Everybody's Famous
Interview with Dominique Deruddere
interview by Elias Savada, 27 July 2001

Another semi-cloudy June day in Washington, another young Belgian director to interview. I was in Brussels, where my interviewee now lives, a few years ago, munching on the native chocolates and drinking the great Abbey beers.  Right now I could use a strong cup of java and a shave. At least I've prepped myself with a semblance of research on my subject, writer-director Dominique Deruddere. While I've devoured a handful of Belgian films over the last few decades, I can't recall having been entertained by any Flemish titles, let alone Dominique's. It turns out less than a handful of titles from that little cultural enclave have been released in America. So if you blinked, you missed them. The creator of Everybody's Famous, his Academy Award-nominated feature now in release, preceded the arrival of his comedy into the nation's capitol by about four weeks, and by the time the reviews (generally good, I expect) appear, he'll be back home in the Belgium.

Thank goodness, Dominique is a very laid-back guy with what appears to my pedestrian ears to be a French more than Flemish accent, just a few weeks shy of his forty-fourth birthday. Attired in a drab, gray long sleeve work shirt, his sleeves are rolled up halfway between his wrists and elbows. He's armed with a disarming smile and buoyant laugh. Not too tall, not too short. What little hair (a whiff) is attached to his head, wraps around like a shorn horseshoe from the back of his head to just above either sideburn. He's not embarrassed by his baldness, or doesn't show it. He probably shaves his head anyway. No comb-across trying to hide the fact of impending hair loss or a receding hairline. Often during our session, his left elbow, resting on a the back of a sofa -- with a floral pattern perhaps not unlike any that would adorn the shirts worn by the main character of his new film, of someone stuck in the 1970s -- would pivot and his hand would slide over his uncovered dome, now reflected bits of sunlight filtering in through the clouds and window behind him. At the start of our chat, he yawns, not offensively, as he settles into the plush furniture in the upper floor corner suite. I ask for a coffee, which arrives just as I end the interview twenty minutes later. Dominique has managed to keep me awake -- and entertained—in the interim.

Elias Savada: Welcome to the United States. You've been to the United States before?

Dominique Deruddere: Thank you very much. Yes, yes, yes. For festivals. I shot a film here, once. Suite 16.

Elias Savada: It's so hard to find any of your films at the local video dealer!

Dominique Deruddere: Yes, it's a pity.

Elias Savada: You've been directing about twenty-five years -- features for maybe fifteen, by my count.

Dominique Deruddere: Features only when I was thirty years old.

Elias Savada: Yes, happy birthday next week.

Dominique Deruddere: (with a laugh of appreciation) Thank you very much.

Elias Savada: You directed your first film, Orange Light, when you were fourteen?

Dominique Deruddere: That is true (his eyebrows arch). Of course, it was a Super 8mm film, not a professional film, Full of mistakes. [It ran] Only fifty minutes.

Elias Savada: [sarcastically, but with intended humor] Coming soon to DVD?

Dominique Deruddere: No [we both laugh] -- it's not even good enough to show to my friends.

Elias Savada: Then you did a bunch of short films.

Dominique Deruddere: Afterwards, I went to film school when I was eighteen. That's where I did the short films. For my final exam I did another short film. After graduating I helped out on a lot of sets.

Elias Savada: I noticed that. Camera operator, cinematographer, even actor.

Dominique Deruddere: Yeah, I did different jobs that helped me to better understand the mechanics of filmmaking. And then I became a filmmaker myself.

Elias Savada: According to the press material for Everybody's Famous, you had dreams of becoming a film director when you were a small child.

Dominique Deruddere: Very, very early. Yeah, very early in my life. [Dominique's eyes look off into a corner of the room] I don't know why, but it was something I wanted to do.

Elias Savada: Did you watch a lot of television? Did you go to a lot of movies?

Dominique Deruddere: No, because the village where I lived was like an army base. They had one cinema. As it was for the soldiers, it was very erotic stuff. Not that I didn't want to see that.

Elias Savada: Did you sneak in?

Dominique Deruddere: No, no. I was too young. It didn't work. I was born in 1957. I think television started around 1955 in Belgium. This broadcast station was only just beginning and didn't know how to do their own programming. So what did they do? To fill the hours they bought a lot of very good American films. From the 1930s. So I saw all these films on tv as a very young kid at the age of maybe five, six seven, up to nine, ten, eleven, twelve. Mostly American films. I loved them! When I was a film student, watching these films again, I found out that a lot of the things I was doing I had stolen from the movies I had watched as a youngster. I was very influenced from those 1930s American films.

Elias Savada: Yes, you may not have consciously recalled those movies you had seen when you were so young, but it all sticks in your brain. I hate to tell you, but America was doing the same thing with television when I was growing up. Yes, we had original programming, but in the metropolitan New York City area there was a program called Million Dollar Movie. It was the same movie on one channel broadcast once a day the entire week. Twice on Saturdays and Sundays as I recall. I would sit in front of our family black-and-white television set watching King Kong, Dracula, The Mummy, and lots of other horror films, which I why I like that genre so much today.  I made my younger brother, who is about your age, sit with me to watch, more so to have a live body in the room so I wouldn't be scared alone. I didn't get into film history until college, quickly abandoning a career in engineering for nights watching dollar films at the campus cinema.

Dominique Deruddere: Exactly, when you get to college age, you reflect on all the things you saw as a child and how they influenced you.

Elias Savada: Those films you watched as a kid. Do you remember any of the titles? A lot of Capra?

Dominique Deruddere: Yes, a lot of Capra. A lot of Billy Wilder. [His arms cross and his hands end up under his armpits. Thinking of other directors, filmic bearings, perhaps]

Elias Savada: And that shows in your new film.

Dominique Deruddere: Those directors were key influences for me.

Elias Savada: You new film, or old [the film has played off in Europe already], Everybody Famous. Or as the American distributor Miramax has altered to Everybody's Famous. Why the additional apostrophe s?

Dominique Deruddere: Well, they added that because they noticed many people commented on the fact that "Aren't you saying it wrong?" "Shouldn't it be with an 's'?" Miramax wanted to avoid people thinking there was something grammatically wrong with the title.

Elias Savada: Of course, they could also work in your favor.

Dominique Deruddere: In Flemish the title was Iedereen Beroemd! Like a shout (Everybody Famous!) With an exclamation point. Like, "We want it NOW!!"

Elias Savada: It took a year before Miramax picked the film up (for American release). I believe they bought it after seeing it at the Berlin Film Festival in February?

Dominique Deruddere: Yes.

Elias Savada: They've been jiggling with a release date before settling with mid-July. Did you have any anxious moments in between, particularly in regard to the film's nomination for Best Foreign Film?

Dominique Deruddere: It was very funny, you know. My country sent in the film [to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] after a commission viewed all eligible Belgian films and selected mine. That was ok. That was last October. The day the nominations were announced the following February (of which five titles are selected from many dozens of features), a local television station, just for fun, invited me to watch the program, and first to try on a tuxedo. We were going to lose anyway. It would be like a silly program where you see a director getting all fixed up to get a nomination. And then he doesn't [get nominated]. So I'm sitting together with my wife before the cameras, as the station interrupts it's pre-recorded broadcast with a live insert. (In an odd case of life imitating art, this situation mimics a similar sequence in the film.) We are doing our part, watching intently. Preparing to be disappointed. Then I was sort of, really shocked. My wife literally jumped out of her chair. To be honest, it was a very big surprise. I knew Academy members liked it, because I was being informed by some, via email or such, that they liked the film very much. "Is there a possibility to do a remake?" [As what happens to many of Francis Veber's films, I assume.] So I knew it had screened well. When Miramax bought the film two days before the Academy's announcement, I think they had picked up good [searching for the American slang] vibes about it. I was still pretty convinced…I knew I was in the short list of ten [finalists], but did not think it would make the top five.

Elias Savada: It wasn't in competition in Berlin, was it?

Dominique Deruddere: No, no. The first international screening of this film was in Venice, a half-year before.

Elias Savada: Was that before it was released in Belgium?

Dominique Deruddere: No, in Belgium it was released in April [2000]. Venice followed in August [screening late in the month], where the reception was enormously good. We made a few sales, not too many, Five or six countries. The real sales came after Miramax picked it up for the U.S. Only because it's a Flemish movie.

Elias Savada: Yes, well how many Flemish movies do we see in this country? I can count them probably on one or two hands.

Dominique Deruddere: Not even. There have been only three Flemish films [not Dutch] released commercially.

Elias Savada:  In Belgium?

Dominique Deruddere: In the United States. The very first was Love Is a Dog From Hell [a.k.a. Crazy Love] my first feature [in 1987]. And then Rosie [1998], which, like my film, there were at most two or three prints available.

Elias Savada: You had another Belgian film released here Wait Until Spring, Bandini.

Dominique Deruddere: Yes, because of the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures. It was to have been distributed by Orion Classics. It never saw the light of day here. It exists here only on video.

Elias Savada: Love Is a Dog From Hell was handled by Cineplex Odeon. Do you expect, and were promised, more support from Miramax than you received from that earlier release?

Dominique Deruddere: Yes, they are doing a good job. Taking me around the country. Harvey [Weinstein, who runs Miramax with his brother, Bob] likes the film very, very much. To me it's a grace for him to take on a Flemish film, let's be honest. I am very grateful for everything they are doing on behalf of the film. Of course I'm now tired. I've been doing this [advance touring] for two weeks, but still…

Elias Savada: How many more do you have?

Dominique Deruddere: Monday I go home. But still, I want to be supportive of their effort, because I realize it is difficult to sell this type of film.

Elias Savada: Have any of the stars been doing publicity junkets?

Dominique Deruddere: Not right now. Thekla Reuten, who plays Debbie the singer, is coming over the 25th to 29th [of June]. She's also in theater, but has a small break then.

Elias Savada: A thematic comparison between Everybody's Famous and Full Monty is obvious: unemployed blue collar workers hatching an audacious scheme. I also feel it has a taste of some of the weirder Australian comedies that I favor. Muriel's Wedding, Strictly Ballroom. I see that, and a dose of Billy Wilder, in the film.

Dominique Deruddere: Oh, yes [getting excited]. There's a mix of all that. You are absolutely right. I've been inspired by the social-commentary [the actual word might be "comedy," but the recording was muffled] cinema of Great Britain. And those films that you mentioned I like very much. All of it is in the film, and yet it is still very typical Flemish humor.

Elias Savada: Have your other films bordered upon that? I know you've done a thriller.

Dominique Deruddere: My fourth film, Hombres complicados, was a very pitch-black comedy. It's very grunge [growls at the memory]; we shot it in twelve days.

Elias Savada: How long did Everybody's Famous take to shoot?

Dominique Deruddere: Forty days. Editing took a couple of months. Overall pre- and post-production was five months.

Elias Savada: Was there anything you wanted to put in the film that you couldn't because of technical or financial problems?

Dominique Deruddere: [thinking ever so briefly] No. I also produced the film. So I have an idea of what's possible, and what's not. There are good things and bad things are producing a film yourself. The bad thing is that, of course, you don't have (someone else as) a producer.

Elias Savada: [loud laughter] Unless you look in the mirror.

Dominique Deruddere: [chuckles] The good thing, first, is that you have great artistic freedom. Secondly you realize just how much money you have and how you can put it to the fullest creative use. You don't have to fight with the producer, because you know he is being perfectly honest with you. If you only have this amount of money you can only expect to use it in this manner.

Elias Savada: Obviously you have a very good discipline for this type of work ethic. Will you produce again, or let someone else pick up the production workload for you?

Dominique Deruddere: I'll let my wife (Loret Meus) co-produce. When I get home she's already working on the set. She was also the costume designer for Everybody's Famous.

Elias Savada: Was she the one who found all those great flower shirts for Josse De Pauw?

Dominique Deruddere: Yes, she's the one.

Elias Savada: While the film is set in the present, Josse's character is obviously living in the Seventies.

Dominique Deruddere: He's living in a nostalgic world. The film opens with him cuddling his infant daughter Marva, named after a real cult Flemish singer of the Seventies. She is still very well known, but doesn't perform in public anymore. In Jean's mind, he's very much still somewhere in the past, when he was young and trying to be a star himself. He had ambition and some talent himself. This isn't necessarily apparent to most people (we both laugh).

Elias Savada: You've worked with Josse De Pauw extensively. His first film was your first film?

Dominique Deruddere: Yes. This is our fourth film together.

Elias Savada: There must be a chemistry you share?

Dominique Deruddere: [emphatically] Oh, yes! We are very good friends. He is the godfather of my oldest son. We hang out a lot together. We get drunk together. We know each other very well. Josse and I have a good understanding of each other. We read each other well. Also, when we work, he knows how to read something when I write it for him. I don't have to explain it.

Elias Savada: You write stuff specifically for him then?

Dominique Deruddere: In this case, yes.

Elias Savada: Where do you live now 

Dominique Deruddere: In Brussels.

Elias Savada: I bet you're anxious to get home and have a nice beer.

Dominique Deruddere: [nodding] Heh heh.

Elias Savada: Did you get the same type of support from your parents that Jean offers Marva (in your film)?

Dominique Deruddere: Not exactly. My mother was a normal housewife, but she liked to do amateur theater. She was a great storyteller. Sometimes for me, sometimes for the whole family. When I was young, she would start a story, and one hour later she would still be going on.

Elias Savada: Were these fantasy or real?

Dominique Deruddere: We never knew. She told always the story of how my dad and she met. She has told this story several times all through her life. It's a great story (untold to me by the shortness of our time together), and a couple of months before she died, someone asked her about the story again, and she said, "Oh that was all lies."

Elias Savada: What about your father?

Dominique Deruddere: He's passed on, too. He was a military man, at that base that I mentioned earlier. When I told my parents early on that I wanted to become a filmmaker, they said, "Ok." They didn't say "We'll support you! What a great idea!", but they also didn't exclaim "What! Are you crazy!" Not really an indifference, but "If that's what you want, why not."

Elias Savada: Did they pay for your film school?

Dominique Deruddere: Dad had passed on by then. By my mother paid for the film school. I also worked. I opened a bar, which I don't have anymore, with some friends in Leopoldville, my hometown. The money we made from the bar was used to shoot small films. We actually shot at the spur-of-the moment a feature film which I never edited.

Elias Savada: Is that footage decomposing in someone's closet or garage?

Dominique Deruddere: Now it must be lost. I also used some of the [bar] money to support my studies and things like that. It was a punk rock café called De Friat, which means The Rash.

Elias Savada: You basically have directed features for fifteen years, but you seem to space yourself between projects.

Dominique Deruddere: Sometimes it is spacing that I don't want.

Elias Savada: I was wondering about that six-year gap between Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Suite 16.

Dominique Deruddere: I wanted to make a film in Africa at that time. I have written a story called De Panda, which is Lingala for Independence. It is the story about the backdrop of the independence of the Congo. When it became independent from Belgium in 1960. Ten days later they threw everybody out. A great mutiny. A big uprising. A massacre was going on. I wanted to make a love story set against this historical moment in Belgian history. It would probably compare closely to A Year of Living Dangerously. I worked for years and years on this story, because Africa is a very difficult continent to get things real. I wanted to shoot it in Central Africa, not in Zimbabwe, because it is a story that takes place in an African city. The architecture of Belgian colonies in Africa is magnificent, but it's in the middle of nowhere. There is really a type of Far-West kind of feeling. Very unique. It doesn't exist anywhere else in the world.

Elias Savada: You spent a lot of time in Africa then?

Dominique Deruddere: I spent a lot of time there, yeah. I really enjoyed it. Right before we were going to shoot it, with financing by Studio Canal + in France. We were ready to go in 1992. The government told us we couldn't film right now. You'll have to wait. "Next month. Next month. Next month. Next month." The rulers knew something was going to happen. Then came what were eventually known the great massacres, in 1994. In Rwanda and Burundi with the Hutus and the Tutsis. That's why there was a long gap in between my projects. I had to recover, too. I was exhausted. I had put an enormous amount of energy into a film that was not happening. To console myself I shot Suite 16. The script was already written by somebody else. The producer asked me to direct, and I did.

Elias Savada: (as our coffee finally arrives) I see our time is up. Good luck. And happy birthday!

Dominique Deruddere: Thank you. It's very nice of you to know, to remember

Read the Elias Savada's review.



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