The choice for atmospheric bricks
One by one, the books of Dutch author Carry Slee were adapted in movies such as REGRET!, XTC – JUST DON’T DO IT, TIMBUKTU by the scriptwriting / directing couple Maria Peters & Dave Schram. Now their daughter Tessa Schram makes her directorial debut with yet another Carry Slee movie. In PAINKILLERS Casper (Gijs Blom), a gifted young musician, lives with his mother. The only thing he knows about his father is that he is working abroad as a war photographer. When mum gets diagnosed with cancer, Casper’s whole life is turned upside down. School, love, his musical career… nothing seems easy any more.
The style of the previous Carrie Slee adaptations seems to be preserved in PAINKILLERS. Was this continuity installed in the books or in your genes?
Tessa Schram: My mother was involved in the writing of all the scenarios so far, including PAINKILLERS. Although we chose different actors and another cameraman, for sure there is a continuity.
How annoying is it always to be compared to your mum? You even look a lot like her.
Schram: I’m used to it. It has its advantages and disadvantages. I’m happy that already at the age of 25 I could make a film. I wouldn’t have had that chance if I wasn’t ‘the daughter of …’. But I also enjoy working with other producers, which my parents strongly encourage: follow your own path! In October I start with a new Carrie Slee adaptation and I have a project in development with former classmates.
What is the theme of the next Carrie Slee?
Schram: Unnecessary violence. How to try saving a friendship when a friend is going astray. PAINKILLERS was emotional; the next one will be more exciting.
Emotional… that’s the least you can say!
Schram: I tried to elaborate the emotional scenes as good as I could, but it was not my primary intent to get as many people to tears as possible. I hate it when movies push the ‘cry now!’ button all the time.
More than compassion PAINKILLERS is the proof of a strong vitality. Casper has an incredible amount of energy.
Schram: I wanted to show how despite all misery, Casper still tries to make something of his life. The desire to ‘go for it’ I find very important in young people, including myself.
The credit for this flow of energy partly goes to actor Gijs Blom?
Schram: He takes his job very serious. For example, because he couldn’t play the piano, he took lessons and learned all the songs by heart (except the improvisation in the ‘audition scene’). Playing also in BOYS and NENA, Gijs is booming in the Netherlands. He thinks a lot about every details of his role. On his initiative we started searching for the right balance between cheerfulness and resignation. We also worked on his physical appearance: his movements needed to be more lanky, so we made him walk with a hunch, his shoulders hanging down, as if he’s carrying lead.
Is he really such a hunk?
Schram: He is a very handsome boy, but not in a Ken-and-Barbie-kind-of-way. He also shows you his inner beauty. Often he played a scene exactly like I had in mind, sometimes surprising me. Some actors you have to push hard to get what you want, but Gijs gave me everything straight away. And if I asked him for a minor change, the next take again was equally perfect. Whenever I was in a hurry, I gave him less time than the other actors, because I knew he always succeeded anyway. Thus he sometimes becomes the victim of his own talent.
Despite your young crew the film looks not only professional but also quite conventional. You tried not necessarily to come across as young and hip.
Schram: Already about my graduation film critics wrote: “not innovative”. But that’s not my priority, I just want to tell a story. That’s what I like best.
Besides the main theme, the film has some interesting side topics. For example Casper’s relationship with his parents.
Schram: The character of Casper’s father was inspired by a documentary about photographer James Nachtwey, who is also an unattainable loner, living an isolated life.
Through the character of Said, the multicultural society becomes another topic for discussion.
Schram: In the book he is called Roy and comes from Suriname. But nowadays the Moroccan community seemed more relevant to me. I feared this choice might have been criticized but I think I can justify it.
Can you explain the title?
Schram: It’s simply the title of the book. Maybe it makes you expect a different type of film: a medical drama about addiction. Painkillers are not even essential in the treatment of cancer.
For me it was about ‘things that make life bearable.’ What has life to offer beyond the disease? The bond between mother and son, love… these are things that ease the pain.
Schram: And music! There are times when Casper’s piano playing relieves his mother’s pain.
Speaking of music… that was another family affair, composed by your brother Quinten.
Schram: Quinten is 22, he wants to become a composer and soon will start his last year of education. I find his music very beautiful and we can discuss it easily. When I ask him for a specific atmosphere, he can immediately translate it. But the process was complicated: the music should be ready before we started shooting, because the passages in which you hear the orchestra should be sync with what you see on screen. Meanwhile we were looking for the right concert hall location and for a young ensemble to play the score. I gave my executive producer a rather hard time.
Where to situate this story? It takes place in Amsterdam, but the hasty big city atmosphere never speaks from the movie.
Schram: I deliberately avoided all modern buildings to uphold an old fashioned feel. Casper’s school isn’t a concrete building; I chose for ‘atmospheric bricks’. For the funeral scene I instinctively went to the countryside, to a serene place. But it’s only at a stone’s throw from Amsterdam.
How does such a young person like you maintain her authority on the set?
Schram: In a very natural way. I don’t have to act like ‘the big boss’, because I already am. I arrive on the set well-prepared with a shot list, a storyboard… I follow my to-do-list, which usually works out well. I’m not the nicest person when we’re running behind on schedule. I am very serious, always standing upright behind a monitor. Looking the way I do, people often don’t expect me to be so determined.
You knew what to expect. Since your childhood days you visited so many film sets.
Schram: It’s very different. When the pressure is on your own shoulders, you need a lot of stamina. During the shooting I gave everything. Afterwards a huge burden fell off my shoulders… but one week later the editing began. Which I expected to run smoothly, but I was wrong. It feels like you’ve just run a marathon and at the moment you pass the finish line, you have to run it once again. Next time I’ll divide my energy differently.