Helen, an interior buyer, is in shock after discovering a break-in at her home. Is it merely her possessions which have been stolen? Or has Helen lost a part of herself too? Stuff is an exploration of attachment and loss. Some things are not so easy to replace.
For more about Malu and other projects: malujanssen.com
Hi Malu thank you for talking to TNC, how are you held up during these very strange times?
Hi there, thank you very much for doing this interview with me! I’m doing alright. I am currently co-writing my first feature film The Dumped, doing some casting assistance on a few features in the Netherlands and keeping my kids entertained.
Has this time offered you any creative inspiration?
You would think it did, I would have thought so. Self-isolating at home, little social distraction. But no. It sort of paralyzed me, especially the first few months when everything was so uncertain and we stayed a lot inside. I was reading the news like a maniac, it took over my brain. When everything settled down a bit here in the Netherlands, I got my creativity back again. But overall I’m still concerned, not just about the covid-19 situation, but about social issues like the global rise in inequality, climate change and the narcissistic sociopaths who are in charge around the world.
You're a graduate of the Netherlands Film Academy, how much did your experience there prepare you for your filmmaking journey?
I learned a lot and had a great time there, but of course after graduating there’s still a lot to be learned. At the academy you work very closely together with different students for four years on one short project after another. But after graduation, that process of making something suddenly all becomes much slower and more isolated. Which requires new skills. You need more patience. Also being a mother of two young kids while making films is not something they teach at Film Academy. So that’s something I’m figuring out myself now!
Congratulations on having Stuff selected for this year's Raindance Film Festival, what does it mean to you to be part of such an amazing lineup of short films?
It means everything to me. I’m so grateful to be able to present STUFF at a festival like Raindance. Of course I’m a little bummed it’s an online edition and I don’t get to go there. It’s a shame I won’t be able to connect to other directors and the audience in the whole live festival atmosphere. But on the other hand this will allow even more people in the UK to see the film.
This will be your UK Premiere, does this add any additional pressure on you?
It’ weird that it’s going to be this big event unfolding itself online with me not actually being there. It’s a different kind of pressure. Not the one with me sitting in the dark of a cinema in London, watching my own film, paying extreme attention to who is sighing and who is bored, with a heart rate up my throat and sweat in my hand palms. Now I’ll be folding my laundry, cooking a meal and writing a scene, not aware that someone else in the UK is watching my film at the same moment and having an opinion about it.
But of course the pressure is still there, I mean it’s Raindance!
"The stuff you collect can be an expression of who you are, or of who you’d like to be, intertwined with your identity."
Can you tell me a little bit about Stuff, how did this film come about?
STUFF is a short film about Helen, an interior design buyer who suffers a break-in in her home. She mourns for her lost belongings with which she had intimate relationships. With this theft, she discovers that she has lost a part of herself that is not easy to replace.
After graduation I really needed some time to take a step back and spend some time in real life before wrapping my head around something new. After a while the ideas started flowing again.
STUFF started out as this image in my head of a woman eating a design object. I saw this as an intimate moment, but also with something animalistic in her behaviour. An act of love, born out of an insatiable hunger. It stuck with me, because of the strangeness of it, but also because of the interesting metaphors it could tell.
What inspired your screenplay?
What inspired me is the way we built relationships with the objects around us and the way we look at our surroundings with a focus on possession. The insatiable hunger of consumerism for some people might replace actual human contact, as for Helen in this film.
At the same time I to see the beauty of the stuff that people can create, the materials and designs and why we like to surround ourselves with that. The stuff you collect can be an expression of who you are, or of who you’d like to be, intertwined with your identity.
So I also wanted to capture this intimacy between man and object.
When I was young and was still living with my parents I experienced a break-in myself. The burglars had been inside our bedrooms while we were asleep. They had been touching, breaking and taking stuff that was important to us. When I started researching this, I found out that some people even experienced a break-in as a sexual assault, because they felt so connected with their home and the things they own.
Also eating stuff you’re not supposed to eat is an actual disease people can suffer from for various reasons, called pica disease. I liked to combine all of this into a film.
Looking back is there anything you would have done differently?
I can be quite rigid in my approach, which I think is also a good thing. When the script is finished and I’m preparing for shooting, the images form in my head and I know what I want. Which doesn’t mean I’m not doubting my choices, but I like to make firm ones.
For example I wanted to keep Helen at a distance, allowing the audience only to feel close to her at the end of the film, when she is most pure, most real, eating her beloved object in intimacy. That doesn’t help involving the audience in the film, so I don’t think this works for everybody, but I’m still glad I did it that way.
When I’m on set it’s sometimes hard for me to be truly ‘in the moment’ with everything going on around you. So when I can’t film a scene the way I imagined it, because not all elements are there or it simply doesn’t work, I can feel trapped and can sometimes have difficulty thinking around that.
For instance I have my doubts about the beginning of the film. The opening scene we shot didn’t work out the way I hoped, it was too exposé and it didn’t look good. So we got rid of that in the edit and changed it. But I kept thinking about; what could I have done on set to make that scene work?
I think I regret not starting the film abruptly with the break-in in Helen’s home. I should have followed my gut feeling more with that, which can be hard with all kinds of opinions around you. Especially as a young filmmaker, opinions of more experienced people are important and valuable, but they can overrule your intuition. I guess that’s a never-ending learning story in filmmaking.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
When I was a little child and I would watch a movie with my little friends, everybody was watching for about half an hour and then would go back to playing. Then I just sat there watching till the end of the film by myself. You could have made me watch endless movies, I would have just sit and take it all in. Also I read a lot. I liked living in other narratives and created my own.
I still have to see the end of every film I start watching, even if I really don’t like it. I just need to know what happens, if there’s some turning point that puts everything in another perspective or gives meaning in a way I didn’t understand before.
My first love was theatre, I acted a lot when I was in high school and directed some school plays myself. When I was seventeen I directed a movie of an hour together with a friend in which the whole school participated. Teachers played the adult characters, on weekends we even got the keys of the school to be able to shoot there (which is both crazy and amazing I now realize) and fellow students came to be extras in the film. I loved it, we were one big close family being on a high, working on the same thing.
I went on to study theatre and film studies and discovered I didn’t want to study film, but make it myself. So after that I made a film to apply for a Film Academy.
How much has your approach to your films changed since you started out?
In my films I always aim for some kind of minimalism. I try to create powerful images that are able to tell the story, or the idea I’m trying to communicate. I think in films I’m always more intrigued by ideas than by people. That’s something that’s me, it’s what I like and what my mind comes up with, so that doesn’t change.
If something has changed then it is that it’s less playful now, I have less fun doing it. That sounds bad probably. I’ve always been very serious and tormented while making something, but I think because the run-up is longer now and you work on something for a long time without having the adrenaline, there’s less dynamic and more pressure on it to be good. I’m hopeful about getting the fun back in the process.
Should filmmakers continue to push their boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
Yes of course! I want to see things I haven’t seen before. For myself, I don’t particularly love the straightforward family drama movies.
I like it when a film communicates new ideas in narrative or form. When the film transcends itself and can resonate on a larger scale. When it communicates larger ideas to me which make me understand or experience something new. The films that present me with philosophical or abstract ideas. Films that examine questions like, what does it mean to be human? What is nature? That doesn’t have to be dreary or pretentious, it can be really fun and entertaining, like for instance I HEART HUCKABEES (David O. Russell, 2004), or unnerving and inescapable like FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 1997).
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
I think that would be what I’m telling myself all the time: don’t torment yourself too much. Give yourself some air and have trust in yourself.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Stuff?
I hope watching STUFF is a beautiful, fun but unsettling experience in which people see an expression of how loneliness and consumerism might affect each other.