North Sea Texas directed by Bavo Defurne and produced by (also co-written with) Yves Verbraeken was the closing film at this years BFI 26th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It is a beautifully shot, gentle and affecting coming of age tale of 14 year old Pim, played by Jelle Florizoone. Pim’s passage from adolescence into manhood is complicated by his wayward mother, her even more wayward lodger and Sabrina, sister of Gino, Pim’s older friend with whom he is deeply in love.
It’s a remarkable film made more remarkable by the fact that it was Jelle’s first role as an actor, first feature film for director Bavo, and first feature for Yves as producer. We met the three of them in North London the week following the Film Festival and conducted a relaxed interview that was punctuated with many laughs. It was clear that the three of them have a great rapport with each other and their enthusiasm was quite infectious. I could tell that shooting North Sea Texas had been a positive experience, though not without its trials, and so we asked them what it was like for each of them to work on this film of ‘firsts’:
Bavo: Actually, it is the first feature film for the director of photography as well, so it’s a lot of ‘firsts’ in one film.
Polari: And how was that?
Yves: (laughs) For me it was great. Bavo was very motivated to make it into a really good film. The actors knew it was Jelle’s first film, so they really wanted him to perform well too. And it was the DOP’s first feature, so the crew, with which he had made a lot of commercials for T.V. –
Bavo: – they were behind him –
Yves: – yes, they were very experienced and normally they would have been very expensive, but they really wanted him to make his first feature so they really went for it. So I had a team that wanted to make this film work.
Bavo: Otherwise we wouldn’t have made it in 22 shooting days. Everyone did more than 100% – there was never a day when they would say, “time’s up, we go home”, no… they invested hours and enthusiasm.
Yves: The only times we didn’t have long shooting days was when Mickey the dog was on set. Then, we had normal hours.
Jelle: He was the best actor on the movie. (laughs)
Yves: You know when a dog comes onto the set it is supposed to make the days impossible, but this dog was so well trained, that we had foreseen too much time –
Bavo: The AD scheduled long takes with the dog –
Yves: Which he should have done –
Bavo: But the dog was simple…
Yves: But he’s not like a dog you can pet and hug… he’s quite cold.
Polari: Or maybe he’s just a professional?
Yves: (laughs) Maybe slightly too professional!
Polari: Jelle, how was it for you? Because not only was this your first film, but your first time as an actor.
Jelle: It was amazing. When we first started the shooting process I was a little bit nervous as it was all so new, so overwhelming. But it was a lifetime experience. I loved it. I learnt a lot and I am never going to forget this. It was shot one year and a half ago and it is still perfectly etched in my mind –
Bavo: We traumatized him that much!
Jelle: (laughs) And it went so fast we, I did casting a month before, a month of rehearsing then –
Bavo: I was busy with the project for two years and Jelle only came on the project a month before shooting.
Polari: Jelle, your performance is beautifully observed and completely believable. As a first time actor, how did you go about creating this character?
Jelle: Well, first of all. It was always a dream of mine to act in a movie, or on stage, theatre whatever and when they called me to do an audition, I was like, “ok, I’m going to do this”, because maybe this opportunity will never come back. So I went to the audition and I felt comfortable, so it was a good sign. We did a month of rehearsing, games and improvisations, and we also did an exercise where we have to do the whole movie in one scene. It was difficult but it helped, for me, to make the switch to my character.
Bavo: We did a lot of rehearsal, because we had to make it believable that these boys already have known each other for 15 years when really they had only knew each other a month.
Jelle: But actually when I met Mathias who plays Gino, it was like we knew each other, like…
Yves: There was a click, you connected…
Bavo: When I watched the first meeting of them, they were quite reserved and friendly, but very curious about each other and that was, I think, a good start for a real professional working relationship. You felt directly that they were two persons who really wanted to be in the movie and make it believable. Mathias came from acting school, Jelle not, but Jelle came from dancing school, which helped. He understands what performance art is and he was not afraid to touch someone, because that is what you do in ballet, they are touching each other all the time, it’s very normal… so (laughs) he was trained in touching people –
Jelle: It also helps with discipline, on set.
Bavo: It was very nice to work with young people who are so disciplined. And strangely enough I didn’t talk about my own life, or experiences, and I didn’t ask them about their life, their experiences or sexuality – we didn’t do this psychological stuff which I did with my short films by the way, but in my short films I would tell my whole life –
Yves: (laughing) It was a bit shorter back then!
Bavo: (laughs also) – and now my life is so long and no one cares about my first love! But, in a way, we protected our most personal things, in order to give total freedom to explore the most personal things of this fiction. And I think that worked, that was an experiment and I didn’t know if it would work… (he pauses as he remembers something) …because in Campfire, that actor really identified with his character, he identified with it too much perhaps.
Yves: Yes, that boy at a certain moment had big difficulties letting the character go, which is normal when you don’t help an actor stop a character, but as a director he knows you have to help them end the day and leave the character behind.
Polari: You mentioned Campfire, one of your shorts and we have a question about that. Stylistically North Sea Texas is very different from your short films, and I’m wondering whether this is because, for the first time, you have used external source material.
Bavo: Yeah! Maybe.
Polari: Was it always your intention to use someone else’s source material for your first feature or did you want to write your own story but things changed?
Bavo: We had ideas ourselves too, but for political or production reasons they never got made. And then suddenly, I read a back cover of a book and I thought, “this is it!”, I had this eye opening experience. Because of the ending… when I read the book, I thought, “this is the ending everyone was asking for”. With Campfire, we showed that film in schools in Flanders and a lot of people were worried about the character. And when I read this book I realised, you can end it with hope, without making it too sugary sweet, without making it a fake Disney –
Yves: – fake happy ever after!
Bavo: And in a way I think that reflects also our society, yes there are a lot of bad things going on, but some men have relationships with men and there relationship is not a drama, or bad – some really are happy! So as an artist I think you should also reflect that. Because if you go on showing how bad it was for those cowboys in Brokeback Mountain, and how it ended in death and one is unhappy for the rest of his life, it doesn’t help, you know, it doesn’t bring us further in finding our identity.
Yves: I think also with this book, it was written to be made into a film of Bavo’s, because when I read it, it read like a Bavo story.
Bavo: It was a present! It was really a present from – I didn’t know the writer, but he knew my short films and it has some scenes in it like the tent scene from Camp Fire, a motorcycle scene like I have in Sailor. So there were these iconic scenes of adolescence and coming of age and discovering your first love… and the writer said your films inspired me to write these scenes and now, it’s reciprocal this inspiring each other. He was very happy when I wrote a letter to him saying I want to make a film of your book and he said, “when you do it, it’s fine, if you do it, I’m happy”. It was like a present after 10 years of trying to make that first movie.
Yves: It was very difficult, within the Flanders context to get his first feature made, even though his short films are distributed world wide, it was very difficult because of the gay label, he has.
Bavo: And even when we had projects that were not gay, then we would be like the gay guy doing a straight project. So the only way out really was make a gay film and the financiers like the Film Fund, said if there is one person who has to make the first Flemish gay film, it will be you. And that’s what we did.
Yves: When we presented this project they immediately said, “we’re going to make this film happen”. So I knew from the first time I submitted it, it was going to get made.
Bavo: Yves said, “we don’t have a lot of money, but let’s make it with the money we have”. And I’m very glad Yves said, “c’mon… let’s do it!”
Yves: And I felt with the casting we had, these young kids, and also Nina – the triangle is really working and I was like I don’t want to wait any longer because we’re gonna lose the three of them so I really want to go for it now –
Bavo: – and it was also the summer and they had vacation and so we were like, “let’s film now! Let’s do it and see what happens!”
Polari: In terms of casting, it’s hard to ignore the notice in the end credits that apologises to all the boys that were prevented from being involved in the film by their parents. We remarked after we had seen the movie that a film like this could only be made in Europe because of the age of the boys involved.
Yves: I said when we were taking this film to Palm Springs, “I hope we don’t get arrested!” (laughs) We didn’t get arrested…
Bavo: In Palm Springs there was one man in the audience who said, “you mean you got state funding for a film with a 14 year old, to this?” – he meant it positively. It was like, “look USA, the land of the free, but Europe is much more progressive.
Polari: But it was still hard for you to cast this movie nevertheless.
Bavo: It was hard… I mean, I don’t know if I would have dared to play that role in my time, I must say. I am really thankful and happy that there are people out there that have parents and a school who support who they are, what they do and the career they want to achieve. I‘ll never be negative about the boys who dropped out of the casting process, they were simply not ready for it or supported by their parents like Jelle.
Yves: It was as much a casting of the parents as it was a casting of the kids.
Bavo: As a kid you can’t help if you have nasty parents. You just get the parents you have and some are open minded and some are really not open minded. Sadly, there were a lot of boys with a lot of talent who were simply were not supported enough. And Jelle’s school friends were his biggest fans.
Jelle: They were very open minded and very supportive like my mum.
Bavo: When I was 14, I was in a Catholic college and I think no one would be my fans… (slyly) …maybe some priests –
Yves: (rolls his eyes with horror) Oh God!!
And on this controversial bombshell our interview comes to an end with the room yet again erupting into laughter…
North Sea Texas is currently in cinemas and will be available on DVD from Peccadillo pictures later in the year. You can see more stills from the film and read Polari‘s review here.