Sam de Jong could’ve gone into the family business, hailing from parents who are both psychologists, but he gravitated towards the work of his father’s best friend, a documentarian. When he stepped behind a camera, he felt like he could get into people’s heads, specifically his own.
“When I first made my first film, it completely sparked a fire, and that fire has been raging ever since,” said de Jong, whose first film “Prince” was similarly combustible when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year. “To me, it’s like the most beautiful job of combining. I’ve got so many interests and [in a film], you can jump from genre to genre. All the different phases you go through, I was born for that.”
There’s no argument here after seeing “Prince,” which follows a young man named Ayoub (Ayoub Alasri) growing up with his mother and sister in an Amsterdam flat hovering just above the streets where a local crime kingpin Klapa recruits fresh blood every day to be a part of the trade. While de Jong relies on a traditional narrative backbone, watching just how far Ayoub will go to impress the girl in a neighboring building and to make enough to buy the Giuseppe Zanotti shoes that he and all his friends covet, the first-time writer/director operates like a chameleon stylistically, reflecting the mercurial mood of its characters with bursts of pastel colors that turn to charcoal as the film wears on, unique framing and a tone that vacillates somewhere between a classic fairy tale and hardened realism to capture Ayoub’s big dreams and the limited cards he has to play in his daily life.
Following an esteemed career making music videos and shorts that displayed a talent for bringing out the best in untrained actors, de Jong picked up a Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year for “Prince,” and as he told us shortly before the film debuted in the U.S., he’s only just getting started.
How did this come about?
I started reflecting on my teenage years and I was working with the kids like [the actor who played] Ayoub on a few short films. I wanted to tell a story about realizations that I had [about] chasing Zanotti shoes as a teenager and trying find a place in society and realizing you don’t need to change your exterior to be happy. I wanted to implement that in a film where I was working with these kids that still suffer the same sort of dilemmas. It’s shot in the streets close to where I grew up.
Was it important to you to have real kids rather than professional actors?
In this film, the kids make it. The way we approached it with them as the stars was absolutely crucial. It’s something I’ve been working toward since graduating [from film school] – [my final] short film also featured non-professional actors, a gymnast in that case. Even writing a script, it only feels relevant to me when I know that I’m working with people that are living the life I want to portray and working with these kids on set is a reality check. If I tell Ayoub to say some dialogue I’ve written that he thinks is bullshit, he just won’t say it, but he’s preventing me from making it too abstract.
You actually shoot much of the film in a confrontational style where the kids are directly addressing the camera. Did that make it more challenging for you?
That style actually came about by necessity because whenever the four [of the kids] were together in a shot, they were uncontrollable. So I decided that I was going to shoot them one by one and then stitch it together later on in the editing. [On the set] I literally sat down behind my monitor with my script and just gave them markers to say where their parts would be and I’d just tell them, very choreographed, “Move to the left and say this line. Move to the right and say that line.” All those scenes at the start of the film therefore have this very constricted feeling and absurd timing because of that. It’s shot within the parameters of social realism with no professional actors on the streets, but at the same time it’s completely constricted. I think that’s what makes it special.
There is also a very specific arc to the film that’s told just by the light you use – it gradually gets darker throughout. How did that come about?
That was part of the screenplay. [Ayoub] is tempted by the devil and what he stands for – all the bling and the gold. It’s also a gritty world, so as he gradually comes closer to that [area] of crime, which seems so flashy, but under the surface is super dark, it was important that he comes to a point where he needs to decide whether he’s going for an extravagant life of money and luxury, but also demoralized or a life of less luxury but happiness.
I wanted it to feel like a fantasy [when you were in Kalpa’s company] – the way you imagine when you’re 16 and people tell you about dangerous older guys from the hood that are doing well and making a name for themselves. They start to live their own life in your head. I wanted Kalpa to look and feel that way entirely – the way he looks, acts, and feels, just the way you see him – I wanted you to experience his appearance.
There seems to be this collision of an old fashioned, fairy tale quality and an ultra-modern, urban feel – did those somehow naturally feel complementary to you?
I just tried to find the tone that seemed true to me. Making this film is a public experiment of my own evolution as a director. I came from more rigid, dogmatic and somber films – very elitist in a way. And I wanted to drop the elitist filmmaking and make something that would be a product of the way I grew up in the Western world and all the influences that made me who I am, so with the tools I learned through maturing, I tried to tell a classical story with a fresh texture.
Was there a particularly crazy day of filming on this?
Every day was crazy. Those kids are beasts. Often times, I would arrive on set and I’d see the production manager completely stressed out, yelling in his walkie-talkie because one of the 15-year-old kids had stolen the car keys and they went on a joyride.
I was going to ask, did having that purple Lamborghini on set make you nervous?
Yeah, it did. We broke the window the second day of shooting, so it turned out to be a very expensive special prop. But I wanted Kalpa to represent the devil and his car is quite literally a Lamborghini Diablo, so there was no other way that it could be a different car. Also, the neighborhood is pretty monotonous and monochromatic – yellow and blue – so I wanted Kalpa to contrast Ayoub’s world in every possible way. That car needed to disrupt the status quo visually, so it’s neon and bright and synthetic.
What’s it been like for you to take this film around the world?
It’s absolutely phenomenal the fact that it’s such a microscopic environment I created so close to my experience of growing up in Amsterdam and it’s now being released in the US and in Mexico and going around the world. To me, it stresses the fact that the language of cinema is a completely universal language that can bring people closer together and it’s very motivating to continue making movies.
“Prince” opens on April 14th in New York at the AMC Empire 42, Chicago at the Facets Cinematheque and Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema, among others. A full list of theaters and dates are here. It is also available on VOD.