Much like recent arthouse films “Weekend” and “Keep The Lights On,” “North Sea Texas” is a realistic portrait of gay life and romance – not the frequent clichés one may find on TV’s “Modern Family” or “The New Normal.” Adapted from the novel “This is Everlasting” by Flemish writer André Sollie, the film follows a young teen growing up along the Belgian coast as he falls in love with a neighborhood boy. Unlike the star-crossed lovers at the heart of “Brokeback Mountain,” this story luckily has a more hopeful ending for its burgeoning protagonist.
“North Sea Texas” is directed by the Belgium-born Bavo Defurne, a gay man himself who is easily considered one of Europe’s most electrifying young filmmakers. He first made a name for himself directing a series of shorts, which were immensely popular at gay and lesbian film festivals and are now comprised together on a DVD entitled “Campfire.” Upon reading and falling in love with Sollie’s poignant coming-of-age tale, “North Sea Texas” seemed like a natural step forward as his directorial debut feature.
The East Valley Tribune recently caught up with Defurne, who discussed the difficulties he faced casting the film, his opulent visual style and how audiences have reacted to “North Sea Texas.”
Q: So to begin with, when did you first encounter the book “This Is Everlasting” and what about it made you want to pursue it as a film?
A: Well, because it’s a good book but also, what I think is special about the story is that it’s not a depressing story. There’s so many coming-of-age stories that have this very bitter ending and kind of like a negative take on coming of age and being gay and different. It’s not a coming-out book or have angry fathers or angry teachers or bullying classmates. It’s really the story of a boy falling in love and he happens to be in love with a boy. It’s basically a love story and that’s what made me go for that book and not for a lot of other books or stories.
Q: How would you describe your transition from making short films to your feature debut with “North Sea Texas”?
A: It took awhile, not because of artistic writer’s block or whatever. I’ve been very busy writing and creating projects, but it wasn’t so easy getting them made so that took awhile. Suddenly we found this book with this very beautiful story and it all went very, very fast, actually. I think it was 2 years from finding the book to the world premiere, which is very fast in film years, if I can say so. I think for the financiers or whoever produced the movie and wanted this movie to be made, I think it was because it’s kind of a logical step, if you want, from my short films to my long films. It’s the same themes, it’s the same aesthetics, so that felt kind of logical for the people with the money and made them go for this project.
Q: What was the casting process like for this film, particularly for the boys who played Pim and Gino?
A: Casting the first time you make a film, it’s always the first time you really have this confrontation – I won’t say with an audience or I wouldn’t say the world, because if you’re screenwriting and your producer reads it or some investor reads it, that’s still something internal. Suddenly you go into the world with this project and there are a lot of people who hear about it.
For the kids, there were a lot of kids who didn’t dare play in the movie. The first day we were kind of shocked and surprised that there were a lot of no-shows. Twenty boys were invited and I don’t know, only half showed up or something. They all want to be in a movie and say, “Yes! We’ll be at that casting” and are too lazy to read what the movie’s about, they don’t care. Then just the day before or an hour before they step on a train, they read that it’s about gay boys, or at least that’s how they see it – they don’t see it as a beautiful, universal film about love with all the nuance and deep feelings. They just think it’s something about gays.
All of them didn’t want to come; they didn’t show up. Even boys who were invited to call backs who could have been very good for the role were not allowed to go on with the casting process. A lot of parents said they couldn’t do it and we had crying teenage boys calling us. There was one boy calling, saying his father didn’t allow him to play in a movie where he kisses a man. We had all these family dramas suddenly and realized, “Well, this movie for us is something very normal and happy and romantic, but it could be a drama for some families with teenage sons.”
Finally we found boys and girls and everyone; people who were supported by their parents. So actually the casting was not only of kids but a casting of parents because at that age, you need the support of your parents, you can’t just say, “Hey! I’ll do it.” The guys who played Pim and Gino both had a loving family behind them who really knew what the story was about and were big fans of this story, which was really necessary.
Also, sometimes people say I work with non-professional actors – that was true for the short films but it’s not really true for the feature. All the boys and girls in the movie – and of course the adults – were professionals in some way. The boy who played Gino was in acting school and now he’s a TV star. The guy who played Pim was not in acting school but he was a professional dancer, and after the movie changed careers, went to acting school and now is also a TV star.
So actually they were very professional and I think that was key to these roles – we really needed someone that had a professional way of stepping into that role because the roles were very demanding. These roles ask the actor to go very deeply into very passionate emotions and you need to be a professional for that. Just hanging around and sitting around and being pretty in front of the camera…anyone can do that. To show emotions is already very hard, but to show emotions and keep strong as a quiet person, you need to be professional. When the boy who played Pim played Pim, he played Pim, and when he went home to his mom and his cat, he was Jelle (Florizoone). He could divide that and that’s something only professionals can do.
Q: Could you tell me how you approached this film visually, and were there any films or filmmakers that influenced the overall look or style?
A: Not really. I try not to be too influenced by filmmakers because I feel that’s a little too direct; I rather go see paintings or art or whatever. I can’t really put a name on it but the general idea of the movie – the look and style of the movie – we did not want to make it a gray, realist movie. If you want you can tell the story in a very social-realist way because, you know, Pim doesn’t have a father, there’s people dying, there’s a lot of rejection, there’s illness…there’s a lot of bad things happening in the movie and we didn’t want to make the movie as gray and sad as the core story. We actually wanted to balance that with very beautiful, pretty and colorful images. I think it makes the story more interesting and is just a better way of telling the story.
Q: To wrap things up, what do you hope audiences take away from “North Sea Texas”? What sorts of reactions have you gotten to it at previous screenings and festivals?
A: You know, there have been some very different reactions. In the movie, there’s almost like this ensemble of characters: gay and straight, girls and boys, men and women. I’ve seen that the same goes for the audiences. The thing is, there are a lot of doors to the room but they all lead to the same room. In the end, they all see that it’s a film about love, whether it’s a 14-year-old girl who will maybe identify with the main character’s neighbor, Sabrina, or a mother who will identify with (Pim’s) mother. They all get into the movie and discover that it’s a movie about unrequited love and everybody needs love and it’s kind of beautiful when they find it.
Very different people love the movie of different ages. We won the youth prize in Rome (at the Rome Cinema Festival). We thought we were going to Rome to roll out this film and we’d never win a prize, but the opposite was true. There was a jury of about 30 boys and girls between 14 and 18 years old, and they chose “North Sea Texas” because they believed this was a story that had to be told. It attracts Roman teenagers but there were also very, very old retired people in Palm Springs that saw the movie (at the Palm Springs International Film Festival) who said, “You know, this movie plays in the 60's, but when I was young and in love in the 40’s, it was just the same.”
In a way, it’s kind of beautiful that a lot of people are into this movie although it’s a Flemish movie in Flemish language, and they quickly get over that. They forget the language and the country where it takes place and really go to the human side that’s portrayed in the movie.
“North Sea Texas” is now available on DVD and iTunes, and is also streaming on Netflix. For more information about the film, visit www.noordzeetexas.be.