Toronto International Film Festival 2020
Short Cuts
Vincent Tilanus

Marlon Brando

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Best friends, Cas and Naomi are graduating from high school and spend every second of their days together. Within their friendship they experience a feeling of ultimate safety. But when their future plans are seemingly different, their relationship wobbles.

Hi Vincent thank you for talking to TNC, how are you held up during these very strange times?

I'm good! Thank you. I had a Pad Thai today, which was nice. Also, I'm happy to be in good health and to slowly get back to working again.

Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?

Initially, it was more of the opposite. Especially when it comes to writing. I get most of my inspiration from being out and about, among mortals, amidst conflicts and everyday interactions. My notes app on my phone is filled with little quotes or cryptic records of the most arbitrary, but to me, fascinating everyday situations I run into as a sort of log. When I see an opportunity to connect one of these particular inspirations with larger story concepts or characters I have, It's like fireworks. It doesn't happen every day as I'm in an almost continuous state of writer's block I feel. But when it happens, I'll cartoonishly drop whatever it is I'm doing at that moment, sprint to my computer and start writing away. I'm less of a champ in finding creative momentum by secluding myself in my thoughts. But these times have been a great exercise in trying to learn new techniques to stay inspired through more secluded brainstorming, and some aspects of it I've come to truly enjoy. So, in the end, it's all about finding the opportunities these circumstances are giving us, I suppose.

Congratulations on having Marlon Brando as part of TIFF Short Cuts, how does it feel to have your film a part of such an amazing lineup of short films?

Am I allowed to swear? It's so fucking cool! Flippin A'! The early response has been truly remarkable, and to then have such a prominent festival as TIFF to endorse the film is a dream come true. I would always try to watch short films from their lineup, so to now be able to be part of that is such an honour. 

Can you tell me a little bit about Marlon Brando, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?

It all started with that I wanted to write about queer characters and their lives beyond coming-out and acceptance stories. I was inspired to write about non-romantic (but equally loving) relationships between queer people based on my own experiences. But while conceptualising this idea, I slowly realised how much some of my friendships actually changed over the years. Some of which I also completely lost as part of growing up. I especially think one of the most painful changes in friendships is when it just waters down over time, until its left for dead without real intention. But it happens all the time! Even to some friendships that claim to be the very best ones. To me, the relationship ending doesn't detract anything from the beauty it held before. And perhaps the best friendships are the ones that can be picked up in a second, even after many years of total absence. 

So there is something painful but also bittersweet and real about it. So, in the end, I guess it was about showing queer teens as they often aren't represented on screen; supported and comfortable with their identity and with it, tell a story about love and friendship that I think most people can relate to. Or at least that was my goal.

Are you a flexible director and allow for changes or do you prefer to stick to what has been written?

It's curious. I think of myself being a very flexible and spontaneous director, but when I compare a final cut to the original screenplay, it's usually not too far off. So I guess it's about finding a balance. Some small moments that need to feel as genuine as possible we deliberately try to capture through improvisation, while other (often more lengthy) scenes are almost a one-to-one copy of what's on the page. I think though, most importantly, real flexibility as a writer/director comes from trusting people to run with your ideas and make them better. And let me tell you they often do make them so much better in so many cases! So on set we always try new shots, actions or dialogue choices if someone can make a strong enough case for it or if my ideas just don't work the way I thought they would. When everyone understands what you are after and thinking with you, it's such a powerful collective feeling. Time is, of course, a constant enemy on most film sets, but don't knock it till you try it. Teaching has definitely been more profitable than not. 

"...I believe now that opening up towards the more comedic sides of life is perhaps one of the most honest things you can show as an artist."

What was the most challenging part of making this film for you?

Whatever people would think of the film, even if audiences genuinely would hate it, I wanted them to agree that the film would ring as somewhat "true" or "honest" in some way. It's, of course, a complicated subjective term, and I didn't really know what that would look like in practice at the time. And I'm probably still not entirely sure at this present day, but because the story felt so "true" to me, it felt like my most major challenge and responsibility to translate that feeling to the screen. 

If I succeeded in my challenge is up to audiences to decide. But in the ways that we are receiving the first reactions from audiences, I think there is something that is resonating with people which gives me confidence. I don't have big clear answers on how to achieve it. It all comes down to writing as honest as I could about my experiences and then smaller things in how we worked as a team, I think. From the way we openly communicated between cast and crew, gave and received feedback to each other to the choices of locations, the casting of background extras, details in shooting techniques and hour to hour working methods. It's all connected and cumulative. 

One big lesson I learned, though, was that of the use of comedy. As I said I was looking for this form of honesty, but then late at night, I'd stare at my screenplay looking over the more deliberate cartoonish and perhaps less subtle comedic scenes, and freak the hell out. I've never done comedy in that way before, and I was really excited but also scared. Would this completely go against what I was looking for? 

Back in college, as a true film school snob cliche (with accompanied beanie hat) I think I leaned somewhat into a dumb attitude that comedy and real emotional depth could cancel each other out. But I believe now that opening up towards the more comedic sides of life is perhaps one of the most honest things you can show as an artist. I always loved what director Ken Loach said about how social realism shouldn't be dour. 

To quote him from the National Post

"Often people write stories about people who are suffering, and they're miserable all the time. That's not the case. You go to the food bank or wherever and there's laughter, there's comedy, there's stupidity, there's silliness and warmth. And that's the reality of people's lives. If you cut out that sense of humour and warmth, you miss the point."

I think he hits the nail right on the head with that one. 

Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?

I don't know! I mean I love the medium of course. The way film transforms people into different worlds, the way it explores life, love, hate... But don't we all love that? I've been quite the chatter-box since a small child, so a need to tell stories might always be part of my character. And perhaps in a few years, I will be better at answering these questions because I do feel filmmaking is the only thing I could do on this earth or I'd die. But why film? I'm yet to find out. 

"Film school is a small piece in a big and complicated puzzle and should be viewed as such."

How much has your style and the approach to your films changed since your debut?

I think this all comes back to what I realised about using comedy in my work. Most of my early artistic journey has been about taking myself less seriously and playing around more. Finding true joy in art and trying to find creative ways to show more colours of the palette in every story. The ups and the downs with comedic warmth or cold honesty if needed. But its ever-evolving so I don't really know where I'm headed, but hopefully, it will be somewhere interesting. Imma keep trying to stay true to myself and do my very best to create good work. 

You graduated from Netherlands Film Academy, what was this experience like at the school?

There is so much to worry about when making films and directing especially. It's safe to say I collapsed under that pressure at first as I was quite tense of being "at the helm" of a narrative production in the beginning. I was worried about so many things all at once, that it only made me more anxious about choices, to direct actors, do anything. And then after you've been through the grinder a couple of times, you realise that the phenomenon of filmmaking by nature is in this wildly uncanny space where you never truly know and can know anything, and that doesn't really change even with more experience, and that's okay. You learn how to become more comfortable about that challenge and even get excited about it, instead of it stressing you out. So film school provided this space where I could build some muscle from failing. Also, with the experience I gained at school, with every project, I learned to pick my battles better and I gained more insight into distinguishing primary from secondary issues, which helped a lot. 

Is there any advice you would offer someone about to start film school? 

People often criticise the school I attended (The Netherlands Film Academy) for being too practical focussed and not putting enough energy in shaping its students creatively. Although there might be some truth in that, four years to somewhat "shape" yourself creatively is a comedic short time to me. It should take a lifetime! Film school is a small piece in a big and complicated puzzle and should be viewed as such. Doing so will also take some pressure off of yourself by shedding the idea that those years are so important (spoiler alert, it isn't as much as you think). So the time that you have in school is EXCELLENT to try things and to take steps in finding your voice don't get me wrong, but don't expect or pressure yourself to come out of it a great director with vision, or at least I don't believe in any of that. 

Did you ever imagine your debut film Gold Leaf would go and win the Prix Amnesty International France at the Poitiers Film Festival?

Hell no! 

What did it mean for you to get such recognition for your film?

It's so cool! What can I say? Filmmaking is a big endeavour with many people working together. Such recognition is a beautiful celebration of everyone involved and the work that was put into it. 

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Marlon Brando?

Cherish your friends, but also fuck all other people you are here for yourself and yourself only. 

Just kidding. I genuinely hope that people who see the film will reflect on their own friendships: friendships that have come and gone, that are still in existence and need to be nurtured, or lost friendships that deserve to be reopened. And that they see how cool queer people are because we are here to take over the world.

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