Thursday, March 26, 2009

Interview with Flemish screenwriter Michel Sabbe


This is the first of what hopefully will turn into a series of portraits of working Flemish screenwriters.



I first met Michel Sabbe when we both attended a North By Northwest workshop a number of years ago. I was attending as script-editor, he as writer of a very ambitious screenplay about an expedition in the Andes looking for ice mummies of children.

Since then he gave up his job as an IT professional to become a full-time screenwriter, mainly for television. He's written for daily soap Thuis and whodunit series Witse, and most recently worked on the VTM dramedy Jes, which just started airing yesterday night.

How would you describe the series?

The series starts off with Jes deciding not to follow her boyfriend to his new job in China, but instead making a life of her own in Brussels. Jes is 30, has always lived in the countryside and must now adapt to the single life in a metropolis. Luckily she has some friends there who help her and, at the same time, complicate her life with their own problems.

So if I have to describe the series, I’d say it’s a dramedy about a group of young thirtysomethings looking for love and the meaning of life in Brussels. But a friend of mine saw the extended trailer on the VTM website and sighed wistfully “ah… romance in Brussels” – which is a pretty good reaction to get really! So I’d be happy with that description as well. If you twisted my arm and made me compare it to another series, I’d probably pick ‘Cold Feet’ (which I know you like a lot) though ‘Jes’ has a few more surreal touches up its sleeve…

In what way is it unigue?

Two things. First off, it’s set in contemporary Brussels – an arena you simply never ever see in Flemish drama. This means the series is set to the pulse of a real city and the characters are city people – with all the nervous energy that entails. Brussels itself is a character in the story and we make good use of its many positive aspects, without ever trying to cover up for the things that are shall we say less than terrific about living there.

Secondly, ‘Jes’ can go from laugh-out loud funny to aching melancholy on the turn of a dime. Which makes it a dramedy, I suppose. At this point I’ve already seen some of the finished episodes and this mix has come off really well in the execution – so I have high hopes for the series!

Who developed the concept?

As I remember it, Jes started off as an idea for a sitcom by Frans Ceusters. Directors Kaat Beels and Nathalie Basteyns got involved – I guess their instinct was less of the sitcom, more of Brussels. Together with their friend Helke Smet they wrote the concept and a pilot script. But they went further than that and actually filmed a rough 10 minute pilot which proved instrumental to convey the feel and tone they were after. They sold production company Eyeworks on Jes on the basis of this and together with Bram Renders they refined all the material they had and presented it to VTM – and they said ‘yes’ – if you pardon the rather predictable pun…

How were you approached to write for it?

Neither Kaat, Nathalie nor Helke had ever written screenplays, so Bram – who became producer/script editor on the project – was looking for more experienced writers to join the writing team. I guess he liked my stuff and thought I’d fit in both with the people and the concept (he was right on both counts: I liked the people involved instantly and the material was a big chance to do something different, something that I felt was right up my alley). So myself and Nathalie Declerck were hired, rounding off the writing team.

So, as this was a project which was already in development before you joined it, did you get to have any input on the concept once you joined the writing team?

Yes, I did. When we started, we had a great starting off point for the series and a set of characters (some were even developed with particular actors in mind). But everything else was up for grabs really. The way the writing process was organized – which I’ll get to in a minute – meant that if you had a good idea that stood up to scrutiny, it went in. I think my contribution concept wise was probably more on the side of structure – something of a hobby horse of mine, I guess.

How did the writing process go?

We worked with a writers’ room. Of course, it couldn’t be an American style writers’ room – where they have a dozen or so writers in the room and competition is fierce. Flemish budgets wouldn’t allow that kind of manpower. There were five of us plus Bram. The first weeks we would work on one pagers, rough story lines for the characters per episode. Then we’d move on to the real work: we’d beat out an episode on easy-to-move post-its, generating ever more material (and believe me, writing this way you generate way more and therefore eventually better material than when you piece out the episodes to individual writers one per one).

Of course, this kind of process can only work if everyone checks their ego at the door. We were lucky with our bunch of writers there. By the end we could beat out an episode in two, maximum three days. Then, someone would go and write a scene by scene synopsis and eventually the screenplay itself (not necessarily the same writer). All in all, we worked like that for 5 months (though we lost one of the writers early due to pregnancy – so we can claim a production baby!) after which I stayed on for another month for some rewrites.

Was there a particular structure/formula for each episode? Or was it more of a freeform thing?

Structure really doesn’t mean anything if you don’t fall into it naturally. So we didn’t really set out with a structure or formula but rather discovered it along the way. We did work with a traditional 4 act structure. We had a pool of 5 main characters (plus 2 semi mains who will gain more importance as the story progresses) and we soon found that what worked best was pairing them in two’s to ‘go on an adventure’.

Of course, the series is called Jes so Jes had to be the main character. Which means that in the bulk of the episodes she carries the main storyline. But as we worked, some of the other characters deepened and became very interesting to us. So in some of the episodes, if you analyze it, you’ll realize that somebody else carries the main line… Next to the main line, we usually have two supporting lines. There is some use of voice over as well, the rule being that it had to be thematic and always in counterpoint to what was on screen so as not to be superfluous.

What did you learn as a writer from the experience? How did it improve your own skills?

Having spent 5 months in a tiny room with 4 of them, I can honestly say I learned how to live with women! I learned it is actually possible to live with them! (In case you’re in doubt: this is me putting my tongue firmly in cheek – and getting back at Nathalie Basteyns for calling me a macho when interviewed on the talkshow Phara). Seriously, it was a freeing experience for me not to be tied to the very strict demands of whodunits which are the main staple of Flemish drama.

Jes turned out to be excellent for developing and continually deepening characters – I guess the way they do it in great series like Six Feet Under, Californication etc. where you get the chance to live with the characters and you can find out new things about them as time goes by. Also, I wish all series here would start to work with the concept of a writers’ room. Screenwriting is both a misery and a joy – and at least in a writers’ room you get to share both with other people!

And now for something completely different: tell us about your short film ‘Dear Granddad’ ('Dag Opa').

Dear Granddad comes from a short short story by Dutch writer Hans Koekoek. It’s a black tale of a boy who needs to vacate his room for a nasty, smelly, cigar smoking granddad who moves in with the family. The boy will do anything to get his room back, but granddad is a force to be reckoned with…

I wrote the screenplay – no dialogue! Which was a great exercise in pure film writing. It was my first collaboration with Jeroen Dumoulein – a terrific young director, you’ll hear much more of him in times to come! We had a top line cast (Ward de Ravet, Karlijn Sillegem, Stany Crets), the movie was lensed by Frank van den Eeden and scored by Ozark Henry.

Were you pleased with the result? How have the reactions been?

I was very pleased with the result. It’s still the thing closest to my heart and it launched a collaboration with Jeroen that is still ongoing and creatively very fruitful. It’s not often that as a writer you get to work this closely with a director, let alone one as talented as he is (though I should stop blowing smoke up his ass now, he’ll get too big for his britches…)

The movie was well received and won prizes in places as diverse as Brussels and Buenos Aires. However, distribution has been a decidedly mixed bag. It’s never enough to get a movie made, you’ve got to get it seen as well. After production finished, the producer’s priorities seemed to change and there was no real push to get Dear Granddad into more festivals. We got a sales agent way too late in the game and we later discovered that some of the dvds which were sent out were defective.

The killer blow came when the movie was released on a best-of dvd by Leuven Kort. Somehow the producer sent in a wrong format with incorrect blocking, harming the carefully thought out compositions and visual strategy Jeroen and Frank worked so hard on. It got released in that format. To this day it still makes me livid to think people can treat your work that cavalierly. Still, the movie did get into a lot of festivals and it toured in compilation programs in both France and Germany. But I can’t help think of what might have been…

Any screenwriting plans for the future?

Loads! I’m working on Swooni, Kaat Beels’ feature debut, co-written by Annelies Verbeke. There’s a new series called Dag & Nacht I’m doing an episode for. Then there’s the many projects I’m developing together with Jeroen Dumoulein, both for film and tv. And of course we’re hoping for a second series of Jes!

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