and for more than six years we've been developing it and thinking about it and exchanging ideas. Finally one year and a half before we started shooting Michael called me and said, "Hey, I got a date. We managed to finalize the financing of the film, so we have the money, and we'll be shooting in one year and a half." From then on I just decided not to do anything else any more and just devote myself to the preparation of the film, because it was a big physical preparation to be made. In one year and a half I just went for it.
Talk about that physical transformation you went through. What was that like? How much muscle weight did you gain?
Schoenaerts: It must have been something like 30 kilograms. I don't know what it is in pounds. I don't know. 60, 70 pounds maybe.
How did you do that? What kind of training did you go through?
Schoenaerts: It was just an enormous amount of weight lifting. You could even call it body building. Working out two times a day, six times a week and eating, sleeping, training, and fantasizing about this script. That's what I did for more than a year. The physical appearance was very important to the plot. It's not the main aspect. To me the main aspect was the vulnerability, but I thought if I managed to get this physical appearance then to me, as an actor, emotionally I can concentrate on the vulnerable part, because I have this physical presence that evokes all this brutality. That is set and I can trust on that, because his appearance is the way it is. From then on, as an actor, I could focus on the more vulnerable part.
Would you say that was the more difficult part to get hold of, the vulnerability as opposed to the physical aspect to it?
Schoenaerts: I don't think of it in terms of difficult or not difficult or easy. To me the vulnerability was the most important part. To me that was the core of the character. It starts from a deep, deep existential pain. That was how the character moves through life. That to me was the starting point.
One of the things that I loved about Jacky was when he would start to intimidate someone he would literally butt heads with them, and nudge their head with his. Was that something that was in the script, or did the two of you work that out as you were building the character?
Schoenaerts: That was something that developed itself. It's something that came along with the physical preparation. His body language started changing, and I added this bowed head, this head that leans forward like a bull. Sometimes it just happened within scenes when I would just start using the head. It just came in the moment. It was not something we really talked about. Just getting into this animalistic behavior in the moment while you're shooting it. That's what's fun about acting. While you're shooting just being in a certain film and being there in the moment and just let it happen. That's what happened in some scenes. At some point I just started using my head to talk to people.
The Oscar nominations were announced at 5:30 in the morning - put us in the room when you heard that Bullhead got a nomination. Did you watch the announcements?
Schoenaerts: It's a funny coincidence. I was reading the newspaper on the internet, and I read a note that said at 2:30 (2:30 in the afternoon Belgium time) we'll know if Bullhead will be nominated or not. I watched the clock and it was 2:25. It said it would be broadcast live on CNN, so I thought, "Let me put on CNN." And I put on CNN, and the show started right away. The announcement came, and we were the first on the list. I thought somebody was pulling my leg or something. Apparently it's real, because here we are, and it's crazy.
Roskam: I was doing a trailer, some work at a studio in the morning. The announcement in Belgium was 2:30 PM. I had just finished my job at 2:15, and people were asking if I didn't want to stay and watch it live. I said, "No. Just let me go." I wanted to be alone in my car just driving, and I knew between the studio and my house that I would know. I would know before getting home what the verdict was. I had a phone call suddenly from my wife, and she said, "Congratulations. You're in." And I was like, "Yay." I kept driving my car and saw I was out of gas. I pulled the car over and went to get gas for my car, and I saw all the people doing the same thing. I was standing there trying to realize that we were an Oscar nominee just alone. It was really good.
Very deserving. It's a very good film. Congratulations to both of you. Go see Bullhead. It's a great film coming from Drafthouse Films.
Roskam: Thank you. We're very proud to be with those guys.
Thank you to Drafthouse Films and Fons PR for setting this interview up and a special thank you to Michael Roskam and Matthias Schoenaerts for giving up some of their time to talk to us. Bullhead opens limited in New York City, Los Angeles and Austin on February 17. The Academy Awards will be held Sunday, February 26. Learn more on the film's official website.