Trust. All relationships are built on it be they intimate romances or the most perfunctory of employer/employee associations – if trust isn’t earned and in return given then the relationship is doomed to fail. Unfortunately for Rick, the wannabe criminal at the centre of Victor D. Ponten’s broodingly tense short film Passage, earning the trust of crime lord Frank is going to take him to a dark place he may well never make it back from. DN invited Ponten to tell us how he went about crafting a classic American crime thriller with an operatic bent in his native Netherlands.
Passage started with the idea of two men in a car driving somewhere, where upon arrival one of the two had to kill the other. My intention was to write a short film with no dialogue, completely taking place within that car, but when I started writing that very soon evolved in to the short crime thriller it is now. Jonathan & Josh Baker’s short film Bag Man inspired me to write something that works as a short but that could fit in something greater too. The concept of my film is that you witness a criminal rite de Passage (hence the title, of course) underwent by a small time crook. To establish that, I knew I had to instantly pull the viewer in so I leaned heavily on conventions of the crime thriller and mobster movie genre.
After writing the script I also felt an urge to place Passage in an American movie tradition. Classic crime thrillers like The French Connection and Bullit, alongside modern ones such as Killing Them Softly and A Single Shot served as an inspiration for the visual style, locations and production design. The end of the film – with Frank’s entrance and the final twist – was initially written as a comedy. However, during a conversation about the script someone mentioned the term ‘opera’ which made me think of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, one of my favourite operas – and specifically of the famous Commandatore scene. Somehow I felt like the whole build-up of the film needed a grand moment like that, although it feels a bit weird to reference opera because the emotions and acting always are so big it doesn’t necessarily translates easily to film.
Locations are of the greatest essence for any film, but for a short film of 10 minutes I knew every location had to be spot on and add something to the story. Because we had no budget, every location had to have the right vibe in and of itself as we weren’t able to alter stuff, only take certain small things out or add little details. When writing the script I already had some locations in mind. The first location, the parking next to the actual beltway of Amsterdam, was a location I had found years ago when scouting for a Promo & Sef music video. It’s at the end of Amsterdam, a very dodgy but very visual spot, with a lot of movement on the beltway on different levels. If I had to drop off a car somewhere, it would be there.
The second location, the railway-bridge with the road underneath and the dodgy parking lot next to the gym, is around the corner near my house. It’s a place I have passed by hundreds of times and each time I couldn’t believe how perfect it was as a film location, with that gym being an actual gym for kickboxing and MMA. It’s a very un-Amsterdam-like spot, because Amsterdam is a pretty tidy city. So I’m very happy I immortalized this spot on film, before some real estate developer tidies it up and puts up a fancy building.
The third location was possibly the hardest to find. Although it looks like a regular road through a forest, such a road is very hard to find near Amsterdam. I wanted a completely deserted road, so our car could be the only one on it and create the feeling of being deep in the woods. Besides that, there were two additional limitations – we had no money to close off any roads for the shoot and Teun Kuilboer (playing Rick) has no driver’s license. So I searched for a one-way road through a dense forest. I daresay that the road I eventually found is the only road where you can do a continuous run of like three minutes. A big plus of that road are the thick cut-down trees lying next to it, intensifying the suggestion that the guys are really deep into the woods.
The last location I found on Google, very contemporarily. I was discussing the possible location concepts for the last scene with Director of Photography Lennart Verstegen. I wrote the scene with a location in mind near where I grew up in the eastern part of Holland. A place where people actually were being executed during the Second World War, even a couple of days before the liberation. But that place lies in the middle of a forest and would only be interesting if we could shoot at night and bring an awful lot of light. We were talking about the Don Giovanni opera reference and how this whole scene in a way is a big theatre play by these mobsters to test Rick. From that conversation I had the idea to use an old open-air theatre in the woods, which you have quite a lot of in The Netherlands. So I started searching and stumbled upon this dream location in the south, an old worn-down and overgrown concrete open-air theatre that looked a bit like Albert Speer himself had designed it. We went down to the south and were immediately absolutely thrilled by the location, it’s so eerie, weird and adds so much to the film. The fact that we had to shoot it in daylight only made it creepier.
When defining the visual style and production design, I decided to try to implement an American criminal vibe in a Dutch setting so I chose a styling that hints at the American blue-collar type of crime. Something that doesn’t really exist in The Netherlands but had to feel natural all the same. And I wanted to have an archetypical American vehicle for Rick to drive! The colour palette I had in mind involved grey (from the concrete theatre), dark blues (from the car) and green (from the woods) and I wanted the brown and black jackets of Rick and Javon to blend in with that palette, so they both had to be faded and pale, nothing fancy.
Based on the idea to make a classic style short crime thriller, Lennart and I started working on the visual style. Although we shot the film on a Sony F5, we approached the shoot as if we were shooting on film. Because I wanted to create the feeling you’re really going through this film with Rick, I wanted to shoot long takes in which the actors could play out the whole scene. Stylistically this meant we had to use a lot of steadicam and dolly shots, referring to a classic American method of storytelling as opposed to the rougher handheld cinematography often associated with the crime genre in Europe.
To see if we could think out the whole build-up of the suspense prior to the shoot, we chose not to shoot every scene from different angles and on different lenses. Only for the last part of the last scene did we decide to make use of a few more shots. This way we could empathize the introduction of Frank and the apotheosis of the film. During the recce we had already decided on all the shots we had in mind and took pictures of of them, after which Lennart created floor plans describing all the camera movements.
From the start I knew music would also be really important for this film. The suspense, the entrance of Frank, I wanted to underscore all that and direct the viewer’s experience with a strong score. I gave a lot of thought to who was the perfect match for this and I ended up thinking about Thomas Azier. This gifted Dutch musician blew me away with Hylas his first album released in 2014. It sounded like a soundtrack to me. I liked the way in which he doesn’t shy away from using big gestures and emotions in his music and he doesn’t avoid clichés, a bit like modern-day opera. So when I started to work on this whole opera theme for the ending, the link to Thomas was in the end quite obvious.
Music production company Sizzer introduced me to Thomas and we met on a Friday in Amsterdam. During that meeting I showed him a first cut of the film. We had a very inspired talk about the sort of music the film needed, more soundscapes without any melody, and he already had some very good sketches. I then visited his studio in Paris, were we elaborated on those sketches. We decided on a sound theme for Frank that is always present when he is, and – again inspired by the opera idea – Thomas recorded some opera-like vocals that were filtered and pitched to create a very uncomfortable atmosphere. This was Thomas’s first score, but certainly not our last.
From the three most important roles in the film only one is filled by a professional actor. Teun Kuilboer, playing Rick, is a well know Dutch actor starring in big films and tv-series. I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time and was really happy he wanted to be Rick. Teun has a very natural screen presence and style of acting, which was exactly what I wanted for Rick. He was perfect to portray Rick as a clumsy crook, who could easily be duped by Javon and Frank.
Willem de Bruin, who is a very famous Dutch rapper, plays Javon. I have known Willem since he started releasing music with The Opposites, because we started Habbekrats around the same time and have been making music videos for them every once in a while (such as Dom, Lomp & Famous). I knew Willem could act, and had wanted to put him in a role for a while. The fact that he’s also a kickboxer gave him the right physical appearance to be Rick’s true counterpart. Like Teun, Willem also has that natural presence, and he had to make Javon a likeable guy who you don’t want to get whacked.
Last but not least there’s Andre van Noord as Frank. Although he’s had his fare share of acting in The Netherlands, he’s internationally known as super male model. I had difficulties finding the right actor for Frank, and casting director Rebecca van Unen tipped me off about Andre. Because I wanted to make Frank’s entrance on stage such a big moment, I needed someone who could bring that idea home without any dialogue. Andre perfectly fitted this profile and played Frank with a panache that reminded me of Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and The Joker. Needles to say the medium shot we took of Frank kicking in the door and walking towards Rick obviously was a one-taker.
Within the whole filmmaking process I’m particularly fond of the sound design and colour grading. Those are the two moments were you can cover up your flaws as a director and bring your images to perfection. So working with sound designer Quincy Vlijtig and re-recording mixer Michael Sauvage was a blessing. We wanted to keep a dynamic mix with a lot of room for music to really explode in the final moments of the film. The emotional trip Rick goes through is truly supported by the intense and personal sound design.
But I’m always happy like a kid when I can go to Joppo my regular colourist who has a deep understanding of what a film needs in terms of grading. I brought two stills from two seventies classics with me as a reference. The first, from The French Connection, was an overall reference for the dark look you can achieve with daylight footage. I love the heavy look of the bridge, without losing too much detail, and I like the saturated bright colours opposed to the cold blue vibe. The second, from Marathon Man, was an important reference for the look of Frank. How his suit had to pop out and how far we could go with his skin tone.
I’m currently writing a feature film called Catacombs. I can’t reveal much about it yet, other then that it’s a thriller set in the world of professional football.