Interview: Michiel van Erp
Michiel van Erp's feature debut Open Seas will open the 2018 Netherlands Film Festival. He talks to Nick Cunningham.
Even though it details excess within an Amsterdam student fraternity, and stars some of Dutch cinema's brightest young talent, Open Seas is far from being a throwaway frat pack movie. Instead, director Michiel van Erp delivers a thoughtful and moving tragi-drama detailing how three boys cope with the transition from feckless youth into adulthood, hitherto defined for each by familial discord and persistent paternal disappointment, while also managing to question the myth of the Dutch classless society.
The film, supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, stars Jonas Smulders (Shooting Star, 2018) as Matt, Chris Peters (Paula van der Oest's Tonio, 2016) as Jakob and newcomer Minne Kool (son of Dutch auteur Boudewijn Kool) as the less assured Philip, around whom the drama revolves and for whom the metaphorical open sea is less one of possibilities, more one of confusion and disappointment.
The excellent Sofie Porro plays Karen - temptress, lover, confidante and potential saviour to Philip as he finds himself more and more adrift. It is her influence which is crucial in eventually helping him transform from passive observer into active participant within the life that surrounds him. The phrase ‘I am who I am' bookends the drama, but its delivery by the end of the film is informed by experience.
"A lot of my work as a documentary filmmaker is about getting to know life...and taking new directions, new steps in life," comments feature debutant Van Erp, whose nonfiction work is regularly selected at international doc fests. That said, he garnered much (inter)national acclaim with Ramses, his 4-part biopic of legendary Dutch singer Ramses Shaffy, awards for which included an Emmy for Maarten Heijmanns, and a Prix Europa.
"I recognised a lot of my own youth in the novel (written by Philip Huff and adapted for film with Marnie Blok)... the fact that they [the students] don't really know what life is about and that you have to make a lot of decisions when growing up, and if you want to be a good friend then you have to ask questions. You have to act in life instead of just watching and doing nothing. That is what the film is about. For me, it is a very personal film."
The performances of all the leads are imbued both with a sense of vitality and spontaneity as they navigate the film's treacherous waters. (The film also pulls no punches with explicit sex scenes and an extraordinary encounter between a bowl of beer nuts and an oversized foreskin.) How did Van Erp prepare his cast in advance for their testing roles? In the end, hardly at all, it seems.
"It's my first feature and a new world for me. I really like it when an actor offers real reactions, so we didn't rehearse a lot. Likewise when I prepare a shooting day I never make a storyboard... I want them to feel as free as possible and that they can surprise each other in the moment and react on that."
"For me, the most difficult part was trying to adjust to all the rules on the film set," adds Van Erp, who never attended film school, instead learning the business of production through observation, intuition, a good eye and trial and error. "‘No, we always do it like this or like that', they [the technicians on the set of Open Seas] would say, but I said I want to do it this way... You can only make things with your heart. It's not always just a technical thing. You have to follow your gut feeling. There are no rules in the end."
SEE NL Magazine #32 September 2018 / Venice, TIFF & NFF Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.