Johan Heldenbergh On
"The Broken Circle Breakdown"
Belgium's Foreign Language Oscar Entry
By Beverly Cohn
elgium actor Johan Heldenbergh is an amazing multi-talented
man. He is the writer of the original play "The Broken Circle
Breakdown" and played the lead character of Didier.
He has resurrected the role in the film version, co-written by Carl
Joos and Felix van Groeningen, who also directed. The story
is best described as a romantic melodrama, which mines the love story
between the characters of Didier and Elise, a young woman
whose entire body is decorated with tattoos depicting her life's story.
Beautifully played by Veerle Baetens, the leads are rounded out
with Nell Cattrysse, who gloriously plays their five-year old
daughter Maybelle. Johan, who plays the banjo, and Elise
who is the female vocalist, are part of a Blue Grass band called
the Cover-ups of Alabama and the story takes us through the lives
of Didier and Elise as lovers, musicians, and parents.
The sound track is exciting and captivating and almost becomes another
character as the lyrics to some of the songs reflect the drama unfolding
on the screen. Spoiler alert: Do bring some Kleenex tissues.
The film is Belgium's entry for Best Foreign
Language film. Courtesy photo.
Your reporter recently sat down with Johan
for an in-depth, personal, exclusive interview and the following has
been edited for content and continuity.
After seeing many of the film entries for Best
Foreign Language film, in my opinion, your film is hands down the best
and I hope it wins?
Johan: It's very nice of you to say so. We're very proud
of the movie, of course.
Are you exhausted from this press trip?
Johan: I've got a couple of ulcers. I was very tired
coming here because the last few months have been dreadful. I broke
up with my girlfriend after a 20-year relationship. She's the
mother of my children. I've known her since we were very young. We met
at school and now it's over. This is tough stuff.
Is it a relationship that can be restored?
Johan: I'm not certain. I have a new girlfriend now
and we'll see how that evolves.
L-R: Johan Heldenbergh as Didier and Veerle Baetens
as Elise in Fellix Van Groeningen's "The Broken Circle Breakdown."
Does the story line with your character of Didier
and Elise (Veerle Baetens) parallel your personal situation?
Johan: At this time of my life, it's very painful. When
I saw the movie in Berlin, and the break-up between the two characters,
I said this is the last time I will see this movie because the character
is too close to myself and Elise is too close to my former girlfriend.
This is a delicate story and in the hands of less
talented people, it could have been very maudlin so it's a tribute to
all of you that it in some ways it's life affirming in that you can
come out on the other side of the tragedy, but not necessarily where
you thought you were going to be. Would you agree?
Johan: That sounds very accurate and it's funny that
you say so. When Felix (director) started talking to me
about making a movie based on the theatre play, I said that there is
a movie in there, but be aware that there are twenty-four very bad movies
and there's one very good one and it's your job to find the good one
because it's very dangerous to just go into the melodrama and put the
emphasis on the child.
L-R: Veerle Baetens as Elise, the female vocalist
in the Blue Grass band with Johan Heldenbergh's Didier on the banjo.
Did you think you manifested your original intention
to write a play with a political statement without the soapbox?
Johan: You said soapbox and I always refer to the soapbox
thing. I wanted to make a political statement. I want to say to people
I'm scared right now. When I start writing, I always start with a political
point of view. For example, my last play was about the politics in Belgium,
but then the story took over and with "The Broken Circle Breakdown"
it was the same. I wanted to write something about religion and then
I chose Bluegrass music as a mirror and if you listen to the
music, it dictates the story.
Would you listen to the music and then write?
Johan: There were a few songs like Bill Monroe's
"Blue Yodel #5" with the lyric "Mom is not dead,
she's only sleeping," and "If I Needed You" by
Townes Van Zandt and after listening to those two songs, I felt
I must invent the saddest story I can imagine. At the time, I was already
in a mental break-up with my former girlfriend so I just started writing
and all of a sudden I felt that we should have a little girl and she
should be called Maybelle and she dies. Technically, I'm responsible
for the structure and 90% of the text, but Mica, who co-wrote
the play with me, is responsible for the most beautiful 10%.
She added the female voice.
Were you politically motivated to write the character
Johan: Yes. I wanted to say something about the Bush
veto of stem cell research. It was a year before I wrote the play, but
it was constantly on my mind. I kept thinking how could he do that?
Because of the influence of the extreme right
wing faction of the Republican party.
Johan: I'm not here to criticize any American
president. This is the European point of view, of course. I don't
live in America, but in Europe, we were scared at that
time because of the war on terror and the axis of evil. All these words
came across the ocean and it was very frightening. I guess that's how
Maybelle took over the story.
Could you elaborate a bit more?
Johan: I was raised as a Catholic boy and there's
a creed in the Catholic Church: "I believe in God,
the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and
in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was
conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
etc. My religious teacher would say think about what you're saying and
believe what you're saying. But by the time I was ten years old, it
didn't make sense to me. I grew up as a person very much involved and
influenced by religion and the Catholic Church and was trying
to be a good person, which I think I am. But when I became an atheist
that was my liberty in thought. You had the Americans with their
very strict Christian religions and on the other side Islam.
I wanted to get the message across that it doesn't matter what you believe
and what you need in your life as religion, but that it's important
that you give that same freedom to others. I find it strange that people
think that if you don't believe in God, you're a bad person or
don't have morals. I'm a very moral guy. I believe in being good, in
gratitude, and love.
How was the transition from the play to the film
Johan: That's a big question and there are a lot of
answers. First of all, I played the part of Didier 150 times
in the theatre and it was hard. The performances were Wednesday, Thursday,
Friday, Saturday, and every Sunday morning I was at the breakfast table
with my children and I'd be crying. I'm an actor guy. You have to be
the character, but you don't have to take the misery home, but it was
too hard not to. Let's throw away modesty. I was very good and it was
my story. Then Felix decided to make a movie and I said that
I was sorry, but I couldn't be part of the changes that were going to
be made. Just give me the changes and I'll give you my opinion.
Was something in the film version that you wished
was not in there and/or was something not there that you wished was
Johan: Yes. There are two things. The scene with the
dead bird when he tells Maybelle the bird has to be in the bin
(garbage can) because she can't throw it in the green (compost).
That's something I imagine that Didier would never say. He would
understand and it was very hard for me to say that line because it made
Didier harder and tougher than in the play. The second thing
is they threw away the first monologue that Didier does and for
me there was a crescendo as an actor in the second monologue where I
shout out about God. I think it throws people off because it's
too much of a surprise because it comes out of nowhere. I talked to
Felix about it and he made it very clear that it had to be cut
and he's right.
How did your philosophy as an actor help you bridge
acting in the play vs. the film.
Johan: I very strongly believe that you have to be in
the moment and don't bring a lot of luggage with you. I always say to
myself you are right here, right now, and you are doing a movie, and
this is the scene. You're going to do it and don't think about anything
else. Sometimes it's hard, but I had to forget about the play.
As a wordsmith, did you cringe when you saw some
of your beautiful writing deleted?
Johan: Yes, but I promised myself that I would give
Felix 100% freedom because if it was me, I would demand 100%
freedom. I have a theory that very much suits me as an actor called
the "four subjectives." The first one is the writer who writes
the story, the second one is the director who tells the story in images
and should have the freedom to throw away his respect for the writer;
the third subjective is that the actor should have the freedom to make
his own story and then you have three stories all together which makes
something rich, and then the fourth objective is the audience which
can look at the story in different ways. So Felix threw his respect
for me aside as a writer and as an actor, I could do the same. It was
a nice struggle, but it was very organic.
The Blue Grass/Country soundtrack really helps
drive the narrative. How did you come to that decision?
Johan: The Coen Brothers' movie "O Brother,
Where Are Thou" revived Blue Grass music around the
globe but it was used in a comical way. They say country music is three
quarters of the truth and for me it is the most honest music. You don't
need amplifiers because it's acoustic. You just take a guitar off the
wall and start playing and your uncle can join in on the bass. The lyrics
are full of hope that one day we will be at the pearly gates and Jesus
is building a mansion for me. It doesn't matter that I'm poor over here.
It's the perfect music for the story.
Did you ever think the album would be No. 1 in
France and Belgium?
Johan: No. That's amazing. The producer paid for the
musicians and the CD was made already and he went to Universal
and asked them to release it but was told that was country music and
that sound tracks don't work in Belgium and they resisted. But
the producer insisted and Universal finally said yes.
The Blue Grass Band, the "Cover-ups of Alabama,"
is actually comprised of fabulous Flemish musicians from Ghent and Antwerp
and for the first time a soundtrack CD is Number 1 in Belgium and France.
The band was so good that I thought you flew in
musicians from Nashville, but now I know they were all Flemish locals.
Johan: (Laughs) That's a big compliment.
They're from Ghent and Antwerp. But you know everywhere
around the world there is a Blue Grass community and there are
Who were the American actors you admired growing
Johan: Of course, I liked the normal ones like Al
Pacino, Robert De Nero, James Stewart, and Burt
Lancaster. Dianne Wiest is my favorite actress. I also love
Mira Sorvino. I'm from the old school too. I love Frank Capra
movies and musicals with Fred Astaire.
Did your parents approve of your career choice?
Johan: First of all, we were reasonably poor when I
decided to go to theatre school so I paid for everything myself. I thought
my mother really believed in me and when I was in the third year of
theatre school, she sent me a letter. She said she pretended to believe
in me, but after seeing the play, she said I really do believe in you.
It was a big moment for me.
It's been a pleasure chatting with you. I wish
you the best of luck both the Oscar race and in your personal life.
Johan: Thank you so much.