EXCLUSIVE: Director and Star of Belgium Oscar Nominee Talk ‘Bullhead’

Matthias Schoenaerts as "Jacky Vanmarsenille" in Michael Roskam's "BULLHEAD." ©Drafthouse Films. (Click on photo for hi-res version).


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—With few exceptions, Hollywood’s mobsters are usually urban dwellers, with the action set on the mean streets of New York, LA, Miami or another big city. In contrast, Belgium’s entry into the Oscar race this year (and one of only five nominated foreign language films) is a crime drama called “Bullhead,” which is set in that European country’s bucolic countryside.

Don’t be fooled by the rolling hills and grazing cattle, though. What dwells here are all the elements of organized crime—ruthless bosses, shady deals, shakedowns and turf wars, not to mention the illegal trade of a hard-to-get controlled substance, bovine hormones. But “Bullhead” is about much more than organized crime. It’s an emotional tale of revenge, redemption and fate, as told from the perspective of a young cattle farmer named Jacky, whose psyche has been scarred by a terrible tragedy in his past.

Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Jacky, spent a year transforming his slim frame into a hulking mass of rippling muscle. The 34-year-old opted for a protein-rich diet of tuna, chicken and oats, and a strict daily workout regime to get in top physical form for the role, unlike his character, who injects steroids into his body.

“Bullhead” is the feature debut of writer-director Michael Roskam, who spent six years on the project. He grew up in the Flemish region depicted in the film and even worked on a farm there in his youth.

Schoenaerts, who is much more eloquent in person than his brooding onscreen character, and Roskam recently sat down to discuss the long road to making “Bullhead,” and the satisfaction of representing their country at this year’s Academy Awards.

Front Row Features: Does it mean something special to be nominated?

Michael Roskam: Of course.

Front Row Features: Were you surprised when “Bullhead” was announced as a Best Foreign Language nominee?

Matthias Schoenaerts: Absolutely. I was completely surprised. It’s the pinnacle. Hopefully, it’s not a once in a lifetime (honor). There’s only a first time that it happens to you.

Roskam: Maybe the only time.

Front Row Features: You probably expected you would have to pump up for this role, but how did you feel about the diet you were on?

Schoenaerts: It’s just shutting off your brain and not thinking too much (about the food), because if you consider what you’re eating and the amount of what you’re eating, you might get sick.

Roskam: (Jokingly) We gave him sedatives and while he slept we gave him hormones. When he woke up, he was like, “What?”

Schoenaerts: When I look at it in retrospect, I think, what did I do? In the moment itself, it never felt like a sacrifice. I did what I felt had to be done.

Roskam: In looking back, it was a bit risky, though. Matthias was isolated a lot. It’s not fun eating every three hours and only sleeping and working out for a year. He never went out for another part during that time. People will go crazy for less. I never questioned it, though. I was never afraid of it. It was only after making the movie that I thought it was kind of risky. What if he had cracked or gone crazy?

Front Row Features: Matthias, did the isolation you felt help in terms of building your character, because you had to do things you didn’t want to do?

Schoenaerts: Absolutely. That’s why I chose not to do anything else in that year of preparation. I wanted to have this very condensed kind of energy, this hyper-concentration on one thing, and that was shooting this film. I had all this energy locked up in my body. Without even playing it, that’s what comes out of your system. It’s just the physical presence that evokes this energy. That’s what I was looking for.

Front Row Features: Michael, when did this idea come to you? Was it the setting that inspired the idea or the idea that inspired the setting?

Roskam: I think both. I knew I wanted to make a film noir, and to make a good film noir you need two things: a good tragedy and a good crime scene. This world is real. It existed in my country. This crime world was exposed when a veterinarian inspector was killed in the 1990s. I knew I was going to use this. It’s from my soil. It’s original—farmer gangsters. It’s like “Mean Streets,” only it’s “Mean Fields.” I figured I could work with this because I know the DNA of this world. They’re Flemish guys, Belgians. I know the landscapes. I’ve worked at farms when I was a kid. They were good guys, though, not like the guys in this film. All the rest is imagination.

Front Row Features: Against that backdrop, the story is focused on Matthias’ character, Jacky.

Roskam: Right. I didn’t want to make a movie about the vet inspector getting killed. I wanted to tell a story about destiny and revenge and redemption and loyalty—all those big themes. I created this character that is injecting himself with hormones because of what happened to him. So it became this kind of allegory.

Front Row Features: The narrator states at the beginning that your fate is predetermined. Is that a personal philosophy?

Roskam: I look at it on a larger scale: Whatever we do, we are going to die. Does that mean we’re not going to have a good life? Does that mean you cannot have fun? It’s quite remarkable how much fun we have and are optimistic about the things we want to do, knowing the fact that someday it’s all over.

Front Row Features: Your movie’s not entirely grim, though. There are the two bumbling mechanics that serve as comic relief.

Schoenaerts: Comedy is part of any classic tragedy.

Roskam: You need it.  They’re stupid and funny, and pushing the destiny of the main character, without him knowing it. I like to use (humor) in my stories. Coincidence? But is it coincidence? It’s always the stupidest things first; it’s never sophisticated when things go wrong. The mistake is always something stupid and simple and funny …

Schoenaerts: … with very tragic consequences.

Roskam: That’s what life is about. And I just like to show people that. We have many emotions: happiness, but also sadness. I think it’s important that we embrace them all, that we don’t just focus on the ideal of happiness, but that we do have feelings like revenge and some dark thoughts. We shouldn’t try to ignore them or say they don’t exist. We should acknowledge they’re there and it’s not that bad to have them. That’s what I tried to show with “Bullhead.”

Front Row Features: The scene where Jacky confronts his antagonist could have been played different ways. Did you talk a lot about how to play that scene?

Schoenaerts: We talked about many scenes for years but we never tried to box it into a fixed idea of how to play it. Right from the beginning, we knew we didn’t want it to be a scene where Jacky starts talking about his past, or his feelings. First of all, he’s not an eloquent person. He’s not somebody who’s used to expressing himself (verbally.) We realized it had to be something very physical, emotional and at the same time, wordless.

Front Row Features: Michael, what was the trickiest part of making this?

Roskam: When I was on set and about to shoot a scene and I realized I wasn’t going to use it—that was the toughest part, staying focused and treating it like it was an important scene, because maybe, in the end, I will realize it is an important scene. Some of them I used, some of them I didn’t.

Front Row Features: How about you, Matthias?

Schoenaerts: The toughest for me was the first day of shooting because for six years we had been talking about the project, and fantasizing about it. And then along comes the first day of shooting. I was shell-shocked the night before. I thought, this is what I’ve been looking forward to for six years now, and the past year I’ve been living like a monk. And here’s the first day of shooting and somehow I didn’t feel ready. It was funny. I hadn’t realized to what extent I was ready. This character was in my system, but it was so deep that I didn’t acknowledge it. I was scared and I thought I wasn’t ready. I didn’t sleep the night before. I drove to the set and my heart was pumping like crazy.

Front Row Features: Michael, you never auditioned Matthias. What made you so confident he could pull off this character?

Roskam: We had done a short film together. I just knew he could commit to embodying Jacky. And that’s what he did. We did a camera test right before we started shooting, and that was the first time I saw him being Jacky.

Schoenaerts: I was so nervous about showing him. That was crazy. After the camera test and the first day of shooting, he said, “This is what you’ve been preparing to do for years.” I was happy to see he was happy.

Roskam: (Smiling) I want to go back to that moment.