Interview with Joram Lürsen (THE MAGICIANS, ALFIE THE WEREWOLF)

“The silent code of secrecy is still standing”

Luersen2Now THE MAGICIANS, a father-and-son story with dazzling as well as clumsy conjuring acts started touring European festivals, Joram Lürsen is preparing his next feature: ALFIE THE WEREWOLF. “It’s about coming out of the close.”

Joram Lürsen: “While working with Frank Ketelaar on IN ORANGE we wanted to make another film with the same production team: with a lighter tone and for a younger audience. We’ve been searching a long time for the right ‘arena’ until I remembered how much my children like magic shows. Conjuring tickles the imagination but also has to do with truth and illusion, just like cinema. We immediately knew THE MAGICIANS again would be a father-son story. A son overcoming his dad’s childish nature, in which lots of humour and pain are included.”

The film captures the glitter and glamour of modern conjuring shows.
Lürsen: “Conjuring is amazing and astonishing but at the same time it makes you smile as the show’s set up is often based on a 50 year old music hall tradition. Nowadays some shows are really glamorous, like David Copperfield’s performances or the Dutch Hans Klok’s shows in Las Vegas.”

luersen1How did you work your way into that environment?
Lürsen: “Immediately we contacted Hans Klok, a style icon in his genre. He was really co-operative and the film leans on his input. He was at present, coaching during the entire shooting. It’s his hands you see on screen, even when the actors perform the tricks his hands are in the close-ups. His mentor, meanwhile an old man, trained the young actors Thor Braun (Ben) and Java Siegertsz (Sylvie). Furthermore we mingled with a group of Dutch amateur magicians – a cosy club – and visited the Magicians’ World Cup in Stockholm.”

They shared their tricks with you?
Lürsen: “Almost every trick is for sale but it’s an old agreement in the conjuring world to act as if it’s all strictly secret, even when you can unveil most tricks on the internet or in specialized TV-shows. Once you know how it is done it becomes even more dazzling as you get more respect for the artist’s light-fingeredness. But the silent code of secrecy is still standing.”

THE MAGICIANS isn’t just about conjuring but also about family life.
Lürsen: “Ben was born in a sloppy family. The children do not feel adapted to society and now their dad is jobless there isn’t much money coming in. Ben feels ashamed about his family. Meeting Sylvia confronts him with the other side of the coin: a prosperous, well-organized family with parents having no time nor interest in their children. He finds out the reason why he likes his family so much is exactly because they are a bit different. Let’s call it ‘the charm of the arrears’.”

Ben’s dad is so childish it becomes embarrassing.
Lürsen: “Ben must learn to cope with his dad’s enthusiastic clumsiness. Every child wants a hero for a father; Ben ends up with an anti-hero. The family endures a lot from dad but when he screws up the vanishing trick he goes one step too far. A heavy burden rests on Ben’s shoulders. He is only 8 but has a huge responsibility in keeping Sylvie’s secret, unveiling the vanishing trick (for which he has to blackmail his own hero), not making a fool out of dad and helping him discovering his greatest gift: the talent for making people laugh.
Theo Maassen didn’t have an easy job playing the father. He putted so much precision into his performance that the bond between father and son and the audience’s affection was kept alive throughout the entire film. An enormous veracity is hidden behind a comic disguise.”

Halfway the movie the tone changes from realism towards a sort of magic realism: when performing the vanishing trick Sylvie disappears into a ‘twilight zone’, a daring choice.
Lürsen: “We suggest the possible existence of a twilight zone and the dad is willing to believe in it. For one moment you get the impression that conjuring is a kind of sorcery. It is like believing in God: you know it can not be, but there are so many clues that there is more between heaven and earth, that you’re almost willing to believe, against your common sense.”

We all know about scandals with young girls going missing. Telling parents that their daughter might be in the twilight zone almost sounds like an insult. Where you ever prepared for reactions coming from that side?
Lürsen: “Every detail in the story finally gets a realistic explanation. But sometimes film and reality get intertwined. When that happens on the wrong moment, you’re on shaky ground. Whoever was making a film about terrorism when 9/11 came on, will agree. But linking a lost girl to a conjuring trick is one step too far. If you don’t dare to do that as a film maker you are simply too scared.”

Your next film is about ALFIE THE WEREWOLF, an immensely popular character amongst the youngest children. What was the major challenge in making that film?
Lürsen: “It’s a ‘coming out of the closet’ story for children. What happens to Alfie is rather extreme: on the night of his 7th birthday he finds out there is a werewolf hiding inside him and he has to learn how to deal with that, just like his parents and peers. The script emphasises the aspect of ‘learning to deal with being different’. It’s a story about overcoming your fears and gaining your place in the big world out there.”

Was the author Paul van Loon looking over your shoulders?
Lürsen: “Paul van Loon considers Alfie as his son; the little boy is so dear to his heart. But I only care about the story. I read the book to my daughters and never saw a film in it. When Burny Bos asked me, he had to ask twice, until I looked at the story with a different eye: as a playful fairy-tale but preserving all the dark fantasy elements included.”

Alfie is huge in Holland. But how are you planning to market the film internationally?
Lürsen: “The title was a bit problematic. Nobody ever cared about the main character’s name Dolf being short for Adolf. But internationally it sounds a bit fishy, so we changed it into Alfie. The film’s ingredients sound very spectacular and in the line of the currently successful stories about vampires and sorcerer’s apprentices. The major challenge was: finding the right balance between adventure, horror and humour. Adventure comes first!”

Those books are meant for the youngest readers. Did you stay truthful to that audience?
Lürsen: “The stories fully apply to young children’s fantasy: a bit frightening, taking place in the middle of the night and with a super hero aged 6 – 8 years. It isn’t easy to find a 7 year old main actor who is available for 35 days. But we succeeded. Ole Kroes is a lovely boy, a bit of a spare pincher but looking great on screen. A little shy boy with great heroic capacities.”

He plays a werewolf! How do you keep that sweet?
Lürsen: “Werewolves have a dangerous, bloodthirsty reputation. Indeed Alfie swallows a living chicken, which leaves him with a guilty conscious. But Hugo van Looks drawings make the character so much sweeter. A Czech animator made some sketches on which we based the film’s design. Alfie doesn’t look at all like a dog or a wolf, more like an oversized cat. We used humour to tone down the horror and music helped us in keeping the right balance. The producer was scared it would be too frightening, but we didn’t want to make it too slack neither. ‘Not frightening enough…’ that would have been really silly.”

This seems the kind of film that is really influenced by its special effects.
Lürsen: “That’s new territory for me and on the technical level for sure that was the biggest challenge. With a € 3,5 million budget this wasn’t such a big production but 10 % of the film was made in the computer. 20 people have worked on it for half a year. The scenes in which Alfie has to run and jumps like a dog were entirely animated in 3D in the computer. The consequence was a very tight time schedule. When you know that rendering a shot is done at a 6 minute per frame rate, it takes almost 2 months before you can take a look at all the shots. That process is even more time consuming than editing.”

You really must be a hard worker. In just a few months you have 2 films running in the theatres.
Lürsen: “That is purely a coincidence. Sometimes you’re out of work for a long time and now suddenly there are 2 films in one year. With THE MAGICIANS we struggled with huge problems in the financing, which made the project really complex. But for ALFIE the financing went so easily that we could start the shooting almost immediately. The offline editing will be ready by the end of June and in December ALFIE will run in the Dutch theatres.”

Gert Hermans