The HALAL director reflects on 12 months that saw her become one of the most exciting young directors on the scene, at breakneck speed
This year Dutch production house HALAL seemed to be signing the most exciting emerging talent and putting out work that defined what world-leading film production will look like as we move into the 2020s. But one signing stood out. Thessa Meijer’s career has been transformed rapidly in the last 12 months. At the start she was struggling to get low-budget short films made. By the end she had a list of accolades, prizes and festival selections to her name, mostly for her first collaboration with HALAL - an enchanting short film called The Walking Fish. It impressed the 2019 Young Director’s Award jury at Cannes Lions, earning her the Special Jury Prize and a Gold Screen. It was also awarded the Grand Prix at the 2019 Ciclope awards and will be the 2020 Oscars submission for the Netherlands in the Short Film category.
Thessa’s also making moves in commercial directing after her first foray into advertising for spectacle brand Ace & Tate was released last month. LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with her to reflect on a year that’s changed her life.
LBB> How would you describe your 2019 in three words?
Thessa> KEDUNGKEDUNG, kedungkedung, EEEEEK!
Thessa> The year 2019 reminds me of a computer game I used to play as a kid: RollerCoaster Tycoon. The first 15 seconds of the introduction sequence are exactly what 2019 sounds like to me. Climbing the rusty chains of the rollercoaster for the first half of 2019, when I was working on low-budget projects and expected it would continue like that waaay longer (just like our old Microsoft computer would take ages to load the computer game). But then suddenly the Young Director Award happened - and many great things after that - and everything got so fun and crazy fast and exciting! It was an unexpected ride.
LBB> What are the biggest things that have changed about your life since the start of the year?
Thessa> My sister has had a baby so I’ve become an aunt for the very first time this year! My niece is really cute and has this great habit of sticking out her tongue all the time. Also, I’ve joined HALAL’s commercial roster and can now officially call myself a commercial director too!
LBB> Your short film The Walking Fish has taken you all around the world to all sorts of places where it's been screened. What have been the most memorable experiences from that?
Thessa> The most special screening is the one we had in Saga, Japan, where the film was shot - although I wasn’t physically there. Bo and I (the 1st AD of The Walking Fish) had a Skype connection with the cast and crew as they came together in an izakaya to watch the film. Even Koume and Yuito, the kids playing Mutsumi and Yori, were there! They did two screenings in a row and we talked in between and afterwards. It was really nice to see everyone again and I’m very much looking forward to 2020 since we’re planning to do another screening where I can actually join in physical form!
And then of course the screening in Cannes at the Young Director Award, which was completely absurd. I was at the festival for exactly 24 hours and all I remember is a big, warm and fluffy cloud filled with lovely people, great films, champagne, a quick swim, loads of sun and midnight pizza with LBB.
LBB> Apart from it being generally encouraging, do you have any feelings or thoughts about all the awards and accolades the film's got? Being the 2020 Oscars submission for the Netherlands is pretty massive!
Thessa> Yes, it’s insane and I’m still extremely excited and grateful for it all! As you’re starting out, it means so much to be recognised, because life as a filmmaker can be pretty insecure and unpredictable. Getting your work seen in the festival circuit opens new doors, many of which you need in order to realise new projects. I very much hope it will not only be beneficial for my own career but for everyone who worked their asses off on the film.
LBB> Let's talk about your moves into advertising this year. What was it like directing your first commercial project? What was new about the experience for you?
Thessa> It was really great to get to join HALAL’s commercial roster officially with a wonderful, creative Amsterdam-based brand campaign. Ace&Tate ‘Take Another Look’ was a really fun one to do, especially because of all the people involved. It was truly collaborative, everyone wanting the best for the concept. The Ace & Tate team was genuinely interested in my perspective on things so I couldn’t have wished for a better first project. Making quick decisions on a short timeline was a new experience for sure. And of course it’s different making a commercial than a short film – by collaborating closely with a creative and client, I ended up just outside my comfort zone, which made me come to new ideas I would’ve never thought of myself.
LBB> What was the creative process like working with Ace & Tate?
Thessa> I was instantly excited to be part of developing the concept and bring to life the idea of ‘Take Another Look’. We wanted every aspect of the campaign – from the visual landscape, the sound design to the relation between the characters and their environment – to encourage people to see things differently. I took a lot of inspiration from the shapes of the glasses themselves: square, round and so forth. The idea was to reference these throughout the work in various ways – the instruments are one example, the locations another. There are plenty of visual cues and tricks to slightly distort the viewing experience, that hopefully fuel the viewers to literally take another look. It stimulated me to see things from a new perspective myself, and rediscover the way I do things. The end result is an invitation to relatable scenarios with a curious twist.
LBB> Now you've had a taste of that world, have your ambitions changed about what you'd like to do within advertising? Has it given you any new ideas?
Thessa> Although I LOVE doing narrative fiction, I’ve realised that I can also express myself in other forms of storytelling. For the Ace & Tate film I collaborated with fashion stylist Suze Kuit and I really like the resulting combination of young Dutch fashion design in a slightly unusual, magical world. I’m very much looking forward to more collaborations like that. It’s a fun time to go into commercial directing I think, especially considering the environment at my home turf in Amsterdam.
LBB> Heat is amazing! What were your inspirations there?
Thessa> Thank you very much! The inspiration came during the summer of 2018 when - similarly to the summer of 2019 - we were faced with an extreme heat wave. I wanted to do something around that, and I got an idea about climate change that included melting people. My ideas often start around such an image and then continue to grow, but in this case, it didn't get much further. It lingered a bit and the idea lay on a shelf, because the subject was so complicated. When Cineville (a Dutch umbrella-organisation for independent film houses) asked me to create one scene for a new campaign, those melting people popped up again. Now that the pressure of a long and serious storyline was gone, I could think much more freely. This way, climate change faded into the background, as is unfortunately often the case, and suddenly there was room for bittersweet romance.
LBB> What are your biggest aims for 2020?
Thessa> Walking ‘The Pieterpad’, a 498km long distance hiking route across the Netherlands, together with my boyfriend. Going back to Japan in June and doing research for my first feature called ‘Volcano Girl’, which I’m developing together with HALAL. I also have a new commercial coming up in 2020, which I’m very much looking forward to. And I’m looking for an artist to collaborate with on a music video. Anyone?