‘Close’ Director Lukas Dhont Reveals How Christina Aguilera’s Song ‘Fighter’ Set Him On The Road To This Year’s Oscars
From the moment it premiered in Cannes, where it won the Grand Prize, Lukas Dhont’s Close became a hot bet in the International Oscar race. Following his 2018 debut Girl, which focused on a transgender ballet dancer, Close is another poignant snapshot of youth, this time telling the story of a pre-teen boy and the guilt he feels when he grows apart from his emotionally troubled best friend. At just 31, the charismatic Belgian director is already a festival veteran and European arthouse poster boy; it seems to be only a matter of time before he breaks out into the world of commercial cinema.
DEADLINE: When did you first develop the idea for Close? Was it straight after Girl?
LUKAS DHONT: When I went back to writing, after the whole journey of the first film, I realized that I wanted to make a companion piece to it, in the sense that Girl was so much about femininity and I really wanted to make something about masculinity. I had this realization about myself: when I was young, from very early on, I started to push friends away, because I started to become fearful of intimacy. And when I started investigating that idea, I realized that that was something in this very dominant masculine culture of ours where we often value independence and competitiveness. Authentic connections between young men are not nourished as much as we should nourish them. We tell young men to stop listening to their heart, to stop listening to what they actually desire, and so we create this epidemic of loneliness.
DEADLINE: You said you found a book on the subject, called Deep Secrets. How did that help you translate your idea into something real?
DHONT: That book was really important because it showed me that this dynamic I was thinking about, this pushing away, is a universal experience. I mean, 150 boys were interviewed for that book, between the age of 13 and 18, and we see with nearly all of them how those years impact them: they start to distance themselves from other boys, even if only a little bit. It showed me that what I thought was personal wasn’t personal, and that’s an important step in my writing process. Because although I always start from a place that is deeply felt by me, I want to leave myself behind very early on. I’m looking for a way to express my feelings so universally that they can be felt by many people. I strongly believe in the sense of collective catharsis, so I look for the places we’ve all been. For example, we’ve all been heartbroken by friendship. We’ve all been pushed away. We’ve all pushed people away. It’s something that takes us over and so often slows us down.
DEADLINE: What do you do when you’ve found your subject?
DHONT: I then try to incorporate something concrete. In Close, the concrete form became this young friendship — a friendship between two boys that is sensual, that is intimate. It’s not about their sexualities, because usually we only get these images offered when it is going to be about their sexualities. For this story, I also realized that it needed to be about mental health, and about the invisible enemies — the made-up enemies, not the real ones — that we face when we lose touch with ourselves. And so suicide became a part of the narrative, because this moment in time is also the moment when the suicide rate [for young men] goes up a lot: four times compared to that of women.
DEADLINE: The main character lives on a flower farm. Why did you choose that location, and why was it important to you?
DHONT: One of the very first images that came to my mind was the image of two boys running through a field of colorful flowers. I think, unconsciously, my mind went there because it’s an image I have in my mind from my younger days. I grew up in the Flemish countryside, very close to a flower farm. And when I started to dissect the image, and look more closely at it, I thought it offered many things. First of all, the film starts with the boys playing in a bunker, a place that we so often link to masculinity, a place associated with enemies, soldiers. And all of a sudden, they run out of that bunker and into this colored flower field. It’s the complete opposite of what we have just seen, the flowers, the fragility, the tenderness. And so I think that it immediately, from the beginning, sets out what this film is going to be about. I think also the flowers stand for the fragility of life, because I knew when I was writing it that the passing of time would become very important. And these flower fields allowed us to show it in an organic way.
DEADLINE: Why were you so drawn to telling these stories?
DHONT: Well, I think it is important to show a young [person’s] perspective of the world. When we are adults, we come to understand just how impactful our younger days are. But when we’re young, we are not always aware just how much is shaped and how much is created for us at that moment in time. It’s our first confrontation with a society that has all these expectations and codes and norms that we all have to live up to, and that, for many of us, creates this big source of conflict. At least, for me they did.
DEADLINE: You’ve often said that, as a kid, you wanted to be a dancer. Why did you become a film director?
DHONT: When I was 12, there was a school trip. At the end of the trip, we could all do a little performance — some kids decided to do a magic trick or whatever — and I had decided to do a dance solo to a song called “Fighter” by Christina Aguilera. It’s kind of out there, it’s quite poppy. And I remember that moment very well, because there really was a before and an after [in my life]. I sensed how other people were uncomfortable with the way I moved, with the way I danced, and I remember a strong sense of embarrassment. I stopped dancing afterwards because I felt so uncomfortable. I didn’t have the courage to say, “Whatever. I’ll just continue to do whatever I want.” I didn’t have that. So from that moment on, I started to copy the people around me and became someone who desperately wanted to belong to a group. And for the longest time I didn’t dance again.
DEADLINE: So why did you pivot to film?
DHONT: Both my parents are really cinema lovers. My mom, at one point, gave me a camera that she had borrowed from a friend of hers, which uses these little DV cassettes. And so, for the summer holiday, all of a sudden, I had that camera in my hands and I started to film everything around me I started to film my brother, I started to make decors [sets], I started to make costumes. I started to write stories about other realities — zombies, vampires — things I could disappear in. And it became my new outlet for creativity. Where dance was maybe the first one, all of a sudden, I put all my energy and passion into filmmaking. I think I felt comfortable there because I could disappear into another reality. And, in many ways, it helped me through those young years where, in my own reality, maybe there was more conflict.
DEADLINE: How did you develop that from a hobby into a life choice?
DHONT: I don’t know. But it never felt like a hobby. From the moment I held that camera in my hands, it just felt like this was my thing. It’s very difficult to describe that, but I felt like this was right. I can’t explain it in any other way. I felt like this was for me. So when I was 15, 16, I was already writing scripts for feature films. I was already calling producers. My first time on a set, I was 16; my mom had called a costume designer who was a friend of a friend, and she had asked if I could help her. So there was this passion from very young that pushed me toward it. I also did a screenwriting course when I was 17, even though you could only normally apply when you were over 18, and then at 18 I went to film school. So it really felt like I was just waiting for it to happen.
DEADLINE: How was film school?
DHONT: When I arrived in film school, I arrived with this idea that I was going to make films — like I said — about vampires and zombies. This was what I thought. But in the very first year we watched Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by Chantal Akerman, and I will never forget that moment because I had never seen anything like it. It was, in many ways, the opposite of many [films] I had been seeing before that, and it opened up this whole new idea. It taught me that I could place the camera very close to me, and that maybe by doing so, instead of fleeing from reality, I could confront it. And by pointing a camera I could also uncover the invisible walls, the assigned roles and the given spaces that we get in this world. There was a real shift for me there. And so in my short work, I think I already started investigating that a little bit. The film school I went to combined documentary and fiction, so I never chose between the two: I always made short documentaries and I made short fictions.
DEADLINE: What would you like to say about those shorts now, and where can we see them?
DHONT: There’s one short documentary on YouTube called Skin of Glass, which is about children in boarding school whose parents are immigrants or sailors and are not present in their lives because they are at sea or because they’re in another country. It’s about that sense of being disconnected from your parents as a child. It’s about a sense of loneliness and about finding a place, about finding a space like home. And then I also made two fiction shorts in school. One was called Headlong [about a young ballet dancer], the other one was called Infinity. Infinity is about a young boy who has been raised by his mother and whose father returns from prison, so there’s this sort of dance. It’s a very abstract film, very choreographed. It’s a dance between the masculine and the feminine seen from this perspective of a young boy. So you can already see what I’m interested in there. It’s a first trial, using themes that will be visible in the rest of my work.
DEADLINE: Then, of course, you made Girl. How do you feel about that film in retrospect?
DHONT: I haven’t re-watched the film recently. Maybe I will sometime soon, I don’t know. It was an incredibly beautiful, overwhelming first experience. The first time is always special, as we all know, in many ways. And I think it’s a very dear film to us. And after traveling the world with it, I think we really had to let go and start a new one.
DEADLINE: Did you have any kind of nervousness about returning to Cannes with Close, making it into the competition selection with only your second film?
DHONT: Oh my God, of course. Of course! I think I was much more insecure writing and making my second film than I was making my first one. I feel like with the first one, you do not have the context. You’ve never been to a big festival. You haven’t premiered a feature. So I think with the second one, I was much more aware of everything. I was much more looking at myself from an outside perspective. And it really took me some time to go back to my heart and soul to decide what it was that I really wanted to make as a second piece. As someone who, from a very young age, was very vulnerable to the idea of wanting to please others, it took me some time to really let go of looking at myself from an outside perspective.
DEADLINE: So what’s next for you?
DHONT: After the Oscars I’m going back home, and [my producer and I are] going to really reconnect to what our desires are, how we feel we should continue, and what piece that we’re going to do that with. And we have some ideas, which is great, but we’re going to take some time to really explore them and look around and take the time to really know what we’re going to spend the next four years of our lives with.
DEADLINE: Is that how long it takes you, for each project?
DHONT: I mean, it’s the years that it’s taken now. Maybe it goes faster, maybe it goes slower, I don’t know. But until now it’s what it took.
DEADLINE: Is there anyone you want to work with? The great gift of awards season is that you get to travel and meet incredible people…
DHONT: I’d love to write with Céline Sciamma. I’d love to work with Colin Farrell, and I’d love to work with Michelle Yeoh.
DEADLINE: That’s a good list right there. Have you had any approaches from the U.K. or America to work in the English language?
DHONT: Yes. This moment in time also gives me the opportunity to investigate other contexts, and other places and scripts, and I am investigating that a little bit. For me, the main importance is that when I make something, it starts from a place of passion and it starts from feeling really, really excited about something, and if that happens, then it can be in any given [place] or any given context. So I’m open to whatever comes my way. I’ve read some beautiful things, and I’ve met some beautiful people. But like I said, I really need some time to figure out what it is that I want to do.