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In the plush surroundings of the Hospital Club I sat down for a 30 minute talk with the very interesting and interested director Hans Herbots, to talk about his film – the gritty and dark thriller -The Treatment. I drank a glass of wine as I had done whilst watching one of the most powerful and thought provoking thrillers I’ve seen in recent times. We discussed intense film shoots, the darkness that dwells inside of us and whether we can laugh even in dark times. On the day of the film’s release, in a very hot and what felt airless room we talked about: the film’s intensity, what it means to be a responsible filmmaker, censorship and the power of storytelling.
It’s audacious and a daring piece of filmmaking but did you ever think at any point during the whole process that maybe you shouldn’t make the film?
I thought it was really important to be very wise and to think a lot about how far you could go in telling this story – in what you could show and couldn’t show. I liked the story because it gripped me. I think it’s important to tell stories that are maybe not nice to watch or hear all the time and I think this was one of those stories. So I never thought we shouldn’t make it.
How closely involved were you with the screenwriter, Carl Joos in terms of developing the script to the final film we see on screen?
Well Carl was the one who picked the book. He’s a big Mo Hayder fan. He thought with the back story of this one and the previous one [book] would make a great film. So he went out and he wrote three or four drafts of the film and that’s when I read it for the first time and was enthusiastic. There were a further two other drafts and a few things changed but not so much. The main thing that I did was in getting it ready to shoot we made it more intense than the original script that had more dialogue in it. In the process of making the film we took out a lot of dialogue and wanted to stay closer to the character and feel him and feel the things that he felt. So in the writing of the script I was not too involved especially not at the beginning.
The audience is almost complicit in Nick’s spiral into moral ambiguity because you know you want him to find his brother but that’s morally wrong. I suppose that wasn’t intentional or was it? Did you want the audience to have a moral dilemma?
In a way yes and no because the whole film is about is about what is good and what is wrong and where does good become unfair or the other way around. So in a way that was one of the smaller, not one of the major themes. In a way that it feels what happens in life as well. That is why these stories are so interesting for me apart from the abuse and the negative things it shows that life isn’t black and white. It is a very complex thing.
How do you respond say to that certain scenes in The Treatment are too graphic. Whilst We don’t necessarily see what happens to the boys when Nick watches the videos the imagination is a powerful thing. Did those scenes need to be shown? Did you ever do self censorship?
We thought how far should we go. I thought it was important for the audience to feel to feel the rage Nick was feeling and to feel the same [level] of anger that he was feeling. And the only way , not the only, but one of the ways to have the audience at the same point was to show that, for a little bit, because actually we don’t show anything. The only thing you see is a boy on a couch and a person coming next to him. But as you say the imagination is a powerful thing and you see enough to not want to think [about it] but enough to feed that imagination. I thought that was very important because in the course of the film Nick also does things that are not very good and what he does at the end with the killer he goes a long way and it was important that the audience could really stay with him the whole journey when it’s not so nice.
I also thought when you make a film about child abuse and all these kind of things it’s too easy not to show anything. You really feel the things that Nick is feeling and showing these videos was one of the elements that I thought was important to show. It’s important to talk about abuse and to see what abuse does to people and to feel how bad it is and to make the audience have all these feelings. I thought it was important that they see just a part of it. It’s a big part of the discussion.
Indeed it is. The scenes in the videos and the mother looks down and sees what she sees what is happening. It’s not just right minded people who go to the cinema but also paedophiles who don’t have the same moral fibre that we have. Were you ever afraid of what you were showing on screen would lead to copycat crimes?
Copycats I don’t think so because, I would hope what is described on screen is almost impossible to happen. But are you thinking that it might give and it’s difficult to express myself right in English because it’s not my native language. them pleasure to watch it? In that way it becomes dangerous
Yes, in a perverse way it becomes “legal” because they are watching it in a normal cinema like everyone else. When I saw those scenes I thought this comes really close to giving child abusers pleasure.
I never thought of that actually because, of course, it was never the intention to do so. It is actually the opposite. My intention was of the contrary to maybe show people what it is or what I think that it is because of course I have never seen it myself. Again, I wanted the audience to be able to identify as much possible with [the character of] Nick but also to a take a firm stance against these kind of things.
There’s a real intensity when you are watching The Treatment and you remember the Dutroux case [Belgian paedophile ring case] and see the parallels. How have we allowed these awful things to happen? That’s what it is great about the film because it shows how easily it could happen because these people fly under the radar.
Again, one of the reasons why I wanted to show the footage and it was a big moral discussion – should we but, without this sounding wrong, I I wanted it to hurt the audience a little bit. I wanted it so that you couldn’t just walk out and say we saw a nice film. It is shocking and horrifying.
It is horrifying and that is where the film’s impact lies in seeing these images. That’s what great art should do – provoke the audience to express they are feeling. I drank after the film.
I was surprised by the reactions that came from that footage [the videos] because the only thing that I wanted to show -which we had to create – was the helplessness of these children. When we created it was in a nice room, music playing and we replaced the sound later so you just see this huge couch and this small kid being helpless and it is touches us so much: the helplessness of this little person and then imagine the loneliness [they are feeling].
Do you think as a film maker, not just about The Treatment necessarily, that we need to be provoked so that we never forget awful things? In a way that 12 Years A Slave was horrendous to watch but beautifully shot and so we’ll never forget the horrors of slavery.
Yes and no but mostly yes I think. I don’t like films where the message is too clear or you really feel that this is made because you must see this or that. But 12 years a slave – I thought it was a beautiful film but, as you say, at the same time horrific. I like it a lot when a film is really good just as a film but at the same time when you walk out of the theatre [cinema] it keeps you talking about it, about the subject matter. I think that is something great that film can do if it is done in the right way by making a good film in the first place, and then having the effect of generating discussion of the different views and opinions with the people you’ve been watching the film with. For me I think that is something, not every film needs to have that. Sometimes you just want to watch something. But the films that I want to make, and a lot of people because you make two or three years making a film, I want the story to be worth living with for three years.
How long did it take to shoot?
41 to 42 days which is long these days. The production company was serious and dedicated to make this into a good film. Only when there was enough money to make it properly did we start to shoot. Although the first version of the film was 3.5hrs so we almost shot two films. We had to cut it down and really get to the essence. That was a good thing and it made the film as intense as it is right now.
How did you unwind, it is quite dark. It got under my skin. Did you take yourself away for 42 days and shoot it?
The preparation was intense and the shooting was intense and [we] took a lot of time looking for the right locations and they were often remote or gritty and not happy places. It was pretty strange because we shot mixed days starting at midday and finished at midnight. So the whole crew started to live in this parallel universe because when you come home at one or two in the morning everyone is asleep and then when they go off to school or work you’re still sleeping. For the first two or three weeks we shot all the scenes only with Geert so there wasn’t the usual chatter of actors on the set so it was pretty intense. We stayed pretty intense. We had a small accident on the shoot 3 to 4 days before the end so the last 4 days were shot three weeks later. My wife was due to give birth right after the shoot but that fell in the middle of it. It was hectic especially with the birth and that made it even more intense because of the whole subject matter.
Are you happy with the final version that was released?
Yes, it is always a process and in a way you rewrite the film in the editing especially with thrillers because it has a lot to do with when do you show what. When you switch a scene sometimes it doesn’t work any more because people see too early.
You seem to be like dark subject matter?
In the beginning I did all kind of things. I’m fascinated by the darkness that is inside everyone and most people don’t think they have it in them or it won’t ever come out. People need one or two problems or things that aren’t working out in their lives and things start to happen. I think these are interesting stories. It happens to all of us and, hopefully not too many times in our lives, so it is interesting to tell stories about this.
Maybe it’s an English thing but with the darkness comes humour. You have to laugh through the pain. Do you ever think you might like to tell a dark comedy?
Yes but dark comedy is hard to tell.
Shallow Grave is dark but funny in parts.
I’ve never tried it actually. I don’t know maybe I should try it. It’s a great question. The more humour there is the darker you can go often. Sometimes I [ask myself] should we have had more air in the treatment some lighter moments to lift it up.
You’ve directed both television series and films. Do you prefer one more than the other?
I like both actually. It’s fascinating. It’s a different way of storytelling in film much more condensed whereas in television you have more time to develop characters and look into [the] characters. I like to go back and forth.
The Treatment is released in cinemas on 21 August.