Bas Devos on Investigating the Mysteries of the World Around Him in “Here”

Before Stefan (Stefan Gota) can leave his apartment in “Here,” he needs to clear out his fridge, finding both the most responsible and efficient solution to be throwing everything he has into a soup. He surely doesn’t have all the ingredients he’d naturally want – he’s offered some carrots by chance when he visits a garden to learn of the origin of some seeds he’s been holding – but nonetheless fixes himself a hearty meal that provides more sustenance than just the nutrients in the soup, leaving him content to take on whatever new challenge is ahead when he’s able to make everything work with whatever is put in front of him. Yet the city continues to pull on him in the enchanting drama as friends and neighbors don’t overtly plead with him to stay, but in saying goodbye as he plans to head home to the suburbs with the future unplanned after that, there is the gentle urge to continue on in the city where he’s been building a life alongside a skyscraper that’s he’s been involved in the construction of.

In his fourth feature, Bas Devos’ latest film is evidence in itself of how the most magnificent things can start out small as the Belgian director has gradually become a master of the craft since his haunting 2014 debut “Violet.” However, in “Here,” he really does consider growth from the starting point of one of earth’s most diminutive forms of life as he follows Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a bryologist in parallel with Stefan, whose study of the moss that gathers in between cracks of the sidewalk and has overtaken the local forest puts the two on a collision course when with his broken-down car, Stefan is obliged to wander through the woods. When so much is going on inside the plant that few take notice of, it is easy to imagine all that’s stirring inside the two far more complex creatures that Devos trains his camera on, with Stefan enduring sleepless nights wondering where he fits into the world and Shuxiu at home in nature far more than when she has to return to the office where a more traditional way of life doesn’t seem to suit her.

When both have become restless with the type of existence that has been foisted upon them, “Here” catches a moment when they can take each other out of time and space and generously extends the same opportunity to an audience as Devos casts a spell that reveals the wonder to be found in one another and in our natural surroundings. That the director could draw from such seemingly disparate elements in his own life to create such an extraordinary film testifies to that, with his lead actress Gong never appearing on screen before when she typically works behind the scenes as an editor and his desire to pay more attention to the world around him manifesting itself into a revelatory use of sound and image where even the most mundane scenes offer a sense of discovery. As the film makes its way across the U.S. after first turning heads at its premiere at Berlinale last year, Devos spoke about how he’s found greater ability to take on grander themes on a smaller scale, allowing some things to be a mystery to even himself in the work he’s creating and having a story about connection bring audiences together around the world.

How did this take shape? From what I understand, there were a bunch of different starting points.

Yeah, it did come from a whole bunch of different little threads that very slowly started to get woven together and started to make sense. At first, I really was not sure how I could combine some of these ideas. Stefan in real life is a friend of mine and I desperately wanted to make a film with him because I think he is such a beautiful man, so he was a clear starting point. And I really like to film not only the people, but also places that I know and his story, the fact that he’s Romanian and lives in Brussels, that incited in me a lot of questions about the presence of Romanians in Brussels and this movement within Europe and labor migration, so that was a starting point.

At the same time, I was also getting so interested in the smallest of things — moss — through a book by Anna Tsing called “The Mushroom at the End of the World” and [then] “Gathering Moss” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who writes so beautifully about our connection to this very small plant. I was also thinking so much about the world today and how we really start to notice that this damaged planet is acting up and is itself coming to the foreground. It’s no longer just the background and I felt like it is almost inescapable in every story we tell today to also deal with this renewed tension for the natural world. It’s demanding its place, so I was looking for ways of tying these stories together, and I think the character [played by] Liyo Gong, the Chinese-Belgian biologist, is actually what ties them together. She’s part of the root of Stefan on the one hand, and on the other hand, she opens this world of the smallest [organisms].

Something that I heard you say after making your second film “Hellhole” was that you wanted to make less complex films production-wise so they were easier to finance, but they seem as ambitious or more so than ever. Did that change your thinking about how things that could be small and take on big ideas?

I remember saying that after “Hellhole,” thinking “Okay, simpler.” But there’s something strange about this word “simple.” Often they turn out to be the most complex, I noticed. [laughs] These very simple storylines I always felt work like a spider web. There’s so much more to them, and it’s nice to think more about the possibilities than the complete narrative. There is often a seed planted for an audience to go on all these possible narratives and that for me is more pleasant and interesting than to try to fill in the gaps and to try to really close it off.

But I think there is something in the scale of these last two films I made that is quite different. I really write with a more economic mindset and I really think more about filmmaking as a very modest way of shaping narrative. They leave a lot open to the imagination. They don’t try to completely shape a character — they are like sketches. And that kind of thinking is very directly linked to a production method, a way of filming with less money and less time. I started to make films in a faster way. Once the script is there, I just want to do it. And I don’t want to finance too long. So all of these things are connected and I quite like that.

At what point do you bring actors into your process when, at least as you say with Stefan, he helped inspire this?

In general, I like to shape characters around people I have in mind, so I like to keep them as close as possible to who the people really are and especially with Stefan, I think he had a very strong influence on at least the outline of this character. We had so many conversations. I got to know him so much better than I knew him before. He was already a friend, but I think our relationship grew and when I started to write, I felt informed just by who he was.

Liyo was a bit different because I had written a character without anyone in mind. I had this idea about this Chinese-Belgian biologist and I didn’t know any Chinese-Belgians, but I knew Liyo from a distance. We had so many friends in common, so I [thought] I would just like to meet her and get her opinion on the script because I knew quite a lot about the Romanian community, but what it means to be Chinese-Belgian born was a whole different story and I didn’t know this story so well. [Liyo] read the script and she had important things to say, so in a way she wrote or co-wrote more than Stefan because Stefan was just part of this long preparation and then I got to write. [Liyo] was there to really reshape a part of the film, so they both had their influence on the script, but in different ways.

You’ve spoken before about how attention was a major driving idea behind this and you can really tell in the visual language when the camera is distant versus when there’s a close-up. What was it like to figure out?

It was not super difficult in the sense that me and Grimm Vandekerchove, the cinematographer for my last two films, are close friends and we developed a nice language, which strangely is often quite unspoken. We have become quite good at knowing when a frame is right and when it’s wrong. Of course, what that means is it’s very hard to put it into words, but it’s something you feel. We often look at each other, just like checking each other’s body language and trying to read each other and it was very nice to discover that this film, we were so in tune together, so we didn’t prepare in the way that I think many filmmakers would by making a shot list or a storyboard. We speak much more about broader lines and the broad line here was to think about ways of zooming in without using an actual zoom and ways of very gradually becoming closer and more intimate to the subjects. From that point on, you work a lot on intuition and it’s informed by the script, by our relationship together and by an affinity with photography and cinematography, but nonetheless, it’s about finding it in the moment. That’s the fun of filmmaking, that it is not something that happens in preparation, but it happens when you’re there.

Was there you could embrace that you may not have expected, just generally?

Every day something happens that you don’t expect. I don’t think there is one shot in the film that I had imagined before, but something that maybe stands out [is] the very first shot of the film. In the script, the plan was to have a beautiful sunset. It’s the last day [of spring] and the summer starts, so it was unexpected to have lousy weather on the first shooting day. The first shot of the film is also the first shot that we filmed and it took such recalibration in my head because I was like, “My God, this is not what I expected. The weather is terrible, but let’s go. Let’s deal with it.” And then we placed the camera there where it is with the trees in front and the building site in the back and all of a sudden, I saw the film. I [thought], “Ah, yeah, this is how it begins.”

Is it true that the forest was a place you had already visited with a bryologist you knew?

Yeah, this location works in the same way as the way I shape the characters. I like to write about places I know because then I can write with a certain authority or at least a certain intimacy. It just really helps me get it also down to paper and to make it alive and not imagined. This space in which they meet is in a somewhat forest-like park next to the train tracks and from the beginning, it was central to the film script. It’s a place I so often go myself, so I found it really pleasant to write about the natural world and to make it come alive and to somehow come off the paper.

One of the most exciting elements of the film was this idea of sleepwalking that of course, you can film, but it really brings a number of components together both visually and sonically. Was that something you knew how it would work from an early stage or massaged in post-production?

Yeah, I think I’m always just interested a little bit in when reality becomes a little bit blurry and whether something is a dream or not and I also like not knowing myself. There’s so much that you have to know as a director in order to make a film. Sometimes that bothers me. So I like to infuse the film with these little things I do not know or fully understand. The fact that the character of Stefan wanders around at night and that Liyo speaks about his dream state between asleep and awake, to me, it just opens these doors to another way of thinking, another way of imagining and it opens doors to dreams of the audience as well.

It does operate on this transcendent level and when it’s making these kind of connections across the world, what’s it been like to get the film out there?

It’s been really wonderful. I got to see places and meet people that I could have never imagined, and I just came back yesterday from Japan. It was so nice to get to meet different audiences and how they react so differently to the film. The Japanese are so reserved and so respectful, but also so deeply, maybe spiritually connected to the film and [I enjoyed how] loud, in a good way, the American audience would laugh at certain moments in the film. It was very different, but it was so touching to witness and it just made me feel really privileged. I’m very aware of this weird fabric that connects all of us in such an unspoken and unknowable way.

“Here” is now open at Film at Lincoln Center in New York and the VIFF Centre in Vancouver and will open in Los Angeles at the Los Feliz 3 on February 18th and the Lumiere Cinema on February 23rd. More theaters and dates can be found here.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.