With just three feature films in 30 years, Jaco Van Dormael has established himself as one of cinema’s most original auteurs and also one of the most deliberate. His latest film “Mr. Nobody” was no exception.
“It took me six years to write and after that, another four years to make,” says Van Dormael, who isn’t even taking into account the four years since “Mr. Nobody”‘s debut at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009 to travel to American shores. “It was 10 years of my life and time was flying. It was very short. But life is not so long. So I realized at the end, it’s already 10 years on the same film, but it was worth it. It was really worth it.”
Indeed, Van Dormael has embarked on something timeless with “Mr. Nobody,” both in the feeling it leaves behind for its audience as well as the future it considers with the story of the world’s oldest living mortal, a man named Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) who is nearing the end and is of great interest to the rest of society that has inoculated themselves against death. As a result, his final days become an international phenomenon as he’s visited and vivisected by a psychiatrist and a journalist who cajole him into recalling his history, an exercise that causes him to reflect not only the life he led, but the one he could have if his circumstances had changed ever so slightly, beginning with the separation of his parents.
It’s not the first time Van Dormael has used film to go down avenues we only wish we could in reality, starting with his dreamlike feature debut “Toto Les Heros” in 1992 in which a man believed he was switched at birth with his well-off next door neighbor and fantasized about what could’ve been to the point he’s driven to take revenge. Yet Van Dormael’s imagination extends far beyond “what if” scenarios, touching everything from his florid, joyous visual compositions to skewing everything we carry into a film, whether it’s in what we expect of the actors he’s cast or our nostalgic connection to certain songs or certain emotional touchstones, to open our minds up to something new.
In his first English-language film, Van Dormael has access to a budget and technology that nearly catches up to his considerable ambition, creating something spectacular with imagery that dazzles the eye and asks you to feel. And thanks to Magnolia Pictures, American audiences can finally catch up with “Mr. Nobody,” which Van Dormael hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for in the years since he completed it and eager to speak about where his fascination with alternate lives first came from and thankfully why we won’t have to wait as long for his next film.
I never understand anything about the industry. A message in a bottle that you drop in the sea would be faster to arrive to America. But in a way, it’s encouraging because after four years, films are still alive and still can begin something here or there.
Because you have some distance from it, has the meaning of the film changed for you since you made it?
It’s a bit pretentious, but it’s my favorite film. In a way, it’s my biggest failure because it’s been so slow to travel and so many countries where the film has never been released, but in another way, it’s my biggest success because I don’t think I can do better. I’m so happy with the film even four years later. I have the feeling too that the language is innovative in that we all worked to tell something different. There are some films that consolidate the state of things and this is a film that questions the state of things. I’m proud of it.
This film continues your great fascination with the idea of the road less traveled, seeing the life you could’ve led from your first feature “Toto Les Heroes” on. Why do you keep coming back to it?
I think it’s an experiment we all do. I started with a short film that I made in ’82 called “È Pericoloso Sporgersi” where a kid has to make a choice between leaving with his father or staying with his mother. He mentions two different lives to be able to make the choice and when I was working on that idea again [for “Mr. Nobody”], I had the feeling that when we’re making shorts, there were never two different ways because in each different direction, there are other directions and other choices and other bifurcations, so there are infinite possibilities. How is the choice possible in that case?
The subject was really the kid that has this impossible choice and is unable to make the choice before knowing, imagining or having the premonition of everything that would happen to him and the old man who remembers [everything] and to have these two crossed views. The kid that is unable to make a choice because he doesn’t know what is the good choice and the old man that has the feeling that all the choices are interesting and that there is no bad choice, there are only good choices and that all lives are worth living. In every life, there is happiness and pain and what’s most important is just to be alive.
You actually called yourself a “nowhere man” once growing up in Belgium. Did that contribute to how you envisioned the future in “Mr. Nobody” where the distinct national cultures blend into something more ambiguous?
I’m coming from Belgium where there’s mixing of cultures. My father speaks Flemish, my mother speaks French. I grew up in Germany. So probably my [perspective] is more visual than words. Also, the feeling at the center of “Mr. Nobody” is how to speak with a medium that is sometimes simplifying about the complexity of the life. How to find a language that [acknowledges] that our life is complex, our mind is complex and the reality is the world is complex. [We can’t] leave the simple answers to politics and advertisements.
Cinema is not only simplifying. Sometimes it can speak about complexity. [You can go back to] the silent film. If you see “Intolerance,” it was already complex. After that, cinema became more mainstream, more simplifying, and more reassuring. But at the beginning, it was already speaking about complexity and cinema is a medium that reflects very well the way we think how we can jump from one situation to another, from one space to another, to the past to the future, just like our mind or our imagination is doing or like our memory is putting together pieces.
Music has always been a crucial part of that in your films. In “Mr. Nobody,” you use The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” and Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” throughout, which almost work as sense memories since you play them more than once, as you often do in your films with certain songs. Do you come across these songs in the script stage?
There were some songs during the writing like “Mr. Sandman,” which was a song that I was listening at the whole day when I was writing because there was something [in it about] the joy of the childhood, although most of the music came during the editing. Of course, the most important was the music composed by my brother [Pierre Van Dormael] that is covering the whole film. Those are some very simple themes that are just one or two guitars. I asked him to make the music as simple as possible in counterpoint of the structure of the film that is complex. He really did some of the best music he’s ever written.
There are so many evocative images in “Mr. Nobody” as well. Are there images that you may not know how they’ll fit into a story, but float around in your head until you find a way to work them into a narrative?
Yeah, indeed. When I start writing, I never write really on pages. I just write on little cards and I make more and more cards for months on my desk. When the moment comes, I try to see what card could be with what other card and sometimes it’s a scene, sometimes it’s just an image, sometimes it’s a line and after organizing these cards on three tables — the first act, second act and the third act — I begin to write from the beginning to the end. After that, again, I put it on cards and I write again on cards and it allows me to work in a nonlinear way to organize nonlinear stories, a little bit like the memory does or the imagination. It gives a lot of freedom.
Are you reteaming with your “Eighth Day” star Daniel Auteuil next?
Yes, the next film will be with my friend Daniel again. We shoot it next summer. The pitch is God exists. He lives in Brussels. He’s awful with his teenage daughter and his teenage daughter takes revenge. He spoke a lot about his son, but not enough about his daughter, so she’s coming back.
Since these films often take you so long, what keeps you excited about making them?
I think being a filmmaker is not knowing what job you are going to do when you will be a grownup. When you are making films or telling stories, it’s living all the different lives, all the different possibilities – sometimes without living a lot. There are three things that I really love. It’s being alive and telling stories and having children. Here, I tried to make a film that finds a way to structure a story that speaks about the strange experience of being alive that is not a story at all. It is just about being alive.