Interview with Froukje Tan, director of MY ADVENTURES BY V. SWCHWRM

“A childlike ambition to make things happen”

Swchwrm-142Froukje Tan’s MY ADVENTURES BY V. SWCHWRM is different from any other children’s film you recently saw. Actually it is different from any other movie that you ever saw… An absurd, poetic tale about a boy and his biggest dream: writing a book that could change the world… if only he could come up with a striking opening sentence.

Is a little craziness required to make this film? An audience will always search for a certain narrative logic in a story… which they will not get from you.
Froukje Tan: “Not in a classical way, I agree. But the story has a logical structure: a boy wants to become a writer but doesn’t succeed, until he finds the courage to write about the things he never dared to write about before: the death of his granddad. Some people didn’t believe at all in the scenario, others thought it was brilliant. The first group mainly wondered: what happens for real and what doesn’t? The second group were usually people with a visual focus. The film shows what happens inside your head when fantasising. I constantly asked myself how things would look in Swchwrm’s imagination. As if he himself directed the adaptation of the book that he wrote and that tells about the writing of a book. Logical, isn’t it?”

Maybe to a child, yes.
Tan: “Many 6 year olds didn’t get why adults thought this film was so difficult. This is definitely the kind of film that can be discussed thoroughly amongst children and parents.”

Swchwrm-205Was that vision also imposing the film’s design?
Tan: “Trying to think as a child, I put myself in Swchwrm’s position and wondered how to visualize his imagination, using elements from his own environment. When visiting the Queen, how would he imagine the palace? Not like a real palace, more like a drawing from a storybook. That’s why it looks like a mosque on the outside and like a church on the inside. Or the house he lives in: the prototype of a Dutch house with a pointy gable and the city’s skyline in the background. For all details I dug into a young boy’s fantasy, and of course into my own.”

It isn’t easy to capture SWCHWRM’s appeal in words. It’s like explaining why a poem is beautiful.
Tan: “There are many tricks to memorize things. With the right method you can learn half the phonebook by heart and cram all the numbers into your mind. Only poetry you can’t memorize that way. Some hyper-intelligent children can do miracles with numbers, but get angry because they can’t capture poetry.”

Swchwrm-176SWCHWRM is about ‘language’. Who’s ambition was it to adapt such a linguistic text in pictures?
Tan: “Ever since script-author Helena van der Meulen read the book by Toon Tellegen 14 years ago, she kept breeding on the idea of making it a film. The project never got on track, many directors simply refused it. Based on my first feature LINKS she called me and said: ‘I’m looking for an unusual director. That’s why I thought about you.’ When reading the script, after 3 pages I was almost crying from laughter. It didn’t look complex to me. I thought it was just fun to search for every notion the best visual transcription.”

Swchwrm wants to write a book that saves lives. Is that also a filmmaker’s ambition?
Tan: “In my own humble way I want to make the world a better place. From the mouth of a grown-up it sounds rather pompous. But to the more than 100 children coming to the auditions, we all asked what was their wish for the world. All of them were ‘thinking big’: saving the environment, no more war,… The childlike ambition to make things happen, I want to keep it alive in myself. That’s why I make movies.”

Actor Dennis Reinsma isn’t just an ordinary child. He looks a bit brooding.
Tan: “But he isn’t! I casted him totally against his character. In schools I went looking for Swchwrm-ish boys; there are a few of them in every class. Usually they’re silent, introvert but with a vivid fantasy. It didn’t work out; their image on screen didn’t communicate sufficiently with the audience. That’s why I chose Dennis, who also had a strong imagination but was very extravert. “Talking is my hobby,” he introduced himself, and then kept on talking about all things puzzling him. Dennis has ADHD and an endless amount of energy. If such a child enjoys acting, it can hold on to an ultra-concentration that no other child can keep up.”

Something really beautiful is going on between him and his grandad.
Tan: “Swchwrm and his grandad are very much alike each other. Maybe he is the ‘ideal granddad’ that Swchwrm brought to live through his writing: one who is always there for him, giving him the self-confidence needed to do the things he wants to. When coming from a stable family, your parents by nature are too dull to write about… unless perhaps if they win a camel.”

You had indeed a camel on the set!
Tan: “His name was Rocky and he was huge! Do you know a camel spits when it’s irritated? When everyone had taken his position on the set, we couldn’t make another movement not to scare the animal. There was a camel trainer – not exactly a ‘camel-whisperer’ – with an old-fashioned approach: ‘Down Rocky, down!’.”

Who exactly is the queen? What is her precise role in the story?
Tan: “Imagine Swchrwm standing in the middle, then granddad stands on his left hand side to give him confidence, and the Queen is on the right to challenge and urge on him. As if he carries out things just for her. His classmate Madeleine is a small version of the Queen. She too forces him into action.”

The Queen looks fantastic with her blue bathing-cap.
Tan: “I didn’t want any traditional royalty. I wanted a Queen as in Swchwrm’s fantasy: like a posh film-diva, modeled after a movie-star from the sixties. Elisabeth Taylor with a bathing suit and –cap.”

You must have invested a lot of time and energy in the optic game-playing.
Tan: “I didn’t want any complex after effects but preferred a DIY-like approach, in an Ed Wood-kind-of-way. I enjoyed explaining my vision to the photographer and art director. I wanted to stay true to Swchwrm’s imagination. That’s why we built a real starry sky. The huge construction was set out on the beach while filming by wind-force 5. Exciting!”

What about the locations?
Tan: “We wanted to film in a little town by the sea, so that Swchwrm could walk straight from school to the beach. Finally we ended up in Rotterdam, where I live and where the nearness of the water is palpable in the air.”

Does MY ADVENTURES BY V. SWCHWRM fit into the Dutch film tradition?
Tan: “Dutch cinema for grown-ups is very realistic. We hardly have a tradition in fantasy. But it’s different for children’s films. You’re much more free in the design and children often have a particular way to look at the world. I’m currently working on a new project for a young audience about a Chinese lion, like the ones in the Chinese New Year’s parade. Inside the lion are two boys who can dance very well. I wondered how it was for the one dancing in the back – the lion’s butt, so to speak. How is it to always play the second fiddle?”

Toon Tellegen, the author of the book, has a small cameo in SWCHWRM.
Tan: “Just like any actor he had to do an audition to see if it could work. He liked it and he’s pleased with the movie: he is very proud and totally supports my vision on his story.”

The film claims ‘authorship’ as the highest thing on earth. How do you feel about that?
Tan: “A director is a sort of writer too. Creation is the highest goal. Achieving one excellent result after another in every possible field: science, art, sports… It’s a matter of finding the ultimate concentration: the ballerina preparing for the perfect pirouette, the runner aiming for the ultimate sprint. This was also the vision of Joseph Campbell, professor in mythology and writer and one of my true heroes – George Lucas once was his pupil. His motto in life was: ‘Follow your bliss’… and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

On the film’s website people could post their wishes for the world. Did you post one?
Tan: “Yes. That everyone will keep on believing that fantasy and imagination can make the world a nicer place.”

Gert Hermans