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Nick Cunningham talks to feature debutant director Steven Wouterlood about My Extraordinary Summer With Tess, selected for Berlin Generation Kplus.

My Extraordinary Summer With Tess is an adaptation of the worldwide bestselling novel by Dutch novelist Anna Woltz. It tells the charming and elegiac story of 11-year-old Sam - a bit dreamy, a bit of a loner - who, while on a long hot summer with his seemingly distant family, meets the unusual Tess, a girl the same age, who harbours a big secret. Together they are drawn into an adventure that makes him realize that you should cherish your family instead of fleeing. He also feels compelled to take a drastic decision that puts his special friendship with Tess at risk and which will change her life forever...

"I knew immediately that this was the story for my first feature film. I find it to be a heart-warming narrative with a wonderful mix of excitement, emotion and humour," reflects director Wouterlood, who has hitherto specialised in films for kids. "I can identify a lot with Sam and the way that he thinks about life.. It is a beautiful story with different layers and a light tone, and not at all childish."

The film was shot on the Dutch holiday island of Terschelling in Summer 2018, one of the most glorious summers in living memory. On the face of it, this sounds ideal. But room rates on the island retreat were at a premium and availability was low. "It was a huge challenge to arrange everything, but we received a lot of help from the local people who embraced us and were very warm and enthusiastic," comments Wouterlood. The wilder parts of the island, "which resembled parts of South America or Spain", enabled the director to imbue the film with a fiery Latino look, which is further enhanced by a salsa soundtrack andeven the introduction of the large family tortoise.

The child actors Josephine Arendsen (Tess) and Sonny van Utteren (Sam) put in convincing performances, their developing affections for each other rendered more touching and authentic by her standing a good six inches taller than him. "I like to work with kids. I want to make them feel comfortable and gain their trust, and I make sure it's fun. It's very important for them. That's why it's important to choose the right crew to create the best atmosphere on set for the kids," stresses Wouterlood.

And why just kids' films thus far? "It was an organic process when I started at film school and writing film stories. These stories were close to my own life. People look at the world they grew up in and realise how different it is to the world that has subsequently evolved around them, and it is reassuring when you read books or see movies that you are not alone in noticing this change," the director answers. "I want to take the children's audiences seriously and to talk about tough and difficult subjects too. My films are about universal themes, recognisable and close to everybody's lives, but seen through the eyes of young kids."

Wouterlood says he has no concrete plans right now for a new film but will continue to make films for kids in future as well as films for older audiences.

My Extraordinary Summer With Tess is produced by BIND, co-produced with Germany's Ostlicht Filmproduktion and supported by the Netherlands Film Fund. It also is the first film to come out of the Children Co-development Fund collaboration between the Netherlands Film Fund and German fund MDM. September Film has pre-bought Benelux rights and is lining up a release in autumn 2019

SEE NL Magazine #34 November 2019 / Sundance, IFFR, Berlin and Clermont Ferrand issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.

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