Marit Weerheijm’s narrative short film En Route premiered last weekend at Berlinale 2020. It’s a story that leaves an emotional impression, told from a child’s perspective dealing with a major social problem. Without giving away any of the plot, poverty and hunger underpin the tale of a family’s journey through a city. It’s pared back, relying on the Utrecht-born director's talent for subtle performance-based drama.
Marit, who is represented by CZAR, first gained attention with her graduation short When Grey is a Colour, which won a Student Oscar in 2017. Since then she’s gone on to build a compelling reel. LBB’s Alex Reeves got to know the up-and-coming director a bit more.
LBB> What was your route into filmmaking?
Marit> I grew up with a lot of art around me. My parents loved to take me and my two sisters to museums, theatre, architecturally interesting buildings (my dad is an architect) and of course the movies. They listened to all kinds of music around us. My childhood friends knew our house as the one with hundreds of DVDs, from Back to the Future and The Lord of the Rings to The Shawshank Redemption and Manhattan. No genre was excluded from the collection. In one stack you could find Clueless, Black Sheep and A Clockwork Orange.
I grew to love film so much that I bought my first camera when I was 11. I borrowed money from my aunt and spent almost a year paying her back. Through high school I tried to make every assignment into a film or documentary, and when I graduated I decided to take a year to do a preliminary course for the [Netherlands] Film Academy. Being a director seemed to be the dream job, impossible to achieve, but I was only 17, so why not give it a go? Two years later I was accepted into film school and in 2016 I graduated as a director.
LBB> Growing up, are there any directors, films or TV shows that inspired the sort of work you wanted to make?
Marit> I loved watching all kinds of films. For example Ronja the Robber’s Daughter
(I googled the English name here), a film for children, but with some very dark and scary scenes. I remember especially these Scandinavian films and TV shows for children were great because they didn’t underestimate the young audience. But the first time I remember I really wanted to make a film was after I had seen Memento by Christopher Nolan, it blew my mind. I loved how this film creates a new reality in time like I’d never seen before. I think I was 10 years old. Christopher Nolan became (after the one film I’d seen from him) my hero. That didn’t last very long, although I still love his work, I think I feel more drawn towards making smaller and intimate films than a film like Interstellar.
LBB> How did you end up developing your style? It's very naturalistic and minimalist. Was that always your intention?
Marit> I never intended to ‘create’ a specific style, but I see how it grew on me over the past few years. I’m convinced that my style developed alongside my collaborations with specific crew members, especially because I feel like my graduation film was the first film where I felt very comfortable with making choices within this fictitious world. Saar Ponsioen was the screenwriter of this graduation film and we have very similar taste in films and stories. Martijn Melis was the cinematographer and has been the cinematographer on most of my projects since then. Same goes for Fatih Tura, an editor that I love working with. I thrive on these kinds of creative collaborations with talented individuals. Especially now, a few years in, when you know each other very well and really understand each others strengths, weaknesses and taste.
When developing stories I like to focus on characters, which automatically creates a more intimate atmosphere within the film. I also love a strong perspective, experiencing the story through a character's eyes. Especially when I have a child as my main character, I love creating an intimate look and feel. Children have smaller worlds, they are very curious to discover and understand everything around them. This curiosity is something that I can really relate to. I also think it’s important that you don’t underestimate your audience. I get really irritated when I watch a film where the screenplay seems to explain everything to me instead of just trusting me to understand where the story is going.
LBB> How did you end up getting signed to Czar and why is it the right company for you?
Marit> I studied to be a director of fiction films, but immediately after graduating I became interested in directing commercial work as well. Czar is one of the bigger companies in Amsterdam and I happened to know someone who worked there from the Film Academy. We decided that I would get to know the company by creating some work together. My first project was shooting a very experimental documentary style video for a very experimental artist in residence in Stockholm. We went there for a week, shot on 16mm film and back in Amsterdam we edited it to be a very schizophrenic video, it was great. The second video was Pink Ribbon - Finally, for Czar Belgium. After these two projects we decided that it was a good match and I’ve been working with them ever since.
LBB> Your approach to the Pink Ribbon film you made was so original! What was the idea like when you came to it and what were your priorities when making that film?
Marit> When I was asked to pitch for this film I was very enthusiastic. The concept, by Mortierbrigade, was a girl who was waiting for her breasts to start growing. The film was supposed to remind women to appreciate their breasts and to motivate women to check them regularly, because one out of eight women get breast cancer. I decided to take these numbers into the film by showing eight different girls who were in the same phase, waiting for their breasts to start growing. I really wanted all women to remember this period in their lives and to look back at it with nostalgia, only to be remembered at the end that we should take care of them. It was a harsh way of telling the story, but it’s the truth. I love working for a cause, a story that needs to be told, it creates urgency.
LBB> En Route is so easy to get immersed in, even though it's a very simple plot. What were your main aims with the film?
Marit> This film was the first screenplay that I wrote by myself. I wanted to create a very intimate world for these two children who are on a mission, except that the audience doesn’t know what this mission is. It was important that it would be playful, sensitive and somewhat romantic, because the ending is a very tough reality. The main aim was to take the audience by the hand and guide them on this trip through an awakening city, reminding them of the small world that children live in, and then confront them with an environment that they don’t know yet and might not want to see. I’ve tried very hard to give an answer without spoiling anything here!
LBB> And what were the biggest challenges in making the film?
Marit> It’s always a challenge to work with children, although it’s a challenge that I love to face. When you start working on a new film with child actors there’s always the fear that you won’t find the right kids. They rarely have any experience, they have a very short attention span and if they decide they don’t want to work anymore, you’re screwed. But when they deliver, they deliver.
With En Route the two kids, Inay and Alex, were absolutely incredible. Inay blew me away in her first audition with a scene that she had to improvise. She completely forgot everything around her and just reacted to the other actor as if it was her second nature. Alex stole my heart by being the craziest kid I had ever met. In his audition he tried to convince me that he was very shy, while doing Fortnite dances on camera. I tried spending as much time with them and Mike (who played their father) to get to know each of them and to create a familiar atmosphere. One of my favorite preparations for this film was going glow-in-the-dark miniature golfing with the kids.
LBB> In the future, what are your biggest goals? Can we expect a feature-length version of something like When Grey is a Colour or En Route?
Marit> I’m definitely working towards feature-length films, and working on some ideas already, but I don’t want to create too much pressure for myself anymore. After graduating I felt like everything needed to happen immediately and that didn’t work for me. Right now I’m preparing to learn more about screenwriting, I did a two-month internship at the International Theater Amsterdam and I’m working on a short experimental film. Four years after graduating I really feel like I need to continue learning about every aspect of storytelling. There is so much that I don’t know yet and so much to learn in unexpected places. But I definitely say yes to the feature film.
LBB> Outside of filmmaking what inspires you?
Marit> There are a lot of cliches popping up in my head right now. I can get inspired by the people around me, by seeing great photography or paintings, by theatre or music, by the news or by things that frustrate me in daily life. I recently started drawing and sketching more, and reading more. Right now, I’m in that phase of my life that I feel very drawn towards existentialism. With the risk of sounding very pretentious, I think I feel most inspired by people. Social behaviour. People trying to find their place, find their meaning and having to deal with everything in between. Yes, that did sound pretentious.