Honey I shrunk the kids: Jaco Van Dormael’s bagload of capsules

To mark the release of its collection of miniatures, aptly named Les Miniatures Belgitude, signature Belgian leathergood imprint Delvaux joined forces with celebrated filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael (of Toto The Hero, The Brand New Testament and Mr Nobody fame) and created a series of seven capsule videos, one for each bag, that quite literally shine a light on the fundamentals of the luxury house’s savoir faire. We sat down with the genial Belgian director to talk scales, studio tactics and how lovely it is to get to work with family.

It’s the first time you’ve collaborated with a brand. How did that come about?

Delvaux very kindly got in touch with me. As soon as I saw the miniature bags, I realised it was a match made in heaven. It allowed me to create a universe that was very Belgian, drawing inspiration from mussels, fries and waffles that were already featured on the bags. I was given carte blanche as well as the final cut. It was a great because I don’t see it as an advertisement. To me, it’s the result of a brand and an artist collaborating. It allowed me to do something I had never done before: going this far in terms of playing around with different scales. The first idea I had was the Magritte scene “Ceci n’est pas un Delvaux”. People might think the apple on the table is smaller than the bag, but in reality it is much bigger. It’s an illusion of perspectives. The set was completely organic and we didn’t use any special effects. We were able to get it right from the first take. The hardest part was building the set, but I used my theatre and film crews, as well as friends and family.

So you were inspired the first time you saw these bags?

Yes, I immediately saw different scales. We played around with a mix of scales that was completely surreal. It’s something we did for the Kiss & Cry and Cold Blood shows, but that could be pushed one step further in this collaboration with Delvaux. All the sets were built. The field of fries really was a field of actual fries that we glued to a table. The sets were about 2 x 3 metres. Everything is real, we just assembled and edited all the elements afterwards. There was no CGI, nothing was digitally created.

Even though working with a brand is something you had never done before, it fell in line with your previous work. Did you feel at ease artistically and not pressured to have to step out of your creative universe?

Yes, and it even allowed me to go further and beyond. I had a great time working with my team. It was a fantastic experience and I think Delvaux was also very happy with the results.

Can you tell me about the set design for both films?

Building the sets took two months and we shot over three days. They were made by Sylvie Olivé, who had designed the sets for Mr. Nobody, The Brand New Testament, Kiss & Cry, Cold Blood, as well as Michèle Anne De Mey’s dance shows. The fries were glued one by one, maintaining a certain rhythm inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings. The sea of mussels required cleaning enough mussels to fill the set, finding a mechanism using small wheels in gel that would allow them to move and roll like real waves. Kaatje Van Damme, who created the costumes for the Mussel Man, the Waffle Lady and the Brussels Sprout Queen, also had a lot of fun doing that. When you’re aiming for something off the wall, you really need the means to get it right and done properly. “Cheap quirky” doesn’t look great.

As soon as I saw the miniature bags, I realised it was a match made in heaven.

Can you talk us through the creative process?

It all starts with ideas. The city of Liège and its buildings, the sea of mussels, the Brussels Sprout Queen on a mountain of Brussels Sprouts with the Atomium spinning around it, Magritte’s hat carrying the bag through clouds in Knokke, the fields of fries, the different perspectives. I discussed these with Sylvie, and then there was some back and forth with Delvaux. But they were always very enthusiastic since the very start. We started discussing the idea in January 2017 and wrapped it up six months later.

Were you able to take away anything from this experience that you’d use in future films or projects?

It definitely gave me ideas. There were already some modelling ideas in The Brand New Testament, such as the camping site in Spain, where suddenly you’re more in a narrative description of reality. It’s obvious that miniature models were used. What we had here was a universe with a stronger coherence and impeccable finishing. Plus it finally allowed me to pay many contributors who had worked for peanuts on previous low budget projects of mine decently!

Is the young boy in the Magritte film a reference to Stromae?

That was my grandson! He’s half Rwandese and half Belgian. As for his costume, well yes, it is indeed a reference to Stromae. It was quite cute because during the shoot he’d ask me: “Grandpa, where should I stand?” and I’d just go: “I don’t know, ask Auntie”, as it was my daughter Juliette – his aunt – who was the lighting director on set.

Is it easy working with your family?

Yes, it’s wonderful. I never feel like going home when I’m working with the people I love. It also works like a calendar. My children have been featured in all my movies, from Toto The Hero to The Brand New Testament. It allows me to see them grow!

The films incorporate a lot of choreography. Was that your wife Michele Anne de Mey’s work?

Yes. It was a very gestural choreography, very precise in its fragmentation of movements.

Did those instructions come from you? How did she use your first ideas as inspiration?

She does that quite spontaneously. It had to be very fragmented. Somewhere between dance and mime, but retaining an offbeat and childish element. It had to remain funny. The three characters were the dancers in Cold Blood. They’re good at improvising together.

It finally allowed me to pay many contributors who had worked for peanuts on previous low budget projects of mine decently!

Was it shot in Brussels?

Yes, in the same studio I used for Mr. Nobody, in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw.

Is there any shot or city of this series you’re particularly attached to or proud of?

The fake perspective of “Ceci n’est pas un Delvaux”. It was technically challenging, the set was entirely organic and hand-made, and custom-built for the camera. It only made sense and came to life through the camera’s lens. Stand next to it, and you’d see something completely different. It’s something one would never do in a movie… such a huge production for a 15-second clip! That being said, it gave me ideas as to what’s possible and feasible.

You always develop your screenplays and stories yourself. Did you feel like this time you were working with a story that already had a life of its own?

Yes, there was always an object. But I was really lucky in that it was inspiring and quirky. So yes, that made it easy.

Did you run into any technical difficulties?

Even though the sets were very small in size, they required a complex lighting system. So that was technically challenging at times but we had fun doing it.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, what were you hoping to achieve, what were you aiming for?

Our goal was to create harmony and coherence between the Magritte aesthetic and Belgian food. It might seem a bit far out and was definitely an interesting challenge, but one that wasn’t too difficult as a Belgian resident.

What were you working on at the moment?

We’re working on Michèle Anne’s next show, a solo dance performance that’s called Amor. It will premiere at Brussels’ Théâtre National in October. She’ll be dancing alone on stage for an hour and 20 minutes, which is quite impressive considering she’s almost 60. It explores the body’s transformation. A 60-year-old can’t do the same things as a 20-year-old. It was sparked by a near death experience that Michele had in Toronto. It’s an almost wordless performance. It really focuses on movement, levitation, flotation and music.