Felix Van Groeningen on The Broken Circle Breakdown

Oliver Lunn

Selected as the Belgian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy Awards, Felix Van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown is a profoundly affecting drama, told in an ambitiously fragmented way, and – as a major bonus – it features a number of great Bluegrass tunes. 

We met up with the 36-year-old director on the eve of the film's UK release to talk about non-linear narratives, banjo tunes, and making kids cry for the camera. 

GFW: What was it about this story (originally a play) that made you want to adapt it?
Felix Van Groeningen: When I first saw the play it was based on I was really, really blown away. I knew Johan [Heldenbergh] already – he had played in my previous films and we were rehearsing for one of my movies when he showed up with a banjo. And I knew it was something about Bluegrass music. The play had this very strange effect on me where I was completely carried away and very emotional; I cried half the way through it, but it never felt corny, it just touched something very deep inside.

Did you know straight away you were going to make it into a film?
I was tempted but it took me six months to decide to, because I didn’t see how. The play was very simple but theatrically it worked perfectly, so I was really scared of turning a great play into a bad movie. But then it kept haunting me and I saw it a second time and said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it’ – and then months later I said ‘OK, the material is too good, let’s just try it’.

What were the main changes you made?
I realised what worked in the play and would never work in the movie was that it’s just one night; just two people telling their story to an audience, combined with a concert. They [the characters] told us what had happened to them; so the first idea was to show what they were talking about, and then I guess it took a lot of time to get away from the idea that it was just one night. And then at some point the idea was to have multiple time layers, evolving together – that’s the biggest change. We also had to figure out what they [the characters] were doing for jobs; we had to invent that.

It’s a straightforward story told in a fragmented way. What was your thinking behind the non-linear structure?
In the play you knew more or less where you were heading to, yet it kept on evolving and it was just two people talking, but when you talk you will jump in time too, you’ll say, ‘This happened, and then that happened’, but then you have to continue another talk. So it had that kind of feel, that kind of emotional rollercoaster feeling ... And it [fragmenting the story] is also something I’ve done in a lot of my movies – in two of my movies, I’ve always played with time in editing and f*cked everything up; it’s something me and my editor [Nico Leunen] do and we get really excited about.

Was the editor there on set to avoid confusion, if you weren't filming chronologically?
No, he wasn't there. Everybody who read the script knew very well in which time frame things were happening. But then we changed it all in the editing [laughs]. We had three timelines so it was pretty clear [for the actors] that it was either A, B or C. And those had a chronology that we also f*cked up in the editing [laughs].

Was the first test audience in tears?
Well, to be honest, in most of the screenings we did people weren’t crying – it was very strange. So we thought maybe it’s not that emotional ... But I mean, I cried a lot during the editing but at some point you’re just emotionally numb so it’s hard to keep adding, emotionally. So when we watched it not a lot of people were crying; and then only when it was finished and we started showing it we realised how many people started crying! [laughs]

The little girl [Nell Cattrysse] gives a heartbreaking performance. How did you cast Maybelle?
I gave her time to grow, in the sense that we did a huge casting and in the end we picked seven girls and we worked a couple of weeks ... we just saw that she [Nell] was getting better every time and getting more acquainted with the idea of playing Maybelle. She really had the best summer of her life – she really loved coming to the set. Everybody was charmed by this little kid – Johan and Veerle [Baetens] too.

She seems like she’s crying for real in one scene (I won't say why). Was she actually affected by it?
That is a pretty amazing story because I shot that towards the end of the shooting period as I knew that I wanted to get to that emotion and that was the thing that was hardest to do for her, because she would be happier to play sick but like, really acting with tears was tough for her. So we started trying to get to that emotion in the first week but, no, nothing. We did it a week after that which was a little better but not really there yet. We kept on talking about it and I said ‘You know you’re going to have to cry?’ She said, ‘Yeah yeah’ and then we shot it and you have to help a little, y know, so the make-up artist would put fake tears in her eyes. We finally got to that emotion by shooting a 15-minute take and doing it over and over again. And in-between takes I got a little bit angry like, ‘Come on, you have to do this!’ and Johan too, but she knew that it was all part of getting her into that emotional state. And we shot the scene and everybody was like, ‘Ah, how was that?’ and Johan went to her, ‘Are you okay?’ and she said ‘Yeah yeah, I’m just playing’ [laughs].

She sounds like the next Meryl Streep!
But she wants to be a veterinarian, so…

Bluegrass music plays an important role in the film – how did you discover the band?
Well, the band doesn’t really exist; they’re part of the movie ... we decided to organise concerts afterwards. So now they’re a band because of the movie!

How did you want the music to work with the story? 
Well what I had seen that had worked in the theatre play was the fact that these songs held the story together in every possible way, they helped the flow. They are what the movie is about and what’s so crazy about it is the fact that is used in the play at very emotional moments as if you’re happy that you can relax a little and not think about what you just saw or heard. And on the other hand the music doesn’t let you out of that emotion so you stay in that emotion although you have the feeling that you can relax. 

What were the main sources of inspiration for this project, filmic or otherwise?
This is my fourth film and the more films I make the less I have really big inspirations. I mean obviously we watched Walk The Line, but it’s such a different movie that you can hardly say we stole a lot from it [laughs]. There’s also the Almodovar movie, Talk To Her, but I think the movie is pretty original in the way it combines music and is still believable and is not a musical. And in that sense I didn’t have any films that inspired me, only the theatre play.

The film has been selected as the Belgian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film. How has that been?
I feel great about it. It’s the cherry on the cake and it’s also the start of something new; we really want to try and get nominated. Nobody knows if it’s possible but we’ll go and hang out in LA and show the movie [laughs].

'The Broken Circle Breakdown' is released in UK cinemas on 18 October.

All images via Studio Canal

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