Film in the Focus: Nicole van Kilsdonk’s TAKING CHANCES

“The 4 o’ clock candy box”

nicole_van_kilsdonkShe has turned 11 by now and her curly hair is gone. But Pippa Allen surely has kept her clever and sparkling charm that made her so irresistible playing Kiek in TAKING CHANCES, a film by Nicole van Kilsdonk.

Little Kiek is really worried when her dad travels to a warzone as a doctor while she stays in Holland with mum. When dad is missing and leaves her without news for days, Kiek’s whole world is tumbling down. To reduce dad’s chances of bad luck, she starts doing stupid things, like almost throwing her dog from a bridge. When rehearsing the school play she can’t focus, as if only news from dad can get her back on track. Kiek’s darkest fantasies are depicted in colourful animated sequences that keep her spleen lightly digestible.

Patatje_OorlogThe film starts with the story of the fearful man, always hiding inside his house, until a tree crushes the roof. Kiek says it’s a stupid story… but I didn’t think so.
Nicole van Kilsdonk: “Actually it isn’t. There are lots of scared people, stuffing their houses with cans in case a war might break out. Fear is talked into us in so many ways. While I think ‘go out and discover the world’ is a much wiser message.”

Is that the film’s most important message: Don’t be a fearful man?
van Kilsdonk: “The most important lesson for Kiek is: don’t be afraid to open your mouth. All those silly things she does because she’s afraid to discuss her fears with her mum. And parents should learn to listen and communicate with their children. Just a story about a fearful man isn’t enough to comfort your daughter.”

Dad is an interesting character: is he a hero or an egoistic hunter for adrenaline?
van Kilsdonk: “I don’t know if he’s a hero but his intentions are noble. Of course he’s seeking satisfaction; thrills can be addictive. But he’s driven by a higher goal, which is admirable.”

Did you have contact with the international medical aid organizations?
van Kilsdonk: “We asked Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross if they were interested in co-financing but that didn’t work out. Only on terms if they could decide about every detail in the movie. And they didn’t like the references to wounded doctors gone missing. But they explained how the procedure works in a reality, which was useful information.”

TAKING CHANCES is based on a book by Marjolijn Hof. It doesn’t seem like the kind of book that screams out loud to be adapted in a movie.
van Kilsdonk: “That book was my unique chance to tell a story that takes children serious. I knew what I wanted: addressing the children in a direct manner, not with a typical girls’ story nor in a film about a brooding child. Because we needed some positive energy, we added the elements of skateboarding and the school play.”

That is Peter Pan… A coincidence?
van Kilsdonk: “Of all classic plays the theme of Peter Pan fitted best: a man unwilling to grow up nor to face reality, like dad.”

Some nice characters cheer up the story. Like Kiek’s best friend, the ultimate ‘miss know-all’.
Allen: “Actress Kee Ketelaar found it really difficult to speak in such a mature tone.”
van Kilsdonk: “Until we found out she’s good at gymnastics. We made her rehearse those lines while walking on her hands or hanging upside down, to avoid a stiffness in her dialogues.”

Many thoughts remain unspoken. You need a strong actress to transmit them. That was Pippa?
van Kilsdonk: “Pippa was fantastic, with or without dialogues. She was good in memorizing texts and she understood everything immediately. Things that I had to explain to experienced actors about camera angles, she calculated instinctively.”

How did you get into TAKING CHANCES?
Allen: “At Cinekid Amsterdam I took part in an acting workshop. They asked me if I had a casting agency. That’s how I got the role. The most difficult were the sad scenes, and there’s quite lot of them in this film. Actually I’m a pretty cheerful child. To get into the right mood, I thought about those ‘save a dog’ commercials on TV. Those dogs look so pitiful they always make me sad.”

How difficult were those skate-scenes?
Allen: “I’m not really good. But by the end of the shooting I could ride the half-pipe.”
van Kilsdonk: “Come on, Pippa, you’re a natural talent. To prepare for the role she took an intensive course in a skate-club; the only girl in a hall full of boys. After a few hours she could do it all. She was not only an actress but also a stuntwoman.”

She doesn’t even look like most child actresses.
van Kilsdonk: “She’s not a Barbie princess neither a tomboy. Many Dutch children are blond and cute. Pippa is different. She can be very focused. Often children get bored after a while but Pippa always could keep going. Only thanks to her we could finish the film in time.”

Which doesn’t seem easy surrounded by so many children.
van Kilsdonk: “All children in the movie were casted. Usually those aren’t the most silent types. That can be very tiring. The scenes in which the children walked into the classroom we had to re-shoot so many times, since every time there was one kicking over the traces. For the sound-recording it’s pure horror: time after time that screeching sound of 30 chairs on a floor. Sometimes Pippa preferred doing the scenes with grown-ups because of all that noise.”
Allen: “Luckily every day at 4 o’ clock the candy box passed.”

I thought children on a set never ate candy. It makes them hyper.
Allen: “I always got 4.”
van Kilsdonk: “4?! I never knew about this!”
Allen: “There was a cart bringing sausages, fruit and candy. Yeah, playing in a movie can make you collect lots of sweets.”

Many things have already been said about the animations depicting all morbid thoughts (like your plans to kill a dog or a mouse). Which one is your favourite?
Allen: “4 ways to kill your best friend.”
van Kilsdonk: “Those animations are on the edge, but who wants to be always neat and political correct? I found out it’s mainly the parents considering this scenes gruesome. The children simply love it. They’re used to cartoon violence.”

Still some of the scenes are a bit lugubrious. How to ask understanding for a girl who just tried to throw her dog from a bridge?
van Kilsdonk: “That scene was tested, our audience thought it was the most thrilling moment of the movie. It’s crucial not to lose your sympathy for Kiek. The film carefully builds up towards that moment, so we all know what drives her that far and immediately afterwards she washes and cuddles the dog.”
Allen: “I thought that was the most fun scene to do. The dog didn’t want to stay in the bath-tub, a crew-member had to hold him while lying at the bottom. His fur felt so soft, although he didn’t seem to really like taking a bath.”

How did it go, shooting with that dog?
Allen: “All the time he was squeaking. Some scenes we had to re-do many times because of that. And he was traumatized by the colour blue. His blue drinking-trough we had to remove because it terrified him.”

That’s a good reason for throwing the animal from a bridge!
Allen: “That was not for real! The dog was tied to me so he couldn’t fall and there was a stuntman at present to keep him safe from danger.”

What about your name, Pippa?
Allen: “There’s a lot of Pippa’s in the UK; it’s short for Philippa. But you seldom hear it in the Netherlands. Kate Middleton’s sister is called Pippa. After the wedding I was often teased: ‘Harry ♥ Pippa’, but I didn’t mind.”

You even met a real Princess. At Cinekid you were introduced to the Dutch Crown Prince and Princess.
van Kilsdonk: “There was a strict protocol for meeting the Crown Prince, but at the same moment the crew already started a party next door. Pippa was so impatient: ‘can I go to the party?’ She didn’t seem to care about the Prince.”

Do you have a favourite actress?
Allen: “My grandma once said I look like Audrey Hepburn, I don’t think so. But I googled her and found out she did a lot of charity. That was cool. Ever since then she’s my favourite actress.”

One last detail: we count sheep for falling asleep. What’s that thing about ‘train tracking?’
Allen: “That’s grandma’s trick. I never heard about someone really doing it, except in this movie.”

Gert Hermans