The 74 Venice International Film Festival: In Conversation with Francois Troukens, Director of ‘Above the Law’
Imagine how hard your life can get sometimes… Can you imagine just how much more difficult it can get for ex-criminals? They face insurmountable challenges if they want to get their lives back on track. Even so, Francois Troukens managed to defy the odds and proved that nothing is impossible. He is now a reformed ex-convict-turned-writer-director who showed that – as long as you are given a second chance – it is possible to turn your life around. While behind bars, Francois kept developing his writing skills and eventually completed his script for Above the Law. After a decade of imprisonment, he was released in 2010 and has since continued to write “while fighting for a better approach to the process of rehabilitation for prisoners.” Above the Law, one of those grab-you-by-the-throat works, was screened as a part of the Official Selection at the 74th Venice International Film Festival. Francois Troukens is currently a very busy man, but we nevertheless managed to ask him a few questions about his venture into filming and his feature Above the Law.
First of all, when we look at your life story, one thing comes to mind: everyone should be given a chance in life as we never know what an individual may achieve – without a doubt you are the perfect example of that. Your screenwriting journey started when you were imprisoned; what prompted you to start writing in the first place?
I really like your first question because it opens up a debate on resilience. Can any normal person question himself or herself after committing criminal acts? There is another example of someone who worked in film after going to prison: José Giovanni. He is the one who made me believe it would be possible for me. We have a big problem with our young people who become radicalised and who hate our values. Prison makes them sink into a spiral of hate instead of reconciling them with society. I would like them to think that everything is possible when you really want it. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been writing, ever since I was a child. I had the dream of becoming a writer or director, but I had a crisis and I didn’t want to acknowledge the possibilities that were offered to me. Some say that I have always been an artist who happened to be a gangster at some point and not the other way around. I think they are right. Morning Eden, the hero of Jack London, is in some ways a reflection of myself.
What is the most common misconception you find people make about reformed criminals who are trying to make something out of their lives after serving their sentence?
People mistakenly believe that one remains a criminal for all of his life. Yet that same individual is totally different at the ages of 10, 20, 30 or 45. Feelings evolve in the same way. What we love when we are 20 is different from what we love when we are 40; values change and therefore the meaning of life too.
After leaving the prison, you have become a professional scriptwriter and film director (as well as a TV personality); your latest project Above the Law – which you co-directed with Jean-Francois Hensgens – is very much rooted in reality. How much of your own life did you implement into the script?
I think that any writer puts a little bit of himself in what he writes. I probably did even if I didn’t intend to make a film about my life. Yet, in Above the Law, I really wanted to address one issue: how to create a public enemy. This is something that happened to me and that dramatically changed my life. I was wrongly accused of an armoured van attack that I did not commit, and overnight my headshot was everywhere in the media. It aided the career of a prosecutor and ruined my youth. “The Killers of the Brabant” had a strong influence on my life. I witnessed what they did when I was a child. Since then, this story has always puzzled me and I wanted to tell it so that we would not forget about it.
When you started writing the script for Above the Law, did you have a clear vision for the story and its ending? What message or story were you trying to get across to the audience?
As soon as I started writing this story I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Jean-François Hensgens, who co-directed the film with me, followed me in this urge to make a thriller that would keep the audience on edge at all times. We wanted to bring to the screen the flamboyant career of an outlaw such as Frank Valken. I was mostly inspired by characters like Lino Ventura’s in Lelouch’s Happy New Year or De Niro’s character in Heat; gangsters with a true code of honour. It was Jean-François who had the great idea to offer this role to Olivier Gourmet. He accepted the role on the condition of being credible while playing this character. I think I helped him become a real gangster. (Laughs)
Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the specific production challenges you faced while making Above the Law?
This was the biggest challenge: we needed to persuade the film funds to finance a thriller. This is not usual for French-speaking Belgian cinema. My aim is to make entertaining films that attract a large audience while delivering a real message. A film like Sicario by Denis Villeneuve is the true model for me.
Your cast is full of great character actors, like Olivier Gourmen (Best Actor Award Cannes 2002), Kevin Janssens, Lubna Azabal and Bouli Lanners. These are the names we have seen pop up in countless films and they always leave a mark, even in small roles. What was the casting process like?
I was inspired by a real-life drama (the Killers of Brabant) that left its mark on the history of Belgium. Therefore, developing the cast with 100% Belgian actors made sense. The fact that it is was Olivier Gourmet who played Frank Valken justified this desire to shoot with talented Belgian actors. Just like the Belgian national football team, we have a lot of talent in film but they all play abroad. Loubna Azabal, Nathacha Regnier and Bouli Lanners do more work abroad than in Belgium. And choosing Flemish actors like Kevin who plays Vik, Johan Leysen or Tibo Vandenbore, was also a way of being true to this very Belgian story.
Looking back – now that you are an acknowledged film director and script writer – was it harder to get started or to keep going? Was there a particular challenge that you had to conquer?
What is the difference for me today? After the experience of making a short film and a feature film, I have only one desire: to return to work, with this urge to feel the same again. The difference is that before, I had nothing to lose. Now, people will have expectations.
What was – in your opinion – the most important lesson you had to learn to become a filmmaker?
I am lucky to have a lot of imagination and I write easily. Directing a film team and actors comes easy to me. I know what I want and that I think is the key. I often joke that making a movie is quite similar to planning a heist. You need a idea. Then you elaborate a screenplay, you assemble a cast, you spot locations, rehearse, prepare and then… action! I needed to learn the technicalities and Jean-François Hensgens helped me with that. How to direct a stunt? How do you shoot a van that falls from a 5 m bridge? I think I learned a lot. But I remain convinced that even if you direct alone, it is important to surround yourself with the right people. Creating a strong team takes time. It is necessary to combine the skills and know the personality of each member of the team. For that, I think it takes three movies to start feeling really at ease. I look forward to getting there!
Films evolve through a creative process – sometimes, the most dramatic changes to the original plan are made in the editing stage. Often, it is really hard to reconcile the difference between what we desired to create and what we ultimately created. In terms of Above the Law, is the final product everything you wanted it to be?
Obviously, I am kind of frustrated. The director that is me had to face the author – who is me. But it is obvious that – to make the film that I imagined while writing – the budget should have been much larger. I remember an interview Inarritu did for The Revenant. He said that he ran out of money, even though he had a fairly substantial budget of more than one hundred million euros. That is what is exciting about this job; there is a clear margin of progression and all I want is to go back to work, to be able to translate into reality exactly what I imagined in my scenario. Besides, I want to take this experience into account in order to be able to write a script that will be very close to the work plan of the film. I think we must have more respect for scenarios. Cutting into a scenario that has taken months to write means risking the balance of the story. When you are in the editing room, problems appear and it is hard not to feel the strain. But the experience I gained from my previous films allows me to take this reality into account and to adapt my way of writing. I now assess whether the scene that I am busy writing will take a day or two of filming. This is the burden of the author. It is necessary to get all investors on board, with various film commissions and obviously, producers, while remaining realistic. I know I will never have more than 40 days of shooting … I do not want to cut any scenes for budget reasons, because it will necessarily be at the expense of the story I want to tell.
Now that you have finished Above the Law, which will be released at the end of this year in Belgium (I hope in other countries as well), are there any other projects in the pipeline?
I will make a short film/clip this fall for a well-known rapper. I say short film because I wrote a screenplay with a real story. I want to film it like a movie. After seven years of work, the Lombard editions will release my graphic novel FORBAN on October 13th. And then, I also wrote an autobiography, Armed with Resilience, which will be released by First (Plon Edition Paris) on November 2nd. I wrote the 380 pages alone, mainly during the filming, to vent some emotions. As far as film is concerned, I have just signed a new feature film with Versus production. I have been writing since this spring and I hope to finish the script this winter. It is very different from Above the Law, but I do not want to say anything more at the moment. And this time, I’ll do it alone. I had already made my first film Caids alone and I think it fits me better. It is not always easy to work with someone else, unless you are family, especially writing together so as to make it possible to share the same emotions from scratch. I would also like to adapt Above the Law into a TV series and develop the character of Lucie Tesla further. The main interest of this series would be to tell the alliance between a cop who seeks truth in a political-judicial affair and a gangster who tries to be honourable. I would especially like to develop the character of the journalist who is investigating the case of the Brabant Killers. I have material for… the first treatment that was 300 pages long. (Laughs)
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Courtesy of photographers