For most of us a hotel stay is something we associate with the joy of escaping the daily grind for a period of carefree freedom where beds make themselves and toiletries come in Lilliputian sizes. However for Ludwig, the jaded hotel inspector at the centre of Jeroen Houben’s tragicomedic short Home Suite Home, hotels have become a chore to be critiqued and nitpicked rather than enjoyed, that is until he receives an unexpected wake-up call. DN invited Jeroen to share how he brought together world-class actors in a working hotel for his tale of a life rediscovered.
I’ve always been fascinated by hotels in general. Especially the big ones. They’re like a small village, a community of people that are there for just a couple of days. You’re sharing this building with all these strangers. And when you walk through the corridors in the middle of the night, who knows what you’ll find there, who you’ll meet or what conversations you’ll pick up. It’s the mystery that inspires me. So the idea of a person practically living in hotels, moving from one to another every night, seemed like fertile ground for telling an intriguing story.
We went to Paris twice to look for the main location. I think we visited about 40-50 hotels in three days. I was looking for this romantic Parisian feel: art deco interior, wood panelling, golden handles, that kind of classic look. That turned out to be a lot harder than it might seem. There aren’t many places like that around anymore. After those three days of scouting we had some options which were alright. But I wasn’t really crazy about any of ‘em, and I started losing confidence. We were set to shoot in five weeks and I felt we might have to settle for an “OK” location instead of a great one. Then, as a stroke of magic almost, the very last hotel we visited was the one we ended up using. I walked in and immediately said “This is the one”. That’s where all those hours of searching finally pay off.
The hotel remained open for visitors, so shooting in the lobby was particularly tough. After every one or two takes, we had to briefly interrupt filming so the staff could check in guests or pick up the phone. It definitely informs your attitude on set, and the way you shoot. For instance, the entire restaurant scene, which is about 3.5 minutes screen time, needed to be shot in just three hours because they had to serve lunch and dinner in there. It was madness. So a lot of stuff needed to happen quick and dirty, but I guess that under the financial circumstances, we had no other choice than to make it work.
I wrote the screenplay with both Gene Bervoets and Thekla Reuten in mind, but without them knowing about it. I had never even met them at that point. Since Thekla and Gene are both big names in their home-countries, it dawned on me that asking them might be a little ambitious for a short film, but I decided not to get hung up on that. So I just sent over the script. Gene was excited at the prospect of working with Thekla for the first time. “If she agrees, then I’m in too” he said. Funnily enough, Thekla said the exact same thing. “If Gene is doing it, I’m doing it”. So I called back Gene and boldly told him “Thekla is in”, and so he agreed to do it. Then I called Thekla and said “Gene is in”, and she also kept her promise. That’s how I got ‘em both.
I figured the hotel receptionist should be someone with great authority, someone you don’t want to piss off. So I instantly thought of Slimane Dazi. If there’s one character in French cinema that ever scared the living shit out of me, it’s Brahim Latrache (Dazi) in Un Prophet. I thought, how funny would it be if that guy was behind that counter. And he ended up doing it as well. I was so lucky to have all the cast members be my first choice. I never even had to think about a back-up.
There wasn’t a lot of time for preparation. Gene and Thekla had never met each other until the night before we shot their first scene (which was the bar scene). And that turned out to be a true gift. They were really fond of each other from the start, and I think that shows in the scene. They were goofing all the way through, and hardly stopped in between takes. That special energy that is released when you first meet someone you like – it was there.
That night before shooting I had dinner with Gene and Thekla in a little Parisian restaurant, where we would do a little run-through of their scenes together. One of my main concerns was the arc of the Ludwig character, and if his transformation from a unwavering critic into a jolly drunk would be believable. So we ordered some wine and I told Gene to give me his best ‘drunk’ impression. He went pretty far with that. Laughing out loud, shouting obnoxiously – I could see the staff of the restaurant getting more and more nervous. It was convincing, to say the least, and I knew I had nothing to worry about.
In terms of storytelling and mood, the film was largely influenced by Alexander Payne’s work. The premise draws a bit from About Schmidt, which is also about an old man who leads a life of quiet desperation, before facing an existential crisis. But more evidently I was inspired by Payne’s short film 14th arrondissement which is one of my favourite shorts. I wanted to capture that same essence: what are we looking for when we travel? And how do you know when you’ve found it?
Aesthetically, I think the trailer prompted some people to expect a Wes Anderson-coated fantasy world. And with those close-ups of paintings and colourful soap bars, I get that. But when they watched the entire film, it became clear that we were painting with a very different brush. The limited budget did dictate our visual language for a bit. For example, in my first draft of the script, I wanted to show a quick montage of about 20 different hotel rooms from all over the world. Since we couldn’t do that, those close-up shots of soap bars and menu cards offered a creative solution while telling the same thing.
The teal and orange colour scheme is one of the movie’s visual signatures. The hotel has a very warm interior with sand-coloured walls, wood and warm light. Together with Costume Designer Minke Lunter I decided to contrast that with blue elements in clothing. Ludwig wears a lot of brown, which blends in with his environment, while Stella is this gleaming blue, almost angelic appearance. They are opposites in a way, and we tried to have the costumes underline that contrast in personality. Correspondingly, Ludwig’s clothes consist of a thick and matte fabric that amplifies his stiffness, while Stella’s outfit is reflective and light.
We decided on an apparent shift in colour scheme toward the end of the film. When Ludwig wakes up in the youth hostel, the warm palette has given way to a very blue look, which feels like a fresh start. Not wearing his brown jacket or coat, Ludwig reveals his blue shirt, which immediately makes him blend in with his new surroundings, casually expressing his inner change.
After an elaborate editing process, I remember going into colour grading and being absolutely stunned by what I saw. After looking at an offline for so long, you tend to forget how rich your image is. Colourist Joppo is a total sucker for teal and orange, and he really pushed it with this film. It was very exciting and it proved to me once again how essential grading is in getting the look you want.
I wanted the camera to be very observant in style. Distant. The tight framing should feel like a rigid mould that Ludwig has to break out of. Accordingly, Cinematographer Gregg Telussa and I decided on a very static cinematography with the occasional slow-pan. I think we did discuss shooting the second half of the film handheld, which might have worked with the ‘drunk’ scenes, but I felt that might’ve drawn too much attention onto itself. Also, I think the wry humour does often work best in static situations.
We shot the film in three days, with a crew of about 25 people coming over from Amsterdam. There was really no leeway in time, so there was a chance that we had to improvise and shoot a bit jazz-style. We decided on using an Arri Amira so we would get away with minimal lighting if necessary. The lenses we used were Ultra Primes. I love the dynamic range of the Amira and I think it really helped us out whenever we used available light. For example when Ludwig enters the unlit hotel room, and we face the translucent curtained windows. That’s one of my favourite shots in the movie, and it’s all natural light.
For the last few months I’ve been writing on and off on a screenplay for my first feature film. I’m still chipping away at it, so unfortunately I can’t reveal much more at this time. All I can really promise you, is that it’s going to be unlike anything I’ve done before.