Some of the starting points of Martijn Maria Smits’ second feature film Waldstille were a country song by Bill Callahan; Drover, and the concept of a man on a crusade trying to free himself from the past.
It’s quite a burden. Driving back home drunk, high and agitated from a carnival celebration, protagonist Ben causes a car accident that kills his girlfriend and mother of their daughter Cindy. Ben goes to jail and when he is released years later, he finds he has lost everything, including custody of Cindy. Living in the small village of Waldstille it seems impossible to start over again.
[RMA] How did you get into filmmaking?
[Martijn] I wanted to be an artist, a writer or a painter. But my Dutch was really bad and so were my drawings. My older brother was great at drawing and he won many competitions. Compared to him, it was clear that I wasn’t good at anything. My parents sent me to many different schools, but I was kicked out all the time. It was quite miserable.
At last they sent me off to Antwerp, to study photography. My father is a photographer and he works for the criminal investment department, so they thought that I would at least be able to join the police after. But after the first years I switched to audio-visual studies and that’s how it all started.
[RMA] Waldstille was shot in Prinsenbeek, the small village where you grew up. What was it like to go back?
[Martijn] It was very strange. My two older brothers and I were notorious in the village. Some people reacted very strong to my return, while some, whom I thought would respond strong, didn’t.
My neighbours, for example, were strictly religious Catholics. As a child, I would sometimes be on the rooftop sunbathing and smoking pot, and they would be in the garden with the whole church-community giving me dirty looks. Their children weren’t allowed to hang out with me. They were very surprised to find out that I hadn’t become a criminal. I shot part of my film in their house.
[RMA] Sounds like good source of inspiration for the film.
[Martijn] Yes. It was also revenge for the time that the whole village was against me and everyone forbade their children to go out with me. This was a way for me to get back at them, because all of their children have now become low-life rednecks.
[RMA] So the village was important for the development of the story.
[Martijn] The story was actually set in a big city at first. But in a city it is much easier to hide, whereas in a village you can’t: it’s a community. As soon as you show the heart of a village or simply a church, you can feel that vibe.
[RMA] We describe your film as a countryside drama, but thinking back I realise that the amount of drama is very limited.
[Martijn] Have you seen Whiplash? There is an incredible car accident in that film. In the script we had a similar accident, but it was outrageously expensive to realize and it would mean I had to do a lot concessions.
I sat down with Frank van der Eeden, the cinematographer, and we spoke about all the spectacular scenes we would use in the teaser of the film: a broken man walking out of a prison; the car-accident et cetera. I said: let’s cut out all those scenes. We already know them from all the other films anyway. It became our drive to get rid of expensive scenes that we have seen too often.
[RMA] [Laughing] Ok, sounds like smart filmmaking.
So if the village wasn’t important for the plot, it must have been the character of Ben, the man who has done something incredibly stupid and has to live with that burden and feeling of guilt.
[Martijn] Before Waldstille, I sent another project to the Dutch Film Fund that got rejected. At that time, The Netherlands was in the middle of the [economic] crisis and there were intense debates on whether artistic films actually had to be made at all. That night I decided to write a commercial synopsis. A Western about a man who goes back to his village and isn’t welcome anymore. You can feel there is a dark past behind him, but you don’t know what has happened.
[RMA] You seem very resilient. In one film you have revenged your childhood village and the Dutch Film Fund.
[Martijn] [Laughing] I would read synopses of films that were featured in the Filmkrant to come to understand what people wanted. And I used a classic story structure, like a status-quo, and then I destroy it. Normally, I make films about people who are already destroyed and then the film is about how this slowly results in an emotional outburst.
[RMA] You currently live in Palazzolo Acreide, a very small village on Sicily. Isn’t the vibe there similar to Prinsenbeek?
[Martijn] When we just arrived here, I spent some time alone and everyone soon loved me. When my wife got back, I introduced her to some of my new friends and she got into some heated discussion with one of them. It was then that I realized it is that same kind of feeling. As easy as you are loved by a small community, you are probably also despised.
Interview by Charlotte van Zanten