L'Atelier 2019 - Festival de Cannes
Jaap van Heusden: "So I just get very excited when I get a chance to talk about it. And luckily that kind of enthusiasm is usually contagious."
IN ALASKA | 3rd Feature Film | The Netherlands
Woody, a 17-year old boy from a tiny village in Alaska is so depressed he wants to end his life. Instead, he does something grotesquely stupid: he shoots the oil pipeline that crosses the state and overnight becomes a most wanted terrorist, hunted by the FBI.
Hi Jaap, it's great to talk to you, how's everything going?
Lovely, thanks for having me at The New Current.
Your graduate film A Complicated Story, Simply Told was in the Cinéfoundation Competition and shortlisted for a Student Academy Award, did you expect your film would gain this type of attention?
It’s been a while, but I still clearly remember I received a phone call from a man with a French accent, telling me he really liked our film and would like to program it. This turned out to be Laurent Jakob, the man leading Cannes Cinéfondation back then. I had just finished film school, trying to deal with the after-school void. This news was so shocking. Cannes really helped to put my filmmaking plans on the map.
What does it mean to be at L'Atelier 2019 with In Alaska?
To me personally, it means a lot. First Laurent Jakob and now George Goldenstern have been following me and my films over the years. When George called us at the end of December with a couple questions about In Alaska, I was amazed that he freely made references to my previous films, which he’d seen. Obviously, he said. But it’s not obvious. Even if they have such a strict selection of films, Cannes and its programmers really follow you through the years and are looking for opportunities to get great films to the big screen.
How important is this opportunity for filmmakers to be part of something like L'Atelier?
My producers (Marc Bary and Steven Rubinstein) have been to Cannes so often, I thought it would feel like a routine to them, but I can sense they’re as excited as I am. We’re hopeful l’Atelier will give In Alaska good wind. And l’Atelier is a pretty impressive showcase. I think out of the 198 projects they selected for previous editions, 184 were made or are in pre-production. Those are incredible statistics, right?
Any nerves ahead of pitching your film at Cannes?
No public pitching sessions in l’Atelier. Just one of one. I love both actually. I always screw up every rule we learned about pitching in film school. Because I forget I’m supposed to be selling something. I just spent so much time with my stories. The story of In Alaska has been with me for over ten years. So I just get very excited when I get a chance to talk about it. And luckily that kind of enthusiasm is usually contagious. You can find a sneak peak of the story here.
"During the research, writing, more research, pre-production, shooting, then promoting the film."
This is your 3rd feature film, how much has your approach to your films changed since your debut feature?
To get a film made you need a firm grip, you need to be in control of the ship. But at the same time, you want things to get a little bit out of control. You want to be pulled into something that you couldn’t have imagined when you started. So for each new film (short or long), I try to find new things that I can explore and learn. Okay, that sounds very vague. Examples? When I started making films, I only wanted to shoot in Dutch, my mother language. Then I introduced a second language in the next film. Now In Alaska won’t be in my language at all, but through testing and learning in my other films, I think I can pull it off. Another example: when I first started I just wanted to follow a first-person perspective of the protagonist, because to do that in a pure way, is already a difficult job. Then I experimented with two perspectives. Now in this film, I know how that works.
Can you tell me a little bit about In Alaska, what is behind this film?
It’s based on a crazy story that really happened. A man in Alaska shot the oil pipeline that runs from the North to the South. He panicked and ran and it caused a big chase because the FBI suspected it could be a terrorist attack.
How much a role does your own life or experiences have in your films?
When I first heard the story, told by an Alaskan friend, what captured my imagination was the thrill of the chase, the cinematic landscape, the adventure of surviving in the wilds. I had just married my wife, we flew there, loved the adventure. But as I grew older, the story of In Alaska and of Woody grew with me. Now it embraces a lot of the darkness and struggles that I hadn’t lived through when the story and I first met.
As a writer/director what are some of the main challenges you face when you are making a new film?
In this case? Low temperatures. Haha. Last year I was staying with Inuït friends in Nunavut, far above the arctic circle in Canada, for research and temperatures were dipping below -35 degrees Celsius. It’s a brutal environment that is totally unsuitable to live or film in. But of course, when you want to, it can be done. Preparation is everything. And knowing that you know nothing and have to learn everything from people who have been surviving that cold for thousands of years.
Has there always been a passion for filmmaking?
As a boy, I just wrote stories. And I made pictures with my Nikon camera. When I was around 15, I got my hands on a video camera and the way that stories and pictures can start to move together and can then, in turn, start to move the viewer, that was very addictive.
Is there any advice you've been given that's stuck with you?
Love your characters like yourself.
Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
Find stories that are bigger than you. Film making takes so much time. You will get to spend so much time in your story. In its world. In the lives of the characters. During the research, writing, more research, pre-production, shooting, then promoting the film. Lots and lots of time. So make sure it’s a story that’s big/deep enough to keep you learning and focused and excited all that time.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from In Alaska when they see it?
I’m hoping that through the darkness that Woody has to deal with and through the excitement of following the FBI chase to catch him, people will be moved, like Woody, towards the light, towards life.