Interview: Michaël R. Roskam, writer/director of Bullhead

Michael RoskamBelgian filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam’s feature film debut, the 2011 crime drama Bullhead (Image Entertainment/Drafthouse Films, Blu-ray $29.97, DVD $27.97, released June 26, 2012), is a moody, well-crafted crime drama that smoothly navigates the channel between arthouse drama and genre crime flick. Rightfully, it was nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of the year.

Bullhead revolves around Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a steroid-gobbling young farmer based in the Flemish province of Limburg who gets involved with the “bovine hormone mafia,” a group that uses illegal hormones designed to fatten up cattle. Dealings with the juicers might have been business as usual for Jacky if not for the murder of a police officer and an unexpected run-in with a mysterious aspect of his past. The fateful combination of situations draws him into a storm of dangerous and far-reaching consequences.

Disc Dish caught up with writer/director Roskam to talk about Bullhead, the film’s origins and the filmmaker’s influences.

Disc Dish: Bullhead is your first feature-length film following a handful of well-received shorts. How did this one become your first feature?

Michaël R. Roskam: When I was doing my shorts and was very intrigued by cinema, I always felt very connected to film lore: old crime films, gangster movies and so on. The tragic parts of these stories really worked for me. Especially  film noirs, which were always tragedies. While I was making all my shorts, I started to create an idea for a story that I wanted to do. If I wanted to make a noir, I need to have a good crime—something authentic, something from my soil. The hormone mafia is a very serious and very real crime scene.  I was convinced when I first heard about it years ago; I always knew I was going to do something with it.

DD: It’ s certainly a unique subject and not one that we hear about a lot in the U.S.

MR: I did a lot of work to learn about the topic. To combine farmers and gangsters was very original from my perspective. My friends agreed that it was a crazy environment and an original idea.

I didn’t want to make a re-construction of the real crime that happened [in 1995] involving a veteran and his assassination. That was just the beginning idea. I wanted a profound story of human nature, inspired by some coincidences and others things that came along in my mind. I wanted it all to connect but not to be a direct story about the crime.

DD: Bullhead has a very well-composed, painterly look to it.

Bullhead movie scene

Matthias Schoenaerts is Bullhead.

MR: Because I was raised in a Flemish region, we’ve had a huge tradition of painters over the centuries. I always liked the Flemish artists—they have always been a part of my life.

DD: You’ve spoken of how you and your team referred to Belgian painters and French Painters like Rembrandt when preparing for the film.

MR: I studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. I love painting—light, composition, color—and storytelling, as well. In cinema, it’s also about what you tell in one frame. The frame of a film is its own painting. When I teach [at the St. Lukas Film School in Brussels], I tell young people not to forget to look at the old paintings because they are also about storytelling, movement and the suggestion of movement.

[For Bullhead] I wanted to limit the cuts, to keep an eye on the pace. For that, I kept paintings in my memories. The film is set in West Flanders and Limburg and we have the Flemish light – the clouds – so I was very proud to work within that kind of visual style.

DD: Jacky reminds me a bit of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, particularly with his head butts and what looks like the ability to smash in a wall with his skull.

MR: Raging Bull was an important film for me. I f I was told that I could only carry a couple of films to Mars, one of them would be Raging Bull. But I didn’t create Bullhead as an homage. When I decided to create Jacky and his name Bullhead, I knew the comparisons would be there. But Martin Scorsese was always a huge inspiration for me. So are the Coen Brothers and Orson Welles.


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.