In The Prime Minister – director Erik Van Looy’s new thriller – the title character faces a heartbreaking choice and finds himself in an appalling Catch 22-situation. He has to kill the American president, who is making an official visit to Belgium. Failing to do so will result in his wife and two children being murdered. ‘You can barely imagine anyone being placed in that kind of predicament,’ Van Looy says. ‘How far will a human being go to save his family? The PM uses every trick in the book to escape, without putting his family in danger. The result? Dilemmas, choices and tension. That’s what makes this thriller so intense. I wanted The PM to keep you on the edge of your seat to the very end.’
When the project was first announced, it was widely described as a ‘political’ thriller. Even you, as director, do not find this an apt description.
Erik Van Looy: ‘That’s right. The film may be set in the political arena, and I do like the title, which has a nice ring to it. But I wouldn’t call it a ‘political’ thriller. At the end the audience still has no idea what party the PM belongs to. In a ‘political’ thriller that would be a key issue. But it wasn’t relevant here, so I kept it vague on purpose. There is oneshort scene in parliament, where the PM addresses the opposition. It was important to actually see him in his role as PM. By the way, that scene was really shot inside the parliament building. It’s the only ‘political’ moment in the film. It’s not that I’m not interested in politics, but I fear I have very little to say on the subject. I do have something to say about the man behind the politician, though. I honestly don’t think that audiences out there are waiting for yet another political drama – very few of which have been box office hits, by the way. All the President’s Men (by Alan J. Pakula, 1976 – ed.) was an exception, but it was hardly a political thriller, was it? It was a crime story about President Nixon and the Republican party committing a crime, and two journalists trying to solve it.’
Yet, in order to prepare for The PM, you watched quite a few films that tend to be classified as ‘political thrillers’.
Erik Van Looy: ‘ I must have revisited twenty-odd films three to four times. Films like Vantage Point, In the Line of Fire, The Manchurian Candidate, Nick of Time, Enemy of the State, The Day of the Jackal, etc.. Films whose main characters alternate between hunter and prey. As far as the concept goes, Nick of Time (1995, by John Badham, with Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken – ed.) is closest to this film. I loved the central idea: someone is picked to commit a murder. If he doesn’t comply his little daughter will be killed. When I first saw the film years ago, I thought it set off to a promising start. What jarred with me was the fact that Johnny Depp’s character – your average family man – is lifted off the street for no particular reason as the guy who has to kill the governor or California. That simply didn’t work. By way of homage, I did insert onepiece of dialogue from Nick of Time into my own film. It’s the part where Christopher Walken’s character says to Johnny Depp: ‘You’re like a worm on a hook, wiggling around, thinking you might get off’. In my film Stijn Van Opstal says to Koen De Bouw: ‘You’re a fish on a hook. You think you can wriggle loose, but you can’t.’ In De Zaak Alzheimer (Memory of a Killer) I had actor Jan Decleir quoting a tiny sentence Laurence Olivier uses in Marathon Man. I have no problem at all making that kind of references (laughs). My motto is: ‘If Quentin Tarantino gets away with it, why not me?’.
So, for this main character you chose not to go for your average family man, but for Belgium’s PM instead?
Erik Van Looy: ‘I wanted the person with the most stressful job in the country. In my book that’s the PM, who literally gets everything that happens on his plate, and is expected to take responsibility for it, or at least come up with an explanation. It’s a job that involves a lot more problems than it does fun. That’s how I see it anyway. The main character gets up at 4:30 am and usually comes home around 11 pm. Weekends tend to be spent working. He has to do everything by the book, be available 24/7. He can never switch off. Youtry and have a normal family life in those circumstances! I respect those people, I really do. I’m glad that some of us are prepared to take on the job. Someone has to do it, I guess? (laughs). Being PM causes massive stress and puts incredible time pressure on you. And as if that wasn’t enough you are dealt another massive ‘blow’ by being forced to kill the president. How much can any person take? That is why, right from the start, this PM is slightly tormented, and tired. Our current prime minister, Charles Michel, doesn’t show any signs of that. I actually think he is still enjoying his job, that he’s having fun. Politicians who stayed in office longer, like Yves Leterme and Elio Di Rupo, did show occasional signs of fatigue. The job clearly takes its toll.’
The PM in this film is also called Michel.
Erik Van Looy: ‘Yes, the name does get used a few times, but it’s his first name. It’s also pure coincidence. We named our main character eight years ago, when Charles Michel as PM was not yet on the cards. Our PM’s surname is Devreese (the Dutch word vrees translates as ‘fear’, tr.), which symbolizes the fears he is gripped by. At film school, we were taught that a character’s name should always say something about that person (laughs)’.
When the idea for The PM was gestating, Yves Leterme was still prime minister.
Erik Van Looy: ‘Yes. We actually had lunch with him, because I wanted to find out if the PM himself found the idea plausible. I knew Leterme from De Slimste Mens (The Smartest Person on Earth, a TV quiz show hosted by Van Looy, tr.). But he wasn’t yet prime minister at the time. That came later (laughs). When we met up all we had was an idea, not a script. The question for us was whether or not the PM would laugh off the concept. But he didn’t, on the contrary. He liked the suspense and, according to him, it was quite possible, certainly in Belgium. He also gave us a few tips, like the fact that prime ministers do not get frisked, but their retinue does. We use that in the film. The PM does not have any bodyguards either, while today the PM does get protection, because of current terror threat level three. When The PM starts we explicity mention level two, andthe fact that the country is currently ‘less terror prone’. Ages ago the PM used to have gendarmes outside his door. Leterme told us that former PM Jean-Luc Dehaene got rid of them as soon as he came into office. He found it a ludicrous idea. The situation is totally different now, of course. Today the prime minister no longer has a chauffeur. He is driven by the State Security Service. That makes abduction virtually impossible. In the current circumstances we would not have been able to tell this story, in other words.
What was your main ambition with this film?
Erik Van Looy: ‘I wanted to make the most suspenseful film ever, in a manner of speaking. In a manner of speaking! (laughs). I know it sounds arrogant, but I at least wanted to give it a go. I really did intend to make a film that holds the suspense till the very end. I acquired the taste while doing Loft, based on a script by Bart De Pauw. There too if you blink you miss something. I love those kinds of films: very intense, with loads of action scenes. Films that take you by surprise at every turn and also, occasionally, lead you up the garden path.’ ‘The significant challenge invariably lies in taking your audience on a trip that is nothing short of unbelievable. The very idea of anyone being confronted with this kind of dilemma seems far-fetched, but it’s ‘larger than life’. The PM is about a fictitious character, let that be clear. When we first told people the story, Elio Di Rupo was still Belgium’s prime minister. Quite a few went: ‘Ha, a comedy?!’ I kid you not! I mean, honestly: I find Di Rupo an intelligent man. Then, for ages, we had no idea who would be the next PM. Leaving aside political preferences, I did see Kris Peeters (Minister-President of Flanders from 2007 to 2014, tr.) as the potential new PM, and the one with the biggest star potential. He does have the looks to be cast as main hero. I actually think Koen de Bouw looks a bit like him. As it turned out, Peeters never did become PM. For a brief while it seemed Maggie De Block (the current Minister of Social Affairs, who occasionally gets criticized for being overweight, tr.) was going to become PM. That gave me a bit of a fright. The PM in this film may be a fictitious character but, whether you like it or not, people’s perception is fed by who the actual prime minister is. Maggie De Block? All she has to do is lash out with her handbag, once, and the baddies do a runner (laughs).’
While shooting The PM you occasionally referred to James Bond and Jason Bourne in interviews.
Erik Van Looy: ‘The references were no coincidence. When I first developed the idea eight years ago – in a lounger, on holiday in Tenerife (laughs) – about an abducted prime minister who is ordered to kill the president of the USA, a lot of people found it a whacky premise. They found it too far-fetched. I haven’t been getting those comment these last three/four years. The PMis drenched in reality, in the same way the James Bond and Jason Bourne films are. It was never my ambition to make a film about what’s going on right now, about people’s current fears. It’s too early to come up with anything that makes any sense on the subject. I mean, this film is partly drenched in reality, but it’s also quite removed from it. It’s entertainment. It deals with topical issues the same way a James Bond film does. Remotely, very remotely.’ ‘I myself will never shoot a James Bond film, for the simple reason I will never be asked (laughs). Mind you, Barbara Broccoli, who produces the Bond films, did invite me once. Not to interview me for the job, but because she was a huge fan of De Zaak Alzheimer (Memory of a Killer). I wouldn’t have the courage to shoot a Bond film. Too daunting. But I did like the idea of making something ‘in that vein’. Belgium cannot compete with the US as far as shooting action scenes and explosions is concerned, but that’s never stopped us from being clever (laughs). I think the script behind The PM is full of surprises, and that in the second part – for reasons I am not at liberty to divulge – it gets reallyemotional. That gives us a head start and allows us to go beyond what most run-of-the-mill films of the genre do. I often get accused of making Hollywood films, but all my films have a sharp edge to them. This one too, with all the rushing emotions in the second half. Maybe those sharp edges are why The Loft (the Hollywood version) flopped. I do not blame the film for that. I’m still proud of the American remake. My guess is that those edges are just that little bit too sharp for the general American public. There were also distribution problems, of course, but the cultural differences also turned out to be bigger than expected. There must be a reason why the remake of De Zaak Alzheimer (Memory of a Killer) never happened either, even though the likes of Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood andJack Nicholson were interested in playing the lead. The film starts with a scene in which a father prostitutes his own little daughter. If a remake had been made, that scene would have been cut, mark my words.’
In this film, the president of America is a woman.
Erik Van Looy: ‘When we first started developing the project eight years ago, the president was a man. It took us ages to decide: man, woman, then man again and finally a woman. Either way it remains a strong statement. It’s more than just a statement, though. It’s also more interesting for the story. And it’s unexpected, since apart from Kisses for My President (a long forgotten 1964 comedy), no other feature film has had a female president. A few TV series do, like Commander in Chief, in which Geena Davis plays the president of the US. We may turn out to be trendsetters, in fact. Maybe the next Belgian prime minister will also be a woman.’
There’s lots of rain in this film, like in De Zaak Alzheimer (Memory of a Killer) and Loft. Am I to infer from that that you love shooting rain scenes?
Erik Van Looy: ‘I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a lot of fuss, it’s expensive and more often than not the sound is lousy. But you have to admit that it’s nice. Rain equals drama! I like doing films about tormented people, people who’ve been through a lot. And rain is just one tiny tool for increasing that feeling of torment. You’re right, De Zaak Alzheimer and Loft both start with rain. Rain immediately bathes you in a gloomy atmosphere. A man like Ridley Scott likes to use rain scenes too. But he’s a Brit, of course. The difference between him and me is that he has the budget to shoot an entire film in the rain, if he wants. I can only afford it in the opening and closing scenes (laughs)’.
You used drones for certain scenes. Was that a first?
Erik Van Looy: ‘I make so few films that every time I do, I get to use new toys (laughs). We used drones whenever we could. That kind of shots add grandeur to a film, like that scene in the cooling tower. The location was magical, even when just viewed from the ground. Using a drone with a camera that penetrates inside areas you could never reach any other way makes it truly spectacular. Plus you can move in any direction you want. Yes, drones are wonderful gadgets.’
In both De Zaak Alzheimer (Memory of a Killer) and the original Loft, Danny Elsen was your Director of Photography.
Erik Van Looy: ‘Meeting Danny marked a crucial moment in my career, because he is incredibly strong, visually. I reckon we form a great pair: I give him opportunities to excel and he makes my work much better than it would ever be without him. We are on the same page. Our egos may occasionally clash on set, but that’s never stopped us. We liaise, and know each other well enough to listen.’
You once again worked with actor Koen De Bouw for The PM.
Erik Van Looy: ‘The funny thing is that I initially feared it might be my first feature without Koen De Bouw. I thought he was too young to play the PM. Then Charles Michel became prime minister, a very young one to boot. As a result, when I started doing the film eight years later, I found myself thinking the opposite: maybe Koen is too old for the part (laughs)? Seriously, when I first developed the idea in 2008, I knew it would be a while before I’d start shooting so I decided to book Koen there and then. We trust each other implicitly. The first time we worked together was in 1991 on the short Yuppies, where he played the lead. Koen also had a small part in Shades. Then came De Zaak Alzheimer (Memory of a Killer) and Loft, making this his third time starring in one of my films. This is the fifth time we work together and we’ve been friends for ages.’
What is the secret of your long, creative co-operation?
Erik Van Looy: ‘Koen is a great actor to begin with. He’s also lovely to work with. And he has star quality. Koen genuinely is a ‘leading man’, the way I like them. I love beautiful, charismatic people – beautiful, but also with depth. In a way, Koen was born to be the leading man, especially in my films. He also has some kind of innate tristesse about him, while in real life he isn’t like that at all. He’s one of the nicest and funniest people I know. Yet point a camera at him and you hit upon several layers, and you get that tristesse. I love it. I make films about people and their hidden secrets, not people who always look on the bright side. Even a film like Ad Fundum – a much more youthful spectacle, let’s face it – also had its dark moments. As did Shades. My films are kind of… sad, come to think of it, yes. Suspenseful films, not feel-good movies. I don’t think I’d be capable of that, actually. But I do inject my films with enough humour and gusto to make sure the audience doesn’t walk out depressed. I give them something to talk about. And an actor like Koen De Bouw is made for the world of my films. I was about to say ‘universe’, but that sounds slightly arrogant (laughs).’
‘Koen excels in The PM and if you ask me – I can’t speak for him, of course – this is one of the hardest roles he’s ever had to play. He has to be convincing as prime minister, as someone who is trying to save his family and someone who has to kill the president. He keeps several balls in the air simultaneously. We tried a few scenes in which he was a bit more jolly, but that didn’t work. We clearly needed that tension all of the time. I’m sure it’s been a very intense trip for Koen, and for the others. You are always in fear mode: constantly having to show fear, in every scene, across 52 days of shooting.’