Director Profile – Ralf Demesmaeker
Ralf tells Mr.Frank about his approach to story-telling and travelling the world
The most recent addition to our director's roster, Ralf Demesmaker is known for his high-concept short films and commercials, blending stylised realities with vividly surrealist elements. Based in Brussels, Ralf stopped by Mr.Frank HQ for a chat about life, the universe, and Scandinavian crime drama.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you get into film?
[laughing] It was an accident, which I guess is always a recipe for a good story! I don’t really have ‘creative’ parents, they ran pubs all of their lives. I was born in a pub actually – so no one was working creatively or with film. My father had this little 16mm camera which he made our holiday movies with, but they were really boring so I didn’t get [the film bug] from him!
I started out studying psychology, probably because it was the easiest thing to pick. Only for six months before I got bored of it, and then I didn’t know what to do. Then I worked for a year before a friend of mine suggested, “why don’t you go to film school?” I was only 19, and I’d never even thought of it, but it was the only thing that felt kind of adventurous at the time. There was this exam you had to take before you could start in Brussels, and I thought I’d probably never pass. But I actually did really well - I have no idea where the answers came from - and then I started making films. So… by accident, really.
How did you learn the technical side of things? Did you have to learn everything from scratch?
Well after my first year studying, I started to get a lot of jobs and working on sets a lot, fiction mostly. So that’s actually where I really learned the craft, not so much in school.
Did you have to be proactive or were people already coming to you?
No I was always looking, but once you get into that kind of circuit you get to know people and you get into a network, and jobs slowly start coming your way.
How is that scene in Brussels? Do you feel like it’s developing or still more underground?
Well I studied in Brussels but I moved to Antwerp pretty quickly. It’s funny, even though places like Flanders and Ghent can be pretty small, they all have their own movie scenes. So when you’re putting crews together, you often get the same people coming from the same cities – there’s a lot of really tight little networks everywhere.
So you have your own network in Antwerp?
Well the network you form is always the people you prefer to work with, so I have my own creative network around me of people I love working with. But I don’t think it’s that underground… the problem with Flemish people is they’re not as outspoken as Dutch people are. They’re really humble people – a little bit too humble, maybe. And that’s really why you don’t hear too much from the film scene, but there’s some really good films coming out of Belgium, especially Flanders.
It’s starting to pick up now, partly thanks to the tax incentives the Belgian government has implemented so that a lot of foreign companies come there to make their films, and that generates a lot of work.
The link with psychology is interesting, because a lot of your films seem to have emphasis on the way that people ‘are’ – they’re all about depicting people in very personal ways. Do you see that link yourself?
It’s funny you should say that because I often get the feedback that the casting in my films is very good, and that I work well with actors. But to be honest I almost never direct actors on set. In the casting process, I think the most interesting part is when they come through the door and sit down… everything that happens after that is not as valuable as those first little moments when the person is completely natural. And most of the time when I cast actors I never ask them to play the role, I just have a conversation with them.
I guess that’s the secret to good casting – the closer you keep the part top the ‘real’ identity of the actor, the better it is. So for me it’s not about forcing people into a role, but making sure the actor really understands a role… a lot of talking before you start the filming. It means that once you come on set, you don’t really need to direct any more. It’s not a system that I’ve really devised, it’s just something that happens.
Your style is very cinematic – does that come from you working on fiction pieces early on?
I think making a good film, whether it’s a feature or a commercial, is all about creating a parallel world with its own set of rules. And the way you film it is obviously a crucial part of that process, building a world which the characters move through. When I make films I always try to incorporate some kind of mysterious element, or something which doesn’t really match with reality – it can be the way the actor plays a part, or something visual. I always try to add an element of mystery so that I’m emphasising reality. Otherwise you might as well be watching reality television. It still has to feel honest, and you still have to believe in the characters, but you watch film to see a world that speaks to your fantasy.
That’s what I try to do, maybe subconsciously. It’s really the only thing that interests me when I pick up on a scenario or a script. For me, I try to bring that rough-around-the-edges quality to my personal work, and I’m really happy to see that a lot of brands are starting to do the same thing – creating worlds that people can be excited and intrigued by. Sometimes it’s something tiny, but it’s just enough that the work stands out from the masses.
Are you interested in directing a feature film?
Yeah, but I’m really slow when it comes to stuff like that. I kind of take things as they come to me, I’ve never rushed stuff. Maybe that’s because I’m a little bit insecure, like most creative people, I think that’s healthy in a way. But also if you invest four or five years of your life in a project like that, I don’t want to start something that i can’t see through.
I have a friend who wrote a film, and by the time he came to make it he said “This isn’t my world any more, I’m not interested in this story any more”. So that stayed in my mind, that I never want to be stuck in that situation. I think it’s a case of waiting for the right story to trickle into my brain… I have the networks and the people and the experience, so I could start writing and do something now. It’s definitely something I would like to do eventually, maybe even fiction television, just something more dramatic.
Do you have any genres or themes in mind? What would be your approach?
I guess it wouldn’t be feel-good [laughing]. I really like all the Scandinavian crime series we have now, that’s really my vibe. I’m happy they’ve paved the way for the rest of Europe to go in that direction. I was watching the last season of The Bridge, and literally every character that’s in that series is miserable. Even with the extras, you can feel that there’s something really dark going on. Stories aren’t really interesting to me when everything’s going peachy, so I’d like to do something more in that vein.
A lot of your early films are almost monochrome in design. Is colour something you’re drawn to when trying to create an atmosphere straight away?
I guess I’ve evolved from being pretty monochromatic into now making more use of colour. I’ve never found the right way to use colour in my work, and recently there’s a trend for using a lot of single-colour lighting. I’m kind of drawn to stuff like that because it’s such a distinct choice, but I think I’m always going to use it more as a dramatic element than something purely visual.
That was how it worked with the Barco film, because that specifically required the use of quite vivid colours against more neutral backgrounds, so that the colours would really pop out. And my last film which I made for a Belgian newspaper is set in a tattoo parlour again, with a very specific look. I’m starting to become the tattoo-director!
How did you get in to that scene? It seems like it comes quite naturally.
By accident again! I was asked by a production company in Brussels to make a film for Nowness about a famous chocolatier here. And they had this really awful stop-motion script which I really didn’t want to make, so I asked them if I could write something different. They said yes, and I wrote a script, then they said “no, can you write something else?” So I did again, then they said they were going to stick to their stop-motion script anyway – so, “thank you, but no!”
By then I’d gathered a really enthusiastic crew which I was shooting a commercial in Amsterdam with, and I remember getting this news from Nowness and we were all kind of depressed because we were so psyched about the script. So then the cameraman said “why don’t we shoot something anyway? We have the people, we have the gear, we’re motivated, so find something for us to shoot!”
I was working with a makeup artist who’s boyfiend owned a tattoo parlour, and I asked him if he’d be interested in us filming something there during the night. So that’s how the film came about. Then I got the job for the Belgian newspaper and everything needed to go really fast. They already had the idea of working with tattoos but everything else was still a blur. So I told them I already had a crew and a fantastic location, although we needed to make it different enough that we weren’t just making the same film again.
I wonder when the next tattoo film is going to roll in!
That’s the problem with directors, once you get that ‘stamp’ it’s really difficult to get rid of it.
But you’re into tattoos though – did you get one when you were filming?
Well I was thinking about getting tattooed before making [Old Blue Arms] but I didn’t quite know what. I was looking for something with some symbolism… but you just have to find something you like.
I wanted to talk about writing, because you describe yourself as a writer-director. How do you divide your work like that?
Well my career started out in television before I moved into commercials, and there I did this fantastic children’s series where I travelled the world filming. It was supposed to take a year, but it ended up taking four years travelling… But I started to write on that programme. The scripts were mostly written by the lead actors, and I kind of stepped in to help them with the writing. Thats where I got interested in that kind of storytelling. And when I finished that programme, I started getting more offers for television programmes which I really didn’t want to make any more and everything else I was getting offered was pretty horrible. So at that point i thought maybe I’d try something else that was more commercial.
It’s actually really difficult because it’s kind of a vicious circle – if you don’t have the films to prove you can make a commercial you don’t get into commercials, but if you don’t make commercials you can’t make those films to prove yourself! Then I was working at Prime in Belgium, and I knew these people really well, and they said to their directors “Look, here’s the budget, we need a promo that you can shoot yourself for that film or that series”. And that’s where I wrote my first little scripts, for those promos.
And because of writing these films, Caviar kind of noticed me. They were looking for directors at that time who could write their own stuff or re-write scripts – and that’s how I began to get more known as a writer. I think it’s really important as a director, actually I don’t do it enough, that you can take the stuff that come from agencies and mould it a little bit so you put more of your own DNA in there. It’s not so easy to do with every agency or every job, but the best work always comes from really good creatives who give you the basic material and then allow you to make it your own. It also really depends on the relationship between agency and client. And I can see that the work I like the most in my portfolio are the ones where I have had the most input. I think the whole process is evolving – there’s so much original content out there that there’s a lot more opportunity for directors to be really creative.
Your Barco film has a lot of special effects and post production work. Is this something you’d like to incorporate into your work more?
Well only if it serves the story actually. I do really like to put in these ‘crazy’ elements that lift you from reality, even if it’s just for a split second. I think even in really reality-based stories, even if I were to do fiction again, I would always try to put in some kind of strange element. Even if it’s some kind of dream scene, I think it makes things a lot more interesting than just sticking to reality.
How do you prepare for a shoot? Like the day before, what are you thinking?
I try to prepare as best as I can. Obviously there’s always surprises, but if you try your best to think of 98% of everything you can think of and prepare for then I will. For me, it’s really important not to be stressed on a set – I don’t like confrontations or stuff like that. I try to be a nice guy, but I know that when something goes wrong and I can point it to something that I could have prepared for, then I’m the unhappiest person in the world. If you miss out on something that’s really important for your storytelling and you see it on set, you’re like “oh shit, I should have thought about this in advance!”
When we were making that children’s series, we had such a small crew. It was just the actors and me, I was doing camera, sound and even the editing. So it was a one-man crew for the whole production. but when we were on set and you’re filming in Africa in a market without people to control the set… that can be pretty horrible. We managed to film everything because we had the time – if you don’t have any money then you need more time – but I think I saw everything that can possibly go wrong. It was mostly just small technical things but I need to touch wood because I’ve been spared from any really big disasters.
Do you have any other creative outlets beside writing and filming?
Right now I’m working on a short, but it’s in such an early stage that there’s a lot I don’t know about it. I’m sure I’ll probably end up filming it in Brussels for financial reasons. I’m really drawn to locations visual identities that are not too close to my ‘home base’. It helps me to get some distance from my subjects, to be able to look at things with fresh eyes.
If I envisage shooting in some exotic location, I’m less impaired by what I already know and it forces me to think about new ways of looking at characters. Otherwise, out of laziness, I’ll just fall back on the locations I know, with the people I already know. So for me it’s far more exciting to work outside of the world that I know already, but on the other hand it’s much more easy financially to stay close to home, just in terms of the equipment and travelling with a crew. So if I can keep my crew small I would always prefer to travel.
And as alway, what’s your favourite film?
Oh that’s really difficult! There’s one film that always stuck with me, and that’s Naked by Mike Leigh. It’s about a guy from Manchester who visits a friend of his, and causes chaos in every life that he touches. The main character is David Thewlis. I don’t know if you’ve been watching Fargo but he plays a really masterful role in the last series.
But the way Mike Leigh makes films… he got the cast together and locked them up somewhere in a rehearsal space. Then they wrote the film and all the dialogue while they were rehearsing, just by talking to each other about what they thought each character would do. So the way Thewlis plays his character is really quite incredible. And when I was in film school the script teacher made us break down half of our favourite movie, so I really dissected ever scene, and the more I watched it the more I came to appreciate it.