Jessica Woodworth: “When you tell a delicate story, it requires a lot of dedication, skill, and craft”

The whole cinematic landscape has changed drastically—almost overnight—since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Late February, when it still was business as usual, I met American-born film director, screenwriter, and producer Jessica Woodworth in Brussels, Belgium, where she and her husband, filmmaker Peter Brosens, and their principal cast attended the premiere of their latest film “The Barefoot Emperor.”

The event at BOZAR was a huge success. The film, which is the sequel to “King of the Belgians” (2016, also by Ms. Woodworth and Mr. Brosens), nominated for Best Comedy at the European Film Awards and sold to more than 60 countries, seemed destined—and hopefully still will be, once things get back to normal—to become another critical success for the Belgium-based screenwriting, directing and producing duo. “The Barefoot Emperor” is their fifth feature; their previous efforts, “Khadak” (2006), “Altiplano” (2009), “La cinquième saison” (2012) and “King of the Belgians” (2016), earned them several awards at film festivals worldwide.

Considering they are filmmakers with a cinematic approach and language entirely of their own, it was a surprise to see they had made a sequel. But, as they state in the press kit, ‘This is an unconventional sequel to “King of the Belgians,” a mockumentary road movie that struck a chord around the world. In the previous film, the awkward King [played by Flemish actor Peter Van den Begin] spiralled incognito through the Balkans on a journey of self-discovery. In light of recent developments in Europe, the King’s odyssey began to feel to us like unfinished business, thus “The Barefoot Emperor” was born.’

‘Whereas the previous film was a road trip, this is rather a trip without a road. The film begins with a bullet in Sarajevo, which abruptly halts the King’s journey home. He awakens in a sanatorium on Brijuni, the Croatian island where Tito hosted hundreds of public figures, including monarchs, presidents, and movie stars. While recovering from the wound to his ear, our confused King is confronted with the ugly reality of a Europe that is turning inwards and backwards. Worse still, he is slated to become Emperor of this dubious ‘Nova Europa.’ New characters appear, including an eccentric Lady Liz [played by Geraldine Chaplin] and a deranged Dr. Kroll [Udo Kier]. The historical references are multiple. The mockery is steady. The absurdity is credible.’

‘The intention is to evoke unease and laughter while weaving together layers of history. Nonetheless, at the heart of it all remains our vulnerable and unpredictable King. The storm gathering over the island is that of rising nationalism that just might unleash another dark chapter of history. Why is fear so easily awakened? Why is hate sparked so swiftly? Why do people forget the lessons of the past so readily? And how courageous is our royal protagonist? Remembering the impact of her father’s film “The Great Dictator” eighty years ago, Geraldine Chaplin is still convinced that mankind’s best weapon is humor. We share her conviction.’

Before the evening premiere of “The Barefoot Emperor” in Brussels where Ms. Woodworth was joined by her husband Peter Brosens and the principal cast of the film (Geraldine Chaplin, Peter Van den Begin, Lucie Debay, and Bruno Georis), I got to interview Ms. Woodworth at a nearby hotel in the Belgian capital.

The film’s international sales are handled by Be For Films.

Geraldine Chaplin in “The Barefoot Emperor” | Lumiere

Ms. Woodworth, what was the challenge to make a sequel to “King of the Belgians”?

First of all, “The Barefoot Emperor” was not planned. We never had the intention of making a sequel while making “King of the Belgians.” It came very naturally, the idea came like a flash of inspiration that we had on Tito’s island a week before the world premiere of “King of the Belgians” at the Venice Film Festival. This place was an ideal set for a sequel. And even before anyone had seen “King of the Belgians,” we felt it was unfinished business, and we thought that the character of the King, along with his entourage, was something that could be carried for into another work, with a few new characters like Udo Kier playing Doctor Kroll and Geraldine Chaplin playing Lady Liz and Doctor Ilse von Stroheim.

The island is very important, isn’t it? It’s almost a character on its own.

We sensed that this place was important; it’s full of history, quietly disturbing and indicative. It was hugely inspiring to imagine all those people and extraordinary figures in history had been there, and for Tito it was his mini-empire in former Yugoslavia. He met all the kings and queens from Europe, stars like Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor—they have all been there; the list is endless. The island was just isolated enough for him to do what he needed and wanted to do, building alliances and enjoying life. When we started looking into the archives, like who went to visit him, or who would visit him multiple times, how long they would stay there, what happened, and what would result from all these encounters, it was like a golden era of diplomacy pre-Twitter, when people actually spent time with each other. He was kind of a builder between the Soviet block and the Americans. He managed to nurture his guests for decades, drinking wine and strolling with them along the bays, discussing world affairs. This was the perfect stage for an absurd telling, an absurd story, which is New Europe. So we very swiftly had a concept. We already had the sequence of the King being shot by a sniper, so we thought, ‘Okay, maybe it has some value for a new story, when he wakes up in confusion and slowly recognizes what is going on.’

Peter Van den Begin as King Nicolas III in “The Barefoot Emperor” | Lumiere

I like the way you use various political and social ingredients in your narrative. When I talked to Geraldine Chaplin, Peter Van den Begin, and Titus De Voogdt, they all spoke very highly of you and admired your working method a lot. Titus had told me something that happened on the set of “King of the Belgians”: ‘One day, Jessica came to us, and she said, Peter and I talked about it, and we think one of your characters will die at the end of the film, but we won’t tell you which one.’ That requires a certain flexibility from your own part, but also from the actors.

And that’s real life too. We’re not at all afraid to take chances. When you tell a delicate story, it requires a lot of dedication, skill, and craft. And whenever you arrive on the set, there are tons of things you can’t control, and there are always so many things that are offered to you. That’s why locking the dialogue happens very late in the process, even ten minutes before we start shooting [laughs], which also keeps the actors very sharp because they can’t rely on a prop, an action or the dialogue until the last minute. And it works, the actors love it, and they were very focused. They knew their characters extremely well to be able to access authenticity and truthfulness when they knew what their lines would be. We had an incredibly talented cast, and they were not afraid to make mistakes either. If the timing was not working, or the space was not yet coming to life or vibrating in the right way… it’s in the details, too. Sometimes scenes require a level of detail that is insane—the right shot, the right gesture of the hand, the humor—it’s very time-consuming. It’s not always about making the right adjustments but searching for the right composition and the right movement.

What was the shooting schedule like?

We shot the movie in twenty shooting days, which I’ll never do again [laughs]. We had to make our decisions very fast, and everybody had to be on board. It’s very intense, almost like working twenty-four hours a day.

The film doesn’t really have a message, does it?

It’s not a message film, not a warning. We’re not policymakers proposing solutions for Europe. We just—in our own very unusual fashion—are contributing to the dialogue about Europe through cinema. And I know we have a very unusual language, all of our films do in some way, but that’s also good. We have to keep pushing these borders. We’re talking about an art form, after all, so if we can, in some unexpected way, contribute to an intelligent dialogue about Europe through this art form, that would be a great success, and would be very satisfying.

Four features written, all written, produced and directed by Ms. Woodworth and Mr. Brosens: “Khadak” (2006), “Altiplano” (2009), “La cinquième saison” (2012, a.k.a. “The Fifth Season”) and “King of the Belgians” (2016)

And “King of the Belgians” has also been an incredible success. It was an award-winning festival favorite internationally.

It has been shown at 125 festivals so far, and it’s still showing. “The Barefoot Emperor” is also all over the world now. It started in Toronto [Toronto International Film Festival, world premiere in September 2019], it’s been in Zagreb, Warsaw, Palm Springs, and it’s going to many festivals in the U.S. It’s also going to Sofia, Asia… But at the same time, it’s very modest; it’s not a commercial film to be honest. And comparing it to “King of the Belgians,” although the film is a sequel, it’s different in tone, in temperature, so it might leave people disappointed or surprised—or happily surprised because it’s totally different. Why would we make a part two that’s just a part two? We couldn’t make a traditional part two. I realize that audiences want to feel the same emotions, maybe they want to revisit the King, but it’s shot in an entirely different manner. People who are expecting that same pallet of emotions, like if they expect sugar, we’ll give them salt instead—or gourmet [laughs]. It’s definitely a darker film. Against all odds, “King of the Belgians” was a charming and funny film when nobody had any expectations. After all, we had no sense of humor after people had seen our first three films [laughs]. People were like, ‘Are you crazy? Those guys aren’t funny at all!’ [Laughs.] But it worked out, and then people wanted more sugar; they wanted something charming, something familiar—but no, this film is not charming, it’s disarming. It’s a disarming film, and that was the point. When you make something, you have to be pushing yourself, not using or capitalizing on anything from the past. “King” was appreciated very widely at festivals for its naivety, its charm, its simplicity, and at the same time for its reflection of Europe and the character of the King. But we would never walk along the same path.

Brussels, Belgium
February 24, 2020

The trailer of “The Barefoot Emperor”


KHADAK (2006) DIR – SCR Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth PROD Heino Deckert CO-PROD Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth, Nadia Khamlichi, Adrian Politowski, Leontine Petit CAM Rimvydas Leipus ED Nico Leunen MUS Christian Fennesz, Altan Urag, Dominique Lawalrée, Michel Schöpping CAST Batzul Khayankhyarvaa, Tsetsegee Byamba, Banzar Damchaa, Tserendarizav Dashnyam, Dugarsuren Dagvadorj, Uuriintuya Enkhtaivan

ALTIPLANO (2009) DIR – SCR Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth PROD Heino Deckert CO-PROD Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth, Jost de Vries, Diana Elbaum, Leontine Petit CAM Francisco Gózon ED Nico Leunen MUS Michel Schöpping CAST Magaly Solier, Jasmin Tabatabai, Olivier Gourmet, Andreas Pietschmann, Behi Djanato Atai

LA CINQUIÈME SAISON, a.k.a. THE FIFTH SEASON (2012) DIR – SCR Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth PROD Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth, Philippe Avril, Diana Elbaum, Sébastien Delloye, Joop van Wijk, J.B. Macrander CAM Hans Bruch Jr. ED Jessica Woodworth MUS Michel Schöpping CAST Aurélia Poirier, Django Schrevers, Sam Louwyck, Gill Vancompernolle, Peter Van den Begin

KING OF THE BELGIANS (2016) DIR – PROD – SCR Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth CAM Ton Peeters ED David Verdurme CAST Peter Van den Begin, Lucie Debay, Titus De Voogdt, Bruno Georis, Goran Radakovic, Pieter van der Houwen

THE BAREFOOT EMPEROR (2019) DIR – PROD – SCR Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth CAM Ton Peters ED David Verdurme CAST Peter Van den Begin, Lucie Debay, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Bruno Georis, Titus De Voogdt, Pieter van der Houwen