Our only option was to follow our gut instinct
Interview with Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens on their Comedy nominee KING OF BELGIANS
Peter Brosens & Jessica Woodworth
Can you briefly describe what KING OF THE BELGIANS is about?
A dull Belgian monarch, King Nicolas III, is on a state visit in Istanbul when he gets the news that his kingdom has imploded. He must return home at once to repair the damage, but a solar storm strikes. Planes are grounded and communication is on the blink. With the aid of a crafty British filmmaker who was engaged to make a documentary about him, King Nicolas and his entourage disguise themselves as female Bulgarian folklore singers and flee over the border. Thus begins their odyssey across the Balkans that involves moments of magic and mayhem. The King wakes up - in every sense.
What was the initial idea and how did you develop it?
The idea was the following:
Launch an apathetic and lonely monarch to the brink of Europe, to the symbolically potent city of Istanbul, then shake up his kingdom, spark a natural disaster and force him to journey across a region of Europe that is often misunderstood and reduced to stereotypes: The Balkans.
Rip him out of protocol, startle him with unexpected encounters with the absurd and the ordinary, disarm him with beauty, fill him with wonder, shake him up, strip him down.
Play with stereotypes, tease the Belgians, poke gentle fun at monarchy, honour the complexity of the Balkans, pose questions about what it takes to be a fine leader.
Portray the solitude of an isolated man who is starved for real human contact, who has been reduced to a fraction of himself but who slowly displays an innate dignity, charm, warmth and intelligence.
To develop the project, we drove a million kilometres in random circles around the Balkans. We drifted, wondered, cracked our head over plot issues, got lost, doubted, and gathered hundreds of jewels of inspiration. Then we cooked it up into a very mediocre script that was a real bitch to finance. It didn’t help that we were already stuck in the category of slow and moody films that no one dares to buy (KHADAK, ALTIPLANO, THE FIFTH SEASON). We persisted for the simple reason that we believed that inside the admittedly pretty lame script was a sparkling and original film.
You combine comedy with politics in Europe. How would you define the humour of your film? How did you find the right tone?
Our only option was to follow our gut instinct. I have to admit, we all laughed ourselves to pieces on set and throughout the editing. It’s already a legendary shoot. But it was also massively difficult. It’s much harder to evoke laughter than to trigger tears. Sorrow is easy. Comedy is not.
How did you find your cast? And how do you work with your actors?
Several of them we had worked with in previous films. The King, for example, (Peter Van den Begin) was the guy with the rooster in THE FIFTH SEASON. The Chief of Protocol and the Queen also appeared in THE FIFTH SEASON. The key to getting the constellation right was to make every decision in relation to the character of the King.
Comedy is not always easy to translate to other languages and cultures. Why does your film resonate so well?
Perhaps because viewers are hungry for the occasional film experience that doesn’t involve nasty people engaged in psychological warfare, infidelities, violence, loss, abuse, self-abuse. (Although we do have a hefty hangover scene)
Perhaps because Belgians are appreciated for their relative humility and self-deprecating humour.
Perhaps because we tip-toed respectfully around stereotypes.
Perhaps because the search for identity is one of the most gripping issues of our times.
Perhaps because Europe as a project is genuinely in peril.
Perhaps because people believe that humour can unite us in some way.
You are already working on a sequel. What can we expect?
THE BAREFOOT EMPEROR is the title of the sequel. At the end of KING OF THE BELGIANS the King is on his way to Belgium, bloated with newfound confidence. Things go drastically wrong in Sarajevo when he is being handed over to the Belgian military escort. He wakes up on Tito’s island in Croatia with a bandaged head. He and his entourage slowly recognize that they’ve got themselves trapped in some dodgy master plan for a new Europe since the Europe as we know it has crumbled. The bewildered King Nicolas finds himself catapulted into an alarming role – Emperor of Europe. Basically, the Belgians fall into a rabbit hole. The film involves lots of wild animals, twisted historical references, a gathering storm, stiff lederhosen, an antlered ship, seven singing Sikhs and a yellow submarine. Oh, and confused Belgians. We hope to shoot THE BAREFOOT EMPEROR in 2018.