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Belgian director Lukas Dhont on his Oscar-nominated new film 'Close'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The new film "Close" opens with 13-year-old friends, Leo and Remi, running through a field of flowers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLOSE")

EDEN DAMBRINE: (As Leo, non-English language spoken).

GUSTAV DE WAELE: (As Remi, non-English language spoken).

SIMON: They're close, in-step, joyful and unaware. They sleep over at one another's homes. They call each other special and beautiful. When they start a new school together, a couple of girls ask, are you together? The question opens an estrangement that claims a tragedy for the boys and their families. "Close" is directed by Lukas Dhont. It won the Grand Prix award at Cannes, and this week was nominated for the Oscar for the best international feature film. Lukas Dhont joins us now from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

LUKAS DHONT: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I love this film, but I have to tell you, I didn't get the impression the girls were being bigoted or even personal, just curious the way 13-year-olds can be. What has this question set off between Leo and Remi?

DHONT: I mean, it's that moment of when the conscious becomes presence. You know, I think before that, the first 15 minutes of this film are a little bit a Garden of Eden, you know? It's that childhood connection where - that we all know, for that matter - where love can still be love in its freest form. And then as these boys go to school, arrive on that playground, which is a little bit of sort of microcosm of society, there's one of the two that all of a sudden gets injected with consciousness. And there's this very pivotal moment in the film where Remi tries to lay his head on the stomach of his friend Leo in public. And all of a sudden, Leo pulls away. He doesn't dare to show that affection anymore in public. And it's - I think this is something that happens to a lot of young men when they start to learn that physicality is immediately sexualized. And I think it's just an enormous shame for all those connections that could have been.

SIMON: Eden Dambrine is Leo, and Gustav De Waele is Remi. They're both terrific. They aren't 25-year-olds playing teenagers, as is often the case in a Hollywood film. Well, how do you direct teenagers 'cause this is such emotionally charged material?

DHONT: So in the beginning, when they did read the script, we had a very open conversation about its themes. I often say that we can learn a lot by listening to 13-year-olds speak about the world because I think they are still so strongly connected to the hearts. So I think that conversation around friendship, around heartbreak, around guilt - it was pivotal for what the film actually became. I think they really helped reshape that last version of the script. I asked them to only read it once because I don't want them to think that they have to copy the words on paper. And they loved that because they all have - they already have to memorize so many things in school. So they got really excited because there's a place for creativity.

And so during these six months, we get to know each other profoundly. I watch their favorite movies. We make pancakes. We go walk by the seaside. And bit by bit, person by person, I will invite every single crew member so that they get used to everyone that's going to be on that set. And I will also - in a very informal way, I will ask them, why do you think the character of Leo would not wait for his friend at that moment in time? And I won't give them the answer. They can make the answer up themselves. And so they become these detectives of their own parts.

And then I'll bring in a camera after the very first months because I think it's important that the camera becomes an extension of our togetherness, that they get so used to the camera that when we actually start shooting, there's a complete transparency because that camera is not an object that they fear or that surprises them anymore. It's an object that has been there from the beginning.

SIMON: One of the producers of your film is your brother.

DHONT: Yes.

SIMON: So I guess you can't blame the producer when something goes wrong, right?

DHONT: That's too bad, right?

SIMON: Well, I (laughter) - it's a - you deprive yourself of an excuse. I don't know what to do.

DHONT: I know.

SIMON: And I can't help but notice that Leo and his brother have a close relationship in the film. Does that mirror yours with your brother?

DHONT: I felt like seeing his older brother, who was physical, intimate with his younger brother, there for him as a sort of protector and this tenderness that I think - I hope is a part of the whole film, is also something that I really wanted to be a part of that brother relationship. And yes, me and my brother have always been incredibly close. We have made short films ever since we were 6 and 8. I made him act in the weirdest, craziest little scripts. And I'm so thankful that he has always had enormous patience to create with me. We continue to do that in our professional lives today. And, I mean, what more could you want than being able to bring these very authentic pieces to the world together with your brother?

SIMON: May I ask, were you at all like Leo or Remi at the age of 13?

DHONT: I mean, I think we were all Leo and Remi, if I'm honest. I think we were all pushed away, and we have pushed away people that are important to us. I think we all have that experience in friendship and connection. And I have felt that as we have presented this film now in cinemas all over the world, how people connect to that small little wound. And I strongly believe in that because I'm from Belgium. I am not Greek, but I do believe in what the Greeks called collective catharsis, this idea that by seeing something, by connecting to an experience by another, we can reconnect to ourselves.

SIMON: Lukas Dhont - his Oscar-nominated film "Close" is in select theaters right now. Thank you so much for being with us.

DHONT: Thank you so much. Thank you for this conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT SONG, "KRISTOFFERSON'S THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.