Nic Balthazar: “I build in my own mechanisms to protect myself from failure”

Although “Everybody Happy” is only the third feature directed by Flemish filmmaker Nic Balthazar (b. 1964), it looks as if he’s been making films his whole life long, since he masters and manages the language of cinema in all its various aspects just perfectly. With the Belgian premiere of “Everybody Happy” at the latest Film Festival in Oostende, Mr. Balthazar had just returned from Canada, after picking up the Best Director Award at the Montreal World Film Festival, to introduce his latest achievement in his native country.

Just like his two previous films, both based on true stories, “Ben X” (2007, also a winner in Montreal, for Best Film Debut), about a youngster, forced to go though life with autism while being bullied at school, followed by “Tot Altijd” (2012, a.k.a. “Time of My Life”), with Koen De Graeve playing the leading character of Mario Verstraete who is diagnosed with MS and in the final stages of his tragic life becomes an advocate by supporting the Belgian legalisation of euthanasia, there’s now “Everybody Happy.” Based on Mr. Balthazar’s own intriguing screenplay, this is definitely not a comedy, but rather an in-depth character study with powerhouse performances by a tremendous cast.

The original Flemish trailer of “Everybody Happy”

Referring to the life and work of celebrated stand-up comedians, pleasing the crowds in sold-out theaters, with a life, it seems, filled with fun and laughter, “Everybody Happy” focuses on this one stand-up comedian in particular, played by Peter Van den Begin, who needs to get his life back on the right tracks. It takes a lot of courage to handle such a matter as delicately as Mr. Balthazar does and, because of that, I honestly do have a hunch that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel would both rate the film ‘Two Thumbs Up’ if those eminent film critics and historians were still alive and had the chance to review “Everybody Happy.”

Mr. Balthazar is a highly-respected, all-round and multi-talented novelist, screenwriter, film and documentary maker, among others, while his engagement as an artist also involves the awareness of global warming with its devastating consequences for the generations to come.

posterHow did you find the perfect balance between what you were trying to tell and what you were going to show on the screen with “Everybody Happy”?

The basic message of this film could be summed up in a few words: be yourself. But that would be all too shallow, and that’s the great thing about cinema: you can try to convey a very subtle message which really can’t be summarized that easily. I think the story we are trying to tell is the story about this eternal debate, or this eternal fight we have with our own inner devil. We often talk about the monkey on our back who keeps hanging on every branch in our head and never hits the ground. I thought it would be interesting to show that mechanism, because once we are aware of how it works, half of the problem is solved, actually.

I loved the tagline on the international poster, which says: ‘A film about standing up. To yourself.’

Yes, and we never quite found the right translation in Dutch, which shows the strength of the English language for that kind of thing, but if you talk about this stand-up comedian, it says a lot about how hard it is and what these people have to stand up to – they have to stand up to themselves, to all their doubts and frustrations, and the best stand-up comedians are the ones with their phenomenal humor and their insights about ourselves. So I have a love-hate relationship with comedy as so many of us have. The best stand-up comedy is sheer genius sometimes, while the worst stand-up comedy can be so foul, so cynical, so low, that it also shows the highs and the lows of the human brain. But it’s also about standing up to yourself, and that’s what we hardly ever do. We carry our own thoughts with us, our own negative thoughts, but the moment we have the courage to stand up to ourselves, then things start to happen.

If I may quote film director Fred Zinnemann, he once told me, ‘I like people to be entertained, but I don’t want it to be empty. I like to give some nourishment.’ Isn’t that exactly what you also do with your work?

Filmmaking is such a costly affair, there’s so much money involved that you might as well say something substantial. I am really happy, you know: with my first two features, I can really and safely say that so many people told me and wrote me that those films meant something to them, and sometimes they changed their lives. It’s a humble experience, but how happy can you be if you have enriched people’s lives or even made them aware of what their own condition was. Sometimes it’s so strange that we need cinema or stories to have deeper insights to what we’re doing ourselves or what’s going on in our own lives.

peter-van-den-begin
Jeroen Leenders and Peter Van den Begin in Mr. Balthazar’s “Everybody Happy.” Photograph: Kinepolis Film Distribution

If you remember the day when you started to write the screenplay of “Everybody Happy,” and you look at the final product now, has there been a whole evolution, or is the film pretty much what you had in mind when you started writing?

It has been an interesting process, especially when great actors like Peter Van den Begin, Barbara Sarafian, Jeroen Leenders and all the others coming along to read your screenplay. Then it always gets better than what you’re aiming for. And I’m really happy that a few of the key images and a few of the key scenes that I imagined five years ago, even before we did “Time of My Life,” are pretty much exactly how I wanted to film them and show them. For example, there’s this image I had while I was lying in a hotel room once, of that nagging person that wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s one of my favorite images now in the film, with this person hanging by your neck and pulling you down, and then another moment, when he tries to chuck this little devil over the balcony but he holds on: you cannot chuck him over the balcony unless you go with him. And today, unfortunately, that is what three people do every day in this country: we have one of the highest rates of suicide. Every day, three people throw themselves off the balcony, but they don’t want to do that, all they want to do, is throw that little devil over the balcony, only they’re not aware that he’s there. So if my film could convince them that they could chuck the little devil off the balcony instead of themselves, then we can save a lot of lives. [If this might disturb or upset you in any way, or if you have any questions about suicide, go to your doctor, therapist, or nearest hospital, depending on the region where you live. Create a safe lifeline, and focus on hope and recovery, as this film does brilliantly; you can find more about suicide prevention by clicking here]

Do you have a special technique when writing a screenplay, maybe a favorite place to write? Are there other projects that you are also involved with during the writing process?

I’m afraid I multitask too much. It’s probably not a good thing to do, it gives me more stress and I’m never satisfied, because I always want to continue doing other things as well – a theater play, TV, or a documentary, for example – until I realize why I am doing this: it kind of limits the chance of disappointment. If my theater play wouldn’t catch on, I could say, ‘Well, this isn’t what I usually do, because I make films.’ And if my film wouldn’t become a big success, I could say, ‘I am making a documentary now.’ I build in my own mechanisms to protect myself from failure. And that’s not a good thing. I wrote this screenplay without interruption, then I went on to something else, and when it got green lighted, I read it again as if somebody else wrote it. My main secret is something I stole from Mike Leigh: write your screenplay, then chuck it away when you’re working with actors, tell them what the theme is about, and they can come up with a lot of things that you didn’t think about before. You pick up their ideas and it has enriched all my films. Also, Peter Van den Begin and Jeroen Leenders, who are not only two great actors but also very funny and talented, have been able to add so much to the screenplay.

So far, all of your films were based on your own screenplays. What if somebody would come up to you and say, ‘I got a screenplay that maybe could be of interest to you.’ Would you like to read it?

I used to think I was like these singers who can’t sing really well, but they’re the best singers of their own songs. Like Jacques Brel: he was not a fantastic singer, but he was the best singer when using his own material. So I thought I’m probably the best director for my own screenplays. Maybe that’s because I didn’t go to film school, but now, after three films, and after winning the Best Director Award in Montreal, I thought, ‘Hey, I must be a director now!’ [laughs]. At a certain moment, there was a project in Hollywood – Spencer Baumgarten is my agent there – I worked there on a brilliant screenplay, and Matthew McConaughey was pretty much the only actor who could really play the leading character, but unfortunately the deal didn’t go though. So now, if I would get a brilliant screenplay like that, I can’t imagine a greater present than not having to go through the whole painful process of having to write a screenplay myself. It’s very ambivalent. To me, writing is always more fun when it’s done.

dsc_5662
Mr. Balthazar at the Film Festival Ostende. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

In the past, you have been a prominent film journalist in Flanders. Did that help you to become a film director with a view and an approach of your own?

It certainly helped me to become a film director. I often thought about it and both processes are more similar than you’d think. Many filmmakers have been film journalists. Basically, as a film journalist you are looking at the screen and you’re asking yourself, ‘Is it worthwhile? Is it truthful? Can I believe these characters, am I involved and are the emotions honest?’ When I am on the set as a film director – never looking at the actors live, I only look at my screen – I ask myself those very same questions. And if the answer to one of them causes a problem, we need to find a solution. Then you need your actors, and with my theater background – and not being a very gifted actor – I know how difficult it is for them and what you can do to make it work, or maybe go for something that they wouldn’t necessarily do themselves. But once they deliver something…  Actors like Peter Van den Begin and Barbara Sarafian, they are so intelligent and insightful in what they do, you often only have to ask something like, ‘Could you do it a little bit faster?’

So far, you’ve made three films in nine years. Is that enough for you?

That’s a reasonable Belgian rate, and certainly if you write the screenplays yourself, it’s pretty normal. But I do a lot of things in between, otherwise I would get a little frustrated [laughs]. On the other hand, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with Eyeworks and my producer Peter Bouckaert who handles the budget. Not every filmmaker has the opportunity to make the films that he wants to make – as I do – so I consider myself a very lucky man.

Film Festival Oostende, Ostende (Belgium)
September 9, 2016

One of Mr. Balthazar’s environmental efforts titled ‘Sing for the Climate’

FILMS

BEN X, a.k.a. NOTHING (2007) DIR – SCR Nic Balthazar (also novel “Niets is alles wat hij zei” [2002] and play “Niets” [2003]) PROD Peter Bouckaert, Erwin Provoost, Michiel De Rooij, Sabine Veenendael, Burny Bos CAM Lou Berghmans ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Praga Kahn CAST Greg Timmermans, Marijke Pinoy, Cesar De Schutter, Gilles De Schryver, Bavo Smets, Katrien Pierlet, Rebecca Lenaerts, Dirk Van Dijck, Wim De Vilder, Wim Vandekeybus

TOT ALTIJD, a.k.a. TIME OF MY LIFE (2012) DIR – SCR Nic Balthazar PROD Peter Bouckaert CAM Danny Elsen ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Henny Vrienten, Alain De Ley CAST Koen De Graeve, Geert Van Rampelberg, Lotte Pinoy, Michel van Dousselaere, Viviane de Muynck, Iwein Segers, An Miller, Ben Segers

EVERYBODY HAPPY (2016) DIR – SCR Nic Balthazar PROD Peter Bouckaert CAM Robrecht Heyvaert ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Henny Vrienten, Triggerfinger CAST Peter Van den Begin, Barbara Sarafian, Jeroen Leenders, Josse De Pauw, Rik Verheye, Kamal Kharmach, Leen Dendievel