North Sea Texas, acclaimed short film-maker Bavo Defurne's feature debut, is a story of teenage sexual awakening in a small seaside town in Belgium.
Beautifully shot, with the passion of adolescence subtely conveyed, it side-steps the usual coming out cliches.
Introverted Pim (Jelle Florizoone) lives with his ex-beauty queen mother Yvette, spending his days fantasizing about the boy next door, Gino (Mathias Vergels).
However, his first love looks likely to end in disappointment and his mother has dreams of her own, longing to leave everything behind and see the world.
The movie closed the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on Sunday (1 April) and the feature's young star Jelle, director Bavo and producer Yves Verbraeken were in the capital this week to chat about the movie before its UK release on Friday (6 April).
How difficult was it to find your Gino and Pim?
Bavo: It was very difficult. Harder than expected. For the short films I also worked with teenagers and we never had trouble finding them. It was quite easy. But this casting took us half a year. We found Gino after I think 20 boys.
The main thing was that a lot of boys dropped out and a lot didn’t show up to the first call or call-backs. Some even dropped out near the end of the process because they were not allowed by the parents or didn’t realize what project they were in, even though the casting agent made it very clear what it was about. Some were perhaps simply too lazy to read that. But suddenly they discovered it was a story about a boy in love with another boy and they were shocked.
So we were a month before shooting without Pim. After 200 boys we thought that we’d seen them all and we were a bit desperate. I felt like none of the 200 we had seen was Pim. Suddenly, we found Jelle and he was Pim. We saw that right away.
We combined Jelle with Mathias and there was good chemistry. They were a bit reserved but curious and had this professional distance without being like blocks of ice. They were ready to really go for it and make it believable.
Jelle, how comfortable were you playing that role?
Jelle: When I read the script, I was like, OK. But I thought maybe I should do this because it’s an opportunity which might not come back.
We did a lot of rehearsing. I’ve learnt how to act in a simple way with simple facial expressions. I met Mathias on the last casting and we became good friends. If we weren’t, then you would see it on the screen. So that also helped.
Bavo: I saw the casting tapes very recently and what you have with Jelle which a lot of teenagers don’t have, is he was in the national ballet where you do nothing else but touching somebody else’s body.
One of the big troubles of all these other boys was that they did not dare touch anyone else in a professional way. For Jelle it was something normal. Also, I think Jelle’s mom was very much behind the role.
Yves: They both really understood that it was just a role. If he would play a vampire or a gay guy, there’s not that much difference. It was not really an issue.
Jelle, how did you build that trust between you and Mathias?
Jelle: It was natural, because when we first met, it felt like we’d worked together for years.
Bavo: In a month we had to create this relationship and make it believable as if they knew each other for 14 years. So we had to fake that and try to build a whole youth in that time by doing games and all sorts of funny stuff together. A lot of silly games and exercises on trust, showing your vulnerable side.
Because if you are neighbors and have known each other for that long and are in each others’ house every day, you know the vulnerable side of the other one and that’s what we wanted to recreate.
There’s been a lot of coming of age stories which try to avoid the intimacy but I think it’s the most important thing when it’s your first love. It would have been easy to make it like The Muppets, something happy and funny, and not about the fragile sides of life.
Jella, what kind of reaction did you get from your friends and schoolmates?
Jella: They were all positive. When the movie was released in Belgium, I was in the ballet school, so everyone is open minded.
Bavo: This is exceptional but it helped us make this film with a self confident Pim. I must admit, I myself wouldn’t have dared to make this film.
Jelle is privileged that he is from an open minded family and school, but we’re not all like that and for the film it was really necessary that we have someone who isn’t prejudiced about his character and isn’t negative about who he will play. That would make him insecure and would show on screen.
What was the reaction from the general public?
Bavo: Belgium is a country where a man can marry a man but then you get a lot of hypocritical reactions. For example, the two boys were not allowed to be on the film poster in Belgium. It was considered too controversial and not fit for a family cinema chain.
Yves: A year before there was a film about a 14-year-old girl who is a prostitute and she was in a sexy school girl uniform. But that’s a straight thing and if it’s a gay thing then it’s too controversial.
Bavo, to what extent do you relate to the story of Pim and Gino?
Bavo: Old feelings in the movie, I know. So my life is totally different to Pim’s but I recognize a lot of Pim in me. There was a man who saw the film and said his first sexual experience with a boy was when he was 25 but he saw the youth which he never had and it made him cry.
In a way, I tried to create beautiful emotions and if they really existed in that particular time and place, that is secondary.
The casting of Eva Van Der Gucht as Pim’s mother Yvette is a brilliant choice. Did it also take some time to find the right actress?
Yves: She goes a long way back.
Bavo: Yes, she goes a long way back, but if you read any book about directing and casting you will also read that you should never write a script with one person in mind.
Normally it’s good, because maybe they’re not free, don’t want the job or maybe too expensive. But with this film, when I read the book already I thought it’s a role for Eva.
I know her from other projects, which for political or production reasons, never made it. When I read this book, I thought there was only one person who could play this so well and that’s Eva.
Yves: What she brings to the role, which is not in the book, and we tried to put it more in the screenplay is that you kind of like her. She’s very likeable.
Bavo: What she does to Pim is totally not ok, but she brings something to it that you start understanding what she does.
Eva brought a lot to the part by giving the character a dream and making it believable that her son would be better off without her really. She kind of pushes him to follow his dreams, by showing him that she follows her dreams also and now it’s his turn. In that case, I don’t think she’s so bad.
Yves: What’s really beautiful in a way, is that she’s really non-judgemental and it would be really easy to judge Yvette but then you would get a real caricature of that kind of person. Whereas now, she gives very different layers.
Bavo, you are known for your short films. How did the experience of working on a full length feature compare?
Bavo: It’s very tiring, because it goes on and on and you think it will never end. It really takes a part from your life. So you have to have a project which is really worth it.
But there is more possibility to make layered characters and go deeper into relationhips. In that way, it’s very nice.
A short film is a nice work of art where you can work visually very well, but you can’t really go deep into all the complex human fabric. I felt like I could fly and make more nuance, make more details in the characters, making them more beautiful and believable.