Director Tim Ewalts captures the twisted competitiveness of brotherhood in his latest short Undergrowth (Kreupelhout), a tale of two brothers and their father who live amongst the trees of a foreboding forest. What’s so gripping about Undergrowth is how Ewalts depicts the scaling intensity of the power relations between the two brothers. He often showcases them interacting through slow, creeping frames that display the small gestures and behaviours that build towards their inevitable confrontation. If you’re looking for a tonal comparison, there are definitely similarities with the early work of Robert Eggers in how the atmospheric dread of the surroundings feels like it is gradually encompassing the characters. DN is excited to present the online premiere of Undergrowth in company with a conversation with Ewalts where he talks through the challenge of balancing his loose, improvisational directorial style with the formal restrictions of shooting 16mm.
Where and how did Undergrowth begin as a project for you?
Undergrowth was my graduation film from my Film Studies course at the KASK School of Arts in Ghent. I began working on the film during the height of Covid, and this definitely had an impact on the film itself. The concept of the film was conceived out of a necessity to make something small, due to lockdown restrictions. I wanted to make something simple, with little in terms of plot, a small cast and an isolated location to do whatever we wanted. The focus was to challenge myself to work in a more collaborative way with actors and let them be the driving element of the film.
What inspired the film’s story and core brotherly dynamic?
The main inspiration for this film came from a drunken night where I had a heated argument with a friend. Another friend was sick of us arguing after a while and said we had to challenge each other to a fistfight, to resolve the issue. For one or two minutes we drunkenly punched each other in the chest. Afterwards we shook hands and all our angry emotions were gone after that. We were happy buddies again. It reminded me of how men often resolve conflict through violence when lacking verbal communication skills. Although this is often portrayed as something terrible, I was thinking that there is also some joy and/or beauty in this. Undergrowth then became a sort of examination of this idea, with some elements of my own relationship with my brother, who I always fought with, and my father, who always forced us to do chores.
Why did you decide to place the film in a rural setting?
The setting is a sort of archetypal thing; the woods, and cabin filled with pretty terrible lumbermen, seemed to me a fun way to explore these themes of men and their strange ways of communication. It also added a subtext of nature destruction/preservation which I then tried to sneak into the picture.
The focus was to challenge myself to work in a more collaborative way with actors and let them be the driving element of the film.
Many of the scenes play out in long, single, dialogue-less takes, what drew you to that approach? And how did your actors find that experience?
Although a lot of people think the film is dark and sad, to me these incapable men are mostly funny. That is why I approached the film like a little comedy. I found these incredible actors; Joes Brauers, Lucas Bulteel and Bert Luppes, who already had a sort of brother/father relationship between them and I mostly just let them be free when exploring the scenes. They improvised a lot and I told my DP Roderik Patijn to follow them like we were shooting a documentary.
The pressure of shooting on film with almost no budget added a bit of intensity to the scenes I think. A maximum of three takes, one wide master shot and one close or medium was all we allowed ourselves to shoot. I also didn’t want to cut a lot. Mostly because I very much hate the editing process. I didn’t want to bother with fancy shots and cool transitions, that just seemed distracting. I wanted to let the image play and let it be whatever it is.
What were you shooting on?
We rented an Arri SR3 with some really nice Zeiss super speeds. The filmstock was Kodak 500T super 16mm.
The pressure of shooting on film with almost no budget added a bit of intensity to the scenes I think.
Working that way doesn’t give you much to play with in the edit. Did it feel risky to you?
This way of working, considering the limited amount of film rolls, was a huge gamble in retrospect and it forced us to leave some less polished elements in the film but I think those little weird or imperfect moments add to what it is.
How long were you in the woods for?
In total we planned to shoot three days in the woods, but after two days we had shot almost every scene and were nearly out of film, so we ended up wrapping the film early on the last day. I loved the energy that shooting on film gave us and I think it hyped the crew up to work harder and faster to keep up the good flow and to keep the actors in the story.
I like to be as open as possible so I shoot pretty much whatever comes to mind that particular day.
Given your approach to shooting I’m curious if you storyboard or plan for shots at all.
I really dislike storyboarding. It takes so much time and takes the creativity out of shooting for me. I like to be as open as possible so I shoot pretty much whatever comes to mind that particular day. That being said I do plan for certain shots, but that is used more as a backup. We wanted to shoot this film as a sort of documentary. This meant: follow the action, without knowing when or what was going to happen. We also didn’t mind ugliness or less composed frames.
You mentioned that your actors improvise a lot, does that mean you operate from a treatment as opposed to a traditional screenplay? What does your script look like?
For this film I wrote a full screenplay but I used it more to get a feeling of what I wanted to tell and to feel the rhythm of the film. In rehearsals we used it as a starting point to talk about the scenes, but then threw it away when better ideas came up. I really trusted my actors to come with better ideas than what I wrote. For example, dialogue was mostly scrapped because it didn’t feel right for the characters. Other scenes followed the script more closely, but that was more of an accident. I tried my best to forget what I wrote but in the end it was always in the back of my mind. If we had more film to shoot and some more days, I would have tried to invent more scenes on the spot but there was just no time for that.
What’s next for you?
I’m shooting a new short this week actually! Tomorrow is the first day of shooting and I’m really excited. It’s a totally different film. Lots of dialogue, mostly women and set in an office. It’s basically about a call center for spiritual/paranormal advice and how a person can change their belief system.